Monday, January 25, 2010

Lucille: She’s right where she belongs

She’s so fluffy that she looks like a fuzzy football. She has blue eyes, a winning gaze and maximum hug-ability. She’s so smart that she’s housebroken herself, and she already knows how to wrap all of us around her tiny webbed paws.

She’s Lucille, the latest black Labrador to join the Walburn family.

Lucille came to us almost two months after losing beloved Suzie, the black Lab who died Nov. 28 after a left side paralysis forced us make the toughest decision pet owners ever make. Suzie’s in pet heaven, as I described here weeks ago, and I bet Suzie approves of the new girl in town. Our resident cat Tiger is not so sure.

Lucille is the name we decided on (Will made the final decision, as Suzie was technically his) from a list we started a couple of weeks ago. Suzie Q was named for the rock ‘n’ roll song by Creedence. Our name choices didn’t all come from music although the list included Queenie (Little Queenie, Chuck Berry), Lola (The Kinks) and Maybelline (Chuck Berry, again). But Lucille (Little Richard) won out, as Will and I picked up precious from Walt and David, who work with Will at Lowe’s. Lucille is “mostly” Lab, not registered, so Lucille was a gift, (no $200+purchase price that come with AKC registration). That’s fine with us, and Lucille, she’s a gift in many ways.

A sweet, chewing fuzz-ball who only occasionally whines, Lucille is lovingly and gradually filling that void left by Suzie in a household that’s always had a dog and always black Labs.

Our first Lab was Remus, a Labrador/Weimaraner mix who we got before we got married. Remus, who followed Bonzo, the Alpha dog of our Auburn mobile home community (aka the Ghetto), into the mischief and eventually onto Wire Road, got hit by a car during our first year of marriage. The Auburn vet school fixed him up, and our broke selves paid on that bill for a long, long time.

Before we had children, Remus went everywhere with us. One Christmas, while we were visiting my parents in Pleasant Grove, Remus disappeared. She had followed Fannie (stepmother’s mostly beagle) off on an adventure. Fannie came back and Remus didn’t.

We spent the rest of that short holiday (I worked at a newspaper then, so you got off for Christmas eve or Christmas, never both), and had to return to Selma without him. My written plea, Oh, where, Oh where did Remus go? was on the front page of the Selma Times-Journal that day after Christmas. (Slow news day, and we had a picture….) I heard from sympathetic dog-lovers throughout Selma and central Alabama, but in the end, Remus made his way back on his own. Remus was walking in front of the house when Emily saw him and called his name. Em said Remus sat down, like, “finally.” We rushed back and picked him up; I wrote a follow-up column, and Al Benn, then my editor, took a picture of us reunited.

Young Remus, at the beach

We have lots of pictures of Remus, and for years, other reminders: the couch he chewed the arm off of, the teeth-marked, mangled broom sticks, the shredded shoes. This is the dog that used to climb on top of my car – first my seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time beige Gremlin, then my at-least-it’s-paid-for Ford Maverick. Remus would stretch himself out on the roof of the car – like Snoopy on the dog house. I think he wanted to know when I was leaving, in case he could go, too.

Remus, gentle with children yet protective of us always, stayed with us through the birth of son Will and then daughter Mary Claire, until he was gray and scarred (from the fights that un-fixed male dogs get in). Then one time, Remus did not come back from his wanderings. We think he went off to die the way some pets do if they can, I believe, to try to spare their humans from grief.

Henry was our next black Labrador. He was still a puppy when we moved from Selma to Camden and lived for a while in the “guest” mobile home provided by MacMillan Bloedel, where Frank worked then. One day that early fall, when the air conditioning stopped working at our temporary home, we called the HR person who took care of the these things.

Whoops. It turns out Henry had sliced and diced the air ducts under the trailer. “That’s okay,” said HR person said, “we’ll fix it.” I later joined MB as a freelancer, then as public relations manager, and that HR person, Janet Carlisle, became a friend. She never forgot Henry, either.

     Henry, when he was old and gray

Then, Henry made his mark, again, when we bought a house in Camden. The first week, our neighbor, the late, wonderful Helen Strother, came over holding a mangled set of wires that used to be the pump that kept her winterized swimming pool clean. We paid that off, too, and Helen loved Henry always. Henry, loved by all who knew him, grew gray and scarred and eventually went the way of Remus, disappearing and not coming back.

The next black Lab was Suzie, and her story is written in these postings.

So, welcome to our family, sweet Lucille. Who knows what you’ll chew up (I need to check on her right now; she’s being mighty quiet).

And, who knows how much love you’ll give us in return.

