Country Life: Accidental Peaches, Prolific Bears, and a Delusional Dog

A Formula for Trouble

Last night we had a little chemical interaction explode up here. It’s an outcome that’s been brewing for a long time and turned dangerous. We’re lucky no one was hurt.

Element One: Ripe Peaches

Twelve or so years ago a peach pit must have been tossed down the wooded hill from our parking peachesarea, maybe 25 feet from our house. Jump ahead about five years and in mid-August, my sharp-eyed daughter-in-law spotted the resulting tree and picked two dozen juicy, very tasty, tree-ripened, completely unexpected peaches. That tree reproduced through its fallen fruit and soon new peach trees appeared on the hillside. Fascinated by the idea of an all-volunteer orchard, we thinned them to four and let them grow in the rough with minimal care. About three years ago, we picked five bushels of pretty nice peaches (some wormy: most not). That was many more than I could handle. I did what I could, decided ruefully I’m not the country mama I’d like to think I am, sighed, and went back to my writing.

Element Two: Bears

Though not as many nor as fanciful as in this 1870 William Beard painting, there’ve always been bears on our forested little mountain. When we moved here long ago, many of our neighbors kept hounds for hunting, and every year bear hunting season was highly anticipated. Our nearest neighbors told me that they tried to can or freeze the meat of at least one steer, two hogs, one bear, and several deer annually. That plus garden produce could feed them for a full twelve monthsPD BlackBear Hhding in the tree

Occasionally, but not often, we’d see a bear passing through our yard or in the woods. It was a rare event— kind of exciting, but not threatening. We and the bears just carefully left each other alone.

Time has passed quickly. Our neighbors’ traditional way of life is pretty much gone now, and I’ve mourned at many funerals for our old, dear friends who made us feel so welcome here. Now, it’s unusual for hounds to run baying through the woods. At least, the place is more pleasantly quiet.

With less hunting going on, eastern black bears are flourishing in this area. I kind of like bears and I feel we’ve coexisted with them pretty well since we learned, long ago, to keep our trash inside until “Dump and Recycling” day. Other than a raid on the chicken coop, we’ve had little bear trouble until last night.

Element Three: The Dog

guilty LexieOur cockapoo Lexie is a small one, only 15 pounds. She’s my shadow and a great companion. She’s friendly, sweet, cuddly, mostly well-behaved and cute as a button. She looks frolicsome and joyous romping through summer grass trying to catch butterflies. But her cute puppy-ness hides a dark side. Though she’s the product of two over-refined miniaturized pet breeds, Lexie is an oddly fierce, dedicated hunter. When something catches her attention—be it dragonfly, frog, or skink, fortunately not snakes—she’s implacable in the chase. Like many pet dogs, when her Whitefang spirit’s in control she loses what little common sense she has and completely forgets her size. This delusional over-confidence is at its worst when I’m there with her.

The Catalyst: Good Mothering by a BearPD Image Mother Bear

The Outcome: Boom! Trouble

These volatile elements mixed and blew up when we went outside last evening. Lexie ran away from me toward the fruit-laden trees. She was barking loudly and wouldn’t come back to my calls. Suddenly, she did come back to me, her short legs scrambling for speed and about 130 lbs of angry bear on her heels. The bear hesitated a second at the edge of our concrete walkway then charged ahead on it, toward us.

This is the door – insert bear here.

I’d been calling from the kitchen doorstep and had just enough time to hustle myself and Lexie, who was brave again in my presence, into the house. Madame Bear followed her right up to our door, which I shut as quickly as I could, almost literally in her face. The bear watched us intently as I pushed the madly barking dog out of the mudroom and into the kitchen and closed that door, too. Madame Bear stood up on the doorstep and took a tentative swipe at the glass with her paw as if to see if she could go further, then dropped down and walked away.

It turned out we were encountering the proverbial mama bear with cubs who quite reasonably decided that Lexie was a real threat. I can’t blame her.

This morning, the bear and two cubs were back in the peach trees, and I was able to get this I’m-sorry-it’s-not-better photo from safely indoors through a window-screen. By my side, Lexie had changed into Whitefang at the bears’ scent and startedmama bear coming toward house barking. Immediately, the cubs climbed trees on the slope and mama bear left them, the peaches, and the woods behind her again and walked up our lawn in a determined way, toward Lexie’s barking. I pounded the windowsill and shouted at her, and she slowly turned and went away, her two cubs following. They’re gone for now, but I’m sure they’ll be back soon for more peaches.

This is a serious problem. It kept me awake last night until I formulated: The Plan.

Plan Part One Miss Lexie will henceforth go out only on a leash, and only when there are no bears evident. This’ll continue until the fruit is all gone and well past that time.

Plan Part Two  The peach trees are bear attractants and need to go. We’ll cut them down this fall and maybe also our cherry trees, which draw bears in the early summer. I’d rather have safe dogs than fruit trees.

