Thursday, May 8, 2008

IN THE VALLEY

Seeking a respite from designing and producing another flier to advertise FLOOD ON THE RIO TECHE, my botanist friend and I set out for the Swiss Pantry in Belvedere, TN, a 40-minute drive from Sewanee, not too far from Winchester. We descended to what the natives call The Valley, down eight miles of curving road to Cowan. Highway 41A to Cowan is a winding mountain highway that excites motorcycle enthusiasts, one of whom is my son-in-law, Brad, who came up for a visit when we first settled in. The first six miles of the Cowan ride is enough to make anyone who suffers from motion sickness feel “on the edge of,” and that stretch inspired Brad to talk about bringing up his red Ducati the next time he comes to The Mountain. Brad, a bona fide Cajun and a Romero (just like the hero in FLOOD ON THE RIO TECHE), had never seen a mountain and spent a lot of time scurrying back and forth to Green’s View to get his fill of viewing “sweeping countryside” from a bluff.

On the last two-mile stretch to Cowan, we passed fields of buttercups and red poppies, a colorful contrast to August’s parched cornfields --a severe drought last summer caused serious water rationing. We especially knew about it because we watered an ailing lawn twice daily for hour-long drenches and were in shock when our first water bill arrived -- $237! This bill made such an impression on me that I wrote a poem about it that is featured in last summer’s poetry chapbook, JUST PASSING THROUGH.

Cowan is a former railroad town through which trains of the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railway passed, and it boasts a yellow and green train station that has become a museum with a Porter type steam locomotive on the site. Several excellent restaurants alongside the tracks offer fine dining fare. One is aptly named “Side Trax,” a new restaurant that has great seafood; the other, "Sernicola," is a wonderful Italian restaurant run by an entire Italian family. The Friday buffet lures a good crowd from Sewanee and surrounding towns. If you’re a person who likes the same kind of fare every week, “The Corner House,” a “lunch-only,” historic Victorian house, offers a delicious chicken salad, and muffins accompany every meal on the unvarying menu. Cowan is a neat village with stone and frame homes that are considerably less expensive than those on The Mountain and is a bona fide Tennessee country town.

Several miles further on, we drove over a bridge, turning on W.64, the Davy Crockett Highway, and crossed Boiling Fork Creek. We were in hilly countryside again. Several miles later, we began to pass large farms where the Mennonites migrated and settled in the early part of the 20th century. Acres of woods that include cedars, oaks, cherry, and sugar maples (used in the making of Jack Daniels whiskey) line both sides of Highway 41A. Every now and then, I glimpsed exposed red clay not unlike the redneck terrain where I was born near Bogalusa, Louisiana. Nurseries abound everywhere in Tennessee countryside. On our route, we saw several nursery acres covered with dogwood and Bartlett pear trees, a sea of white petals. We could see the blue-green mountains in the distance and knew that we were deep in the valley. Red barns and silos, bales of hay in large fields belonging to the Mennonites, dotted the landscape. I was getting ready to ask “Are We There Yet?” when we turned in at the Swiss Pantry.

The Swiss Pantry is a Tennessee Backwoods Heritage landmark, and I don’t know why it’s named Swiss Pantry unless the Mennonites are of Swiss lineage, but I think they’re of German descent. As we drove up, we glimpsed white and red petunias spilling out of quaint window boxes, and, in the front yard, small farm buildings, including an out-of-place gazebo, were advertised for sale. The Pantry is famous for fried pies, homemade preserves, Mennonite peanut butter, savory hams and sausage, fresh bread, cookies, and cinnamon buns -- all the ingredients of a cholesterol-filled menu. Actually, we went there to purchase a bottle of Stevia, a substitute for sugar. What irony!!

I’m working on Vol. II of JUST PASSING THROUGH, and here is a poem that will be included:

THE HOLY PRESENT

God does not wear a heavy cloak
concealing his illuminations,
He is in the world, a shaft of light
cutting through our fatal talk
of dark and cumbersome sin.
He brings the faint violet to Spring radiance,
an almost-forgotten smallness
growing in the graveyard,
starlings scattering in leafless trees,
people walking among gray tombstones,
chatting briefly of one history or another,
talking about each infidelity,
about how God is with the dead now
in the other world, behind the curtain,
but He has never worn a long cloak,
does not hide his illuminations.
Nuthatch and white daffodil suffer the cold
vines overcome quiet graves,
knowing He is here, Gracious Light
watching His own silent handiwork –
snowfall on the mountain,
now, here, now.
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