When you pull up in Carlton Smith’s driveway off Fernwood Road, you might think fall has come early — even though the temperature is in the 80s and the humidity about to bust.
That’s because there’s a tall black gum tree whose leaves have turned bright red.
“I’ve been here 23 years and it does that every year,” Smith said, noting the tree started to turn about a month ago.
He doesn’t know why, and neither does anybody else who stops by. He has another black gum on his place that’s the usual green.
Black gums are known for their beautiful red foliage — in the fall. Not the middle of June.
“They’re the first tree to lose their leaves, but not this early,” said retired forester Earl Alford of McComb. “It would sound like something’s putting it in stress.”
Smith has a big black-and-white dog named Dog chained to the tree under a “beware of dog” sign. Maybe having a dog there has affected the soil — except the tree has been turning red long before Dog got there.
Alford’s son Mac, a botanist at the University of Southern Mississippi, has seen both black gums and black cherries do that on rare occasions, but he doesn’t know why, either.
His colleague Micheal Davis said the condition may be caused by a fungus and is more likely to occur after hot, dry spells, particularly in the Deep South below Interstate 20.
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The black gum is just one thing that’s caught Smith’s eye lately.
He’s 83 and uses a mechanized chair to help him maneuver, but don’t think that keeps him from getting outside, doing a little gardening and appreciating the novelties that nature always seems to provide.
Smith grew up in the Lewiston community east of Kentwood, La. — not far from the home of Britney Spears, he likes to point out.
He was raised on an 80-acre dairy farm.
“When I was 9 years old, we were milking 80 head of cows by hand,” Smith said, referring to himself and his two brothers, one older and one younger.
“We had a sign on the barn said ‘Armstrong Milkers.’ You’d be surprised by the people who wanted to stop by and see those mechanical milkers,” Smith said with a grin.
He rigged up a speaker for a radio to play during milking. Without it, the cows wouldn’t produce. One neighbor walked three miles to locate the sound of that radio.
Back then, people used dipping vats to treat their cattle for pests. Vats are still found scattered across the countryside, like one on nearby Union Church Road, Magnolia, he said.
“Everybody would let the cattle roam and they’d get them ticks, and they (farmers) would get them all together and run them through that dipping vat,” Smith said,
He remembers a dog named Chief that was expert in herding cattle.
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As a boy, Smith put his farming skills to use making money.
“When I was a kid about 12 years old we had an old red mule,” he said.
He would hire out to a local man to work corn patches daylight to dark for 25 cents a day.
“When we got ready to lay it by, he’d hire me and the mule. He’d pay the mule 25 cents and me 25 cents,” Smith quipped.
The winter of 1947 was a bad one, cold and so wet that Smith remembers a 1,200-pound horse hitched to a slide bogging down to her belly.
The worst thing about that winter was it wiped out the family’s onion sets. They grew a breed known as walking onion or Indian onion.
“My mother used to use them in her bread and butter pickles, but we lost them in the freeze of ’47,” Smith said.
It was many years before he located some more, and now he cherishes them, both white and red. They’re unique because sets of bulbs grow on the stalk.
Smith puts them in small beds the first of August, then sets them out in September. He still has some white ones growing by his house.
He said more conventional multiplying onions take them over and dilute the breed.
“Don’t plant them where your green onions are,” he advises.
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Life on a dairy farm was hard work, especially back in those days.
“It didn’t take me long to get away from there,” Smith said. “I went to Kansas. When I came back, Dad wanted to give me the farm. I wouldn’t take it.”
Instead he went to work for his brother’s wrecker service in Baton Rouge for several years, then drove tanker trucks for Groendyke Transport for the rest of his career, hauling chemicals all over North America — “everywhere but three provinces of Canada.”
“I had over 2 million miles accident-free,” Smith said proudly.
He and his family settled on this piece of property east of Fernwood.
“I had 54 rows of garden right there my wife and I used to keep up with a Cub tractor, International Cub tractor. We kept up with it till we got down. She’s on hospice,” he said.
They grew everything you could think of, for their own use and to give away.
Now Smith has a couple of smaller patches of recently disked ground where he plans to plant a late garden. Among other things he wants to plant some white squash, which he likes fried with onions.
He’s got a big black cherry log lying on the ground by a disked patch. He uses wood from it for barbecuing.
“The best thing to barbecue is blackjack,” Smith said, referring to an oak species. “I can’t hardly find it.”
He and his family also have a pair of “mellow” pear trees, trumpet flowers, assorted dogs, a pet goat and a few chickens, though not as many as they used to raise.
Smith has noticed a yellowhammer lately after not seeing one for 30 or 40 years. It’s a migratory woodpecker also known as northern flicker or common flicker. Smith says you can recognize it by a white patch on the rear when it flies.
He’s also seen some orioles, notable for their hanging nests made of straw.
For many years Smith chewed Day’s Work tobacco until it got too darned expensive. He says back then he could chew an entire bag or plug of chewing tobacco “between 6 and 12.” Now he prefers Longhorn pouches, which he buys by the carton to save money.
“In July if nothing happens I’ll be 84,” he said.
And still looking to see what nature’s up to, no doubt.