Mountaintop Removal

“Remember to remove the I Love Mountains bumper sticker before heading into coal country.” That was advice I gave myself before touring counties where mountaintops are being “removed” by open mining in the heart of Appalachia. I wasn’t a declared environmental activist, and didn’t want to be recognized as someone coming to antagonize the friends of coal.ILoveMountains

In youth 500 million years ago, the Appalachian Mountains were lofty and pointy like the Alps, and have slowly eroded into the smooth domes some 3,000 to 5,000 feet high we see today. But forty years of mining has scooped hundreds of feet off the tops of 500 mountains in eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, and Tennessee (in that order).

Near Rawl, WV. By permission of Appalachian Voices. Photo credit: Kent Kessinger
Near Rawl, WV. By permission of Appalachian Voices. Photo credit: Kent Kessinger

As I drove to West Virginia I knew something about of this kind of mining. I had read about its impact on community health (cancer and birth defects), headwater pollution by mine tailings, and coal trucks dashing around quiet country roads. Topping a mountain exposes coal seams that are otherwise hard to reach, and it avoids the hazards of explosions inside deep mines—memories of the Sago Mine in 2006 and the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster in 2010 are still raw. It is an economical and highly profitable industry that employs fewer miners, and most profits go out of state. No change there.

I was drawn to coal country by the question of what happens to mountains after mining operations cease. If a permit requires the land to be returned to nature or improved for “economic benefit,” how effective are the actions and do companies drag their feet? The claims of the mining industry versus environmental activists (the NRDC and Appalachian Voices, for example) made me wonder if they were describing the same thing. Were the flattened tops being converted into golf courses and happy hunting grounds for local people to enjoy, or was the mining legacy sterile rock and toxic pools of impounded sludge from washed coal? My curiosity demanded satisfaction.

I visited two mines that are no longer active and are therefore ripe for reclamation. I had to imagine their recent history. Before mining could start, the trees were felled and carted away as lumber or burnt. Then the topsoil was pushed aside, perhaps to be returned but maybe discarded and a substitute used later on. Then the blasting began. Mountains up and down the valley would have echoed to explosions, as if in anguish at losing an old neighbor. The rubble of rock and subsoil, called “overburden” (a derisory name for the wonderful complexity of geological history), was pushed aside to expose a coal seam, and after the black gold was scooped out blasting resumed until the deepest seam was exposed. The overburden was dumped in pits from the last operation, or if they were unavailable it was pushed over the side of a ridge into a valley (“holler fill”) where it smothered headwaters and poisoned living things with heavy metals.

I was glad I hadn’t been a witness to that despoliation, and hoped to see mountaintops long past their surgery days and now reaching advanced stages of convalescence. Perhaps they would be beautiful, verdant, and harboring wildlife again. My destination was Nicholas County, WV, where I chose two mines that overlook the tiny hamlets of Hookersville and Muddlety (I kid you not!).

My topographic map didn’t show a route up the mountain at Hookersville, so I hailed an old man sitting on his tractor. A friendly soul, he apologized for forgetting to put his teeth in that morning and pointed to the low mountain across the country road. An ugly cell phone tower now stands on its top, supposedly representing the economic gain left by the departing coal firm. I expected to see the mountainside still scraped down to bare rock, like the face of a miniature El Capitan, but it was completely green.

“Finished takin’ out coal ‘bout twelve yarr ago,” the man told me. “Lots o’ deer, turkey, an’ barr now.” This news exceeded my wildest dreams.

His directions led me to a rutted track winding up the mountainside. I had to climb through a hole in the fence as the gate was barred. During my ascent, I did indeed see a couple of deer and a turkey, as well as goldenrod and asters flowering beside the track, and at least four species of butterflies. I was flummoxed by strong signs of nature rallying, especially when I found vegetation was covering the top.

Mountaintop "reclaimed." Near Hookersville, WV
Mountaintop “reclaimed.” Near Hookersville, WV

Had I immediately turned back I might have come home with a different impression, but I stopped awhile to look around. It was then that I realized the growth was unlike any secondary succession you expect when a patch of forest is clear-felled or burned. There was no riot of blackberry bushes, no understory trees like sassafras and American hornbeam sprouting up before the oaks, beech, and other canopy trees take over. And there was only one kind of shrub, and it was crowding out other plants, invading the last grassy space, and shading native plants and saplings as they struggled for light. This mountaintop had nothing like its original biodiversity, and was as uniform as a field of corn. The shrub was autumn olive, an invasive, alien species planted because it is tolerant of poor soil. It is regarded as a pest in other places, and hard to eradicate. It offers berries for birds to eat at this season, but the waxy leaves are unattractive to grazing animals.

