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BACCA Writers

H. Spurgeon Moss: Educator, Farmer, Inspiration

Spin a blindfolded child and ask her to pin the tail in the middle of a map of Virginia and she could do a lot worse than Louisa County.  East of Charlottesville and north of Richmond, Louisa County is about five hundred square miles of small towns, old family farms, and a tangled crisscross of streams and rivers. 

In 1926, fourteen year old H. Spurgeon Moss faced a choice.  Moss was a tall, bespectacled lad who loved to read but seventh grade was the end of the line for black children in the segregated schools of Louisa County, Virginia. The Virginia Constitution of 1869 had mandated the creation of free public education for all, provided that “white and colored persons shall not be taught in the same school but in separate schools under the same general regulations as to management, usefulness, and efficiency.” (Louisa Historical Society) 

Sadly, the education of African-American children in the Jim Crow south seldom lived up to this mandate.  The few schools that existed for black children were usually poorly equipped log cabins, church buildings, or rooms in private homes, funded by African-American churches and northern philanthropists.  (Louisa County Historical Society)

Moss’s family valued hard work and education.  Grandfather Boykin (his mother’s father) had purchased five hundred acres beside the North Anna River in the northeast corner of Louisa County in 1877. How did Grandfather Boykin save enough to buy such a large plot of land? Mining gold? Or did he have a skilled trade? Either way, the land he purchased may still have had remnants from one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War.  The Battle of the North Anna took place along the banks of the North Anna River the first week of May 1864. Sixty-seven thousand Union forces against fifty-three thousand Confederates with a casualty count of forty-two hundred men. 

Economic conditions in Louisa County were extremely difficult after the Civil War. Combined tax revenues in 1870 were one-fourth of what they had been in 1863, when property tax on slaves alone earned the county $58,389.  (Louisa Historical Society)   Grandfather Boykin purchased the land bordering the North Anna River, registered the deed for his land at the county courthouse, and hired an attorney to draw up a will so that when he died, the land would go to his daughter.  Some neighbors thought it foolish to pay good money to a lawyer just to prove the land he was raising hogs on was actually his, but Grandfather Boykin had lived in Louisa County long enough to know that everything had to be written down, certified, and in the court house or some sheriff would come knocking on his door to take it all away.  Sections were sold off over the years, a few acres here, a few acres there, some to pay for education, some to cover hospital bills, eventually whittling down the farm to 116 acres in 1926. (Daily Progress, July 26, 1970, A New Dam Brings an End to Old Ways.)

Fourteen year old H. Spurgeon Moss had grown up fishing on the banks of the North Anna River. He’d grown up raising hogs, chickens, and cattle.  His precious few spare moments were spent reading under the large oak in his front yard.  Moss wanted to further his education so he could help his people, but that meant leaving Louisa County.  It meant leaving the farm his grandfather had built and moving one hundred miles north to Washington D.C.  He packed his clothes, kissed his parents goodbye, and road in the back of a segregated Greyhound bus up to Washington DC for high school. Relatives met him at the bus station.  He made the honor roll at Dunbar High School, (The Washington Post, February 24, 1929) and worked his way through school as a dishwasher then as a waiter, graduating from Minor Teachers College with a bachelor of science in education in 1934. (Miner Teachers College was the principal school to train black teachers in Washington DC for more than 70 years.) Mr. Moss would eventually take graduate level classes at Virginia State College, Virginia Union University, and Boston University, and earn a Master’s Degree in Guidance Counseling at the University of Virginia.

His first teaching job was at segregated Mount Garland Elementary School. He taught fifth and sixth grade.  The arrival of this tall, handsome educator must have caused quite a stir.  Mr. Moss was quickly promoted to principal. A couple of years later, in 1940, Louisa County consolidated white schools and converted some of the surplus white school buildings to black schools. Mr. Moss decided to go back to teaching at Plum Tree Elementary School. He transferred to the Louisa Training School, Louisa County’s only black high school (built in 1929, too late for Moss to attend.) He taught biology and chemistry, and served as assistant principal. In 1953, Louisa County closed the Training School and opened the A.G. Richardson High School with an enrollment of 293 students and eleven teachers. Mr. Moss was the social studies teacher and assistant principal. As the social studies teacher, he’d take busloads of students on field trips to the state capitol to see how state government functioned and to shake hands with their representatives.  “Hitch your wagon to a star,” he’d tell them.  Mr. Moss’s concern for his students was legendary.  (Interview with Rev. Larry Lewis, November 26, 2018)

Teaching full time didn’t cover the costs of raising a family and maintaining a one-hundred acre farm.  Even with the added responsibilities as an assistant principal, Mr. Moss needed to supplement his income.  For year he traveled to Atlantic City, New Jersey to wait tables during summer break. “I made more money there in the summer than I made teaching the rest of the year,” he said (Daily Progress, July 26, 1970, A New Dam Brings an End to Old Ways.) Former students remembered Mr. Moss with affection.  “He was a very down to earth person, personable. He was so encouraging to students.  In the summers, he always went to Atlantic City, New Jersey, to work, and he would bring a group of high school students with him. He secured jobs for these young people at the various hotels there along the Boardwalk.   He gave them work experience and he was their chaperone during the time they were away from home, and he took very good care of them.  He made sure they went and did what they were supposed to do while they were there in New Jersey.” ( Interview with Rev. Larry Lewis, November 26, 2018 via telephone) 

In May, 1954, the Brown v. Topeka Board of Education case came before the Supreme Court. In a rare unanimous ruling, the Supreme Court effectively overturned the Plessy v. Ferguson doctrine of “separate but equal” and declared racial segregation of public schools unconstitutional.  Virginia Senator Harry S. Byrd was outraged. He proposed “Massive Resistance” to the court’s ruling and in 1956 the Virginia state government adopted a policy to block the desegregation of public schools.  Schools shut down in Prince Edward County, parts of Warren County, Charlottesville, and Norfolk. Unlike these places, schools in Louisa County never closed.  Segregation remained deeply entrenched in the cities, but in the farmlands and outlying areas segregation was less pronounced.  In areas that had only one grocery or hardware store, a kind of natural integration occurred, even friendships.