Plan Part Three  I have to stay very aware that Lexie Whitefang the Hunter just isn’t as smart as Lexie the Sweet Cockapoo is. She doesn’t make good decisions when she’s excited. This is all my bad–I sort of knew it could happen but didn’t think about how to handle it in practice. Lexie could’ve been killed or could have injured one of the cubs and then be killed.

Plan Part Four  Our Miss Lexie needs to understand that she’s an overbred,  sheltered little dog, not Whitefang the mighty hunter. I’m not confident she’ll ever believe that. We’ll have to see.

Are you having bear adventures this summer?

The images on this post are public domain from Google Images, except for the Beard painting, which came from the New York Historical Society, and my one good photo (of Lexie) and terrible through-the-screen photo and the glass door photo.


New Story

I’ve just added a new story, “To Be Green,” to my Wrandom Writings–you’ll find that section on my menu. It’s a sort of an interesting view  of love and death. Check it out!

Unlike dreary old February, which dragged on forever, March has galloped, and now April is just around the corner. Funny how time perceptions shift, isn’t it?  Happy Springtime!

Westward Expansion Can Be Bumpy

BookCoverPreview front onlyThe basic structure of my book Promise, which will come out next year (2020) follows four families in America from the 1700s into the Twentieth Century. From their arrival in colonial Pennsylvania and Virginia these families expanded southward and then west, along with the nation’s growth.

Their stories are of covered wagons, rattlesnakes, wars and peace, circuit riding ministers, cotton plantations, outlaws, prospectors, log cabins, slavery, raids and battles, social activism, one-room schools, the Sierras, horses, oxen, scalpings, plagues, the Transcontinental Railroad, turkeys, osteopathy and home remedies, floods and blizzards and many adventures of life pushing across the beautiful wilderness of the United States.

These were just average people living their lives in the time of expansion and facing the problems and opportunities that came with a new nation’s growth. They were descendants of the Davies family—whose adventures are in my books, A Perfect Plan and Rule!—and the Atkinson family—descended from the Powells and Praters of A Good Place, the Still family of North Carolina, which included the founder of osteopathy, and the Yeargins of Cherokee County, Alabama.

Promise is the final volume of Helena’s Stories. It’s a big project with lot of research and will bring to life times, places, and events we learned of in school, movies, and books (and TV!). As in the other books of the series, Promise will be end-noted, as accurate to time and place as possible, and offer supportive historical information in notes at the books’ end.

The bits ‘n pieces of nifty information that arise in the research but don’t make it per se into the book are the triggers for my quarterly newsletter, Thoughts on History. I send it out via email and also have linked the issues to this site (see the Menu above). So, this project has become a whole, big package of history on a personal level.

Though I’m still not halfway through my first draft of Promise, the other day, going over what I had so far, I realized that much of the story that develops over the about 150 years takes place in wagons or other vehicles. It just happened that way, but it sure feels American to be on wheels.

I hope you’ll join me through the newsletter or my (much too infrequent) blogs as my book makes the journey westward. The vehicle might be bumpy, but the scenery’s terrific and the folks are, well, real genuine folks.

If you’d like to be sent the newsletter or have questions, email me at

A Good Place Is in Place!

Studies of a Dog Adrian van de Velde (2)

I’m so excited! I’ve finally finished my book A Good Place after a year of research and writing and then months of telling people I was “almost done.” In one form or another, A Good Place has been up on my computer almost every day of the past eighteen months and each time I sat at my desk I found that I couldn’t stay away from it.

I guess you’d call the book a saga. It’s based on a documented tiny piece of history: that in 1622 Thomas Prater, who was eighteen years old, came to Jamestown as an indentured servant. His contract was sold to a man named John Powell, a newly established planter in the area now called Hampton Roads. Prater came from an old and apparently well-off Catholic English family. Catholicism, though, was not tolerated in the Virginia colony.  So, why would the son of a well-off family leave England, travel for fourteen months, endure five years of enforced servitude and face the many risks of living in a colony where he must hide his faith?

The book has many colorful characters. Besides Thomas Prater, we get to know a war-weary veteran of battles against Spain in the Netherlands and his young wife–the very conventional daughter of an English baker–as well as his daughter, who was raised for most of her life at the edge of a wilderness. We also get to know Thomas’s fellow-servants:  a Puritan forced against this will into indentured service in the wrong colony, a terrified eight-year-old Welsh orphan, and a Mannahoac Indian slave who can’t remember who he was before he taken from his family as a small child. The book includes a love story, a quest, adventures, and “on the ground” views of life in England, the Virginia colonies,  and among the native tribes of  Virginia.

This has been a wonderful book to research and write. It even has a family of mastiffs in it — my first book with dogs, but definitely not my last.

