The Livestock Market
Franklin Street lies on the southeast edge of the city. On one side, bearing even numbers, stand houses and duplexes within the city limits. On the other side, the floodplain of Moores Creek sprawls in the county. And at 801 Franklin Street, in the flat, swampy wasteland, stands a rambling pole barn, the ruinous shed of the Charlottesville Livestock Market.
Started in 1946, the livestock market is privately owned, one of twenty-seven in the state. All are inspected by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which posts statistics on numbers sold and prices. At the Franklin Street door, a sign proclaims “Pres. John H. Falls.” According to the newspaper, Palmer Putnam, also known as “Pumpkin,” assists Mr. Falls.
Animals escape from the livestock market now and then. Neighbors find cows and goats grazing in their yards, as far as the condominiums four blocks away. When a bull gets out, it causes a stir. The city police department sends their animal control officer to the scene, where Mr. Putnam is already in pursuit. The officer fires a tranquilizer dart only as a last resort—moving a bull that weighs a thousand pounds is best accomplished on its own four legs.
The low metal roof of the livestock market rises faintly to a second story in the middle. Over that a belvedere perches at an angle. To the east, the roof has collapsed from a heavy snow. To the south, the structure stands open to a gravel parking area full of mud puddles, pickup trucks, and long animal trailers, their sides slatted for ventilation. Chickens wander among loose straw. Bales of straw are scattered here and there, and rusted hulks of farm equipment. Scrubby willow trees sprout at the edges.
Rough boards divide the huge shed into pens or stalls, with alleys of mud between. There are wooden gates and chutes, dead ends and cutoffs. Overall, it looks like a wooden maze, large enough to get lost in. From the dim recesses, cattle low and sheep bleat. From overhead comes a man’s voice in a rapid monotone. It is two o’clock on Saturday afternoon, and the weekly auction is in progress.
I plunge into darkness, up a steep wooden stair that leans to one side. At the top is an intimate theater. Windows dot the perimeter, with old armchairs placed between, Queen Anne in style, and piles of junk. The ceiling undulates like a plasterboard sea and pokes abruptly up in the belvedere, flooded with sunlight. Wooden benches painted bright blue rake steeply down to the auction ring, an arena strewn with straw. The place smells like a farmyard, with a hint of fry-grease from the restaurant adjacent.
Where a stage would be is a high desk or pulpit, and behind the desk are an older gentleman writing in a ledger and a man brandishing a microphone. The first I take to be John H. Falls. “Auctioneering by Dick Whorley,” says a sign on the pulpit, but Mr. Whorley died in 2006 at the age of 70. “In the role of Dick Whorley,” it ought to say.
The wall behind is covered with ads for local businesses, some of which vanished decades ago, like the People’s Bank of Central Virginia. Truck and car sales, small engine repair, propane, hazard insurance, fuel, and Southern States Cooperative round out the roster. Toward the bottom of this display is a sign that says: “All Buyers Desiring To Buy Livestock, Please Register In The Office Before Sale Time.” A window behind the pulpit indicates the office, reached by a secret stair.
Twenty to thirty people sit on the benches or stand in the gallery at the top. They are arranged in family groups. The theater can seat a hundred or more, so there is plenty of room. One little boy is in constant motion. All the men wear billed caps.
Also wearing a billed cap, I drop into a bench which turns out not to be empty—a dog lies a few feet away. I offer a hand to smell, then keep my hands in my lap. The auctioneer looks at me repeatedly as he rattles off prices. The man behind me, to whom the dog belongs, is bidding. His name is Mr. Austin or Easton. Now and then he speaks—a number only, referring to dollars.
A family of sheep enters through the gate to the right. The gate closes, and in a small, square hole five feet from the ground, a human face appears briefly. Two men in the ring direct the sheep with sticks. One wears a black cowboy hat, brown overalls and white mustache—he is a shepherd. The other man wears a plaid shirt and blue jeans, with glasses hung around his neck. I take this ringmaster to be Palmer Putnam.
“You’re buying the ewes; I’m giving you the lambs,” says the auctioneer. He states the weight of each animal. Bidding can be by the head or by hundredweight—he gives the crowd a choice. The larger animals have yellow tags bearing numbers attached to a flank. The lots vary from one or two animals to a dozen or more. A goat may accompany the sheep, which bunch tightly and move as a herd, quiet and docile. The dog beside me pays no attention.
