The Creators of N.C.

Found Magic

For Shannon Whitworth, the muse lives and breathes in the mountains of Brevard

By Wiley Cash
Photographs By Mallory Cash

“My art is how I see the world,” says artist and singer/songwriter Shannon Whitworth. “And my music is how I hear it.” Just outside of Brevard, she is walking across the expanse of grass between her barn studio and the renovated farmhouse she shares with her husband, Woody Platt of the Grammy Award-winning Steep Canyon Rangers, and their young son. The late afternoon is rainy and cool. In the distance, mist hangs over the mountains like a gray, gossamer blanket. In other places across the South, spring has begun to reveal itself, but here in the mountains, winter is still hanging on.

Whitworth didn’t always live in the mountains that have become so synonymous with her music and art. She was born into a bustling home with two older brothers in Fairfax, Virginia. By the time she reached high school, her restless nature prompted her to head south to Hilton Head, S.C., where she spent summers with her Grandma Nancy, an Old South dame who owned a ladies’ clothing boutique and lived in a lamplit home where every room had a clock radio playing martini music. The soundtrack to Whitworth’s summers in Hilton Head were comprised of Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra and the clink of ice in Grandma Nancy’s cocktail glasses. To the girl who’d been raised in an active household in a busy city, the freedom of Lowcountry life was both mysterious and emboldening. “I went down there playing with Barbie dolls,” Whitworth says, “and I came back home wearing a training bra.”

Like many people who grew up in the 1990s and who would later become artists, Whitworth was an angsty teen who filled her journals with reams of poetry. Her parents had always been music fans, and she grew up listening to James Taylor, Paul Simon, Crosby, Stills & Nash. When her older brother began dating a woman who played the guitar, Whitworth realized she could set the words she’d written to melodies. The woman — who would eventually become her sister-in-law — showed her how to play chords, and by the time Whitworth began college in Boone, she was already skipping class to play music. “I was consumed by it,” she says. And then someone gave her Lucinda Williams’ first album. That’s when she had the vaguest of notions that, just maybe, she could become a musician too.

“I didn’t know a lot of women who were doing this,” she says, and she didn’t know if she could do it either. After a series of moves and adventures took her all over the country, a camping trip to Brevard in 1999 finally convinced her to settle down and give music a try.

“I was moonstruck by Brevard,” she says. She is sitting by the window in her living room, the sun having fallen below the mountains just above the confluence of the headwaters of the French Broad River. Night is creeping across the fields. “It felt like there was a crystal under the Earth that was pulling me here. I always thought I would end up back on the beach somewhere, but this place spoke to me,” Whitworth says. “I knew I would write a lot of songs and paint a lot of paintings here. And if I could do those things, then I knew this was where I needed to be.”

She spent a few months in the offseason living in the old cook’s cabin at Camp Carolina, stuffing envelopes and mailing promotional material for the camp and working on her music. “I must’ve written a hundred songs,” she says, but she was too self-conscious to perform them in front of anyone aside from her brothers and a small circle of musician friends. “And then a friend of mine told me about a dive bar in West Asheville that hosted karaoke,” she says. “The people who came to karaoke were old country people. Nobody knew who I was or even cared. It felt safe.” The first song she ever performed in front an audience? Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.”

“Dolly Parton was my spirit animal of sorts,” says Whitworth, whose own singing voice is lower and warmer but just as resonant as Parton’s. “I figured that if I could transform myself into someone like that, then I could do anything. It was like putting on body armor.”

Another major influence while Whitworth was finding herself onstage was Dwight Yoakam, especially his album, which features him playing his greatest hits with only an acoustic guitar. Whitworth would play his album and record it on a borrowed four-track while recording herself singing harmony and playing accompanying instruments, like mandolin and banjo. She would then layer in her recorded parts with Yoakam’s music. “It was as close as you could get to being in a band with Dwight Yoakam while also being a total weirdo at the same time,” she says.

The first time Whitworth performed with her guitar in front of a live audience was during a jam night at Jack of the Wood in Asheville. That’s also where she met the other founding members of a bluegrass band that would soon become The Biscuit Burners. Over the next few years, the band would go on to release two acclaimed albums while crossing the country on what seemed like a never-ending tour. But despite all the band’s success, it was their first show that perhaps had the greatest effect on Whitworth’s life. On that night, Woody Platt set up the band’s sound equipment. While it would take a while for friendly exchanges to become flirtations and for flirtations to become love, by 2006, Whitworth and Platt were a couple, and Brevard was their home. After years on the road as a touring musician, Brevard felt like a sanctuary to Whitworth. She left The Biscuit Burners and released a spate of highly-praised solo records, and she soon found herself building her life around two things: her relationships with the people she loved and her art.

“Painting reminds me of how I feel when I sing through a microphone,” Whitworth says. “It’s a way of reporting my feelings, and it’s also a place where I can dig deep into healing. It all used to be a way to work through angst.” Since having a child, Whitworth has shifted to creating art from a source of light. “I’m going to a different place when I work now, and I’m still trying to sort that out. I’m learning to use these new tools that motherhood has given me. Sometimes I don’t have the words or the music, but the colors are always there.”

