Tuesday, September 29, 2015


Pumpkins for sale, Krogers
Fall on The Mountain, and the sky is heavy and gray; the yard littered with yellow tulip poplar  and white oak leaves. When we stand on the front porch and look through the small wood in front of our house, we can now see the lake—water that isn’t visible during the summer months. The woods are beginning to thin, and we’ve heard that deer culling at Sewanee will begin this week—wildlife, in general, will soon diminish (except for the ubiquitous cottontails that come out of hiding at night).

A bright note on this cloudy day: pumpkins have gone on sale at grocery stores and outdoor markets, and are even displayed in front of a few retail outlets. In middle Tennessee, pumpkins have been harvested already and are available for early Halloween Jack O’Lanterns. Right now, Stone Mountain, near Atlanta, Georgia, has become the scene of the annual Pumpkin Festival, an event that will last an entire month, September 25 – October 25, 2015.

This plump member of the squash family has been growing about four months and ‘though I’ve seen some huge specimens, I’m told that Utah has the corner on the marketing of giant pumpkins. Growers in this western state raise pumpkins that weigh in at six or seven hundred pounds, and one “plumpkin” topped 1,000 pounds. The Utah farmers aren’t so much interested in providing a good pumpkin pie (or hundreds of pumpkin pies) as they are in competing for the title of the grower of the largest pumpkin in the U.S.

Farmers have been planting pumpkin seeds in the U.S. for several centuries, but citizens didn’t use them as Jack O’ Lanterns for Halloween until the Irish migrated to America. Before the Irish came
Yard on Kennerly St., Sewanee,TN
into the U.S., people made Jack O’ Lanterns from turnips and potatoes, vegetables too small to make good window dressing like the snaggle-toothed pumpkins we see on Halloween. Although the Irish introduced the use of pumpkins as Jack O’Lanterns, farmers, worldwide, have been growing this vegetable for over 5,000 years.

When I see these plump, orange squash, I’m reminded of James Whitcomb Riley’s “When the frost is on the punkin/and the fodder’s in the shock,/and you hear the kyouck and gobble of the strutting turkey cock…O, it’s then’s the time a feller’s feeling at his best/with the rising sun to greet him from a night of peaceful rest…” October is prime time for the life of a pumpkin; come the first frost, and they’re likely to perish as they’re hypersensitive to severe cold.
Pumpkins in the rain, Winchester, TN

So it’s time to go over to Starbuck’s and get a pumpkin-spiced latte. Or perhaps Julia, the chef at Julia’s of Sewanee, who is a culinary artist at cooking a variety of foods, will prepare a plate of battered and fried pumpkin leaves a la Kenya style, come Halloween.

However, a caveat: you have to be careful this time of the year as the witches will be out, and they’re noted for changing humans into pumpkins. Just a wave of the wand on All Hallows Eve, and you could become the ingredient in a Thanksgiving pie.

Photographs by Victoria I. Sullivan on a rainy Tuesday on The Mountain and in The Valley

Thursday, September 24, 2015


The mission of the Convent of St. Mary here at Sewanee includes providing a Sister or minister to a small congregation of Grace Fellowship Church on certain Sundays, and the visiting member of the Religious coordinates "Reflection" time about the Gospel assigned for that Sunday. On the Sundays that I preach at St. Mary's, I also go down the road and deliver the same sermon to Grace Fellowship, and I've grown fond of the people who gather in the little church at the edge of a pond on Garnertown Road.

Yesterday, at the invitation of Carolyn and Charles ("Chuck") Tocco, a couple in this Fellowship congregation, I went out to Winterberry Place in Deep Woods to see Carolyn's studio paintings. I had seen many of her depictions of Jesus that hang in the sanctuary at Grace Fellowship and had asked about exhibits she schedules twice a year at times when I won't be on The Mountain, so she offered a private showing of her art.

I thought I'd hiked in and seen all of the deep woods around Sewanee, but Winterberry Place is situated in a wood Robert Frost would have called "lovely, dark and deepest." We drove down the Fire Tower Road just past St. Andrews School, then traveled about three miles on a paved road and on to a gravel path that ran through dense woods leading to Wormwood Lane, a lane ending at the gate of Winterberry Place.

Everywhere we looked, we saw flowers and gardens, and the Toccos stood on the porch to welcome us, attempting to shush the barking of several dogs (mixed breeds, Carolyn explained) that had been penned up so we could visit without interference. Just inside the front door, we glimpsed several of Carolyn's large oil paintings, one of a snow scene in the woods and another depiction of Jesus on a hill overlooking an ancient city.

