Saturday, January 21, 2012
Profile of Dr. James Wilkes by Corey Miller
“I don’t know how you manage, James,” a customer at the Watauga County Farmer’s Market laughingly observes. “A farm, bees, a professorship…and kids? I’d be in an insane asylum!” The man is a stranger to me but is apparently well known to my companion, to whom this quip has been addressed. James Wilkes responds with an equally warmhearted retort and proceeds to converse jubilantly with his customer. I look on silently as James interacts with this man who appears to be an old friend, his hand movements complementing every syllable—sometimes dominating his speech in an effort to more fully convey that of which his words are evidently incapable. His hands slice and point commandingly through the air with a persistence that rivals his comrade’s own amplified, sporadic gestures.
The backdrop for this friendly scene (which is a typical interaction at the all-accommodating Farmer’s Market) is one of a comparably affable atmosphere: A newly risen sun shines through the trees to the east of us, providing a brightness befitting the collective attitude of the mass of people. Though the wind is as unpredictable as the October morning itself, with the temperature being that of a typical Boone day (incessantly fluctuating), there is one constant at the Market: the presence and abundance of life. One might easily mistake the heat of the sun for the warmth of the beaming, welcoming faces scattered about. The morning light only accentuates the sharp, investigative eyes of the children weaving in and out of the silhouettes of their parents, who are preoccupied with their own inspections of the products before them: Bald Guy Brew’s coffee aroma leads searching noses through the crescent-shaped arrangement of stalls, each containing its own assortment of items—crops, pumpkins, art, ciders, baked goods, and knitted and sewed goods.
A few of James’s seven children welcome customers to the Faith Mountain Farm stall, smiling and laughing amongst themselves while never relinquishing that fundamentally necessary attitude of professionalism. They serve their customers, faces they may have seen every Autumn Saturday or never before encountered, with an energy that usurps their own father’s charming eagerness: I observe Galen’s 16-year-old face frown from the genuine regret he feels in informing his latest customer, “We have just run out of blueberry muffins.” In such an environment, James, like his children, remains constantly concerned with his business and its success, but never ceases to treat members of the community—including his customers, colleagues, and even his competitors—with the utmost consideration. He must appreciate these people he knows so well for they, like him, are vital parts of the community in which he lives…and thrives.
* * *
As the light of the last day of September wanes and the evening sun hides behind the Appalachian mountains, I sit on a wooden porch swing and prepare to investigate the life of a man who is currently a stranger to me in all but name and profession. He is decidedly less bearded and aged than I expected a beekeeping, computer science professor to be. While I sit with my new acquaintance and prepare to record our interview, I reflect that this is only an interview: Genuine conversation must not yet be possible because we scarcely know one another.
We begin. He answers my first question simply enough: “My name’s James Wilkes.”
“Isn’t that Doctor James Wilkes?” I ask, convinced that I already know the answer.
“It is…if you want to call me a ‘doctor,’” he laughingly replies. “Depends on who’s asking.” I soon discover that the remainder of his responses is all just as energetically lighthearted and unabashedly interested. As our conversation continues, I realize that it has become exactly that—a conversation! Within minutes, James has turned the timid interview into an involving discussion of his life and, in doing so, uprooted all of my premature expectations. Soon, James Wilkes’s place of birth is surprisingly revealed to be my own: He was born and raised in Eden, North Carolina. When I inform him that I was born in Eden and raised in Reidsville, a neighboring city, his face contorts into a narrow smile as he laughs heartily aloud.
“Reidsville? Really?” He jokes. “Ah, my big high school rival!” Until he graduated from Morehead High School, James lived in Eden, where his father taught math (James’s original career choice), kept several bee colonies, and maintained a small garden. In this garden, Mr. Wilkes grew various crops and encouraged his son to be considerably involved with this hobby. James clearly has no qualms in admitting that his family-centric approach to farming has been heavily influenced (and inspired) by his father’s similar efforts. When I ask James whether his father was as influential in all areas of his life, he stares at me incredulously for a moment, as if expecting the announcement that I am joking. After all, how could I ask a question with such an obvious answer? Realizing that the question is sincere, he grins. “Yes, definitely!”
