Peevish Pen

Ruminations on reading, writing, rural living, retirement, aging—and sometimes cats. And maybe a border collie or other critters.

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Location: Rural Virginia, United States

I'm an elderly retired teacher who writes. Among my books are Ferradiddledumday (Appalachian version of the Rumpelstiltskin story), Stuck (middle grade paranormal novel), Patches on the Same Quilt (novel set in Franklin County, VA), Them That Go (an Appalachian novel), and several Kindle ebooks.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Grave Matters

Yesterday, my cousins Gloria and Joyce and I cleaned off the Smith family graveyard on my Union Hall farm. Joyce's husband James mowed.


At first I thought it might be too wet because we'd had a hard rain on Friday night, but it wasn't too bad. The place looked a lot neater after we'd gotten all the leaves out.


After we'd cleaned the graveyard, we walked down to what's left of the old homeplace and tried to remember which outbuildings used to be where. The buggy shed, henhouse, smokehouse, cow shed, horse and mule stalls, spring house, and a few other buildings are long gone.

I plan to mulch one of the graveyard flowerbeds before long. Today I bought a bunch of flowers to plant on Mama's grave (at the left).

I also plan to replace my stolen tombstone that used to be in the corner behind my grandparents' stone (on the right). In fact, when my stimulus check arrives, I'm going to use it as partial payment.
~

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Coverage


On May 12, I appeared on the Collinsville BTW21 cable show, Cover to Cover.

The show, hosted by Blue Ridge Regional Library director Hal Hubener, is one of the neat things that the library does.

Cover to Cover was live when I appeared on it; then the episode was replayed for a week. Now my episode (#98) is archived and podcast here: http://blip.tv/file/2163116

You can even view all the past Cover to Cover shows here: http://brrltv.blip.tv

In mid-July, fellow Lake Writer and member of the Virginia Writers Club Sally Roseveare will appear on Cover to Cover to talk about her two books. Her latest Smith Mountain Lake murder mystery, Secrets at Sweetwater Cove, should be out by then.

I was one of the Beta readers for Sally's book. It’s a killer (no pun intended).
~

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Friday, May 29, 2009

A Jungle Out There

Because of the frequent and heavy rain recently, everything is growing. And growing.

My old gazebo—the little one John and I built from a kit in the mid-80s and brought with us when we moved to rural America—disappeared into the foliage a few weeks ago.



The other day, I decided to trim the redbuds and to see if I could find the gazebo.


Yep. Still there. But it's more "treehouse" than gazebo now.

Whenever I weed or trim, I tell myself I'm "editing" the landscape. It's a writer thing.

Speaking of editing, I've added another photo to this post. Not long after Amy posted a comment (see comments) about being careful of snakes, I decided to sweep the front porch. Guess what I found behind a planter?


I guess it is a jungle out there.

~

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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Squirming and Yearning and Reading the Paper

One of my earliest literary memories is that of reading the daily paper—or having it read to me. Back in the later 1940s and early 1950s, when the Roanoke World-News (which ceased to exist decades ago) hit the front porch, I’d fetch it in and Mama would read me the funnies while I squirmed on her lap. She even read “Henry,” which didn’t have any words.

“Well, there’s Henry,” she’d say and then describe what Henry was doing. I’d follow along.

After she’d read the news to herself, I’d take the paper, spread it out on the floor, and look at the pictures. If I put my eyes close to the page, I could see that the black and white pictures were made of gazillions of little dots. Meanwhile, the newsprint blackened my elbows and arms.

We didn’t have many books in the house then, unless you counted my Little Golden Books. Once in a while Mama read McCall’s magazine and I got to cut out the Betsy McCall paper doll when she was finished, but the newspaper was our main source of news and entertainment. In those pre-TV days, it was our link to the outside world.

I’ve been reading the Roanoke paper for a half-century, and I’ve noticed it’s declined quite a bit—especially in the last year or so. For one thing, it has way less news, and what little news it has usually isn’t well written. They even made the page size smaller. And thinner. They took out the Virginia section, under the pretense of combining it with the main section. (This has caused much strife among couples who used to divide up the morning paper for breakfast reading.)

