Josh Shaffer

January 17, 2014

Shaffer: Gentle soul felled by tree in Raleigh wind storm

Cheryl Harrison died at age 50 from a felled tree during a quick and violent storm near a Raleigh greenway. The most cruel and baffling thing about her death is that it came in the middle of a nature walk, her comfort zone.

Wherever she went around the house, Cheryl Harrison carried a small parrot on her shoulder – a companion named Rhea who often croaked to her in a gravelly voice. “Outside,” the bird would say, directing her attention out the window.

Any number of creatures might have caught Rhea’s attention: the white-tailed deer named Gabby who mothered two sets of fawns in the yard; the Carolina wren who lived in a bush by the air conditioner; the toad who lived in the drippings from the garden hose.

Harrison kept a menagerie indoors and out. Birds fluttered around her house in North Raleigh, accompanied by a rabbit named Kokopelli who hopped free-range. Animals informed everything Harrison did, first as a veterinarian, then as an artist.

To me, the most cruel and baffling thing about her death is that it came in the middle of a nature walk, her comfort zone. Last Saturday, while a quick and violent storm whipped across Raleigh, the top snapped off a 70-foot pine tree and struck Harrison as she walked on the Abbotts Creek Greenway – half a mile from her house. Branches hit her son and husband, but they were unhurt.

It’s hard to imagine a harsher twist of fate for someone who enjoyed the outdoors as much as Harrison did, particularly that very stretch of greenway. Nature hardly had a better friend.

Harrison, 50, grew up in High Point – a child of the red clay who sprung up with the kudzu vines, to borrow a line from one of her poems.

She took a zoology degree from UNC-Chapel Hill and then a vet’s doctorate from N.C. State. To quote the same poem, she became a woman who protected small things.

Her husband, Lee, said a vet’s life was difficult for someone as emotional as Harrison, who hated seeing so many animals put down. So after their son Robby was born, she channeled her energy and love for the natural world into oil painting, volunteering at Visual Art Exchange downtown.

“She worked so hard to re-create herself,” said Sarah Powers, the executive director. “We’re talking about a very smart woman. She’s one of our big success stories.”

As an artist, she finished a new degree at Meredith College and had nearly finished her master’s in art and design from N.C. State, a long academic path that led her into textile art.

Lee and Robby Harrison showed me Cheryl’s studio, where she worked cotton and burlap through her sewing machine with Rhea perched on her shoulder. She hand-wove tapestries and made quilts with animal relationships for a theme: deer, lizards, eagles. She wrote three children’s books, one about a grackle who gets tangled in a girl’s hair. Their house was always bubbling with ideas and other substances.

“She’d mix dyes in the bathtub,” Robby recalled.

Robby would play guitar while she worked (he’s studying jazz at UNC Greensboro), and Lee would fiddle on the computer while the rabbit hopped around their feet.

“She would hide (her art) from the bird because he would chew it,” Lee said.

I took a walk down the greenway where Cheryl died, passing the spot on the trail just as city crews finished repairing the damage. It’s a lovely walk through a wetland where herons make their nests. But in the middle of it, you can see the stumps and leaning trunks left behind by dozens of trees felled by storms and soggy ground – the scene of nature’s tantrums.

Near the pine that fell last Saturday, someone laid a sunflower as a farewell token, burying the stem deep in the dirt, propping up another small thing.

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