Monthly Archives: July 2013

Bear invades campus

A black bear decided to visit Duke this week.  Seriously, the bear took a stroll over to the VA on Monday, getting as far as the parking lot before darting back to the woods across from Erwin Road.  On Tuesday he was spotted over at the Center for Living.  (I say “he” because most of these “city bears” are usually young males in transit, looking for a new territory to call their own.)  Sometimes
they get turned around.  Fortunately our friend was close to Duke Forest, where he should have some good cover while planning his next move.  I wonder if he knows that Carolina is only 8 miles down the road.   Nobody got a picture of the bear, so I’m using one of my stock images below.


I’m always surprised to  hear about black bears in the Triangle, but I shouldn’t be.  Traditionally our state’s bear populations have thrived in our western mountains and our eastern swamps, where there are large tracts of uninhabited land.   From what I’ve read, their population has increased substantially over the last 40 years, thanks in large part to efforts by the NC Wildlife Resources Commission.   Now they are living all over the place, and sightings have become more common as the humans have spread out into previously uninhabited spaces.

As fate would have it, my dad saw a bear crossing Clark’s Creek road  near their house this morning.   A tiny image, but check out those long  legs.  Time to get back up to the mountains.

Bear, Clark's Creek Road, Banner Elk, NC


Sweet potato pie (and shut my mouth)

I’ve had a sweet potato obsession for a number of years now.  There is the occasional week where I’ll eat so many that my skin will turn orange.  (Now that Syracuse is in the ACC, I’ll have to be careful not to look like Otto the Orange if I ever get to go to a UNC-Syracuse game.  My head is fairly round.)   My doctor reinforced  this addiction when she told me during my last physical that I should substitute sweet potatoes for regular potatoes in my diet, as they are better for blood sugar.  All I could do was turn my head and smile.

sweet potato shoot

Naturally I bring this obsession to the garden.  Over the last few years we’ve grown them,  but I want to really maximize our yield in 2013.  This year’s goal is to fill our root cellar with enough sweet potatoes to feed the entire block, or use them as a food source in case of a post-industrial collapse.  Those things keep for over a year at a time.  You laugh now, but some day, on the brink of starvation, you might be eating sweet potato fries from our solar oven.

The first step involved research.  I knew that North Carolina leads the nation in sweet potato production with around 40% of the nation’s yield.  Most of them are grown down east, in the land of vinegar BBQ.   They aren’t hard to miss if you’re ever traveling east of I-95, where you’ll pass by enormous  irrigated  fields,  green vines basking in the hot sun.  This makes sense because the sweet potato is a tropical plant, indigenous to Central America.  Lots of sun and water are essential.

The soil in our Triassic Basin  region differs greatly from the soil down east, which is much  sandier.  This eastern  soil, called  Cecil Sandy Loam,  is a dirt/sand mix with a layer of red clay on the bottom.  With this in mind,  I created a new  sweet potato patch,  using  40% leaf compost, 40% sand,  and 20% red clay.

Sweet potato bed on Farthing

I mixed the compost and the sand together,  and placed it on top of the clay.   I also made sure the patch was deep and in  a well-drained location.   A couple of sources indicated  that the soil should be at least a couple of feet deep,  so I piled our sweet potato patch up to 30 inches.

Next we  bought a few sweet potatoes at Whole Paycheck  and then cut them into pieces, planting the sections that had “eyes” on them.  It took a couple of weeks for the vines to start poking through.   A month later, they seem to be doing nicely, unaffected (as far as we can tell) by the rot brought forth by last month’s deluge.  Wish we could say the same thing about our tomatoes!

Sweet potatoes

This weekend we’ll be fertilizing them some, using  a fertilizer that has a higher concentration of potassium and phosphate with lower nitrogen levels.   If you have too much nitrogen, the vines will  grow abundantly,  but the potatoes will be puny when you dig them up.

With sweet potatoes, the waiting is the hardest part.  We like to give them 120 days to harvest, which means we’ll be harvesting in October.  It’s so much fun digging them up with the shovel,  although I always end up cutting open a few by mistake.  After the harvest  we have to let them cure in the cellar for a couple of months.  They need this time to become sweet and luscious.   That means they’ll be ready for Christmas.  I look forward to stuffing one in Shawnna’s stocking.

The cinnamon bear

I’ve always felt drawn to black bears.

beargrandfather1Perhaps I am a human-ursine hybrid.  Many people over the years have told me that I remind them of a bear.  It’s true that I have a keen sense of smell and not the best eyesight in the world.  And of course I’m always foraging for my next meal.

 Mind you, I only have this affinity for black bears, not grizzlies.  Those things terrify me.  I’ve seen Grizzly Man and I definitely wouldn’t want to become a wienerschnitzel platter for Mr. Chocolate.

I’ve always wanted to take a picture of one in the wild (from a comfortable distance of course.)  Until that day, I have to be satisfied seeing them in captivity.  Two of our favorite places to see black bears are the Museum of Life and Science in  in Durham, and Grandfather Mountain in Linville.

The museum in Durham has a wonderful after-hours event for members called “Bears up Close.”  For a small fee you get to tour the bear house and fling boxes of food for the bears to gobble up.  The first time we went, a bear leapt  up suddenly from nowhere and greeted us at the door.

Bears life and science1

The hair stood up on the back of my neck as my animal instincts kicked in.  It’s probably a good thing I had the appropriate fight or flight response.  Those nails looked long and sharp!

On our recent trip to Boone, we visited the bears at Grandfather Mountain.  The bears seemed to be looking right at me, as if they had something to say.


I was smitten with the  the beautiful cinnamon-colored bear on the right.  Apparently only one percent of the black bear population have this coloration.  Her beautiful coat glistened in the sun as she took notice of some frogs that swam up beside her.  She seemed to be wary of them.  Imagine that, I thought.

Suddenly I felt the inspiration to write a song about  the cinnamon bear.   A Neil Young parody, à la Weird Al Yankovic,  popped into my head.

A dreamer of pictures
I run in the night
You see us together,
chasing the moonlight,
My cinnamon bear.

The cinnamon bear stayed with me for the drive back home to Durham.  By the time I got back  I was starving, but there was not a scrap in the kitchen.  Famished, I did the only thing I could do at the moment:  I went to the backyard to forage.  To my delight,  there were fresh figs waiting for me.   And a few blueberries and blackberries too.

figI stood up on my hind legs and spent the next half hour eating contentedly.  Once I had gotten my fill, I lumbered back into the house and fell into a deep, peaceful sleep, dreaming of the cinnamon bear.