My first impression of greenness had duped me into believing that a mountain that had taken millennia to mature was returning to its natural state within a few years. How foolish. How could it recover completely after losing its native soil and pristine drainage? I took a final photograph of the “hollow” below, wondering if its residents were too easily satisfied by the appearance of their mountain, green and silent again.

Bluffs of Muddlety
Bluffs of Muddlety

Seven miles away, Muddlety was a sparsely-populated ribbon of homes along highway 55 in a pretty valley. Mining operations ceased only three years ago, and where the mountain ridge came within a half mile of the road orange bluffs were visible where trees once stood.

As the mine entrance was open, I parked close by to wander up the dusty track, past boards announcing mining permits, blast warnings, and keep-out signs. A few hundred yards inside, I saw a guard house like a pill box with a single window, and as I drew close a guard sauntered over. He looked more surprised than surly, and probably hadn’t seen a visitor all day (or all year).

In settings where visitors might not be welcome I count on an English accent to put people off guard. Didn’t I look like a lost tourist? Doesn’t an “open mine” mean public access? And when a naïve manner fails, I guarantee that faked eccentricity will succeed.

Despite his suspicious eye, he gently told me I couldn’t go any further. Why not? Wasn’t it safe now, because blasting had ceased? I tried to engage a conversation by telling him that former industrial land in England was being reclaimed, and I was wondering how it was done here. When he replied only by lighting a cigarette, I decided not to press any more questions, and resisted the cheeky temptation of asking if he’d read John Grisham’s recent novel, Gray Mountain, about the chicanery of a coal company. I didn’t need his permission, because I knew I could hop over the fence down the road, perhaps with the landowner’s permission.

A middle-aged couple working in their yard directed me to a wee home across the road where I knocked on the door of a very old lady. I must have been too successful in putting her mind at ease because she kept me standing on her doorstep as she regaled me with a long life story before asking why I was there. Can I cross your land for a better view of the mountain, I asked? Of course, she answered, it’s barely a 15 minute walk.

She pointed to a distant ridge where the mining company had started replanting trees. Didn’t it look marvelous? I nodded, but was imagining another monoculture of autumn olive.  She told me the company used to come round to check that blasting hadn’t damaged her home, and when her neighbor’s stream was polluted from mine tailings they had dug a well for them. How very kind of them.

I struggled up her path for nearly an hour, all the while wondering what metal 90 year old ladies in the valley were made of. Dense thickets stood in my way of the summit, so I photographed some bluffs through gaps between trees. The hike was, however, worthwhile because I found a stream where I collected samples for testing water quality.

I had hoped to see more on the trip, much more, and wanted to know what local people really thought about the extraction industry banging around their hills, but I had seen enough to realize that claims of mountaintop “reclamation” are fabrications.  They may become green again, but are never the same and are biologically impoverished. It’s time to display that bumper sticker again.

Next Post: Tom’s Cabin

In a Nutshell

Chestnuts from Italy

“This chestnut orchard (or forest as one may call it) spread along the mountainside as far as the eye could see. The expanse of broad-topped, fruitful trees was interspersed with a string of villages of stone houses. The villages were connected by a good road that wound horizontally in and out along the projections and coves of the mountainside. These grafted chestnut orchards produced an annual crop of food for men, horses, cows, pigs, sheep, and goats, and a by-crop of wood. Thus for centuries trees had supported the families that lived in the Corsican villages. The mountainside was uneroded, intact, and capable of continuing indefinitely its support for the generations of men.” J. Russell Smith. Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture, 1929

When Russell Smith rode through Corsica in the 1920s he saw chestnut trees growing on stony mountain slopes where most other crops could never grow. The land didn’t need irrigating or fertilizing or plowing, and hardly required attention from the villagers before harvesting the tasty, nutritious nuts in September. Chestnuts were called “the food of laziness.” They were a staple in the local diet, versatile ingredients of many recipes, and could be milled to make flour, although chestnut bread cannot rise without gluten. The trees provided a surplus for hogs to eat, imparting a delicious “woody” flavor to the meat, and the logs made sturdy furniture and house sidings and fence posts that wouldn’t rot.

