Mater Season

Monday was a red letter day at my office.

One of my coworkers arrived with a couple of grocery bags (the old brown paper kind, not that worthless onion-skinned plastic that someone has convinced you will “save the planet”).  He announced that he was preparing lunch, and that we were all invited.

He made “BLT’s”–bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwiches.

I watched him eat about half a sandwich.  He leaned back in his chair, a look of pure rapture on his face.

“This is the best day of the year,” he said.  “The first real BLT of 2012.  It’s better than Christmas day.  Can you think of anything better?”

Actually, I could think of one or two things that are better.  Or at least I remember a couple.  But how could I argue with a man in the grip of sheer ecstasy?

I should explain.  The tomatoes were vine-ripe, Alabama tomatoes.  The first of the season.

From about October through the first of June, there are no real tomatoes in Alabama.  Sure, we have something that is marketed and sold as a tomato, but it bears little resemblance to the real McCoy.  These are grown in a greenhouse somewhere, or in far-off nether lands like California.

These psuedo-tomatoes will do in a tomato crisis, but it had better be a crisis.

These abominations are small, pulpy, and virtually tasteless.  They are red like real tomatoes, but the color is just  a bit off, somehow.  If you saw a friend with that kind of complexion, you would be concerned.  You would likely say “You look a little pale, are you OK?” or “maybe you need to lie down.”

Real, vine-ripe tomatoes are fire-engine red.  In Alabama, they grow as big as a Wilson blue-dot softball.  And juicy?  You have to lean over your plate to take a bite or change your shirt after lunch.

The two cannot be compared.  It would be like comparing Drew Brees to the pimply-faced ninth-grader who’s trying to make the high school team; like Monet to Joe the house painter; like ribeye to Spam.

I told a friend about my coworker’s bliss.  Her eyes turned glassy.  She said, “I had my first ‘mater sandwich last Saturday.”

It’s ‘mater season in the Heart of Dixie.  Y’all come visit and we’ll fix you one.

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A Bluebird Day

It was a bluebird day in the Heart of Dixie.

Not a cloud in the sky, and although the June heat arrived in May this year, today was pleasant.  A cold-front passed last night, and there was at least a whisper of a breeze all day long.  It was the kind of day when you can’t help but be glad to be alive, when you get outside and forget about whatever worries and troubles you might be harboring in the depths of your heart.

All across my little corner of Alabama, people moved about.  Lawn mowers were run and gardens tended.  Pickups left early with boats in tow, headed to the lake, and returned hours later, occupants sun-blistered and happy.  A seemingly continuous rumble of Harleys on the highway past my house, sometimes solo but more often in two’s and three’s.

I stayed around the home place, content to do a little gardening.  I took a nap. Bluebird days are good for that sort of thing, too.

Come away with me.  What you doing hanging ’round here boy?

Yes sir, a bluebird day, good for the soul.  A rare moment of calm–contentment even.

Contentment comes easier for some than others.  I remember a time long ago, when I was 18 or 19 years old.  Home from college, helping my dad on one of his endless outdoor projects.  Babbling on and on about future plans as we worked in the summer sun.  How I was going to do this or that, or if I could just do this, then that would likely follow.


And I remember my dad stopping, wiping his brow with the back of his hand, looking at me dead-square in the eyes.


“Son, ain’t you ever satisfied?”


No dad, I wasn’t.  Still ain’t 30 years later.  It’s not in my nature.  I suspect I got it from you, and you probably got it from your daddy.

An hour or so before sunset, my house began to fill up.  My sweet Honduran daughter Nolvia arrived with her fine son, little Ethan, who toddled around my front yard chasing a big purple ball.  Next my oldest son John and his beautiful bride-to-be Molly, fresh from house-hunting.  Finally my youngest, Kyle, and his gorgeous girlfriend Haley, whose green eyes always sparkle like diamonds.

The Redhead prepared a delicious dinner.  We all gathered around the table and enjoyed the time together.  Laughter and love–good times and memories.

Later as the sun set a full moon rose. Hayley and I chased lightning bugs in the gathering dusk.  We caught a whole jar full.

Life is short, boy.  You getting old.  Better get moving before it’s too late.  It might already be too late.

They are all gone now, and soon the house will be quiet again.  Time moves on.

It was a bluebird day in central Alabama.

Tonight is a whippoorwill night.

A Forest Reborn

Until about 150 years or so ago, most of the woodland in the South looked like the photo above.  From Virginia to east Texas, from the Gulf Coast up into the foothills of the Appalachians, about 90 million acres of land comprised the great longleaf pine forest.  We know this because early explorers like Bartram traveled the land–collecting, describing, naming, and delighting in the flora of the New World.

We also know why this vast forest was so expansive.  Longleaf pine is very tolerant of fire, even as a seedling when other trees (including other pines) are vulnerable.  Wildfires were prevalent in those olden days–some were started by lightning, and some were set deliberately by the native inhabitants, who clearly recognized certain advantages to woods with a nice, open view.  Sunlight through a broken tree canopy produced an abundance of edible plants–a veritable grocery store for hunter-gatherers.  A low understory devoid of brush also gave a man a little time to see and react to someone who might wish to sneak-up and club his brains out with a stone tool.

Unfortunately the U.S. had a pretty weak immigration policy in her early days, and the flood of illegal immigrants quickly discovered that longleaf pine had lots of other practical uses.  The king of the southern pines became the tree that built a new nation:  homes, cities, bridges, great ships–whatever required straight, quality, long-lasting lumber.

By the mid 1990’s, 90 million acres was reduced to a scattered remnant of less than 2 million acres.

It is mind-boggling that a landscape could change so drastically over a few generations, but it did.  The cutover land was reforested with other native pines–primarily loblolly pine, which is much more prolific and considerably easier to grow.  The fires that had been a part of the southern landscape for centuries were virtually halted, prompted in large part by a government agency’s propaganda, voiced through a lovable cartoon bear.

Carpetbaggers have worn many disguises over the last 150 years. Many of us who live down here recognize that they still do.

Thankfully, a few good people refused to let the longleaf forest go quietly into that good night.  Longleaf is beginning to make a comeback, now reoccupying about 4 million acres across the South.  Conservation groups like “The Longleaf Alliance” preach the gospel of longleaf, and even the most hardened skeptics are beginning to see the light.  As new disciples are added to the flock, thousands of acres are deliberately planted and nurtured on privately-owned land each year (and this fact is crucial, since land in Southern states like Alabama is over 90% privately owned).  Carefully controlled fires are once again being set and a whole generation is being re-educated to the benefits. 

As this landscape returns, so will a host of plant and animal species that depend on the longleaf forest as habitat, many of which were facing potential extinction.

It is a feel-good story, but one that doesn’t have a happy ending just yet.

Come back later and we’ll talk…