more social distancing in an Ozark forest

Posted April 1, 2020 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Roundrock

Tags: , , ,

Last fall I had pressure washed the cabin and then put fresh stain on it. I was pleased with the result, but I knew it meant I had to remove the phoebe nest that had been on the outside wall under the porch roof for years. My hope was that phoebe would return and rebuild her nest, and on Saturday’s visit I saw that she was doing just that.

This is only the beginning of her new nest, but it’s in the same spot as the one she had before. As we sat in the comfy chairs on the shady porch overlooking the sparkling lake, phoebe darted in the trees before us, chastising us for being in what she must have considered her private space. With the rain of the night before, I imagine there was a great deal of mud currently available to her, and I guess she wanted to get busy with building the rest of the nest.

Along with sitting in the comfy chair and adding a layer of blocks to the fire ring, I had also marched down to the dam with the pitchfork to clean the debris off the overflow drain. This is the primary solution to the full lake. There is a basin set in the side of the dam with a screen atop it, and when the water gets to the rim of this basin (set a foot or so lower than the spillway level) the water drains into it and then comes out a large pipe out in the pecan plantation. The pipe is a foot in diameter, and the lake’s watershed is 100+ acres, so in a big storm, the lake can fill faster than this pipe can drain it away. That’s when the spillways work their magic. But the rest of the time, this overflow drain does a decent job of bleeding off the excess. However, it also collects the sticks and leaves that wash into the lake and then are sucked onto the screen. When this happens, the draining capacity is severely diminished. Thus my work with the pitchfork.

It’s not easy. Not only is this drain on the slope of the dam, and so I must find a way to place my feet as I wield the pitchfork, but the debris sits on top of a screen, meaning I have to angle the pitchfork so that its tines don’t go into the screen, thus making it impossible to lift off the debris. And then I must throw the debris I’ve forked over the dam (rather than back into the lake for it to accumulate again). And I must do this will standing above the drain and reaching down and out, while trying not to fall into the lake. They don’t tell you these things when you’re having your dam dreams.

Here is a photo (from years ago) of the drain showing the screen:

And here is a photo (also from long ago) of the drain needing a little housekeeping:

social distancing in an Ozark forest

Posted March 31, 2020 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Roundrock

Tags: , , ,

The weather always makes visiting Roundrock tricky. In the winter it’s often just too cold to want to hang out in a forest and fight to stay warm. In the summer, it’s the opposite (though the evenings around the campfire are nice). Fall tends to be easier to manage, especially after the first frost and the bug presence diminishes. Spring it always the tough time though. Even when the average temperature is warmer than winter, it’s often too wet, and wet cold has a misery all its own. Plus, when it’s wet, the road into the cabin in spongy, and we can do real damage to it when we drive across it.

But when the conditions are right, even some but not all, we tend to take advantage of a free weekend and dash out to the cabin. And that’s what we did on Saturday.

The area had a brief but monstrous storm on Friday, and apparently a lot of water fell. The Corps of Engineers lake we must cross (three times) to get to our cabin was clearly much fuller (though not like last spring — not yet). In the old days, I always took encouragement from these signs as we drove the hundred miles to the cabin. It suggested that our own little lake would be fuller too. And it generally is when this happens. Now, though, it gives me anxiety because the spillway is still not repaired, and a full lake can mean a lake that is overflowing in the spillway. It’s eroded enuf that any more water passing over it will erode it further. And if that keeps up, the dam will be breached and the lake will wash away (possibly drowning some of my neighbor’s cattle).

When we drive down the hill in our forest to the cabin, we always watch through the trees to see if we can spot water in the lake or whether it will be mud. On Saturday’s visit, we saw . . . both. The lake was still there, and at full capacity, but the storm had washed in so much mud and plant matter that the turbidity made it look like brown mud from a distance. (This is a natural occurrence in a forest lake, and the mud does help a little with the leaking under the dam. At least this is what I keep telling myself.)

The spillway erosion had continued further. It is getting serious now, and I’ve contacted the man who promised (a year and a half ago!) to fix it, expressing my urgency. He told me it would happen this week. (We’ll see.)

But on to happier things.

My chore for this visit was to add another line of blocks to the fire ring. It has been my sentimental goal to have the ash build up deeply in the fire ring as a sign of history and use and even mystery, and we seem to be doing that since the ash was getting close to the top of the second tier of blocks. Within that ash is a lot of metal that was part of what has been burned: nails and screws mostly, but also brackets and hinges and the spiral rings of notebooks from my college years. You can see this ash level in the photo above.