A lot of the news isn’t actually news—more like fluff. Few of the stories begin with a lead anymore.

The RT does provide me—an ex-English teacher—considerable amusement as I read sentences laden with strings of propositional phrases, passive verbs, incorrect pronoun usage, etc.

Last Sunday’s paper took me 20 minutes to read, but then I don’t read the classified ads (I’m not buying anything), the sports section (I don’t play or watch sports), or the numerous ad inserts except for the grocery coupons (I’m not buying anything except groceries). Many pages were dominated by large photographs, such as last Sunday’s book page.


Does the RT staff think that a picture is worth a thousand words and can thus eliminate many words by running a gigantic graphic? It seems to me that two or three book reviews would fit into the space that picture occupies.

Graphics dominated the front page of Sunday’s Extra section, which also had some black text on a gray background. Do they try to make the text as unreadable as possible? Plus the page contained an announcement of what will be in Monday’s Extra.


The Horizon Section had the requisite large graphic and a section with black text on a light gray background.


Last Sunday’s paper contained column by the editor, who compared the movie “State of Play” to the realities of newspaper work. The second sentence grabbed my attention:
Russell Crowe's murky ethics and action-hero antics make most journalists squirm in their seats, yearning for a dignified remake of “All the President's Men.”

Um, am I the only one who noticed that the participial phrase was misplaced? (The seats are yearning?)

Let’s do a bit of editing and change the participle to a verb:

Russell Crowe's murky ethics and action-hero antics make most journalists squirm in their seats and yearn for a dignified remake of "All the President's Men."

See? Now the sentence makes sense. The journalists squirm and yearn; the seats don’t do anything. But does the sentence even need the squirming part?

Russell Crowe's murky ethics and action-hero antics make most journalists yearn for a dignified remake of "All the President's Men."

See how much better that is?

But my biggest problem with that column is that the editor thinks that the RT is doing a fine job. Of course, she’s young and doesn’t remember how things used to be. Dan Smith, over on his Fromtheeditr blog, gnawed over the column last Sunday. (I agree with him!)

Just in case the powers that run the RT are reading this blog, I have some suggestions to make the RT better:

  • Concentrate on content. Reduce the size of graphics. Reduce the size of most headlines. Eliminate color from most pictures. Save the color pictures for the blog. Use black text on a white background—think readability.
  • Put more than three stories on the front page. Look at the front page from this 1946 issue of Roanoke World News. See how crammed with info it is?

  • Eliminate the fluff. I’m not interested in the reporters’ feelings. They can share feelings on their blogs. Maybe even in columns, though I’d prefer ideas to feelings. Concentrate on facts in news stories.
  • Write tight. Cut the long, loopy sentences. Condense sentences that have three or more propositional phrases. Use passive verbs only when absolutely necessary.
  • Use good grammar. (Don’t get me started on this!)
  • Eliminate all the regional sections that come out every Friday and put all that news in the regular edition. I used to teach in Roanoke, so I’d like to read about what’s happening in various schools. I used to live in Southwest County, so I’d like to read the news that’s now reserved for SwoCo. I have friends in Botetourt County and Salem, so I’d like to read the news from there. Those little neighborhood papers, while generating more ad dollars, divide the readership. The readership should be united.
  • Don’t refer readers to RT blogs for “more info.” Many RT readers are older. Some don’t even own computers. Put all the important stuff in the news story. Use the blogs for fluff and reporters’ feelings. Make the print edition complete in itself.

I have a hunch that the powers that be at the RT won’t heed my suggestions. Looks like I’ll squirm and yearn for the newspaper the way it used to be.

Meanwhile, today’s Extra section was dominated by a large graphic:


(Sigh)

~

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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A Cat Tale

No, this tale isn’t about the black and white cat that inhabited my garage for a week in April. That kitty moved on; a few days after she moved out, I saw her walking through the cow pasture across the road.

A week or so after the black and white cat left, a little orange cat took up residence on the deck. This kitty—from his size, I figured he might be four or five months old—wasn’t in good shape. (I assumed the kitty was male because most orange cats are male—just like calico cats are female.) One eye was so covered in gunk, it was hard to tell if he even had an eye. He was snotty. He was rail thin, dirty, and scratched a lot. I could see a tick on his face. He drooled. I feared rabies. Luckily my cats avoided him.

