Monday, December 26, 2011

PRINCESS RUTH:LOVE AND TRAGEDY IN HAWAII, a new novel

Christmas Eve, I received a book entitled Princess Ruth: Love and Tragedy in Hawaii by Jo Ann Lordahl. Jo Ann, an author friend of 34 years, now lives on Kaua'i Island in Hawaii and has been resident there for ten years. Years ago, she spent several months in New Iberia, Louisiana working on one of her novels, and I wrote a feature story about her for The Daily Iberian. She has visited here many times since she began her career as a writer, sometimes spending months in isolation, doing extensive researching and writing. In fact, she's one of the hardest working writers I know – she once lived two months in the apartment attached to my home, and our visits were short and infrequent because she worked day and night.

Jo Ann writes in many genres and has published over twenty books, but this last novel is her piece de resistance. It’s a saga about a protagonist named Samantha whose husband Thomas dies in a tragic accident, and she moves from southern California to Keaha, Kaua'i, the oldest in the Hawaiian chain of islands, where she begins working on genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

In Hawaii, Samantha discovers that islands resemble her native Alabama – “the red dirt of Kauai is exactly like my old red hills of Alabama…magical, the sparkle and mystery of childhood come home again…its tranquil touch reaches out like clouds over Kahili Mountain luring me to accept its generosity…” After checking out a book in the Hanapepe library about Princess Ruth, a woman “ugly as sin on the cover of the High Chiefess: Ruth Keelikolani,” Samantha dreams about the Princess speaking to her, asking her to tell the story of her reign as a royal Hawaiian figure and to relate those tales about others of old Hawaii that were formerly only told in spoken genealogy.

Meanwhile, Samantha’s work involves making comparative analyses of the gene expression between normal and tumor tissues. But in her spare time, she studies the history of Hawaii and researches the story of Princess Ruth. Her studies reveal how colonialism involved the seizure of lands and governments and how giant corporations began to control all the resources of Hawaii. She also discovers that until very recently natives were only educated to be servants and plantation workers, and that missionaries, instead of seeking to understand the Hawaiians culture which produced the natives’ power, tried to destroy the rich culture.

Jo Ann arrived on the island as a “haole” (a Hawaiian word which formerly meant foreigners; today it means any white person. The word accurately translated means “no breath.” At one time, Hawaiians could not believe how shallowly the missionaries breathed, and so they called them” no-breathers”). An example of an arresting passage in which Samantha hears Princess Ruth’s voice whispering to her incited me to read further: “I felt you looking at my picture on the cover of that book… felt your compassion and understanding. You searched for me, young and beautiful, and found that later picture at my second marriage to Isaac Davis. Evil, ignorant, easily led. There’s a story I will tell you later…way beyond anything you’ll find elsewhere. Ignorant haoles. Perfect name for them. No breathers. No breath. No understanding. Ha, breath, is how you grow and collect mana. How you connect with the land, aina, with spirit, soul, with your ancestral beginnings. Your aumakua…”

Jo Ann writes that at first her interest in Hawaii was personal and pragmatic, while she attempted to get along in a new place. But slowly, as a writer who became more engrossed, a sense of justice stirred within her and she developed the desire to tell the authentic story of Hawaii. “The Hawaiian people are so battered and unfairly treated. It’s all there in the right books, easy to read. Fascinated and protected by history’s distance, I want to cry—how could they? How could these newcomers to the Islands just come in and take over? How could they treat the indigenous Hawaiian people so badly?”…And therein lies the tale.

Princess Ruth is a unique example of non-fiction/fiction that reflects Jo Ann’s appreciation for ancient Hawaiian customs, native foods, the beauty and grace of older Hawaiian women, and the exotic terrain of the Islands. It rivals James Michener’s Hawaii and brings readers up to date on the takeover of the “Big Five” companies that were called the Invisible Government behind the scenes of the Republican Party which dominated Hawaiian government and politics. It also focuses the spotlight on GMO foods and adverse health effects.

Two hundred and seventy-two end notes, an extensive book list, and a chronology of Hawaiian rulers, including Princess Ruth, complete this volume and enkindle further reading about the historic figure of Princess Ruth and the invasion of a Paradise that Jo Ann chose as her dream home. This is a BIG read!

Friday, December 23, 2011

REDEEMED BY BLOOD

Several of my books were published in 2011, and the last novel written this year goes on Kindle today. Redeemed by Blood becomes my thirtieth book, but it isn’t my final one as I have in the writing mill another book of poetry, Breakthrough, now competing in a contest, which will eventually be published, and a non-fiction book about Rip Van Winkle Gardens that I was commissioned to do. 2012 promises to yield more writing activity – and more reading!

Redeemed by Blood isn’t in print version yet because most of my books have graduated to Kindle by this time (except for the poetry) and are enjoying wider readership. Redeemed is a multigenerational epic novel that begins when the idyllic life of young Dade Green changes with his parents’ deaths. He enrolls in Virginia Military Institute and joins the Confederate Army to fight a war against slavery even though his slave, Ebenezer, is his best friend. He’s forced to sell his slave and later meets up with him, only to witness his horrible death by hanging. Dade loses a leg during the war, endures life in an abusive Union Camp called Fort Delaware but survives, marries Sarah, a Mississippi journalist, and bears several children.

As if in recapitulation about wartime horrors and Dade’s ambivalence toward slavery, his son, Ellis Paul, becomes involved with the Ku Klux Klan. Dade witnesses another innocent black man‘s death, and his killers go unpunished. Dade dies feeling guilt so terrible that his ghost haunts the family and his old home for several generations. Attempts at exorcism fail, until his “sins” are redeemed and his soul is released by a transforming event involving his great-great-great grandson.

This novel is a fictional memoir set in Virginia, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana. It contains glimmers of truth about a dysfunctional family through five generations, vivids scenes of Civil War battles, brief excerpts from Civil War memorabilia, and the fictitious diary of a rebellious teenager. It’s the longest novel that I’ve written, and readers of Civil War books, memoirs, and novels about racial relations might enjoy it, especially during these sesquicentennial commemorative years of the Civil War.

Merry Christmas and happy reading in the New Year!

P.S. For non-Kindle readers, the print version of Redeemed by Blood is forthcoming.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

A DAY FOR SQUIRRELS…

Gray squirrel taken through a glass darkly.
You’d think that they’d have eaten their fill, their bushy tails shaking in the fork of the gray oak in my backyard as they peel acorns and toss their shells onto the patio, feasting on the bitter meat that fuels their acrobatics. No wonder they leap about and run as if their tails were on fire–the tannin they consume is as strong as the over-steeped tea that my Iranian houseboy, Jabar, once served me. It was a brew so potent that after I had downed two cups of the dark liquid, I’d see swirling spots before me and would feel as though I was poised to levitate. Perhaps the meat of the acorns helps these creatures to levitate? And how do they keep their white fronts so pristine as they gnaw and grind nuts without dribbling a crumb, their thoughts focused on “eating is all” … that is, except in winter when mating begins and they’re distracted from eating by engaging in the chase! Then they put on an acrobatic show to rival Cirque du Soleil, making these strange chirping noises which can be translated as laughter…or alarm…and sometimes communicating with tail gestures that could only be interpreted as flirting!

No matter how many times I view them in the newly-trimmed live oak outside my window, they remind me of how difficult it must have been for our ancestors to forage for food. I’m writing about squirrels, one of the largest families of mammals in the world, pesky, pesty squirrels that are oblivious to watchers observing them on a day filled with dull clouds, threatening rain. (As I’ve written before, Louisiana’s weather can be described as “always threatening,” but the squirrels seem unperturbed about the darkening sky). They’ve been around for forty million years, and I’ve read that they can survive in any climate except that of the polar region. They don’t have any difficulty surviving in Louisiana climes, and I don’t mind playing hostess to them, but I do wish they’d become as fond of the mosquitoes swarming outside as they are of the acorns that drop on the patio floor. Although they leave a mess of broken shells on the painted red floor, they’re reputed to be the cleanest animal in the rodent family–so why don’t they clean up their rooms? Or become nocturnal instead of diurnal so that I don’t have to watch them litter?