Over the past year, Whitworth’s paintings have found homes with a stable of interior designers across the South, and her work has been featured in galleries and shipped all over the country to private collections belonging to the likes of Edie Brickell and Paul Simon.

“When I first began painting, all of my art was coastal, but after settling into the land here and having our son, I just started seeing this landscape so clearly, and it’s reflected in my work. I’m living it,” Whitworth says. “People always tease me about believing in magic, but I always tell them, ‘You’ll believe in magic when it finds you.’”

She has risen from her seat at the window, and she is now moving through the house, turning on lamps, their soft light meeting the sound of Patsy Cline’s voice floating from an unseen source somewhere in the kitchen. Whitworth uncorks a bottle of wine and pours a glass.

Whether it’s a lamplit room in Hilton Head, a festival stage on the other side of the country, or a light-filled studio where the dew-damp mountains loom in the distance, Shannon Whitworth has always found magic.

Or perhaps it has always found her.  OH

Wiley Cash is the writer-in-residence at the University of North Carolina-Asheville. His new novel, When Ghosts Come Home, will be released this year.

Life’s Funny

Not-So Instant Messages

Deep in a quiet wood, a notebook offers glimpses of a kindly human spirit

By Maria Johnson

The sight of a black plastic mailbox usually doesn’t make me smile.

But this one — lashed with a blue bungee cord to a splintered stump in the middle of the forest — brought a grin.

The red flag was up.

I had mail! And so did everyone else on this wooded trail, a hilly vein hugging one of Greensboro’s drinking-water reservoirs.

I opened the hatch to find a composition book titled Mailbox in the Woods.

“Share a thought, blessing, poem, or just say Hi!,” the creator had penned on the cover in blue ballpoint. She (my guess) signed it with a smiling cat face and noted that the book was Volume 2.

The entries, which started in November, filled more than half the book, suggesting that she had started her project during the pandemic.

It made sense.

The past year had twisted the norms of, well, everything, and like scads of others, my husband and I had doubled down on our woods walks, partly for exercise, partly for solace.

The woods reminded us that destruction and creation live side by side, in balance, though it might not seem like that at any given moment. So during a time of national darkness, with nearly 600,000 Americans perishing from COVID-19, Greensboro’s sublime system of watershed trails was a lifesaver.


Someone else had felt it, too, and she’d cast a net to catch the sentiment and let everyone know that, even though they might be walking solo, they weren’t alone in their thirst for beauty and hope and a smile.

It reminded me of similar expressions I’ve seen in other remote locations: the mailbox that harks to walkers at the north end of Wrightsville Beach; the spontaneous shell art stuck on driftwood at the Botany Bay preserve on Edisto Island, S.C.; cairns that rise from the forest floors of state parks; Christmas ornaments that hang on trees behind Safety Town in Greensboro.

For some, these creations say that human beings can’t leave nature well enough alone. But to me, these traces are like candles in a chapel, a gentle sign of community. The Mailbox in the Woods — and the messages inside — whispered that there was a tribe of heart-bound souls treading the root-laced paths.

Nine days into November, a hiker named Jeanne opened the book and wrote an Emily Dickinson poem that she learned in sixth grade, in 1970:

“The morns are meeker than they were

The nuts are getting brown

The berries’ cheeks are plumper

The rose is out of town . . .”

A few pages later, the scouts of Troop 118 scrawled their names.

Eddy from Germany complimented the nature that surrounds Greensboro.

Amy from Connecticut praised the book itself: “Coolest idea.”

An anonymous young writer struggled with life in plain view: “I had my first sip of Jim Beam today; I’m reaching into my slightly inebriated mind to give you a sober thought: surround yourself w/ people that will be good for the long run :)”

On November 22, C and B drew hearts and shared big news: “We just got engaged, about 30 yards away from you, mailbox!”

Visitors from New Hampshire and Vermont left their marks.

A child shared a brush with adventure: “We almost fell in the water.”

In places, the messages sparked a playful dialogue.

“I like your shirt,” one writer declared.

“Thanks dude,” another responded.

“How about my sweater?” added yet another.

On another page, love blossomed: “I just met a really great girl. I think this could turn into a relationship.”

“Congrats brother,” someone wrote below that.

“I’m going to be a grandma!” someone gushed a few pages later.

“Yay! Congratulations,” someone else responded.

As I leafed through the book, what struck me was the lack of venom. Even though this was deep in the woods, there were no trolls. None of the messages was hateful — unless you counted the swipe at 2020: “Here’s to hoping 2021 doesn’t suck as much.”

Sure, people revealed pain — “Fighting that post-Christmas depression,” and “I’m still in love with my ex”— but there was no piling on. There was only encouragement.

“Keep swimming.”

“You’re gonna get through this.”

“No better time than this, and life is good, the only one,” one correspondent reflected in Greek with a sidebar of English translation.

Was the upbeat tone a reflection of the people who are drawn to walking trails?

Was it because no one was looking over their shoulders, counting the seconds until a response landed?

Was it because of the reflective setting?

Whatever the cause, I was grateful for this slow-walking social media. Another writer said it better than I could.

“Hello MailBox in the Woods! It’s been a tough year, but moments of whimsy like these make it bearable. Thank you & blessings to all.”  OH

Maria Johnson is a contributing editor of O.Henry magazine. She can be reached at


I Swear

This won’t hurt.