For two weeks Little Orange Kitty mostly slept. He stayed on the low end of the deck where he could escape if anyone came near. He wouldn’t let me get close. I left a little cat food out, but I think Ruby the dog ate most of it. But I saw the kitten drinking water, so I figured he might not be rabid.

One evening about ten days ago, I was planting stuff around the gazebo. Little Orange Kitty left the deck, walked down the driveway, stepped into the gazebo, and looked me in the eye. “Meow,” he said—the first time I heard him speak. I followed him back up the driveway, got some cat food, and watched him eat. And eat. He had trouble chewing and he still drooled.

I fed Little Orange Kitty regularly after that. Once, after he ate, he came into the garage and up to the back door. His “meow” sounded like Oliver Twist saying, “Please, sir, may I have some more.” I gave him more. He ate.

Soon he became friendly. Purring friendly. Rubbing around my legs friendly. I tentatively touched his back. He didn’t shrink from the touch. I thought maybe I could get him fixed up and find him a home.

Before long I could pet him. I contacted Diane Novak, the Barn Cat Buddy lady, who suggested some places I could take him for inexpensive (relatively speaking) vet work.

Meanwhile, I started wiping his eye a couple times a day. I crushed some cat vitamins and put them in milk. He began looking a little better. Not great, but better.

I ended up taking him to my own vet today when I took Maggie and Hubert for their shots. When the receptionist asked for his name, I said Oliver. Upon official vet inspection, Oliver had several teeth missing, which might account for his chewing problems. He also had an upper respiratory infection, a leision on his tongue, and a gum infection—all symptoms of feline leukemia. We decided to do the blood test. If Oliver tested positive, I’d have the vet euthanize him.

While we waited for the test results, the dogs got their shots and John then took them to the truck. I waited alone for the test results. I had a feeling that I wouldn’t be taking Oliver the little orange kitty-boy home.

Then the vet came in with the news. Turns out, I wouldn’t be taking Oliver the little orange kitty-boy home after all.

But wait—there’s a strange twist to this story.

To make a long story short, I took home Olivia, the little orange FEMALE CAT.

The news was that Oliver—er, Olivia—passed the test, but he was a she. Orange females are rare, but the vet said he’d seen others. He could tell by her remaining teeth that she was over a year old. She hadn’t had kittens though—probably because she’d been in such bad physical shape and had starved for so long. He checked for a scar to see if she’d been spayed. Nope.

He treated her for fleas and ticks, vaccinated her for rabies and distemper, and gave her a shot of a long-acting antibiotic to help her respiratory problems. In a couple of weeks, she’ll be in good enough shape to be spayed.

Olivia, after the trip to the vets. See, she's still a bit on the scruffy side.

Good appetite, though.

And that's the tale of this particular cat. . .

. . . and the tale of how I happened to acquire cat number six.


~

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Monday, May 25, 2009

Here's the Bow

This afternoon a storm rolled in from the South. For about two minutes a rainbow was visible.


I was only able to get one end of it before it disappeared in the pouring rain.
~

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Saturday, May 23, 2009

Green, Green

. . . the grass that is. And it's high.

Everyone is making hay this week. Well, everyone but us. The guy who cuts for us won't be available until next week.

My cousin has been up and down the road with his tractor for a couple of days now.


This what what some of the hay he made looks like:


Is that pretty, or what? Another neighbor, a dairy farmer, makes big square bales:


Those bales are huge! You can't lift them by hand.

This morning, I finally talked John—since he isn't busy raking hay— into mowing some of the trails at the farm. Here, he's mowing the farm driveway. The hay field is behind him.


See how high the grass was?


He didn't cut the part of the trail that goes through the hayfield. The dogs and I will have to walk through the tractor tracks.


He lowered the bush-hog once he was in the woods. The trail that goes to Polecat Creek is so lush and green:


Surely our hay will be cut and baled next week.
~

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Friday, May 22, 2009

Got Voice?

A few evenings ago, I attended a writers workshop about voice. I’m still not sure what I learned. Or even if I learned anything. Perhaps my expectations were too high. Or not right. Or something.