Mr. Moss came together with other educators to develop a plan to integrate the public schools. This was locally referred to as the “Freedom of Choice” plan and was sent to parents and announced in the local newspaper, The Central Virginian, on March 30, 1966. The intention was the elimination of segregation based on race, color or national origin.  Students and parents had thirty days to choose the school the student would attend the next school year. (Louisa County Historical Society) Mr. Moss encouraged several of his students to choose white schools.  The plan did not achieve total desegregation but it began the process. In doing so, Louisa County didn’t experience the anger, turmoil, or closing of public schools that many other Virginia counties and cities experience.  Peace and civility were maintained largely due to the foresight of Mr. Moss along with other visionary educators such as Mr. Harry Nuckols. (https://www.culturaltourismdc.org/portal/miner-teachers-college-building-african-american-heritage-trail)

By 1968, Mr. Moss had taught school in Louisa County for thirty-six years. His wife, Ruth Moss, had taught for thirty-eight years. They’d put all three of their children through college.  His oldest daughter taught English in Fairfax, his son taught industrial arts in Fairfax, and his youngest daughter, the wife of a former Army officer, was secretary to the Dean of the College of Dental Science at Howard University.  He’d stopped going to Atlantic City every summer to wait tables and looked forward to retirement.  He raised brood sows and would sell about forty young pigs each fall.  He had eight cows as well as turkeys and chickens. His favorite animals were his six saddle horses. Farming was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. He still sat under the large oak tree in the front yard to read.  This was where he wanted to grow old. This was what his grandchildren called “Grandfather’s Zoo.” 

In late February 1968, when the forsythias were starting to bud, two white men drove up the newly paved road to his farmhouse in a truck with the county seal on it. Chickens scattered when the white men drove up.   “Mr. Moss,” one of the men called out, “the county sent us to survey this section of land.  I just wanted to let you know we’ll be working on your property.”

“What’s the survey for?”

“I don’t rightly know, Mr. Moss,” one of the men answered.  “The county says jump and we jump.” Mr. Moss smiled good-naturedly and waved the men on.  

The white men were still on his property when he came home from work that evening.  He saw their truck drive away just after sundown.  They came the next day, waving to Mr. Moss as they drove by.   After the second day of strangers on his property, Mr. Moss decided it was time for him to take a look at what they were doing. He saddled his favorite mare and rode the well-worn trail down to the river. Springtime was still a few weeks away and no place on earth was prettier in the springtime than his farm.  He felt a deep pride in all his family had accomplished.  Neither slavery nor Jim Crow could stop his grandfather from building the farm. In time, he would pass the land to his children and grandchildren. 

He rode past the stretch of pines where the deer herds liked to settle down for the night.  They left their imprint on the soft beds of pine straw. He was coming up on his cattle pasture when he saw the orange survey markers.  Rows and rows of them, all the way down to the North Anna River.  What was the county doing?  Putting in a new road? Building a new bridge across the North Anna River?  Either way, he didn’t much appreciate the county not sending him a notice that the surveyors would be on his land or what they were doing.  He’d lived in Louisa County almost all his life, just stepping away to go up to Washington DC for his education.  He’d paid his taxes and contributed his time and talents. The very least the county owed him was to tell him the truth.

By April, Mr. Moss was making real progress bringing black and white students together. He was guidance counselor for the newly integrated Louisa County High School.  A.G. Richardson High School, where he used to teach social studies, had been converted to an elementary school and renamed Thomas Jefferson Elementary school, much to the disappointment of the African-American community. As Reverend Lewis would recall, “The only thing was that when they were renaming schools, we weren’t abreast of that so much that the names of our schools were maintained. That got away from us and that’s how Thomas Jefferson Elementary and Trevilians Elementary were renamed. Those schools were originally named for a black person because they were black schools during segregation. So we lost the names of those schools.”  (Interview with Rev. Larry Lewis, November 26, 2018)

Four days into the month of April, 1968, the news of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination swept across the nation.   Students came into Mr. Moss’s office with tears in their eyes.  He’d listen to their fears, share his wisdom, and remind them that they were not alone. On the day of Dr. King’s funeral, four hundred Louisa County citizens, mostly African American, gathered at the First Baptist Church.  A few clouds marred the morning sky. Daffodils beckoned and azaleas barely hinted at their true colors.  The mourners clutched handkerchiefs and held hands as they waited for the pastor to call for their pilgrimage to begin.  He gave the signal and they walked in silence the three blocks from the church to the Louisa County Courthouse.  If they spoke, it was in reverential whispers.  No music. No singing.  No band played on this spring day, not at this memorial. They walked past the old confederate war memorial, erected in front of the courthouse before most of them were born. The single confederate soldier cast in bronze, holding his rifle at his side and nestled within a granite block, indifferent to the grief-stricken mourners.

The pastor of the Trinity Parish walked up the courthouse steps and addressed the crowd. He stood in front of white marble pillars and offered up a heartfelt prayer for peace, love and brotherhood.  The pastor of the Church of Christ of Charlottesville spoke next.  He acknowledged the fear that had gripped all who gathered.   “We won’t be afraid anymore,” he said barely above a whisper.

Those in attendance answered, “Amen.”

“Our quest for equal rights will not be denied.”

“Amen.”