I’ll always love you.

You’re perfect.

I do. I will.

I didn’t. It wasn’t —

You’ve got it all wrong.

I only want what’s best for you.

This will be good for both of us.

Nothing can be done.

You’ll never change.

It wasn’t my fault.

I’m only trying to help.

No one’s to blame.

It will be better soon.

— Debra Kaufman

Guilford’s Quietest Places

One intrepid trekker explores a patchwork of local preserves with a motley crew of companions

By David Claude Bailey

Does it surprise you that Guilford County has 10 “passive” parks, covering thousands of acres with hundreds of miles of trails? Who knew? Not me. But during our COVID winter, I began exploring what are, in my opinion, Guilford’s most unappreciated parks, each one an incredible sanctum of serenity. Largely undeveloped with low-impact trails, they are sometimes called preserves. How, you ask, did we get so lucky? Decades ago, Guilford’s decision-makers realized that an area’s quality of life is directly connected to how much open space is set aside to balance congestion and urban sprawl. Consequently, they decided to spend tens of millions of dollars to keep the green in Greensboro — and High Point and the rest of the county. It was nothing short of prescient. Now protected are open areas offering habitat for wild critters, historical sites, places for groundwater to recharge, plus acres and acres of tall trees and lush plants that gobble up carbon dioxide and discharge oxygen, all while boosting city-dwellers’ quality of life. The bonanza for hikers — and those of us addicted to nature — are meandering streams, breathtaking vistas, wildlife encounters and, for me, the peace that passeth all understanding. Go. Find your own peace and beauty. But, first, be sure to check Guilford County’s Passive Parks website to make sure they’re open:

Richardson-Taylor Preserve

“The Durga Dog needs a romp,” my friend says, so Saturday finds us on the 3.8-mile Bill Craft Trail, which winds through the 400-plus-acre tract that the Richardson and Taylor families passed on to the county. I was meeting Durga for the first time and it turns out she has as many forms as the Hindu Goddess she’s named for. Carolina dog? Definitely. Pitbull? No doubt. German shepherd? Look at that muzzle. But watching her course her way down the meandering trail through the preserve’s remote and open woods convinces me that Durga is in touch with her inner-wolf. She carefully sniffs clusters of mushrooms that crowd the forest floor. She checks out the lush explosion of spring flora in the marshy bottomland. Almost tippy-toeing, she waltzes across the chilly creek, then bravely marches past the sign that reads “Beware of Coyotes.” One of the volunteers who helped build this trail seven years ago told me that “the forest is like an outdoor cathedral.” Surrounded by sycamores with paper-white bark and oaks that reach toward the clouds, Durga ghosts through the sunshine and shadows that fall on a bank of ferns worthy of Jurassic Park. We agree. This is Durga’s temple. 

Length: 7-plus miles, out and back on the Bill Craft Trail

Difficulty: Easy and fairly level, with a few ups and downs

Don’t miss: The beavers if you can spot them

Good to know: Slippery when wet and still under remediation, as the county calls it.

Address: 350 Plainfield Road, Greensboro

Cascades Preserve

My hiking buddy, Joe, is all too ready for a walk in the woods. He splits his time between his childhood home of Greensboro and his house near the Capitol in Washington. Things have been just a little too exciting for Joe in his D.C. neighborhood of late. And so it is on a sunny afternoon that we’re trying to find the Cascades Preserve trailhead. At first, my aging GPS takes us to a Goodwill Church Road in Forsyth County. At the trailhead, it takes us five minutes to realize that, duh!, the trail is on the other side of the road from the parking lot. “Despite the name, don’t expect dramatic cataracts or thundering waterfalls,” I tell Joe. The 2-mile-out-and-back trail takes us through a thick copse of scrub pines before heading downhill. We zigzag across a babbling creek into a handsome stand of succession hardwoods. “It’s amazing how remote and secluded this seems,” Joe says. “We’re only six miles from Oak Ridge.” And, believe it or not, we’re on N.C.’s Mountain-to-Sea Trail. After easing into a mature pine forest carpeted with a thick blanket of pine needles, we come to an overlook. A continuing course of small waterfalls spills down a steep incline, tumbling over rocks and, yes, cascading over one rill after another. “Cascades may be a bit of an exaggeration,” Joe says, “but it’s so peaceful. I needed this.”

Length: About 2 miles out and back — more like 4 miles if you take all the loops

Difficulty: Moderately challenging in places, especially on the loops

Don’t miss: One of the loop trails has a dramatic observation deck looking out over a tranquil gorge

Good to know: Make sure you set your sights on Guilford County and don’t end up on the Goodwill Church Road in Forsyth County