His visit nearly a century ago left a deep impression on him. A single species of nut tree had helped to sustain the Corsicans in their mountain fastness since the Roman Empire, whereas in another rugged terrain in Appalachia he knew farmers struggling on land that soon became impoverished. They had cleared the old forest to grow corn and other annual crops, but after the harvest there was little ground cover for holding back the topsoil from washing downhill into the creeks towards the ocean. Russell Smith thought they were bound to fail because “farming should fit the land”.

Farmhouse north of Dalhart, TX 1938. Dorothea Lange. Library of Congress.

He published Tree Crops the year of the Wall Street crash. It was the last of a series of wet years in the Midwest before a drought visited the Great Plains of America for years, and the Great Depression spread across the country. The prairies had been a stable biome for eons because the topsoil was anchored by prairie grasses and fertilized by bison and other grazers. But like the mountain men, prairie farmers were cultivating land as their ancestors had in Europe where agricultural practices had evolved over centuries in a gentler climate. After plowing deeply for planting and leaving the ground bare in winter after gathering the cereal and cotton crops the dry topsoil blew away in great swirling clouds, some of the dust settling as far away as New York. The Dustbowl gave new meaning to a pejorative label, “dirt poor farmers,” and the calamity forced Oakies like the Joads and many others in neighboring states to abandon Grapes of Wrath country. After departing west along Route 66 with all their possessions and hopes loaded in a caravan of old trucks, the farm gates were still swinging in the wind when modern agribusiness took over.

1939 edition

Perhaps erosion of rich soil and the accompanying human suffering were avoidable. Russell Smith believed it was folly to grow annual crops incessantly on land that was exposed to the elements.  The Corsicans had hit on an answer that he called “permanent agriculture” (or “permaculture”). It was unrealistic and unnecessary to abandon annual crops, but there was an enormous unrealized potential for expanding productive orchards and planting rows of trees to protect fields; besides, some nut trees thrive on ground that is too rocky or steep or prone to flooding for cultivating annuals. Nut trees can be harvested every year without replanting, and don’t need concentrated fertilizers or soil tilling or watering from aquifers. Trees can stabilize soil structure and improve its nitrogen content, as well as provide perennial wildlife shelters and absorb huge volumes of carbon dioxide. Admittedly, some trees produce a superabundant harvest in mast years followed by a series of lean years, which is commercially undesirable. But this problem was not insuperable, and two of his friends at the forefront of horticulture technology, Robert Morris and William Deming, were already creating cultivars for cropping more consistently.

Today there is a large range of cultivars of nut and fruit trees—almonds, walnuts, pecans, pistachios, apples, pears, cherries, nectarines, etc., but if Russell Smith came back he would be sad to see we are even more dependent now on annual crops—mainly corn, wheat and soybeans—and only a few high-yielding varieties of each. He would fear that a small number of annual crops is a precarious food supply. Many agronomists in his day thought that food production would not keep up with the world’s population, which the English actuary Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) predicted would lead to catastrophe. They did not live to see the Green Revolution led by Norman Borlaug in the 1960s which, through efficient irrigation and application of pesticides and fertilizers, as well as new varieties of cereal and other crops, could keep the world fed ahead of its numbers.

Cereals are now a smaller fraction of the American household budget than at any time in  history, and form a larger portion of the diet. According to the World Food Programme, hunger kills more people in the world than the three major infectious diseases combined, but the statistics are improving. And although US farmers always have worries, government subsidies have supported their commodity prices and crop insurance to the tune of nearly $300 bn from 1995-2010 (family farms receive little benefit). Our society seems to have little reason to consider large-scale changes to agronomy while people are well-fed and we are sheltered from the draught of the real price of growing food and the environmental costs of modern agriculture, which will be paid by future generations. Tree crops have little of the economic or political gravitas of cereals, and advocates can be regarded as nuts, except in the state that has them in order—California.

Seen from the air, almond orchards in the Central Valley stretch from horizon to horizon in rows of trees so straight they look like lines of longitude. California produces 80% of the world’s crop of shelled almonds, amounting to 2 billion pounds this year with a gross value of $2.8 bn. As the state’s top agricultural export, almonds are a huge success story, but the industry follows the same philosophy that created great oceans of cereals in the Midwest—monocultures on land purged of other life forms. This is not how permanent agriculture was envisioned by pioneer thinkers, nor its modern advocates like Philip Rutter in Minnesota and Peter Kahn at Rutgers University. Besides, the industry is facing challenges.