Picture of the day: Lucille

(Photo by Mary Claire Walburn)

Song of the day:
Lucille, by Little Richard

"Lucille, please come back where you belong
Oh, Lucille, please come back where you belong
I've been good to you baby
Please don't leave me alone."

Monday, January 18, 2010

Reading to write: Help in creating portable magic

As a writer, I read.

Or, maybe it should be: as a reader, I write. But, I think it’s the first.

Or maybe it’s that pesky chicken-and-the-egg thing.

Either way, since I hit double digits and discovered my mother’s collection of Agatha Christie books and her stash of classics including Twain and Hemingway (many of which I still own), I’ve been reading. I always have a book in progress.

I’ve rarely tested the premise that I cannot go with sleep without reading at least a few pages, my book held open by my hand and cradled in my arm. I am ready to go wherever that book is going, for at least a while. Reading, preferably fiction, is the surest way I know to control a “thinking problem,” that worrisome can-get-it-off-your-mind situation or problem that keeps us up at night.

As a reader, I often begin conversations with my other reader friends (we know who each other are) with, “what are you reading?” We exchange book titles and authors. We make quick reviews to each other; sometimes we lend or borrow books before the visit is over – if my latest are not from the Hoover Library, which they often are.

I cannot imagine myself any other way than as a reader.

But, it is only since I actively began my own first effort at fiction writing, that I totally understand the connection between reading and writing.

Before starting the first draft of Mojo Jones and the Black Cat Bone, my first fiction effort and currently 68,855 words in a fiction story set in the Alabama Black Belt, I read for the second and third time, On Writing by Stephen King. King is one of my favorite authors and the only one I know of who took the time to write about the craft of writing, about language and the serious, hard mining work of writing fiction.

“If you want to be writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut,” King begins in the first chapter of the second half of On Writing, where he gives the would-be writers among his Constant Readers (that’s what he calls us, his loyal readers) advice about how to write fiction if they are prepared to take it seriously.

For writers, he says, “the real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing; one comes to the country of the writer with one’s papers and identification pretty much in order. Constant reading will pull you into a place (a mind-set, if you like the phrase) where you can write eagerly and without self-consciousness. It also offers you a constantly growing knowledge of what has been done and what hasn’t, what is trite and what is fresh, what works and what just lies there dying (or dead) on the page,” King writes. “The more you read, the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself with your pen or word processor.”

That’s what I’m talking about.

Since I’ve been in active fiction-writing mode, I look at my book choices differently. I want to read Southern fiction, always a favorite but doubly so now that I am trying to create my own. I want to read books with supernatural and magical underpinnings because I have to convince my potential constant readers of the possibility of seeing things beyond this world. I want to read character-driven books because I hope mine is such a book that makes readers care about and recognize themselves and others in the characters.

So, I will now answer my own question: What are you reading?

Right now, my bookmark is in River of Hidden Dreams by Connie May Fowler, which I found on the Southern Voices shelf at the Hoover Library. Set in Florida and following the lives of three women, River of Hidden Dreams finds me adding notes to my by-the-bed notepad and re-reading sentences because they are so well-written and say so much.

Before that, I finished King’s latest, Under the Dome, a requested Christmas gift from my husband. A 1,072-page delight that I did not want to end, Under the Dome is another of King’s character-filled tomes well built on the premise of putting ordinary people in extraordinary situations (an unexplained and unpenetrable dome seals a town in Maine) and letting the characters drive the story and figure a way out.

In no particular order, here are other books recently completed as part of my keeping Stephen King’s commandment to read a lot, write a lot:

South of Broad, the newest by Pat Conroy, a dean of Southern, character-central authors.

The Devil’s Punchbowl, the newest by Greg Iles, the Natchez, Miss. author who writes fast-paced thrillers, again about ordinary folks who get in legal and moral dilemmas.

• The newest by Larry McMurtry, another favorite author. Like King, I read most everything McMurtry writes. This was Rhino Ranch, the fifth in the series about Duane Moore set in Thalia, Texas. The series began with The Last Picture Show.

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, the bestseller set in a 1960s Jackson, Miss. which follows black maids and the white women they work for. Southern, with great characters, The Help’s dialogue and dialect appealed to the author-in-training in me.

• All the books I can find by William Cobb, a retired Montevallo professor who writes beautifully of the Alabama Black Belt, its history and mysteries.

• Any and all by Larry Brown, the late north Mississippi firefrighter-turned-author who wrote with uncensored grit about how folks really are.

I still read for pleasure, without a doubt, but reading with writing in mind, as King taught me in On Writing, adds to the immediacy, purpose and joy. Plus, I have an excuse now to curl up with a book. It’s research!