Over a week after our first meeting, I conduct our second interview, and I am considerably surer of my investigative abilities, as well as of James’s cooperation. He continues to discuss his history—how he came to live in Creston, North Carolina with a wife (who also attended Morehead High School) and seven children—and begins to elaborate on his current profession. James studied math and science at Appalachian State University with the intention of, like his father, becoming a math teacher. After deciding, “like so many others” who fall in love with the high country, that he wanted to raise a family in the mountains and teach at Appalachian, he attended Duke University as a graduate student until he acquired his master’s degree in 1989. Three years later, at which point he was already married to Shannon Blackwell and had had his first child, Margaret, he began work at Appalachian State University.
James is concluding his explanation of the progression of his professional life: “I have been here ever since as an assisting associate and now as a full professor. Also during this time, I was the graduate program director; now I’m Chair. I’ve been Chair for five years now and overall I’ve had a good career. I’m kind of mid-career, I guess you’d say.” James whistles as he reflects that he has been employed with the university for nearly 20 years. He seems happy with (and considerably proud of) his current occupational status. James Wilkes is currently the Chairperson of Computer Science at Appalachian State University, but as the conversation turns to his farm, his bees, and his family, he seems almost disinterested in this prestigious position. For James, home truly is where his heart resides.
A month later, the sun’s blinding rays are regrettably absent as I follow James and two of his sons out of the humble Wilkes family farmhouse and onto a winding “country porch,” patrolled by the less-than-intimidating Lucy, a friendly Corgy-Feist mix. We continue out onto the visible portion of James’s property, which is currently besieged on all sides by a smoke-induced fog. Strewn about the house are items that obviously belong to the children—an assortment of toys, plastic vehicles, various balls, a small slide, and a fallen basketball goal. Chickens prevail over much of the yard; they roost in the trees, estrange themselves in areas of the barn, and sleep in the henhouses—until they are awoken by James’s son Sullivan, anyway. 13-year-old Sully explains that the chickens scattered about live outside of their boundaries, while the ones within the pen seem to relish in their confinement. We steadily near the center of the yard, at which point the rogues scatter, allowing us to approach our first destination: the dead crops.
As I inspect the frost-injured corn stalks and the disheveled sunflower stems, I feel an overwhelming sense of regret that I have not been to see the farm earlier in the year. I imagine the life and activity I might be observing had I met James months ago. The idyllic farm scenery I had previously visualized has been absent from this place for months now. Yet, I still fantasize: Tall, green cornstalks erect themselves along the freshly tilled rows, the nearby sunflowers towering just as high. Where the ground is not tilled, healthy summer grass abounds. A myriad of every other mountain crop imaginable lines the remaining rows of the farmed area. The Wilkes family bustles about, tending to every section of the farm, and the bees…the bees thrive. They swarm all about the farm, incessantly leaving and returning to their hives, concerned primarily with the pollination of plants and proliferation of their colonies…
Probably guessing the dejected direction of my thoughts, James leads me to the pigs’ pen in a mildly successful effort to display life on his farm. The new piglets warily gather at the fence as a 450 pound hog lumbers along behind them. As James pats his largest hog, he nonchalantly explains that she would already be “in the freezer,” were she not so lazy: She simply refuses to “get on the truck.” I look to Sullivan, who is filling the pigs’ water trough, and little 3-year-old Oliver atop his father’s shoulders, expecting to see some expressions of shock equal to the one I’m trying to hide. The children do not seem troubled in the least by the deaths of hogs, though. This dismissive statement concerning the life of this creature startles me; while exploring the accommodating environment that is James’s farm, I had almost forgotten what farmers do. The reality of the farmer’s lifestyle hits me: James keeps these animals because they are a source of revenue.
Still contemplating the idea of raising an animal with such limited attachment, I follow the father and sons trio to the lone survivor of the merciless frost—a line of chard. James picks and offers each of us a piece. The steady crunch of teeth on leafy greens creates a pleasant dissonance with our footsteps as we walk on.
Finally, we approach my most heavily anticipated destination of our tour: the beehives. James explains that the honey-making season is over: There are no longer any plants to pollinate. Now begins the bees’ most endangered period of the year—the cold months, during which a beekeeper must remain especially attentive to his colonies in order to “keep as many as he can alive.”
