Life’s Funny

The Giving Tree

The arms of an old magnolia take a young reader to new heights

By Maria Johnson

When a fellow book lover like Renee Lewis invites you up to see her favorite reading spot, you go.

I confess that I was a little nervous. It had been a while since I’d climbed a tree, so I was relieved when 9-year-old Renee tutored me on the proper way to enter her sanctuary, a glossy old magnolia across the street from her family’s home in Greensboro.

Renee walked to the high side of the tree, which grows on a gentle slope, and grabbed a forked branch just above her head.

“Feel how smooth the bark is?” she asked like a good coach.

I ran a hand over the magnolia’s fine-grained skin, remembering what it was like to be a kid, touch a tree, smell it and realize that it was another living thing — one that could give you shelter and an entirely different perspective if you learned how to feel your way through it. Kind of like a book.

Renee — who was dressed for a cool summer morning in fashionably ripped jeans and T-shirt the color of orange sherbet — knew that already.

She pulled against the forked branch as her gold-and-silver gladiator sandals walked up the trunk. Her pigtails hung free. Then she grabbed another small branch, vaulted herself to a broad arm of the tree, spun around, seated herself and smiled.

She planted one foot against the trunk and dangled the other leg, swinging it for a couple of beats. Then she showed me around the tree, gliding onto neighboring perches, pointing out available seating.

On the ground, her dad, Ben, cautioned her not to go higher.

“This is as high as we usually go,” Renee said, patting a branch above her. “This is the highest one that’ll support us, actually.”
Her meaning was subtle: Higher branches had been tried, out of the view of adults. That’s what leaves are for.

It was my turn. Dressed in my own tree-climbing jeans and sandals, I latched onto Renee’s pull-up bar and shimmied up to a stout branch opposite hers.

We weren’t that high up — our eyes were maybe 6 or 7 feet off the ground — but it felt so different up there.

Sunlight filtered through a filigree of green.

Creamy magnolia blossoms, as big as salad plates, gave off shy notes of sweet and sour.

“Nice,” I said, complimenting Renee on her refuge.

“Mmm, hmm,” she confirmed, her dark eyes shining with confidence. “Yep.”

Below, everything below seemed smaller.

Renee’s mom and dad looked up from an apron of leathery brown leaves spent by the magnolia.

Boys coasted by on their multispeed bicycles. Tick-tick-tick-tick. Somewhere down the street, a lawnmower droned toward the heat of the day.

Closer, a mockingbird moved through its repertoire by whistling, squawking and chirping.

A cardinal sang background — pur-DEE, pur-DEE — and a tortoiseshell cat named Vesper slunk along the curb, thinking we couldn’t see her.

But we could.

Renee, a rising fourth-grader, has been climbing this tree for two or three years. All the neighborhood kids do, if they have permission from their parents. The couple who own the house and yard — Charlie and Ellen Witzke — are empty-nesters who like having children around. When they hired tree trimmers, they made sure the crew left enough low branches so the kids still could hoist themselves into the magnolia.

It’s only for the last few months that Renee has been coming up here to read. Her school, Caldwell Academy, required third graders to read at least 90 minutes a week outside of school.

Usually, Renee zoomed through her quota in the car on the way to and from school. Her parents timed her on their cell phones. But if she was really into a book, she’d get home and say, “I’m going to the tree to read.”

The magnolia is, as Renee likes to say, “the only serene place” she knows — much calmer than home, with her yellow Labrador retriever, Nugget, romping around, and her old sister, Carter, busy being a teenager, and her parents taking remote meetings for work.

Whenever Renee came up here — to a tree not yet populated by after-school kids — her parents could keep an eye on her, and she could have some privacy.


There was another bonus for her mom. Watching Renee beeline to the tree brought back good memories for Jennifer, who used to play in a magnolia at the home of her grandparents, Kitty and Dr. Sam Ravenel, in Greensboro’s leafy Fisher Park.

“Oh my gosh,” Jennifer thought. “That’s just like my brother and me climbing the tree at Pa and Nanny’s.”

The first book that Renee took across the street was Ava and Star, the third book in the Unicorn Academy series by author Julie Sykes. Each book pairs a girl with a unicorn, and together they use their unique powers to benefit Unicorn Island.

Later, Renee climbed up with The Shimmering Stone, part of The Rescue Princesses series by Paula Harrison.

Renee broke her extracurricular reading record that week, logging 200-plus minutes, thanks to the story of Amina, whose mission is to return tiger cubs to their mother.

“I loved it because that’s where I got my information about tigers,” Renee says, explaining that she’s into big cats — tigers, lions, cheetahs, leopards.

Really, Renee says, she loves animals, period.

Maybe that’s why she’s enthralled by her current book — and one of my all-time favorites — Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White.

Renee thumbs to a dog-eared page of the paperback. Wilbur has just escaped. The other barn animals are egging him on while humans are trying to lure him back with a mixture of “warm milk, potato skins and wheat middlings.”

“Doesn’t sound very appetizing,” Renee’s mom says from below.

“Well, he is a runt, Mom. And milk — he’s a baby,” Renee counters.

Her mother smiles. “That’s true.”

Renee continues. Wilbur has already met Charlotte, the spider and title character.

“She said, ‘Hi,’ and he screamed,” Renee recalls. “I thought that was funny.”

She guesses — partly from the book’s title — that Charlotte is going to have a big impact on Wilbur’s life.

“I think the spider could show something to Wilbur, like bravery or something he hasn’t been through,” she says. “I could see the spider changing the way Wilbur sees things . . . I can see maybe more conflict with Wilbur.”

Renee says she likes to read about how people — and animals — respond to the problems that lie at the heart of every riveting story.

She knows this already.

“It kind of opens up your imagination, when you can relate to a character in some book,” she says.

Then she giggles out the precious truth of a nine-year-old reader.

“I have a very wild imagination.”  OH

Maria Johnson is a contributing editor of O.Henry. She reads books and climbs magnolias whenever she gets the chance. Contact her at

Home Grown

Pop-Tarts for Turfnauts

The Space Age breakfast pastry continues to orbit

By Cynthia Adams

Jerry Seinfeld is making a movie about Pop-Tarts.