The world was off-balance, as if the solid land under their feet had shifted.  After the speakers, after the final prayers, they all left in silence. They returned to their homes and their jobs, and if Mr. and Mrs. Moss were among the mourners they returned to their farm.  (Richmond Times Dispatch, April 10, 1968, Several Hundred Attended Memorial Service for Dr. King at Louisa Courthouse)

Spring was a busy time for farmers.  Mr. Moss took a few minutes extra with his favorite mare that morning, brushing her mane. She rubbed against him, as if she knew what troubled him.  Mr. Moss had kept saddle horses all his life and still marveled at their strength and gentleness. He stopped and pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket.  He’d felt so tense since he’d learned of Dr. King’s assassination. He was worried about his children and grandchildren. Worried about his students. Worried about the county’s tentative steps toward equality. Sometimes life was nothing but a truckload of worries. Only his farm gave him peace.

“Spurgeon,” he heard his wife call from the farmhouse.  “Spurgeon, you have a phone call.” Their neighbor from a nearby farm was on the phone.  “He says it’s important.”

“Tell him to hold on.” Mr. Moss put away the brush and headed to the house. Ruth handed him the receiver.  “Hello,” he said. 

“Spurgeon, did you see the news? We’re about to be boiled out.”

Mr. Moss didn’t understand.   He’d seen images on the television of buildings on fire, of the police with dogs and guns, of people running and screaming.  “What? What are you talking about?”

“Front page news,” the neighbor said. Moss grabbed his hat and car keys and was halfway out the door when he stopped. These were uncertain times and he didn’t like the idea of leaving his wife all alone.  He kissed her on the cheek and told her to keep the doors locked.

Mr. Moss handed the drugstore clerk a dime and picked up the April 10, 1968 Richmond Times-Dispatch.  The main headline was about Dr. King’s funeral. Thousands Attend King Rites.  “My, my, my,” he murmured under his breath. Below the headline was the haunting image of black-clad mourners walking beside a mule-drawn wagon bearing the shrouded coffin. Jackie Kennedy was in attendance, the newspaper said, as was Bobby Kennedy. But it was the other, much smaller headline that mentioned Louisa County: Vepco Plans Louisa County Nuclear Plant. 

VEPCO, short for the Virginia Electric and Power Company, planned to turn part of the North Anna River into an 11,000 acre lake and to build on its shore a half-billion dollar nuclear generating plant. The power company said the plant would have a total output of four million kilowatts, which equal the present generating capacity of the entire Vepco system. The plant would be built in three or four units.  The first would have a capacity of 800,000 kilowatts and would be completed in 1974, Vepco said.

The newspaper reported on a meeting between Vepco’s senior vice presidents, T. Justin Moore Jr., Vepco President John M. McGurn, and Virginia Governor Mills E. Godwin Jr..  Other Vepco officials sat down to a two-hour private meeting in Louisa with the county’s business and political leaders and told them of the plant and the lake. No one bothered to tell the affected landowners.

Mr. Moss walked out of the drug store without even realizing it. He was standing on the sidewalk reading the newspaper.  Shoppers walked by but he didn’t see them.  He felt the burning sting of betrayal.   As Mr. Moss would later tell a reporter, “Then I read in the paper that county officials had given Vepco right-of-way, and assured them that the citizens of the county would cooperate 100 per cent.  Surveyors had been on my land months before and when I asked them what they were surveying, they said they didn’t know.  I wonder why the supervisors didn’t tell us.  We didn’t know one thing about it until we read it in the papers or heard it on the television.  It was a terrible bombshell.” (A New Dam Brings and End to Old Ways, Daily Progress, page C4, July 26, 1970, by Jerry Simpson)

Mr. Moss looked down Main Street. There was the police department. There was the hardware store. There was the County Courthouse with the statue of the confederate soldier in front. Did everyone know except him?   He kept reading:

Besides the boating and the recreation business the lake was expected to bring into the predominately-agricultural county, the plant itself was expected to add more than $900,000 to Louisa’s annual tax revenues.  It would employ between 75 and 100 persons and add a payroll of $750,000 each year to the county’s economy.  “It’s the biggest thing and has more potential than anything that has ever hit Louisa.  It is terrific,” said one of the business leaders who attended the Louisa meeting.

“The supervisors have assured Vepco that Louisa people will cooperate with them in every possible way,” said another leader, the Rev. Joe T. Carson, who heads the Louisa County Industrial Development Corp.

From neighboring Orange County, R. Lindsay Gordon III, chairman of the county’s board of supervisors, call the lake “manna from heaven”.  Most of the profits will come to Louisa and Spotsylvania, Gordon said, but Orange will benefit also. “Anytime that much money is being spent, some of it is going to rub off on surrounding areas,” Gordon said.

Vepco planned to form the lake by building a 75-to-100 foot high dam across the North Anna River near Smith’s Mill Bridge, just west of the Hanover County line. The dam would form a 17-square mile lake, with 100 miles of shoreline. Most of the lake site is wooded.  A Vepco spokesman said no more than 75 homes would have to be evacuated to make way for the lake.

“No more than seventy-five homes!” Smith’s Mill Bridge was only two miles from Mr. Moss’s farmhouse, as the crow flies. His property touched the bank of the North Anna River.  Was his farm going to be flooded?  What would happen to his pigs, his cattle, and his beloved saddle horses?  What would happen to all the wildlife on his property?  The deer and rabbits and wild turkeys?  Today of all days, first Dr. King’s funeral and now this, it was a punch in the gut like he’d never felt before.

The generating plant itself would go up about five miles up the lake from the dam, on the Louisa shore. The plant would use an entirely new type of water cooling system. The plant would take in water from the lake, use it power the generating units, and then release it into cooling lagoons, a series of large ponds that would be diked off from the lake. As the water passed through the lagoons it would cool to normal lake temperature. Then it would be fed back into the lake.

“Company officials gave no date for the completion of the second unit, and they said they had no idea when the final units would be added.  However, it is believed the second unit is being planned for 1975 and 1976. Ragone estimated that the total cost of the dam, the lake site, and all the units together would probably come to more than $500 million.” (April 10, 1968 Richmond Times Dispatch, Vepco plans Louisa County Nuclear Plant)

The article concluded with a map of Louisa County showing the proposed dam and power plant sites.  The proposed lake was right on top of Mr. Moss’s farm.  How would he break the news to his wife?  How would he break the news to his children? The land was their legacy. He folded the newspaper and returned to his car. He returned to his beloved farm and quietly handed the newspaper to Ruth.  She read it with the same shocked disbelief he had felt.

