Leather Britches

Monday, November 13, 2006

Air sweet with scent of syrup-making

If you think the world is going to heck in a hand basket, or that there’s no way you can keep up with your crazy schedule, what you need is a good whiff of steam rising off a molasses vat. Or a sip of cool sugar cane juice burbling out of a mill pipe.
Or, if you can’t find any of that, how about a fluffy, hot, buttermilk, cathead biscuit split in half and covered in golden cane syrup, with smoked sausage on the side?
Your cares will vanish, and the world will be a brighter place.
As a pharmacist, Keith Guy has more than his share of stress. That may be partly why he takes vacation time every year about now to make molasses.
He started in 1989, after inheriting the hobby from his in-laws, the Williams family of Lincoln County, Mississippi.
“We learned it from our daddy. Zeb Williams was his name,” said James Williams, 83, while helping Guy make syrup in an open shed behind his house Thursday.
“Back in those days you didn’t have power to pull the mill. You had to have horses and mules. You had a long pole,” he said.
He and his brothers had to harness a horse to the mill at 4 a.m. in time to fill a 55-gallon drum with cane juice so their dad could start cooking at 6.
“We made all the neighbors’ syrup,” Williams recalled, estimating 1,000 to 1,500 gallons a year, usually between the second week of November and Thanksgiving, when the cane is harvested.
Syrup sold for 35 cents a gallon back then. Now it’s $8 for little over half a gallon — if you can find any.
Zeb Williams kept a fourth of his customers’ syrup in payment for his services. They also had to provide firewood and a mule to pull the mill. “We’d sell the extra syrup,” James Williams recalled.
Guy’s operation isn’t a lot different from his grandfather-in-law’s. He learned the trade mainly from the late Clifton “Pink” Williams, one of the brothers.
Instead of a horse, Guy uses an old Farmall tractor to power the mill with a pulley. The small mill grinds stalks of sugar cane, and the juice runs down into a plastic feed trough with screen on top to keep out the yellow jackets.
The green juice flows through a pipe and into the evaporator, or cooking vat, a five-chamber rectangular metal tray atop a brick kiln.
Guy cooks over a wood fire, which is more trouble but less expensive than propane.
Cooking molasses is an art that requires a lot of skimming and stirring as water is cooked out and impurities removed.
“It’s really just kind of looking at it and knowing it’s ready,” Guy said. “It’s not exact.”
Pointing to the final chamber where the frothing juice has become syrup, he said, “When it starts that heavy pop, that’s when it’s molasses, and you see the redness too.”
A wide variety of factors affects syrup quality, including type of cane, type of soil and how much rain fell that year.
Periodically Guy opens a spigot and lets foaming hot liquid run through a burlap filter and into a barrel. His helper, Kent Rogers of Natchez, fills plastic jars with the syrup.
During a sugar shortage in World War II, mysterious customers would show up in southwest Mississippi wanting syrup in bulk, James Williams recalled.
The word was they were Tennessee moonshiners.
One man drove up with a flatbed 18-wheeler and asked Zeb how much he wanted for his syrup. On learning the price was 35 cents a gallon, the man offered 50 cents instead.
“It was the most money we’d ever seen at one time,” James said.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Feeling like fall: September means better days ahead

