Lillian Smith: One Writer’s Brave Journey

Lillian Smith was a highly-acclaimed writer, successful business woman, a creative educator, an early civil rights advocate, and one of the most effective champions of social justice in the 20th century. She is probably best known for her controversial psychological memoir, Killers of the Dream, a 1949 publication that is still in print and occasionally excerpted in anthologies of women’s studies, southern literature, and civil rights history. Her best-selling first novel, Strange Fruit, was published in 1944 and told the story of an inter-racial love affair in a rural Georgia town shortly after World War I. Although she lived most of her life in Georgia, Smith was born in 1897 about 90 miles east of Tallahassee in the small town of Jasper, in Hamilton County, Florida.   She was the seventh of the nine children of Calvin Warren Smith and Anne Simpson Smith. The town of Jasper was founded in the 1830s, but it really didn’t begin to grow until shortly before Lillian was born with a rich trade in turpentine, tobacco, cotton, and pine lumber. Calvin Smith was one of the entrepreneurs in the area who capitalized on that trade with his business ventures in lumber and naval stores.

Lillian Smith (left) and Marjorie White
Lillian Smith (left) and Marjorie White

Lillian Smith spent all her childhood and the better part of her teenage years in this town. On many occasions throughout her life, she introduced herself with a story from her childhood years in Jasper, a story she later titled “Trembling Earth.” She said the land in North Florida is strange. She described it as “a thin little island that is hung on to the Okefenokee Swamp and hung on to the Georgia Islands and hung on to Alabama.” It felt like the ground was floating. Much later, as a seasoned writer, Lillian Smith used this image to describe the human experience: “I wonder if the whole, everything that happens to a human being is just like trembling earth? Is it all floating on something that we’ll never know, something unknown and mysterious?”

There’s little doubt that her years in Jasper shaped Lillian’s worldview for the rest of her life. As she put it, “No one could read my books without finding these early signs of my childhood,” which included telling stories to her friends, like Marjorie White. For a story to become vividly real, it needs a listener, and Marjorie played that role very well. As Lillian put it, “Her heart was lonely for what my heart was lonely for.” Near the end of her life, Lillian confided in a friend that when her family moved from Jasper when she was 17, the whole town was all frozen for her – she could go back in her mind and see all of it, and in a sense, she never left it.

When his Florida businesses failed in 1915, Calvin Smith moved the family to the small town of Clayton, in northeast Georgia, where he had recently acquired property on Old Screamer Mountain in his wife’s name and where the Smiths soon opened a summer camp for girls. During the 1915-16 academic year, Lillian Smith attended a small college thirty miles south of Clayton in Demorest, Georgia, called Piedmont College. Many years later, Smith wrote about her short tenure at the institution and expressed her gratitude for the fine instructors she had, some of whom were trained at prestigious universities such as Harvard, Oberlin, Smith, and Cornell. Although she was offered a scholarship to continue at Piedmont for the next year, family obligations prevented her from returning.

In her early twenties, Smith studied music at Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, and in her mid-twenties she served as the head of the music department in a Methodist mission school for girls in China. She witnessed terrible cruelty and repeated examples of discrimination and injustice. In her letters, essays, and articles, Lillian Smith would return over and over to these painful memories of China. With the demands of the growing summer camp operated by her family, Lillian Smith was obligated to leave China and return to Georgia in 1925 to help with the operation. She had different ideas from her father on how the camp should be structured, and with her parents’ blessing, she soon became the owner and director of the family-run business: Laurel Falls Camp for Girls. Moving far beyond the traditional hallmarks of summer camps, such as swimming, horseback riding, archery, arts, and crafts, Lillian Smith created a female community at Laurel Falls that challenged Southern conventions of gender, sexuality, religion, and race.