We walked through the house and onto the back porch to get a view of the bluff that overlooks the town of Pelham, Tennessee and toured the tea house at the end of the porch. I had brought Carolyn a copy of my book, Porch Posts, and it proved to be a perfect gift because the Tocco's porch would make a good photograph for any home and garden magazine and appears to be a favored room of the home. My friend Vickie, who accompanied me, had brought her book Why Water Plants Don't Drown as a gift, and it was also a "hit" for the Toccos, two seasoned gardeners.

Carolyn, a native of Sewanee (actually Garnertown) has been painting since childhood and spent four years studying art with a private instructor in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She has done most of her excellent work in oils, although she has tried acrylics and watercolors, choosing oil as her favorite because "it's the most forgiving medium," she says.

Before we went upstairs to see Carolyn's studio, we sat and exchanged stories about our backgrounds. Both Carolyn and Chuck had been in the Air Force and met at an airbase in New Jersey, and both say that when other retirees tell them that they retire to travel, they're amazed because they've already had their peripatetic experience, traveling with the Air Force to stations in Alaska, Okinawa, Thailand, Guam, the Philippines, Hawaii, and other posts.

When the Toccos decided to join the retiree population, they were living in Sweetwater, Tennessee where Chuck worked as a Systems Engineer at Watts Bar Nuclear Plant (TVA) following his stint in the Air Force. Both sang in a Methodist Church choir in Sweetwater, and nowadays Chuck sings solo and a capella for the Grace Fellowship congregation.

Although Carolyn's former work had included a sophisticated assignment as an Air Force Communications Specialist executing flight plans and decoding cryptographic messages in a "vault," her background as a hardy Tennessean served her and Chuck well when they bought the ten acres of woodland in Deep Woods. She joined Chuck in clearing the land much as women of Tennessee stock must have done during pioneer days. "Chuck used one chain saw, and I used another until we had cleared the entire space for our home on the bluff," she says.

We climbed stairs to Carolyn's studio and entered a room with long windows that let in the generous shafts of light that artists need for painting. Bookcases on two walls contained Carolyn's eclectic reading, including books of poetry, religious writing, and classics. We were also intrigued by a small insect display that Carolyn had been collecting for her "bug paintings." Renderings of owls, dandelions, cotton plants, milkweed pods, horses plowing in a field, sheep, and other outdoor scenes leaned against the wall beneath the long windows, and a painting of a road resembling the entrance lane to Winterberry Place stood on Carolyn's easel. Carolyn paints in the afternoons and says the subjects for her paintings are inspired; she disciplines herself to carry out the work as "it is a gift from God."

We lingered longer than we had planned and were invited to return another time when Carolyn
promises she'll have two of her small paintings ready for us—a "bug painting" and a "berry painting"—mementos of this wonderful artist's haven in the deep woods on The Mountain at Sewanee that we'll take back to bayou country in October.

Photographs by Victoria I. Sullivan

Friday, September 18, 2015


Nymphoides invader
I've written a gracious plenty about hikes and plant hunts lately, and many of these explorations with Vickie Sullivan have been missions to find water plants in the lakes around Sewanee, Tennessee. Dr. Sullivan was recently asked to be the kick-off speaker/lecturer for the Ora et Labora Program Series sponsored by St. Mary's Convent here at Sewanee, and our treks through chigger-ridden areas and searches for elusive lakes have been focused on finding plants that live in wet-habitats.

In the past, Dr. Sullivan has been more at home in the wet habitats of Louisiana and Florida, so my depictions of failed searches and scant findings on The Mountain were not hyperbolic sketches. However, yesterday at Lake Cheston, she discovered enough specimens to illustrate the talk she'll give on September 26, and after bathing these specimens under the garden hose, she placed them in a small aquarium on the front porch, leaving them with the admonition, "Y'all stay alive now." I think they're safe from the wildlife in the surrounding woods, but one always takes a deep breath when putting a plant in the garden or leaving any kind of vegetation in vessels outdoors around here.

I'm posting the flier about Dr. Sullivan's workshop that's being circulated in Sewanee and its environs. It's an invitation to those who live further afield in case they want to sally over from marsh country or other environments to hear what she has to say. She won't be mentioning any of our failed explorations, and she was fortunately immune to the chiggers that attacked me on one of our hikes to find aquatic plants, so she should present her subject without unsightly scratching and twitching on the 26th.

Here's the flier Sister Madeline Mary designed to advertise Why Water Plants Don't Drown, title of the program and of the book written by Dr. Sullivan and illustrated by Susan Elliott, another botanist and artist from Montrose, Colorado: