Monday, April 30, 2012


I thought Louisiana was the land of festivals, but middle Tennessee rivals the bayou state in celebrations that feature food and music. Yesterday, our good friend Sarah Boykin, an architect who teaches at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga, called just before lunch to invite us to a fundraising event for the Belvidere Fire Department in Belvidere, Tennessee, about a half-hour drive from Sewanee, Tennessee.

Belvidere is in Franklin County and boasts a population of 2,000 people, a large percentage of which are engaged in horse and cattle raising and growing of row crops. We’ve been in the Belvidere area several times, foraging for chocolate chip cookies at a wonderful Swiss Bakery just down the road from this unincorporated town and have always admired the neat farms scattered throughout the rolling hills alongside Highway 64, many of which belong to Mennonites.

Also in the Belvidere area is a Tennessee Historical Site, not quite a mile west of Walnut Grove Road that marks the spot of the homestead, “Kentuck,” which David Crockett occupied and named in 1812. It’s marked near a well in a field and is the spot where Crockett built his home. Crockett went from Kentuck to the Creek War to defend the area against Creek Indians who had mounted an offense at Fort Mimms. He also fought in battles at Talladega, Fort Strother, and the Florida Expedition and in conflicts with the British. His wife died shortly after his return from war, and he remarried Elizabeth Patton, moving his family to nearby Lawrence County, Tennessee, but Belvidere lays claim to the famous Tennessee hero who died at the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas.

After arriving in Belvidere, we joined a long line of hungry people in front of the old Belvidere School built in the late 40’s, which is now the town’s Community Center. The scent of fried catfish drifted in the warm April air from this huge un-air-conditioned building on a small mound.

Almost an hour later, we gained entry to the food tables, but along the way we met a musician who organizes bands for another Belvidere fundraiser called “Songs for Paws,” a country and bluegrass music show that benefits Animal Harbor Animal Shelter. The musician, who wore rainbow-hued reflecting glasses and a large cowboy hat, explained that his mission in life had become that of capturing feral cats and taking them to vets to be sterilized so that they could live out their nine lives without fear of being “put away.” The “Songs for Paws” event will take place next Saturday at the Belvidere Community Center — the two events scheduled in successive weeks impressed us that Tennesseans in this little town turn out to support community fundraising events. Of course, the events usually feature rich food and music, shades of Cajun Country with its gumbo cook-offs and pepper eating contests accompanied by zydeco music.

When we finally entered the building, we heaped our plates with fried catfish, smoked chicken, hushpuppies, slaw, and fries, stopping before a dessert table of cakes, pies, and fudge. The tickets we had bought entitled us to all the food we could eat if we weren’t concerned about weight or cholesterol. We sat in the heated room for as long as we could stand to be in a hall where no fans stirred the listless air, listening to several bluegrass bands. One band, directed by a country preacher, featured a young woman dressed in black who played the fiddle and sang Gospel in a sweet country voice that mesmerized the crowd. The band and singer had names but no one could hear announcements in the large room that appears to have once been a gymnasium and which had poor acoustics. When the next lively group of musicians performed “Jambalaya,” I felt like I was back home on the bayou listening to “chanky chank,” eating boudin, and passing a good time!

Last year, the Belvidere event brought in 1,000 people, and at $11 a head, I’d say that this catfish and bluegrass festival in a small unincorporated town in Davy Crockett country turned a great profit for a good cause — fliers on the table informed us that if the fire department was unsupported, insurance rates of homeowners would increase considerably.

Our friend Sarah mentioned that the National Cornbread Festival in South Pittsburg, Tennessee was scheduled down in the valley the following day, but we decided against heavy feasting for two successive days, even though we know that chefs from throughout the country compete in this highly touted event. As I said earlier, middle Tennessee rivals south Louisiana with its food and fun festivals, but we have to “save room” for an upcoming visit to Nashville. 

Saturday, April 28, 2012


During the 90’s, when I visited my godfather Markham Peacock in Blacksburg, Virginia, he and his friend, Preston Fraser, took us on Sunday jaunts to lunch at the Greenbrier Hotel near the town of White Sulphur Springs in Greenbrier County, West Virginia. This magnificent five-star hotel is located in a valley of the Allegheny Mountains close to the Greenbrier State Forest, an area with rocky ridges and streams, forested with many pines and hemlocks and bisected by Kate Mountain. We did not visit the State Forest of over 5,100 acres, but passed through some of the most beautiful areas in West Virginia, stopping along the way so that Markham and Preston could watch trains cross a trestle nearby. Both men were in their eighties, but watched and listened to the trains with small-boy fascination. When I saw the title, Greenbrier Forest by Dabney Stuart on Pinyon Publishing’s list of recent poetry publications, I was overcome with nostalgia as Markham Peacock was a tall figure in my life, and he loved to make that Sunday drive to Greenbrier County for many years, always scheduling the White Sulphur Springs trip when I went up from Louisiana to Virginia for my annual visit.

I ordered Greenbrier Forest, asking that it be sent by overnight mail, and it arrived yesterday. It’s a lovely book with an attractive green-hued cover displaying Dabney Stuart’s photograph of “Hart’s Run” within the Greenbrier State Forest and complemented by a back cover design of tree leaves scattering in the wind, executed by Susan Elliott who designs all of Pinyon Publishing’s arresting covers.

Dabney Stuart and his wife spend a week in the Greenbrier State Park twice a year, and Dabney has been writing and revising the poems for Greenbrier Forest in that peaceful environment for fifteen years. The poems are untitled and uncategorized “contemplations” that immediately struck me with their similarity to Oriental poetry. I thought about the work of the great Sufi poet, Rumi, whose creativity came from a “mind within a mind,” the inner vision of the world revealing itself to a sharp intellectual perception. An example of that similarity between Dabney and Rumi is a poem on p.7 of Greenbrier Forest: “Fog pockets in the hemlocks./To absorb well what you are/in the midst of leaving,/precious for not being desired./They dry, lift./The needles sharpen.”

I have a very old hemlock in my front yard here at Sewanee, Tennessee, and as I read the poem, I could see the aged tree topped by fog, its needles drying and sharpening as the fog lifted and passed on — and, at a deeper mystical level, I envisioned an aging person accepting who he is in the world without desiring to stay in the place he presently occupies.

Oriental poets claim that poetry is the fruit of spiritual vision, and this is a meet description of the poetry in Dabney’s book – it moves like a transformation of the soul, as Dabney notes, “Words are the spirit’s rove and nestle,/its till. Waking into them roils and tosses,/the solace of rift and abrasion, spark,/our letting go./Into. Through. Little cheers/the spirit leases as it moves,/no matter where.”