September is a time for spiders — and spider lilies.
It’s a month for cool breezes on hot days.
Soft wildflowers and hard-hitting football.
Salty boiled peanuts and sweet Oriental persimmons.
Flickers of color in green woods.
Hummingbirds and butterflies, fall gardens and food plots.
September is not a perfect month. It’s hot and dry and love-buggy. But it plays a crucial role.
It’s the John the Baptist of months, ushering in the perfection of fall.
* * *
September woods are full of spiders.
If you go walking, break off a sweetgum limb to wave in front of you.
There are big black spiders with vivid yellow markings, big yellow spiders with vivid black markings, and strange little crab-like fellers with white blotches. All of them display more intricacy than anything created by human hands.
Cicadas hum louder and more rhythmically than they have all year. Spicebush and tiger swallowtail butterflies swarm blossoms, hunting nectar.
Love bugs thicken the air, gumming up windshields, grills and front bumpers.
Mosquitoes are scarce, thanks to dry conditions. But gnats are biting, and wood ticks still roam.
* * *
The beaver lake at Ethel Vance Natural Area has become a weed bed. Sandbars on local streams sprout grass where water used to lap. Bare orange clay rims pond edges.
Farmers take advantage of these conditions to bale hay. Gardeners sow tiny seeds of mustard, turnip and collard. Hunters disk up food plots when they’re not blasting away at doves or scouting for deer.
In the woods, black gum trees are the first species to flicker with yellow and orange, followed by sweet gum. Green cypress needles turn to rust.
But the color changes remain slight. Though fall arrived last week, this isn’t New England.
* * *
September is when naked ladies appear. That’s the slang term for spider lilies, so called because they lack leaves.
The slender green stalks appear in yards and sprout glorious coral-red flowers on top.
Roadsides and creek banks inkle with wildflowers, morning glories and goldenrod and purple asters.
Hummingbirds spear flowers as they get ready for the long migration south across the Gulf of Mexico.
Crops like muscadines and pawpaws have waned, but giant Oriental persimmons and jumbo green peanuts are coming in.
The persimmons dangle like soft orange baseballs, and when you bite into one the juice smears your chin with the taste of candied fall.
Boiled peanuts, a Deep South delicacy strangely unknown in other regions, yield to the teeth and melt on the tongue, salty and juicy. Once you’re addicted there’s just no stopping.
* * *
Football season might start in August, but it’s not until the cool breezes of September arrive that the fever really hits.
There’s probably no rational explanation for the ecstatic feeling that comes from the thought of sitting on uncomfortable bleachers while a bunch of young men in uniforms and plastic helmets dart back and forth after an inflated piece of pigskin.
But the joy is real, as real as the smell of popcorn and the fizz of cold cola, the whiff of a distant cigar, the drum rolls and blare of brass bands, the cheer of crowds, the chatter of friends.
* * *
September is not the best month, not in the Deep South anyway.
Afternoons still reach into the 90s. If mosquitoes don’t get you, biting gnats will.
You’re fooling yourself if you think it’s time to go camping.
But September is what it is.
It’s the transition from summer to fall. It’s a breath of relief after the relentless heat of August. It washes over us like cool water.
September reminds us that things aren’t as bad as we thought, and they’re going to get better.
Count on it.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Mississippi kayak trip illustrates issues facing streams

I didn’t get to make Thursday’s meeting of the Southwest Streams Association, but I did the next best thing — went floating with a couple of people who did.
We got to hash out river issues and see firsthand why they matter.
Association founder and Topisaw Creek landowner Drew Parker invited me to join him, Dale Hughes, and Patrick and Sheri Gibson, all of McComb, on a kayak trip from Brent Road to Leatherwood Road on the Topisaw.
Parker and Hughes had attended the meeting and would fill me in on the gist of it. And as it turned out, the float was a textbook illustration of some of the problems besetting our streams and why we should do everything we can to solve them.
The gravel bar under Brent bridge was churned with four-wheeler tracks and dotted with litter. Parker picked up everything except dirty diapers.
We launched our kayaks in the clear, inches-deep water and glided downstream. In short order Hughes, the only one fishing, pulled up a thrashing 1-pound bass. He admired it, showed it off and released it.
Elsewhere in the aquarium-clear water, schools of fish flitted through the shallows, from minnows to fat carp.
For most of our 41/2-mile, four-hour float, the Topisaw was lined with towering hardwoods — a textbook example of what landowners are supposed to do, namely leave a buffer zone to protect the banks. The big trees grip the soil, preventing erosion, and shade the stream, keeping it cool — the way fish need it to be.
In the few places that had been cleared to the water’s edge, the banks were collapsing.
Also in a few spots, landowners had dumped rubbish — appliances, tires, tin — down steep banks in vain attempts to halt erosion.
Birds filled the woods with music, including songbirds, pileated woodpeckers and hawks.
We interrupted a gang of black vultures feeding on the carcass of a fawn that had become entangled in a trotline and drowned — a good reminder that trotliners should remove their lines when they’re through fishing.
Litter overall was scarce. The main paddling season is over with, and this stretch of the Topisaw isn’t floated much anyway due to its shallowness.
I’m not a kayaker — I had to borrow the sit-on-top I was using — but I have to admit kayaks are ideal boats for the Topisaw. They’re lightweight, skim along in inches of water and are easy to maneuver.
They’re not ideal for my back, though. Next time I’ll use a canoe or borrow a pirogue.
As we approached the take-out, we saw a tuber rounding the bend and an empty beer can bobbing just behind him. Hughes paddled up to the guy and his pals.
“Hey,” the young man said. “Want a beer?”
“No, and I’d appreciate it if you didn’t throw yours in the water,” Hughes said.
“Oh, sorry, man,” the guy said.
I hope he meant it.
At the end of the float, we ate lunch in the shade, and Parker and Hughes summarized Thursday’s association meeting.
Nearly 30 people attended, discussing possible solutions to problems like litter and drunkenness. They batted around such ideas as outlawing alcohol, limiting public access to streams, charging inner tube user fees and banning disposable containers.
The group hopes to come up with some workable ideas to present to the Pike County Board of Supervisors.
Also at Thursday’s meeting, Bobby McGinnis of Tylertown spoke out against a proposed gravel mine on the Bogue Chitto River in Walthall County.
McGinnis said a number of Walthall citizens are concerned about the proposed mine, which would reportedly go in an old river channel off the Bogue Chitto.
Parker said the association can’t take a position against the mine if it meets Department of Environmental Quality guidelines, but individual members certainly can.
The DEQ plans to hold a public hearing on the issue at some point.
As I drove away after the float, the main thing that stuck out in my mind was the incredible beauty of the creek.
It’s just hard for me to comprehend that we have such God-given wonders in our area. At their best, our rivers are as beautiful as any scenery anywhere.
With trees so high you can strain your neck looking and water as clear as chablis, it’s easy to get drunk on our rivers without ever imbibing anything stronger than water.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Turning 50 time to reflect, reassess — and look goofy