Through writing, drama, music, visual arts, and in-depth discussions, she instilled within her campers the importance of independent thinking, compassion, and confidence. Very few camp directors in the South were as bold as Lillian Smith in confronting the issues of segregation and racial inequality. Laurel Falls Camp continued through the late 1940s and developed quite a reputation. Lillian Smith did not manage the camp alone. A woman named Paula Snelling came to work for the Smith family for the summer of 1921 as an athletic director for the camp.  The two women formed a close friendship after Smith returned home and took over the camp, an intimate and loving relationship that developed and grew into a life-long partnership.

Lillian Smith (right) and Paula Snelling
Lillian Smith (right) and Paula Snelling

Lillian Smith was diagnosed with breast cancer in the spring of 1953. Later that year, her third book, titled The Journey, was published. The book expresses the author’s hope for humanity and her belief in our infinite possibilities. The final paragraph of the book begins with this sentence that exemplifies this optimistic vision: “To believe in something not yet proved and to underwrite it with our lives: it is the only way we can leave the future open.” Smith would go on to publish several more books, fiction and nonfiction, and numerous articles and essays on social justice and racial equality, all of which were written from her home on Screamer Mountain. She died on September 28, 1966 and was buried there. Paula Snelling suffered a stroke in 1979 that left her partially paralyzed.  She died in 1985.

Lillian Smith
Lillian Smith

Lillian Smith boldly spoke out against the injustices of her day, even those occurring in other countries. The most obvious abuse and that which was closest to home for her as a southerner was racial discrimination. She combined her talents as a creative writer and her keen sense of observation to publish persuasive and powerful books and articles about the growing civil rights movement in the mid-twentieth century. So many of the words we read from her works are just as relevant today as they were sixty years ago.

Museum of the Cherokee Indian

My mother loved Indians. More accurately, she loved the traditional characterization of the Indians in American arts and crafts. It was a romantic view of the people who were inhabiting North America when Europeans began to migrate west and “settle” on the continent. My mother was not interested in bows and arrows, spears, or war paint. She collected inexpensive artwork (prints, plates, figurines, etc.) featuring lovely brown-skinned people in traditional Indian attire as they were portrayed by Hollywood, for the most part. I would be the last to criticize her taste because some of the pieces she decorated our house with were indeed beautiful. She probably didn’t know much about the history of the numerous nations and tribes that were scattered all across North America, and she didn’t need to in order to appreciate her image of the Indian.

When I was young, one of our family’s favorite vacation spots was Gatlinburg, Tennessee, a tourist mecca in the Great Smoky Mountains with attractions, miniature golf, sky-lifts, and shops selling everything from taffy to stuffed black bears. To get to Gatlingburg, we had to go through the smaller town of Cherokee, North Carolina, which is also the home of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation. We always stopped in Cherokee because, in the 1960s, it was a place of wonder where local residents used about the only thing they had, their history and heritage, as a way to scrape out a living. The town had live bears wasting away in cages, shops filled with Chinese-manufactured Indian souvenirs, and the occasional celebrity walking around the town to be photographed with visitors. I had my picture taken with Jon Provost, whose name probably means nothing to most folks today, but to a young lad in the late 1960s, he was an almost grown-up version of a television hero: Timmy Martin, the boy who had a dog named Lassie.

I also remember that, along the roadside passing through Cherokee, there would always be local men, young and old, dressed up like Hollywood Indians. They wore leather loincloths and moccasins, were often shirtless, had their faces decorated with paint, and usually had full feather headdresses (for the record, the Cherokee traditionally did not wear full feather headdresses at all). Vacationers were expected to pay them for a photograph, and looking back, I can only hope that this type of enterprise was not their only source of income, although it certainly may have been. The town of Cherokee today still has a vestige of the tourist trap atmosphere of the mid-20th century, but much of the most deplorable exploitation I remember from my childhood is gone. Some would argue what has taken its place is just as bad. The tribe owns a fairly large casino resort in Cherokee operated by Caesars Entertainment under the brand Harrah’s. The Eastern Cherokee do not live on a reservation, which is defined as land given by the federal government to a tribe. They own 57,000 acres of land which they bought in the 1800s and which is now owned by them but held in trust by the federal government.