A Good Place is Volume III of Helena’s Stories: books based on true family stories that personalize documented historic events. Volume I is A Perfect PlanVolume II is Rule!, and Volume IV will be Promise, which should be out by 2020. The menu in my blog’s heading will take you more information about Helena’s Stories and the projects those stories started, as well as to my newsletter, Thoughts on History.

Dog sketches by Adriaen van de Velde, undated (ca 1665). Sourced from                     https//

Nursery Rhymes and History

babablacksheep    Writing reasonably good historical narrative requires doing a lot of research. These days, information is so readily available on the internet that research can be wider as well as deeper without time and resources lost traveling to physical libraries around the country or the world. This is a great boost, and also takes me to interesting topics I might not think to pursue otherwise.

A good example: nursery rhymes. We all know them, we grow up with them and we recite them to our kids. But… what do they mean? The site

contains some wonderful articles about the origin of English nursery rhymes.  Below is a clip: their write up about a favorite.

“Baa Baa Black Sheep,
Have you any wool?
Yes, sir, yes, sir,
Three bags full;
One for the master,
One for the dame,
And one for the little boy
Who lives down the lane.

Not surprisingly this rhyme is all about sheep, and the importance of sheep to the English economy. Until the late 16th century the final lines of the rhyme read “And none for the little boy who cries down the lane.” It was changed to the current version in order to cheer it up and make it into a song more suitable for children.

In medieval England, the wool trade was big business. There was enormous demand for it, mainly to produce cloth and everyone who had land, from peasants to major landowners, raised sheep. The great English landowners including lords, abbots and bishops began to count their wealth in terms of sheep, with some flocks totalling over 8,000 animals, all tended by dozens of full-time shepherds.

After returning from the crusades in 1272, Edward I imposed new taxes on the wool trade in order to pay for his military ventures. It is believed that this wool tax forms the background to the rhyme. One-third of the price of each bag, or sack sold, was for the king (the master); one-third to the monasteries, or church (the dame); and none to the poor shepherd (the little boy who cries down the lane) who had tirelessly tended and protected the flock.”

This text, and that wonderful old-fashioned graphic, were excerpted from

It’s an informative, fun resource – very much worth visiting!

Well, yes, but…

In August, I sent my first story for Promise to my wonderful beta readers. It’s about Thomas Prater, an indentured servant who went to the Jamestown settlement in 1622. I had been messing with the story all spring and summer, adding auxiliary characters and researching like mad. I wasn’t very comfortable with the result, though and needed an outside perspective.

My beta readers, bless their hearts, separately came back with the same message: this is the start of a book, a good book. It’s not a story… these characters need to play out their drama or no-one’s going to be happy.

I had sort of thought that, too, but I tend to fall in love with my characters and didn’t want to overestimate them.  I am so grateful to the fine, patient, hard-thinking folks who offer me this good feedback.

So, here I was writing one book – Promise – a set of stories similar to Rule! but set in America.  Suddenly, I veered off into another direction. Now, my story will be its own book, which will be called  –  at least, for now – A Good Place.  For inspiration, I found an image that matches the story: this 1663 painting called River Landscape in the Late Afternoon by Adriaen Van de Velde.

Afternoon River Landscape better resA Good Place will explore how and why a younger son from a well-established (but  Catholic, in an uneasy time) family ends up as an indentured servant in the notoriously dangerous Virginia colony.  Thomas Prater arrived from England only a few months after devastating Powhatan raids had killed about 25% of the existing settlers. It’s a real story, with lots of content: getting by in a remote colony; religious strain caused by real or perceived threat to the new (about 50 years old) Church of England; religious intermarriage (yep!); slavery and enforced labor; privileged class vs working class; and tribal conflicts between the Powhatans and Monacans; the displacement of native tribes by European settlers. All this is set against a wild, natural background of the James River and the deeply forested wilderness that covered Virginia and, frankly, terrified many of the English.

I have among the characters a teenaged girl, her father – a seasoned veteran of the English wars against Spain, a displaced Puritan who was indentured against his will, a Monacan Indian slave who wants to go home but doesn’t even know where that is any longer, an eight-year-old Welsh orphan who had been sold into indenture and on and on.  Oh, and it has dogs – wonderful mastiffs. I’m up to my ears in research and having a great time writing this book.

Then, when A Good Place is done, I’ll go back to Promise – I promise.


Cover Image for the book Promise

I have found the image for the upcoming book, Promise. The book is set in America and tracks the country’s growth through family stories. The New England painter Albert Bierstadt (1830 – 1902) brought vistas of the American west to all the country and to Europe as well. The golden tones of this painting as well as the subject matter seemed to fit the promise America represented to immigrants as far back as the 1600s and still represents today. It also shows the toil required to settle here. Most of us (science tells us all of us, if we look back far enough) are descended from immigrants.

from Wikimedia Commons
Emigrants Crossing the Plains by Albert Bierstadt, 1869