Monday, September 18, 2017

FELLOW PORCH DWELLERS


A few years ago, my friend Janet Faulk-Gonzales and I wrote a book, Porch Posts, in which we extolled the virtues of porch sitting. Here on The Mountain at Sewanee, Tennessee I often sit on a small front porch and write. Usually, I am a solitary dweller, but this morning I was joined by several spiders, one of which may have been a Wolf Spider, a big hairy thing that is rumored to have a painful bite, and I wasn’t enchanted by the company. In fact, I killed it — without remorse, I might add.

I know that spiders inhabit the pages of many famous writers — the talking spider that makes clicking noises in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. D. Rowling; Charlotte, the spider who talks to a pig in Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White; Shelob, the giant spider in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and out of the childhood of most of us whose mothers read us nursery rhymes: the critter that scared Little Miss Muffet when she was trying to eat her breakfast. I have no fondness for any of them. We have spider pest control but as we live in a small wood, our spider population is often abundant, even though the bug man visits monthly and brings in a giant swifter to sweep away nests, eggs, and the persistent spiders.

I console myself that spiders do eat pest insects like the mosquito that abounds in south Louisiana where I live part of the year, but I don’t see as many of them in Teche country as I do in Tennessee. In fact, the pest control workers here publish a list of common Tennessee spiders that might cause you pain. Among them are the brown recluse that gets the worst press of all in the spider kingdom; the black widow with its red hourglass marking; and the wolf spider that I did away with this morning.

Some of these creatures have eight eyes; some, six, but the wolf spider only has a pair of large eyes that were watching me this morning. Did I get any writing done out on the porch after I sent the wolf spider to meet his maker? Not much. But I did look up a poem about spiders by one of my favorite writers, Don Marquis, who wrote: "…I will admit that some/ of the insects do not lead/ noble lives but is every/ man’s hand to be against them? Yours for less justice/ and more charity." This was signed by aArchie the cockroach, Marquis’s major character (along with Mehitabel the alley cat) who appeared in his newspaper column in New York City’s The Evening Sun.

Sorry that this is so abbreviated but I dared not invite the Muse this morning as She usually keeps better company.


Wednesday, September 13, 2017

NEXT IN LINE

Next in Line
A definition of “philosophical” I once read is: “exploration of what the game is about.” Another definition describes the word as meaning that local concerns are trivial in the light of more profound truths. As I read Pinyon Publishing’s latest poet, Annette Barnes, who was a former professor of philosophy, these definitions seem to fit her apprehensions of our time on earth.

The lead poem in this volume, “What We Want,” is one that reflects a certain detachment while the poet thinks through issues facing humans “doing what they want,” — issues of power, non-sharing, ruthlessness, war… “like animals on a short leash who/discover the leash is gone and suddenly take off,/thinking freedom’s free”… However, she concludes with a beautiful resolution: “the view from up here swarms with light the way/bees pulse a hive, but you must climb up before/you can hear the souls of the fallen rise.”

Barnes isn’t dispassionate in her observations about ordinary life and attempts to see things from every angle as she explores the “Imperfections of Everyday Life,” bringing the trivial to higher thought as “Boys in red caps and jackets kick/a soccer ball, tread on the daffodils…” To me, this poem exemplifies the carelessness of contemporary living, “the women to her left talk[ing]/through the mid-week matinee, tak[ing] no notice of attempts/to quiet them…” I hear echoes of W.H. Auden in the lines: “Living on a planet whose core of/molten rock erupts infrequently/allows us to be careless.” To some readers, she may seem to be dispassionate in the face of adverse conditions but in the spirit of a true philosopher, her love of wisdom overrides difficult ordinary situations.

Comic relief comes through a wry poem entitled “The Cat,” who “when annoyed/wags her tail/like a spinster’s finger…a Julia Child/about food/spends a night/licking Brie/Learns only what she wants…doesn’t learn to fetch,/carries her weapons concealed.” Another tongue-in-cheek concerns “Religion” in which Barnes explores the number three, writing that because she lived at three three three, “the Trinity appealed to me./Jesus crucified, a perfidy/that hides Judas made reality,/the Virgin birth, anomaly,/the Resurrection, mystery,/three, distant in unity,/what more ask of Divinity?”

One of her poems reminded me of the poet Billy Collins, again comic relief overcoming the objective of profundity. It’s entitled “Topics For A Book Club Discussion (Recommended for ages six and above).” Number 4. within the poem features Humpty Dumpty: “Was Humpty Dumpty/a. a king/b. a cannon/c. an egg./Did Humpty Dumpty merit the attention/of so many of the King’s men?/Discuss how one should allocate emergency/relief resources.” Barnes also offers discussion topics for “Little Miss Muffet,” “Sing a Song of Six Pence,” and “Old King Cole,” in a highly amusing take on nursery rhymes.