There is an attraction in Cherokee that has moved away from the trappings of my childhood memories and beyond my mother’s fantasies of the “noble savage.” It is a temporary refuge from the slot machines, the gift shops, and the traffic. The Museum of the Cherokee Indian offers a cultural and historical overview of the people of the southern Appalachian Mountains going back 13,000 years. Contrary to popular opinion about appropriate nomenclature, it is actually more acceptable and accurate to use the term “American Indians” than “Native Americans” when referring to the tribes that occupied the western hemisphere before European exploration began. Combining interactive video with intriguing displays, the museum invites visitors to take a self-guided tour complete with computer-generated imagery, special effects, and an extensive artifact collection.

Museum of the Cherokee Indian
Museum of the Cherokee Indian

The museum’s interpretation is divided into two permanent exhibits: “Story of the Cherokee” and “Emissaries of Peace.” The first exhibit follows the history of the Cherokee from the early origins when mastodons roamed the region, through the Woodland and Mississippian periods, contact with Old World explorers and conquerors, the tragic Trail of Tears removal, and up to the present day.  The second exhibit tells the story of Henry Timberlake’s visit to the Cherokees in 1762, and how he took Cherokee leaders to London to meet with King George III. These narratives are told through animation, audio-visual presentations, life-sized figures, artwork, and priceless artifacts.

Museum of the Cherokee Indian
Museum of the Cherokee Indian

The Museum of the Cherokee Indian is not a tourist trap designed only for entertainment or to perpetuate stereotypes about Indians portrayed in early motion pictures. It is managed by knowledgeable professionals who care about the Cherokee people’s heritage and dignity as an independent tribe. The executive director, James “Bo” Taylor, earned a degree in anthropology with a minor in Cherokee Studies from Western Carolina University. He has learned the Cherokee dances, which he performs regularly, and can read and write the Cherokee language. Taylor also teaches the Cherokee language in intensive ten-day immersion classes. The museum’s education director, Dr. Barbara R. Duncan, earned her Ph.D. in Folklore and Folklife from the University of Pennsylvania in 1982 and has lived in the southern Appalachian Mountains since 1983. She has written and edited award-winning books about Cherokee history and culture, including Living Stories of the Cherokee and Cherokee Heritage Trails Guidebook (with co-author Brett Riggs).

Museum of the Cherokee Indian
Museum of the Cherokee Indian

In addition to exhibits, the museum offers workshops, performances, guided tours of the region, publications, and classes. The museum archives is a repository of thousands of books, photographs, manuscripts, personal papers, and digital collections, all of which are accessible to museum members and qualified scholars. Visitors to the museum can spend an hour or two strolling through the halls, or a day or two becoming completely immersed in the displays and collections. This facility is a real treasure and not to be missed by those who are truly interested in the story of the Cherokee Indians, or as they originally called themselves, Aniyunwiya, “the principal people.” Enjoy the casino, but take a break from the tables and check out the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, and make sure to use part of your winnings to purchase a souvenir from the museum’s gift shop.

Pilgrims to Andalusia, the Home of Flannery O’Connor

During the thirteen years that I served as the director of Andalusia, the home of Flannery O’Connor in Milledgeville, Georgia, I had the privilege of meeting thousands of fans of this gifted writer. They came from every state in the country and from almost every continent around the globe. O’Connor is one of those rare authors whose work attracts an amazingly diverse audience. On any given day at Andalusia farm, we might have welcomed a busload of World War II generation grandparents in the morning followed in the afternoon by college students dressed all in black with spiked hair, black fingernail polish and lipstick, tattoos on all visible surfaces, and metal piercings decorating their faces who would walk in the door and say, “Flannery O’Connor is so kick-ass!” Her fan base covers almost every segment of society: straight, LGBTQ, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, agnostic, atheist (one of our largest donors was an atheist biology professor), Democrat, Republican, alt left and right, blue and white collar, and readers representing all income levels. Her books have been translated into at least twenty different foreign languages, indicating the cultural diversity of her following too.