His heart could barely take it, one piece of bad news after another.  He walked down to the small creek on his property and sat on a fallen log.  Small frogs jumped in the creek at his arrival.  April was a beautiful month in central Virginia.  Warm enough to enjoy the sunshine but cool enough to keep the mosquitoes away.   Now he knew what his neighbor had meant when he said they were about to be “boiled out.” The surveyors had left orange markers all over his property, now it all made sense.  They must be for the proposed dam, lake, and nuclear power plant.  

The history of Mr. Moss is part of a larger work by author Carolyn O’Neal exploring the impact of the North Anna Nuclear Power Station on the citizens of Louisa County.  She is also exploring the impact of Lake Anna, which was built to provide fresh water to the nuclear power station to keep the reactors cool.  Many farms were condemned and much private land was confiscated to build the lake and power plant. 

If you or your family were impacted when Virginia Electric and Power Company dammed the North Anna River and built the North Anna Nuclear Power Station, please share your story.  Leave a reply below.

Notes:

Three schools in Virginia were named for Dr. Archie Gibbs Richardson: elementary schools in Culpeper and Blackstone, and A.G. Richardson High School in Louisa. Richardson was a prominent African-American educator and a prolific speaker and writer. His papers can be found at Johnston Memorial Library, Virginia State University. The Lexington native graduated from Virginia State University in 1927.  He held a Master’s Degree from Butler University in Indianapolis, a Doctorate of Education from Columbia University and an honorary Doctor of Laws Degree awarded in 1957 from Virginia State University. Richardson served eight years as principal of the Mecklenburg Training School in South Hill. He worked for a year as director of academics at Saint Paul’s College in Lawrenceville.  (Saint Paul’s College was established by former slave Russell Solomon James, a contemporary of Booker T. Washington, in1888.)  In 1936 he was appointed Assistant State Supervisor of Negro Education with the Virginia Department of Education. When that post became obsolete with school integration, he was appointed Associate Supervisor of Elementary and Secondary Education. Then, in 1966 he was named Associate Director of Education, a position he held until his retirement in 1966. Dr. Richardson was the first African American to be named to the staff of the Virginia Department of Education.

(Richmond Times Dispatch, October 19, 1979, A.G. Richardson, Educator, Dies http://louisaheritage.org/schools/agrichardson.htm A.G. Richardson history from the Louisa County History Society)

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BACCA Writers

Priori Incantatem

Priori Incantatem, also known as the Reverse Spell, is a magical spell in the Harry Potter universe that reveals the most recent activity of a wizard’s wand. In the duel between Harry Potter and evil Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire, the Reverse Spell forces out of Lord Voldemort’s wand the ghostly images of the last half-dozen or so people he’d murdered, starting with the last person first and going in reverse order.

Cedric Diggory

In the first printing of J. K. Rowling’s massive 734 novel (published in 2000), the last person murdered is the young and handsome Cedric Diggory, the champion of Hufflepuff House. The ghost of Cedric squeezes out of Lord Voldemort’s wand like smoke from an exhaust pipe (my description, not Rowling’s). “Hold on, Harry,” the ghost of Cedric says.

The next to the last person murdered is an elderly caretaker. His ghost, just like Cedric’s before him, encourages Harry to not give up. “You fight him, boy…” Then comes the ghost of Bertha Jorkins. “Don’t let go, now!” she cries. “Don’t let him get you, Harry…” Bertha, Cedric and the caretaker pace around Harry keeping the evil Death Eaters at bay. Next comes the heart stopping scene of watching Harry’s parents – the parents Harry never knew – appear as ghosts.

The smoky shadow of a tall man with untidy hair fell to the ground…looked at him… and Harry, his arms shaking madly now, looked back into the ghostly face of his father.

“Your mother’s coming…” he said quietly. “She wants to see you… it will be all right…hold on…”

And she came… first her head, then her body… a young woman with long hair, the smoky, shadowy form of Lily Potter…

The problem, as every Harry Potter reader knows, is that the order was wrong. Lily Potter (Harry’s mother) should have come out of the wand before James Potter (Harry’s father). JK Rowling messed up and messed up in a very large, very public way.

Rowling attributed the error to “late night writer’s fatigue” and it was fixed in later editions.

So this brings me to the question, how should authors handle mistakes AFTER publication. One of my writer friends says she never reads her work after it is published. It drives her crazy that she can no longer edit her work. She can no longer make any changes. She can no longer fix any errors. Any “fixing” is up to her publisher.

Which is one of the advantages of self-publishing. Self-publishing with Amazon, for instance, allows authors to edit their work as soon as they see an error. This won’t fix errors in the copies already sold but does allow the author to make changes to future copies. And maybe allows authors to rest a bit easier.

https://kdp.amazon.com/en_US/

Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) Review | Self-Publishing Review

I’d like to hear from other authors. How do you deal with errors in published work? In the meantime, enjoy the movie magic of the Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire Priori Incantatem scene.

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BACCA Writers

Vote for Kindness

Ken Follett’s epic novel Pillars of the Earth is set in England in the years historians refer to as The Anarchy (1135 – 1153), a nineteen-year period of anarchic civil war which resulted in chaos and widespread breakdown in even the most basic civility.

This chaos is most clearly embodied in the novel’s primary antagonist, William Hamleigh, the son of a minor but highly ambitious lord. William is a spoiled pampered bully. He beats and belittles and takes advantage. His goal is to become Earl of Shiring.

Pixabay

Standing in William’s way is Prior Philip, a devout and deeply curious man who treats everyone he meets with kindness. Prior Philip wants to build a great cathedral. It is Prior Philip’s everyday generosity that brings him together with visionary craftsman, Tom the Builder, the man who will build his cathedral.