Address: 7359 Goodwill Church Road, Kernersville 

Company Mill Preserve

My friend Ashley, who’d just moved back to Greensboro (and, yes, happens to also be the editor of this magazine), mentioned that she’s sick and tired of Zoom meetings and deadlines. I know just the remedy, I told her: a few minutes of soaking in the sounds of Big Alamance Creek where it cascades over the historic and hand-stacked Company Mill dam. After lolling around on an observation pier jutting out into the mill pond, we trade stories about our childhood encounters with cattails. But I’m eager to show her the towering oaks less than a mile from the parking lot. We launch out onto the trail, which follows a crooked creek through a lush marsh vibrant with newly hatched aquatic plants. Little birds flitter through the underbrush. Serenaded by a chorus of frogs, we ascend the ridge line into the shady majesty of a mature hardwood forest. We stroll past rocky outcrops, adjacent pastureland and spots that offer vistas of farmland and McMansions in the distance. Midway along the trail, a rustic, two-story nineteenth-century log homestead emerges from the woods. Then a pair of abandoned tobacco barns. Hopping over rocks to cross the creek (I understand there’s a bridge now), we end up at Hagan-Stone Park, where we turn around after checking out a restored log cabin — and, yes, rest rooms. Hiking this trail is a little like taking a trip back into North Carolina’s rural history, we decide, but without Zoom meetings.

Length: Less than six miles out and back

Difficulty: Moderate with a fair amount of up and down

Don’t miss: There are several loop trails and spurs if you want to extend your walk in the woods

Good to know: The trail can be muddy, even impassible in places if you’re picky about getting your feet wet. Ashley retired a pair of flats and will be bringing her trail boots next time.

Address: 6344 Company Mill Rd., Climax

Rich Fork Preserve

After struggling through the maze of congestion on High Point’s North Main Street, my friend Chip and I breathe a sigh of relief as we take a left onto the residential calm of Parris Avenue. In less than a mile, we come to the gates of Rich Fork Preserve, where we’re greeted by a hooting owl as soon as the car door opens. Chip, whose knees seem, to him, a decade older than he is, is relieved to see a half-mile jaunt outlined on the map. “This was someone’s farm,” he says as we hit the trail, looking at a modest residence. “And those are probably tobacco barns.” Our short walk in the woods is shadowed by poplars sawing in the winds and, here and there, majestic oaks. We stay on a high bluff, overlooking the ripples of a creek snaking though a ravine. Old roads crisscross the trail, and abandoned fence posts and perhaps a dozen buildings punctuate our trek. “It’s the old Hedgecock farmstead,” I tell him. “A website says it’s ‘a piece of land trapped in time. The world around it developed while it stayed still.’” “Works for both me and my knees,” Chip says.

Length: A country mile or so if you take the Conner Trail out and back and the loop

Difficulty: Easy-peasy unless you take the downhill loop, but Chip made it down and back up

Don’t miss: Starbucks on the way in or out or both

Good to know: There are several miles of trails and loops on the adjacent hike-and-bike trail

Address: 407 W. Parris Ave., High Point

Guilford County Farm

For me, a hike is a trek of 8-10 miles with a vertical gain of 1,200 feet or more as measured by my Gaia GPS app. My wife, Anne, loves nature but, for her, hiking is what my father called dawdling. Birdwatching, she calls it. One of the few places that suits us both is the Guilford County (former) Prison Farm. When I drop her off about a third of a mile down Breakaway Trail, the sky is storybook blue. When I go back to park the car in the lot, a woodpecker, red-bellied or red-headed (where’s Anne?), glides high above me as a motley chorus of songbirds erupt in a mash-up of jubilant timbres. Starlings (or are they blackbirds?) mob the vineyard across the road. Crows (or maybe they’re ravens) heckle me from their perches as I hike back down Howerton Road.  On one side of the trail is a creek bottom aflutter with wings; on the other side, open agricultural fields. That’s the charm of this place: The largest of the county’s preserves, you can “run a fence line” through its bucolic rolling hills — just one of the reasons it’s on N.C.’s Mountain-to-Sea Trail. Panting, I pass a line of cedars that is surely bristling with cedar waxwings (I think) and catch up with Anne. “Seen any birds?” I ask. “The only bird I’ve seen is a red-tailed hawk, but I saw a dozen deer running along the creek bottom,” she says. I don’t say a word.

Length: 2.2 miles out and back on the Breakaway Trail, which connects to a 1.8-mile loop

Difficulty: Easy and flat. There’s a loop trail that’s more up and down

Don’t miss: The 1935 stone-built prison dorm next to the parking lot

Good to know: If you’d rather walk in the woods, find access to the loop trail at the lake on Amick Road (Howerton Road becomes Amick Road as you go into Alamance County just past the Prison Farm)

Address: 7315 Howerton Road, Elon

Omnivorous Reader

Defying Mob Rule

Finding justice in the Jim Crow South

By Stephen E. Smith

Ben Montgomery’s A Shot in the Moonlight is a timely retelling of an anomalous story of a former slave who, with the assistance of a Confederate war hero, faced down the forces of white supremacy in the Jim Crow South.

On a moonlit night in January 1897 in Price’s Mill, Kentucky, two dozen “Whitecappers,” self-styled Ku Kluxers, gathered in front of the farmhouse of an innocent 42-year-old former slave, George Dinning, where he slept with his wife and their seven children, and demanded that he submit to the mob’s intent, whatever it might be. Armed with pistols and shotguns, they accused him of theft and ordered him from the relative safety of his home, stating he had just hours to abandon the 125-acre farm he’d worked years to purchase from his former owner and to move himself and his family far away from Price’s Mill. When Dinning denied the accusations of theft and refused to step outside, the mob betrayed their intentions by firing blindly into the cabin, wounding him in the arm and head. Dinning grabbed his shotgun, climbed to the second story of the house and got off a single blast in the moonlight. The shot, although imprecisely aimed, killed 32-year-old Jodie Conn, a member of a wealthy planter family. Then Dinning fled for his life, making good his escape clad only in his nightclothes. The mob dispersed, but vigilantes returned to the Dinning farm the next day, displacing the family and burning the house and outbuildings.