For a writer, voice is akin to style and tone. All three are hard to define, but they’re all related. (Note: If you’re not a writer, you can stop reading here. Trust me, there will be nothing to interest you in the rest of this post.)

I searched online for a good definition of voice. According to the University of Maryland’s Effective Writing Center (which is mainly about academic writing): “Style, voice, and tone in writing express the attitude of a writer at that moment and in relation to a particular subject and audience.”

OK, that tells what they do, but not what they are. Maybe this info from the website makes it a bit clearer:

Voice and tone reflect your attitude about your subject and your readers. Voice is who the readers hear talking in your paper, and tone is the way in which you are doing the writing. Voice can be institutional or academic—that is, objective and formal. Or voice can be personal—in fact, your distinct voice. You will need to decide whether you want your tone to be informative or affective. Do you want to inform your readers or to persuade them in some way? Your style and attitude toward your subject combine to create your voice and tone.

Everybody got that? OK, I’ll try again. From this article, “Finding Your Writing Style, Finding Your Voice”: “Sometimes your writing voice is your thinking voice; sometimes it’s your speaking voice. Sometimes it can be drastically different from who you seem to be entirely.”

Well, yeah, but what is voice?

Anyhow, at the workshop, I was hoping to get some suggestions to make my voice more emphatic in articles that I write. Or maybe more definite. Or something. Anyhow, I thought that maybe the workshop would address what voice is, how to improve it, etc. Maybe there’d even be a handy checklist of what to do and what not to do. Maybe there’d be an in-depth discussion.

There wasn’t. The workshop was (I think) about finding your character’s voice in fiction. We did several exercises, so more than half the time was spent in writing. Then some of us “shared” what we wrote.

I’m not a fan of exercises at workshops. If exercises are necessary, I think participants should be given the assignment in advance, so the group can spend time in discussion about what worked and what didn’t.

I did the exercises, but I didn’t get anything I can use with my current work-in-progress. I didn’t even get what the workshop was about. (I’m not the only one who didn’t get it. See Amy's post here.)

Anyhow, I'm still searching for my voice. If you find it, please send it my way.
~

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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Bush-hogging for Horses

Yesterday, John bush-hogged the two horse pastures. One is so lush with clover that it's off limits to my old founder-prone mares. The other has lots of weeds that obscure the little grass that's there.

John knocked down the weeds so Melody and Cupcake could get to the little bit of grass that's there.


The mares waited in the run-in shed while John did his work. Melody thought that the tractor beared watching.


Melody: "Hurry up! I want that grass!"
~

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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Bears Watching

The flora around here bears watching. All the rain this spring has caused the grass and weeds to really jump up. Last week, the weeds were about to take over the stop sign at the intersection across from my driveway.

The stop sign is in profile—on the post with the route number.

The aggressive weeds obscure the view of on-coming traffic from the right. On Monday, a big VDOT (Virginia Department of Transportation) machine, accompanied by a truck, came to mow. I watched the machine make one pass and continue on its way.


Somehow, VDOT's attempt at mowing didn't make much difference. The weeds still grow. The view is still mostly obscured. But at least VDOT did something. And our tax dollars helped.


At least VDOT didn't rip apart habitat like they did in April. But still they bear watching.

Speaking of bear watching, or maybe it's watching a bear, on April 28 a bear almost attacked a Penhook girl who walked with her dogs on Smith Mountain. One of her dogs fought the bear and sustained injuries. This story originally appeared in the Franklin News-Post. Today's FNP reports that the dog has died.

Today's Smith Mountain Eagle reported a bear in someone's yard in Scruggs (15 miles from me). The bear had no fear of humans and was aggressive.

Meanwhile, less than two miles from me as the crow flies, a bear walks the same woods that my dogs and I have walked with Claudia and her dogs. (Claudia e-mailed me this video earlier today.)

video

So far, I've never seen a bear in my wanderings. I'd like to keep it that way.

~

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Echoes of a Life in Fieldale

I met Margaret Adkins, the oldest member of the Piedmont Writers, when I attended their March 14 meeting. We chatted briefly and swapped books. She had to leave early because she doesn’t drive after dark, so we didn’t get to talk as much as I would have liked.