The Anarchy in England was “a succession crisis precipitated by the accidental death by drowning of William Adelin, the only legitimate son of Henry I.” (Wikipedia)

Historians looking back on 2020 may refer to this as America’s Anarchy. Pandemic, unemployment, injustice, crime.

This November, America is facing its own succession crisis. We face a choice between a man who has everything yet still bullies his way into getting more. And another who has served his country for 40 years despite tremendous personal loss, yet still finds a way to help another.

Who do you want as your next President?

I intend to vote for kindness.

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Polling readers

The BACCA Literary blog is renovating and we need your help!

Knowing what we didn’t like was the easy part. Knowing how to fix it was hard.

A few years ago my husband and I renovated our house. What started as a general dissatisfaction with the main floor plan became a months-long project that transformed our home on the outside and inside. Knowing what we didn’t like was easy.  Knowing how to fix it took time and lots of good advice.

The writers at BACCA Literary want to renovate the BACCA Literary blog. We have a general dissatisfaction but don’t know how to fix it. That’s where you come in. Please spend a few minutes with these questions and give us your honest answers. Multiple choices are welcome as well as adding your own answers. Space is given below the survey to expand on your answers or add comments.

#########################

Share your ideas.

Please expand your answers below.  BACCA Literary welcomes your feedback. What blogs do you currently follow?  What are you looking for in a blog post?  What do you love to read?  We’ want to hear any advice or ideas you have to improve the BACCA Literary website and blog posts.  

 

Thank you very much!

Carolyn O’Neal is an author, an environmentalist and a beekeeper. Her young adult novel KINGSLEY was published in 2015. KINGSLEY is available on AmazonAudible, and iTunes.

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BACCA Writers

Grin and Bear It

“For bears, winter is one night.” – Unknown

More than once I’ve shared my writing philosophy with friends who have hit a hard bump in the road. Whether an illness, a job loss, or relationship troubles, for a writer, there’s no such thing as a bad experience. All experiences are material, the good ones and the bad ones. Especially the bad ones. The first few months of 2020 have tested this saying almost to the breaking point. This has been a year for the history books. Before I heard a word about coronavirus or quarantine or government shutdowns, I had health issues and bee hive failures.

“Two bears in one cave will not end well.” – Mongolian

Three of my four hives failed in January and February. One hive died. The second hive absconded (the bees flew away and never returned). The third hive abandoned their home for some reason and joined up with the stronger fourth hive.  Losing three hives was very disheartening. I had anticipated a heavy honey season so this seemed like a personal failure. I left the empty hives where they were for the time being. It was cold, there weren’t any pests flying around to bother them, and I had bigger issues to deal with.

“Kings and Bears often worry their Keepers.” – Scot

In early March I spent a night at the hospital to repair a brain aneurysm. I was a nervous going in but the surgery was quick and I was up and walking the halls of the ICU by that evening. I took it slow and easy, more afraid of tripping over the thick socks they gave me than anything else. I walked past a couple of rooms with signs on the door saying masks were required to enter because of “respiratory particles.”

No more than a week after getting home, my apiary had an unwelcome visitor. A bear had found my three abandoned hives and decided to check them out.

 

Bears enter our vernacular in many ways.

Bear market

Bear witness

Freedom to bear arms

Grin and bear it

Goldilocks and the Three Bears

I cleaned up my apiary, removing all the damaged hives. I strapped down my strong hive and surrounded it with cinder blocks and tin cans dangling from string to scare away the marauding bear. My beehive had at least 50,000 bees in it. You’d think that many bees would keep any creature at bay, even a bear. You can see for yourself, my efforts were a waste of time.

 

What should I do? My last hive was destroyed. Should I quit beekeeping? Should I shrug off all the time and money I had put into it? Should I say this just isn’t for me and abandon my few remaining bees to their fate? So many signs told me to quit. I was healing from surgery. I was dealing with the growing threat of this coronavirus. The government shut down businesses all over my city. My beekeeping classes were cancelled. The state beekeeping convention was cancelled. My local beekeeping club meetings were cancelled.

Writers know what it feels like to get knocked down. No matter how much time you’ve spent on a story. No matter how much money you’ve spent on writing classes and seminars. Agents don’t want to represent you, publishers don’t print your story, readers write a scathing review of your work for the world to see. Writers face relentless rejection. Signs everywhere tell them to quit. Life gets in the way of writing routines, inserting personal tragedies and national pandemics into everyday life.

“The bear is in the forest, but the pelt is sold.” – Unknown

I decided try again. I saved as many of my bees as I could and placed them and what I could salvage from their hive in a shed. I locked the shed at night to protect them from the bear. It was a temporary solution, at best. Moreover, there was a good chance the queen was dead and the bees would abandon the hive. By this time, it was late March and needed to be vigilant about the coronavirus. Washing hands. Social distancing. Wearing a face mask. My husband worked at the local hospital so I had daily updates when he came home. I talked via email and phone to beekeeping mentors and asked for advice. Before I set up a new apiary, they said, I needed to make sure it was safe from bears. That meant an electric fence with a solar panel charger. Of course, I couldn’t shop around for fence and solar panel charger materials. Everything had to be researched and purchased online.

The equipment finally arrived and my husband put up the electric fence all by himself.  Talk about social distancing. With his help, we moved the beehive from the shed to their new home. I  repaired and repainted the hives damaged by the bear. I purchase two new packages of bees. My new apiary was all set just in time for the April blossoms. It was a tremendous about of work and might not yield any honey but all I can do is keep trying. Unlike writing, in beekeeping there IS such a thing as a bad experience. But I learned a lot and hope I’m a better beekeeper for this experience.  And maybe a better writer too.

New apiary with electric fence.

“Work is not a bear, it won’t go into the forest.” – Unknown

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BACCA Writers

Composting, Dating, and Becoming Unstuck

My compost bin is just a dirty plastic box without a bottom.  I set it up under a tree near the road a good ways away from my beehive so it wouldn’t attract bears or other critters to my bees.  I keep a bucket in my garage for scraps and carry them to the bin about once a week, more often in the summer during watermelon season.  More often if I’m composting something tasty that my dog likes to sneak into the garage to nibble on like sweet potato peels.  I compost egg shells, orange peels, and coffee grounds. I compost kale stems, pistachio shells, and leaves from my driveway.  How could this hodgepodge ever amount to anything worthwhile?  All I have to do is leave it be and let Mother Nature do her thing. She turns all those scraps turns into rich dirt.  Rich dirt to feed my trees and create flowerbeds.  Rich dirt to attract worms.  My yard is more productive because of those scraps.

Here’s the deal.  I’ve been researching a nonfiction project for a couple of years and let me tell you, a couple of years of research piles up.  I have scraps of newspaper articles, recordings of interviews, court records, books, pamphlets.  My poor little office has stacks of notebooks and ideas.  The problem is I don’t know how to tell this story.  The blind man and the elephant scenario.  The project is so big I don’t know where to start.

In other words, I’m stuck.

I need to become unstuck.  I flip through FLOAT, Becoming Unstuck for Writers by AM Carley.

FLOAT devotes a couple of pages on a topic called Compost. (pages 187-188) Not composting food scraps.  Composting writing scraps.

Sometimes the most clear-eyed, thoughtful, and beneficial decision we can make about a piece of writing is to put it away…. Put it in a drawer… Archive it on a hard drive…

And walk away.

Walk away!  What do I do then? Do I keep writing? Or not?  I flip through FLOAT and find a chapter entitled Date Yourself on page 57.

For this date with yourself, your only goal is to do something that interests or inspires you.… By getting out, you give yourself the chance to re-set your own approach. You take a complete break from your project and simply get out into the world with curiosity and a sense of adventure.… you don’t need an agenda…. be with yourself, open-minded, curious, free.

This was exactly what I needed. Permission to do something other than write and research. Permission to do something fun.  For me, that’s beekeeping. I have four hives and love to be out with them. I love to learn about bees and talk to other beekeepers.

Two of Carolyn’s Four honeybee hives. Photo taken Nov. 2019

 

So I decide to I attend the annual Virginia State Beekeepers Association meeting.   Most of the lectures are about how to maintain healthy hives.  The parallels between healthy beehives and healthy human societies are legendary.  The individual is moving ahead with her life in concert with thousands of other individuals moving ahead with their lives. And in the center of all this movement is the queen.

And then it happened.  As I listened to the lectures about the importance of a strong queen, stories began to swirl.  I went home that evening and wrote the first chapter about a fictional human family that behaves like a beehive. The family has workers, drones, babies, and a queen named Sabbath.

I’m not sure where this story is going but I’m having fun writing.  And now and then, an idea pops into my head about how to shape all that research into a readable, creative nonfiction.  I note of that idea and put it aside.  I’ll come back to it.  But for now, I’m having fun with my bees and my ideas.

The cover of FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers
A M Carley’s handbook for writers, available at Central Virginia booksellers and online.

 

 

Carolyn O’Neal is the author of KINGSLEY

AM Carley’s book FLOAT, Becoming Unstuck for Writers is available on Amazon

Categories
BACCA Writers

Fiction or Nonfiction? Dinner or Dessert?

Fiction is a roller coaster

Fiction is fun. Fiction is freedom. 

Fiction creates new worlds and fills these worlds with heroes, villains, comics, romantics. Fills them with humans or monsters or aliens from another dimension.  Fiction can be as wild and unbelievable as the author’s imagination.

Every paragraph is a roller coaster.

Everything is fair game.

Everything is up in the air.

Enjoy the ride and let your imagination soar!

 

Nonfiction has rules.

Nonfiction takes place in a location the author can and should visit

Creative Nonfiction takes place in a location the author can and should visit, whether it’s the graveyard down the road or a ship in the middle of the ocean. Not to say writing nonfiction can’t be fun, but the author doesn’t have the same freedom to make up worlds or characters. The people and places must be real.

Nonfiction isn’t a roller coaster.

It’s a maze and research is the author’s only map.

Newspaper articles, interviews, books, and (occasionally) Google.

This is how I contrast my experiences writing fiction versus writing nonfiction. First drafts of fiction dance off my keyboard.  Ideas pop into my head. My writing group asks “why did he do that?” about a character and in fiction, I can create the motivation. In nonfiction if I can’t find his motivation in my research, I can’t answer that question.  I can’t make up an actual  person’s motivations for his or her actions.

Most of my research comes from newspapers and interviews.

I have been researching a complex, creative nonfiction project for years. 

Set in the late 1960s and early 1970s, this creative nonfiction centers on the man who discovered an earthquake fault under the North Anna Nuclear Power Station in Virginia and ended up with a bullet in his head. 

It’s an exciting story with a thousand twists and turns, just like an intricate maze. 

Am I near the end of the maze or still in the center?  Only careful research will help me find my way.

 

Which is more satisfying as a writer? Fiction or nonfiction?

That’s like asking what is more satisfying to eat, dinner or dessert.

Why not try both?

 

Carolyn O’Neal is the author of:

KINGSLEY,

Honey I’m Yours,

Terry and the Monster-Beaters,

THAT WORD: Uterine Cancer from Diagnosis to Recovery.

 

Carolyn O’Neal was creative consultant for:

Boss of the Outer Banks

Ultimate Obsession

Why did God allow…Lesson from a Local Preacher

 

 

Categories
BACCA Writers

Remembering Andrea

photo of Andrea

Andrea Fisher Rowland (1957-2019)

Author, poet, playwright, and teacher

The BACCA writers mourn one of our own. Andrea died at Hospice of the Piedmont in Charlottesville, VA on 7 June.