I had ordered a hundred blocks from the local hardware store and paid their reasonable price, which included free delivery and even orderly stacking right beside the cabin.

They even left me the pallet, which will eventually go in the fire, along with the nails and screws holding it together.

I had learned a lesson when I built the first fire ring with these kinds of blocks. If you’re familiar with them you know that they have a lip on the bottom at the back so that when they are stacked they are offset, leaning into whatever is within the wall. If you’re building a retaining wall, you definitely want the wall to lean into the hillside, both to better retain the dirt but also to resist the push of the earth when it is frozen and expands.

In the case of a fire ring, there is no hillside-like pressure from the ash. But there is another issue, a lesson I learned the hard way. The levels of blocks in my kind of arrangement are concentric circles. However, the lip that pulls the upper levels in by a quarter inch each time means the upper levels have smaller diameters. They are smaller circles on top of larger circles. And the problem lies in the width of the blocks (which are one foot at their widest point). They determine the outside diameter of the circle on each level. So there are 18 blocks forming each level, but each level going up is a smaller circle of 18 blocks. And those 18 blocks each have their standard widths. So the lower level must be made larger (in diameter) than it normally would be if the blocks abutted.

I didn’t know this when I first laid the second level. I had butted the first level tightly and then found that the blocks on the second level wouldn’t align because I tried to use the same number of blocks, with their same standard widths, in a smaller space. I managed to make it work at the time through a combination of kicking, misalignment, and colorful language. But if you looked closely — and I always did — you could see how some of the blocks were cock-eyed and force fit. That always bugged me. Eventually, when it was clear I was going to need to put a third level of blocks in place soon, I disassembled the original ring and pulled the first level blocks outward by about an inch. This made the lowest diameter larger, which allowed the second, smaller diameter of blocks to fit in an esthetically pleasing way. And I hoped that it would be enuf to do the same for the eventual third level of blocks.

And that was my chore last weekend: add the third level and make it look like I knew what I was doing. And by the point you see in the photo at top, I began to think I wasn’t going to succeed. It’s hard to tell in the photo, but the blocks were creeping past the midpoint of blocks below them. If this continued for the rest of the ring, I would eventually have a block sitting directly atop the one below it, which would not be aesthetically pleasing.

Nevertheless, I persisted. And through some combination of kicking, colorful language, and the beneficence of the universe, the last block fit neatly into place with barely any misalignment.

You see the grill replaced and ready for burgers. Also, Flike because he was all over the place as I was working. And you can see the tarp with the pieces of wood on it, which is my chemical-free method of weed control since I’m uphill from the lake. If I had that pile of gravel I’ve been waiting on (also for a year and a half), I could move the tarp, put down the landscaping fabric, and then spread a nice layer of gravel over it.

The temperature reached 70+ degrees while we were there, and the sun came out in a clear blue sky just as we were packing up to leave.

I had intended to pack up about ten of those blocks to take home for shoring up one low spot under my new fence, but I forgot them. Looks like I’ll have to make a trip out there again this coming weekend.

A truth like that can’t be believed.

Posted March 30, 2020 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Ramblings Off Topic


I’m reading Iris Murdoch’s novel A Fairly Honourable Defeat right now. It was published in 1970. At the middle point I came across this little speech by one of the characters, who is a research biologist recently at Dibbins College:

“It isn’t cynicism. These little games will end civilization and probably end human life on this paltry planet in the not too distant future. Why are people ill now so much of the time with mysterious virus ailments? Little escapees from establishments like Dibbins — and there are such establishments all over the place and there will be more of them and more and more and more — filter into the outside world at regular intervals. It’s practically impossible to prevent it, though of course these accidents are always hushed up. One day some really sensational virus, the absolute pet of some biochemical hack like myself, will get out and all human life will cease in a matter of months. This isn’t science fiction, Rupert. Of course you won’t believe me. A truth like that can’t be believed. That’s why the whole thing will go merrily on until it brings the whole rotten human experiment to an end for good and all.”

Now, I’m not saying that COVID-19 is an escaped experiment, but the business of denial about it is quite vividly seen today.

This is the third time I’m reading this 50-year-old novel, and its contemporary relevance shows how re-reading can deliver an entirely new meaning in part because the reader is no longer the same person as before.