Dabney skillfully conveys his response to the forest without detailed, concrete descriptions of trees, birds, streams — writing that “as the morning gathers/names fade toward their sources,/fluent eventual, birds/becoming the sky they filter through,/the soft beat of wings left on the air/a web, a voice.”

I was particularly drawn to the succinct ending of a poem that resonates with a tongue-in-cheek, philosophical metaphor: “Dismay, the little chisel,/and its small-minded acolyte,/bewilderment, chipping,/chipping. A beat/ to tune by, an inclination.”

Coleman Barks has said of Rumi’s poems, “they are not so much about anything as spoken from within something. Call it enlightenment, ecstatic love, spirit, soul, truth, the ocean of ilm (divine luminous wisdom)…names do not matter…” I pondered those words as I read Dabney’s poetry — poems in which the inner eye becomes the tool of perception, as he pays homage to the Spirit with language from the place of “speaking within something.”

Greenbrier Forest can be ordered at and by mail at Pinyon Publishing, 23847 V66 Trail, Montrose, CO 81403.

Thursday, April 26, 2012


Many people who’re classified as “hobbyists” are authentic artists and artisans who care more about their art or craft than they do about high-powered marketing. Marilyn (“Toni”) Blackwell is one of those gifted artists. While in Florida last week, I visited with her several times and toured what she calls her “comfort zone” in Babson Park, Florida. Toni was featured on one of my blogs a few years ago, but after touring her home the other day, I decided that her skills weren’t confined to decorating the note cards, glassware, vases, candles, and terra cotta pots that I had written about -- she even has a penchant for organizing personal objects, like jewelry, clothing, and scarves, in an artistic way.

Some of the photographs here show how she uses her organizational talents to arrange closets, shelves, and racks that reflect her appreciation for beautiful objects.

Toni also uses her decorative art skills by dressing in unique clothing and wearing bright jewelry that she has inherited, collected, or designed. She creates many of her earrings and bracelets, sometimes decorating dress sandals, and wears all of them with more flair than less artistic people would exhibit.

Toni is a native “Yankee” from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and a transplanted Floridian who graduated from Webber International University in Babson Park and worked as an administrative assistant to executives at Florida Power Corporation (now Progress Energy) for thirty five years before retiring in 2002.

After taking an art course that taught her “one stroke painting,” Toni began working on terra cotta pottery; however, she now uses her technique on most any blank surfaces she finds while scouring for objects at flea markets and crafts stores – glasses, pitchers, trays...she even eyes blank walls that might be made brighter with murals and has painted several in Florida homes. Her primary subjects are flowers and plants, which she paints using acrylics, but she has become interested in a technique similar to watercolor technique that utilizes acrylics on larger canvasses than her glassware and pottery.

We enjoyed the tour that shows Toni’s decorative talents and brought home a pitcher to add to our collection of a flower pot, a breakfast tray, and a Florida palm painted on a wood surface that we have in our Sewanee home. We’ve used the breakfast tray to transfer food from the kitchen down to the dining area for several years, and the colors haven’t diminished from cleaning. The vivid red, yellow, and purple flowers are a better wake-up call than a cup of Louisiana coffee!

This blog’s photographs are included because they may be helpful as a “how-to” visual for people who have trouble making the most of space in their closets and on shelves. One of the closets occupies the space that was a former bedroom, but I didn’t photograph the closet, so readers can’t see how many changes of clothing Toni owns!

Toni attributes her love of beautiful things and her sense of color to her paternal grandmother, “Gacky” Thomas, who nurtured Toni’s (her first grandchild) interest in aesthetics, flamboyant clothing and jewelry.

Monday, April 16, 2012


One of the most powerful ceremonies we Anglicans still observe, even though Luther called it an act of “ostentatious humility,” is that of footwashing on Maundy Thursday. Thursday before Easter I was privileged to preach and serve as deacon in this ceremony at St. Mary’s Convent, Sewanee. The subject of my sermon wasn’t so much about ceremonial acts as it was about authentic humility and how Christ often used women as exemplars of a servanthood that was marked by unusual grace.

The footwashing service caused me to ponder the subject of servant leadership, not just because it interests me from a deacon’s point of view, but because I’ve been exposed to so many leadership styles in my various careers, and during the past few years have sat on the sidelines watching some leaders who think that the archaic style of bullying leadership, otherwise known as authoritarianism, is the way to handle businesses, churches, social groups...

Authentic leadership is a rich subject, and the more I pondered it, the more I was drawn to my bookshelves for my copy of Servanthood by Bennett J. Sims published in 1997, a book as timely today as it was in the 20th century. The book is usually prescribed reading for a deacon, but it’s as challenging to people who pursue power and privilege as it is to church deacons. Sims, a bishop in the Episcopal Church, established The Institute for Servant Leadership in Hendersonville, North Carolina, which is not too far down the road from me. His book should be an indispensable guide not only for church leaders but for those who’re CEO’s of businesses and industries.

The idea Sims sets forth in Servanthood that particularly resonates with me, when I see bully leaders in action, is the one related to perfectionism which he describes as “nervously adolescent, driven by fear of failure, dominated by the competitive pride that would rather save oneself than accept amazing grace…knowing deep down that our perfectionism fails, and we hide from our own flaws behind the failures of others, habitually confessing other people’s sins…” To me, that sums up the idea of bad leadership, a leadership that Sims claims makes battlefields of families and organizations. He further says that only persons bring grace to institutions, and I assume if you aren’t a grace-filled person, you don’t belong in a leadership position.

Of course, my thoughts on the subject correspond with one of my mentors, C.S. Lewis—poor leadership coincides with two of the seven deadly sins—pride and accedie (sloth), which dominate the top of the totem pole of so-called sin—not hot button issues like sexuality, which titillate members of contemporary culture. Sims quotes some cogent passages from Scripture, telling about how the arrogant and judgemental  Pharisees and Saducees constantly badgered Christ with questions about his authority and knowing he had none, tried to discredit him on the basis of his lack of professional standing. “Even his family found him an embarrassment, urging him to get hold of himself and come home with them,” Sims writes.

Sims provides a short list of principles that define servant leadership but basically he purports that human enhancement, rather than human employment, is the primary aim of organizations led by servant leaders—delivering a product or service is secondary to “collaboration.” There’s the key word –collaboration—servant leaders are driven by the idea of collaborative relationships rather than competitive achievements.

Summarily, Sims says that the principles of servant leadership are: making room for others, truthfulness, empowerment of others, the exchange of power rather than control, a belief in grace and forgiveness. If you’re out there in the world practicing authoritarian leadership and alienating those who are under your “hierarchal control,” beware, because not only your leadership but your organization is at peril.