Would that I had the artistic ability of Beatrix Potter so that I could better relate the antics of my resident rodents. Potter immortalized this creature in her story about Squirrel Nutkin, a red squirrel who narrowly escaped the claws of an owl called Old Brown. This beautifully-illustrated children’s book was published in 1903 by Frederick Warne and Company. The tale concerns Squirrel Nutkin, his brother Twinkleberry, and their cousins who sail to Owl Island on small rafts they’ve made of twigs. They get permission from Old Brown to collect nuts on his island, but Nutkin taunts the owl with foolish riddles for six days until he causes Old Brown to become enraged, and the owl attempts to skin Nutkin alive. Nutkin escapes, but he loses most of his tail during the confrontation.

Potter sketched squirrels near the landscape around Lingholm and St. Herbert’s Island in the UK, naming the locale Owl’s Island in her book. She also built a squirrel house of a soapbox so she could observe the animal while she sketched at home, and visited London Zoological Gardens to sketch the owls at that location. Critics wrote that Potter achieved excellent natural history writing in Squirrel Nutkin, even to the point of depicting violence in the natural world, and the book became an immediate best seller–actually, it became an all-time seller as copies of this classic are still selling throughout the world.

Well, I don’t intend to skin my resident squirrels or clip their bushy tails, but I have threatened to cut down the oak if they don’t stop littering acorn shells. And as I write this, one of my rodent friends looks up from his lunch of acorns, regards me with his large shoe button eyes, and flips his tail in defiance, chirping some kind of ancient riddle in a language only Beatrix Potter would understand.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

THE VERSATILITY OF AN INDIE PUBLISHER


Gary Entsminger, publisher, Pinyon Publishing, and Garcia.
 When Pinyon Publishers published Chant of Death, a mystery by me and Isabel Anders, I posted a long interview for this blog about publisher Gary Entsminger and another one about Susan Elliott, the gifted artist and writer on Gary’s staff. Both of these talented artists have one distinguishing feature in common: versatility—and this characteristic becomes more and more evident to me when I read about the range of books they’ve been producing at Pinyon.

Although WriteItNow 4 Creative Writing Software wasn’t published by Pinyon, Gary takes pride in the recent honor garnered by this software produced by Ravenshead Services because Pinyon Publishing is its major distributor in the United States. For the second year, running, WriteItNow 4 was awarded the TopTen Reviews Gold Award. Gary and Susan sent me a copy of the software for Christmas, and I have been attempting to use it.  The software is touted for helping writers generate characters, contains a thesaurus, word counter, spell checker, and other features that fledgling and experienced writers will find useful. Gary and Susan have created a guide entitled Making the Most of WriteItNow 4 for making the most efficient use of the software that features step-by-step examples and screenshots of all the major features of the program. Their guide shows writers how to manipulate the software to help them write, organize, and store complete novels, to generate names, ideas, timelines, and notes, and how to graphically visualize layout and organization with a story board.

WriteItNow 4 is a fascinating writing tool, and I was intrigued by the idea that I could have a name for a character and with the aid of the software, could develop this character, accessing the Myers-Brigg personality types, and using a timeline that specifies a time period and the year of the character’s birth, then pulling up a list of historical events from the character’s lifetime. Gary and Susan use WriteItNow 4 for their creative work, including the writing of their novel, Ophelia’s Ghost, which they co-authored a few years ago.

A day after I received a copy of WriteItNow 4, I logged into Pinyon’s website and found that Gary and Nick Gotelli have produced another piece of software called EcoSim Professional that allows users to test for community patterns with non-experimental data. According to Gary, EcoSim “performs Monte Carlo randomizations to create ‘pseudo-communities,’ then statistically compares the patterns in the randomized communities with those in the real data matrix. These null model tests have wide applicability in both applied and basic ecology…” From the description, readers can see that Gary has extensive experience as a naturalist, computer programmer, and creator of software that helps scientists understand patterns of biodiversity. His range is amazing. Then there’s Susan who studied botany and French at Humboldt State University, has a Ph.D. in biology from Dartmouth College, co-authored the software guide, and who renders fantastical drawings of wildlife and the natural environment.

No, I’m not conversant with the latest offerings of Pinyon, but after reading about the products developed and distributed by them, you can envision the word “versatility” as it applies to the duet who operate this Indie press tucked away in the Rocky Mountains on a plateau near Montrose, Colorado. This past year, Pinyon also published a gracious plenty of books by excellent poets; e.g., Luci Shaw and Martha McFerren. Their publication, You Who Make the Sky Bend by Lisa Sandlin and Catherine Ferguson garnered the New Mexico Book Award, and Victoria Sullivan, Pinyon author of Adoption, a book of speculative fiction in which she used her research about polyploidy plants that have multiple sets of chromosomes, recently received the honor of a plant belonging to the genus Eupatorium (E. sullivaniae) being named after her because her extensive work has led to significant advances in understanding of Eupatorium.
Susan Elliott, artist, Pinyon Publishing

Many of the poetry books on Pinyon’s list have been written by award-winning poets who enjoy the attention and care shown them and their work by the staff at this outstanding Indie press. Gary and Susan’s next project: an online literary journal called The Pinyon Review that will feature poems, essays, short stories…and in light of Gary’s other publications, the range of subjects should be highly eclectic. Also forthcoming is a book about aquatic plants authored by Victoria Sullivan, Why Water Plants Don’t Drown, with paintings by Susan Elliott.

Look for this rising publisher online at www.Pinyon-Publishing.com.

P.S.  As you can see from the picture above, Susan and Gary also compose and play blue grass music in their spare time.  Here's to more of their versatility!!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

THE FIRST OF FIVE THINGS…

Poet Darrell Bourque in his citrus grove.
Earlier this week, we had dinner in the home of Dr. Mary Ann Wilson, a distinguished professor of English at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette who initiated the Women’s Studies program at this university. We shared this meal with the former poet laureate of Louisiana, Darrell Bourque, and his wife Karen, a glass artist. Mary Ann, who is of Italian descent, serves dinners, a la Italian style, that are always sumptuous, and we enjoyed pasta and Torta Di Noci (Italian Walnut Cake) in a splendid dining room decorated in gold and earth tones reminiscent of Italy. We left her with the dishes after four hours of a steady flow of conversation about writers, artists, botanists, musicians… and the books, paintings, plant finds, and music of those mentioned. It was a rich evening, orchestrated by an engaging woman who knows how to get together with people who care about and enjoy one another.

The following day, we received word that Darrell had been honored by the poet and writer Luis Alberto Urrea in the “Entertainment” column of Time magazine. Urrea had been asked by Time to name five things he was really “digging on right now,” and Darrell Bourque claimed the No. 1 spot. Urrea paid tribute to both Darrell and Louisiana, saying that Darrell had “unleashed a gorgeous and powerful New and Selected Poems entitled In Ordinary Light.” He added, “There is nothing ordinary about it. If you love that mythical, shadowy, musical place, that means you are a person of good taste and a deep soul. Louisiana is all about soul. And Bourque’s new book will lift yours and, oh yeah, mon ami, it’s gonna’ kiss you real good.”

I’m glad that Urrea recognizes our premier Louisiana poet, and I agree with his praise of Darrell who served the State as poet, teacher, and mentor for so many poets throughout Louisiana. I think Darrell is at his zenith as a poet and have often said that he's slated to become the Poet Laureate of the U.S. soon. He’s now working on an intriguing book of poetry centered on the exodus of the Acadians in the Grand Derangement, featuring poems about the characters in this deportation and their coming to Acadiana. When he talked about the poetry, I was reminded of the mural which Robert Dafford rendered in the Acadian Memorial in St. Martinville, Louisiana – a painting including the portraits of the Acadians arriving in southwest Louisiana under the leadership of Beau Soleil. In fact, Beau Soleil will be featured in one of Darrell’s poems. For those of us in Louisiana who had ancestors that survived the Grand Derangement and settled in south Louisiana, this is an exciting project. Darrell is the poet who can “speak to this condition,” and we‘re excited about the publication of more of his work that can “kiss you real good,” as Urrea said.

Gertie, dancing on roof.
I’ve written several blogs about Darrell’s diverse talents and recently came upon a NOMA (New Orleans Museum of Art) interview in which he talked about his love of Ekphrastic poetry or poetry devoted to another art form. Last Spring, at a workshop for students of the Lusher Charter School Writing Program, he talked about Ekphrastic poems and asked the participants to write their own versions of this type of poetry. The students chose to write about works ranging from contemporary canvases to a Renaissance miniature portrait. Darrell says that he responds naturally to works of art through poetry, and I remember his response to the painting of a Haitian orphan child which a friend of mine, Barbara Hughes, painted a few years ago. The painting of the child, Gertie, dressed in white tap shoes without shoe laces, enchanted Darrell, and he composed a poem that he read at a poetry reading in New Iberia where we appeared together. When the paintings were shown on a screen, he read his poem about Gertie and I read mine about Lorenzo, a Haitian child dying of AIDS. The privilege of reading alongside this gifted poet remains a high point in my life as a poet.