Had it not been for Dinning’s desperate act of self-defense and his subsequent escape, his brief encounter with the mob may well have resulted in just another lynching — there had been at least 13 in Kentucky in the preceding year — but the moonlight assault at Price’s Mill turned out to be the exception to the rule. Dinning sought justice through the courts, an almost foolhardy act of audacity in the Jim Crow South. The day following his escape, he surrendered to the sheriff of an adjoining county, who took him into protective custody and moved him to Bowling Green, where he would be safe, at least for a while. When Dinning was transported back to Simpson County for trial, it appeared he might again fall victim to mob violence, but Gov. William Bradley, a Republican, ordered two companies of soldiers to guard the accused, a politically unpopular action that saved Dinning’s life.

Trial was held before an all-white jury (Montgomery reproduces much of the transcript verbatim), and astonishingly, Dinning was found not guilty of murder but guilty of manslaughter. He was sentenced to seven years in prison. Even so, there was the possibility he might be lynched before being transported to the state penitentiary. In 1892, 161 Blacks were lynched in the country, and only in cases where Blacks took up arms to protect defendants, most notably in Florida and Kentucky, did intended victims escape mob rule. But Dinning had acted in self-defense and to protect his home and family, engendering widespread support, even among the white community, and within a few weeks he was pardoned by the governor.

But the story doesn’t conclude with Dinning’s pardon. He sued his attackers by taking advantage of a legal irregularity meant to quell racial unrest: “ . . . so long as the courts offered the veneer of impartiality,” Montgomery writes, “and Black plaintiffs could access the civil courts to seek justice, they might not revolt or boycott or march or protest other areas of discrimination.” Nevertheless, Dinning’s civil action introduced him to attorney Bennett Young, a well-known lawyer in Louisville, a hero of the Confederacy, a true son of the South who fundraised for Confederate monuments and belonged to veterans’ organizations but who had also founded the Colored Orphans’ Home Society and frequently defended people of color who had been falsely accused of crimes.

The Dinning/Young legal alliance is and was a social aberration, one whose circumstances do not fit neatly into the American story, past or present. How Young managed to rationalize his divergent points of view remains unclear, but Montgomery speculates his benevolence was “coupled with white supremacy, the notion that a certain kind of power came from kindness.” Whatever his motivation, Young fought long and hard on Dinning’s behalf, and at the conclusion of initial civil action, the jury found for the plaintiff. The unlikely lawsuit — a Black man suing his white tormentors — was a success, the first of its kind in the country. The judge dismissed a few of the defendants, but the remainder were assessed $50,000 in damages, $8,333.33 each, an astronomical sum at the time. 

Newspapers heaped praise on the judge and jury: “Whatever may be done with the judgment of $50,000, this verdict by a white jury serves notice that mob law is declining in popular favor in Kentucky, and that the State’s standards of procedure are rising,” wrote the Washington Star. “The leaven is in the lump, and it is working” — which, of course, it was not.

As expected, several of the defendants claimed they were unable to pay damages — “no property found” was reported to the court — but Dinning continued suing them, extracting what little money he could and tormenting the principals until they were in the grave.

Certainly, Dinning’s story of salvation and retribution is worth noting, but so are the stories of the approximately 4,400 victims who did not escape mob rule. They are acknowledged now in The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, and the publication of Shot in the Moonlight is likely, at least in part, a response to recent racial justice demonstrations and the worldwide outrage to the tragic death of George Floyd and other Black Americans who have died under questionable circumstances.

Montgomery claims he scrutinized the historical record and reported Dinning’s story accurately and impartially. “I have made just a few of the very safest assumptions,” he writes, “in the service of the story.” But in his introduction, dated 2020, he acknowledges recent examples of white supremacy and racial injustice. He’s emphatic: “The problem with the Confederate flag and the granite statues of dead soldiers is that the Civil War never ended. It developed into skirmishes and entanglements. As Nikole Hannah-Jones has written, it morphed into looser, legal forms of enslavement that are just as damaging as the whip. It rages on Facebook and in classrooms and in the streets of American cities, still.”  OH

Stephen E. Smith is a retired professor and the author of seven books of poetry and prose. He’s the recipient of the Poetry Northwest Young Poet’s Prize, the Zoe Kincaid Brockman Prize for poetry and four North Carolina Press awards.

Birds of a Feather

In the field with the Piedmont Bird Club

By Jim Dodson

Not long after sunrise on a crisp spring morning, a dozen members of the Piedmont Bird Club gather in the graveled parking area of A&T State’s University Farm on McConnell Road. Bundled in fleece jackets and gloves, ranging in age from 25 to 75, the group buzzes with the excitement of a class reunion.