In my copy of Servanthood, I've highlighted a paragraph to which I return many times: “The biggest hindrance to the high quality of leadership that honors the gifts and freedom of others is the fear of being found out for who we really are: people who are conspicuously imperfect. Every follower sees blameworthiness in every leader. And when leaders can see it too—see it even better than their followers—and own it from the mercy by which they are secured, then everything changes. The family, the business, the parish church become arenas of openness, honesty, caring, and collaboration. They are marked by grace and truth...”

—Taken from Servanthood: Leadership for the Third Millennium—by Bennett J. Sims—.

Sunday, April 15, 2012


Most grandparents are inordinately proud of their grandchildren, and I’m no exception. A few days ago when I posted a blog about Margaret Simon’s exceptional new YA book, Blessen, I felt a twinge of pride because my grandson, Martin Romero, designed the cover for Border Press, the independent press that publishes some of my books.

Martin has a degree in Landscape Architecture from Louisiana State University School of Design in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and has always had a penchant for art and design, beginning at the age of nine when he drew a perfect picture of his shoe while riding in a van to California with his Godmother Vickie and me. Later, he scheduled art classes at the Episcopal School of Acadiana, but decided against enrolling in Art at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas because he knew he had to earn a living! He pleased all of his family by completing the five-year curriculum in Landscape Design at LSU, sans debt, as he had a scholarship and worked eight-hour shifts, at times, in the evenings and nights while he attended college.

While at LSU, Martin illustrated a story I had written for him about a red, double-decker British bus marooned in a field near Opelousas, Louisiana.  The book was entitled The Cajun Express, and following graduation, he began designing book covers for Border Press in his leisure time, after working all day as a landscape architect in Madisonville, Louisiana. His efforts, from the beginning, have shown his eye for color and design, and the back covers of the books he designs are as interesting as the front ones, including small details rendered from front cover motifs.

Martin’s biggest job right now is as father of a little dynamo, one-year old Alexander Charles, whose greatest accomplishment is that of throwing his arms into the air to signify a touchdown for LSU, a video of which is on Facebook. Martin’s wife, Kristin, who has a job in advertising, also does consummate design work, so the family has a penchant for artistic renderings.

Here are a few of the book covers Martin has executed during the past ten years. Vickie Sullivan usually suggests components to be included in the design, and many of them are copies of wonderful paintings done by my brother, Paul, so the operation is a “family operation.” I just thought it was time to recognize those who do the “faces” of my books, as well as other titles in the Border Press collection. Merci and another c'est magnifique for Border Press’s eye-catching covers!

All of Martin's covers can be seen at the Border Press website. Border Press offers fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoirs, essays, young adult and children's books. 

Friday, April 13, 2012


Back in the 90’s when I coordinated a Women’s Writing Group called “Reflections” at the Episcopal Church of Epiphany in New Iberia, Louisiana, one of the class members, Margaret Simon, was at that time a schoolteacher at Epiphany Day School. Later, I published a compilation of the women’s writing entitled Meditations of My Heart, and Margaret’s meditations constituted a large part of the book. It was evident to me that Margaret was a writer—her meditations reflected deep feeling and were skillfully executed. Later, she joined other writing groups and began to teach creative writing to young people at several schools in Acadiana. She also published poetry in the journal The Aurorean and authored a chapter about teaching poetry to young children for Women on Poetry. When I went home to New Iberia this winter, Margaret shared the manuscript of a young adult book she had written entitled Blessen. I read the book straightaway and “straight through,” and knew after reading a few pages that Margaret had written a “winner,” a book that could be a candidate for the Newbery Award for Children’s Literature.

Blessen, published by Border Press, has the authentic voice of a young heroine named Blessen LaFleur who struggles with not-so-ordinary growing up crises in a small town of southwestern Louisiana: the death of a pet chicken, Blue, that is killed by a hawk, the accidental burning of Blessen’s grandfather’s porch when she tries to cremate Blue, the death of her beloved grandfather, and the startling discovery that her father is an alcoholic who deserted her and her mother because of his addiction. Margaret handles narrations about life teachings throughout Blessen without being didactic, especially the topics of faith and forgiveness.

This is a coming-of-age story set in bayou country, a locale that is deftly and tautly described; e.g., “The night sounds are scary and loud; cicadas, mourning doves, and frogs fill the air with a sad song…” and arresting metaphors such as “the sun rises like a dagger to the dawn…” Birds, flowers, and insects are also tautly drawn; e.g., the latter description: “The cicada buzz rises from the trees. It starts as a soft buzzing, then builds with more vibration, like a motor, then dies out, and begins again…”

Simon employs vivid concrete detail in the description of her characters: “Miss Ella Mae wears an American flag that flows in and out of her lumpy middle across her white T-shirt. The Fourth of July is a few weeks away, but Miss Ella is ready. Her black wig is in a hip style with red hairpieces sprouting like fireworks from the top of her head. She looks like the Fourth of July herself…” Young adults will love that passage!

The dialogue is plain, down-home conversation and moves the action through alternating passages of wit and wisdom, as Margaret weaves a tale about a heroine working out her life, “because she was saved for a reason” in this unique Cajun culture.

Although Blessen is a young adult novel of place, it will delight young people everywhere. A Mississippi native, Margaret seems to have “tasted bayou water” and become a transformed south Louisianan who loves the culture and its colorful characters.

This YA novel is complete with study questions for young people. Margaret has been an elementary school teacher for over twenty years and now teaches gifted students in Iberia Parish. She has a Masters degree in Gifted Education and certification by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

I expect to see this debut novel reviewed in the distinguished journal of children’s literature, The Horn Book, any day now! Brava, Margaret!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012


Spring is the time for poets, and a plethora of poetry books have come my way lately, one of which is Pinyon Publishing’s latest poetry title. The handsome cover of this book of poetry, In A Kingdom of Birds by Ken Fontenot, is alluring enough (a copy of John James Audubon’s painting of blue jays), but the poems inside the book further move the serious reader of poetry to treasure this volume.

Naomi Nye (one of my favorite poets) says that Ken Fontenot’s wisdom “sears,” and I’d transpose that to read: “it soars,” particularly his observations about the kingdom of birds: owls, sparrows, grackles, doves...

Fontenot’s poems about his relatives – nephew, mother, father, grandfather –are equally arresting. The latter character is featured in haunting poems about an old man whose drunkenness and incarceration seem to be as painful to his grandson, the poet, as his ruthless killing of an unwanted pup with a hammer.

Fontenot’s poems based on Louisiana experiences are seductive to me, a native Louisianan; e.g., “A Fan That Reminds Me of A Morning Long Ago,” in which Fontenot speaks of a Louisiana hunt with his grandfather “somewhere out there beyond/the crawfish mounds, beyond the cows/bowing to their god, beyond the cow pond/and its menagerie, beyond the fields/they have let go…” The oscillating fan in this poem also resonates with me because I still remember the sound of Grandmother Nell’s old Emerson fan from childhood naptime, still “whispering,” as Fontenot says about the sound of this dust stirrer.

