Tuesday, September 16, 2014

TOUCH ME NOTS AND OTHER BLOOMS

Take a walk with a taxonomist and inevitably you'll find yourself identifying and classifying plants along the way. During the daily walk regime that I'm now following, I'm accompanied by a botanist who pinches leaves, lags behind to gaze lovingly into the cups of blooms, takes photographs, and calls out scientific names for plants about which I'm forced to ask their common names in order to keep up with the plant world.

Yesterday, I was enchanted when I spied the beautiful and succulent wildflower, jewelweed, also known as touch-me-not , or Impatiens capensis,  as it is known to taxonomists. The orange-yellow blooms spotted with brown looked like tiny jewels glistening in the shadowy light of the woods, and I couldn't resist asking about their identity. We were walking the Mountain Goat Trail again, and the jewelweed was one of the few wildflowers still blooming alongside the walking path. It's a plant especially adapted to hummingbird invasions, but a few butterflies fluttered through the little patch I spied. The trumpet-shaped flowers hang down from the plant, and my botanist friend plucked a pod of the plant to demonstrate how the seeds explode out of it when touched—thus, the name "touch me not."

Although I admire the aesthetic look of certain plants, true to my astrological sign of Taurus, I'm always asking about the practical applications of flowers and leaves. In fact, I've written several young adult books in which the hero boy traiteur (healer) uses plants to treat diseases and perform miraculous healings. I didn't realize until yesterday that the spotted jewelweed has medicinal properties, and the leaves and juice from the stem of this plant are used to treat poison ivy, poison oak, and other types of dermatitis. Salves and poultices have been used to treat eczema, even warts and ringworm. Native Americans and herbalists have been treating those who suffer from serious cases of poison ivy and poison oak with jewelweed for centuries, and I wish I had known about its healing properties the three or four times I've suffered from this skin reaction.

Most of the time I'm more attuned to the beauty of plant life, and just yesterday I received copies of my latest book of poetry, Between Plants and People, which contains striking photographs taken by my botanist friend, Victoria Sullivan. It's a book that explores the interrelationships between humans and the plants around them, and here's a poem about the plant on the cover of the volume, a lovely plant that isn't a wildflower and has no medicinal qualities:

THE JAPANESE MAGNOLIA

Does she ever change her expression,
the open-faced resident in twisted vine
behind bars of an iron fleur de lis?
her cup, a candle-lit window
overlooking the black silence,
upright stakes soldered
to enclose female virtue.

She tells us she cannot stay
beyond the spring she launched,
her inner voice grand with birth
and sweet yearning for the sun,
inviting us to part the stakes,
promising wild happiness
to even the nearsighted
who might gaze upon
something familiar but enlarging,
a pink goddess shaped
like unexpected love.


Saturday, September 13, 2014

A WALK IN THE WOODS

Lately, weighty problems that occupy too much of my thinking have forced my "writerly" body away from the computer and onto a walking trail called The Mountain Goat Trail, a hiking/biking trail that has gained national attention. The Mountain Goat Trail at Sewanee is an ideal walking path for those who prefer pavement to grass and want to enjoy the woods at the same time. I walk a portion of the paved trail as often as I can and complete a two-mile stint in the afternoons. When I first stepped onto this trail, I thought of Robert Frost's line, "the woods are lovely, dark, and deep," and the deeper onto the trail I walked, the deeper and lovelier the forest became.

During the first meandering hike I just surveyed the woods on either side of the road and didn't try to meditate on answers for the weighty problems I carried with me. Wet tulip poplar leaves blanketed the trail, and I almost stepped on the scat of some large animal, possibly a horse's droppings, and, hopefully, not a bear's offerings! The woods on either side contained oak, poplar, walnut, and red maple trees, to name a few, and farther down the trail, I peered into a deep ravine where slippery
elms grew in the bottomland. On a path into the ravine, someone had built a rock bridge that crossed a small run-off ditch, and I could have crossed this bridge and ascended a trail that led to a road on the other side of the forest. However, I stayed on track and took the one "most traveled by," (in contradiction to Frost's "less traveled by" line in the "Road Not Taken"), more sure of my footing on the flat grade of a railroad bed that had been paved over. The paved road is the result of the efforts of Ian Prunty, a high school student who obtained a grant from the Tennessee State government to launch the project in 1998, then raised more funds to solidify plans for the road.

