Saturday, June 14, 2008

Other animals have always fascinated Abner, and since we moved here, he has had a number of interesting encounters. This week, though, brought about some new experiences for him and me.

To begin with, the Cicadas have arrived. I have learned, in the last couple weeks, that these winged insects, some of which appear, based upon size, to have been built by Cessna, live in the ground for years on end in a larval state, encased in translucent tan shells. Once every 17 years they dig their way out of their nests, awkwardly shed their shells, and begin the short flight up into trees nearby. Their initial experiments with movement seem to be pretty ungainly and very slow. It is amazing that the birds don’t just devour them wholesale during this short time above ground, but they must have some natural defense, because there appear to be millions of them. They are highly localized though. Regie and I were walking the dogs a couple weeks ago about two blocks from her house when we came upon a shrub and tree that were beginning to be visited by hundreds or perhaps thousands of these behemoths. We saw some just struggling out of the ground. . .others that were in the middle of shedding the shell, and still others experimenting with flight. It was amazing. The dogs didn’t pay any attention.

Last week though, they started to sing, or chant, or do whatever the hell it is they do in unison that makes so much noise. It is an amazing thing to hear. It is a sound like no other with which I am familiar, and it really got Abner’s attention. We went for a walk at Biltmore and parked the car by the Bass Pond. Crossing the bridge over the dam, we heard an eerie high-pitched whining sound that had no rhythm or breaks in it. It almost sounded like some kind of machine operating at high rpms. As we crossed over the bridge, there were three Biltmore landscape employees who were watching a pair of Canada geese teaching their new gosling how to paddle around the pond and probably how to catch and eat his food. I stopped and asked what the sound was since I had never heard anything like it. Cicadas, they said.

As we progressed further on our walk, we found ourselves walking up the hill toward the Deer Park Trail that follows a ridge above the Bass Pond and the Azalea Garden. Initially, as we left the Bass Pond, the sound got quieter and more distant, but then as we approached the gate in the deer fence, it got much louder. Eventually we were under a tree in which the Cicadas had chosen to swarm and sing. It was so loud and so weird that Abner was looking all over the place for what could possibly be the source of the bizarre noise. The bugs were quite thick in the area immediately beneath the tree of choice and while most were invisibly up in the branches and leaves, probably a hundred or so stragglers were hovering around, landing and taking off, below. One landed on Abner’s back and one very cleverly landed on the gusseted pocket of my cargo shorts in the perfect position for me to photograph him head on. The results will accompany this post.

The amazing thing is that as soon as we started toward the house and away from the tree in which they had located, the noise of the Cicadas began to diminish and by the time we went through the gate into the ramble just below the bowling green, we could no longer hear them at all. Strange critters. I am not sure what their purpose is. It seems like they spend only a couple of weeks above ground once every 17 years and during that time, do little besides making the loud whirring sound.

A couple of nights ago, Abner had an up close and personal encounter with an entirely different kind of animal, but one that doesn’t happen all that often. We were out for our evening stroll around downtown and had gone a little early so it was still pretty light. We walked down Lexington a few blocks and then turned up Hiawassee. This route takes us past the loading docks and backsides of the Asheville Civic Center where, unbeknownst to me, the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus was finishing up their visit here. There were enormous vans parked hither and yon loading up all kinds of apparatus, but before we got up to the corner that would bring us to Haywood Street, we encountered a large van with its side doors open. Inside was an elephant that was just lazing about waiting for something to happen. I guess as elephants go, this wasn’t a particularly gigantic one, but when we walked by, and Abner was sniffing about the floor level of the elephant’s van, the big guy moved his trunk right over to the side and blew a big load of straw and dust that was on the floor of his space, out the opening and right into our faces. Abner was completely flabbergasted. He wanted to stay and investigate and started doing play bows toward this big beast, but I decided that it probably wasn’t the best idea to hang out there. I have read enough stories about seemingly tame circus elephants rampaging through villages and stomping the inhabitants to death that I decided it was time to move on.