Many of Fontenot’s poems are rooted in irony. In “Poets and Blackberries,” he grounds the poem in ordinary problems like being indigent, then moves into hope as “we eat a fresh blackberry,/suddenly blackberries are gods./In our poems we praise blackberries,/saying there was never anything their equal./Our town becomes Blackberry Town./Our world becomes Blackberry World,..” and returns to the problem: “The mail arrives./ A bill we can’t pay./And it’s as if blackberries didn’t exist.”

An entire poem devoted to “Trouble” invites the reader to consider the tragedy of the human condition in these lines: “The heart wants out!/Three million years now/and it wants to belong/to some other kind of body…” And yet – yet : “The birds rescue my faith in them by taking the only/road they know, the air. And because they keep /falling, almost unnoticed, out of the gray sky,/we know another miracle has put birds in our/dreams, and has let us fly when we most want to.” This exquisite poem lives up to the feeling the book’s title engenders in poetry readers and evokes a sense of the transcendent goodness that still survives in the universe.

Fontenot’s lyrics speak to the philosophical mind; they are sometimes brittle but are filled with energy and never sentimental. In natural and imaginative imagery, Fontenot brings us to the edge and leads us back.

This is another outstanding poet on Pinyon-Publishing’s list and can be ordered from Pinyon-Publishing, 23847 V 66 Trail, Montrose, CO 81403.


On Sunday, my friend Isabel Anders, gave me a copy of her latest book, one of over twenty inspirational books she has written during her career as a spiritual writer. Spinning Straw, Weaving Gold, A Tapestry of Mother-Daughter Wisdom contains poetic conversations between mother and daughter about female spirituality that is connected to the physical and material, such as the actual weaving of cloth. The conversation is a metaphor for the spinning and weaving women do to create their tapestries of wisdom to be passed on to future generations of females.

This small book of 43 pages includes quotations from many wisdom writers and poets, including Sally Fox’s book of days, The Medieval Woman, and Anders uses the medieval practice of spinning to illustrate the concept that the spinning/weaving process is based in the “good material feel of work in the world that can lead to creative consequences…the slower process through which she gains experience, sifts and filters it through her natural stages of development.”

Anders invites reader to consider how spinning that which comes to women in the good and bad circumstances of their lives enables them to weave straw into gold, especially when the weaving and spinning are operations of love.

Spinning Straw, Weaving Gold is the second in a collection of that which Anders calls “uncommon mother-daughter dialogues” that call attention to the small scenarios of women who struggle and become successful in the weaving of their various tapestries.

I particularly liked the section entitled “Wisdom of the Unseen;” e.g., when the daughter asks, “Mother, what is our trade and how may we describe the work of our life?” and receives the reply: “St. John of the Cross wrote, ‘My occupation is Love. It’s all I do. We can do no better.’” And another dialogue: “'How does the Spirit come to us since we cannot see the ‘wind’ of its presence? How can we know we’re being led and shown the way?’ the daughter asks. The mother answers: ‘The great da Vinci has said, ‘When the Spirit does not work with the hand, there is no art.’ Then the Mother points to their newest tapestry.”

This is a book of poetry and meditations derived from the world of women and grounded in spiritual wisdom. After reading it, I know that each time I announce the Gospel (as a deacon) in church, I’ll think of Sophia and how the Greek Orthodox deacons say that name preceding the Gospel because it means that they are reading “wisdom” to the congregants – I’d love to announce the reading that way, and I know that if I did, Anders would be among those in the congregation at St. Mary’s who would vigorously nod her head at the invocation.

One of the sage observations in Spinning Straw, Weaving Gold is the quotation from St. Catherine of Siena: “Make two homes for thyself, my daughter. One actual home…and the other a spiritual home, which thou are to carry with thee always. These are the two lives we are building as we labor, sometimes all in one motion.”

Complete with notes, Study Questions, and Bibliography, this small volume is tightly woven with wisdom in dialogues created from the pieces and scraps of Anders’ own life…and that of many writers of wisdom literature. The result is a rich tapestry of carefully-chosen colors.

Monday, April 9, 2012


Altar at St. Mary's
Beginning with Palm Sunday, I’ve been the deacon at several services at St. Mary’s Convent here on the Mountain, concluding with the Easter Vigil which began at 6 a.m. yesterday. To get ready for the Easter Sunday service, I had to arise at 4 a.m. and was a little sluggish in my greeting of “He is risen,” when I addressed Sister Julian before the sunrise Vigil and began preparing for a two and one-half hour service.

Prior to Easter Sunday, I served and preached at the Maundy Thursday foot washing service, and several people asked me for copies of the homily I delivered at that time. Over the past five years of blogging, I have very infrequently published homilies because I really believe that sermons or homilies are best heard than read. One thing I did say and that bears repeating: “real perfection lies in the readiness to own one’s own imperfection as mentors of yours and mine did – and to love with the kind of humility expressed in foot washing – a love as radical as Christ’s own.”

However, rather than the homily, I’m publishing a meditation I once wrote about St. Mary’s Convent and a photo of the interior of the chapel and one of the angel in the garden beside the chapel:

CHAPEL AT THE MOTHER HOUSE OF THE ANGLICAN SISTERS OF ST. MARY, SEWANEE, TENNESSEE. Community founded in 1865. Stone Construction. Architect: Robert Seals. New Chapel consecrated 1988.

They teach us about living in stillness and fullness with the “One Who Is” in a community guided by St. Benedict’s Rule. The Sisters, dressed in their unadorned white blouses and blue jumpers, awaken to a gray world of mist, chanting the words of Benedict: “Let nothing be preferred to the Word of God.” At 7 a.m., a bell that has been transported from the original Mother House and placed in the tower of the stone chapel, calls them to Morning Prayer and the Eucharist, one of four offices they celebrate each day.

Angel swinging on convent grounds
The white-walled chapel is the cathedral of our faith where we feast at The Table with this group of chosen women. Three cats and three dogs lurk in the shadows, waiting for one of His crumbs to drop from The Table. Through the clear glass window behind the altar, we see the mist rising over the rugged steep overlooking the Cumberland Valley. Outside, a black locust tree welcomes the rain now pattering on the blue tin roof. The rain drenches the garden of roses where a stone angel sways on a small swing, surveying her domain.

At the plain oak altar with a small cross carved in center front, we gather for The Eucharist. The scent of Easter lilies and candle wax from the Pascal candle persists in the chapel, along with the words of The Rev. Susanna Metz, who exhorts us to practice inclusiveness and justice. The Sisters offer the world their Prayers, Presence, and Hospitality. They are the inheritors of an order established by four Sisters, known as the Martyrs of Memphis or Constance and Her Companions, who died nursing victims of a yellow fever epidemic in Memphis, Tennessee in 1878.

