Tuesday, May 6, 2008

On the Mountain

When you go to live in a place quite different from the milieu in which you’ve lived for over 40 years and decide to write about your new environment, you might select to language your experiences in something like a quick charcoal sketch in Art -- in writing, it’s called a vignette, “a short descriptive literary text.” It’s a comfortable genre, perhaps even folksy and not so literary, and it isn’t disallowed by readers for being unforgivably long.

I moved to Sewanee, TN because I had passed into my 70th decade, and some distant stir in my psyche began worrying me enough to make me desire “Change.” So I left the swamps of southwest Louisiana, moved to The Mountain, and was quickly made aware that Sewanee was and is one of the exalted places in the universe – hence the “the” before the word “mountain,” although its height of 2,000 feet wouldn’t convince anyone that it’s the highest peak on the North American continent.
Sewanee is located on the Cumberland Plateau, a place marked by bluffs, gorges, natural bridges, and ravines. Its unincorporated community was created by the grace of the University of the South and the Episcopal Theological Seminary. The air is cool; the atmosphere, rarified. Poets claim that angels dwell on The Mountain; the Religious speak of it as a “thin place,” reserved for easy connection with the Divine, not unlike the vortexes in Sedona, AZ, another thin place I’ve visited.

My place is a stucco cottage behind a long board fence bordering a parking lot and a dormitory; its front porch face a small wooded area where white and yellow daffodils announced Spring and even survived a light snowfall in April. In my yard, a towering cedar is home to crows, starlings, robins, and, sometimes, wrens. Deer wander up during the day and, at night, graze on the Mexican heather, daylilies, and rosebuds we carefully planted near the cedar. Rabbits trim the grass at night, and the lawn is pitted and undulating because of the stealthy moles who also forage in the middle of the night. At times, the moles dig up and throw aside my scarlet snapdragons, but I manage to keep a crop of yellow and orange marigolds growing (they don’t like the taste) despite the nocturnal creatures who threaten my garden.

It’s a quiet place – insects saw their monotonous songs day and night, and I only hear the students when they’re allowed to jam on the week-ends. Social life is infrequent and revolves around the church (Episcopal) and the university. If you’re not a member of Academia or an Episcopalian, you might as well go back to the place from whence you came or go down to the valley where you can admit you’re a ‘come here’ but want to ‘be there’ with those who have credentials other than that of professor or clergyperson.

Rock formations line Hwy 24 leading up to The Mountain, and I’m fascinated by the craggy sandstone outcroppings. If you’re lucky enough to find a home on the bluffs and brave enough to face wicked winter winds, you’re among the exalted on The Mountain. John Templeton’s “temple,” where scholars come to research and work on projects related to the interface of Religion and Science, stands on a bluff and can be seen when you drive up from Cowan, a small valley town where the local train station has been immortalized as a museum. St. Mary’s, an Episcopal Conference Center and site of a convent for Anglican nuns, also perches on a bluff.

Sewanee isn’t as isolated as an English manor on a moor, but on gray, fogged-in days, the feeling of isolation must be similar to the feelings of those who live in the dense mists of moor country. Loneliness pervades. The gray Gothic buildings scattered about the campus of the University of the South are shrouded in fog, and the most expert drivers forego visits to the valley until the mist clears. On such days, I read, write, and meditate about the reasons I wanted this change in my much livelier existence in Teche country.

Last week-end, I was invited to hear an All-Girls Band ( adult women) play Tennessee folk and Gospel tunes at a gift shop in Monteagle owned by a woman named Lorena. Monteagle, eight miles away from Sewanee, is the site of restaurants, a Piggly Wiggly, liquor store, and other evidences of a genuine incorporated town. In addition to running the gift shop, Lorena sometimes goes on foreign missions and lets the Bazzania Girls play their fiddles, guitars, harmonica, and accordion to raise money for the indigent in Africa. It was fun to hear the band play and sing, wearing baseball caps with the words Bazzania Girls Band emblazoned on them. The women played “You Are My Sunshine” and “Jambalaya Crawfish Pie” for Louisiana guests, and I indulged my homesickness briefly. While listening to the two songs, I thought about how the culture change was not unlike the one I experienced when I lived in Iran during the 70’s and wrote my way out of cultural shock with a column called “In A Persian Market.” I’ve been so disengaged from my culture in Cajun country that I have spent several months writing an entire Young Adult novel entitled FLOOD ON THE RIO TECHE, a story about the Spanish settlement of New Iberia in 1779. Although you may not be a young adult, you might enjoy reading FLOOD ON THE RIO TECHE. Who knows? Perhaps even those who live on The Mountain may want an armchair tour of the lower regions of Teche country!
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