Barnes’ end poem, “Elsewhere” exemplifies Robert Frost”s assessment of good poetry: “A poem should begin in delight and end in wisdom.” She writes that “A blackbird sips rain/water from the hydrangea’s saucer, chirping/between sips. Elsewhere lovers pant between/kisses, butterflies sip tortoise tears and runners/reach finish lines. No bombs go off, no one dies."

In eighty pages of poetry Barnes succeeds in creating direct expressions of profound truths, wisdom that flashes like polished gems. Artistry and amusement entwine throughout this volume.

Annette Barnes has also published two books of philosophy, Seeing through Self-Deception and On Interpretation. She lives in England, and Next In Line is her debut book of poetry. From beginning to end, a “glad surprise,” Pinyon!

Available from Pinyon Publishing, 23847 V66 Trail, Montrose, CO 81403.

Monday, September 11, 2017

GARDENS AND ART

Huntsville Botanical Garden Center

I’ve walked through many gardens, accompanied by a botanist, and Huntsville (Alabama ) Botanical Garden is among the world-class gardens I’ve seen. A few days ago, we spent the morning in this garden, viewing what the publicists tout as “the blending of traditional botanical garden elements, the aesthetic heritage of our region, the conservation of natural resources, and a thrust into the future.” This sounds like hype, but we viewed beautiful trails like the Mathews Nature Trail featuring the Holmes Trillium Garden, which is the largest Trillium Collection in the U.S.; the Damson Aquatic Garden featuring lotus and water lilies; and the Children’s Garden which contains eight gardens in one, including a wading pool with a Pollywog Bog.

Skipper on Ixora
Of course, I’m always enchanted with butterfly houses within a garden and the 9,000 sq. ft. structure housing 2,000 butterflies during butterfly season (May-September) seemed to be the highlight for children walking (and running) through the House. A waterfall and pond attracted one small three-year old female whose mother was busy trying to deter the child from taking off her shoes and jumping in. My favorite pond was that occupied by yellow-bellied slider turtles, and I felt sympathy for the three-year old who wanted to wade in for a closer look, turtles being critters that I think bring good will messages. A poem I wrote for my oldest daughter when she was five flashed through my mind. It’s entitled “On Being Needed:”


“Any kind of a pet will do,
we found a turtle hiding in tall grass,
coin-sized as a dime store relic
just daring her to take him in;
Yellow-bellied slider turtle
she has an infant sister
but five years passed before she had,
so any kind of pet will do
to guard the inner differences.
She sleeps now, close to his back,
asks me to baby sit
the small something left behind,
not to shriek the way I do at her;
turtles, absolutely; any pet will do.
For graver reasons she believes
he got lost from the race
just to prove that needing
reigns more important than running;
to the swift, a chase,
getting winded to pull in your head,
to the slow…
becoming the cared for.”

Gardens in Tennessee and Alabama that I’ve seen usually highlight sculptures scattered among natural settings — I was privileged to see Chihuly’s glass sculptures in the Cheekwood Gardens near Nashville, Tennessee a few years ago. The Huntsville Garden features the work of George Sherwood, “Wind, Waves, and Light,” an exhibit of kinetic sculptures that show patterns of movement — wind speed and direction, shades of light interacting with their natural settings. The “Turns,” made of the stainless steel Sherwood uses for his creations, shows the dynamic movement of wind in what could have been a static sculpture; and I stood a long time before another piece entitled “Wind Sphere” that caught the wind’s movement in a silver sphere on a day filled with brilliant sunshine. The interplay of light and wind was stirring and captured the idea of “Wind, Waves, and Light” Sherwood employed for his imaginative creations. The exhibit is an artistic event set among botanical displays that is only one and one-half hours’ drive from our home in Sewanee, Tennessee.

"Turns" created by George Sherwood

Sherwood has degrees in Engineering and Art and has exhibited in Rhode Island, Vermont, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Wyoming, and many other states in the U.S. He has received several awards for his kinetic sculptures, including the Lillian Heller Curator’s Award, Contemporary Sculpture at Chesterwood Museum, Stockbridge, MA.

Photographs by Victoria I. Sullivan

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

AT THE HUNTER MUSEUM

The patio at Tony's, Chattanooga, TN


Chattanooga is a high point on my list of favorite cities, especially its art district adjacent to the Tennessee River. Yesterday, we sat outdoors under a black umbrella at Tony’s on a balmy September morning waiting for lunch while I warmed my ailing joints. We watched sparrows and a hummingbird flying off course. The sparrows were searching for food under the tables and seemed to know that a platter of flatbread was on its way, so we had to be careful not to drop any crumbs or we would have been inundated by an invasion.

We were on our way to the Hunter Museum to see a special exhibit of the work of pop artist Wayne White, and I kept thinking that I could easily live in an apartment facing the river where I could walk to the art galleries, museum, and fine food restaurants every day.

Wayne White, a puppeteer, set designer, cartoonist, and illustrator, was born in Chattanooga and it’s appropriate for him to be exhibiting in his native city, although much of his fame was garnered in New York City where he began working as a cartoonist and illustrator for notable newspapers like The New York Times and The Village Voice. He also gained a foothold in the television world through his work on sets for Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, winning three Emmy awards for his work. Later, he worked on sets for the award winning video for the Smashing Pumpkins.