I gaze at the still colonies, hoping to see some sign of the life I know exists inside. The bees are no longer active, and I begin to fear that I wont get to see them. As my attention is withheld once again by wishful thinking, James and Sully continue walking directly past the hives and call me over to an arrangement of gallon buckets. Sully grins as I provide a questioning look; my cluelessness must be quite amusing. From my position, these appear to be buckets full of what appears to be water and straw. James simply gestures, “Look inside.” I draw closer to the buckets, and look inside, only to discover that I am surrounded by a swarm of honeybees. They buzz out of the buckets, circle the air above, and return to land on the straw inside. My initial surprise at being surrounded by bees is quickly replaced…by my fear of being surrounded by bees. James laughs I take a hasty step backward.
“That’s what we call ‘sweet water,’” the beekeeper explains.
Still concentrating intently on the swarm, I ask, admittedly puzzled, “What are they doing?”
James’ lips slowly draw apart into that now familiar narrow smile. “They’re eating.”
Minutes later, we are inside the basement of the farmhouse, and Oliver is doing everything in his power to divert his father from demonstrating the key parts of the honey-making process. As the sandy-haired child toys with every contraption in the room, I cannot stop myself from laughing aloud at his antics as James attempts to restrain him.
My short, first visit to the farm draws to a close with the closing of the day. James and I discuss our next meeting as he escorts me out of the house. I leave Faith Mountain Farm with a bag of freshly made granola and eight new names to remember.
On the 18th of November, I happily return to the home of the Wilkeses to join the entire family for a long-awaited dinner. Within an hour in the Wilkes household, I realize that the brief encounters with James’s family on my first visit did little to prepare me for this experience: James and his family could not display a more attractive lifestyle than they do in the five hours I spend with them.
When I arrive and enter the living room, James’s wife Shannon lights the wood stove that warms the house. I sit and make conversation with James and Sully, who seems ridiculously intent on becoming my friend. Through it all, I cannot stop myself from smiling.
While 20-year-old Margaret prepares dinner, Shannon reads a children’s Story Bible version of the Book of Exodus to the four youngest children. James has informed me before tonight that he, along with the rest of his family, is quite spiritual. He is a Christian, a “believer,” as he calls himself, and the influence of spiritual values on his disposition is acutely evident: His lifestyle, and therefore the lifestyle of his family, is considerably based upon the tenants of Christianity. While he and his family are more humble and accommodating than any hosts I could have hoped for, he seems justifiably proud of the lengths he has taken to improve his community: He views his farming business as “providing good food” with which he and his family may “bless people.” The Wilkes family household only seems more inviting as I listen to the children responding to the Biblical story, answering their mother’s every question with warranted enthusiasm.
Shortly after the Bible lesson has ended, Oliver is galloping around the house in his birthday present (a knight costume that Sully has helped him put on), seeking “the dragon” (Galen) who must be slain. 10-year-old Israel, 6-year-old Lillian, and 5-year-old Zion have assumed the personas of Chicken, Pig, and Lamb, and are performing a puppet show just before we are called to eat. After the food has been blessed, I delve into a meal of indescribable taste, which ends with what James calls “real” milk and freshly baked oatmeal-chocolate chip cookies. Like Margaret, the other two older kids have responsibilities as well: Sully performs his chore by delivering dishes from the table to Galen, who washes them. Back in the family room, I am introduced to a board game called “The Settlers of Catan” by Galen, Sully, and Israel. James and Shannon look on as Lillian, Zion, and Oliver sketch pictures that are subsequently given to me as gifts.
Throughout my incredible experience with this family, I steadily realize that I am beginning to envy this lifestyle, as anyone who truly witnesses James’s family and farm life might. James and his wife Shannon have created a nearly perfect environment in which they may raise their family, and they do so in what James believes is “the best way possible.”
* * *
One would most likely never expected the descriptors “professor,” “ organic farmer,” and “beekeeper” to occur in the same sentence cognitively, and therefore certainly would not expect all of these adjectives to be applicable in the description of a single person. James Wilkes is all of these, however, and he miraculously manages to occupy each role successfully. These roles are, of course, his professions, and do not include his family-oriented roles of husband and father, which are more important to him than “any farm, bees, or professorship could ever be.”