The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Fran Stoddard - An Observer Of Nature's Wonders

By Fran Stoddard © 1984

Issue: August, 1984

fran stoddardFran StoddardI was born and raised on a small farm in Pittsford, Vermont, in August of 1941. I was the first of five children and was spoiled by my parents and Grandfather until my brother came along 18 months later. Then there was no time for me because my brother, Frankie was sick a lot. My grandfather still had the time and patience, love and concern, I wish every child could have from an adult. We became very close. From the time I could walk my grandfather would take my hand and we would take walks in the woods. When I was old enough to understand he taught me what the plants and animals were called. He taught me what wild foods were good to eat and what were not. He was my teacher, I was the student, the earth was our classroom.

At home, the farm animals and my cats and dogs were my companions. Grandpa taught me to ride the old work horse. I rode when he plowed, when he hayed, and when he drove the horse and wagon. I enjoyed being in the barn. At night when the cows were milked and fed, I'd sit in the corner of the barn near where we threw down hay and listen to them chewing their cuds or chomping hay. The warm smells and quiet contentment of well-fed, well-cared-for animals relaxed me. Many a time I would go to the barn when a growing-up-type problem was too big for a little kid to handle. When Grandpa had his stroke and there was no one to talk to, I could go in the barn, and bury my face on the cow's neck or the horse's mane, or hug a cat and cry until I felt like I could face the world again. I missed him very much when he had to leave the farm and when he died. But, he whet my appetite for learning all I could about nature.

As soon as I could read, I got books from the traveling book mobile, about plants and animals. I studied them over and over. When my mother finally allowed me, I went alone into the woods to observe first hand the wildlife I so dearly loved. In the woods I felt closer to the Creator.

Throughout my childhood, I continued to read and began to collect insects, plants, ferns, pets, skulls, rocks - anything to do with nature. I had a reputation at a very young age of being different from other kids in my age group. When other kids were writing to movie stars, I was writing to and receiving letters from Marlin Perkins. When I was young he had a TV program similar to his present "Wild Kingdom". My bedroom looked like a zoo/museum. My mother was afraid to come in. She never knew what strange pet might be loose. Like the night a hat bounced down the stairs, one step at a time, as my parents sat in awe at the foot of the stairs. They had company at the time. At least my mother figured out it was something I did or one of my pets and she yelled, "FRANCES" as only she could yell. I went down the stairs and picked up the hat to retrieve my poor old bullfrog.

My menagerie grew until my parents decided to let me use what we called the big and little henhouses. The big one I used to house my summer collection of turtles and snakes and a few other larger animals, my collections and displays. In the other was my lab where I conducted experiments and studied.

All the animals I collected in the summer, I released in the Fall so they could hibernate. I preferred studying by observation in the animal's natural habitat. I enjoyed sitting quietly in the woods waiting patiently for something to show itself. My patience was usually rewarded. Birds, squirrels, chipmunks and mice were the least afraid. Once a mouse ran over my legs as if I were merely a log laying in its path. Red squirrels and chipmunks would often climb down a tree I'd be resting against and chatter loudly in my ear. One night as I stood under a tree, a little screech owl let out the most blood-curdling scream I'd ever heard! It was a good thing I knew it was an owl or I'd been scared to death. It wasn't unusual for me to be in the woods at night as that was when the animals would come out. It worried my mother when I would not come home until after dark and when I didn't answer her for fear of scaring away what I'd sat so long to see.

People often brought me animals they captured or found injured. Sometimes, I'd find them and bring them home, keep them a while then let them go. Over a period of time we had a fawn, raccoon, dear mice, pigeons, bittern, crows, bear cub, hawk, many birds, chipmunks, squirrels, and various reptiles, amphibians, insects and fish. The hawk was knocked from a nest by a neighbor boy who gave it to me. It was a Goshawk. I raised him until he could fly. When I let him go, he continued to come back to me. Whenever I would whistle, he would come and land on my arm. I had to wear leather to keep the talons from hurting my arm. One summer day, I was busily picking blackberries off a low bush. All I had on was a sleeveless cotton blouse. I did not hear "Junior" as he soared quietly and glided down onto my poor back. I can still feel those talons sharp as needles sinking into my back! I straightened up and he fell off, stood in front of me, wings spread and beak opened scolding me for not feeding him that morning! I was angry and hurting and scolded him. We must have been a strange sight - a girl and a hawk having an argument in the pasture!

