Saturday, June 25, 2011

A GARDENER ON ‘THE MOUNTAIN”—CLAUDIA PORTER

If you travel south on a shady highway toward Sherwood, Tennessee, passing St. Mary’s Convent of Sewanee along the way, and turn right into Carriage Lane, you’re likely to see Claudia Porter wielding a hoe in either her vegetable garden or backyard flower garden. She’s tending her crops after the example of her father, who was a cotton farmer, and her grandmother “who spent a lifetime 'in the yard' as they say in Clarksdale, Mississippi,” Claudia explained.

Claudia says that because of her father who farmed cotton, corn, soybeans, and peanuts on 2,000 acres in the rich Delta of Mississippi, she has “dirt in her blood,”... along with a green thumb inherited from her grandmother. That thumb cultivates potatoes, squash, butter beans, purple hull peas, blueberries, green peas, sugar snap peas, asparagus, kale, as well as a small herb garden on 2 ½ acres the Porters own. Joe, a retired Episcopal priest, usually helps Claudia “put in” the garden but she’s its major caretaker.

Claudia likes the look of English cottage gardens and says most of her plants have been “pass-alongs.” She has a plethora of daylilies, knock-out roses, and perennials. Recently, she planted wisteria on a pergola of the patio, where she and Joe can sit and breathe in a scent that replaces gardenia plants they cultivated in their Memphis garden. Visitors are invited to sit in the living room where French doors open onto a glassed-in porch overlooking the flower garden and watch goldfinches dart to and away from the bird feeder by the back door.

“My grandmother tended plants, dressed in her house dress and bedroom slippers, and spent most of her life gardening and raising five children,” Claudia said. “We always had a garden, but I didn’t really have one of my own until Joe and I married. Despite the fact that I’ve always gardened, I was frustrated with the small space I had for a garden until we moved here and I was able to have this large garden, which is labor intensive I might add.” Both the Porters miss the heavenly scent of gardenia plants they cultivated in Memphis, Tennessee where Joe last served as a minister at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.

Claudia recently made a presentation about gardening opportunities in the St. Mary Conference Center area at the Associates of St. Mary Convent's Annual Retreat, emphasizing that the St. Mary’s Conference Center Prayer Garden needs weeders for plots of lettuce, peppers, tomatoes, and flowers. The Prayer Garden is supervised by Michael Thompson, an oblate of the Roman Catholic Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia, who came to St. Mary’s Conference Center, Sewanee primarily to develop a prayer garden. The garden, a fenced in property, is used as meditative space but also functions as a vegetable garden. Produce grown there has been donated to outreach programs, such as the Community Action Center sponsored by Otey Episcopal Church.

“Michael’s vision is for a large-scale garden, including berry plants, fruit trees; he's even considering small-scale farming,” Claudia said. She frequents the St. Mary's garden often but insists that she’s just a worker bee. Once a month, Claudia puts on her St. Flacre (or Fiacre) T-shirt (patron saint of gardening) and carries out additional worker bee activity at Otey Episcopal Church. She’s also a member of the Sewanee Garden Club and attends all workshops about gardening in Tennessee available to her.

A person of unique humility, Claudia nourishes her spiritual life with gardening and with her work as a companion of Rivendell Community, in Dunnegan, Missouri, a prayer and hospitality group of which she became a member while living in Memphis. It’s an official spiritual community in the Episcopal Church led by a group of women priests who embrace the Benedictine Way of Life. Claudia attends the organization's get-togethers annually, and on Saturday nights, she joins a group of seekers of the spiritual life at St. Joseph’s, St. Mary’s Conference Center, Sewanee, who're interested in the Benedictine Way, sharing Evensong, a meal, a discussion on the Benedictine Way (led by Michael Thompson), Lectio Divina, and Compline.

The walls of the Porter home are decorated with icons and religious pictures. Books by Esther de Waal and volumes about gardening lie on small tables in the living room. Claudia claims their home has the ambience of a retired priest because most of the paintings and icons were donated by former parishioners, but it’s a home that visitors feel is a sacred space. It's also a place of conviviality—the Porters like to entertain and have fun...and, of course, to show off (and share) their garden produce.

“Gardening for me is a spiritual thing,” Claudia says. “It’s fulfilling and comforting. As part of the Rivendell Rule, I consider my gardening as silent prayer—a way of connecting with God.”
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