Darrell and Karen's home.
Darrell has been commissioned to do many Ekphrastic poetry projects; e.g., the poem for the dedication of the Ernest Gaines Center at ULL, five sonnets for an art book by ULL Professor Linda Frieze, and one for the Lake Charles Humanities Council on a painting for the Vision in Verse project. Visitors to Darrell’s home in Church Point, Louisiana enjoy touring his personal gallery of art that includes the works of Louisianians Clementine Hunter, Dr. Gloria Fiero, and Dennis Williams. Darrell claims that had he not been a poet and English professor, he’d have been an art historian…or (in my opinion) a professional horticulturist…or a painter...or an opera singer…or a Buddhist priest…he has the creative capabilities for all of these vocations.

However, we’re glad Darrell Bourque became a poet whose poems "will kiss you real good" and salute him for his recent recognition by Luis Alberto Urrea and Time magazine. Another bravo for you, mon ami Darrell!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

POST THANKSGIVING – BLESSINGS, NAMASTE, AND INTERACTIVE PREACHING…

St. Mary's chapel, Sewanee, TN
Following Thanksgiving, several friends of ours who attend the chapel at St. Mary’s Convent, Sewanee, where we worship when we’re in Tennessee, wrote to us about their part in an interactive Thanksgiving service at the convent. Although the liturgy at the convent usually follows the conventional Anglican way, every once in awhile, the Sisters jolt us out of our “sacred cowness” with an alternative method of involvement; i.e., the interactive sermon.

Friends at Sewanee reported that the Sisters led off with expressions of thanksgiving for various blessings in their lives, then asked others in the congregation to stand and declare their thanksgivings. I understand that this was a cleansing, as well as a praise time for congregants. Although we “frozen chosen” aren’t a testimonial type group, sometimes we’re melted down by the Sisters’ departure from “ritual as usual.” Actually, the interactive sermon is not a new thing and harks back to passages in the first book of Corinthians when people stood up and shared a part of the worship service, as well as expressed transformative spiritual revelations they had experienced.

I remember attending an interactive sermon church in Washington, D.C. a few years ago. The experience sorta’ scared me because people came up to an open mike and critiqued the sermon, which I don’t think is the real purpose of interactive sermons – the purpose is to lead congregants to this sacred place where they meet God. When I preach at Grace Fellowship Church at Sewanee, a very small interdenominational church in the woods near St. Mary’s Convent, discussion always follows my homily, which is a form of interactive preaching and is nearer to educative preaching than inspirational preaching. However, the expressions of this small group are always heartfelt and affirming of whatever message I deliver.

I was touched by the report of the thanksgivings that were said at the St. Mary Thanksgiving service, and the reports sent me scurrying to my shelf of books about blessings which are said not only on Thanksgiving but, in the Celtic tradition, are expressed all year long. The blessing is “a direct address, driven by immediacy and care,” John O’Donohue writes in To Bless the Space Between Us, a book that contains blessings which help us look at “blessing” as a way of life and as a means of transforming a broken world. O’Donohue refers to blessing as a “huge force field that opens when intention focuses and directs itself toward transformation.”

St. Mary's Convent chapel icons
The Namaste, a gesture of blessing when we pass “The Peace” at St. Mary’s, is such a strong influence we found ourselves responding with it to others at The Church of Epiphany here in New Iberia, Louisiana during the Peace this past Sunday. The Namaste, is performed by slightly bowing and pressing hands together, palms touching and fingers pointed upwards in front of the chest. The Sisters of St. Mary usually perform it without speaking.

Namaste, commonly performed in India, is a respectful greeting and means “The spirit in me respects the spirit in you,” or “the divinity in me bows to the divinity in you.” The gesture first appeared 4000 years ago on clay seals of the Indus Valley Civilization. It’s another non-traditional expression carried out by the Sisters which we’ve adopted and that may have startled those around us when we used it at the Peace during the New Iberia service. However, it’s one that has become involuntary after four years of our attending the convent church at Sewanee. The Namaste is a reverential salutation that could stand a bit of use in and out of church in our own country.

We hope that you expressed thanksgivings for all your providences this Thanksgiving and, as O’Donohue says, “May we all receive blessing upon blessing. And may we realize our power to bless, heal, and renew one another.”

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

RETURN OF THE KAJUN KWEEN

Now in Kindle format
Petite Marie Melancon of The Kajun Kween fame has been waiting in the wings for several years, and today she went into press again as a Young Adult book of fiction on Kindle. Thanksgiving seems to be a good holiday to recognize Petite for her heroic antics in deepest south Louisiana as the heroine of Kurrent Komics, a fictitious New York comic book publication.

Petite Marie Melancon appeared in print in 2003 as a publication of Border Press and decided this year to join the world of electronic publishing, having seen some of her sister YA books enjoying popularity on Kindle – Flood on the Rio Teche, Martin Finds His Totem, and other titles published by BP.

A thirteen-year old who is extremely tall for any age (6’2”), Petite is self-conscious about her height but decides to interview for a New York City publisher anyway. She beats out other jolie catins (baby dolls) in a race to provide true adventures about French Louisiana for the comic strip, “Kajun Kween.”

This adventuresome enfant terrible hasn’t bargained for encounters with a mother alligator protecting her egg nest, a giant snapping turtle, or for a visit from a loup garou during a late-night adventure poling alone in her pirogue in a swamp. During her adventures, a potbelly pig drops from a tornado into her pasture and becomes her companion. Romance enters her life when she competes in a hot pepper eating contest and a gumbo cook-off in New Iberia, Louisiana, and Henri becomes her prince consort as she enjoys the simple life on a Louisiana chenier. Petite fnally realizes that her height is not such a disadvantage and that acts of courage do not always mean heroics.

For those readers who prefer their books via Kindle, Petite wishes you a Happy Thanksgiving as you follow her unusual adventures in bayou country.

The winsome cover illustration is by Paul Schexnayder, New Iberia, Louisiana artist, whose drawings and paintings have been internationally recognized. We regret that the interior illustrations cannot be used in ebook format. Soft-cover editions of this YA book can be ordered from www.borderpressbooks.com.

Friday, November 18, 2011

HONORING A BOTANIST

Most people who know Dr.Victoria Sullivan (otherwise known as Vickie) recognize that she is a gifted person in many fields, and it’s not surprising to those of us who know her that yesterday she received an e-mail informing her the most recent edition of Systematic Botany names a new species of Eupatorium (the genus of plants that Vickie studied and wrote about for many years), Eupatorium sullivaniae, in honor of her research work. In the article entitled “Systematics of the Eupatorium album Complex (Asteraceae) from Eastern North America” by Edward E. Schilling, who is with the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Tennessee, Schilling writes that “the name E. sullivaniae honors Dr. Victoria Sullivan, whose extensive work has led to significant advances in our understanding of Eupatorium.”

I’ve always teased Vickie about studying “a dirty white weed that can be collected only when the sun is beaming white hot on collectors’ backs and the soil is parched dry to make digging impossible,” because I’ve accompanied her on many field trips throughout the South during the summer when temps were at their hottest peak, but she has always diverted my attention to joe pye weed, a close relative of Eupatorium with lovely lavender hues, to try to incite more sentiment in me for her chosen plant of study. I remember accompanying Vickie and a Japanese botanist, Dr. T. Yahara, on a collecting trip during a rainstorm preceding Hurricane Elena, which followed us all the way to St. Augustine, Florida and then turned and followed us back to Lafayette, Louisiana. These two botanists’ idea of a good time included climbing fences posted “No trespassing,” backing up the van on the interstate highway at 60 mph to study a plant they spied as we sped past, and running through fields in sheets of rain that fell steadily for the three days they collected. Such are the activities of those who study the plant world, and I did my part by documenting the trip in an article that appeared in Skylight, a literary magazine published in Florida!

