Thursday, December 1, 2022

Two Wildness Adventures

The florescent orange, highly venomous Araneus marmoreus  
orb-weaver trekking across the Blue Ridge Parkway 
on High Swan, late November, 2022. 
Humans are most alive and joyful, truly joyful, when at home in their natural state of wildness.  Why is that?  Wildness sparks with us a deep survival instinct that heightens our senses, increases our strength and pain tolerance, and gives us an immediate sense of purpose.  Beyond that, it compels us to experience our connection with the wide universe.

We are, however, separated from wildness by the protections and aids of what we call civilization.  Civilization is valuable and now even essential for our survival, but it also is a hindrance to experiencing the most direct connection to the natural world.  Civilization has helped us, but also made us dependent, and thus not fully what we are meant to be. 

When wild, non-human creatures, especially those considered endangered, are injured or as young ones, orphaned, caring people sometimes take over, providing for the needs of the creature, with the goal of reintroducing them into the wild, of possible.  If not possible, then the creature remains in the care of humans, often serving to educate and inform about the needs of the species, and even to install awe and wonder in seeing that creature up close.  Zoos, for example, still serve these purposes.

Humans dwelling within civilization are like the inhabitants of a zoo.  We are dependant.  Different organizations like National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and Outward Bound serve to initiate the reintroduction of humans into the wild, their original environment.  These days, we can only visit the wilderness for short or for some people, longer periods.  We are visitors, no longer natives—perhaps we are exiles.  We carry civilization on our backs in the form of dried food, fuel and stoves, and high tech clothing, shelter and other gear—maybe even a satellite telephone and solar charger. Perhaps a weapon.   In some ways, like an astronaut, but lower tech.

This craving for our original natural state may be behind our, or I should say, my fascination with observing wild creatures.  I watch, listen, and even smell them living their lives and I see how it’s done.  I enjoy wildness vicariously by contemplating those who are still native.  I appreciate their beauty and deceptively complex simplicity.

Today I was outside the Brown House, a place we built on five acres, taking a short break from cleaning for the next guests. Long ago I developed a habit of what I will call, outdoor situational awareness.  It involves an almost unconscious perception of wind and weather, and changes in them.  Anything new or in motion catches my attention.  I am aware of the topography and flora.  Same as a wild animal, I often look up and around and survey my surroundings.

So, during my break from cleaning as I stared out through the leafless trees and brush to the east, I caught the motion of something big, almost frightening, moving at a fast pace, bounding across the front yard of the white modular home up the hill.  My first thought—that it was a large dog—quickly morphed into “deer,” and the way it moved, head erect like it carried a heavy crown, a male deer with tall antlers.  It sprinted down the hill into the field before me. Then it ran frantically back and forth, fervently sniffing the air.  My instincts tuned me into the breeze touching me on my left, so I knew the animal could not smell me, so I watched it run back and forth, up and down, following a scent, until it vanished straight back up the hill.  I was in awe, and blessed to have witnessed this brief demonstration of abundant, passionate wildness.

Later in the day, in the afternoon, I was staining the side of the new woodshed of the Brown House.  As usual and without thinking, I glanced up to survey the long view, in this case north on our property.  You never know what you will see.  And I saw something.  Tall, dark, and moving back and forth side to side into a bush like it was dancing. It was a bear doing something I had seen more evidence of than I wished, but had never observed in person:  Rubbing and reveling in the fragrant foliage of a Carolina Sapphire Cypress tree up in our fruit orchard.

The Carolina Sapphire Cypress was developed by Clemson University as a potential commercial Christmas tree.  They started with the Arizona Cypress and did some tweaking—I’m not sure what this was.  Anyway, the AC and its offspring, the CSC was supposed be drought resistant.  I bought five of these trees at Lowes about 17 years ago and planted them as a screen between our property and the house to the Southeast, a house that had once been part of a whole parcel, but was divided from the land to make it easier to sell.  So, the green screen was in the required terms of the sale.  Problem was the CSC does not like shade, and the trees, then about 4 feet high, were not happy.  I dug them all up and moved them to the top of our land as a screen between the fruit orchard and the road. 

As the years passed, the CSC trees thrived and grew, but so did the bear population, and I began to see damage to the lower limbs.  Chewed, broken, twisted off, piled up.  It was strange.  Then when two of the trees died from unrelated causes, I replaced them with new CSC trees, and smaller.  Those trees got special bear treatment and were continually abused, and it was clear they would never grow tall like their older brothers, who now stand at 30 feet or more.  I didn’t know for sure bears were the varmints, but what else could it be?

An old friend and former colleague of mine was a plant buyer and customer guide at BB Barns Nursery in south Asheville, and somehow the subject came up. She happens to be the only person ever I’ve ever spoken with who also knows about the love obsession bears have with the CSC.  She’d even see them in action at her house.  Her belief was the bears ate the plants seed cones, but I was dubious—still am. 

So, today for the first time I saw a bear bathing himself in the foliage, as much as a bear, or anyone for that matter, can take a bath in a plant.  He was standing up on his hind legs, walking in and out of the poor shrub (only about 5 feet tall—and it would be much taller if not for the abuse) and generally rolling, snuggling, adoring. 

We can only guess why the bears have such an attraction.  Their powers of smell are about 100 times stronger than ours.  Maybe the aromatic volatile organic compounds have some insecticidal properties.  Maybe the transferred scent is an attraction to the opposite sex. Cologne or perfume. Maybe the bears just revel in the smell for pure pleasure.  Imagine that with their extraordinary olfactory senses, the pungent, crisp essential oils provide them a mind numbing feeling of well being.   Bear aromatherapy.

As I stalked closer and closer to the bear, keeping the blueberry fence between me and him to conceal my form, I was aware that the breeze was to my back and it was only a matter of time before he would smell me.  I moved when he moved as he was distracted, not looking around.  Then he froze for a minute.  He couldn’t see me, but he knew I was close-by, and slowly, stiffly he strutted away—that’s what male bears do when they are scared and about to run.  They are trying to scare you, but it’s a bluff.  Suddenly he bolted and was gone, just as I saw one of our elderly neighbors walking down the road to the right.

If you are staying at the Brown House, and if you visually survey the horizon now and then, you might catch a glimpse of wildness.  It might be anything.  Hawks, woodpeckers, the grand vista of the skyscape rolling by in the south, a cloud of nearly invisible insects overhead.  It might be deer and bears.  Or, if you are even mildly brave, you can walk up to the orchard and breathe in the scent of Carolina Sapphire Cypress and imagine for a moment you yourself are again a wild uncivilized native of the forests.

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Thanksgiving Thoughts

Re-arrangement for the Holidays
Someday I will write the full story about the four-year project of building the Brown House and I'll include photos from the progressing stages of construction.  One aspect of the building I will summarize here is that it cost about 1/3 more than we expected and had in our pockets. So much money.  And we had to go into debt and we knew we'd eventually have to sell a little rental house we owned to pay it off.  The interest on the loan happened to be variable, and with inflation climbing so high and the Federal Reserve Bank raising the rates, the cost was becoming painful. 

So, we sold the rental house (The Grey House) to the tenant and paid the debt off, leaving something extra to invest.  After many years, finally, we are now drawing a positive income, and this is one of the things I am most thankful for this year.  Though it is a lot of work, especially the cleaning.  

To me, clean is clean.  There are no grades of clean. Humanly speaking, however, we can only bear so much tedium. So far we have not been able to find anyone who will clean to my standard. At this point, it doesn't matter who cleans, I will always check afterwards and find "things".  I don't want to get distracted here, because I only want to say I feel we are not so much in the hospitality business with cleaning as a required sideline, but we are in the cleaning business with a hospitality sideline.

It was startling to realize and admit that we are a part of the tourist industry.  But for us, that specialty of the industry—hospitality—is more than providing a roof for an impersonal out-of-towner as much as it is sharing what we love, our home, with a fellow creature, who in turn helps us afford to share.

Some weeks ago a woman booked the Brown House for a full Thanksgiving holiday, and I was happy that we could provide the setting for their special get-together, that we would become a part of their permanent family memory.  All of our guests so far had from zero to, maximum, 10 reviews.  This person had about two dozen perfect 5-star ratings. Royalty. So, I wanted to roll out the red-carpet, or specifically, the fall-themed table cloth.  