What took him so long?

Since they first hit grocery shelves in 1964, Pop-Tarts remain a smash Kellogg’s hit. In the brand’s own words, they were the original “breakfast treat!”

Who doesn’t like a treat?

Flavors, mind you, frequently rotated. As American Frankenfood rose to prominence, the product soared. Because, well, you toast Pop-Tarts (or not) and that’s it! Pop them straight into your mouth or lunch box. It was a hybrid pastry/cookie, which, as Seinfeld says, couldn’t be stale, because it had never actually been fresh.

Fresh-ish would suffice.

Americans were going places — like the moon!

Heading into new frontiers, astronauts needed transportable food-like things that would hold up another 10 lightyears. So did we land-locked turfnauts (a word I just invented), who might have to hit the fallout shelters if the Russians dropped the big one.

1964 was a seminal year for the power of design and expediency. Things in tubes (Pringles!) populated grocery shelves, along with Ruffles potato chips, Doritos and Bugles.

A sugary cereal with marshmallow bits and colored charms, Lucky Charms, debuted, branded by a daft Leprechaun.

But Pop-Tarts lofted itself into the public consciousness, rocketing off shelves with spacey je ne sais quoi. As Seinfeld said in The New York Times, they expanded possibilities from toast, cereal and frozen-orange-juice-in-a-can. (OJ was passé once Tang hit.)

Revert to a childlike POV: Loosened from a space-race inspired wrapper, Pop-Tarts looked like something you could breakfast on while orbiting the cosmos, washed down with a squirt of Tang!

Nobody knew what was actually in it, but that stopped no one from eating it — ever.

Pop-Tarts, brought to you by the health-nut founded Kellogg’s, grasped that youthful desire to start the morning the way any child in the world likes best: sugary dough stuffed with a corn-syrup filling.

When Kellogg’s execs heard that Post, their main rival, had a toaster pastry ready for market, they hustled. (Post got lost in the weeds testing names with the lamest focus group ever. Country Squares won.)

Kellogg’s understood the stakes, and drew inspiration from Andy Warhol, the king of pop culture. Some say he even consulted on name and packaging.

If Warhol did for Kellogg’s pastry-in-a-box what he did for Campbell’s tomato soup, “Why just think!” Kellogg’s people whispered.

Country Squares beat Pop-Tarts to the market, and should have beaten the cinnamon-sugar stuffing out of them.

But Post’s stodgy name had less panache than Country Crock butter.

Post rebranded Country Squares as Toast ’Ems. But too little, too late.

Within two weeks Pop-Tarts sold out, and Kellogg’s ran super apologetic ads. “Oops! We Goofed,” read its ads. The breakfast brand had underestimated the power of food with an unlimited shelf life paired with a Pop Art icon’s influence.

Kellogg’s later tested a Pop-Tarts cereal.

To this day, Kellogg’s sells “billions of Pop-Tarts a year,” according to Andrew Smith in Fast Food and Junk Food: An Encyclopedia of What We Love to Eat. Its best seller? Cinnamon brown sugar, one of four original flavors.

In 2001, the U.S. rained free Pop-Tarts and herb rice on Afghanistan by air — a PR effort. The Pop-Tarts? A show of what good will and ingenuity looks like from people who have loved that food-thingy forever.

“Sales still soar,” writes Huffington Post.

And Warhol? He endures, too, like Pop-Tarts. “Marilyn” just sold for a hot $195 mil. OH

Cynthia Adams is a contributing editor to O.Henry.



But not the Edward Hopper kind

By Susan Campbell

The common nighthawk is neither “common” nor a “hawk.” Found in the Sandhills and Piedmont of North Carolina, these large birds feed exclusively on insects and actually do so at night. They use their large mouths to catch prey. Beetles and other insects are instantaneously intercepted and ingested by way of the birds’ oversized mouths. Nighthawks are unique in that they literally fly into large insects. Because their weak feet are designed purely for perching, they do not grab at them as true hawks do.

These medium-sized birds are active mainly at dawn and dusk when beetles and other big insects are also most active. Due to their terrific night vision, nighthawks hunt effectively in darkness, though they may even feed during the day, especially when they have young to provide for. In early summer, cicadas, grasshoppers, larger wasps and true bugs are abundant and, given their aerodynamic prowess, nighthawks are very successful predators at any hour.

As one of many survival tactics, common nighthawks spend the day perched horizontally on a pine branch. Invisibility is the goal during daylight hours. Although their vision is not compromised, they have a better advantage when light intensity is low. The mottled black, gray and white feathering is very hard to see regardless of the time of day, but their characteristic low “peee-nt” call and erratic moth-like flight is distinctive.

Common nighthawks’ nests are well camouflaged. Females simply scrape a spot to create a nesting area. Their speckled eggs blend in well with the mineral soil and miscellaneous debris typical of native arid terrain. Females are known to perform a feeble “broken wing” display if they are disturbed. This act is the only defense they have to draw potential predators away from the eggs or young.

More likely, common nighthawks’ presence will be given away by males “booming” in the early morning over high quality open habitat. The unique noise they produce comes from air passing over the wing feathers of breeding males — not vocalizations — as they move through the air.

Amazingly, nighthawks are one of a handful of bird species that will also nest on flat rooftops. As large fields become scarce, common nighthawks are more prone to using large artificial spaces. These birds can easily support a family on the associated abundant flying insects found in open foraging habitat such as agricultural fields or some athletic venues, so it’s not unusual to see or hear nighthawks at summer baseball games or early fall football games throughout the region. They are capitalizing on the abundant prey associated with the evening floodlights at stadiums and other outdoor sites.

The species is found in many open areas in the eastern United States in summer, and so it is no surprise that common nighthawks begin to move south in late summer in large flocks. They migrate long distances to winter destinations in Central America and northern South America. Large numbers can be seen feeding in the evening in August and early September, so there’s plenty of time left to spot a nighthawk before cooler weather sets in.  OH

Susan Campbell would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photographs at 

Gate City Journal

Wednesday Afternoon Book Club

One of Greensboro’s oldest book clubs is still going strong today

The year 1897 was a pretty big year in America.