Recently I finished her memoir, Echoes, a delightful book—and a good example of the type book that’s suitable for self-publishing. (She used XLibris, a print-on-demand publisher). Adkins lived her entire 85 years in Fieldale, Virginia, a little town an hour’s drive south of where I live.

On her book’s website, she tells why she wrote:

This book is about my life from the age of two years onward. I wrote this book so that those that come after me understand what life was like growing up in a family of seven children with a perfect stay-at-home mother and a father who was a stranger to his children. The Depression years and living in a small mill town affected our lives until the 1940s. Our struggles and rewards were about equal. I hope that those who read my stories can, at some point, identify with the characters and events and laugh or cry as the story affects them.

I did. Reading Echoes, I felt as if I was sitting on Adkin’s front porch and having a nice chat with her.

I was impressed and inspired how she took up traveling late in life—and how much zest for life she has. She has accomplished her purpose—readers can indeed understand what life was like in a big family in Fieldale in the 30s and 40s.

And, after reading her book, I’ll never look at bowling or Bingo quite the same way again.
~

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Saturday, May 16, 2009

You Go, Girl!

I missed seeing the Preakness, another history-making horse race this month. However, thanks to the magic of YouTube:



~

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Friday, May 15, 2009

A Busy Writerly Week

Whew! The past week has been busy in a writerly way. On Monday, the Pros & Cons of Self-Publishing presentation at the Roanoke Public Library went very well. I thought we’d have maybe five or ten people. We had over two dozen, including a few friends I hadn’t seen for years.

Two people in the audience have blogged about it—Betsy’s post is here and Anita’s is here. Betsy is a member of Lake Writers, Valley Writers, and the Virginia Writer’s Club. Anita is a fellow member of Pen Women and the organizer of last week’s blogger meet-up.

On Tuesday, I went to Collinsville to appear on Hal Hubener’s cable show, Cover to Cover. The show was live on BTW21 but will be rebroadcast throughout the week. Eventually it will be posted on the Blue Ridge Regional Library website where all the previous Cover to Cover shows are archived. (Hal is director of the Blue Ridge Regional Library.) The half-hour passed so fast that I didn’t get to cover nearly as much as I wanted; consequently, I might be invited back sometime this summer.

Wednesday was the Pen Women’s monthly meeting at the Daily Grind in Roanoke. Rex Bowman was our guest speaker; this made the third time I’ve introduced Rex this year—and the second time in less than two weeks.

Before the meeting, I met with Judy Ayyildiz, an award-winning poet and fellow Pen Woman, who judged the Virginia Writer’s Club 2009 Back Page Poetry Contest for me (I was the contest coordinator). After the meeting, we Pen Women addressed cards for the Pen Women’s Poetry Contest. Anita blogged about the meeting here and Elena here.

On Thursday, I finished re-reading The Great Gatsby and mostly caught up with some writer-related email. And did yardwork. And laundry. It was weird not to have a meeting to attend.

Today, Jim, Sally, Marion, Claudia, and I met at the Westlake Country Club for lunch and to judge the 2009 Lake Writers Student Essay Contest. I’ve been a coordinator of the contest for the last few years, but a lot Lake Writers serve as readers for the first, second, and sometimes third cuts. It took us two hours to go over the finalists in the middle school and high school divisions and determine the winners. The weirdest thing happened when we matched the cover sheets to the winning essays: the winner of the middle school contest was the sister of the winner of the high school contest.

Right before I left for Westlake, I looked from my deck and what did I see?


Melody and my cousin Mary coming down the road. They'd been "around the block," a distance of 3.3 miles.


Notice how green everything is? Notice the clouds gathering?


Fortunately, the rain held off until they'd finished their ride. Rain fell as I drove home, though.

When I returned home from Westlake, I spent another two hours posting the essay winners on the Lake Writers website, e-mailing the second and third place winners as well as the honorable mentions, and phoning the two first-place winners. (Fortunately I only had to make one phone call.)

Afterward, I tried to do a bit of yardwork, but it was too darn humid. Maybe tomorrow—or next week, when I have only have one writers workshop and two writers meetings.