One recent Saturday I was reminiscing with my wife Angelyn about my dear old dad. I could recall feeling embarrassed as a kid by his choice of weekend attire: an Oriental dragon shirt, plaid shorts, white socks and green canvas shoes, all set off by his graying goatee and bald head.
Dad was 50 at the time.
Then I glanced down at my own clothes: an oversize red Aztec-design T-shirt, faded camo trousers shrunk to the length of capri pants, rubber shoes with no socks when I went outside, all set off by my graying beard and thinning hair.
I turned 50 in December.
* * *
When Jesus, who was in his early 30s, said Abraham had foreseen His coming, the Pharisees responded sarcastically: “You are not yet 50 years old and you have seen Abraham!” according to John 8:57.
Interesting that they should choose 50 as a benchmark. Obviously it represents an age when youth is but a memory.
That’s why I dreaded my 50th birthday. You can still claim to be young in your 40s, but there’s just no way the word “young” can be attached to 50.
Youthful maybe. But not young.
* * *
I awaited my birthday nervously. Would I deflate like a balloon? Develop a hitch in my get-along?
As it turned out, none of the above. And as months passed, I began to feel a sense of relief.
Now was the time, I realized, to get rid of the deadwood in my life, identify the things that work and focus on them.
If you can’t do that at 50, when can you?
Start with freelance magazine writing. I’d been doing that for 30 years. It’s a lot of hassle with little return. Scrap it.
Book writing isn’t so bad, but let it chill for awhile, too.
Canoeing? I paddled for more than 25 years. Wrote two canoe guidebooks and a trip narrative.
The rivers are all starting to look alike. A float trip seems more trouble than it’s worth. I can get just as much outdoor pleasure on my own little patch of ground in Amite County.
* * *
Music is another story. I’ve played instruments since I was 13 but always kept it on the back burner. I performed at churches now and then but mainly at home.
It just so happens that I joined a bluegrass gospel group shortly after my 50th birthday. I love it. It’s an adventure; it taps into my creative spirit.
Picking a banjo seems to activate the same non-verbal part of my brain that paddling a canoe does, but with a lot less equipment.
* * *
The more I assessed my life, the lighter I felt. Turning 50, I discovered, is liberating. I now have the authority, the right, to dispense with things that are not worth my time.
Like hurrying. Let the 30- and 40-somethings do that, like I did at their age. I want to drive slowly — the speed limit, that is — while the young folks zip past, yakking on their cell phones, risking their lives to save two minutes.
I want to do a day’s work, come home, eat supper and relax. Sit back. Enjoy. Occasionally reminisce.
And maybe discover that I’m not all that different from my dear old dad.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Movie producers scout Mississippi swamp