Amy called the other night to tell me that she and Matt were headed downtown with Bear for an evening stroll and wondered if we could join them. It was less than a half hour after I had returned from a walk with Abner, so I invited them up for a cold beverage instead. When they got here, somewhat dehydrated from their walk, everyone had a drink. We then sat down to do some long range planning for a trip they want to take to California next year. By the time we were done with that and a few glasses of wine, it was late enough and mild enough that Abner and I joined them for a short walk around one of our loops as Amy, Matt and Bear headed home. When we were about a block and a half from my place, having just crossed Lexington on College, some strange guy came running up to us (actually just in front of us) and from a little reed basket he was carrying, he began to spread rose petals on the sidewalk in front of us. It was one of those very odd Asheville moments during which you remember the bumper sticker that one sees from time to time here that reads “Keep Asheville Weird”.

Today Abner and I went out early to get a decent walk in before the heat became overwhelming. I believe the lyrics to an old song are “We’re havin’ a heat wave. . .a tropical heat wave” and so on. Well, we’re havin one. Today is the third straight day to top 90 and there is no end in sight. The forecasters are saying that it should exceed 90 for at least two more days and then it may drop into the high 80s. Consequently, I drove to Biltmore this morning thinking that we would do an hour and a half and get back before things were too hot. I pulled onto the estate grounds at about 9:05 only to find myself in a long line of cars waiting to get in. It took almost 20 minutes just to get to the guard shack where Abner got his treat and I was waved through because they have scanned my card so many times that the ink is almost worn off. We headed to the Bass Pond post haste and from there, walked up the hill north of the pone to get to the Deerpark trail and eventually up to the house. On a hot day like today, this is the preferred direction since the greatest sun exposure is on the ridge leading up to the house. Once you are inside the deer fence, it gets pretty shady again, but there is a lot of exposure from above the pond to that point. As it happens, there is a row of trees leading up to the gate through which we must pass in order to continue to the house, and in this row, there is one particular maple (I think) that appears to be a very popular spot for the cicadas. They are hovering and dive-bombing all over the place and the sound of thousands of them making their whirring noise is almost deafening. We have walked this way twice before since the cicadas started, so I was prepared for the noise of the multitude of them. What I wasn’t prepared for was one.

As we approached the tree, apparently one had landed either on my back or on the strap from which Abner’s canteen hangs around my neck, but in either case, it was very close to my ears. All of a sudden, I heard a bizarre loud noise that almost sounded like it was coming from inside my skull. I was either having a cerebral hemorrhage or else a single cicada had decided to begin its chant directly behind my ear. Let me tell you, there is a considerable difference in the sound of a single one vs. thousands whirring simultaneously. When they all chant together it comes across as a single high-pitched note. When a single one lets loose, it has all kinds of high and low tones in its execution and is particularly impressive when the point of origin is inches from your ear.

I batted around a bit and I guess I knocked it off because I was only treated to one sound. Abner looked at me as if I had made the noise and he wanted to know what it meant. . .either that or the look could have been construed as wonderment at my suddenly sounding like a Martian. We both survived the jolt but I am glad it didn’t happen around a lot of people. My flailing to dislodge a bug the size of a Cessna could have been pretty amusing to onlookers.

I am beginning to appreciate the love/hate relationship between towns with a tourism based economy and tourists. I have read plenty of statistics about the number of visitors Asheville gets in a year and have known for years that the tourists outnumber the locals by 50 to 1, but that is all just a statistic unless you live where the tourists throng. The concentrations seem to be around Biltmore and Biltmore Village, and downtown. Over the years I have learned how to deal with hundreds of people coming up to me at the estate with questions about Abner, and who we are. . .whether or not we live on the estate, whether I am Mr. Cecil or just some hired dog walker, and so on. When the prediction from the security people at Biltmore is for more than 4,000 people on any given day, I know to avoid the house, if not the estate altogether. I have also learned my way around the property well enough that I know places I can walk without encountering anyone, even on a busy day.

Downtown is different. I have been here for 3 months now and the change has been dramatic. When we moved in it was mid March and the town was comparatively quiet. Slowly as the weather warmed up and trees and flowers began to bloom, more people began arriving, but the increasing impact on Abner and me was gradual. Well, by the end of May, there was nothing subtle about it. Most nights, if the weather is at all decent, downtown can be a pretty jumping place. I have no choice but to walk Abner. He needs to get out both for exercise and stimulation, and to pee and poo. I have gotten almost to the point on the evening walks where I am dreading them. There really are no quiet corners of downtown in which to walk him. We live right smack in the middle of things, so even just to get to a more fringe part of the central business district, I have to cross through some very heavily visited areas. Now that school is out, the sidewalks in these areas are clogged with people. Most are very nice although sometimes it does get a little tiresome answering the same questions about Abner 3 or 4 times in a single block. I have gotten to the point where I can no longer even force a smile when I hear another crack about whether or not I have a saddle for him, or that they didn’t know you were allowed to walk a polar bear in Asheville. I have also noticed a huge upswing in the number of smokers. Many are very nice about my not letting them pet Abner due to the smell that rubbing their hands on his coat will leave. Some are a little stunned that that habit is objectionable enough to someone that they wouldn’t let them close to their dog, but most handle it just fine.