Sister Mary Zita, a Filipino nun, sits with bowed head over the Book of Common Prayer, deep in praise for having been called to the convent on the bluff after the Sisters went on a mission to the Philippines where they established their order at Banga-an, Sagada in a mountain province.

“Life,” the Sisters say, “is best lived in community. The Church is the body of which Jesus Christ is the head, and our community, though small, is a microcosm of the Church. We live in dependence on God for all that is needed, using what is given with care and simplicity, as good stewards of God’s gifts. Let nothing be preferred to the Word of God.”


Marquart homestead in Lake Arthur, Louisiana
While we enjoy cool nights and mild temperatures during the day here on the Cumberland Plateau, friends in New Iberia, Louisiana, my second home, tell me they’re experiencing warmer temperatures at night in Cajun Country. One of the bad aspects of warm night temperatures in Acadiana is the effect that they have on the rice crops, which are a large part of the agricultural economy in this part of the U.S.

According to news passed on to me by friends, rice farmers are already facing low market prices, and last year they had to struggle with too much salt in fresh water used to flood their rice fields. This year, the night temperatures of 60 – 65 degrees in early April, awaken bacterial panicle blight, which infects the flowering parts of the plant and abort kernel formation. According to an article in The Teche News, when bacteria overtake the plant, it destroys the grain, and the farmer does not notice this infection until the plant reaches a height of a few inches. If the days are hot, a plant has to use more energy to produce photosynthesis, but at night it normally rests and the cooler the nights, the better the plant grows. If nights are warm, the rice plant is not able to relax, and this stress triggers the bacterial panicle blight in seed. The article concludes with the startling words: “There is no chemical on the market to kill the panicle blight.”

Rice at every meal
Now, rice is not only part of Acadiana’s agricultural economy, it’s a staple on the average south Louisianian’s table. It is said that Cajuns eat anything with rice – gumbo, gravy, rice dressing, rice pudding – the dishes are myriad and delicious. The latest joke in Cajun Country about rice, and its accompanying sauce or gravy, features, of course, Boudreaux and Thibodeaux. Boudreaux and Thibodeaux are walking through the woods one day when a flying saucer lands near them. A door opens, and two little green aliens climb down out of the spacecraft. Thibodeaux asks Boudreau, “Mais, look at dat. What you tink dat is?” Boudreaux, aiming his shotgun at the space critters, tells him, “Thibodeaux, I don’t know, but you hurry back to de camp and start making a roux and put on a pot of rice.”

Rice in Acadiana is usually rotated with pasturage for cattle every second or third year. The crop has been grown by farmers along levee lands since 1719, according to Malcolm Comeaux, writing in The Cajuns, Essays on Their History and Culture. When grown on the prairielands of south Louisiana, it was called “providence” rice as the success of the crop depended upon rain or watering by Providence. The early settlers on the prairie planted rice in coulees and ponds, and it was cut, threshed and hulled with primitive tools. During the late 19th century, rice production was revolutionized. Midwesterners turned it into a highly mechanized venture, using pumps, harvesters, threshers, and gangplows. Comeaux explains that except for the fact that the farmers at that time were growing rice, it “was literally an extension of the wheat belt into South Louisiana.”

My Great-grandfather Samuel Marquart, a farmer in Fontenelle, Iowa, brought a band of Midwesterners to south Louisiana and formed a land company with his brothers, buying the land on which the town of Lake Arthur stands. At one time, he and his brothers owned the entire town, and he made a large profit from land sales. He also had land near Lake Arthur that he thought would be good for rice production, and after my grandfather Emerson Lavergne married Leila Vincent and had three sons, Emerson and Leila left their teen-aged sons to fend for themselves while they tried to establish a rice farm. Unfortunately, The Depression caused the farm’s demise, and the failed rice venture became the legend of my grandfather’s career as a farmer. I remember him as a short, bald-headed man sitting in a cracked leather recliner in the dining room of my grandmother’s boarding house operation, reading or smoking a pipe, and rising from the chair only to shop for groceries for the boarders’ meals, or to do an occasional plumbing job. He seldom spoke to anyone except my father when we visited, and my father later spoke of him as one of the victims of a rice crop failure and The Great Depression.

One of the successes in rice history is the Conrad Rice Mill in New Iberia, Louisiana, the oldest rice mill in the U.S. Originally built in 1914, it’s an example of a factory that uses a belt-driven power transmission. P.A. Conrad founded this company in 1912, calling it the Conrad Rice Mill and Planting Company. He cut rice by hand and allowed it to sun dry on levees before placing the rice in threshers, after which the rice was put into one-hundred pound bags and taken to the mill. The business grew steadily, and Conrad began to package rice in smaller bags. Mike Davis purchased the mill in 1975 and has steadily improved the operation, as well as expanded the rice inventory. The old mill still produces fine quality rice that is marketed worldwide.

I am hoping for cooler nights in Cajun Country so that the crop that contributes to south Louisiana’s economy as well as provides an important part of Cajun meals can escape the bacterial panicle blight. Mais, Boudreaux and Thibodeaux need their pot of rice for exotic stews and gumbos!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012


Susan's "plant-mobile"
 This is the second part of a blog featuring Susan Elliott, artist and designer for Pinyon Publishing in Montrose, Colorado, who did the cover art for Chant of Death, a mystery written by me and Isabel Anders. Susan is a consummate gardener and during this season of Spring planting, Susan has been preparing the ground for a new garden. She agreed to an interview with me about her gardening on the Uncompaghre Plateau in the southern Rocky Mountains where she lives with Gary Entsminger, editor and publisher of Pinyon Publishing. Readers with real green thumbs will enjoy her comments in this second blog about the art of gardening.
Moore: Although my grandfather and my father had gardens, and my father planted a patch of mint in every place we ever lived, I have a black thumb and have had numerous failures with my “crops.” Do you have many failures?

Elliott: Yes, I have many failures! Each time we work through a “problem,” that’s one new skill we have for a better season next year: spring deer, bunnies, over-fertilizing container plants, salts, evaporation, squirrels, too much sun, too little sun, fungal diseases, carelessness, wind … It’s all a learning experience.

Moore: Does your garden attract many birds? The deer here on the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee destroyed my first season of home-grown tomatoes, and I’ve refused to replant. Do animals eat your produce?

Elliott: We have a lot of birds here (about 75 species come through each year), but none have bothered our garden. Some are helpful (like bluebirds, which eat insects). The goldfinches enjoy our sunflowers. Hummingbirds visit the tomato flowers (though I’m not sure if they’re effectively pollinating). Turkeys come through in the spring before plants are out of the ground. In the summer many birds move to higher elevations. Deer also move to higher elevations, or else they would really be hard to control. All we need for bunnies is a two and a half foot high chicken wire fence. No digging under fences around here because the ground is too hard and rocky! We share occasional tomatoes with chipmunks; they’re too hard to control (and they’re awfully cute). It’s too dry for slugs or snails, but I demolish a lot of tomato hornworms and the like (so much for being an entirely ethical vegetarian…); ying-yang.