And then 50 pages later one of the characters says, “This world is a rotten oligarchy run by gangsters.”

bits and pieces

Posted March 27, 2020 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Ramblings Off Topic

I have not taken social distancing to mean stepping away from this humble blog, though it’s been a week away for me. I’ve completed my second week of working from home (in my basement), and while it is nice to sleep in and wear sweats constantly, it’s not my new normal yet. It’s still throwing me off balance. I imagined when this time came that I would revel in the extra free time, spending it writing great things (or at least things). But so far, I haven’t found that groove yet.


I have been doing a lot of reading lately. Since the WFH era began, I’ve read Stone Diaries by Carole Shields, and Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson. I also finished Little Women. When I started it, I had hoped to then see the new movie version, but that’s not going to happen soon. I’m also reading (online) The Story of a Bad Boy by Thomas Bailey Aldrich. It’s apparently the font that novels like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn sprang from. So far it’s pretty mild. And I’m currently reading A Fairly Honourable Defeat by Iris Murdoch (for the third time).


I’m also reading the manuscript of a friend’s novel, just as he is reading Ouroboros for me.


The weather has been Marchy here. If the day is dry, the temp is low. And, obviously, if the day is warm, it is raining. But yesterday for a few hours we got both sun in the sky and dry pavement beneath our bike tires. So I went out on my bike for the first time in three months. I didn’t go far — about ten miles round trip — and I didn’t end up at a watering hole to be picked up by my wife. And I live at the top of a hill, so I had a tough last half mile. But it was good to get out there and let my muscles remember the rhythm. Because it was a window of opportunity, and because so many people are stuck at home now, and because many of those people also have kids stuck at home, the trail was packed. Further, it was evident that many did not yet know the etiquette of the trail and spread themselves across it without a thought to anyone else. Luckily my trusty bike has a bell on it, and a couple of cheery rings from that generally alerted those families ahead of me that I was coming. One woman, however, seemed to take offense. When I rang my bell as I approached, she turned and glared at me, with her fists on her hips. Before she could say anything, I thanked her for acknowledging me and sped on.


The photo above is something I found along the trail. I had posted another of this place’s unique signs in an earlier post. There are several signs like it along the trail here, and I thought I had posted them here, but apparently they are on Instagram.

bits and pieces

Posted March 19, 2020 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Ramblings Off Topic

And old photo, above. Some of my round rocks. I began accumulating them about as soon as I began finding them. The pile you see here is now buried deeply by fallen leaves and grown grass. It’s also in a part of my forest I don’t visit as often since the road to the cabin whisks me past it.


Still hunkering down in our self isolation. So far, no problems (though there was no milk at the store the other day when i ventured out for supplies). I’m now working at a make-shift desk in my basement with equipment from my office. It’s surprisingly effective. I had vowed years ago that I would never work from home. My chief reason was because I wanted a tall, impenetrable wall between my work life and the rest of my life. So when this wall was inevitably to be breached, I chose a workstation in my basement; I would forever associate working from home with mildrew and spider webs and cold feet. So far, that’s worked out, but sleeping in two hours this morning has been a nice benefit. (I woke with my dog’s nose in my face, asking to be let out.) So we’ll see if this maybe will become permanent.


Ouroboros is in a semi-finished state. The many brilliant ideas that were flooding into my head as I was writing it have mostly ceased. I still get thoughts about this or that, but nothing structurally or thematically significant is coming any longer. I take that as a sign that it is “finished.” It’s with my favorite beta reader now, and he wrote me an extensive list of thoughts/suggestions/reactions to One-Match Fire when he read that.


Tomorrow is Persian New Year, or as we in the West call it, the first day of spring. I expect celebrations and observations to be muted this year.


Another old photo. Back in the days before we had a cabin (10+ years ago) we sheltered under a tarp overlooking the sparkling lake at Roundrock. I think we went through three of these tarps in those days. The winter weather was especially hard on them. Anyway, the one you see here lost a corner grommet in some violation, which was problematic for keeping the thing in suspension. It was my wife who came up with the solution you see here. Wrap the corner in a smooth stone and then tie around the stone. It worked well.


Curiously, the frenzy that engulfed me when I was working on Ouroboros left me not at all motivated to shop my completed short stories around. I have a half dozen that I think are finished and worthy, and in my current self-imposed isolation, I could be submitting these all over the place, but I’m not for some reason.