Unlike wind-pollinated grain crops, almond trees need insects for their flowers to set seed. Early in the year commercial beekeepers from all over the country transport a million beehives to the Valley for the largest controlled pollination program in the world. But their services have been seriously undermined by colony collapse disorder. Plant scientists have responded by making hybrid almond trees that are self-pollinating, hoping to maintain the size and quality of the harvest. In parts of China where bees are in even shorter supply, orchard workers pollinate trees by hand using brushes and swabs, which would be uneconomic here. Maybe drones will be recruited in future. I don’t mean the lazy male bees whose raison d’être is sex with the queen, but something like the hummingbird drones said to be in production for the Pentagon! Much as I admire feats of engineering, I wonder if ascent up a technological spiral in which fixes are regularly needed to repair fixes below is the only answer. Some farmers have always set aside portions of land to grow perennials to protect ground crops, which provides food for bees the year round so they don’t have to be moved after a single flowering crop, and are less likely to be exposed to diseases, parasites, and pesticides from traveling around the country.

There were still plenty of honey bees when Russell Smith and his friends proposed permanent agriculture, but they were not blind to problems that tree crops face. Four billion wonderfully productive American chestnut trees died off in the early decades of the century from an Asian blight and ink disease was felling chestnuts across Europe, and eventually Corsica. Since then, so many other trees have succumbed to disease. The trio were not dreamers and their scientific outlook turned their heads to plant breeding technology for creating resistant varieties, which was in its infancy then. The technology progresses slowly because hybrid trees cannot be tested for resistance to a disease for several years, which transgenic technology promises to accelerate.

Not all nuts are nuts in a strict botanical sense. Almonds are drupes and peanuts are legumes, but they have honorary nut status here as edible seeds. As reproductive parts of plants, they are uncommonly nutritious, and somewhat equivalent in food value to eggs in animals.

One day chestnuts will be abundant again, though not in my lifetime. At this time of year we used to buy expensive bags of chestnuts from street vendors who you can still see inthe streets of London and New York. Sometimes we took them home to cook on our own coals, like the Nat King Cole song. But they were only for the festive season, and when we ate them we never enjoyed a warm thought of being nourished. Nowadays, however, nuts are regarded as an almost perfect food and are key ingredients in the renowned Mediterranean diet.

Nuts are rich in proteins containing essential amino acids, and good sources of antioxidants, fiber, and micronutrients. They contain beneficial minerals (iron, magnesium, zinc, etc.) and vitamins: vitamin A (butternuts, chestnuts, pistachios, hickory nuts), vitamin C (chestnuts), vitamin E (almonds), vitamin K (cashew nuts, pine nuts) and folate (ginkgo nuts, peanuts).  None of them contain gluten, which is welcome news for people with celiac disease and the much larger number whose sensitivity  causes a broad spectrum of symptoms. Chestnuts contain the most carbohydrates, but have a low glycemic index. Acorns are rich in carbohydrates too, and if the bitter tannins are first extracted from acorns of some species of oak trees they are edible (I’m told).Not all nuts are nuts in a strict botanical sense. Almonds are drupes and peanuts are legumes, but they have honorary status here as edible seeds. As reproductive parts of plants, they are uncommonly nutritious, and somewhat equivalent in food value to eggs in animals.

Nut nutrition
Nuts & Nutrition

Most nuts have a lot of fats, which used to sound bad but now chimes with a vogue for low-carb diets. Consequently, they have more energy for the same weight than grain cereals, and are a more sustaining. Nuts don’t contain cholesterol (nor trans fats, of course), but being loaded with mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs,PUFAs) they are healthy for the heart and circulation, and beneficial for the brain (a very fatty organ). Large scale studies in America and Britain have shown that people who eat nuts regularly live longer and healthier lives. That doesn’t necessarily mean they were directly responsible for better health because dietary studies rarely have the scientific rigor of drug trials, though plausibly a food that has probably been consumed almost forever is more beneficial than grains that we have only eaten in quantity for a few thousand years. There is always a caveat in biology. Nut allergies affect 1% of us, but, generally speaking, there are so many good reasons for going against the grain and nibbling more nuts. They are so much more tasty than Wonder Bread, but unfortunately more expensive.