Moore: I know that one summer Gary wrote to me about preparing sauces and other products from tomatoes. What foods or preserves do you can or bottle?

Elliott: All varieties of tomato sauces/salsas, though my favorite it just plain cooked tomatoes (like Gary’s mom used to make). Also peaches (big chunks, in a light sugar-water solution). The valley farms have GREAT roasted chilies (heavenly!!), which we freeze and can. Pickles and ketchup are favorites, too. When we make it to Virginia in the fall, Gary’s family hauls out the 30-gallon copper kettle and cooks down about 10 bushels of apples into apple butter. Gary is the king of canning. His mom canned her whole life, and Gary learned from her. Gary is very good about making sure sauces are good and boiling, and he makes sure the jars boil for extra time to kill any potential bad guys. We also bottle homebrew Imperial Pale Ales, but that’s a different story.

Moore: Do you have an herb garden?

Spring planting
Elliott: In my dream world, I have a garden/farm devoted entirely to basil (perhaps basil and lavender). If I had a son, I think I’d name him Basil. Fresh basil is intoxicating. They don’t call holy basil holy for nothing. But alas, we’re a bit too cool (especially the summer nights) for basil (or lavender) to flourish. We had one basil plant going all winter indoors this year. Instead of the prolific sweet basil varieties, we grow smaller-leaved Thai and Greek varieties. They do better when we keep them in containers next to the cabin with a window propped up next to them to insulate them at night. We treasure every sprig we harvest. I snip it and take it over to Gary for a “smell” before I add it to a dish. We savor it. And yes, we grow parsley, rosemary, chives, mint, and oregano; they all do fine. The mint overwinters each year; it loves its spot under the eaves, picking up lots of rain and snowmelt.
Moore: Gardening is known to be an activity that not only nourishes the body, in terms of exercise, and in produce received, it nurtures the soul. Would you speak to this idea?

Elliott: I find gardening extremely therapeutic. When gardening, I forget my (imaginary) troubles and feel like a kid. Yes, it’s a good work-out (especially hoeing hard dirt and hauling water in five-gallon buckets). And yes, the produce is yummy. But I’d do it all even if I didn’t get anything “tangible” from it. Even container gardening indoors, we’re connecting with earth. I’d even venture to say hydroponic gardening would connect you with something totally intangible, a life force—even if it’s the life force of garden “pests.” Just like reading connects us with a creative literary force, and that feels good. I think there’s something deep inside us that explodes into pure joy when we connect with that greater force, that connective tissue of animal and plant and mineral. Smelling freshly watered dirt will do it for me. I’m thankful. Gardening restores my connection and thankfulness. In a troubled world, it’s good to find life.

Photography courtesy of Gary Entsminger and Susan Elliott.

Susan's sunflower

Susan Elliott has a B.S. in Botany, a B.A. in French from Humboldt State University, and a Ph.D. in Biology from Dartmouth College. She has studied ecology, evolution, and conservation of plant-pollinator mutualisms. She has lived in Mariposa, California, southern France, Georgia, and New Hampshire. She moved to Colorado to do pollination research at the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab in Crested Butte (the official Wildflower Capitol of Colorado), and is a gifted scientist and artist.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012


Susan the gardener
 Today, I spent a quiet afternoon reading the poetry of Marge Piercy and discovered a poem entitled “Six underrated pleasures,” in which she extols the virtues of picking pole beans and ends with these lines: “Then comes the minor zest/of nipping the ends off with your nails/and snapping them in pieces,/their retorts like soft pistolry./Then eat the littlest raw.” Piercy is a master at creating sensuous poems which inspire appetite for food, and I began to hanker after a mess of pole beans. I immediately felt this pining to plant a vegetable garden.

A few minutes following this poetry reading and my subsequent desire for fresh pole beans, Gary Entsminger, editor of Pinyon Publishing, sent me photographs of Susan Elliott, his partner, preparing ground for a new garden. I know that Gary keeps Susan busy designing books, marketing, and creating paintings for them, but some time during the day or week, she devotes a few hours to playing musical instruments, hiking, cooking (whew) and gardening year round up there on the Uncompaghre Plateau in the southern Rocky Mountains.

The photographs piqued my interest in this small enterprise, so I fired off an e-mail, requesting that Susan submit to the second interview I’ve had with her during the past two years and to tell me about her plateau gardening at 7,000 feet. Susan has been engaged in designing and formatting an upcoming issue of the Pinyon Review, a new literary magazine Gary is putting together, as well as drawing and painting pictures of plants for Why Water Plants Don’t Drown, a book she is co-authoring with Dr. Victoria Sullivan, but she agreed to talk with me about her garden.

Moore: When do you begin planting your summer garden?

Elliott: I work the ground as soon as the ground thaws, before it dries and hardens. In March, we plant cover crops and cool-weather crops (peas, rye grass, greens, radishes, onions…). Then in late May, we plant warm-weather crops (tomatoes, peppers, tomatillos, squash, flowers…).

Moore: What about your winter garden?

Elliott: We grow winter greens in 5-gallon cloth pots. While working on Why Water Plants Don’t Drown with Victoria Sullivan, I started to think more about oxygen supply to roots. I mix potting soil with coconut husks for soil aeration. And the cloth pots also encourage aeration and root branching. It’s practically impossible to over-water cloth pots because surplus water will drip out the sides. Our south-facing windows get a lot of sun, but we supplement light supply with energy-efficient full-spectrum fluorescent bulbs.

Moore: I understand that you do elaborate soil preparation for your gardens. What is the soil like on the plateau and what do you add to it to get maximum production and nutritional value from the products?

Elliott: The soil up here can get very hard and fairly salty (though there’s local variation; our neighbors a couple of miles down the road have sandier soil…). There are very few deciduous trees or herbaceous plants to add organic matter to the soil. So we compost throughout the year, producing about 30 gallons of compost to add each spring. I’ve also tried “sheet mulching,” layering straw, alfalfa, compost, manure, and the like to build up a garden bed. We mulch with straw to reduce water loss in the summer and to protect perennials from the winter cold. We fertilize only very lightly with organic “Age Old” brand liquid fertilizer. We don’t have huge robust plants, but they do well enough for the environment they (and we) live in, and they seem happy enough.

July in the garden
 Moore: Are you a vegetarian? Why?