I’ve often wondered what it would be like to be a professional canoe guide. I got a sample recently when I served as Swamp Guide to the Stars.
On Tuesday, June 13, I assisted Scott Williams of Jackson in leading some Hollywood movie producers into a Pascagoula swamp to scout possible filming locations.
Our clients were Gary Ross, Robin Bissell, Diana Alvarez and Phil Messina, all of California.
Ross wrote the screenplay for “Seabiscuit” and authored such movies as “Pleasantville” and “Big.” Bissell was likewise involved in “Seabiscuit” and “Pleasantville.”
Alvarez has worked on a long list of TV shows including “The Highlander” series and “The Practice.” Messina’s credits include “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Ocean’s Twelve.”
They contacted Mississippi canoe guide John Ruskey of Clarksdale a few months ago. Ruskey referred them to me, but I was busy the weekend they needed to visit, so I referred them to Scott.
Scott and Travis Easley of Terry’s Creek took Gary and associates on a preliminary scouting trip. Last week, Scott enlisted my aid — in particular, my canoes and pickup truck — for a swamp trip.
Scott had located some good backwaters off the Pascagoula River south of Lucedale. On Monday evening I loaded three canoes onto my truck — two on a roof rack, one in the bed — and at 6 a.m. Tuesday headed east to meet Scott at a convenience store near Hattiesburg.
Scott was standing outside his truck talking on a cell phone. “They’re running late,” he told me when he got off.
We had planned to meet our clients at 8:15 a.m. at Rose’s Barbecue on Highway 49 just south of Highway 98. That got pushed back to 9.
We drove to Rose’s and drank coffee. At 10 they showed up in a rented SUV. Diana apologized for being late.
We drove to the swamp an hour away. As we surveyed a picture-perfect cypress lake, Phil and Gary expressed doubts. This was too open. Did we have something thicker?
Scott, who had already checked out the area, told them it was thicker on the back side. So we launched the canoes, Scott and I fielding questions as we paddled.
“Do alligators live here?”
“Do they attack people in boats?”
“Not usually.”
At the end of the lake, I spotted a six-foot gator swimming, which prompted much excitement. It didn’t attack, though.
We landed and got out. Scott and I led the way, hacking through underbrush with machetes, our rubber boots sinking in the mud.
We found a fine stretch of dry swamp with cypress and tupelo gum. Cypress knees rose everywhere. Phil and Gary framed scenes with their fingers, snapped pictures with their digitals. Diana took photos of insects.
The irony of the scene struck me. In the past I have hired natives — Miskito Indians, New Guinea tribesmen — to lead me into the jungle. I recall Miskito guides, carrying machetes and wearing rubber boots, waiting patiently as I snapped pictures and marveled at the scenery.
Now I was the native.
Meanwhile, Gary and Phil discussed scenes they would film. Gary asked me not to reveal the topic since the project is in its early stages, but it sounds interesting.
As we returned to the boats, I pulled out my little banjo-mandolin, which I had brought along for ambience. Sitting in the back of a canoe, I picked “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” “Old Joe Clark,” “Lost Indian.”
I looked up to see the group listening appreciatively. Or maybe they were thinking about “Deliverance.”
Back at the truck, our clients whipped out their cell phones while Scott assembled the lunch they had requested: wheat bread, pita bread, hummus, turkey, roast beef, baby Swiss cheese, cheddar, Dijon mustard, lettuce, tomatoes, regular and salt-and-vinegar chips, carrots, celery, cucumber slices, Planter’s Deluxe Assorted Nuts, beef jerky, Diet Coke and bottled water — a bit fancier than my usual sardines and crackers.
We scouted more lakes. At 4 p.m. Gary declared the trip a success.
We shook hands all around and said we hoped to meet again soon. These folks had been fun to be with.
Then I began my long trip home, arriving at 8:30 p.m., 14 1/2 hours and 365 miles after I’d started.
As I unloaded my canoes and gear in the dusk, being a professional guide didn’t feel quite so glamorous.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Gas prices hard on pickup truck fans

