Thursday, August 21, 2014

GOSH, WHAT COWS!

While I'm in New Iberia, Louisiana on a mercy mission, I feel grateful to be back in my home for a brief visit, but I'd forgotten about the humidity that smothers me every time I step outdoors.  Several days ago, I left a climate of 70 and 80-degree temperatures on The Mountain at Sewanee, Tennessee, and I haven't adjusted to Louisiana heat yet. By the time I leave Sunday, I should be somewhat acclimated but happy to return to cooler climes.

However, one of the pleasures of returning to "The Berry," as we call New Iberia, is the opportunity to graze in my library here and read books about Louisiana that I've collected for more than forty years. This morning, I began looking for a book with which to entertain myself rather than search for one that contained historical information as I usually do. I discovered a book entitled Cajun Folktales by J. J. Reneaux tucked away in a corner with more serious volumes about the history and ethnicity of Louisiana.

Jean Sot is a fellow I most enjoy reading about in Cajun stories, but I had never read the one about this foolish character that Reneaux includes in her volume. The story supposedly circulated around Mamou, Louisiana, legendary home of Jean Sot, and was told by Shirley Bergeron, a well-known Cajun musician and songwriter.  According to this tale, Jean Sot, who was noted for being not-so-smart, married someone equally foolish and, as Reneaux relates, "their two heads together were twice as foolish as Jean Sot's one moss-filled head by itself."

Jean Sot had never enjoyed the benefits of either telephone or electricity, and where he lived people still plowed with mules and traveled by wagon. So when a truck pulled up on property next to Jean Sot's land, and men began pulling long poles from what Jean Sot called a "pick-'em up truck" and digging deep holes to put the poles in, he was puzzled. With ropes and pulleys, the men raised the poles until they stood as tall as trees, a formidable sight for this simple country boy to view.

Jean Sot approached the men and asked what they planned to do with the tall poles. The crew boss, puzzled about Jean Sot's ignorance, told him they were going to string some wire between the poles. As they were talking, several men climbed the poles and began stringing wire between what Jean Sot perceived were fence posts.

Jean Sot ran off screaming "Aaiiee," and after he reached home, he commanded his wife to start packing. As his wife loved her home, she refused to comply with her foolish husband's request, and when Jean Sot explained that workmen had invaded the property next door to put up huge fences with posts as tall as trees and were stringing heavy wire between them, she scoffed at him. Cajuns, like Missourians, want to be shown the truth, so Jean Sot took his wife to the work scene and pointed at the fence. "See for yourself," he said. "I tell you one thing, Chere, they're not building that fence for no ordinary animal."

When Jean Sot's wife saw the fence, she was astounded and shook with fear. She agreed that they needed to get home tout de suite and pack up because they weren't going to live next door "to no giant cows."  And the foolish couple moved away from Mamou.


Such is the folklore about Jean Sot and his foolish wife. When this story is narrated aloud by an accomplished raconteur, complete with dialogue and hand embellishments, listeners agree that Cajun folk tales are alive with the joie de vivre that is the hallmark of the Cajun culture.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

BETWEEN PLANTS AND PEOPLE

If you're interested in humanistic botany or the inter-connectedness of plants and humans, you might enjoy this latest book of poetry that will be available from Border Press by month's end. The collection is entitled Between Plants and People and contains new and selected poems that I wrote about cultivated and wild plants and color photographs by Victoria I. Sullivan, a botanist and writer. 

The landscape of plants is centered mostly in the southeastern United States, principally in Tennessee, Georgia, Louisiana, and the Carolinas. Plants range from Japanese Magnolia to Rapeweed, and my mentions of them are often fleeting but indicative of the inter-relationships between plants and people.

Included in Between Plants and People is a particularly arresting story in the poem about the pitcher plant, a specimen for which we searched and found on the grounds of the Chattahoochee Nature Center in Roswell, Georgia. Of course, I'm partial to the lovely Japanese Magnolia that flourishes in the lush environment of southwest Louisiana and forms the design for the cover of this new book, shown at the top of this blog. Martin Romero, a landscape designer, did the artistic design work for Victoria's stunning photograph on the cover.

Between Plants and People, New and Selected Poems is not a textbook edition about plants, and readers who sometimes attribute anthropomorphic characteristics to members of the plant world should enjoy a stroll through this unusual "garden." Perhaps you'll recognize a few favorites.


Available on Amazon the last week in August.

Monday, August 11, 2014

THE PRIME OF POPSICLES

While reading news on the Net this morning, a bit of trivia sent me into major nostalgia about a treat on which I spent my weekly allowance during the 1940's. The trivia was about the origin of the popsicle, or ice pop, a treat of my childhood when the ice cream cart traveled the neighborhood circuit in Baton Rouge during hot Louisiana summers.  For five cents we could buy a frozen orange or strawberry confection on a stick, and if we tired of the flavor, we could switch to a fudgsicle, a frozen, chocolate confection also on a stick. Somewhere in my files of old photographs, I have a photo of me and a friend named Pattie Jo sitting on the front steps of my family home on Birch Street, licking a popsicle and looking down woefully at rivers of orange popsicle melting on the steps and streaking our feet.

This morning's news trivia revealed that the first popsicle was made in 1905 when Frank Epperson, an eleven-year old boy, left a glass of homemade soda on his porch during a chilly night in San Francisco, California. The next morning when he went outdoors to get the soda, he found it was frozen with the stirring stick intact. He pulled the frozen soda on a stick from the glass and sampled it, declaring it delicious. The confection was a favored dessert of Epperson, and seventeen years later, he served the treat at a fireman's ball. The popsicle became a sought after treat, so he started a small business, selling them at Neptune Beach in an Alameda California amusement park. He patented the Epsicle ice pop in 1924, then later renamed it Popsicle. The story doesn't have a happy ending as Epperson sold his rights to the Popsicle to a New York company after he had liquidated all of his assets. Eventually, Good Humor Company bought the rights to this popular flavored ice on a stick, and the ice pop has morphed into many variations of the original popsicle.

Popsicles are still marketed around the world, but I don't think they hold the same allure as they did when men dressed in white uniforms pushed ice cream carts and rang their bells to announce the arrival of these summer treats. Sometimes we waited all morning in the humid Louisiana weather for the vendor to show up. And if it rained, we went up on the front porch to watch and wait, hoping that he would have the courage to make an appearance in the summer downpour—such was our yearning for the taste of orange and strawberry ices. In Grandma's Good War, A Verse Retrospective of the Forties, I included a piece of my doggerel about popsicles entitled "The Ice Cream Cart, 1943":

"Asphalt, black and pliant, in rising heat
lures us to the bubbling city street
where we make dark tracks on the sidewalk,
squares marked with hopscotch chalk,
waiting for the morning ice cream cart,
a white ambulance carrying ices of every sort;
Pattie Jo on the top step, smiling wide,
nuisance sister Sidney Sue at my side,
tricycles braked, listening for the bell,
the arrival of popsicles, an easy sell
of stickiness melting in a stain that lingers,
the sweet indelibility of orange fingers.

The three of us, as listless as the deserted street,
safe from brothers' torments, in quiet retreat
from peashooter battles and marble marathons,
starched pinafore lambs stitched on our uniforms:
the red appliqu├ęs on bodices primly flat
as we wiggle our bare feet and chat,
toes curled around summer liberty
in the innocent peace of pre-puberty."