Andrea Fisher Rowland spent her childhood years in New Zealand, and thereafter was a Virginia resident for most of her life. She graduated in English from James Madison University, where hers was the first student-written play – entitled “Fancies” – ever presented on the main stage of campus and for which she won the Norman Lear Award for Comedy Playwriting. She earned an MA from the University of Virginia with a concentration in Creative Writing, studying with John Casey and Greg Orr.

She went on to earn a PhD from the University as well, working with Karen Chase and Edgar Shannon. Her dissertation, The Supernatural Muse: Representations of the Creative Impulse in the Fiction of Emily Bronte, Charlotte Bronte, and Charles Dickens, examines the supernatural figures (ghosts, genii, etc.) appearing in those authors’ works.

She worked as an Assistant Dean and Director of Studies at the University of Virginia, taught composition and literature at Wake Forest University, and taught introduction to theater at James Madison University. She has directed readings and productions of Shakespeare and other early modern playwrights at Wake Forest and at the University of Virginia. Most recently she taught English at Renaissance School in Charlottesville.

Throughout the years, while raising her son Liam, she wrote poetry, plays, and fiction, notably her novel High Tide. In 2017, an excerpt from High Tide was a finalist in the Virginia Festival of the Book Fiction Contest, and her poem, “These Same Fields,” won the Writer House / Jefferson Madison Regional Library Poetry Competition. In 2018, her poem, “Waikato,” was published in Artemis Journal.

A poetry collection, Family Album, was recently published and her novel, High Tide, is forthcoming in 2019, both from Chenille Books.

 

Andrea and I were co-workers – even co-teachers, occasionally – as well as neighbors, and members of two writing groups together, and friends. We both liked gin & tonics, and we both had jukeboxes on in our heads all the time. We would sing and whistle out loud and give each other earworms. We had one fight that was dumb, and lots of raucous laughter. I liked goats and she liked poetry and we both liked New Zealand. I was organized and she was spontaneous.

I am grateful she is no longer in pain, but I don’t understand yet what it means that she is gone, and I already miss her terribly.

— Bethany Farris

photo of Andrea

I first met Andrea through her writing. I had moved to Buffalo and she joined BACCA (our writing group) in Charlottesville after I left. Writers know, sharing a draft is like sharing one’s secret self. To send a draft to a virtual stranger takes courage and trust. For my part, I was sharing professional non-fiction writing. It felt low stakes for me. But Andrea was sharing from her novel, High Tide. I was at once intrigued and soothed. I learned from her work that she loved nature, especially things to do with water. As a Pisces and a native Michigander, water connected me to the things she cared about. I also learned that she deeply empathized with our fellow humans, even the most flawed. To quote Anne of Green Gables, I realized Andrea was a kindred spirit before we ever met.

I’m grateful that in June 2017, I could attend a writing retreat, and spend 2 days getting to know Andrea the person as well as the writer. I wish it had been more. She was obviously full of love and rich perspective. She generously and thoughtfully helped me improve my own book, written for teachers. I’m grateful for the chance to know Andrea, and to reflect on knowing her. I look forward to reading her book, and learning more about a very special human being.

— Claire Elizabeth Cameron

photo of Andrea

Our writing group was looking to add a new member when Bethany introduced us to Andrea. That was a few years ago yet seems like yesterday. I appreciate Andrea’s love for nature and passion for the environment. Her words were always poetic. Her heart was always full. I mourn with her friends and family. She made a difference in the world.

— Carolyn O’Neal

photo of Andrea

Andrea had already made an impression on me before our writer group considered her as a new member. I met her the previous year at a party. I only knew a little bit about her – from her voice, her presence, and her spontaneous creativity that evening. But I knew I wanted to get to know her, and her words. I was delighted when she joined BACCA.

Meeting monthly, sharing our words and our voices, I grew to admire Andrea and her inventive, perceptive mind. When we became friends, I learned to admire more — like her love of family, her deep knowledge of English literature, her devastating low-key sense of humor, her dedication to her students, and her musicality. Knowing Andrea enriched my life. May her memory be a blessing to all of us who shared our lives with her.

— A M Carley

Photo of Andrea

Time worked its tricky magic on us. Taking something, giving something. Sleight of hand. When I joined BACCA as the sixth member, shortly after Andrea became the fifth, I walked to the table with velvet ropes erected around myself—hopeful that I would find and give help, insight, understanding—but cautious, too. I have found myself in prickly, stingy, even dangerous writing workshops before. In BACCA, I found a safe and generous community.

Andrea was a large part of the comfort I found. She and I were “new” together. We shared a love of poetry, Shakespeare, and music. For all of our shared loves, I knew I had a host to learn from Andrea too. She knew countries I’ve not yet seen. She spoke eloquently in public. She kept a luxurious pace that reminded me to slow down. Most of the time, she seemed composed. Zen-like. Steady. Even if she was remembering something important that she’d forgotten. I also admire the dreamy, lush language of her novel, High Tide, and the lovely way that poetry haunts her prose, evokes. Her characters, two of them in particular, feel real to me. I think about them, and worry about them still.

Time is tricky. Something happens when we meet, month after month, and share this much of ourselves. Somewhere—between seven months and ten—velvet ropes disappeared, caution dissolved, and (without even much fanfare) I realized we were friends. Just when things fall into place, sometimes, time moves again. And now we have to figure out how to do this without her.

— Noelle Beverly

 

Thanks to Gareth Phillips, Noelle Beverly, and Andrea’s family for the photos.

Categories
BACCA Writers

Of Bees and Books

Honeybees at River House Hives

I am a beekeeper. 