Larry McDaniel was the first to notice. “You’re driving a car,” he said when I got out in the Enterprise-Journal parking lot. “You look like you’d be more natural in a Willys Jeep or your old pickup truck.”
One by one others wondered aloud why I — Mr. Outdoors Editor — was driving a sleek little Chevrolet Impala.
The answer is simple. Last time I filled up my pickup truck it cost me $78.
That’s $78 — $22 shy of $100. To fill up a vehicle.
I’m old enough to remember being surprised when gas reached 35 cents a gallon and shocked when it hit 50.
I’ve been driving pickup trucks almost since I was old enough to drive. As soon as I could buy my own vehicle, I purchased a 1967 Chevrolet pickup truck and rode it through two motors.
Then came a Ford Courier, Chevy, Toyota, Nissan, and I’m on my third Dodge. But after that last gas bill, I decided to park it, more or less.
It’s not that the truck — a 1997 long-wheel-base with 240,000 miles — get’s bad gas mileage. It gets 18 miles to the gallon. But I commute 60 miles round trip just to work, plus a lot of driving in addition — to the tune of 25,000 miles a year.
Since my wife Angelyn is retired (after 28 years of teaching school) and doesn’t drive as much anymore, the solution seemed simple. I’d take her Impala, which gets 28 mpg, to work and use the truck only occasionally.
So far it’s working. Sort of.
Problem is, I keep all sorts of important outdoor gear in my truck. Rubber boots stuffed upside down between the cab and the bed. Hiking boots shoved under the passenger seat. A can of mosquito repellent. A compass. An orange cap for deer season. A “Mississippi Atlas and Gazetteer.” Assorted tools.
It’s not practical to move this stuff back and forth, so I leave it in my truck. Which means when I’m in the car, I’m lacking vital outdoors equipment.
I feel like a cowboy who leaves his rope and his rifle in the barn when he’s riding the range.
Then there’s the ambience. The car is nimble, low to the ground, with a CD player. The truck has a vast turning radius, stands well off the pavement, and for music has just a radio. I like the simplicity.
I can’t imagine not owning a truck. How else can I haul canoes, camping equipment, compost, potted trees, lawn mower and furniture?
But I’m not complaining. The car is comfortable and saves money. I’m all for that.
Compact trucks are too small for me, and the new mid-sized trucks get about the same gas mileage as my full-size. With gas nudging $3 off and on since Hurricane Katrina, I don’t see a return to the good old days — for me anyway.
But I must be ahead of my time. Local car dealers say they haven’t seen any change in truck-buying habits.
“I sold a couple of four-wheel drives this morning. They didn’t think anything of it,” Bubber Johnson of Legacy Ford said Friday, though he has seen more people looking for used compact trucks.
“It’s amazing to me,” said Paige Howell of Howell Motors. “April was tremendous here. We had a great GMC truck and (Nissan) Titan truck month. I was shocked. Gas was higher in April, I think, than it is now.”
Both said truck lovers are just plain loyal to their vehicles, regardless of fuel costs.
I felt that way, too — until I reached the $78 mark. At that point my pocketbook trumped loyalty.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Writer tries hand with bluegrass gospel group

When I emerged from the sewing shop recently with a newly embroidered shirt, it finally felt official: I’m a member of Dogwood Cross.

The maroon golf shirt had the group’s emblem on one side and “Ernest” on the other. Wow!

Dogwood Cross is a bluegrass-gospel group based in the Dogwood Crossing community of Lincoln County, Miss. Now they have a banjo-player from Amite County.

I recognized as a young man that I have two talents: writing and music. In other words, those are two things I can do out of the many, many that I can’t.

I settled on writing as my vocation and played my music at home, in jam sessions and sometimes at church. And I was content with that.

But last December, Dogwood Cross member Keith Guy handed me the group’s CD. I was smitten and asked to practice with them. One thing led to another and I wound up a member.

The Bible tells us we are supposed to use the talents God gives us. It also tells us that to everything there is a season. This appears to be the season for me to use this talent.

My mainstay is the banjo, but I also dabble with other stringed instruments, like fiddle, guitar and banjo-mandolin. I take a relaxed approach to music, but our weekly rehearsals — which can go as long as four hours — are forcing me to get serious.

My fellow members are Thomas Bessonnette, who plays six- and 12-string guitar; Billy Gunther on banjo; Guy on mandolin, harmonica and fiddle; Tim Higginbotham on guitar, dobro and dulcimer (and his wife Wanda on the sound system); and Sam Moore on bass. A versatile bunch, obviously.

Unlike me, these guys are singers — fantastic singers at that. The combination of the vocals and the bluegrass instruments is what won me over.

Shortly after I joined, we played at the Southwest Mississippi Forestry Association annual banquet, then a benefit at Bogue Chitto Baptist Church and a concert at a church in Jackson.

We have gigs booked intermittently through February. I was relieved to learn the group rarely plays on Sunday mornings, since I like to attend my own church then.

Our schedule is complicated by the fact that Bessonnette works offshore, so roughly half the year is off-limits. I like that, too; I don’t want to be running all over the country every weekend.

I admit to having had trepidations shortly after I joined. What was I getting myself into?

There would be weekly practice sessions at Pleasant Hill Baptist Church, which is nearly an hour from my house and would mean getting home late on a work night. There would be concerts on Saturdays and Sundays when I’m used to working in my garden or taking some much-needed rest in the hammock.

But those fears quickly dissipated as I found myself eagerly looking forward to each get-together with the group. Playing with Dogwood Cross is a joy, not a chore.

Members are already talking about recording another CD this year, and we’re working on new material.

Music can be a ministry. How many times has it soothed your soul when you felt tormented? Turned your thoughts toward God and heaven? Helped you feel the “peace that passes understanding?”

Music pervades the Bible, especially the Psalms, so there’s no doubt that it can be ordained of God. I’m just glad to have a hand in it now, however small.