Vickie, who received her Ph.D. in Biology from Florida State University, has a formidable background in the teaching profession, having taught biology and botany at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette for twenty years and biology, environmental studies, and physical science to students at both Teurlings Catholic High School and Episcopal School of Acadiana in Louisiana for a four year stint. She was also a naturalist with the U.S. National Park Service in the Everglades National Park, worked in Fairchild Tropical Garden, Miami, Florida and has authored at least 25 papers about Eupatorium, thistles, and other plants. At one point during her career, she, along with several colleagues, obtained a grant from EPSCOR for over one and one-half million dollars to do work on molecular evolution. Vickie has worked with the Louisiana Nature Conservancy, the Ecology Branch of the U.S. Army, and as a botanist with the Trustees for Internal Improvement Trust Fund, State of Florida.

She has published flash fiction on the Internet, authored non-fiction articles in non-scientific periodicals and has written an outstanding article identifying the plant life in the murals of the famous Gulf Coast painter, Walter Anderson, which appeared in Interdisciplinary Humanities. In 2009, she translated her grandmother’s letters for a book she entitled Granny’s Letters: A Georgia Wiregrass Pioneer Woman’s Tragedy that has been enjoying a “run” on Kindle. This past year, Pinyon Publishing published Vickie’s speculative fiction book, Adoption, in which her heroine is featured as a superhuman, a character who was created by Vickie using her research on the genetics of polyploidy plants that have multiple sets of chromosomes. As owner, publisher, and editor of Border Press, an independent press she established several years ago, she also publishes quality fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.

Boards of profit and non-profit organizations seek Vickie out for her financial expertise, and she has served as Treasurer of Solomon House, an outreach mission, as CFO for her family company, Central Ridge in Frostproof, Florida, as treasurer of the Episcopal Church of Epiphany, New Iberia where she also did stints as Senior Warden and served on the Standing Committee of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Louisiana. She served as president of the Epiphany Day School in New Iberia, Louisiana, as treasurer of Bayou Girl Scout Council and was a member of its five-year strategic planning committee, chairing the Fund Development committee of this same organization. Recently, members of the board of St. Mary’s Convent in Sewanee, Tennessee recognized Vickie’s wise oversight of financial matters and appointed her to the board of St. Mary’s Convent in Sewanee, Tennessee where she lives eight months of the year (and resides in New Iberia, Louisiana the other part). She’s an active Associate of the Order of St. Mary and several days of the week can be found at early morning Eucharist at St. Mary’s chapel on the bluff where she worships regularly.

In her leisure time, Vickie travels in all the states adjoining Tennessee where she sees a lot of Eupatorium but refrains from collecting as I am usually along for the ride. She has traveled in the Dominican, Europe, Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, the Caribbean, and Jamaica. She enjoys a daily game of Scrabble, does extensive reading of philosophy, religion, and psychology, exercises daily, studies the latest tomes on Nutrition, and keeps up with research through readings in science magazines, of course. Back in the 80’s when the Rice Festival marathon was scheduled in Crowley, Louisiana, Vickie put on her running shoes and ran eighteen miles before running out of steam. She has medals from many 5K and 10K races in the Acadiana area. Vickie's a great proponent of natural food and has a heavy hand with exotic seasonings, having authored two microwave cookbooks featuring international recipes.

A true Renaissance woman, Vickie is deserving of honors in many fields as her interests are eclectic, and we look forward to reading her next book, soon to be published by Pinyon Publishing. Why Water Plants Don’t Drown, a nature enthusiast’s guide to aquatic plants, will feature the delightful paintings of Susan Elliott, a fellow botanist and artist on Pinyon’s staff.

Brava, Vickie! I know that the hybrid apomictic species named Eupatorium sullivaniae is glad to finally be named after a gifted woman of diverse talents who has entered her seventh decade with such energy and vision.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

ABOUT “THE MOUNTAIN” PRESSES

Today, we plan to lunch with our good friends, Henry and Kathy Hamman, a couple who owns one of The Mountain’s small presses called Plateau Books. Henry and Kathy, who’re world travelers, have formidable credentials in the editorial and publishing field, and my friend, Vickie Sullivan, who owns Border Press, often compares notes with them about the complicated job of marketing.

The Hammans lived in Iran and India – places that offer delicious Eastern cuisine – and as I lived in Iran during the 70’s, we have a common interest in exotic cuisine. Today’s menu for the luncheon includes curry, roasted vegetables, dal (yellow lentils), and raita (yoghurt with cucumber and dill). Kathy is a chef magnifique and has a deft hand with seasonings and unusual ingredients.

Kathy, editor-in-chief of Plateau Books (at Sewanee, Tennessee), formerly served as editorial director of a press at the University of Miami where she captured the “Choice” award for two of the books she edited. She has been recognized in the journals Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy. Henry, the publisher, has edited numerous scholarly monographs, published fiction and nonfiction books, and is a former university faculty member. He’s also recognized for his excellent investigative reporting and articles in Financial Times.

The Hammans live in a cottage on Jumpoff Mountain Road at “Tick Farm,” where their offices are located. They’re assisted in their work by “Lucky,” an ancient Rhodesian Ridgeback dog that pretty much owns the place and joins us at mealtimes when we visit the farm. Lucky’s manner of getting acquainted is to approach a guest, stick his wet nose in her face, and if the guest blows her breath on his face, he retreats and lies down, signaling his approval of the visitor by curling up in a corner to listen to the repartee'.

Plateau Books advertises as a publisher of “lasting significance for discriminating readers” and is committed to publishing books that “value wisdom, knowledge, passion, and personal experience.” This year, the Hammans produced Swimming Solo, a book that recounts the story of a courageous daughter who dealt with aging parents suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. Swimming Solo has been touted as “a fascinating personal story, painstakingly told, with no unflattering or awkward details spared in the interest of wholeness – and that is the triumph.” (Isabel Anders, author of Becoming Flame). I reviewed the poignant story in a former blog when the book first appeared on the market. This account about “parenting our parents,” carries out Plateau Books’ mission statement of publishing volumes that “value wisdom, knowledge, passion, and personal experience.”

As a former editor for an academic publishing house, Kathy knows the special requirements for academic publications, including the importance of peer review. Presently in the slot for publication by Plateau Books is a theological work entitled Getting Your Sermon Heard, by William Hethcock, professor emeritus of homiletics, The School of Theology at Sewanee: The University of the South. Hethcock, the “preaching guru” at Sewanee, has authored a work that will be a significant contribution to theological seminaries throughout the U.S. and abroad.

We were told to come to lunch at 1 p.m. as the Hammans had to pick up their Mennonite milk delivery (which they use to make yogurt) at 12:30 from Dagmar Gundersen, and I’m sure the raita will contain some of the Gundersen pick-up. Although rain has begun to fall and Sewanee is shrouded in grey, we anticipate having a good time – the conversation is usually lively and eclectic, and we laugh a lot when we get together. As four people interested in the art of writing, we also have weighty conversations about religion and books, particularly those volumes that both presses have produced. Border Press publishes many of my young adult fiction and poetry books, but Vickie takes notes about non-fiction possibilities as the Hammans have considerable background and experience in editing and publishing in this genre. Their press also supports independent booksellers and offers special pricing for direct sales to independent bookstores.

We plan to return to Teche country on Saturday, and I know this brief encounter with the Hammans will be another highpoint in visits to The Mountain – that is, if we get past the rain now falling in heavy sheets and coloring the landscape a gunmetal gray, a hue that often inspires me to refer to Sewanee as Grayburg. It’s a perfect day for sharing a meal and talking about books!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

ARCHAEOLOGY AT MIDNIGHT

Book Cover on the Fly!

While visiting in central Florida, I've taken a "time out" to read poetry, my favorite genre, and selected for my bedtime reading, Archaeology at Midnight, the newest publication from Pinyon Publishing in Montrose, Colorado. This book of poetry by Martha McFerren, who is a master of the wry line, is an antidote to the literary works of a literalist, historicized society of the West that has discarded the "power of myth" (to borrow from Joseph Campbell), and her poems reflect sharp insights into humankind—its myths, philosophies, and foibles.  She probes ancient society and contemporary society through the lens of her own experiences and relates them with verve, using strong satiric skills and turning our attention to inward realities.

On two pages of the book, facing one another, McFerren probes the art of prehistoric man and Tudor England, commenting in two succinct swaths, incising the psyche of a cave dweller, first, in a minimalist poem that profiles our ancestors in lines that capture the nature of prehistoric man: "The all-together,/outside and inside./I worship what I kill/and make again. I look at my hands,/baffled by their motion./ I don't understand my eyes./What do they want?/My mouth doesn't help me./I can speak/only one word at a time./And so I kneel here/both outside and/within myself./I need others/but have to be alone...A word: Look./Another word: Make." This is minimalist poetry at its most powerful and is one of those poems to which nothing more should be added.