I began my first hive a few years ago and am happy to report that it is still going strong. Since then, I have acquired more. I’ve read countless articles about all the threats facing honeybees today.  From parasites to pesticides, from bears to beetles. According to one statistic, sixty-five percent of the honeybee hives in the state of Virginia died last winter. So my chances for honeybee success are pretty grim.  I can’t let the statistics discourage me.  I can’t let my passion for my honeybees end because of the naysayers. I enjoy working with honeybees regardless of the outcome.  I enjoy beekeeping.  Whether my bees thrive or perish.  Whether I harvest gallons of honey or none at all.  There is joy in the process. These industrious pollinators make our world a better place.

Carolyn O’Neal is the owner of River House Hives in Buckingham County

 

 

I am an author.

I self-published my first novel a few years ago and am happy to report that I have sales and positive reviews. Since then, I have self published more. I’ve read countless articles about the obstacles facing authors, especially self-published authors.  Endless marketing, low sales, no validation for the years of work.  So my chances for making a living as an author are pretty grim. I can’t let mere facts discourage me.  I can’t let my passion for writing end, even if no one outside friends and family read my books.  I enjoy writing.  I find it simultaneously relaxing and stimulating.  There is joy in the process. Books make our world a better place.

 

Carolyn O’Neal is the author of

KINGSLEY,

Honey I’m Yours,

Terry and the Monster-Beaters,

THAT WORD: Uterine Cancer from Diagnosis to Recovery.

Categories
BACCA Writers

Haunted at a writing retreat.

I moved aside the wooden block holding up the ancient window and carefully lowered the heavy pane, not wanting to smash my fingers. I was in my bedroom at The Porches in Norwood, Virginia—an antebellum farmhouse lovingly transformed into a quiet, contemplative writers’ retreat.  I’d come to work on a difficult chapter in my nonfiction story about the murder of John W. Funkhouser, the geology professor who discovered the earthquake fault under the North Anna Nuclear Power Plant back in 1970. With the heavy window closed, I turned on the air conditioner.  It was almost ninety degrees outside.  I opened my laptop and placed the binder with my files from the courthouse beside me. I clicked the only photo I had of the killer— from his senior high school yearbook.

Ray William Cook, Jr. was a good looking boy. Dark hair, sincere eyes, and perfect lips.  Hollywood lips.  Lips that could have been outlined by a professional makeup artist. I turned the page to the photocopy of his signed confession:

December 3, 1974

I, Ray William Cook, Jr., do make this statement to Det. H. M Shelton, Chesterfield County Police Dept., after having been advised of my constitutional rights and understanding these rights I make this statement freely and voluntarily…

I flipped page after page, recreating the crime. After a couple more hours with this murderer, it was time for dinner. A shared meal with three other writers followed by a settling stroll in the lush Virginia countryside. Weeks of rain had finally ended and the results were spectacular.  Colorful coneflowers, ubiquitous Virginia creeper, and trees competing for every inch of sunlight. I walked to a small church with a few gravestones. One or two cars passed by, the drivers waved and I waved back.

I returned to my room, to my computer, and to my binder. My chapter on Ray Cook’s family life, his physical and mental health, and his jumbled reasoning for shooting Dr. Funkhouser in the head was inching into existence.  Outside, the long June day finally gave in to the night.  The deeper I dove into the life and crimes of Ray Cook, Jr., the darker the windowpane became. Moths banged against the wavy glass. I dragged my fingers through my hair. His yearbook photo was still on my computer screen. My face was in the windowpane, lit by the screen. His face. My face.  I rubbed my arms.  It was too cool in here. I adjusted the temperature on the wall air condition.   Just a tad warmer, please.  I sat on the corner of my bed. The locked armoire beside the bed had a full length mirror.  I was tired and should have gotten some sleep, but I returned to my computer instead.

VIRGINIA:

IN THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE COUNTY OF CHESTERFIELD COMMONWEALTH

VS.

RAY WILLIAM COOK

The defendant, Ray William Cook, having been charged in this court at the March term 1975, on two felony charges; to-wit: Armed Robbery and Murder, and pursuant to the Order of the Court, having been conveyed to Central State Hospital at Petersburg, Virginia for observation and reported to the Court, at which said hospital he was received and the Superintendent of the said hospital having reported to the Court that the said Ray Willian Cook is not mentally ill, it is, therefore ORDERED that the Sheriff of Chesterfield do proceed to Central State Hospital at Petersburg, Virginia and take into his custody the said Ray William Cook and commit him to the Chesterfield County Jail, Chesterfield, Virginia to be there confined until he shall be ordered by this court to be produced before the Court for the trial of the crime of which he stands charged.

A deep quiet had settled over The Porches.  The other writers had gone to bed. Even the moths had stopped their suicidal banging. I had to get my mind off murder.   I showered, brushed my teeth, and changed into my nightgown. The brass bed was as soft as feathers with a half-dozen pillows.  I read for a while then took off my glasses and turned out the light.  The room glowed. I looked up.  I’d left my computer on. Mr. Cook’s high school yearbook photo was staring at me. I tried to ignore him. I built a fortress of pillows to block the light. But there he was.  I turned the light back on and walked to the desk. I closed the file and shut down the computer.  I returned to bed and turned off the lights.

It was too dark. It was too quiet.  I strained to hear anything beyond the rumble of the air conditioner. I couldn’t get Mr. Cook out of my head. Robbery. Murder. Prison.  Someone was watching me.  I sat up.  I switched on the light and grabbed my glasses. The mirror on the full-length armoire.  That’s all it was.  I stacked the pillows so I couldn’t see the mirror and turned off the light.

Mr. Cook was standing beside my bed.

Lights back on, glasses back on, I picked up my book and read until I heard the birds singing.  At breakfast, I told the other writers of my sleepless night. I returned to my room and my white binder, and wrote about a killer’s ghost stalking me in this lovely antebellum farmhouse.

Porches bedroom - legs
My bedroom at The Porches.  I should have put my robe over that mirror!

 

 

Carolyn O’Neal is a Charlottesville author.  She highly recommends The Porches writing retreat. This historic farmhouse built in 1854 on the James River offers a unique experience for authors and artists.