Elliott: I’m a vegetarian, for several reasons. Nutritionally, there are many great alternative ways to get proteins, and high meat consumption (particularly red meat) has been correlated with many health problems. Also, many studies show we need more vegetables in our diet. When we remove one (meat) dish from our plate, that creates more room for more vegetables. Environmentally, raising animals for consumption uses a lot of resources (water in particular, but also feed: corn, etc.). The conversion of resources through animals to our plate is less efficient than the conversion of resources through plants to our plate. So by not eating meat, I can help preserve a little of the precious clean water that’s becoming harder and harder to come by. Ethically, many animals raised for meat production are not treated very well. And of course, I love my vegetables…! Brian Wilson (creative force and lead singer in the Beach Boys) wrote a great song about eating your vegetables on his “Smile” album; the song is called “Vega-Tables.” Listen to it, and you’ll just want to sing and dance and laugh and eat vegetables. It will at least make you smile.

Moore: Do you attempt to supply all the vegetables for your table?

Elliott: Goodness, no. Maybe if we lived in a more productive climate with a longer growing season, but we eat a LOT of vegetables!! Fortunately, there are some very productive local farms in our area. Off the plateau, in the Uncompaghre Valley (and the Colorado “West Slope,” in general), there are many small farms that treat their plants well and avoid the over-use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. We U-pick tomatoes, and get boxes of chili peppers, cucumbers, and peaches for canning. We usually can close to a hundred quarts each fall. The local natural grocery carries organic Colorado produce when it’s available. When it’s not, they carry organic produce from California.

Moore: How much time do you allow for gardening during a day? Or week?

Layout of the garden
 Elliott: My work, play, music, gardening, yoga, running, hiking, etc. are all “as the spirit moves me.” Or as the plants need me… (Okay, or if the books “need” me, but all of this is relative…) Some days or weeks get more time devoted to one or the other. This morning, I was feeling tight, so it was yoga. Yesterday I knew there was a storm coming, so I worked on rain catchment repairs. A couple of weeks ago, the ground was in danger of drying out and getting hard, so I hoed away at it. I LOVE playing outside, “putsing” you might say. If it were up to me, I’d spend the better part of every day hoeing, digging, potting, watering, mulching, pruning, harvesting, weeding, exploring “my” plants… In reality, I probably get an average of 2-3 hours/day in the summer and 2-3 hours/week in the winter.

Moore: The design of your garden is intriguing. Is there a history associated with the design, and what are the advantages of the design?

Elliott: This year I laid out the garden plots so that many paths lead to the center (or so that many paths radiated out of the center, depending on how you look at it). It’s a convenient way to get around the garden. And it’s aesthetically pleasing to see something a more than just rectangles.

Moore: Do you plant primarily from seed or do you grow seedlings in a greenhouse and transplant them in the soil?

Elliott: In the early spring, I plant seeds (cover crops and cool-weather crops). I also plant native wildflower and grass seeds. In the late spring, I plant veggie and flower starts from our local nursery. The past few years, we traveled during the spring, so we didn’t have time to start plants indoors. However, a few years ago, I started many trays of plants when I was living on the East Coast. I then rigged my Subaru Impreza into a “plant mobile,” (double decker, including a grow light for the lower shelf) and drove the seedlings out to plant in Colorado. And this year, we’ll transplant the greens outside that we started indoors. But really, down in the valley, the local nurseries do a great job of getting plants going early (tomatoes, peppers, squash, and the like). We have a short growing season, so we take advantage of the local greenhouses getting a head start.

Moore: Is there sufficient rainfall to water the garden on the plateau? Or do you have a system of irrigation?

Elliott: We definitely have to supplement the rainfall water. In the summer, we can count on a good monsoon rain at least once a week, but that’s not enough for the garden. And in June, when the plants are very young, rains are infrequent. We have two hand-me-down 300-gallon tanks that are fed by rain gutters. The tanks (continually refilled by monsoons during the summer and snowmelt during the winter) store close to all the water we need for watering summer and winter gardens. We haul water manually (in 5-gallon buckets and gallon jugs); good for the upper body strength. We also prefer to water plants with rainwater because it is free of the salts that are prevalent in our soil and well-water. The salts tie up essential plant nutrients; so the plants are much happier with rainwater. And it’s collected passively; so we don’t have to use electricity to haul water 400 feet out of the ground.

Tune in to Part II of Gardening High Up on tomorrow's blog.

Monday, April 2, 2012


Burnet, TX, roadside park
This is the second blog about a childhood memory of traveling to California, “to gypsy forever” in my father’s words. The first blog included pictures of postcards my mother collected on the famous odyssey West. In addition to these blogs, a short story and poems will be included in my forthcoming book, Postcards From Diddy Wah Diddy. Today, I am including two additional postcards from my mother’s collection for this blog. The Texas scenes are photographs on cards entitled “Blue Sky postcards” and show the area near Buchanan Dam where we camped out on our trip to California. Both cards feature a light blue Texas sky in the background.

A few years ago I also wrote a novel about the famous trip to Diddy Wah Diddy, one in which I was the narrator who, as an adult, leased an old blue Ford coupe and sat in my driveway in the car to evoke memories of the odyssey my family made in 1946. In this fictional account, I take the sky blue Ford on the road to Texas, attempting to find the place that my family camped out en route to California.

Here’s an excerpt from the novel that I finally decided not to publish. It begins with my drive into Texas:

“Driving had been easy; the coupe, a shiny blue top spinning through the Texas landscape, unwound toward its destination of Lake Buchanan. West of Austin, I accelerated the Ford, climbing to the Edwards Plateau, a place of rocky limestone hills covered by oak, juniper, and mesquite savannahs. My mother, Sarah Nell, had loved the homes constructed of native white rock and ‘everything spaced so far apart, while we waited for something to appear over the next hill,’ she had said. Deer crossing signs were posted everywhere, and goats, hooves poised on the trunks of mesquites, grazed on their leaflets.

“When I turned onto Highway 29 and glimpsed the green highway sign advertising Burnet, something loosened in me, and I felt Sarah Nell, Jacob, Suzanna, and Jake Jr. above me, chanting ‘Atta’ girl, come on now, you’re close, you can find it.’ I stopped to gas up several times, and the car skimmed along, drawn toward one of the most ancient geological regions in the world where outcroppings of granite guarded the secret, whatever it was, that had accelerated my family’s disintegration.

Long Horn Cavern, TX State Park, Burnet, TX
“In Burnet, I stopped at a grocery for directions to Burnet County Park, the place I tabbed as the site of the ’46 campout.

‘You want to go to Black Rock Park,’ advised an elderly woman with an overdone permanent. ‘It’s probably the oldest park and nearer to what you’re looking for. Ain’t no rock buildings like you talking about there now though,’ she added. ‘May have been at one time. How old you say you was when you come here?’

‘Eleven – over sixty years ago.’