Thomas Edison perfected his kinetograph camera, forerunner of the first film projector. William Faulkner and Amelia Earhart were born. Boston opened the first subway system in the nation, and the Library of Congress opened its doors to the public.

Here in Greensboro, a city fast approaching 25,000 in population, a dozen prominent Gate City women with names like Bynum, Mebane, Caldwell and Schenck formed the city’s second “study” club for discussion of literature, history and current events, adopting the practice of circulating timely books among its members with the aim of keeping abreast of the day’s key social issues, including the cause of women’s suffrage.

“Remember ladies,” club founder Mrs. Sterling Jones advised her colleagues, “the club comes first in your lives, and your husbands second, and never the twain shall meet!”

Initially, meeting every fortnight at the home of a member — many of whom, in those fleeting days of the horse and buggy, conveniently resided along North Elm Street — on Wednesday afternoons at 3 p.m., the members soon voted to change its name to the Wednesday Afternoon Book Club.

And so it remains to this day — 125 years after the city’s second book club was born.

“It really has had a remarkable history,” notes longtime club secretary and incoming president, Chris Garton, “attracting women of the city who had a great interest in improving their minds and the quality of life in Greensboro.”

Garton notes that the WABC was one of the early benefactors of the city’s first public library, which opened its doors in 1911, donating research books and other titles from the club’s own library, along with significant funds collected directly from its members.

As the 20th century dawned, membership rose to 16. At that time, member Mrs. Frank Dalton presented the club with a handsome monogram and fitting motto: “Nulla Vestigia Retrorsum” (“No retreat/We never go backwards”). Club members studied in depth the works of Shakespeare and Jonson, and printed their first booklet on the history of North Carolina.

Club members also sponsored popular monthly lectures by prominent speakers at the original downtown O.Henry Hotel and wrote papers on a range of timely subjects — travel, war, literary biography, poetry and local history were major themes — to share with fellow members at their regular Wednesday afternoon gatherings that ran from May to October annually.

“Whatever the topic, these women took a deep dive into their subjects,” says Garton. “It’s amazing what these women lived through. So much was happening in America then — World War I and lots of social change. During the Second World War, club members worked at the Red Cross and presented programs on rationing, a timely subject for everyone.”

Today, the Wednesday Afternoon Book Club presents only four or five programs a year, but the spirit of the organization’s fellowship is very much alive among its 27 active members. During the COVID shutdown, members were forced to meet via Zoom but continued paying dues, which led to a significant donation this past spring to the Greensboro Bound literary festival and a return of in-person readings in honor of the club’s 125th anniversary.

“We like to say that we’re putting the ‘book’ back in book club,” quips Chris Garton. “Because we have refocused on books that speak to the moment and interest of our members. At heart, though, it is really about the friendship we share — along with good books — that matters most.”

“I have belonged to so many organizations in my long lifetime,” early club historian Louise Meyers once wrote. “But none with a sweeter spirit than our club.”  OH

Lavender Field of Dreams

Follow your nose to Red Feather Ranch

By Cynthia Adams     Photographs by Amy Freeman


“Sweat is nearly as wonderful as the smell of lavender,” claims Dianne Reganess, who presides over Red Feather Ranch, a 24-acre property on Ritter’s Farm Road.

“I love hard work.”

Clad in hard-working clothes, T-shirts and jeans, Dianne proves the point, steering a Polaris Ranger utility vehicle — with ample space for flower buckets — inspecting orderly rows. She eyes a second planting of 400 organically-grown lavender plants in green formation. (Current number of lavender plants? Almost 1,000.)

Dianne’s blue-gray eyes approximate the colors of the Sweet Melissa Lilac, Grosso, Grosso Blue, Riverina Thomas and Provence varietals she finds best suited and most productive in her USDA Plant Hardiness Zone, 7-B.

Although she is a member of the United States Lavender Growers Association, managing a farm and cut flowers business, Dianne once wore a snappy Air Force uniform, which she eventually exchanged for business suits when later joining the financial world.  At First Union Securities, where she met husband Jonathan, a financial manager, she worked as a cage operator, responsible for placing orders for stocks and the ticker tape that would print out.

“A complicated job,” she says. “I also was the cashier, documenting checks coming in and going out. Compliance manager . . . etc.”

In time, Dianne joined an estimated 40,000 women in farming and agri-businesses throughout the North Carolina Piedmont. 

Growing lavender is a challenging endeavor, she says: “You have to trick it, and make it think it’s somewhere it’s not.” Jonathan helps when his work allows. But all of the maintenance and work of growing a fickle herb and an expanding variety of flowers, are her own. 

Daily labors she does joyfully.


“I built every bed out there by myself. I did all the irrigation by myself.  It’s hard work, but it’s very rewarding,” Dianne says. 

She jumps back into the small vehicle, proudly pointing out the new “high tunnel” — grower lingo for a large commercial greenhouse.

As with all farmers, the day starts early. At 7 a.m. during growing season, Dianne has completed picking and harvesting, plus hitting the office mid-morning to deal with online orders. “By 1 p.m., most of the work is done. Flowers don’t like heat.”

With Dianne working mostly alone, apart from an occasional volunteer, the one-woman, great lavender experiment has blossomed into a visually stunning, yet all-consuming, endeavor. 

And it couldn’t be more ironic, she jokes.

“I’m a terrible gardener,” Dianne confides darkly. “I cannot grow a thing for my house. But flower farming is so very different.” The mindset is different, she says, and the strategy is different.

The running joke in her family, she shares, is “do not give Dianne a houseplant. She’ll kill it.” 

“So here I am, with all this going — all out there,” she says, waving toward the fields. At this point, she giggles.

Some of her family still cannot believe she created this field of lavender dreams. Her mother, an avid gardener, always knew she had it in her.