As the house construction had moved to the end phases, our plan for the main room furniture layout was to place the dining table in the prime location—the window corner—and, as where we live (the Red House), have the table reach into the kitchen.  But with the furniture we bought, it wouldn't all fit how we liked, so we put the comfy sitting furniture in the prime spot.  It was nice, but the table had been pushed into the less-than-glamorous, relatively dark space of the room that remained.  Back to the present: I asked the upcoming guest beforehand about switching it all around and extending the table to make it the hub. The key to setting all that extra work in motion was if she was going to cook a Thanksgiving meal, or just go out to dinner?  I received the answer when she sent me a list of cooking tools and asked what we had and didn't have. She was thrilled about us switching it all around, and yes, it took a couple extra hours. 

Since the guests would be arriving well after dark we also "left the light on" and that's a post for the future. Hint: we have 116 LED lights associated with the Brown House, not counting the night-lights.

So, after hours of driving, the guest and her family got in late last night. And here is what she sent me just before midnight:  "I forgot to text at 10:15 when we arrived bc we were so enamored with your place!  It's so incredible...sparkling clean, wonderful array of antiques and other gems, and such great workmanship and artistry.  We just love it here and are so amazed at what you created!"

And this is what makes the extra work worthwhile.


Sunday, November 13, 2022

The Artwork at the Brown House

Appalachian Writer James Still's Cabin on Dead Mare Branch
The art work in the Brown House, as are the furnishings & everything else, is highly personal. Much of it has been “rescued” from Goodwill, purchased at bargain prices. Sometimes I bought a print just for the frame, which I then used with another print, poster, or photograph. Most of it is unusual &/or unique. I have two long, crosscut saw blades that belonged to my dad. What follows is a description & known history of the each of the pieces. One of my ideas for art work in the house is that it depicts nothing you can see by looking out a window of the house. For example, I have almost no representational flowers or plants. I didn’t hold to that rule absolutely... 

Friday, November 11, 2022

Eleven Essential, Big Rules on How to Earn a Coveted One-Star Review from Your Vacation Rental Host

Sample of artwork in the Brown House
Everyone is concerned about their online reputation these days. Reviews of you and your conduct become part of your permanent record that, unlike school grades, but like a rap-sheet, is totally public. If you want to really make a statement in virtual-land, and you ever stay in short term rentals, be sure to follow as many of these rules as possible.

1. Don’t pay attention to any of the material your host sends you. This is essential to achieve that one star review for several important reasons, which I will refer to in the list.

2. Remember, a vacation rental in a private home is exactly like a cheap hotel room, which means you can treat the host, staff, and the rental itself with as much disrespect as you can muster. If you see the host, just keep walking and say something, brief, meaningless, and insincere. Never thank them for their beautiful place and hospitality.

3. Don’t bother writing a review of your stay. It’s a waste of your time and no one will read it anyway. And if you do happen to blow it and write a positive review, it will mean the host can raise the rent for next time. Better even is writing a bad review, and especially complain about things that the host told you about in the material they sent you. Like if they say upfront they don’t have a large TV, you complain about not them having one.

4. Show up at least a half hour before the stated check-in time without asking and stay at least a half hour after the check-out time. This will be fun, as the host will be in a muck sweat to clean while you are in the way.

5. Leave all your trash scattered here and there throughout the place, as it suits your convenience. You’ve already paid a huge amount of money for the rent and the cleaning fee, so you are entitled make life easy for yourself. If you clean any of your nasty messes, the cleaners won’t earn their money. For extra points, bring your smelly food garbage from home and stuff it into one of the inside garbage cans.

6. Be sure to bring your pet to the Pet Free rental—they are always cleaner--then when the host later finds animal hair everywhere and asks if you brought a cat, tell them you left it at home with a sitter. Don’t tell them you brought your ferrets. Hosts are sensitive to bad reviews, so you can lie and bully them into submission.

7. If you accidentally or purposefully cause damage, never tell the host. They probably won’t see it until it’s too late, and then will not know exactly who did it.

8. When you make your booking, select dates that begin on a Saturday night or end on a Saturday. You will save money because Friday and Saturday nights are more in demand and hosts charge more for them. This keeps the host from making more money. Another trick is to check out on New Years Eve day, or otherwise cut any holiday season in half, thus preventing someone else from enjoying the whole holiday and the host from making a fortune.

9. Lie, and lie, and lie about everything. Or tell them nothing. Whatever they may say, hosts love not knowing what is going on in their place.