‘Lordee, things been changed around since then.’ She looked at my silver hair, although her weatherbeaten face out-aged mine by ten years, if a day. ‘Could be Burnit County Park, up toward the dam. You’ll just have to do some looking.’

“I drove along Highway 29, eighteen miles west of Burnet to Buchanan Dam and located Black Rock Park above a boat ramp. It was an almost-deserted park with concrete picnic tables scattered about on sloping ground dotted with small water oaks, a place that didn’t fit the expanse of campground in my memory. Elevation above Lake Buchanan seemed low. I remembered a tall bluff away from which Sarah Nell had steered Jake Jr. daily in ’46. No bluff, no rock buildings housing bathrooms and showers, no telephone that had connected Sarah to civilization and Grandfather Ellis Paul in Louisiana. To me, the park was an abysmal failure, one that looked hospitable to daytime users but provided no set-up for full-time camping. I circled the park twice, feeling deep disappointment. ‘Don’t give up,’ my dead siblings and parents chided me. ‘Try the County Park.’

“The Ford coupe showed its mettle after I turned on Farm Road 2341 and climbed the hills around the dam, soaring along at fifty miles per hour. The sight of the ubiquitous prickly pear cacti strengthened my resolve – those plants had been the bane of one year old Jake Jr.’s daily tramps. Also, the elevation felt more like the high ground on which we had pitched camp. Everywhere, walls of orange pink rock loomed, a backdrop for the post oaks and cedars I had remembered as part of the ’46 landscape.

“Crossing a stone bridge, I rounded a curve and saw a sign on the left-hand side of the highway that made my heart race: Burnet County Park. However, it was even smaller than Black Rock, a cramped park with boat launch and a few tables at the edge of the lake. Glancing at my watch, I realized it was 6 p.m., and I hadn’t eaten all day. I began to feel that I was on a hopeless chase, searching for a memory that had either moved or never been quite like I envisioned. ‘Don’t go back,’ my family remonstrated. ‘There are more parks.’ Actually, there were two more: Inks Lake and Longhorn Cavern Park. An image of a rock building on a postcard labeled ‘Longhorn Cavern State Park’ flashed in my mind. Returning to Highway 29, I turned off on Park Road 4, veering into the entrance at Inks Lake first, only to find the gates shut against drive-throughs, a warning that reminded me I needed to find lodging for the night. However, I zoomed along Park Road 4 until I reached Longhorn Caverns State Park.

“The park was set among cacti and yucca, and I glimpsed a white rock administration building exactly like the picture on the old postcard Sarah Nell had kept in the bottom of her red leather purse. As I drove around the circle, I discovered a rustic water/observation tower and braked to a full stop, realizing that I had arrived on CCC encampment ground. I sat down at a limestone picnic table in a cluster of post oaks and began to cry. The place felt overpoweringly familiar; the reasons for Jacob bringing the family there felt right – the park was perhaps something he had helped build during his life with the CCC. The old administration building resembled a Gothic fortress, surrounded by a palisade wall made of native limestone and crystal formations taken from the caverns.

“I walked around in the heavy summer heat, the air alive with whirring insects in the oak savannahs. I realized the lake was nowhere near the site when I climbed the circular steel staircase of the tower and looked out windows cut in the heavy stone and couldn’t see water. Only the dam appeared in the distance. Longhorn Cavern State Park hadn’t been the first stop of the Diddy Wah Diddy trek. But why did I feel so linked to the place? A slight movement in the clump of yucca spooked me; I felt as though I was being watched and that something sinister had occurred here, sinister enough to cause my family to flee from the area. As close and hot as the Texas summer air was, I shivered. ‘Don’t give up,’ the family choristers urged me again, but when a truck pulled into the circular drive, I got into the Ford and sped off, giving up the search…”

Needless to say, I never found the campsite, just as I never published the part memoir/part fiction novel, but lately I entertain ideas of returning one last time…


Post card of saguaro in desert
For the past several weeks, I have been putting together a book of poetry and three short stories entitled Postcards from Diddy Wah Diddy. The book features several poems and a short story about my experiences as a child crossing the desert with my family in an old Ford coupe headed for California, or “Diddy Wah Diddy,” the name my father labeled the state because he thought of it as a paradise. The cover of the book will showcase several postcards of the desert that were published on linen paper, and which my mother collected along the way through the lonely stretches of sun and sand in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and California.

On that trip I learned to love the desert and when my youngest daughter, Elizabeth, moved to California, I made annual pilgrimages to Palmdale and Lancaster, California for twenty years to recapture the desert experience.

Among my collection of books is an odd-shaped volume entitled Plants of Sun and Sand by Sanford Stevens, published in 1939, a book that I cherish for its descriptions of desert plants and the drawings by Gerry Peirce. I discovered that a paperback edition of this volume remains in print, but I prefer my wood-covered copy with its short descriptions about the desert growth of Arizona. The drawings were created by Peirce in his studio twelve miles out in the foothills near Tucson, and in Stevens’ introduction, he describes Peirce as spending his working days there “in undisturbed contact with the desert life and landscape.”

My favorite drawing is that of the Cottonwood, which belongs to the same family as the aspen and poplar trees. Stevens describes it as the handsomest of all trees growing along riverbeds in the desert where, in the Spring, it puts out leaves wider than they are long. I love to hear the wind rustling in these large leaves and enjoyed hearing the soft rustle while stopped for baths behind upended cots on the side of the highway in our travels to Diddy Wah Diddy and, later, in Mexico where they also abound.

One of the stories in Postcards from Diddy Wah Diddy, which I entitled “Going to Diddy Wah Diddy,” recounts some of my childhood impressions of the desert:

“Joshua trees, the tallest of the yuccas, appeared on the landscape. They were almost human looking, like old men, their arms extended, grumbling to one another about the hot sun. Now and then I’d see a lake with small islands, the hot air making waves on the water. Of course, the lakes were only mirages, shimmering with a strange light on the desert’s dusty face, and I accepted this mystery as another part of the desert’s mysterious changeableness.

Post card of Twenty-Nine Palms, California
“Jacob turned north at Desert Center, taking us near the Granite Mountains and through seas of dull yellow sand. A lilac haze hung over the sand, sometimes turning to pink. The desert’s immensity awed me more than it affected anyone else in the blue coupe, except Jacob. His black eyes darted off the thin-ribboned highway, absorbing the yucca plant, Spanish dagger plants, and the strangely-lit mirages…”

I spend a lot of time lately, shuffling through the postcards and remembering the great adventure to California which actually preceded the breakdown of our family unity. The two postcards featured in this blog are from my mother’s collection of 56 postcards she bought in drugstores (as they were called then) in small western towns along the way to Diddy Wah Diddy. 

Perhaps I'll do a second blog about this odyssey and publish more of the wonderful postcards, many of which are paintings.