What draws readers to O’Connor’s work, and why do they travel great distances to visit Andalusia, the place where she finished all of her published books? From my standpoint, there are only a few definitive answers but plenty of speculation. When we welcomed visitors to the farm, the first question we asked them was, “How did you find out about Andalusia?” Their answer would usually give us some clues of how to structure their tour to give them the best experience possible. If their response was, “We just saw the sign on the road and wondered what was back here,” then we would give them plenty of biographical information to introduce them to O’Connor’s life and the significance of her contributions to American literature. If on the other hand they told us that they had been teaching O’Connor’s work for 25 years and had always wanted to see the place that inspired her fiction, we would go in a different direction, encouraging them to ask questions that would satisfy their curiosity about O’Connor’s environs.

Andalusia, Home of Flannery O'Connor
Andalusia, Home of Flannery O’Connor

Anyone who has read O’Connor’s fiction even once immediately recognizes that her characters are particularly odd and not altogether admirable, which is probably the most polarizing point for her readers. Consequently, there are few lukewarm reactions to O’Connor’s stories; people either hate them or absolutely adore them. The haters walk away puzzled at why the lovers become nearly obsessed. Many of the die-hard fans who visited Andalusia had a mission to locate every place on the property that supposedly appears in the stories: the hayloft where Hulga lost her wooden leg; the milking parlor where Asbury drank the unpasteurized milk; the equipment shed with its tractor that ran over Mr. Guizac; and the white water tower in “A Circle in the Fire.” Other admirers weren’t as fascinated with such direct physical connections but were nevertheless impressed with how the farm clearly served as an inspiration for the fiction. O’Connor is revered by so many writers, some of whom made the pilgrimage to Andalusia while I was there: Allan Gurganus, Padgett Powell, and Salman Rushdie were among them.

Who else visited Andalusia and why? Here is where the story becomes more intriguing and just a tad O’Connoresque. A few examples may shed some light on how wide the spectrum was and render a snapshot of the author’s devotees. The true pilgrims were the visitors who regarded O’Connor and her home with a certain sense of reverence, like the woman who stepped up to the front porch and asked me if she should remove her shoes before entering the house, as if she were about to tread on holy ground. I assured her that I always kept my shoes on in and outside the house. Those who were specifically drawn to O’Connor’s use of grace bestowed, if not slammed, on her characters truly considered Andalusia to be a place of religious significance.  This was especially the perspective of practicing Catholics and most notably clergy, like the two priests who requested to hold a prayer vigil in the guest bedroom on the second floor where they would be less likely disturbed by, or be disturbing to, other visitors. They were up there for an hour. I was impressed with their stamina — the room was hotter than three hells in the summer, which was the time they elected to visit, in full black vestments.

A common observation shared by so many Andalusia visitors was a sense of the author’s spirit being present in the main house and on the property. For some this was merely a recognition that the authenticity of the place — buildings, furniture, and furnishings original to O’Connor’s time at the farm — helped them somehow feel closer to its famous occupant. Of course, we also had our fair share of ghost hunters and paranormal investigators who, for reasons that defy understanding, believe that the departed with celebrity status are more easily detected than your run-of-the-mill homeowner. I have never understood why ghost hunters don’t spend more time at hospitals, the very place where so many people pass on to the “next plane of existence.” I could usually tell if a visitor had high hopes for a Poltergeist encounter by the familiar question, “So, did she die in the house?” She did not. She died in the hospital.

Some of our guests went the extra mile to make their visit to Andalusia a truly memorable experience. A couple of folk singers recorded an original song on the front porch. Artists painted landscapes and farm buildings. Writers drafted stories while sitting in the iris gardens. Photographers snapped shots everywhere their eyes pulled them. One young woman was so taken by the beauty of the place while she was attending the college in town, O’Connor’s undergraduate alma mater, that she decided to have her wedding on the front lawn under the enormous oak trees, complete with peacock feathers in her hair. (O’Connor raised many different breeds of domestic birds, but peacocks are the species so identified with her life at Andalusia.)