“My mom said, ‘Welcome to the other side! You’re finally recognizing what we always knew was there!’” 


“All this” commenced in 2016, a year after Dianne and Jonathan found a long-pursued farm listed on Zillow, promptly scheduling a look-see.  “And I came over the top of the hill, and I said, ‘This is it!’ I just knew, seeing the land, that pond, the house. This was it!

Here was ample room for an outsized dream Dianne had been nursing.  As for the name? Red Feather Ranch was carved in stone at the gated entrance.

“I kind of took it as a sign since my favorite bird is the cardinal. When we pulled onto the property that very first time and I saw that, I thought to myself — that’s kind of neat!” says Dianne.

The partially-wooded 24 acres included a barn, outbuildings, a spring-fed pond, creek and a white pine, custom log home at the center.  Redolent of the Ponderosa on the Western Bonanza, it would have been the deal maker for many, but Dianne was equally star struck by the land itself.

“All woods. Creek. Great for our three children,” Dianne says. Her eldest, Samantha, was 19 at the time.

Daughter Mackenzie, now 15, was 9; son Alex, 17, was 11.

“I would have never thought [we would buy a] log home, though we loved a rustic look,” she says. The house would serve their needs well. 

“It’s a spacious house. There were [then] five of us here. Plus, three dogs. Three cats.” 

It was a farm in theory. However, six years ago, there were no fields. No commercial greenhouse either.

At the time, Samantha, now in Asheville, worked with American Conservation Experience on habitat restoration. Her knowledge concerning invasive species removal, planting and more proved a strong resource as the farm developed. 

Dianne’s mother, who had relocated to the Triad from the West Coast “is an amazing gardener. Grew up in California. She can grow anything.”

But not so for Dianne, whose abilities held few hints of what was to come. 

“I went into the Air Force straight out of high school. My father was in the military.” 

Posted abroad for nine years, she trained as a graphic artist, creating images and visuals used in briefings for military brass. “To Generals,” she clarifies. “It was classified information. Top secret.”

Stationed near the southwest border of France, her final years were in Ramstein, Germany, near stunning fields. 

“When I was in Europe, you would be driving along and pass rows and rows of lavender and sunflowers — it was the simplicity of it really that was so breathtaking. No frilly houses or structures . . . just the plants,”

Dianne left the military at age 27. Reentering civilian life, she met Jonathan while both worked at First Union Securities.

In 2003, they wed at the home of friends Andrew and Hilary Clement, a fortuitous sign given the Clements now own the Finch House, a Thomasville wedding venue. “Maybe we were practice,” jokes Dianne. (See the February 2021 issue of O. Henry magazine’s “Labor of Love.”)

They honeymooned north of Edinburgh, Scotland, “where my family originally is from,” she says. Jonathan’s family’s Swiss.

For years, Dianne flashed back to striking fields of color. She imagined herself growing sunflowers, a notion Jonathan endorsed.

Dianne eventually left the financial world, where Jonathan remained, and refocused upon their growing family and . . . growing plants.  The family lived in Summerfield while seeking a small farm.

Then, the aforementioned Zillow listing appeared.

Driving over the rise the day she first approached the house, “I had a vision of sunflowers,” she says. 

The expansive log home seemed perfect. It was everything the family hoped for, but Dianne was even more excited by what lay outside. 

Arable land!

Early on, they tilled the front section in preparation for Dianne’s venture.  “I was planning to have sunflowers.”

Then, reality. “I planted about 4,000 seeds by hand. Maybe, maybe, 50 of them grew. I was so disheartened!” The land, accustomed to growing something else, won out. The grass, she says, “completely took over my sunflowers. I have a picture of one scrawny little row.” Dianne sighs.

“I went in very green, knowing little,” she puns. That first failure caused her to “dive deep.”

“It forced me to educate myself on how to make it work. What did I need to do that I didn’t do? I was up at night studying. I love a good challenge. And I was going to make it work.”

Dianne persisted. “The second year, a little more successful.  The third year, a lot more successful.” 

Sunflowers were simply not quite enough. “But what else could we do?”

Dianne had more hands-in-the-dirt dreams.

Jonathan followed his bliss, too, leaving his corporate job and starting a wealth management business last April. 

She pondered the next agro steps. With some prodding from Jonathan, she realized lavender was the right complement. 

“Of course,” Dianne laughs. “I had talked about sunflowers and lavenders in France.”

Here, too, was another learning curve. Rather than plunging in without exploring risks, she did research. “Time. Money. How realistic? Is it going to grow in this area?” Growing conditions in the Triad’s microclimate, 7-B, are tricky. The air is more turbulent; therefore, storms are more violent. 

In 2016, she took an entire year off to figure out the best supplier and grower before Red Feather Ranch launched as a commercial grower.

Suppliers are crucial.

“A lot of varietals are patented,” she explains. This prevents commercial growers from propagating their own plants.

She attended a lavender grower’s conference in Charleston, S.C., to better educate herself. “I was asking questions. Took notes and listened. I came back thinking, ‘We can do it. But it’s going to take a lot of work.’ Because lavender is a very tricky plant. In the French Provence area where it grows well, they get 14 inches of rain a year. We get 44 plus.”

How not to drown lavender? 

She learned the answer. “You have to have it raised. Drainage is key.”

Dianne experimented with a mix of dirt and pea gravel, having met a Virginia grower who only used pea gravel and no dirt. Then she grew braver. “I last planted them only in pea gravel.” 

Paydirt! She finally “figured out the drainage thing.”

“The more you neglect it the better it is. The plant life of lavender is about 15 years. Get them out of a pot,” she advises, and give them room. “At full maturity it can get about five feet from side to side!”

Dianne learned what growing practices “are good for lavender.” As a cool weather plant, she knows to set stock in October. 

Lavender varietals differed by camphor content, Dianne explains.

“Lavender has the compound in it that is called camphor,” she adds. “That camphor chemical makes you kind of go oof . . . it’s really in your face. The other lilac plants that they use for culinary have a much lower chemical compound.”