On Wednesday though, we had a pretty unpleasant experience. A young man was walking up Biltmore Avenue with two attractive young women. I am terrible with ages but I would guess that they were all early to mid-20s. All three had lit cigarettes in hand and the stench was perceivable long before they got close. When they did get close, one of the women asked if she could pet Abner. My standard response is that “I’d prefer that you don’t” and then I think them for asking first. Well, the guy with these two got pretty bent out of shape about it. “Well thank you asshole” he muttered back to me as we passed each other on the sidewalk. I probably should have let it go. He probably was drunk or one of those people who just walks around life angry, but it really pissed me off. So I turned around and walked back to them and explained to them that I don’t let smokers pet him because of the smell of burned tobacco that is left on his coat and ends up in my apartment if I do. At that point, he starts waving his cigarette around and tells me that he isn’t a smoker. . .that he is only going to smoke the cigarette down to a point about an 1-1/4 inches from the filter. . . like that makes him a non-smoker when it comes to the odor. The two women were already starting to walk away and it was clear that this guy was angry that he and his friends had been rejected, so I gave up and started back down Biltmore Avenue with Abner. Once we were about 75 or 80 feet away I heard him bellow some unintelligible remark, and that was the last of it. I chose an alternate route home.

I hadn’t anticipated the smoking issue becoming so big but I guess there still are a hell of a lot of smokers around and since they aren’t allowed to smoke in most indoor settings, once on the sidewalks and streets, it is incessant. There is very little litter in downtown Asheville if you don’t count the cigarette butts, but they are like a plague. I cannot imagine what goes through the head of a smoker that they think it is OK to just fling these butts everywhere when they are finished, but that is what most of them do. The planter beds, sidewalks, gutters, cross walks and streets of downtown are positively filled with the detritus of these people’s habits. Some of the worst areas are the spots just outside the doors of popular spots like the Z Lounge and Barley’s Taproom. Customers and employees congregate in small areas near entrances and smoke and chat before going back inside to finish whatever they had been doing. Consequently the areas just outside are not only tobacco zone gauntlets that I feel like Abner and I are running when we try to get through as quickly as possible, but even when no one is there, the hundreds of butts that are left stink and look gross. Americans, as a rule, learned to stop littering years ago. I cannot understand why cigarettes are exempted.

The weather here has been very hot for a couple weeks now. We broke a record by having 7 straight days of 90+-degree weather here but that really doesn’t tell it all. Even on the days that aren’t in the 90s, it has not been comfortable. Normals for this time of year should be in the mid to high 70s and even when we aren’t in the 90s we have yet to have a 70something day in June. If this is what late spring is going to be like, I cannot imagine what August has in store. Of course, I won’t be here to deal with it, but I feel for the folks who will. Asheville is supposed to be a respite from the heat that people suffer in other parts of the south.

The plan for our road trip is emerging now. It looks like we will hit the road on the morning of July 25th. It is my understanding that Bele Chere starts later that day so it isn’t a good time to be downtown. The building in which I live is actually in the part of downtown that is closed to vehicular traffic so I am not certain how we are supposed to get in the night before I leave, or out that morning. With more and more people living downtown, this is going to become a bigger problem every year. Furthermore, there is a prohibition on pets and the festival. I am avoiding dealing with it this year by getting out early, but in general, I don’t know what downtown residents with dogs are supposed to do for three days. Not being a fan of crowds, this festival has never drawn my interest in the past but it also never really impacted me when I lived in Kenilworth. Leaving town for Bele Chere weekend may end up being an annual event for me.