10. When you make a booking, always ask for a discount, inventing a sob story about how you are only trying to have a family reunion with your brother and mom for the first time in 10 years, and everything is so expensive, and that you might have to borrow money to afford the fees. Or make up your own stories. For extra effect, flatter the host. Hosts feel guilty about being rich enough to own a second home, or an extra room, so they always cave.

11. Ask the host all kinds of questions, especially ones they’ve answered in their online literature, and get them to invest considerable time with you. Treat them like new-found friends. Then later on cancel the reservation at the last moment while you can still get a full refund. The downside to this is the host can’t write that one-star review. The upside is that they will never let you book their place ever again and you will save a ton of money.

12. Leave all the lights on, inside and out, even in the daytime when you are out and about. You are bringing light to the world and inspiring the climate activists.

13.  Attempt to break the world record for how many full-garbage-bags/poundage/per day of trash you can leave behind.  Extra credit for whole watermelons and such.  Hint: recyclables add to the bulk, so don’t separate those.

Wednesday, November 9, 2022

When Public Reviews & Private Remarks Are Switched

It happened this week.  A guest new to AirBnb loved our place and wrote us a stunningly rave 5-star review.  Problem is: he posted the review as a private message only we can see.  And at the same time, he posted private embarrassing remarks in public so everyone can see. Oops. What do you think?

Public: 'The owners are such a great assets….awesome. They know what they are doing. Awesome, awesome owners is all I can say. They know what they are are doing. This place is the s**t. If everyone on here were as detailed and attentive as these owners then there would be no need for hotels.'

Private: 'This was the best. The cabin was absolutely spotless and stocked with things that I would not have thought (TP, paper towels, shower gel, shampoo, coffee etc) would be there. I definitely cannot say enough about they cleanliness and beauty. The views are awesome and it is literally @8 miles from grocery stores and places to eat but is far enough to put you off the grid and feel tranquil. The “Brown House” is such a nice place and I will 100% book this house again. If anyone is looking for a place to get away and relax then you need to book this place without a doubt. Mick and Edi truly know what they are doing and they carry it out with this place.'

Discussion:  I think the first review was intended for the Airbnb administrators, as a report card. He did try to fix this reversal, but Airbnb doesn't allow editing once reviews are posted by both parties, except to delete the whole review.  And he did book again for a future stay. 

Wood Shed or Woodshed?

Our son built this woodshed at the Brown House last week.  The inside dimensions are 6' x 16' with a variable height, enough space to tightly stack four cords under cover. I cut the seven locust posts on our property some years ago, and stored them under old roof metal. The roof of the woodshed matches the metal siding of the Lower Level of the house.  As you might see, the triangle sections under the overhangs on each end are made from old barn wood that our son brought from his place. We plan to stain the barn wood and posts something clear and oil-based. The pressure treated wood will receive a unique, fanciful color: brown.  A girl who helps with cleaning asked what the shed was for. I said, "It's a woodshed."  She said, "I know, but what's it for?"  I guess her family doesn't heat with wood.


I began writing a novel in the year 2000 and it took about 10 years to complete.  Then, with the encouragement of my wife, who said it would help promote my novel, I began writing short stories.  Many of those stories were published here are there, but for the most part, nowhere of significance to advance a career in writing.  My stories and novel are all available to purchase on Amazon, as is my monarch migration book.  The short stories are available to read here.

My plan was to transition from a decades long career in what I will call "social reform" to writing and selling books and stories, but the writing part never went anywhere, except as a hobby.  As it happened, I didn't have any significant "retirement" revenue. Fast-forward to the punchline: we built a house on about five acres near Asheville, North Carolina, equipped it as a vacation rental, and since the early spring of 2022 we've accommodated guests through the AirBnb and Vrbo platforms.

Those platforms are rigidly designed for formally presenting our place in words and pictures, and booking guests. They have a helpful mutual review process between guests and hosts. As a host, you want 5-star glowing reviews, and you want them as guests, too. Everyone is as polite as pie, typically. What the vacation rental formats don't have in is an environment for sharing news, and frankly, more candid and humorous stories about the joys and terrors of letting complete strangers live in your beautiful new house on your private property.

So, given the economic failure of my writing efforts, and given the success of our modest vacation rental business, I'm transitioning this blog toward, well, telling stories from the Brown House under High Swan.