Sweet Melissa Lilac and Provence lavenders are for culinary use. For infusions, teas and baking, she employs these, even adding a teaspoon of lavender buds into muffin batter or beverages. “I make lavender lemonade and cocktails! I’m old school.”

It’s savory, too. Whenever cooks use herbs de Provence, “there’s lavender in there,” she points out.

Sunset is her favorite time.  She and Jonathan can enjoy bird-watching. Or take in bumblebees, drunk from the soporific lavender, nodding off on the stalks. Felines, too. The family cat, Chanel, curled up to nap inside a lavender wreath as Dianne was crafting it.

She still loves sunflowers, where the goldfinches feast away on the drooping heads. 

And the butterflies! They thrill Dianne. “I don’t spray,” she says, adding, “lady bugs eat the aphids on my sweet peas.”

There is something beyond what nurtures plants. There are benefits for humans, too.

In fact, she wishes more people would come out, breathe the intoxicating and relaxing smell of lavender, and enjoy the rejuvenating air, while walking the picturesque farm.

“People can come here. People need to get back out in nature. Take off your mask and breathe some fresh air! Walk the rows even if you don’t buy anything.” 

Sometimes people come solely for photo opportunities, she says. Dianne is a shutterbug, who enjoys snapping pictures of each unfolding season, posting online at

After lavender peaks, other blooms follow, including, of course, sunflowers, a perennial favorite. Sunflowers have a longer season, growing thru October. 

Red Feather Ranch offers subscription options, a community supported agriculture program, and cut-flower delivery throughout Greensboro. The farm sells lavender through mid-July, and sunflowers June–October, adding a new program called U- Pick. 

After the growing season ends, Dianne harvests the dried lavender and stitches up sachets and other projects for both home and kitchen. 

She makes linen spray, body mist, lip balm, sugar scrub — all from organic, dried lavender.

Farming is relentless, as anyone who ever wielded a hoe knows. It’s an all-the-time lifestyle choice, but it happens to agree with Dianne, who determinedly battles weather and wildlife. 

“All is well here… hot, hot, hot, but well,” the exasperated farmer writes in June. “Deer ate ALL my sunflowers.  Makes me so mad!”

Still, the work seems to dial the clock back. Dianne swears it rejuvenates her. An unhurried manner and easy laugh underlie this. All of which — especially a lack of vanity — proves her point. 

Sweat of the brow is a point of pride. 

A feather in her cap.

Cynthia Adams is a contributing editor to O.Henry magazine.

Fast Facts about Lavender from Dianne Reganess:

Fact: Zone 7-B is a microclimate. “What works in Raleigh won’t necessarily work here. We’re in a zone where the air can be more turbulent. It is definitely humid. Severe storms.” (

Fact: It’s illegal to propagate lavender varietals, which are patented, without a license. It took Dianne a year to find the right commercial grower. Like roses, many lavender varietals are patented. “I cannot take a clipping and grow my own plants without breaking the law. So, I go back to the same woman grower. I know the plants I get from her. They are healthy and survive, and this is key.”

Fact: “It takes the lavender plants three years to reach maturity.” 

Fact: “Lavender is organic. No chemicals are needed. Also, deer and rabbit don’t bother it.” Also, she warns against potting soils or bark mulch, which hold excess moisture, causing disease.

Fact: Dianne recommends Munstead, Provence and Sweet Melissa, lavenders more commonly found at “big box” stores.  OH

Romantic Fever

Fiction by Lee Smith     Illustrations by Matthew Shipley

The house I grew up in was one of a row of houses strung along a narrow river bottom like a string of beads. We were not allowed to play in the river because they washed coal in it, upstream. Its water ran deep and black between the mountains, which rose like walls on either side of us, rocky and thick with trees.

My mother came from the flat exotic eastern shore of Virginia, and swore that the mountains gave her migraine headaches. Mama was always lying down on the sofa, all dressed up. But there was no question that she loved my father, a mountain man she had chosen over the well-bred Arthur Banks of Richmond, “a fellow who went to the University of Virginia and never got over it,” according to Daddy. Mama suffered from ideas of aristocracy herself. Every night she would fix a nice supper for Daddy and me, then bathe and put on a fresh dress and high heels and her bright red lipstick, named “Fire and Ice,” and then sit in anxious dismay while the hour grew later and later, until Daddy finally left his dime-store and came home.

By that time the food had dried out to something crunchy and unrecognizable, so Mama would cry when she opened the oven door, but then Daddy would eat it all anyway, swearing it was the most delicious food he’d ever put in his mouth, staring hard at Mama all the while. Frequently my parents would then leave the table abruptly, feigning huge yawns and leaving me to turn out all the lights. I’d stomp around the house and do this resentfully, both horrified and thrilled at the thought of them upstairs behind their closed door.

I myself was in love with my best friend’s father, three houses down the road. Mr. Owens had huge dark soulful eyes, thick black hair, a mustache that dropped down on either side of his mouth, and the prettiest singing voice available. Every night after supper, he’d sit out in his garden by the river and play his guitar and sing for us and every other kid in the neighborhood, who’d gather around to listen.

Mr. Owens played songs like “Wayfaring Stranger” and “The Alabama Waltz.” He died the year we were thirteen, from an illness described as “romantic fever.” Though later I would learn that the first word was actually “rheumatic,” in my own mind it remained “romantic fever,” an illness I associated with those long summer evenings when my beloved Mr. Owens played the old sad songs while lightning bugs rose like stars from the misty weeds along the black river and right down the road — three houses away — my own parents were kissing like crazy as night came on.


The link between love and death intensified when my MYF group (that’s Methodist Youth Fellowship) went to Myrtle Beach, where we encountered many exotic things such as pizza pie and Northern boys smoking cigarettes on the boardwalk. Our youth leader, who was majoring in drama at a church school, threw our cigarettes into the surf and led us back up onto the sandy porch of Mrs. Fickling’s Boardinghouse for an emergency lecture on Petting.