O’Connor fans have found inventive ways to demonstrate their devotion to the author, from naming their daughters “Flannery” to having elaborate tattoos of peacock feathers permanently decorating their bodies. It was a pleasure to meet them all and to hear them share their admiration for this comic genius. Some made great sacrifices to pay homage to O’Connor at Andalusia, like the four scholars from Japan who spent most of a Saturday at the farm. When I asked what brought them to the states, the only one who could speak any English at all looked at me with a surprised expression and then smiled warmly and said, “Flannery O’Connor.  This place.” I was moved.

Flannery O'Connor's bed
Flannery O’Connor’s bed

The impact that O’Connor’s work had on some visitors’ lives was immediately apparent when they walked in the front door of the main house. Their countenance, their excitement, and their strong emotions spoke volumes. Several claimed that O’Connor had drawn them to the Catholic Church. Others credited O’Connor for launching their vocations as writers, artists, teachers, or ministers. It is rather ironic that a writer who has brought great joy to so many readers also endured great suffering for the last third of her 39 years as lupus slowly took away her life. This is an inescapable part of her story that no sensitive visitor to Andalusia would ever miss. I watched big, burly men apologize to me as they wept standing at the doorway of O’Connor’s first-floor bedroom where she slept and worked. No need to be sorry — I cried too, more than once.

Yes, Viva Las Vegas, Because It Is So American

Europeans moved into the Mexican-held area of what is now Las Vegas in the early 1800s on expeditions to open trade routes between New Mexico and California. “Las Vegas” is Spanish for “the meadows,” which described the grassy area in the desert that was fed by a series of springs. By the mid-19th century, this valley region was a part of the United States. The railroads came through in the early 20th century, but southern Nevada was still very much a frontier region. Everything began to change in 1931 with a huge project that would completely alter the physical and cultural landscape of the valley: the construction of Hoover Dam on the Colorado River. Thousands of workers needed entertainment, and they found it on the city’s only paved road, Fremont Street, where gambling houses and saloons began to pop up with their signature flashing neon signs made possible with the plentiful electricity generated at the dam.

Vegas Vic from the Pioneer Club
Vegas Vic from the Pioneer Club

As mob money funneled from the east began to pour into the city, the funds went from playing the tables to building casinos, and even legal investors became interested, including the Mormon Church. By the mid-1950s, millions of tourists were making their way to the city, driving up the demand and the supply of casinos, hotels, and night clubs. The Old-West character of the city was replaced by massive, more modern resorts in the 1960s with the interest and influx of cash from big players like Howard Hughes. Into the 1980s and 90s, investors such as Steve Wynn pushed the envelope even further with the introduction of the Mirage and numerous resorts popped up with international themes from places like Paris, Venice, Egypt, and Rome.

Las Vegas resorts
Las Vegas resorts

With its reputation for providing an endless supply of legal amenities around the clock, such as gambling, striptease shows, and alcohol, along with the not-so-legal activities of drugs, money-laundering, and prostitution, Las Vegas has earned the nickname “Sin City.” It is the premiere destination for self-indulgence, excess, and over-the-top entertainment for adults. Over the decades the city has produced a distinctive sub-culture and has inspired hundreds of cliches, myths, and jokes. It attracts more than 41 million visitors each year from every state in the union and all around the world. Seventeen of the twenty largest hotels in the country are in Las Vegas, and they are all luxurious.

Las Vegas night life
Las Vegas night life

Both historians and sociologists have observed that among the advanced countries in the world, America is still like a reckless, impetuous adolescent — full of energy and life, always on the run, flashy and even gaudy, a little out of control, and perhaps a bit naughty. If this is a fair assessment, then Las Vegas is an exhibition of America to the extreme. Visitors come to the city for many different reasons, but most of those reasons revolve around the entertainment options available. Certainly, Vegas is not everyone’s cup of tea, and many people find it shallow, gratuitous, or even repulsive. Be that as it may, this city undeniably presents us with an honest and vivid reflection of an important part of the American spirit. We are a nation driven by sensation. We love to be dazzled, impressed, shocked, and amazed. Las Vegas never fails to deliver.