The first phase of my walk ended at Lake O'Donnell Road where three metal posts, waist high, were imbedded in the pavement, and I lightly tapped the top of the center post as if I had reached a "personal best" goal. When I turned to retrace my steps, I met a woman pushing a baby carriage in which a round-faced infant dozed placidly, unmindful of the sound of locusts perched on tree trunks, whirring their monotonous songs. I felt poems stirring within me and wondered if I had achieved the "high" that runners feel when they've run long enough and far enough to energize the brain for a peak experience.

On that first walk, I didn't realize that Sewanee and surrounding environs were buzzing with the news that Governor Bill Haslam of Tennessee had awarded a $600,000 grant to the non-profit organization, Mountain Goat Alliance, to extend the rail-to-trail outdoor recreation project called Mountain Goat Trail. This abandoned railroad right-of-way is being converted into a multi-purpose corridor (e.g., walking, biking) between Grundy and Franklin Counties of middle Tennessee. This week when we traveled to Monteagle, we passed giant road machines that were creating a trail linking Monteagle and Sewanee on a five-mile stretch of Mountain Goat Trail.

From 1856-1985 the Mountain Goat Railroad transported coal and passengers between Palmer and Cowan, Tennessee. It carried coal from mines of The Mountain, beginning at Sewanee and going through Tracy City, Coalmont, Gruetli-Laager, and Palmer, and was dubbed the Mountain Goat Line because the climb on the Cumberland Plateau was one of the steepest ascents in the world at that time. Once mining ceased, the tracks of the Mountain Goat Railroad were taken up.

I haven't solved any of the weighty problems I mentioned at the beginning of this blog by walking the Mountain Goat Trail, but in the company of wildflowers, fern, and old stands of trees, I kept thinking of the end line to one of my poems: "Let the trees answer." So far, most of these old friends have been mute, but they seem to approve of the fact that my "writerly" body is becoming more fit. Twice, I've heard a lone bird singing, waiting out a human invasion in the understory of these trees, and have felt hopeful.

Trees inevitably "people" my poetry, and here's a poem that mentions them in my book, Alchemy, published in 2011:

PRAYER WHEN APPROACHING OLD AGE

God help me to know
you are now being fulfilled
in the moment of my writing.
How many dense woods
I've traveled through—
magnificent silent creations
reflecting your good will.

When I see the leaves fall,
brighter in color before dying,
the blood red of still-alive,
I realize that in their blaze
you are being fulfilled
in a final act of ecstasy.

In my seventh decade, I ponder this,
realizing that these late years of poetry,
my own forests of good will,
are acts of co-creation slowly culminating,
becoming a fulfillment
measured by your time
and guided by this light...
evanescent among the trees.



Monday, September 8, 2014

THE POWER OF SACRED SISTERS AND SPACES

Iona Sanctuary Art Gallery
Yesterday afternoon, I participated in a literary reading at Iona Art Sanctuary, an art center established by Edward Carlos here at Sewanee. Three of us read for an audience of approximately 25 people in the large gallery filled with inspirational art that sits on a hill overlooking seven acres of woods and fields. Carlos built this sanctuary to provide writers and artists with a space where they could share their art with the Sewanee community, and he invites a variety of artists to perform there, beginning with fall sessions that continue until winter descends on The Mountain.

I read several poems from my book of poetry, published last year, entitled In A Convent Garden, which contains many poems about The Sisters of St. Mary and the Convent where I worship, frequently serve as a deacon, and sometimes preach. After reading a few light poems about the Convent animals, Penny the dog and Sophie the cat, I read a more serious work entitled "The Serenade of Sister Lucy." I composed this poem before Sr. Lucy began her demise, but when I read it now that she has passed, it seems to have been predestined to become a eulogy for this remarkable woman who was an icon in the Sewanee community.