“A nice girl,” she said dramatically, “does not Pet. It is cruel to the boy to allow him to Pet, because he has no control over himself. He is just a boy. It is all up to the girl. If she allows the boy to Pet her, then he will become excited, and if he cannot find relief, then the poison will all back up into his organs causing pain — and sometimes — death!” She spat out the words.

We drew back in horror and fascination.


Of course it wasn’t long before I found myself in the place where I’d been headed all along: the front seat of a rusty old pickup, heading up a mountain on a dark gravel road with a wild older boy — let’s call him Wayne — whom I scarcely knew but had secretly adored for months. This was not the nice boy I’d been dating, the football star/student government leader who’d carried my books around from class to class all year and held my hand in study hall. My friends were all jealous of me for attracting such a nice boyfriend; even my mother approved. But, though he dutifully pressed his body against mine at dances in the gym whenever they played “The Twelfth of Never,” our song, it just wasn’t happening. That fiery hand did not clasp my vitals as it did in Jane Eyre whenever she encountered Mr. Rochester.

So I had seized my chance when Wayne asked me if I’d like to ride around sometime. “You bet!” I’d said so fast it startled him. “I’d love to!” Wayne was a big, slow-talking boy with long black hair that fell down into his handsome, sullen face. He wore a ring of keys on his belt and a pack of cigarettes rolled up in the sleeve of his T-shirt. He did not play sports. I admired his style as much as I admired his family — or lack of family, I should say, for he lived with his uncle in a trailer out near the county line. Wayne smoked, drank, and played in a band with grown-up men. He was always on the Absentee Hot List, and soon he’d be gone for good, headed off to Nashville with a shoebox full of songs. 

We jolted up the rutted road through dense black woods. My mother would have died if she’d known where I was. But she didn’t. Nobody did.

I was determined to Pet with Wayne even if it killed him.

Finally we emerged onto a kind of dark, windy plateau, an abandoned strip mine set on top of the mountain. He drove right up to the edge, a sheer drop. I caught my breath. On the mountainside below us were a hundred coke ovens sending their fiery blasts like giant candles straight up into the sky. It was like the pit of hell itself, but beautiful. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. For some reason I started crying.

“Aw,” he said. He screwed the top off a mason jar and gave me a drink, which burned all the way down. “You know what?” He pulled me over toward him. He smelled like smoke, like alcohol, like the woods.

“What?” I said into the sleeve of his blue jean jacket

“They was a boy killed in one of them ovens last month — fell in, or throwed himself in, nobody ever did know which.”

“Was there?” I scooted closer.

“Yep, it was a boy from over on Paw Paw, had a wife and two little babies. Gone in the twinkling of a eye, just like it says in the Bible.” He snapped his fingers. “Right down there,” he said into my hair.

“That’s awful.” I shuddered, turning up my face for his kiss, while below us the coke ovens burned like a hundred red fountains of death and I felt the fiery hand clutch my vitals for good.

Finally, I thought.

Romantic fever.  OH

Summer Reading Issue 2022

William Faulkner invented Yoknapatawpha County as a place for his imagination to live, and every Southern writer knew where it was, even if it wasn’t on any map. Ernest Hemingway loaded his readers onto a double-decker bus and transported them to a fiesta in Pamplona, Spain, with its wine skins and dusty plaza de toros. Allan Gurganus created the fictional small town of Falls, North Carolina. In the hands of a fine craftsman, a sense of place in a piece of fiction can be so compelling it almost becomes its own character in the narrative. In our Summer Reading Issue three of North Carolina’s greatest writers deliver on this promise, taking us to West Virginia coal country, the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, and the bottom of a freshly dug grave. Our guides for these adventures are Lee Smith, Ron Rash and Clyde Edgerton.

— Jim Moriarty

Lee Smith is the author of 14 novels, including Fair and Tender Ladies, Oral History, Saving Grace and Guests on Earth, as well as four collections of short stories.  Her novel The Last Girls was a New York Times bestseller as well as co-winner of the Southern Book Critics Circle Award. A retired professor of English at North Carolina State University, she has received an Academy Award in Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the North Carolina Award for Literature,  and the Weatherford Award for Appalachian Literature. Her latest book, Silver Alert, will be available in the spring of 2023.


Ron Rash is the author of seven novels, seven collections of short stories and four volumes of poetry. He has been honored with The Sherwood Anderson Prize and was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for his collection Chemistry and Other Stories, and for his New York Times bestselling novel Serena. His other novels include Saints at the River, Above the Waterfall and The Risen. He is the Parris Distinguished Professor in Appalachian Cultural Studies at Western Carolina University, where he teaches poetry and fiction writing.


Clyde Edgerton is the author of 10 novels and two books of non-fiction. His novels include Raney, Walking Across Egypt, The Floatplane Notebooks, Killer Diller and Lunch at the Piccadilly. Both Walking Across Egypt and Killer Diller were adapted for the screen. He has been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and has also received the North Carolina Award for Literature. He is the Thomas S. Kenan III Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

Art of the State

Into Being

Painter Herb Jackson creates meticulous, vibrant abstracts

By Liza Roberts

Deep Dive

“I don’t want you to know how I work unless I tell you, because I want it to seem spontaneous,” says Herb Jackson. He’s in his Davidson studio, surrounded by the unmistakable works that have made his name; the vibrant, abstract paintings that convey energy and light and appear to have been made with swift, gestural strokes. But in reality, he notes, holding two fingers up in a narrow pinch, “I’m working about that much at a time.”

“The tricky thing is to make it not look like that,” Jackson says. “It’s a little archaeological. There’s a lot of drawing that goes on. I can work for hours on an area, and the next day completely cover it.” These palette-knifed layers accumulate, day by day, sometimes into the triple digits; many he scrapes away or sands with pumice. “If it’s not up to what I want it to be, then I just keep working,” he says. Light and shape and color and texture shift and morph, disappear and re-emerge. About two-thirds of the way through, a painting “will begin to assert itself,” and when they’re finished, “they tell me,” he explains.