Paris Las Vegas Hotel & Casino
Paris Las Vegas Hotel & Casino

The Omega Point: Where Science and Religion Converge

I just finished reading The Luminous Web by Barbara Brown Taylor. This is the fourth book I have read by Taylor, and although it is not her best-known work, I think this short essay collection is very fine. Admittedly, my praise of the book comes out of my deep interest in the intersection (or polarization) of science and religion. Most scientists will not find it as compelling as those who are sympathetic to religious belief or even spirituality. Published in 2000, the book is perhaps somewhat dated now, but the principle thesis and the keen observations are still perfectly relevant. Taylor is a priest and a professor of religion with a sincere interest in science, which places her in good company with some of the greatest minds in history, going back to the Middle Ages with Thomas Aquinas and up to the 20th century with people like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who was both a priest and a scientist. I think Rev. Dr. Taylor believes in and is always searching for what Teilhard de Chardin named the “Omega Point,” that evolutionary conclusion where God and the physical universe are united, or as some have phrased it, a “divine unification.” To Taylor, God is not superseded by science nor is God made irrelevant by the scientific method.  She clings to the idea that science and religion are equally in pursuit of the truth — the former in its exploration and explanation of the physical universe and the latter in its attempts to find meaning and purpose.

The Luminous Web by Barbara Brown Taylor

I have been reading popular books on science and religion for about thirty years. I am drawn to authors who tend to challenge or even shatter long-held assumptions about religion, mainly Christianity since that is the faith of my heritage. In addition to Barbara Brown Taylor, a few that come to mind are Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, Bart D. Ehrman, Philip Gulley, and James Mulholland. In recent years I have also been reading books by the modern atheists and humanists, like Carl Sagan, Stephen J. Gould, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Greg M. Epstein, Edward O. Wilson, Eugenie C. Scott, and Jerry A. Coyne. All of these writers have addressed the friction created where science and religion meet.

I certainly have issues with organized religion, although I am a member of the Episcopal Church. I am repelled by evangelical Christianity, fundamentalist factions across the globe, radical sects of all faiths, and any religious practice that results in division, discrimination, sexism, racism, and superiority. At the same time, I cannot agree with some of the modern atheists who have decided that all religion is superstitious nonsense with no purpose, no value to humanity. Some of these scholars claim that religion is not just a benign fantasy but a dangerous threat to the survival of humanity.  To judge religion based on the manner in which it is too often adulterated by immoral clergy, zealots, dictators, and politicians, to my way of thinking, is similar to faulting science when technology is used by power-hungry leaders to make weapons of mass destruction.

Some scientists posit that, since the beginning of the Enlightenment, science has been rapidly replacing religion as a unified explanation for all existence. In other words, we don’t need religion anymore. As much as Dawkins and others have tried to make the case of science’s ability to answer all our questions, I believe there will always be significant gaps. My argument for the existence and validity of religion is primarily built on its longevity, that it has been a hallmark of hominids at least as far back as the Neanderthals. Evolutionary theory teaches us that nature selects what will and will not survive based on characteristics such as fitness, adaptability, necessity, and the ability to pass on vital information from one generation to the next.  It works for genes, language, technology, and yes, religion. Humans have passed down faith and myth for thousands of years, not because they are entertained by them, but because they need them.

As contemplative animals who are consciously aware of their existence, their past, and their possible future, humans have evolved a thirst for answers to questions about our place in the universe, how it all began, and the meaning of life. But, we also need a practice to help us appreciate and absorb emotion, beauty, and a whole host of other experiences. Sometimes science falls short, not because of what is yet undiscovered, but because so many people need the most treasured part of life to remain a mystery. Is religion nothing more than a panacea? Is it “the opium of the people” as Karl Marx observed? Is it a vestige that we will eventually slough off like dead skin? I suppose it’s possible, but I don’t think that we will see that next stage in our evolutionary development nearly as soon as some of our atheist friends are predicting.