Once the bidding concludes, or sometimes before, the animals exit through the gate on the left, manned by the shepherd. There must be a traffic pattern backstage, as herds are shunted to their pens, but all that lies in silence and darkness. Here in the sunlit auction ring, the voice is tireless and the action is brisk.
This market does not sell swine, as the government calls pigs and hogs, or at least not today. Likewise horses, poultry, and animals like rabbits and llamas are sold elsewhere. When all the sheep and goats have passed through the ring, a young steer enters, big and frisky. Bulls follow one at a time, a few lots of cows and calves, and a lone cow with a full udder that sways as she walks. While a young black male struts, a woman’s voice behind me says, “I don’t believe that calf is pure Angus,” and Mr. Austin or Easton refrains from bidding.
In an hour, the show is over. The audience socializes, as Mr. Falls reviews his ledger. The dog beside me jumps to the bench above, eager to depart.
“See you next week,” the auctioneer says.
The Night Roost
At sunset, on the summit of Belmont Avenue, crows gather in the topmost branches, leafless at the end of winter. A hundred or more birds assemble, black shapes against a pale, luminous sky. Experts call this behavior the night roost.
The crows balance on twigs that seem too slender to hold their weight. They arrive and depart in that languid way crows have. They drift from tree to tree, and angle for a better view. They soar, trade compliments, and bow discreetly. They know just how and when to leave a group. The tallest tree is the best address, but most branches are taken. A newcomer finds it hard to claim a perch.
Garbed alike in elegant black, do crows perceive distinctions, gradations in rank? The aerial reception is open to all, or at least to those of the species Corvus brachyrhynchus, the short-billed crow. Ravens, jackdaws and rooks may look the same, but no one is fooled. Membership in this nation is by birth.
Humble swallows dart below the branches. Sparrows dressed in dull motley hop and skitter on the ground. Starlings keep to their own kind, raucous and plebeian. A robin, with its orange breast and staring, yellow eyes, would strike a vulgar note.
Crows live in families, share food, cooperate, and score high on intelligence tests. Some have moved into town. They are urban dwellers, adapted to a quick-witted lifestyle. They can count to ten, add and subtract, use and make tools, and resort to deception if they must. When Francis of Assisi preached to the birds, who nodded and opened their beaks in wonder, and pecked the hem of his robe for more, they were probably crows, according to Adrian House, who wrote a biography of the saint.
The crows want to see and be seen, to join the throng, to add two cents to the general fund, the running commentary that is as interesting as life itself. They call and caw, hem and haw, drop hints and issue statements, and imply much in a few choice words. Combined, their voices sound like a conversation, overheard but unintelligible, a discussion carried on in a foreign language, the hubbub of a cocktail party.
Crows speak in dialect, according to research. The accent says more than the clipped phrase, which taken out of context may be perfectly banal. To our ears, the speech of crows sounds harsh and monotonous. We prefer birdsong and warbling, the clear flute and the virtuoso trill. Our American version of the nightingale, the mockingbird thrills us by night. Thrushes and finches us enliven our days. This evening chatter passes over our heads.
In mild Virginia, as in much of the eastern United States, three heavy snows fell in March 2014. Weather forecasters talked of a polar vortex, a tongue of arctic air lapping far to the south of its proper range in Canada. In April on my morning walks, muffled in boots and parka, I checked for swelling buds. The hours of daylight grew longer, but the trees waited.
Forsythia and broom, the harbingers of spring, with their bright yellow sprays coming as early as February, also waited. In the frozen ground, tulip, hyacinth and crocus bulbs waited. Only the daffodils kept faith, poking through snow in spots. Even they delayed blooming until well after April first. Since real estate agents, home builders, and car salesmen all depend on the daffodils to start their busy season, it was an anxious time.
Lilacs came out mid-month, fragrant clusters of lavender. The tulips bloomed at last, a riot of color at street corners and traffic islands. But the dogwoods dragged their feet. The date matters, because we revere our native son Thomas Jefferson, and we celebrate his birthday, April 13, 1743, with a Dogwood Festival.
A small tree, the dogwood Cornus florida has a scaly bark and an open branch structure, rather gnarled. Most bear white blossoms in bracts of four, with a nip or notch at the outer edge. Some flower a deep pink, and some grow as tall as forty feet. From the 1950s, dogwoods were planted along streets all over town and in private yards. They are Virginia’s state tree and native to our woods. Battered by time, they hang on. A row of white dogwoods against a blue sky, in the windless calm of a sunny morning, creates an effect of purity that is hard to match.