Art has been communicating with Jackson since he was a child. He won his first art award when he was still a teenager as part of a juried exhibition at the North Carolina Museum of Art; his work has now been collected by more than 100 museums, including London’s British Museum, has been shown in more than 150 solo exhibitions around the world and has won him North Carolina’s highest civilian honor. After college at Davidson College and an MFA at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Jackson returned to this college town to teach, eventually serving as chair of the art department at Davidson College for 16 years.

Along the way, Jackson created a prolific and ongoing series he calls Veronica’s Veils, all of the same size (60 by 48 inches) and format. The name refers to the historic Christian relic thought to have received an image of the face of Jesus when Saint Veronica used it to wipe his face at the sixth Station of the Cross. Jackson says these works “have nothing to do with Jesus, but have a lot to do with Veronica and her luck, being at the right place at the right time.” When one of his paintings “comes into being,” Jackson says, “that’s basically my Veronica moment.”

Jester’s Retreat

That moment coheres not any particular concept, but the confluence of everything he’s ever experienced, “which is much bigger than any one idea.” All of that can take some wrangling. “Occasionally, they’ll go beyond what I expected as far as challenging me, and I’ll put them up there and stare at them for several days, to just be absolutely sure,” he explains. “Because once I decide you’re finished, then I don’t go back in.” To do so, he says, would violate a painting’s integrity. “There are paintings from 18 years ago where I spot something I would have done differently — but I was a different artist then.”

For the last 50 years, Jackson has had two or three solo exhibitions of his paintings a year, but has recently decided to curtail those to focus on what matters most: painting for its own sake. “Committing to exhibitions became confining,” he says. “I just want to make my work.”

The Raleigh native has been drawing every day since he was a young child and selling paintings since he was 12, time enough to be many different artists. He’s still amazed by the experience and the process: “Where a painting comes from and how it comes together for me is still mystical, and has been for 60 years.” He credits his subconscious, but assumes some of his inspiration must come from art and travel and nature, from exploring the woods and creek and digging in the earth near his childhood home near the old Lassiter Mill. Some also must come, he says, from the pre-Renaissance and Byzantine paintings of the Kress Collection, which formed the foundational basis of the North Carolina Museum of Art in its original downtown home — works he regularly took the bus to go see.

“Those paintings were so formative for me. If there hadn’t been the North Carolina Museum of Art, I don’t know what would have happened to me.”  OH

This is an excerpt from the forthcoming book Art of the State: Celebrating the Art of North Carolina, to be published by UNC Press this fall.

Wild Women

A watery excursion, a strawberry moon and a seed of growth

By Maria Johnson     Photographs by Jo Proia

If we’re lucky, we’ll get to see a strawberry moon tonight.

“Does anybody know why it’s called a strawberry moon?” Jo Proia asks the half dozen women assembled at lake’s edge.

No one ventures a guess.

“They call it a strawberry moon because this is the time of year that strawberries ripen,” she explains.

Six of us — suited up in life-vests, bug spray and quick-drying clothes — nod thoughtfully.

So much for the image of a pink, berry-shaped moon in my mind.

Proia continues her primer on what to expect during the full-moon paddle, a two-hour kayak trip that she’ll lead through the dusky waters of Belews Lake and up one of the creeks that feed it near Stokesdale.

First, she says, we’ll paddle to the other side of the cove, skirt the bank, slip through a narrow channel marked by an old bridge abutment and glide up the creek that runs nearly all the way to Kernersville.

We won’t go that far tonight, she says.

But we will stay on the water long enough to feel nature. In real time. With no filters and no distractions. That’s why she’s adamant that everyone needs to mute and stash her phone. Even for pictures.

“I’ve been known to throw phones in the water,” she says. She’s joking, but we don’t know that.

She assures us that she carries a phone for emergencies, and she’ll use a waterproof camera to take pictures and videos, which she’ll post later on the Facebook page of her business, Outdoor Women by Jo Proia.

We’ll stop periodically, she says, to check in with each other.

We’ll also pause for a moment of meditation and some on-board yoga.

“Who can do a headstand in their kayak?” Proia asks with a straight face.

Pulses quicken.

“NO ONE CAN!” Proia says, lowering expectations back into the human zone. “We’re not gonna do that.”

Smiles break out.

It’s time to paddle into the darkness to see what we can see.

She was a cloud watcher as a kid.

She loved to lie in the grass and pick out shapes in the puffs of vapor that drifted over her family’s farm in Oxford.

The youngest child in her family by five years, she rode an Appaloosa pony, her best friend, through the pastures and woods for hours.

In the summers, she picked prickly cucumbers and tied up sticky tobacco leaves until her palms turned black.

The blistering work stamped her with resolve. She would leave the farm. She would graduate from a four-year college. She would make a different life.

In essence, she would heed the advice of a poster taped to the wall of her father’s Air Force recruiting office: “Aim High.”

Her parents helped her land scholarships — one academic, one for being first runner-up in the Miss Henderson pageant of 1989 — that covered part of the cost of attending Vance-Granville Community College in Henderson. Proia bridged the money gap with baby-sitting and mall jobs. After two years, one class stood between her and graduation. Her adviser said she’d have to wait a couple of semesters until the class was offered again.

“I can’t wait,” Proia told her.

“You need to finish your associate’s degree,” the adviser said. “You’ll never graduate from a university.”

Raised to be a polite Southern woman, Proia bit her tongue and doubled-down. She walked to another office and started calling four-year schools. Most had stopped admitting students for the coming fall. UNCG was closing registration that day.

“What do I need to do?” Proia asked.

“You need to show up,” the registrar said.

Proia hung up the phone and called her older sister.

“Let’s go,” her sister said. “I’ll ride shotgun.”

An hour and a half later, Proia was standing in a long line at UNCG. When she made it to the front, she spilled her story to the woman who reviewed her transcript.“I’ll be the first in my family to graduate from a four-year college, and I will graduate if you give me a chance,” Proia said.

The woman held her gaze for a moment.

“Welcome to UNCG,” she said.

Thirty years later, Proia — who packs a bachelor’s degree, along with a passel of certifications and licenses for her work — can see that woman’s face in her mind.