I you're wondering why I haven't blogged for several days or why I haven't answered your e-mail, I've just been too involved with writerly stuff to find time to write.

Who knew retirement meant I'd be so busy?
~

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Sunday, May 10, 2009

Growing Season

April showers bring May flowers.

But our showers came in May. The recent rains (almost every day this month!) have helped my flowers grow. This is the best year I've ever seen for irises.


These irises are ones that Bob Sandy, a Valley Writer and a retired science teacher, gave me last fall. I love this color combination.


He also gave me the white iris.


And this one, too. Is the color mauve?


The lavender ones below originally came from Mama's house.


Is this an iris? It sort of looks like one. I see a lot of these growing wild.


It's been a good year for azaleas, too. All the azaleas were here when we bought the house. The ones that survived last year's drought look a lot better than they did last year.




Yes, the lovely green vine on the tree is indeed poison ivy.

The peonies are just coming out. I transplanted this one from our house in Roanoke in 1999. I'd gotten the original slips from mama in the 1970s.



And with the flowers come bugs. Yesterday I saw the first cicada of the year.


I don't know where it came from.
~

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Saturday, May 09, 2009

Literary Paths

Lately, I've been crossing paths with other writers I know. Yesterday, I had a Lake Writers meeting, where three of the other members had also attended a Valley Writers meeting the night before. Earlier Thursday, I lunched with fellow bloggers, one of whom is also a fellow Pen Woman.

Last Saturday, the Valley Writers Chapter of the Virginia Writers Club hosted the quarterly VWC meeting at Westlake. As Valley vice-president, I introduced our speaker, Rex Bowman. Betsy Ashton, fellow Valley Writer (and fellow Lake Writer), has already covered his talk on her blog, Mad Maxisms. Rex gave some good tips for writers; Betsy took good notes on them.


As vice-president of the Roanoke Valley League of American Pen Women, I'll also introduce Rex as our guest speaker at next week's Pen Women meeting. I think I'm becoming the official introducer for Rex. I introduced him when he spoke at the Westlake library months ago.

He and I originally met a couple of years ago. One day, my husband announced that a reporter came by and was wondering about the area, and he had to leave to get some batteries for his camera, but he'd be back.

When the reporter—Rex—came back, I met him and he interviewed us for an article he was writing for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. When the article came out, I thought that was it. A year ago, I learned that Rex had published a collection of his articles, and the story about Novelty—complete with a picture of my husband and me—was in the book: Blue Ridge Chronicles. (I reviewed the book here.)


Our paths have crossed several times since we first met. Last summer, we did a signing at the Cottage Curio, which is owned by Peggy Shifflett, president of the Pen Women.

Monday, four members of the Virginia Writers club (three of whom are Valley members and all of whom are Lake Writers) will present a program on the Pros and Cons of Self-Publishing.


Maybe I'll see you there.

Everything is connected; paths cross many times.
~

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Friday, May 08, 2009

Meeting and Greeting

Yesterday, a handful of area bloggers met in Daleville. You can read about it on the Blue Country Magic blog or on Blue Ridge Gal or on The Botetourt View.

It was nice to put live people with the blogs I've enjoyed for a while. I already knew Anita (we're in the Roanoke Valley Pen Women together), but the others were known to me only in cyberspace.

The consensus: We're gonna do this again!
~

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Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Booker T. Washington Monument

Last Saturday, the recent rain had greened up the fields at the Booker T. Washington National Monument on Rt. 122. This is the old Burroughs' plantation, where educator Booker T. Washington was born.


It's hard to believe that this bucolic area is so close to Westlake, a shopping area that's almost a city unto itself.

Below, the garden is growing.


Not far from the garden is a replica of the plantation kitchen where Washington's mother cooked the meals for the Burroughs family and where Washington, his sister, and his mother lived.


The replica was built by Willie Edwards, who lived across the road from my grandparents' farm in Union Hall. Here's another view:


See how green everything is? This scene is down the hill from the kitchen.


Here's the barn (center) and the chicken house (right).


In the upper left of this picture, a dark blue SUV whizzes past on Rt. 122. If you click the picture, you might be able to see it (look under the second tree from the left).


Even in what looks like a rural area, civilization is close by.

In this case, a half-mile.
~

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