When Russell Smith visited Corsica chestnuts were cheap, and chestnut flour was regarded as poor man’s food. Finding wheat flour in a kitchen was then a sign of prosperity.  Likewise, before the blight, American chestnut trees littered the autumnal forest floor with a green carpet of pregnant burrs. You could gather for free as many nuts as you could carry, but most were left to rot. Today at a well-known online retailer, chestnuts, almonds, and walnuts are being sold at around $10 a pound. Hazelnuts and macadamia nuts cost more, and only peanuts are relatively cheap at a third of true nuts. But the equivalent weight of wheat flour or corn meal is barely $1.00. We rarely value things while they are common, and commodities that were cheap can become luxuries when they become rare. Perhaps now that we realize nuts are valuable in so many ways we will take a closer look at permanent agriculture.

Next Post: Pine Barrens

Bertie’s Latest Poem

The first time we met Bertie she was sitting behind bottles of apple butter and pickled vegetables laid out on a wooden table in the green outside Sharp’s Store in West Virginia. The bottles were lined up in serried ranks, just as I imagine soldiers in gray uniforms had probably stood there when Robert E. Lee was served tea by the Sharp family.

Sharp's Store, Rte 219, Slaty Fork WV
Sharp’s Store, Rte 219, Slaty Fork WV

“I’ll have one of those,” I said, pointing at a bottle reflecting the golden afternoon of early fall.”

“Y’all from otha parts?”

“Not at all.” I said, before realizing my reply must’ve sounded really stupid with a BBC accent. “We have a place down Dry Branch where we love spending time.”

She noticed Lucinda was flicking through pages of a little book from a pile carefully laid beside the bottles. It was titled, Poems by Bertie Jane Cutlip, on the lemon yellow cover.

“They’s ma poems.”

When Lucinda paused at a page, I craned to read over her shoulder.

“I’d like to buy one of your booklets too,” I said. While opening my wallet she inscribed the title page: Thanks, your friend Bertie Jane.

After I read the poems at home I squeezed the thin booklet on a shelf where it was lost from sight between tomes of my favorite poets – Tennyson, Eliot, Frost, among others. I had almost forgotten our casual encounter with the country poet on the Seneca Trail until last week when I returned to the store.

A gray-bearded man in leathers whose Harley was parked outside was checking something in a display on the counter. After he had finished I drifted over to see what had caught his attention. It was a collection of Bertie’s work. There was the original volume in the same yellow cover, and beside it were four more volumes containing over seventy new poems in all. I opened the original book first, remembering how it had triggered the memory of a book I had once made for a school project, stapled inside a paper cover and complete with typing errors. There was an imprint on the title page of her book, © Bertie Jane Cutlip, which she was probably advised to add as the minimum flag to protect her rights.

Five poetry booksThe covers of her new books were in different colors and inside there was some artwork and grainy photographs. They were more polished productions than the first volume, although still looked home-made. I opened a random page from Book 4 to read a poem called, Sago Mines. The sixth verse goes:

There has been an explosion

At this mine as the miners were going in

Some of them got back out

But some were trapped within.

One of Bertie’s sons was working in the mine that day, but not on that fateful shift. Something about her art tugged at me, so I took copies of all four new volumes to the counter where Tom the store owner, a friend of ours, was waiting.

“Last time I heard Bertie reciting her poems a big, grizzly-looking mountain man was reduced to tears,” Tom informed me as we closed the sale. It didn’t sound from the description that he was an aficionado, but the image of the man was more touching than amusing.  After hearing that her poems can move mountains I asked Tom how Bertie was doing, but he hadn’t seen her since she had been in the hospital in Charleston. He hoped for the best as she was a sweet lady whom he said should be nominated as poet laureate for the state.

After that endorsement of her poems, or perhaps it was after reading the new ones, I felt a strange impulse to call Bertie. I didn’t have to wait long for a reply. Yes, she was feeling better, thank you, and recovering slowly after surgery. No, she wouldn’t mind signing the other books if I visited her the next day.