On the succeeding page, "Glastonbury, September," features powerful imagery about the ruined architecture of Glastonbury, a romantic place in England during King Arthur's time.  The opening lines caused me to feel like Emily Dickinson's description of a good poem: "as if the top of my head was blown off." McFerren writes: "This is where we walk into the air./Doors leading nowhere/Nowhere making doors. A Gothic arch frames breath. A broken stair/becomes a helix..." and concluding with similar powerful imagery: "After millennia of red despair./How sweet the easy twilight of the story. /This is where we walk into the air."

Writing about the contemporary world, McFerren captures the personality of an overprotective mother in a satirical poem entitled "Beware," two pages of admonishments to a daughter who has moved to metropolitan Houston, a dangerous place where the mother feels the daughter will die from an encounter with an unknown assailant.  "Beware" is a "laugh aloud" poem, especially the lines that show McFerren's wonderful originality and humor: "Stand in the corner/in your zipped-up thick robe/Be unmoving. Be very good./If you are wrapped/you will remain unraped..."

Another "laugh aloud" poem emphasizes the human love of fat, dating back to prehistoric times when women instructed men who were going out to the hunt: "Bring us fat./Plentiful, dripping, sizzling fat./It tastes so good. Yes, bring home fat..." and culminating "in the kitchen with a stick of butter -- not butter with canola oil/but pure, unsalted butter...I place one sliver on my tongue/and no communion wafer could be sweeter or more reverential./It tastes so good...We have the new encyclical: No fat..."

In Archaeology at Midnight, the metaphors are apt; the humor is piquant and flawless. McFerren reflects the humanness of all of us, reminding me of the poet, Marge Piercy, in that she has the same keen eye as Piercy and records what she sees with uncompromised candor.  

Pinyon Publishing has published a winner, and I might add, the winner is a Louisiana poet who lives down the road, a 2 hrs. and 30 min. drive from New Iberia, in the "City that Care Forgot," New Orleans.

Archaeology at Midnight can be ordered from www.pinyon-publishing.com.

Monday, November 7, 2011

CALLING UPON ANGELS

Angel Figurines on My Mantle
Anne Boykin, a good friend who lives in Sewanee, Tennessee and who actually influenced us to move to The Mountain there, is very ill and needs surgery on Tuesday. As I'm back in Louisiana, I regret that I won’t be there when the surgery takes place at St. Thomas Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee. When I thought about her crisis today, I chided myself for not trusting in something that Anne believes in—the guardianship of angels, especially the angels who protect all residents and visitors at Sewanee. The tradition told to every newcomer to The Mountain is that when a person departs the domain of the University of the South for a destination and passes through the gates of Sewanee, the traveler taps the roof of his car and an angel goes with him. Upon return, the person taps the roof of the car and releases the angel. In other words, residents’ bases are covered wherever they go, but the natural habitat of this divine creature is Sewanee on the Cumberland Plateau. When we first arrived at Sewanee, Anne gave us a copy of the angel legend and conveyed to us that she believes in these beings of cosmic awareness.

The angel that will probably protect her on Tuesday is the archangel Raphael who, according to the Zohar, is charged to heal the earth and through him the earth furnishes an abode for man, whom he also heals. In an essay about angels in The Angels, Gail Thomas writes that she senses Raphael's presence everywhere and while speaking to a conference on AIDS, she mentioned to participants that there is an inner healer within each one of us—“a communication within the body, mind, and spirit that knows what is needed and asks for help from sources which remain constantly available within each person…” Thomas probes the issue of the nature of healing, declaring that through the power of Raphael, man or woman can be led to perceive and recognize the healing principle… “which lives in the Christ principle…”

Rudolph Steiner imaged the angels as breathing, the continual taking in and moving out of our breath, and Raphael seems to be connected with the constant flow of healing forces within and without humanity through our breathing! Raphael’s name actually means “God has healed,” and according to Thomas, our experience of this healing is one of finding and losing.

Much of this description of finding and losing is based on the story of Tobit and his son Tobias in the Apocrypha of the Old Testament, in which Tobit, who is blind, is cured by Tobias. Tobias, who has gone out into the world, searches for and obtains fish gall, then returns to his father with the gall on his hands and blows into his father’s eyes, saying, “Take courage father.” He applies the fish gall, and with both hands peels away a filmy skin from the corners of his father’s eyes. Tobit regains his sight, and we are instructed that this account illustrates the story of an angel causing Tobias to find a healing for his father.

Thomas advocates that we are never alone. A companion travels with us who is a healing force in everything and the healing comes from our own adversity, so we shouldn't be afraid of losing—“the child in us begins to learn and in releasing, we find—in losing we win.” Implicit in the story of Toby and Tobias is the idea that the archangel Raphael was the companion of Tobias. Blind Tobit had believed in the efficacy of angels and had told his wife not to worry when his son went out into the world because “going away and coming back, all will be well with our child…a good angel will go with hm. He will have a good journey and come back to us well and happy.” Of course, Tobit also benefited from that good journey and became well and happy.

I pray that both Raphael the Archangel and the Sewanee angel do their work on Tuesday and that Anne will return to The Mountain, having had a good journey, coming back to her many friends and family "well and happy.”

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

THOUGHTS ON LIVING SIMPLY…

After a good night’s sleep, I got up and looked out the window at the light streaming through the trees in the coulee and thought how glad I was to be focusing on the natural world, rather than on the budgetary needs of the household with which I had been working lately. My meditations on the world outside my window reminded me of a poem in my newest book of poetry, Alchemy, entitled “Prayer When Approaching Old Age:” (one, I might add, that my Bishop, Bruce MacPherson, particularly likes) “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 during these late years of poetry,/my own forests of good will,/these acts of co-creation slowly culminate,/become fulfillment measured by your time,/guided by this light…/evanescent among the trees.”

The remembrance of this poem spoke to my condition, as the Quakers say, and I crumpled all of the “post-its” dense with figures on the desk and picked up one of my favorite books, On Living Simply, a compilation of the works of John Chrysostom, a preacher who was a leader of the Church of Constantinople during the fourth century.

On Living Simply focuses on living as people who see themselves as stewards of their wealth, loaned to them by God, to be used for the common good and it is written in plain, frank language that would probably affront the wealthy in our society today. As the compiler, Robert Van de Weyer says, “John Chrysostom would be as unpopular today among the privileged members of society as he was in the fourth century – and as popular among the common people...”

The entire volume is a challenge to all of us who fail to remember generosity to another, not as gift giving, but as a required repayment of a debt. It records the story of John’s actions as the patriarch of Constantinople when he increased the hospitals and schools run by the Church and rooted out corruption among the clergy, stripping the patriarch’s palace of its lavish adornments. He also visited the city’s slums and preached sermons that accused the wealthy of insulting God by their greed.

John of Chrysostom felt that the skill which the wealthy needed to cultivate was one of using their wealth well and that it was regarded as the highest of all arts. He advocated that if the rich communicated directly with God, they would learn that the tools of their art were not fashioned of iron or brass, but of good will.

“He must learn always to think good thoughts, expunging all selfish thoughts. He must learn how to feel compassion, expunging all malice and contempt…learn how to desire only to obey the will of God [because] the skill of being a rich disciple of Christ is the highest of all arts…” Even more strong are John’s words about the rich being fierce in the pursuit of money, “even as wild animals pursuing their prey…even members of their own families may be used in their quest for wealth…their eyes blind to the suffering they cause, and their ears deaf to the cries of those whose lives are ruined by them…becoming slaves to their own greed…”

Just moments after I finished reading this, someone sent me an e-mail about Andrew Weil’s latest book entitled Spontaneous Happiness: Our Nature-Deficit Disorder in which Weil purports that the more people have, the less likely they are to be content, and that there is evidence pointing to depression as a disease of affluence. He boldly asserted that people who live in poorer countries have lower risk of depression than those of us who live in industrialized nations. Weil cited that the Amish, who live simply, suffer from a low rate of depression, 1/10th lower than that of the level of depression of other Americans. He also advocates that there are greater benefits of living close to nature – such a life not only gives spiritual sustenance but keeps our brains and nervous systems stabilized.

Having read all of that, I put away my pencil, again looked out the study window at the leaves falling from the Live Oak in the backyard and sat awhile, pondering how it would be to live like John, who said that if we regard nothing as a personal possession, in spirit we own everything, can look at the beautiful outdoor world, regardless of who owns it, and rejoice in its beauty.