I am pretty enthused about a new short story idea, and I’ve been making notes about it. Nearly time to begin writing it, I think.

social distancing

Posted March 17, 2020 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Ramblings Off Topic

Tags: , ,

Like much of the civilized world, my household is now practicing self isolation. I am making arrangements to do my work from home, something I vowed I would never do, so you can see how seriously I’m taking this. We stocked up on nonperishable groceries over the weekend. I’m not visiting used bookstores. (Fortunately, we have shelves and shelves of unread books, just as a house in the civilized world would. Alas, the library is closed for a month.) I have no friends, so the lack of socializing is not a problem. When cabin fever eventually strikes, however, I can strike out for my cabin as a cure. I can drive to my actual cabin in the middle of an 80-acre forest and be even more isolated there than I am making myself in faraway suburbia.

The plan is to do this for two weeks and reassess the state of the world. I am not too worried about catching the virus myself, and if I do, I am not too worried about not surviving it, but that’s not the point of social distancing. I don’t want to transmit it to vulnerable people (or any people). If by hiding away, I do not acquire the virus, I won’t transmit it. Or if by hiding away, I do not encounter any vulnerable people, I can’t transmit it even if I do acquire it.

That latter is problematic though. My wife is categorized as a member of the vulnerable population. This is why I have taken the unprecedented (and loathsome) step of working from home.

Honestly, I suspect that she and I have already been exposed. Not only were we out and about among actual humans in the days and weeks before this, but we’ve been caring for two of our grands several days a week, and you know what little virus vectors babies who also spend time in day care can be. Neither of us shows any symptoms, though I understand the virus can appear latent for weeks before it flares.

My daughter in New York has pretty much raised our alert level to DEFCON3. She and her family of five are planning to remain snug in their house for two weeks at least. She’s been talking to everyone who will listen about the urgent need to squelch the transmission of the virus by voluntary isolation. I know that some church services have been cancelled as a result of her urgings, for example. My son is a doctor in Seattle, pretty much the epicenter of this crisis. He has only grave words to share with me, and he reports being run ragged by the demands and cautions and preparations his hospital is going through. (His successful guilting is another reason I’m working from home.)

The ironic thing about social distancing is that if it works, everyone will say it was an overreaction. If the disease doesn’t spread, fools will say it was never really a problem, but that may have been the case because intelligent people chose to hole up.


Posted March 16, 2020 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Ouroboros

I want to think that I am “finished” with drafting my novella that still has the title Ouroboros. I spent the weekend moving a couple of chapters around and then reading through the whole thing to confirm that the continuity wasn’t affected. I changed a single date reference, though only for fun and not the result of the moving chapters, and I shored up some of the characterizations as I’ve come to know these folks better.

The work currently sits at 45,700 words, and unless something substantial is added to the plot, I don’t see that number increasing significantly. The work is whole as it is (though I am constantly nagged with the idea that it could be better!). So I think it best fits into the category of novella rather than novel, but this distinction comes up as part of the story, so that is fine.

I had the idea to write some ancillary text to add to the story; the main character is a genre writer and I thought about putting in samples of his writing, but I’ve since read a few works in his genre (Westerns) and I know that I have no ability to do it properly, so I’ve abandoned that plan.

This effort has been unlike anything I have written before. I pretty much had the whole thing done (first draft) in two months. When you consider that I spent ten years working on One-Match Fire (at twice the word count), you can see the uniqueness of my experience. I literally spent whole days writing the words as they poured into my head. (Normally, my creativity peters out after a few hours.) Further, the story, and especially the ending, evolved as I was writing it, becoming something very, very different from what I had originally imagined. Yet it just suggested itself to me as I was writing (and at odd times). “Of course,” I would say to myself as I stepped out of the shower. “That makes exact sense.” And then I would sit before my laptop with dripping hair and make the change and deal with the ripple of consequences throughout the text. (I realize that shower thoughts are cliched, but then I realized that I should add that cliche — as a cliche — to the story. It’s tangled.)

My wife has read it, and I incorporated many of her thoughts into my revisions. Now I need to send it to a trusted reader (who once said he would read anything I wrote) and get his thoughts. But beyond that, I don’t think there is more to do with the novella. So then will come the harrowing work of sending it out into the big world.

In the meantime, I have a couple of other short story projects I can begin fooling with, including one I had named “Quasimodo,” which won’t be the name going forward.