There are many tales that came from my strange hobbies, like my pet pig that followed us everywhere we went. The time I let him in the house and he ran through the kitchen upsetting the rich lady who was about to sign a contract with my father to insulate her house. The pig went right under her chair! He "weren't no small pig, neither. He was a big hog!" I'm afraid Daddy didn't get the job. I didn't get a spanking neither because he thought it was an accident and I wasn't about to argue with his good judgment.

School was O.K. I attended a one room school for seven years with the same teacher. That was fun because I could hear all the things the upper grades studied and knew what to expect. Reading and science were my favorite subjects, but English grammar and literature came easy. In the 8th grade, we were sent by bus for the first time to a big school and a man teacher! I was sure nervous.

When we got married about 16 years ago, my husband and I decided to do a lot of traveling. During these years I took more courses in writing, and actually began to write professionally for magazines and newspapers. We worked our way across the country, coast to coast several times at least. We lived in Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Arizona, Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Kansas, with brief stays in nearly 40 states. We lived in cities, rural farm country, deserts, woods and mountains. We "rubbed elbows" with people from all walks of life, the rich, the poor and the middle class. I've worked in the orchards with migrant workers and eaten lunch with high officials. My husband, before he became disabled, worked as a chef and a country western musician. He has served celebrities and sung with some. He still writes songs but he doesn't get out in public to play the steel guitar like he used to.

Because of my background and lifestyle, I've never come to have any prejudices. Although born in Vermont, I don't consider myself a Vermonter or a Yankee. We actually spent most of our married life in Idaho, but I'm not an Idahoan. I lived in Arkansas but I'm not a Razorback. Now I'm in North Carolina, by choice not chance. I'm just me, a human being who loves people and all God's creation. Granted, there seems to be more of God's creation right here in the Blue Ridge Mountains than anywhere else I've ever been. I'm enjoying the climate, the people, the wild life and plants. Just this morning, I went out to feed the chickens and the air was so filled with the smell of wild roses I thought, "If this sweetness had calories I'd get terribly fat!"

We live in an old white farmhouse at the end of a long dirt driveway. We have a few banties, rabbits, two hounds and a cat named Killer. Killer brought home a 3 foot long black snake, still alive, to my husband yesterday! My husband is afraid of snakes! The night before that, Killer was in the house, and for some unknown reason, jumped over the sofa where my daughter was eating her strawberry shortcake, landed smack in the middle of the plate, skidded off on to the bed! Disgusted, Vinita handed me what was left of her shortcake. "Here, I don't want it now!" I couldn't help laughing. "It's not funny." she said. "I know, it's awful. I'm sorry he jumped, in your shortcake." I said still laughing.

"Well, how come you're still laughing if you think it was awful?"

I decided to leave the room.

I'm still writing professionally for magazines every chance I get. I recently began working for the Asheville Citizen as a stringer here in McDowell County. My hobby is pen and ink drawings of wild life scenes. People have been asking to, buy some lately so I may sell a few.

That's about it. I live here with my husband T.P., my son Thurman, 15, and daughter Vinita 13, and our pets. Probably I'm the only person in the world who has a weed on her desk over two foot tall! I didn't know what it was when it started to grow as I had planted a package of plant seeds. Not knowing what they would look like, I let this big plant grow. Now I know it is a plant related to the potato and tomato plant known as Deadly Night Shade! It's blossomed now and doing so well, I don't have the heart to kill it!

Editor’s Note… Fran Stoddard is going to join our family of contributors with articles about Blue Ridge Wildlife from time to time. Some of the things you can look forward to reading in her articles are why a 'possum plays dead and how wasps and hornets make the paper for their nests. If there are any questions you have about such things or if you have suggestions for this type of articles, Fran welcomes hearing from you. Her address is:

Fran Stoddard
Rt. 5, Box 34
Marion, N.C. 28752

This story was written by Fran to get acquainted. I'm sure any of you that ever drug home a stray animal will identify with her.