Monday, October 24, 2011

AN ACRE OF ACORNS

After the mosquitoes came the acorns! I mean, my first glimpses of home in New Iberia, Louisiana were of the maringouins fluttering against the pane of my study, and when I glanced at the floor of the dusty patio, I saw a carpet of acorns – whole, half-eaten, broken shells – and more raining down from the Live Oak beside the house. The acorns comprised a bumper crop, the products of a “mast season” in the acorn realm. Sweeping, chloroxing the patio floor, shaking my fist at the squirrels and the jays causes no cessation of the acorn rain. Both jays and squirrels are aggressive and jeer at me from their perches in the live oak, throwing down the shells of the nuts hourly.

Acorns of White Oaks at Sewanee are elephantine compared to the nuts that fall from my Louisiana backyard oak, but the result is the same – the feel and sound of acorns crunching underfoot and littering daily. In my readings about the acorn, I find that most acorns are garnered by birds (especially jays and woodpeckers) before they fall to the ground, and they also provide tasty fare for mice, wood rats, and pigs (?), although I haven’t seen the latter rooting in the yard yet! Armadilloes, yes; pigs, no.

The tannins in acorns agree with the digestion of some animals, but we aren’t among them, unless the nuts are soaked in water for awhile so that the tannins leach out. California Native Americans once fought over trees that bore acorns low in tannins and sweet in taste.

I haven’t spied an acorn woodpecker yet, but these birds subsist on acorns where several species of Live Oaks grow close to each other and produce abundant crops of the nut. Acorns also attract wasps, and I’ve spied a few of their nests near the patio since returning home to Louisiana. Birds sometimes eat the wasp larvae for dessert following a meal of acorns.

Recipes using acorns abound – acorn flour honey cake, acorn pasta, roasted acorns, acorn soup, to name a few. As for me, I’ll sweep the “mast crop” into the backyard for the jays and squirrels and leave the remainder of the harvest for old hippies to eat!

An excerpt from one of my old poems that is unpublished entitled “South Wind:”

“…that same South wind
moves an irksome squirrel,

her pet, a comrade who scatters nuts
before the torn screen door,

sensing she has reached
the gate of a worthy despair,

and leaves his tokens of communication
within her reach,

offering the best a creature can give
to one who hasn’t the peace

of the squirrel, swinging,
limb-hung, in the hot south wind,

eating the nut of a tree’s kindness…”

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A PREQUEL IN A LOUISIANA SETTING…

I’ve written short suspense stories during my career as an author, but not in the form of a “prequel,” a sort of teaser for a book already published. However, when Isabel Anders, co-author of Chant of Death and editor of a Kindle ebook, An Essential Evil, presented the idea to me, I spun out a short suspense story before I left Sewanee, Tennessee. Since many readers have asked for more background about Father Malachi, the protagonist in the short story’s sequel, Chant of Death, Isabel and I focused on this character as the central figure for a prequel in a Louisiana setting.

In the prequel, An Essential Evil, readers are introduced to Malachi Marchand, a clinical psychiatrist in his life prior to becoming a Religious and his problems concerning his deranged wife, Virginia. Malachi’s relationship with his bizarre spouse almost seems to be an “essential evil” that leads him into a vocation at St. Andrew’s Abbey in southern Louisiana. The route into this monastic life is a deeply disturbed one involving the bizarre murder of a dog, an exorcism, a suicide, and Malachi’s crisis of spirit following his wife’s death.

The prequel, of course, precedes Chant of Death, a Louisiana mystery in which Fr. Malachi, now Abbot of St. Andrew’s Monastery, faces the challenge of becoming a clerical detective and gets involved in problems concerning the seven deadly sins as they are committed by a group of chanting monks at the Louisiana monastery. Although Fr. Malachi has entered what he thinks is a quiet contemplative life, he is forced to face physical and spiritual assaults, even murder, as he carries out a Benedictine lifestyle during post-modern times. He discovers that life inside a monastery is sometimes as problematical as life “on the outside.”

The prequel is available only in Kindle format and can be ordered from Amazon. Its sequel, Chant of Death, was published by Pinyon Press in Montrose, Colorado.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

THE SOUND OF TRAINS

Great Smoky Mountain Railroad
One sound I missed while sojourning in Tennessee this Spring and Summer was the long whistle of a train going through the countryside during the night. At one time in my life, the wail of a train whistle at night caused me to feel lonely, as if I had boarded a car going Nowhere. Now, when I hear the whistle, I think that I’ve boarded an express to Somewhere! I guess you could call this progress, albeit somewhat romantic.

I once rode the “Old Southern,” as Virginians called the train that ran from Knoxville, Tennessee to Christiansburg, Virginia, and stayed awake all night because students traveling to Emory University in Atlanta decided to stage an all-night singalong, including several twanging guitars. My oldest daughter, Stephanie, then three, became enchanted with the songs, especially “Dinah, Won’t You Blow,” and her admiration encouraged repetitious singing of this ditty until early morning when the students debarked at Atlanta. The train must have traveled at a speed of 25 mph or thereabouts, and when I arrived at my godparents’ home in Blacksburg, Virginia, the woman who cooked for them said, “Haven’t you ever rid the old Southern? Horses can outrun it any day.”

The most perilous train ride I’ve experienced was on a long journey, via the Trans-Iranian Railway, that took us over desert terrain in Ahwaz to mountainous areas near Tehran, Iran, stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Caspian Sea. In Richard Frye’s classic book, Persia, he writes that the railroad was “finally finished in 1938 after great engineering difficulties over difficult terrain…” I think that this is a mild description of the terrain from Ahwaz to Shemiran, a section of Tehran in the Elburz Mountains. After a night of wakefulness among Iranis celebrating the Friday Sabbath with beer and shish kebab (!) and glimpses downward at the yawning abysses on either side of the track, we stopped at Qum about daybreak , and I found comfort in an estekan of tea and nahn spread with orange marmalade. I wish that I knew the dimensions of the train track through the mountains because it seemed as if we were on rails as thin as the lines depicting them on a map of Iran.

My daughter Elizabeth traveled by train this Spring from California to Tennessee and arrived after three days of travel sitting up and breathing hot air that she claims caused a virus to develop in her and my grandson Joel. We went to Birmingham, Alabama to fetch her, and the rundown train depot across the street from a decaying building with broken window panes inspired in me the disappearance of all vestiges of romantic notions about train travel.

Yet…Yes, just yesterday, I began reading a book entitled Railroads in the Old South by Aaron W. Marrs and was delighted to read: “The rapid embrace of the railroad by southern travelers and shippers demonstrates that railroads affected the Old South’s development…” I am still enchanted when I hear the sound of trains whistling through New Iberia during the night, as evidenced in this poem written several years ago in my chapbook, Just Passing Through:

PASSING THROUGH
The night hawk travels
through bleak passes,
whistling loneliness,
the Earl of travel charging space,
tracks leading everywhere
toward some isolated station,
waybill hooks still hanging,
worn bench outside,
ready for itinerant travelers
waiting to be transported…
into the “whoo” of memory.

This poem was followed by:

THE SANTA FE IS
no covert traveler,
train boiling through high desert,
red, blue, yellow freight cars,
imperatives on landscape
going everywhere.
In the pinpoint of my eye,
miniature boxes of color
fret empty plains,
make me aware of destinations,
distant mountains
welcoming bleached cloudbanks.
We pass small stations
snoring at track side
while bright-colored cars sway
on miles and miles of track
like ants relocating,
good times left behind,
mirages passed.
A lonely figure waves
from the engine window,
face turned toward
an indifferent there
going on forever.

Monday, October 17, 2011

MARINGOUINS --MOSQUITOES, THAT IS…

When I sat down at my desk in New Iberia after a hiatus of several months, the first beings to welcome me home were mosquitoes dancing against the window pane overlooking the backyard. “Welcome back,” they said, “we’ve been waiting for your allergic skin as it has always been the type we enjoy sampling.” Yes, it’s welcome back to the land of the mosquitoes, bayou country, Louisiana! However, I understand that I escaped the worst influx of them last month following several tropical storms.