Bertie lives along a quiet country road which is barely wide enough for vehicles to pass (nearly all trucks). It had recently received its first coating of asphalt over the gravel, which I heard was intended to make it safer but had in fact raised the average speed by 30 mph! The road wound round the low mountains following a bubbling creek lined by low trees and long grass where the sunlight broke through the canopy. Anyone who knows Appalachia can imagine it.

Bertie homeAs I pulled up on the grass verge beside her mailbox I saw an arm waving in a window, and returned the greeting. I admit I was surprised to find her living in a mobile home, but it was a foolish thought because so many folk in those parts do and many are comfortable. Yet I felt sad that in old age, and now infirm, she was confined in that remote spot, and often cut off by heavy snowfalls in winter. But on that warm summer day it was a pleasant, even inspiring, arrival, with a nicely clipped lawn and orchard trees fringing the creek – perhaps the very ones that yielded fruit for the apple butter.

Bertie didn’t recognize me as she swung open the screen door, nor should she after a brief Bertie closeupencounter long ago. She nevertheless beckoned me inside without hesitation like a friendly neighbor, leading me past bottles of fruit and beans readied for sale to the sofa beside a window.

When she disappeared for a minute, I had an opportunity to look round at the framed pictures hanging on her walls, wondering how many of the subjects had figured in her poems. Was that her mother who now rests in the family cemetery at Silver Creek? Were those her children, two who had already passed away, and Chad the foster boy who was killed in a road accident? Surely there was the son who worked in the mine? And perhaps that was her Sunday school, and over there the old abandoned home where she grew up?  If tragedy and loss lubricate a poet’s pen, she had plenty of ink. And the heartbreaking history of Appalachia at large provides so much more to write about – from early entanglements with Indians to the Civil War which split West Virginia to the carpet-baggers arriving afterwards to mining and logging disasters, and now the despoliation of beautiful landscapes by blowing up mountaintops for coal.

Bertie had been in her tiny kitchen and when she reappeared she offered to prepare something for me to eat. I begged her not to go to any trouble because I had only come for her signature and to check how she was doing. It is so much more rare and precious nowadays for strangers to be received with such natural hospitality, and without any trace of suspicion.

I began to feel guilty because she was still recuperating, but she put me at ease by saying that I had come on an important day. It was the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the founding of West Virginia, her beloved state.

“Did you read ma Ode to West Virginia?” she asked.

I knew it was one of the poems in the yellow book, composed in the 1970s, so I nodded. Without more ado she took a deep breath, lifted her head, and began to recite the poem, giving her whole heart to it, like the hermit thrush that sings outside our home. Afterwards she told me she knew all her poems by heart, nearly a hundred of them, and had recited most of them to other patients in Charleston. On the day she had packed her bag to leave the hospital four doctors lined up in the corridor refusing to let her go until she had recited “just one more.”

I then remembered Tom’s remark about making her a candidate for poet laureate and wondered if she really was qualified.  If creativity and productivity were touchstones, then, yes, she was worthy. And if admirers were needed, then, sure, she already had plenty. But if the laureate must write in a fashionable or erudite style that required a second or even a third reading to “get a poem,” then she would never be given a place on the short list of candidates. Anyway I mused, I am rather glad she probably doesn’t even care to know that she composes her work in heroic couplets of rhymed lines of iambic pentamer, or that she often writes in the common ballad meter. She expresses the pure and unaffected feelings of a country woman for things she cares deeply about – nature, joy, grief – her art tumbling out spontaneously in old-fashioned rhyme. She’d get my vote every time, for she has the poet’s heart.

She casually mentioned that she must go back to the hospital again soon. I tried to make light of it by saying that her doctors needed her as much as she needed them, but perhaps she was hiding a concern because she had lost a lot of weight and her old energy was gone. When I stood up to leave, she held up a hand to stop me while the other reached for a sheet of paper that had been carefully placed in advance close-by.

“I’ve got something for you,” she said, passing it to me. I sensed it was important so I read it aloud to make sure I understood her unfamiliar hand-writing. It was a poem titled, A True Story.

“I like this story about the raccoon very much,” I said, handing it back.

“It’s my last poem”, she said, refusing to take it. “I want you to put in book number six.”

“Not your last – you mean you’re latest poem? I can’t possibly take something so precious.” But she was quite insistent. I don’t know why someone who is almost a stranger to her should have been given this commission, but the poem now rests in a more honored place than the original book on my poetry shelf.

[Bertie approved this post. The following is my favorite poem]