San Francisco Hiking

For those who enjoy hiking, perhaps the first places that come to mind for the activity are wilderness sanctuaries offered at national and state parks or through the U.S. Forestry Service.  Surprisingly, there are also some major metropolitan areas that provide hiking opportunities both inside the city and in the surrounding countryside.  Inner-city parks are great places to enjoy nature and leg-stretching.  Sometimes, just walking the streets can end up being a good cardio workout, especially when cities are built in hilly sections of the country.  One of the best destinations for hiking in the U.S. is the San Francisco Bay area.  The city is characterized by steep hills and valleys, and there is an abundance of parks and wilderness all around the bay.

Transamerica building in San Francisco
Transamerica building in San Francisco

The city of San Francisco is built on a peninsula in a grid pattern with a collection of over forty hills, some of which reach a height of nearly 1,000 feet.  There are plenty of books and websites devoted to urban hiking for San Francisco, and there are groups organized specifically for walking in the city for health, recreation, relaxation, social interaction, and learning about the history of the area.  There are even companies that offer guided walks, such as Urban Hiker San Francisco.  Most walks are a moderate challenge to people in fairly good health, and some of them have the added bonus of stellar views of the city.  For example, the 40-minute loop trails at Bernal Hill crisscross 26 acres of pathways, some of which lead to the summit with 360-degree views of San Francisco all the way to Daly City, Oakland, and Berkeley.

Once you get outside the city, there are loads of hiking options to the north, east, and south.  The California Coastal Trail is very popular and yields spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean and the rugged cliffs along the California Coast.  There are also nice trails with beautiful bay vistas and distant views of the Golden Gate Bridge in suburbs such as Point Richmond to the east.  Located along the rocky cliffs to the south and overlooking the ocean, Lands End is easily one of the most popular spots for a scenic walk.  The trails are accessible from a parking lot just north of the world-famous Cliff House and directly in front of another major San Francisco attraction — the ruins of the Sutro Baths, a former swim palace built in the 19th century which featured the world’s largest indoor swimming pool at the time of its opening.  The waves crashing against the giant rocks on the beach at Lands End is like something out of a movie!

Land's End waves crashing on the beach
Lands End waves crashing on the beach

Looking for a more traditional hiking experience?  Just a short drive north of the city is Muir Woods National Monument.  Named for the adventurous naturalist who devoted so much of his life to preserving the wonderful natural resources of the west, this National Park Service property is home to a primeval forest of old growth coast redwoods, cooling their roots in the fresh water of Redwood Creek and lifting their crowns to reach the sun and fog.  The diversity of flora and fauna at Muir Woods is incredible.  The redwoods themselves dominate the scene, but the humble Steller’s jay, ladybugs, ancient horsetail ferns, and the banana slug hold their own beneath the canopy.  Plants adapt to low light levels on the forest floor, while whole plant and animal communities bustle in the canopy.

Muir Woods
Muir Woods

Of course, the bay is the true centerpiece of this portion of the Pacific Coast.  With an average depth of only 12-15 feet, this large body of water looks more like a massive inland lake than a gateway to the ocean.  The main body of the bay covers about 400 square miles.  Approximately 40% of California’s water systems drains into the bay.  Most visitors to the area probably take in the view of the bay from Golden Gate Bridge, but to truly appreciate its size, the perspective from the surrounding hillsides is best.  My personal favorite vantage points are along the east side at Richmond and from the north at Muir Woods.  Hiking is a great form of exercise, but what we see along the way makes the experience so memorable.  With that objective in mind, San Francisco is a hiker’s dream.

San Francisco Bay from Muir Woods
San Francisco Bay from Muir Woods

Gardening Comes Second Only to Reading

Many years ago, my two sons gave me a special gift for Father’s Day that I am still using now, all the time, 365 days out of the year.  The gift was a fabricated flat, natural-looking stone that is engraved with the sentence: GARDENING COMES SECOND ONLY TO READING.  It was the perfect present because, for me at least, that declaration is quite true.  I would argue that my family actually comes first (I hope they would agree!), and I could certainly make the case for several more seconds and thirds, with music taking a prominent place near the top of the list.  Both of my boys knew then, as they still recognize now, that gardening is a passion for me — something on which I am willing to spend plenty of hard-earned dollars.  I have lived in three different locations since they presented me with that engraved stone, and it is still part of the hardscape of my gardens today.