Most of the obituaries about Sr. Lucy cover her long and productive life, and my acquaintance with her spans only seven years, but I grew to know and respect her, and I was saddened by her struggles with a serious illness, particularly this past year. I first met Sr. Lucy when she was head Sister of St. Mary's. She was also shepherding the congregation at Holy Spirit Episcopal Church in Sherwood, Tennessee, just down the road from the Convent. I remember being introduced, then shaking her hand and telling her I was a deacon. She stepped closer to get a better look at me (she was almost blind in her late years) and said peremptorily, "You can read the Gospel this morning." I was pressed into service on the spot, and later I learned that when Sr. Lucy requested you to participate in the work of the Church, she "suffered no slackers." 


Such was my introduction, and so I read— and Sr. Lucy preached in her relaxed, storytelling fashion, celebrated the Eucharist even above the sound of the train from Cowan huffing through in the middle of the service, a loud and long whistle included with the noise of the cars striking the rails. She was unflappable, to repeat a word often used to describe our present Presiding Episcopal Bishop Schori, and she always expected those committed to the work of the Church to develop that same quality. Here is a poem published in my book of poetry, Just Passing Through, that I wrote after my visit to Sherwood during my first year at Sewanee:

INVITATION

Sister Lucy stands at a surround altar
consecrating the elements,
while outside the blue and red panes,
the hot air of August
settles on Our Lady of the Hills
perspiring, still guarding a walled garden
where dry leaves curl up
and fall without the grace of wind.

Sister extends her hands over the chalice
and the train from Cowan tunnel
whistles three long notes,
rattling through, rails chanting:
"The Lord is coming, the Lord is coming."
Her hands drop near His cup,
pause for the sound of the whistle
to fade, and ringing rails echo:
"The Lord is coming, the Lord is coming."

Chests heave and cough in the cavernous silence,
Sister's assistant turns the page,
near blind, Sister stumbles on the words:
"we celebrate the memorial of our redemption,"
no one hearing, no words as intermediary,
the train has already brought them to the table
and they are singing to the music of the rails:
"The Lord is coming, the Lord is coming."

I once preached a sermon that included a story about Sr. Lucy's expectations of committed Christians and the remarkable effect those expectations had on people who might have been unwilling to "come forth." The story was told to me by my good friend, Anne Boykin, wife of The Rev. Elmer Boykin, now deceased. During Fr. Boykin's retirement here at Sewanee, he developed Parkinson's disease. He became unable to perform many of his clerical duties, and his wonderful booming voice, which once caused me to dub him "Jeremiah in the Pulpit," diminished to the extent that he seemed unable to read or preach the Gospel.

However, one year, Fr. Boykin and Anne decided to join one of Sr. Lucy's tours abroad, a contingency scheduled to visit Iona, a small island in the inner Hebrides on the western coast of Scotland. To most travelers on a spiritual quest, the Isle of Iona is known as "a sacred space." It seems that Sr. Lucy was asked to conduct a service in the chapel on Iona, and, in her usual manner, began tapping recruits on the shoulder and giving them their assignments. She singled out Fr. Boykin and said the same words she had said to me in Sherwood: "You can read the Gospel." As Anne Boykin knew that Fr. Boykin was usually unable to read, she put her face in her hands and lowered her head in embarrassment. But when the time came for Fr. Boykin to proclaim the Gospel, he stood, and in his former booming voice, read through the passage without fluster. Anne says that with Sr. Lucy's prodding and confidence in his ability to proclaim, Fr. Boykin made a miraculous, momentary recovery. It was perhaps the last time he read with such fervor and with faith inspired by Sr. Lucy's feet at his back, but this miracle occurred at Iona.


 I have written the poem in In A Convent Garden that became my eulogy for Sr. Lucy, which I read yesterday at the Iona Art Sanctuary. On September 27 I will serve as deacon at her funeral Requiem, and I'll remember the poetic refrain she brought forth in me at Sherwood... and which she must have heard a few weeks ago: "The Lord is coming, the Lord is coming." Today I couldn't resist writing a few words about the strong influence she had on those who often needed a little more faith and fervor to carry out God's mission... according to His will...and to the will of unflappable The Rev. Sister Lucy, CSM.