Bradford pear, also called Callery pear or Pyrus calleryana, was in vogue from the 1970s. It does not bear fruit, but it grows quickly with a full shape, and its white flowers appear early. Prone to disease and broken limbs, with a disagreeable smell and a habit of producing suckers, the tree went out of fashion. Native to China, it is now considered an invasive species. To top it all, the Bradford pear has a short lifespan, twenty to thirty years. This is a disadvantage if you are planning for the long term, but now a blessing in disguise. Home builders planted it for instant gratification, and it lingers in rows along major streets and parking lots, a reminder of the boom years of the late twentieth century.
This year, the dogwoods and Bradford pears flowered weeks late. So did the redbud, Cercis canadensis, a native tree like the dogwood, and like it often planted in yards and parks. The redbud blossom is small, but it occurs all over the dark branches. Its color is magenta or fuschia, as though the tree were making a fashion statement. Where a redbud stands next to a pink dogwood, the colors vibrate. Later, when the leaves come out, they are shaped like a heart.
The cherry, chokecherry, hawthorn and crabapple trees all stayed on schedule, so we got everything at once. Overnight, the city streets turned pink and white. Was there a beautification program, a drive to plant flowering trees on residential streets? Was it a Southern tradition? I consulted the city’s Parks and Recreation Department and discovered that we have an Urban Forester. Tim Hughes has been on the job since 1984, a full thirty years. With a B. S. in forestry from Rutgers University, now age 64, Hughes invited me to his office in Pen Park.
“Before I came, the city relied on citizen volunteers for expertise on trees,” he says. “Today, the city’s Tree Commission, a board of volunteers, helps determine public policy. The city also obtains money to plant trees from HUD as Community Development Block Grants, and public housing has its own buildings and grounds department to care for trees. A capital project often includes trees. With our small staff, we maintain trees in public parks, on public school property, and in two city cemeteries, Maplewood and Oakwood. We decide where to plant and what species, then issue contracts for the planting. The city adds about 200 new trees each year.”
He shares planting lists from the past two years. They show twenty or more species, all native. The new trees generally fill gaps in parks and along major streets. Many are white oak, maple, sweet gum, and London plane, also called sycamore, Platanus acerifolia.
“Current thinking is to mix species as they occur in nature, not to plant all one type. That practice is called monoculture, which is vulnerable to disease. Elms were popular street trees in the nineteenth century, but Dutch elm disease wiped them out. A few elms survive around the county courthouse and behind it on High Street. Some chestnuts survived blight, but the ones you see around town are Spanish or Chinese, not the American chestnut.”
The city website says that 47% of its area is covered by tree canopy. “That’s more than most urban areas,” Hughes says, “including small towns. A typical number is 30%. The trees are unevenly distributed, with most occurring in parks. We use aerial photography to determine leaf cover in summer, as most of the trees are deciduous. There is no master plan or map, but we did a tree inventory in 2009 in selected areas. We counted on the ground and extrapolated.”
As for flowering trees, Hughes knows of no campaign, but he agrees that street after street lined with blossom was no accident. “Neighborhood groups planted some of them. A citizen donated trees recently for Riverview Park. The public gets attached to certain trees, ones in prominent locations. The Tarleton Oak at the corner of High and Ninth may or may not have been the one mentioned in 1781, but it was definitely old. The oaks in Lee Park and Belmont Park that are oddly shaped are also very old. We prune dead limbs, but we take down a tree only when it presents a hazard.”
Hughes notes that trees are chosen as much for autumn foliage as for spring blossom. Sugar maples turn scarlet, and gingkos turn bright yellow. London planes have mottled gray-green bark, with white branches above. “We look at all seasons and the whole tree. And we place new trees where they will have space for roots and crown during their lifetime.”
About the author:
Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His academic degrees are Harvard B. A. 1974 and Yale M. Arch. 1978. His writing appears in Aldus Journal of Translation, Atticus Review, Bangalore Review (India), Conclave, Construction, Digital Americana, Grey Sparrow Journal, Lowestoft Chronicle, Milo Review, Montreal Review, New Orleans Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Origami Journal (Canada), Poydras Review, Ray’s Road Review, The Rusty Nail, Short Fiction (UK), Slippage, StepAway Magazine (UK).