My brother’s eldest daughter Amanda, and her boyfriend Tom were here for a brief visit starting late in May. Tom has a close friend from undergraduate days who lives here with his girlfriend and Amanda and he came to visit them, but I was sort of the side act. Having not seen Amanda in many years, it was a real treat even having that brief time with her and Tom. We did pretty standard Asheville stuff although the visit did include a trip to my property in N. Asheville. Who knows if I will ever get to build on the land, but at least if I do, Amanda will be able to visualize where it is when I bore all of you with stories of the project. We had a nice dinner at Rezaz together before they headed off to the Westville Pub to reconnect with their friends. Short visit but a sweet one. When your nieces and nephews are in their mid and late 20s, spending time with aunts and uncles isn’t necessarily that high on the with list, so I was happy to get a half day.

So now Abner and I have settled into our early summer pattern of early and late walks to avoid the hot sunny parts of the day, and pretty quiet times the rest of the day. We see less of our dog walking friends and I find myself missing seeing the regulars who work at Biltmore and the Arboretum, but that’s just the way it is. Even though we are still almost 7 weeks away from leaving on our trip, I am in the countdown mode. My sister Jan and her husband are coming for a visit the weekend before Abner and I leave, but aside from that, I have almost nothing planned for the time between now and departure.

One funny thing that is happening in the condo merits comment I think. I park on the upper level of the parking garage and much of the south and east facing walls are open above a parapet. We are plagued with birds that fly into the garage and perch on the myriad of exposed pipes of every shape and size that are suspended from the slab above. The homeowners’ association executive committee is allegedly looking into ways of dealing with this plague that has resulted in more bird shit on my car than if I were parking outside under a tree. Meanwhile, though, there initial attempt at keeping the birds out was to purchase a couple ceramic owls that perch on the tops of the parapet walls. They obviously have accomplished absolutely nothing other than to possibly amuse the birds that are making the garage their home. Yesterday though, when I came back from an errand, I was tempted to get out my camera. There was a pigeon sitting on the parapet about 18 inches from one of the owls. They looked like a couple old friends sharing a little chat on a park bench. The fake owls certainly don’t do much to discourage the real birds. I guess the only real question now is whether or not they are actually attracting them.

I guess that’s it for this month. There’s always more to come.
For reasons he hasn't explained to me, Abner is very enamored of the boathouse at the Bass Pond and insists on stopping there on walks that bring us nearby. He literally pulls me over there, usually stopping to lie down in the ivy across the path. Sometimes I wish I could communicate better with him to figure out the motivation for excursions like this one.
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Thank God there are wooded trails like the one above for us to hike on these sultry southern June days. You can almost feel the heat in the photo above. Below is a shot I took of the Bass Pond early one morning when it was amazingly still and surrounding greenery looking particularly lush.

The approach to the house from the south if you come up the Ambler's trail is quite serene in the mornings, and the shade is welcome. Below is a family of Canada geese cruising the Bass Pond early on a hazy hot morning.
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My fascination with the cicadas is unique in my experience. When I was little, if a bug this big, not to mentiond strange looking, landed on my pocket, I would probably have flailed hysterically to get it off. Now if it happens, I reach for my camera, hoping it won't move until I can get my shot. Below are my niece Amanda and her bf Tom.

There are a whole lot of these Canada goose families marching around this year. Goslings are in varying states of maturity and coloring.
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When we are at home, and the weather isn't too hot for him, Abner loves to lie on the balcony and gaze at the world below through the slots in the parapet. Below is a shot of Ken Etterman and me resting with the dogs at the halfway point of a hike along the Laurel River Gorge.

These butterflies come back every year and are very prolific around here. I still don't know what kind they are, but they are more cooperative than most when it comes to sitting for a portrait. The Canada geese have all had babies now and you can see the pairs swimming or walking around with the surviving goslings. Families with up to 5 goslings are everywhere at Biltmore this month. The young ones are still pretty awkward on land, but are pretty graceful once they are in the water. The more mature goslings are starting to look like they have feathers to replace their fuzz.
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Flowers and bugs have never held such a fascination for me in the past as they do now. This daisy in the meadow below the Inn on Biltmore Estate had a critter stopping for some nourishment. Below is one of these amazing cicadas.

On a fairly warm afternoon Abner and I stopped on our walk at a grassy spot on the side of the French Broad River for a rest. Abner and I both watched some Canada geese out in the middle of the river on small rock outcroppings dealing with the heat of the day.
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