“It’s always a little like this,” explains the outing’s coordinator, Lynn Moseley. “Part of it is the usual anticipation of seeing new birds for our lists. But it’s also the simple pleasure of seeing other members that we haven’t been with in quite a while due to the pandemic. Birding is something that brings people from all walks of life together — especially now.”

At a time when everything from bowling alleys to churches shuttered, traditional outdoor activities like hiking, gardening, golf and birdwatching have experienced a surge of popularity.

Moseley, retired T. Gilbert Pearson professor of biology at Guilford College, has led birding safaris around the world for decades. She points out that public interest in birdwatching can’t come a minute too soon, especially given the startling news from the journal Science last September that, since the 1970s, North America has 3 billion fewer birds  — or roughly 30 percent of the total population — due to habitat loss and other environment-related factors.

The findings from the most comprehensive study ever conducted on North America’s 760 species of common birds revealed that numerous groups, including sparrows, warblers, finches and blackbirds, were particularly hard-hit. The report singled out the threat to shorebirds, noting that some species face the prospect of extinction.

Which is why, says Moseley, organizations like the Piedmont Bird Club and local Audubon Society chapters are working hard to expand awareness of the problem and promote interest in learning about bird life. “On the positive side,” she adds, “even over the pandemic, we have seen growth in membership and interest in our monthly online Zoom programs. The good news is that the Piedmont has always been home to a lot of dedicated and passionate birders.”

In part, this explains why the Piedmont Bird Club is one of the state’s oldest birding organizations, founded by a group of dedicated, but loosely organized, UNCG professors (then Woman’s College) who were concerned about cats endangering the Gate City’s wild bird populations. Upon learning that the city council only considered proposed ordinances from organized groups, the professors formed the Piedmont Bird Club in February, 1938.

In its early years, club members worked closely with Guilford County Schools to organize bird-house-building contests and promote public education about wild birds, eventually partnering with the T. Gilbert Pearson Audubon Society (now one of ten chapters of the National Audubon Society in North Carolina) to expand public appreciation of local bird populations and the importance of preserving their natural habitats, earning Greensboro early designation as an official Bird Sanctuary.

When former Greensboro mayor Carolyn Allen moved to the city from Texas in 1962, as she puts it, “my husband, Don, and I knew the difference between a cardinal and a blue jay, but that was about the extent of our bird knowledge. But when a colleague from the college invited Don and me to a meeting and on a field trip with the bird club, that all changed in a hurry. We quickly got hooked. The club members were wonderful and the diversity of birds in this state was incredible.”

Half a century later, Allen is still an active member of the PBC, which today boasts close to 300 members across the Triad, many of whom also belong to the local Audubon chapter that’s named for the famous UNCG conservationist who helped found the National Association of Audubon Societies, now the National Audubon Society. 

Under the guidance of early members like Margaret Law and Etta Schiffman, the Allens joined the ranks of hundreds of Triad birders whose passion for birds grew exponentially from the club’s many educational programs and frequent field trips around the state and region, including participation in the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count and North Carolina’s annual Spring Count, which typically happens each May.

“We’re blessed to live in a place where so many species of migrating birds come through during the spring and fall,” notes the former mayor, whose birding passion — like that of many members — led the Allens on birding trips across America. “I don’t think I’ve missed a Christmas or spring bird count since 1964,” she adds. Her daughter, Emily Talbert, is also an active and knowledgeable PBC member who participates in the annual counts.

Like most dedicated birders, Allen keeps track of wild birds she’s seen on field trips or in her yard near the Bog Garden in Greensboro. Still, she admits she’s not a “bigtime lister” like many of the current club members who travel extensively to see, record and photograph species in the wild. “That’s the beauty of the Bird Club,” she adds. “You have several reasons people belong to the club. Some are competitive birders who are devoted to adding to their life lists — meaning birds they’ve seen in the wild — while others like me just enjoy being out in nature and in the company of people who share a love of birds. The social aspect is also important.”

“Once birding gets into your bloodstream,” agrees Ann VanSant, “it’s impossible not to fall in love with watching and photographing birds.”

On this early spring morning, the group is venturing down a gravel track to a farm pond where there are hopes of catching a glimpse of several species of rare ducks and possibly even the elusive Wilson’s snipe.

VanSant and her partner, Dr. Roberta Newton, both of whom retired from top teaching posts at Philadelphia’s Temple University and relocated to Greensboro in 2011, turned their hobby into a sweet obsession that’s taken the pair on birding expeditions to every continent on Earth. They are currently on a quest to “bird” all 100 of North Carolina’s counties.

“We’re up to 93 and counting,” explains Newton, a former professor of physical therapy. “Covid slowed us down a bit, but we’re getting back in the swing of things. Every place we bird is interesting because the birds are so different anywhere you go. Each place changes with the seasons and the annual migrations. So there is always something exciting to see.”

VanSant, longtime professor of pediatric physical therapy, is the team photographer, having captured thousands of spectacular images of wild birds in their travels. She credits growing up near a wildlife sanctuary on the New Jersey coast and watching the seasonal return of snow geese with her father as a starting point of her love affair with wild birds.

“Once you get the right equipment,” she says, “the fun really begins. There’s always the hope of getting the perfect shot of a rare bird for your list, but even the common birds are magnificent. You never know what you are going to see through the camera lens. That’s half the adventure.”