“I wish I knew her name,” Proia says. “That was a pivotal moment in my life, for sure. She held my future in her hands is the way I looked at it. I was so glad it was a woman.”

“Does anyone know the name of that tree,” Proia says, pointing her paddle to a tree laden with fuzzy pink tassels.

“Mimosa,” someone says.

“I wish I had a mimosa,” says another, referring to the champagne-and-orange-juice drink.

We’re 15 minutes into the paddle and well into getting to know each other.

There’s Juanita from Winston-Salem.

Debbie from Greensboro.

Susan from High Point.

Candice from Wentworth.

And Candice’s friend Brandy from Charleston, S.C.

Brandy and her husband are thinking about moving to Greensboro to be closer to family.

An avid birder, she’s excited to learn that fish hawks live around here.

“You have ospreys?! I told my husband that I was going to miss ospreys if we moved away.”

We stop paddling for a round of guided stretching. Proia calls it “kye-yoga”. Sun salutations. Seated twists. Gentle back bends. Shoulder rolls. Toe flexes.

“Reach up high. Now let your hands float down by your sides, into the water if you’re comfortable with that,” Proia guides. “Let the tension melt into the water.”

A wonderful son. A wonderful husband. A wonderful home. A wonderful faith. A wonderful job.

Proia, who proved to be an ace at selling everything from pagers to Mary Kay cosmetics, seemed to have it all.

Why then, did she feel something was missing?

And why didn’t she know what it was?

She figured it out when she accompanied a friend on a kayak-and-camp trip to Cape Lookout on the Outer Banks.

Their guide was a former Marine. He expected his charges to tackle physical challenges with gusto. Proia hated it.

“I remember screaming, ‘I’m a housewife!’” she recalls. “I said a lot of bad words that day.”

The next morning, she stepped out of the tent and looked across the water.

She saw wild horses running on an island.

“Whatever was broken inside me was fixed,” she says. “I said to the little Marine, ‘We’re paddling over there.’ He said, ‘I thought you were done with kayaking.’ I said, ‘We’re paddling over there.’”

She drove back home knowing that she could not return to life as she’d known it. She arrived after dark and woke up her husband.

“I said, ‘Things are gonna change around here. I’m gonna get a kayak, and I’m gonna get a horse.’”

Later, her husband John, a financial adviser, joked about that night:

“If we’d only known all she needed was a horse and some water.”

Proia started riding again. She taught herself the finer points of kayaking. Then she taught her female friends how to kayak. Then a bell dinged in her brain.

Maybe this kind of work — helping other women uncover their braver natures by experiencing adventures in nature — was her calling.

“Women need other women,” Proia says. “We’re not anti-male… But a lot of women would not come to what I offer —  traditionally male pursuits — if it was coed. When there’s an opportunity to try something new, some women will step back if men are around.”

For more than eight years, Proia ran kayaking and camping programs for a local outfitter.

In 2020, during the COVID lockdown, she launched her own brand and expanded her scope to include whitewater and flat-water kayaking; stand-up paddle boarding; camping; hiking; backpacking; shooting; archery; rock-climbing; survival skills; horseback riding or horse-handling for those who aren’t ready to giddy up.

Proia leads most of the sessions. In some cases, she hires female contractors who are more expert than she is. In both cases, Proia expects clients to digest lengthy emails on what to expect.

“What I’m really teaching women is, ‘Don’t follow. Lead yourself,’” she says.

We fall into a single-file line, threading our way up the shallow creek as the sinking sun washes the horizon in pink. There’s no sign of the moon, but the night is coaxing the woods and the water to life.

A barn owl issues a rusty, scraping call.

A belted kingfisher, looking punky with its feathery mohawk and dagger-like beak, scuds across the sky.

Frogs begin their evening chant. Meep-meep-meep.

Fish breach the water with a flash of silver.

Beavers slap their tails against the water, protesting visitors.

The sky overhead deepens to smoky blue. The only light comes from neon glow sticks tied to the kayaks and from the million-dollar homes that hug the lake.

Proia halts the paddle and passes out slices of watermelon. Candice is ecstatic. She’s undergoing a series of dental surgeries and this is the first fruit she’s been able to eat in weeks.

“This is soooo good,” she says.

We smile juicy smiles with her.

Juanita, from Winston-Salem, is happy for another reason. She’s not tippy tonight.

“Tipsy?” Someone teases. A stickler for safety, Proia allows no alcohol on the water.

“Tippy,” Juanita repeats with a grin.

She used to wobble in the water, she says, but the more she kayaks — she’s a regular on Proia’s excursions — the better she gets.

Growth is a common theme among Proia’s regulars.

Kayaking has helped Debbie, from Greensboro, overcome a fear of water.

Susan, from High Point, took up paddling for stress relief after her mother suffered a couple of heart attacks and her husband was stricken with a debilitating disease.

“It was life-changing. I was able to connect with nature and totally let go,” says Susan, who went on to start Triad Water Stewards, a group that cleans up area lakes. “I am a kayaker in my blood now. This thing with Jo has expanded my life.”

Proia stops the group shy of the boat ramp, where motorboats drip dry on trailers. She nods toward a flickering light on shore.

“See that big screen TV up in that house?” Proia says. “There’s nothing wrong with that. We all like to get on the couch and watch TV sometimes. But give yourselves credit. Y’all came out here tonight, in the dark, and went up a creek . . . ”

“With a paddle,” adds Juanita.

The mood is light. We’ve been on the water for three hours, subsisting on water and watermelon, but no one seems tired.

Proia looks back in the direction we’ve come from.

“There’s the moon!” she says.

Paddles churn in reverse as we spin our boats around to see a smudgy yellow orb rising to the south.“Look at the shape.”

“Look at the corona.”

“Look at the reflection on the water.”

A beam of white light fractures and wiggles across the inky water as Sister Moon, creator of tides, exerts her pull on Mother Earth.

And us.

Silence wraps our bobbing boats.

There’s no internet out here, but the connection is strong.  OH

Maria Johnson is a contributing editor of O.Henry magazine. Contact her at