“Books are uniquely portable magic,” King writes, as he begins his simple set of directions to would-be fiction writers which starts with read a lot and write a lot. He also tells us to have a toolbox full of vocabulary and grammar, some talent and an abundance of want-to. But mostly, my mentor tells me to make writing a priority and to close the door and write. And, he says, never come lightly to the blank page.

King writes at least 2,000 words a day every day of the year. (He said he told a reporter that he writes every day but Christmas, but he was fibbing to have something to say.) He usually dates his books. Under the Dome, all 1,000-plus pages of it, was written between Nov. 22, 2007 and March 14, 2009 based on an idea he originally had back in 1976. Dang!

I may never reach that level of dedication. However, I’ve had multiple weeks when I met my writing goals every weekday. And, I believe I have not and will not come lightly to the blank page.

Life interrupts; so does the job search, the weekly blog posting, all things cyber and non-cyber and, well, more life.

But -- no worries -- I am thrilled and well-read as I sit here, at my writing place, about the close the door and continue to tell the truth inside made-up stories, and hopefully, create some portable magic.

Picture of the day:

My brother Charlie and I,
sometime in the early 1960s,
pose with our books and bookcase.

Song of the Day:
When I Paint My Masterpiece, Bob Dylan

"Train wheels runnin' through the back of my memory,

When I ran on the hilltop following a pack of wild geese.
Someday, everything is gonna be smooth like a rhapsody
When I paint my masterpiece."

Monday, January 11, 2010

New Year’s longleaf seedling planting: For posterity and more

Here’s how it’s done:

Firmly place the dibble into the sandy soil; rock it back and forth, making a hole deep enough for the seedling root.

Place the seedling so that the bud from which the bushy long needles grow is above the soil line.

Place the dibble about two inches in front of the seedling hole. Pull back on the dibble, and then forward, closing the soil around the root.

Repeat about two inches in front of that, again closing the soil around the seedling root.

You have successfully planted a longleaf seedling!

In a fitting New Year’s family activity, the Walburns planted about 100 longleaf seedlings along the sandy fields and in forest openings on our land in Dallas County. Much of this land adjacent to the Alabama River and Pine Barren Creek is ideal for longleaf pine, a.k.a. Pinus Palustris.

The sun came out that afternoon, as we planted the longleaf seedlings. Everybody took a turn with the two dibbles (a small hand implement used to plant trees and other plants, see above photo), at least at first.

My first time with a dibble, and daughter Mary Claire’s, too, we caught on quickly to the specific directions (above) from Frankie the forester. But, once Mary Claire and I took turns planting a dozen or so ourselves, the experienced tree planters (Frank who’s planted thousands and Will who’s planted hundreds) took over, and completed the New Year’s Eve planting (and another on New Year’s Day).

I learned how to plant a seedling and refreshed my knowledge about this native southern pine tree, the longleaf pine, which once covering two-thirds of the South. Longleaf pine greeted early explorers, who “saw a vast forest of the most stately pine trees that can be imagined, planted by nature at a moderate distance. . . enameled with a variety of flowering shrubs."

That’s according to the Longleaf Alliance, a non-profit originating at Auburn University’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences. The LLA has a mission of the conservation and restoration of significant functioning longleaf pine ecosystems across the southeastern United States forest landscape. The longleaf pine ecosystem once occupied an estimated 90 million acres in the region. By the early 1990s, only about 2.8 million acres of this forest remained. Due in large part to the efforts of The Longleaf Alliance and its many partners over the past 14 years, the acreage in longleaf forest has increased to approximately 3.2 million acres, the first such increase since the time of settlement. Find out more at

For us and our small privately-owned forestland, the longleaf seedlings planted at the New Year represented more than just planting back a species which likely covered the landscape when Native Americans canoes traveled up and down the Alabama River instead of bass boats and jet skis.

As with any tree planting, our longleaf planting was for prosperity and a lot more.

You plant trees not so much for yourself, but for your children and your children’s children. In the case of longleaf, which is the longest living tree among southern species, the lifetime can be up to 250 years. Longleaf reach maturity at about 30 years, when trees begin to produce those big cones filled with fertile seeds. The trunk of the mature tree fills out into a straight, relatively branch-free tree that resembles a living telephone pole (in fact, many longleaf pines are sold for telephone poles). On more fertile soils, the tree may continue to grow in height up to 110 feet.

So, in addition to reinstating a pine species native to the area and the expectation of some pole-length trees beginning in 30 years (when our children might be grandparents), our longleaf seedling planting activity brings other benefits.

These include:

Promoting wildlife and native species: Longleaf pine forests provide quality habitat for desirable plants and animal species. These include bobwhite quail, fox squirrels, wild turkeys and whitetail deer.