Matt Wangerin, chair of the club’s field-trip group, is a 20-year birder who has photographed birds from Alaska to Costa Rica. The digital revolution in camera technology, he says, has made wildlife photography much more accessible to birders of all skill levels. But cost of cameras, spotting scopes and high-quality binoculars can run well into the multiple thousands.

“There’s no question that digital photography has changed the popularity of birding, attracted more people than ever to the hobby — which, for some of us, really verges on a true obsession. The quality of the photography of many of our members proves that.” He points out that members regularly submit their photos to the Cornell University’s famed Lab of Ornithology for identification of bird species.

Lee Capps, a retired print broker from Burlington, has been photographing birds since 1981, having started his casual hobby with a 35mm Sears, Roebuck & Co. camera, shooting birds in his backyard and over the fence at his neighbor’s feeders.

“The digital revolution really changed everything for me,” he explains. “When Canon came out with its first digital camera around 2006, I used it in my printing business but eventually the birds took it over.” His original Canon recently expired, having taken more than 184,000 photographs. 

Capps went on his first PBC walk in 2017 and was pleased by what he discovered. “The members were great, very welcoming, like birds of a feather,” he quips. “They’re also very knowledgeable about wild birds and always eager to share what they know. I’ve learned so much on those walks. They know the best sites around for seeing wild birds.”

Capps is a frequent user of the club’s highly active website for posting his pictures. “Anytime I can’t identify a bird I’ve shot, I post online and within minutes I get seven or eight members responding who can identify the birds. Part of the pleasure,” he adds, “is posting photography you know others will appreciate and respond to.”

These days, he rarely misses any of the club’s bird walks and even took up kayaking on the Piedmont’s lakes to get closer to water birds, netting spectacular shots of osprey, eagles and cormorants. “Currently,” he explains, “Lynn Moseley and I are both keeping up with an osprey nest on the bridge over Lake Mackintosh, hoping to get shots of any babies.”

On organized PBC field trips, which the club puts on several times a year around the region, Matt Wangerin is something of an eagle-eyed interpreter, able to identify birds by their various calls.

During the walk down to A&T State’s farm pond, for example, he points out the call of a red-shouldered hawk from the nearby woods. Sure enough, it soon appears, cruising for its breakfast high above the farm’s pastures — when Wangerin spots a kestrel sunning itself on a fence post.

Upon his word, members halt and binoculars rise in unison. Tripod scopes zero in on the bird and cameras click. Wangerin hears the call of an Eastern meadowlark and the process repeats itself.

Down at the farm pond, northern shoveler and hooded merganser ducks are seen and photographed along with the elusive Wilson’s snipe, which sends a palpable charge into the faithful, including a handful of newcomers out for their first bird walk. As the day warms and the birds begin to appear, so does the lively conversation among members, young and old.

“The social aspect of birding is really a major attraction for many of our members,” says outgoing club president Stella Wear. “To share a love of nature and beautiful birds is a wonderful thing, especially at a time when birds are so endangered. It’s this kind of shared awareness that can make a big difference in their preservation.”

Anna and Jerry Weston agree. The retired teaching specialist and lawyer have been dedicated members of the Piedmont Bird Club and T. Gilbert Pearson Audubon Society for many years. They’re also keen kayakers, backpackers, native plant enthusiasts, Sierra Club members, yoga fans and hikers who log at least three miles per day.

“This is the first time we’ve been out since last March,” explains Jerry as the group heads off for the demonstration fields across McConnell Road, where hopes of seeing pipits and killdeer are high. “It’s nice to get back into the outdoors . . . feels almost like a liberation.”

“Watching birds is a wonderful way to feel liberated,” Anna picks up on a theme. “You see them fly and it reminds you of what a wonderful place this world really is — and why we have to protect it.”  OH

For more information about local birding with the Piedmont Bird Club, visit

Made by Hand

A Deeper Look

Artist Helen Doemland sees possibility — and beauty — in nature’s castoffs

By Virginia Holman

Why do we so often see ourselves as separate from the natural world, or see the natural world as something separate from ourselves? The very things we must shield ourselves from are the same elements and organisms we need to survive — air, water, soil, fire, plants, animals, microbes, even germs.

Our homes are framed with timbers; floored with heart pine, oak, bamboo; tiled with glass, stone, kiln-fired clay. We decorate them with plants, sleep on sheets woven from cotton, feed the fire in our furnaces with wood, gas, oil, and we bathe, drink and cook with water that flows effortlessly from the tap.

Though it’s hard to understand how much we shape our world and it us, one thing is clear: Our dependence on the natural world inspires us. We look at clouds and stars and see faces, animals, mermaids, the sails of a ship. If you’re artist Helen Doemland, walking the wrack line along the Cape Fear River at low tide, you may see an old tree limb tossed high in the needlerush. You’ll wade through brittle reeds and muck to get a closer look. It’s bird-pocked and worm-holed, scalloped with fungus, sun-bleached and battered. You run your hands over it, view it this way and that and think — I will make something of this. Then you’ll haul it out, heave it into your fat-tired, metal buggy and trudge back to your studio.

