Mrs. Edith Rose Wilkins was born on December 18, 1932, two years after her father bought 400 acres of farmland and the big timber that crowds the Neuse River, along a broad sandbar southeast of Smithfield. If you were to drive across the Interstate 95 bridge there, and crane your neck and look downstream, you might see the very edge of her woods, and the bluffs that nod over the south riverbank. That’s where we met, on a spring morning long ago, to spark a friendship that has sunk deep roots into her land by the Neuse.
For 14 of the finest years of my life, I leased the hunting rights to the Wilkins place off Devil’s Racetrack Road, where the river coils through the “Let Lones,” a vast mosaic of big bean fields and cypress woods and swamp so wild that folks say you’d best just leave those folks all alone down there. Across all those years, I spent untold hours watching for deer and ducks at “Mrs. Edie Pie’s,” as she is known to her friends. I watched hundreds of sunrises and sunsets over her fields and cypress woods. My children swarmed the farm, gleaning sweet potatoes from the harvested fields, catching frogs in the creek, begging to stop at the cabin by the pond on each visit to see if Mrs. Edie Pie might be there.
Over those years, I’ve watched Mrs. Edith Wilkins love the land her daddy left her. She’s kept the logging trucks out of the big cypress woods, mourned the low grounds where tornadoes twisted through, and fed her passel of farm cats, roosters, chickens, horses, and at least half a dozen dogs. So this is a short story about a special piece of land, and how it has bound my children and me to this sweet lady down in Johnston County. Which is why I’d rather not start at the beginning, and the fact that it was all founded on guile and a lie.
We meet, as we always do, in the shade of the pines that tower over a pond and pasture, at the old tenant house that Mrs. Edie Pie and her late husband, Melvin, moved from near the dairy barn years ago. Inside, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson meet each other’s gaze in a painting across one wall. There’s a stuffed wild boar head. A nice buck deer. It is dark and cool and filled with rocking chairs and a long dining table where the extended family comes together each Thanksgiving.
For nearly 20 years, it’s been Mrs. Edie Pie who has slid in behind the wheel of her golf cart whenever we take a spin through the big woods and the lowland fields of her farm. For decades, the Wilkinses rode horses on the extensive network of trails that they meticulously maintained on the farm. She’s long since traded four legs for an electric golf cart, loaded down with cat food and fire ant killer, and there aren’t many days this 83-year-old lady doesn’t make a round or two. So I’m surprised when she slides into the passenger seat. “Oh, you drive this time,” she says. She is still spry and quick with a smile and a laugh, but she is slowing down. She has fought lung cancer for years, and the heat keeps her indoors far more than she’d like. “I just want to look,” she explains. “Haven’t had a chance to just look in quite a while.”
We make a quick loop through the farm, through pines and past blackberries, through the woods where she used to pick muscadines. Freshly turned ground makes her think of the artifacts she found as a kid. “No telling how many arrowheads and minié balls we found out here,” she recalls.
We head back to the cabin. Mrs. Edie Pie thinks she might have a few cookies at the cabin, and apologizes for not having cake. Like her smile, and her asking, “How are the children?”, there’s rarely been a visit when there wasn’t some kind of treat to send me on my way. I figured this out early on: When life got so crazy that I didn’t have time for cake and a glass of tea with Mrs. Edie Pie, in those rocking chairs on the shady cabin porch, well, that’s how I knew something in me needed fixing.
Over my years at Mrs. Edie Pie’s, I began to learn how a piece of land grows memories like it grows sturdy oaks and tangled honeysuckle, or beans and corn. The harvest differs, from generation to generation, from one to another, but it comes to all who sow a piece of land with their own time and sweat and presence.
This is the land that nurtured her, and she returns the favor.
Mrs. Edie Pie remembers Molly the mule, and the way her father would hoist her up on that gray-brown creature to ride bareback in the fields. She knows where the “Sam Benson” tree is, down by Cobb Slough, where generations have carved their initials into its smooth bark. She’s taken me to the high rocks over the creek where she would lie quietly as a young woman and watch the current slowly spin beneath her. And we’ve ridden mile after mile along the wide paths where she and Melvin led horses year after year. This is the land that nurtured her, and she returns the favor.
My memories are quite different, of course. They give the land a topography that only I can navigate, marked with landmarks only I recall.
I remember my daughter, Markie, and I paddling a canoe through the cypress forest one day after heavy spring rains flooded the woods. The creek was out of its banks, the waters reaching 10 feet up the big tree trunks, and we steered the canoe through the leafy canopy as if we were floating through green clouds. I remember big deer slipping along the creek. The squeal of wood ducks. I remember my son, Jack, praying over the still body of a deer. I remember holding his hand in my own, helping him guide the knife blade into the storied parchment of the Sam Benson tree.
And I remember how Mrs. Edie Pie loved to give the kids eggs from her laying hens, out behind the tractor shed. Looking back, I believe she might have felt a little sorry for Markie and Jack, might have worried about children who didn’t know what it was like to wake up and walk to the chicken house and come back with breakfast.
I think she was on to something there. So she lent me her land and let me love it, and let my children sow their own memories and reap their own harvests, which they talk about to this day.
So, back to the beginning, then. Our friendship had a curious start. In 1998, I wrote a magazine column on North Carolina salamanders, and a few days after that story hit the newsstands, the phone rang in my office. The sweetest little lady in the world was on the line, and she apologized for bothering me, but she’d found herself in a bit of a pickle. “I just read your story,” she explained, “and I’m hoping you can help.”
It turned out that Mrs. Edie Pie had found a small frog in her farm cabin. Try as she might with a book or two, she hadn’t been able to identify it. If she described the frog, she asked, did I think I might be able to tell her what she had?
I have to be honest, here. I’m not a big frog guy. But I didn’t often get random phone calls from readers, so I appreciated this lady for reaching out to me. I ruffled a few book pages close enough to the phone that the sound would travel to Smithfield, then told my caller that I wasn’t sure I could help.
She was quite disappointed. She has such a pretty farm, she said, with a big swamp, and a big creek, and nearly a mile of the Neuse River on one side, and she’d been walking those woods for nearly 70 years and had never seen quite such a frog.
I knew at that moment that the path before me was as crooked as could be. But I’m a crazed-out-of-my-mind duck hunter, and I love a swamp like a skinny dog loves bacon. “Mrs. Wilkins,” I replied, sweetly, hoping that my oily disingenuousness was undetectable, “you have really got me stumped. I just can’t find a thing in my field guides like what you’re describing.”
I breathed deeply. I may have crossed myself.
“Would you mind if I came down and took a look at your frog?”
I met Mrs. Edie Pie at 9 o’clock the next morning. Unfortunately, overnight, the frog had escaped from the dish where Mrs. Edie Pie was keeping it and met an unfortunate end. But that didn’t stop us from taking a tour of the property. We hopped on her golf cart and off we went, careening through the hardwood bottoms, the bean fields, the pine woods, and along the river. It took some convincing, but soon enough she let me lease the hunting rights to her farm. All because of a frog.
Over time, I came clean to Mrs. Edie Pie: My initial intentions were entirely dishonorable. Now I tell her that story again, as we sit in her golf cart in the shade of the pines, and she laughs the laugh of a cherished friend who’s heard it before, but that just makes it all the better. And then she looks deeply into her woods. “If people can’t enjoy what they’ve been given,” she says, “then what’s the point of having it?”