Entry way garden
Entry way garden

I became interested in landscaping and ornamental gardening in 1987, shortly after my sons’ mother and I bought our first house.  I had started working in a public library two years earlier, and I was fascinated by gardening magazines and books that I was cataloging.  I wanted to have a yard with more than just an expanse of grass and a few foundation shrubs around the house.  I wanted to create a little oasis!  I started building my own personal library of gardening books, learning as much as possible about soil condition, hardiness zones, watering, fertilizing, and plant identification.  I didn’t have much disposable income in those years, so I started out small and concentrated on a few specific areas, such as the side entrance to our house that we used most often.  A few years later we started a family and moved into a larger house on a steeply sloping lot.  It was a challenging yard, but over the years I began to mold it into something that I could work with and make attractive.  One of the most successful projects was the creation of a lush entry-way garden leading from the parking area to the front door, which is pictured in the photograph above.  Before moving away from that house, I also created two azalea islands under oak and sweet gum trees in the front yard, a pathway leading through ornamental trees and shrubs in the backyard, and my first small pond with a waterfall. (See my post from May 17, 2016 to learn more about the waterfalls and ponds I have designed through the years.)

Pond garden at sunrise
Pond garden at sunrise

When I met my second wife, she was living on a lake in central Georgia.  When we married, I moved in with her.  The previous owners of this lake house had invested considerably in the landscape, but my wife had made several improvements before we were married including upgrading the irrigation system, replacing an old patio, removing pine trees, and installing ornamental shrubs and trees.  We decided to have our wedding ceremony on the patio overlooking the lake and a small pond and waterfall that I finished just a few days before the big day.  Over the next two years I added plants and landscape lights around the pond to make the area into a separate garden spot, complete with a bird feeder and a bench.

Patio lake garden
Patio lake garden

The new and expanded patio was a perfect place to add a container garden, so we began looking for interesting pots, such as the sculpted face pot and stand that we affectionately named Annabel — the face on the pot looks melancholy and reminds us of the subject of the poem by Edgar Allan Poe, “Annabel Lee.”  The patio container garden was framed by a beautiful stand of Loropetalum shrubs that my wife had planted shortly after she moved into the house.  This garden was completed by a chiminea and a hot tub, which is just out of view at the lower left corner of the photo above.  The gently sloping grass of the yard and the view of the large cove beyond were a perfect backdrop to this little slice of paradise just outside the sliding glass doors leading from our master bedroom.

Front island garden
Front island garden

In 2013 we moved to the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in northeast Georgia.  This part of the state is in a different plant zone than our previous location.  As such there are some semi-tropical species that we can no longer have in our yard, but other ornamentals that need cooler temperatures are perfectly at home here.  Our growing season is a week or two shorter also, but climate change is bringing earlier springs and extended autumns as the years go by.  The previous owners of this house did a fine job of building the “bones” of this property, with a large planting island in the front yard and a fairly deep shrub bed in front of the house.  We have made a few changes, such as adding some annual planting beds and thinning some of the dwarf Nandina on the side of the house.  We have also added to the plants in the front island (pictured above) and covered it all with a healthy layer of wood chips.  The greatest addition we have made to the property is the installation of an in-ground swimming pool with a waterfall, providing us with yet another opportunity to create a new garden oasis.  Although I did not build this “pond,” my wife and I did help with the design.  We have worked very hard over the last two years on the landscaping around the pool by installing a river rock border, bringing in new plants, and arranging container plantings around the decking. The sound of running water is such a pleasant feature of this space, which of course, is also a perfect area for enjoying my first passion . . . reading.

Pool waterfall garden
Pool waterfall garden