Although based in Wilmington, Doemland’s watercolors and wood works have gained traction all over North Carolina, including Greensboro, where you can see her work at Gallery at Grandover. Her sculptures are one of a kind, and many hold a functional secret. An elegant, abstract spalted carving that graces an end table is easily removed from its pedestal and becomes a dramatic centerpiece for your dining table. A gnarled and veined sculpture with several deep pockets functions as a flower vase or a wine chiller. Smaller bits of wood she may sand, sculpt and drill. Then, with a bit of primitive twine and expert knots, she’ll transform them into small hanging baskets for bromeliads and other air plants.

How does Helen know which castaway limbs to collect? That’s something even she can’t quite explain. Instead, she takes me out one low tide dawn to one of her gathering spots. We drive there, take a long walk through the woods, and past shocking piles of trash here and there, where, sadly, people have dumped bottles and mattresses, remnants of carpet, a car tire, and later a wide swath of something that looks like shattered coke from the interior of a smokestack. We come upon one marsh area, and she points through a thicket of phragmites in the distance to an object in the marsh that looks like a giant rusted boiler or oil tank and the old chassis of a truck or tractor. How on Earth did these things wind up here? How will they ever be removed?

Helen pulls her buggy behind us as she scans the shoreline. The sun has yet to rise, but the sky, the water, the narrow strip of shoreline exposed at low tide are tinted in purples and pinks. We wander to wherever there is wood. In the end, I can’t predict what she will collect and transform and what she will leave behind. She says it’s mostly experience and instinct, but like many artists, she sees potential where others do not. We come across a plain-looking stump cut long ago, uprooted, and washed ashore. Helen’s pace quickens. “Ah, this! I call this gold wood.” When I ask her what kind of wood it is, she says she isn’t sure. “It may be ash. It may be maple, but the last time I made something from it, it was amazing. I’ll show you.”

We return to her shop. She brings out a bowl. The polished wood is the color of honey, and the interior is veined with strange marbling. “It looks like a map,” I tell her.

“Look here,” she points. There, it appears, is a shape like the head of a wolf.

“And here,” she says, “doesn’t that look like a turtle?” The more you look, the more is revealed. Helen’s artwork shows us what is possible when one takes the time to examine the castoff, the old and broken, and asks, what is possible here?  OH

Check out Helen Doemland’s work at the Gallery at Grandover and online at

Author and creative writing instructor Virginia Holman lives and writes in Carolina Beach.

O.Henry Ending

A World Without Hugs

I’ve been waiting for this my whole life

By David Claude Bailey

I know. I know. Everybody misses hugs, getting them and giving them.

But I don’t. Not one bit. For me, one of the few silver linings of the Great Pandemic is not getting all hot and bothered about spreading a cloud of cooties, dandruff, body odors and cat hairs with someone I really don’t care to know intimately.

Those who are still reading are surely wondering what trauma from my youth turned me into an utterly unhuggable misanthrope.

My mother hugged me lovingly, and I reciprocated. But I would also let her grab my ear and give it a good scrub with a washrag. My daddy’s family weren’t much into hugging, but dad hugged me as a kid. That said, I could tell he was relieved when I began shaking hands with him, when, for instance, I’d go off to Scout camp for a week.

So maybe that’s where it came from.

It might very well have been my mother’s bottle-blonde bridge partner, who would press my face into her ample bosom, where I was convinced I would surely smother to death on the combination of baby powder and Chanel No. 5, 6, 7 and 8. Another bridge player would scoop me up for a big, slobbery, red-smear of a lipstick kiss, giving me the full effect of her last cigarette and the chemical aura surrounding her freshly permed hair. No wonder I ran from her.

I married a hugger from a hugging family and when I’m having a terrible day, few things are more restorative than a hug from Anne. My children are huggers and as they cast off into the great unknown for months at a time, a warm and heartfelt hug says much more than a teary goodbye. To me, hugs should be something of a sacred connection between two people. My body is yours, I say to my daughters and my wife. I would give my life to save yours, and here’s our bond.

I assure you I never felt that way toward my great and ample aunt Gus or my willowy uncle Reid.

Men hugs are tricky. Some friends give a manly, chest-to-chest, arm-over-the-shoulder squeeze. With others, it’s just a quick shoulder-to-shoulder bump. I have a friend, though, who savors hugs. And he is eminently huggable, Teddy-bear-like in bearing and girth and completely unselfconscious. Many a woman delights in hugging the daylights out of him. And there I am, giving a triangular, shoulder-contact-only, ersatz hug and wondering what’s wrong with me.

Funerals and weddings are the worst. But who needs a hug more than someone whose daddy just croaked? Or whose daughter just got married? Nieces of a certain age are also awkward. What to do about the niece who hugged you like a bear just a year ago but has since matured? And nephews? Even the subteens get handshakes from me — and seem actually grateful.

Believe me, people can sense us unhuggables; it’s amazing how they develop memories for the types of hugs that are wanted or unwanted.

I envy people who never give this sort of thing a second thought. And I sure wish I didn’t. But I do. And I know others who feel the same way. Once this COVID thing is over and done with, do we really want to go back to sharing our germs, dandruff and garlic breath? Can’t we just get along with elbow bumps?  OH

Hug David Claude Bailey, O.Henry’s intimacy-skills columnist, remotely at