Reduced risk of loss to natural causes: Longleaf pine is highly resistant to pine beetles and fusiform rust, tolerant of wildfire and ice and generally wind-firm. Plus, one common agent of destruction in many southern forests – fire – is an essential tool in longleaf management. That’s also a plus for my forester husband, who enjoys no forest management tool more than a controlled burn.

Biodiversity: A longleaf pine stand maintained by fire is among the most biologically diverse ecotypes in North America.

Carbon Sink: Because longleaf pine lives longer than other southern pines and has the ability to sustain growth at older ages (150 year-plus), the longleaf has the ability to tie up stored carbon for long periods.

Cultural: Longleaf was literally the tree that built the South. Aside from lumber to build homes, businesses and ships, longleaf pine forests provided fare for the dinner table, medicine, a place to graze cattle and extract resin to refine turpentine. In addition to its park-like beauty, a longleaf forest provided a place to go and listen to the “whispering of the pines.”

Dollars and cents: Longleaf pine produces straight, dense, rot resistant wood. Longleaf gives landowners market flexibility, yields a variety of products (including longleaf pine straw) and continues to grow throughout their lives, responding to thinning even at greatly advanced ages. In addition, longleaf guards against natural catastrophic loss better than other southern pines.

Biodiversity or market stability aside, it may be the beauty of the longleaf pine, its aesthetics and coolness-factor, which was most appealing as we stuck those bushy, container-grown seedlings into the sandy dirt.

Wise, look-to-the-future thinking, a good start, time and Mother Nature are the requirements for tree growing, especially the longleaf. We gave them a good start. Now, it’s up to time and Mother Nature.

Pictures of the day:

Getting ready
for the New Year's
Longleaf seedling
planting: Will, Frankie
the Forester, and Mary
Will and Mary Claire
plant longleaf seedlings.


Song of the day:
In the Pines, a traditional American folk song
-- Dating back to at least the 1870s.
-- Recorded by the Carter Family, Lead Belly, Bill Monroe, Doc Watson, the Louvin Brothers and Nirvana.

In the pines, in the pines, where the sun never shines
I shivered where the cold winds blow
In the pines, in the pines, where the sun never shines
I shivered where the cold winds blow

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

New year, new decade: a clean page

I like to think of a new year as a clean slate, or in writer’s lingo, a clean page. Anything is possible in a new year, and, in the case of the just-days-old 2010, a new decade.

We humans get another chance to get things right, to do things better, to be healthier, to live smarter and healthier, to make better decisions and to treat others and ourselves better. At least we can try.

Historically, I avoid written personal resolutions and would not share here them if I did. Rather, I prefer general advice to self, based on ever-growing experience and borrowing from wise others.

Listening to NPR the other day (yes, I am one of those), I heard an “expert” talking about advice and New Year’s promises. She blogs, I believe, and advised in one blog to make small changes. One she recommended in the past was: make your bed every day.

Seems simple, and for some it’s automatic (as it is to me now, but probably was not when I was getting children ready for school and me ready for work years ago). The expert said she was surprised at the response from readers who said this simple bed-making daily observance helped them in other ways beyond coming home to a neat resting place. Perhaps daily bed making brought “control over something” into lives which felt out of control. Regardless, if the advice helps, then repeat it. So I am.

Consider with me these thoughts and advice, as we begin 2010:

• Make your bed every day.

• Listen twice as much as you speak.

• If you can’t say something nice, just don’t say anything.

• If you are angry at someone, the anger controls you.

• Stop doing things that are bad for you.

• Start doing things that are good for you.

• Don’t compare your life with others. You have no idea, really, what theirs is really like and what they’ve had to deal with.

• Forgive, even if the person has not asked for forgiveness. There are reasons Forgiveness is in the Bible so many times, and one is that forgiving is so difficult and important.

• You can’t change the past. Make peace with it and learn from it. Make the most of every day, because today is really all we can be sure of.

• Hope for the future, and plan for it, too.

• Never underestimate the power of music. Wanna get happy? Try Jerry Lee Lewis, who said it so well: "Rock 'n Roll is Rock 'n Roll. If there's anything better, I wanna hear it."

• Smile even if you don’t feel like it. It’s contagious; so is frowning.

• Laugh every day. Especially at yourself.

Picture of the day: Pondering the future. This iguana is one of many we saw on a trip to St. Thomas a couple of years ago. Posing at the side of the swimming pool (where he came WAY too close to my chair), this tropical American lizard appears to be pondering his future, like we are as the 2010s begin.

Song of the day:
Get Rhythm (When You Get the Blues), Johnny Cash