Actually, New Iberia, Louisiana was the site where the scourge of yellow fever (mosquito-bred disease) struck twice during the 19th century. According to Glenn Conrad, author of New Iberia, yellow fever was introduced into Louisiana during the 1790’s, arriving in New Orleans via a ship from a Caribbean port. The ship carried pesky mosquitoes in its freight, which was transferred to steamboats plying the Louisiana bayous. In September, 1839, New Iberia experienced its first epidemic of yellow fever. During the onslaught of the disease, a black woman named Felicite, a native of Santo Domingo who lived in New Iberia and was immune to the disease, cared for the sick and dying victims, and even arranged for their burials. A plaque commemorating her caretaking stands on the parade ground between the Iberia Parish Library and the New Iberia City Hall.

Yellow fever disappeared from Teche country following the Civil War, but in July, 1867, another epidemic struck New Iberia, and nearly two-thirds of the city’s population suffered from the disease. “The list of dead included someone from nearly every household in the town,” Conrad reported. By October of that year, the disease disappeared from New Iberia.

When Yellow Fever appeared in Louisiana during 1878, New Iberians adopted preventative measures, burning sulphur, disinfecting, and quarantining, and somehow escaped the epidemics that had left 4,000 dead in New Orleans, over 100 in Morgan City, and nearly 200 in Baton Rouge. Conrad reported that few people realize that the last reported and authenticated case of yellow fever in the U.S. actually occurred in New Iberia, in 1906. A young teenager was treated by several yellow fever experts from New Orleans and recovered.

Until the turn of the century, Louisianians didn’t recognize the connection between frequent summer showers along the Gulf coast, warm, humid days and nights, the arrival of hordes of mosquitoes, and the onset of yellow fever. Citizens also failed to make the connection between the disappearance of the dreaded “maringouins” during the first cold days of Fall and the occurrence of frosts that ended yellow fever epidemics.

In an essay about Madeleine Hachard, a young Ursuline nun about whom I wrote in Their Adventurous Will, Profiles of Memorable Louisiana Women, the infamous Louisiana mosquito appears during the Ursulines’ trip upriver to New Orleans as they continued their mission to educate women of Louisiana during the 18th century. “To the travel-weary nuns, the trip upriver seemed to stretch interminably; they were on the river nine days. The party had to set up camp every night an hour before sunset to avoid the swarming ‘maringouins’ or mosquitoes. Members of the crew cut cane and draped linen on the cane poles around the nuns’ mattresses to form curtains which would ward off the venomous mosquitoes. The Ursulines slept two to a pallet, fully clothed, but were still assailed by the insects…”

Just last month, Iberia Parish experienced an increase in species of floodwater mosquitoes due to tropical weather, and aerial mosquito spraying took place. Residents of the parish were told that if they heard low-flying aircraft overhead, they weren’t mosquito bombers but aerial mosquito sprayers, and residents shouldn’t look up for obvious reasons. I’m glad that the population of this species has been decimated because these mosquitoes have extended flight range and are numerous and aggressive biters!

And such is the character of my winged welcoming party when I arrived in “The Berry” a few days ago!

Monday, October 10, 2011

ABOUT GINKGO TREES…

Yesterday, my botanist friend, Vickie, led me to a site in front of Convocation Hall here on the Sewanee campus, where the Bentley Bells and chimes ring out from Breslin Tower, to show me a beautiful tree whose attractiveness was overpowered by a rancid butter odor. The Ginkgo biloba or Maidenhair Tree, that occupies this site had dropped a gracious plenty of seeds on the ground, and although I stepped carefully on the lawn around the perimeter of the tree, I brought home some seed on the soles of my sandals and had to do a major clean-up to get rid of the unpleasant sour smell.

At the time of the sighting, the tree hadn’t turned its golden autumn color, and its stature indicated that it had guarded the old hall for years. I imagine that most people walk on the sidewalk beside the Gingko, rather than crunching around on the ground beneath it as I did during my investigation, which caused the unpleasant vapors to rise into the air. The smell lingered for half a block.

The Gingko tree in Europe was first sighted by German botanist Engelbert Kaempfer in a Japanese temple garden during the 17th century. It’s a living fossil dating back 270 million years, and at the end of the Pliocene Era during the Ice Age, it disappeared, except in an area of Central China where Buddhist monks are said to have saved the tree from extinction. Today, some species in China tower to heights over 164 feet.

The Gingko tree possesses strong survival characteristics, withstanding heavy winds and snow damage, two weather conditions prevalent at Sewanee during the winter seasons. The tree has been cultivated in North America for over 200 years.

Gingko trees are designated as dioecious – in other words, the trees are either males or female. The females produce a seed that is yellow brown and fruitlike, not unattractive in appearance, but it’s the culprit that contains butanoic acid which emits an unpleasant smell like vomit.

In an interesting article about the Gingko, an Iowa City office manager complained about a Gingko tree growing in front of her business that caused a slimy mess and which she described as emitting a smell that was “pretty disgusting.” Throughout the U.S., some city councils and businesses have removed female Gingko trees, leaving the “non-stinky” male trees in their environments as they’re excellent shade providers. Incidentally, Frank Lloyd Wright acclaimed the Gingko as his favorite tree.

In defense of the smelly Gingko (the national tree of China), extracts of Ginkgo leaves contain flavonoid glycosides and terpenoids (ginkgolides, bilobalides) that are used to treat dementia. Gingko is believed to be effective in enhancing memory in humans and as an anti-vertigo agent. Also, Gingkolides are used in treating and preventing cardiovascular and central nervous system diseases.

Six Gingko trees, still alive and well, that survived the 1945 atom bomb explosion in Hiroshima, Japan attest to the durability of these wonderful trees. I don’t know how old the Sewanee Gingko tree is, but some botanists predict that Gingkos can live 3,000 years!

In Oriental cultures, the Gingko tree represents changelessness, as well as unity, hope and love.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

DEER FRIENDS

One of the sights at Sewanee I’ll miss when I return to Louisiana next week is that of the deer that graze in the woods behind our cottage and near our front porch in the evenings. Although they usually ruin the flower beds we plant each Spring and pluck the blueberries before we have had a chance to harvest a few from our bush, I still like to see them and even talk to them when they graze close by.

Last week when I read an article in the Sewanee Messenger about deer management and culling, I felt a twinge of guilt about my romanticizing deer visits to our “domain.” The author of the article, Leslie Lytle, reported that management studies indicate the deer herd on The Mountain must be reduced by forty percent, resulting in a harvest of 236 and in reduction of the doe/buck ratio to 3:1. She stated that from 1700-1900, excessive deer hunting almost decimated the white-tailed population in this area, but we certainly see a gracious plenty of them on The Mountain now.

Designations like “Biological K” define the number of deer an area can sustain before disease and starvation affect the deer population; while “Social K” defines how much nuisance we humans on The Mountain can tolerate before a deer cull is called for. Lytle cited destruction to gardens and landscaping (such as our small flower beds), the incidence of Lyme disease from deer ticks, and “loss of biodiversity due to excessive understory vegetation” (the small woods fronting our property) as nuisances that call for culling.

The deer population at Sewanee seems to be approaching “Biological K” and has passed the “Social K” boundaries. So the hunt is on! The archers have sharpened their arrows and begun deer culling. Already, I see less and less does and more fawns nibbling the understory in the woods and trimming my lawn.

A few days ago, as I watched a fawn lying in the woods, I felt compelled to write a few lines of poetry, and the following day I wrote another poem when a fawn moved her grazing ground closer and closer to the front porch, only a few feet away from my chair. Here are the poems:

I. THE FAWN
appears every evening, claiming her place
in a network of fern and ivy
while her mother crashes in the brush nearby;
and from the porch, we view her return
as sentiment for the thick ticking of green,
and, too, for us because we watch for her,
her round eyes aroused
when we click our tongues,
trying to woo her closer.

She is some kind of faith
in the softness of the world, resumed,
brooding in the coolness before first dark,
her heart revealed in eyes beckoning,
in the warm dust of her skin
we long to touch.

We hold her eyes until she disappears,
leaving a cup in the green spot
as her mother approaches
with her fear of death
and whisks her away,
leaving us with the whisper of leaves,
and a fragile grace filling moments behind.

II. THE FAWN
She comes closer today,
the spotted fawn shyly eating,
nibbling at the last light of day.

She looks up at me,
inching slowly toward kissing noises,
the cautious welcome she once ignored.

Nearby, the men with taut bows are culling,
perhaps her mother’s heart cruelly pierced,
vanished at the dinner hour.

And so she seeks new warmth,
her dark mouth downturned, stealing my grass,
passing into another kingdom.

She reaches the porch,
regards me with eyes of promise,
both of us encouraged, wondering

if she will reach my fanned-out hands,
breathe her sadness into them,
an abandoned, yet welcomed creature

stepping through the scattered leaves,
pausing but not looking back
to the place where her mother has fallen,

already knowing
we cannot keep each other.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A LISTENING LIFE

While I sojourned in northeast Georgia last week-end, I spent an evening reading A Listening Life by Tracy Balzer, one of the latest books published by Pinyon Publishing in Montrose, Colorado. This practical guide to deepening the spiritual life reminds me of Evelyn Underhill’s books about becoming an everyday mystic by practicing “the art of union with Reality.” Through accounts about personal experiences and forays into monasteries, discoveries in art, nature, and poetry, periods of listening and meditating, Tracy Balzer presents a convincing case for those in contemporary society who want to find God and a more peaceful life. She advocates that spiritual seekers should develop an attentiveness to sacred and wonder-filled experiences and should pursue the practice of listening as a holy calling.
“Wonder-filled experiences alert us to transcendence, reminding us that God works co-creatively within us,” Balzer tells us in a chapter entitled “Wonder,” in which she explains the terms “general revelations” as anything in the created universe that reveals God’s truth to us,” and “special revelations” as “revelations that refer to Holy Scripture.” She explores general revelations with examples of natural wonders such as humpback whales singing to each other, the sight of goldfinches, visits to the Cascade Mountains, citing Psalm 8 as an articulation of the notion of wonder: “When I consider your heavens,/ the work of your fingers,/the moon and the stars,/which you have set in place,/what is man that you are mindful of him,/the son of man that you care for him?”

In a chapter on “Illumination,” Balzer gives an example regarding this concept of revealing a grand mystery in an unusual anecdote about her daughter, Kelsey, who at eight had accompanied Balzer to visit her great-grandparents in an Oklahoma nursing home. Missing her daughter, Balzer finds Kelsey engaged with an elderly woman in a wheelchair, looking intently into the woman’s eyes. As Balzer watches, she experiences the impression that Kelsey’s face is actually glowing as she talks to the woman–“ it appeared that she was wearing the face of Jesus as she tenderly loved this woman, a stranger…this was a simple experience of illumination, an illustration of the ways God reaches us through otherwise ordinary events…” Balzer also uses the example of lectio divina as a way of receiving illumination, citing Jan Johnson's use of the word “shimmer” when talking about the way Scripture catches our attention and opens our eyes and ears to Bible passages.

I particularly liked the chapter on “Possessions,” since I have been reading two biographies lately that feature outstanding figures in American history who have disregarded the ideas of “ownership” in favor of following their vocations at all costs–one is the biography of the scientist George Washington Carver, the man who discovered the various uses of the peanut; the other is a biography about the poet Robert Francis who lived in near-poverty while pursuing his career as a poet. I was interested in the example Balzer employed to illustrate the idea that we should shed many of our possessions. She described a grassroots movement initiated by blogger Dave Bruno who diminished his personal possessions to one hundred items and formed something called “The 100 Thing Challenge,” a movement in which people limit their material possessions so they can free up physical, mental, and spiritual space and are empowered to live more joyful and thoughtful lives.

The chapter on “Humility” and Balzer’s experience as a scholar-in-residence at St. Benedict’s monastery in St. Joseph, Minnesota arrested my attention as I worship at a convent where the Sisters follow the Benedictine Rule. During Balzer’s time at St. Benedict’s monastery she experienced the love and inclusiveness of Benedictine hospitality when the Sisters welcomed her and others “as Christ” and learned about the kind of humility essential to a “listening life.” Balzer quotes Thomas Kelly to illustrate the concept of humility as “the disclosure of the consummate wonder of God.”

In A Listening Life, Balzer achieves a spiritual message which Evelyn Underhill advocates in her famous Practical Mysticism: “the change of attention, which enables you to perceive a truer universe; the deliberate rearrangement of your ideas, energies, and desires in harmony with that which you have seen–that a progressive uniformity of life and experience is secured to you, and you are defended against the dangers of an indolent and useless mysticality…”

Tracy Balzer’s special charism is her teaching about spiritual formation: that we must become listeners–by paying attention, looking for spiritual illuminations, developing persistence and an authentic sacramental life, dispossessing ourselves of too many worldly goods, and developing compassion and humility–so that with “open hearts, minds, eyes, and ears, we can continue to seek the Truth, knowing it will be given to us. And it will set us free.”

You can order A Listening Life by Tracy Balzer online from pinyonpublishing.com.

Monday, September 26, 2011

A DIALOGUE OF APPLE POEMS

With the advent of leaves turning gold and orange and the first hints of fall temperatures this past week-end, I felt a pull toward apple country where growers harvest the fall apples grown in the hills and valleys near Ellijay, Georgia. This town is known as the Apple Capitol, a place where apples actually “birthed” the agri-tourism business in northeast Georgia. When we started our Saturday tour of the orchards, the roads became congested with tourists seeking their share of 600,000 bushels of apples harvested near Ellijay.

Although October 8-9 and October 15-16 are the official dates for the Georgia Apple Festival at the Ellijay Lions Club Fairgrounds, the orchards bustled with apple tasters and pickers this past week-end. September harvests bring in September Wonders, Red and Golden Delicious apples, Rome Beauties and Mutsus, a few of twenty-five varieties that have already been picked and bagged. We sampled apples at R&A Orchards owned by Andy and Jennifer Futch and their four children, a family that carries on the apple-growing tradition begun by Leonard and Della Payne who planted their first trees in Gilmer County. This orchard has sixty acres of apple trees and approximately ten acres of peaches and nectarines, which will be harvested in June.

As my oldest daughter, Stephanie, lately follows a strict diet but can have an apple a day, I asked the orchard store clerk to ship twenty Gala apples to Stephanie's home in New Iberia, Louisiana. The young woman who prepared the shipping label asked me if I wanted to put a message on the package, and I told her to just say that I was sending something to encourage Stephanie's healthy loss of twenty more pounds and to sign it ‘Mama.’” I turned to leave, then added, “Put ‘Love, Mama’ on the card.” The young woman smiled at me . “I was going to write that anyway,” she said. “You must like your mother,” I replied. “Oh, I love my mother,” she said. “There are three of us children, and none of us live farther than five miles away from her.” Her sentiments made me lonesome for my own daughters, Stephanie and Elizabeth, who live in Louisiana and California, respectively.The young woman’s comments about her family depict the typical attitude of tightly-knit families who live in apple country, and their friendliness adds to the area’s charm.

The town of Ellijay derives its name from an Indian word meaning “earth green there,” a name befitting the forests in the Springer Mountain area of the Appalachian Trail. Cherokee Indians lived in the Ellijay area until they were removed in 1838 and sent to Oklahoma via the Trail of Tears. The town boasts Oscar Poole’s Pig Hill of Fame which displays 3,000 blue, white, and yellow plywood pigs on a hillside near Poole’s Bar-BQ restaurant.

The sight of the apple in all its forms – the apple itself, apple jelly, apple pie, apple butter, and apple cider -- brought up the memory of an apple poem written by poet Robert Francis whom I heard read in Amherst, Massachusetts back in the 80’s. Francis entitled the poem “Remind Me of Apples,” the last stanza of which reads:

“In the long haze of dog days, or by night,
When thunder growls and prowls but will not go
Or come, I lose the memory of apples.
Name me the names, the goldens, russets, sweets,
Pippin and blue pearmain and seek no further
And the lost apples on forgotten farms
And the wild pasture apples of no name…” Robert Francis

This memory caused another poem to surface – a poem I wrote after I heard Francis read about his apples.  It appeared in my chapbook, Afternoons in Oaxaca, and is entitled “Robert Francis Reads On His 85th (Jones Library, Amherst, Massachusetts, August 12, 1986).” The following are the last two verses of this poem:

“Robert Francis placed a finger
with far-reaching nail
against his downy chin,
a forgotten pasture of stubble,
and waited to shake the apple tree,
to cause the sudden fall of fruit.
People stood up to give him ovation,
the air rained apples,
enchanted poems,
Robert Frost came out of the night
and peeled a deep russet one.

That evening of celebration,
Francis reminded me
apples made poems,
light filtering through tree limbs,
a harmony of red fruit
rendered just ripe,
are some men’s gifts.
He reminded me
when doubting the mind’s retreat
into its own falsity,
poets are more ancient
than scars on a library stair rail,
flesh made word, word made flesh,
not metaphor and mood,
but vowels,
crisp as fine apples dropped,
broadcast to heal
disturbances of spirit.”