MISS CAR, In The Hunter Museum exhibit
Courtesy of the Artist and Western Project, Los Angeles, CA

Security guards allowed us to take a few photographs of the exhibit, and we were overwhelmed by so much from which to choose, but as a lover of cartoons and comic book characters, I was drawn to a section featuring White’s “Miss Car,” White’s first published comic strip about a female protagonist who appears as an upside down car. White began his career by making black and white photocopies of this comic and handing them out on the streets of New York. The Art Director for East Village Eye magazine, popular during the 1980’s, began publishing “Miss Car” as a comic strip; and High Times Magazine later featured the strip in color.

When I saw the huge puppets White had designed; e.g., The Louvin Brothers, country music stars who had influenced the Everly Brothers and Emmylou Harris, I wished my oldest daughter Stephanie, who loves country music, had been with us. White portrays the puppet Ira Louvin with a huge forehead and wild looking eyes (probably indicative of his erratic behavior as an alcoholic); and Charlie, the smaller of the two is dwarfed by his brother’s massive presence. I read that the Rice Gallery at Rice University in Houston, Texas features a huge puppet head of country singer George Jones — an installation in which the puppet’s eyes rotate in its head, and if the viewer pulls a rope, the head begins to snore.

THE LOUVIN BROTHERS, In The Hunter Museum exhibit
on loan from Songbirds Museum

Another section of the exhibit includes some of White’s paintings and drawings of the “Moonship Launch” from the Smashing Pumpkins’ Song “Tonight, Tonight.” I wish that the exhibit had featured White’s “Wayne-O-Rama” cardboard heads of figures in Chattanooga’s history and a model of Lookout Mountain that shows Rock City, Ruby Falls, and the Incline.

UNDERWATER, In The Hunter Museum exhibit
Courtesy of the Artist and Western Project, Los Angeles, CA

White’s work is sometimes classified as art exemplifying the surrealism movement and reflects his interest in cubism. When I saw his sketch books filled with ideas for set designs, cartoons, and puppets, I felt like I was looking at the outpouring of one of the most imaginative minds in the contemporary art world —the sketchbook reminded me of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks.

When we went into the gift shop, I bought a set of colored pencils and a “rescued paper note book,” for the doodle art that sometimes accompanies this blog. The closest I will get to cartooning is through the written narrative of Petite Marie Melancon in the kajun kween that features the whimsical illustrations of talented New Iberia artist Paul Schexnayder.

MY DOODLING, In Doodling A Word's Worth, February 2013,
by Diane Marquart Moore

P.S. The White exhibit is sponsored by the famous MoonPies Company that produces a round cake with marshmallow filling baked in Chattanooga Bakery, a fitting backer for this talented southern artist.

Photographs by Victoria I. Sullivan





Tuesday, August 29, 2017

A FEW THOUGHTS ABOUT HURRICANE HARVEY

Bayou Teche flooding bananas trees in yard near
Port Barre, Louisiana

I find it difficult to write this blog because here I sit, high and dry on The Mountain at Sewanee, Tennessee while people in New Iberia, Louisiana, my real home, are watching a heavy rain falling, apprehensive about threats of flooding and tornados. I felt proud when I read news stories about the “Cajun Navy” getting into their trucks and pulling their Jo boats and pirogues behind, rushing to help Houston victims of Hurricane Harvey. I also felt humble, remembering that in the lives of Cajuns, no one is left out, an ethic that embraces family and strangers.

I remember Hurricane Andrew and the devastation it caused; how we foolishly sat out the storm when the wind played with the house as if it were an accordion and venerable oaks in New Iberia parks and along city streets fell, roofs were blown away, and we suffered power outage for three weeks. The sun shone the day following the hurricane, and when I went outdoors to survey the damage, I discovered that a tall pine in the front yard had fallen a few feet away from my bedroom window, and the yard was strewn with branches from the tree-lined street. Within hours, a member of the Cajun Army had entered the yard — my neighbor across the way, armed with a chainsaw, sliced into the felled tree, cut it into movable pieces, carried it away, and waved goodbye without speaking a word. He proceeded to Darby Lane, a few blocks away and began clearing the lane so that vehicles could get through to the highway. No one had summoned him.

Later, another neighbor and his son came over and, without a word, picked up branches and began raking my yard. Both acts were performed in silent determination.The man with a chainsaw bore the Cajun name of Olivier; the man who raked the yard was named Viator (once Villatores, a name of Spanish derivation). Both of those men bore the names of early settlers of New Iberia. They represented a gregarious culture that has assimilated French, Spanish, African-Americans, Brits, Germans, Irish… a unique culture that has a strong work ethic and joie de vivre unlike any other diverse group in the U.S.

Cajuns know a lot about hurricanes and floods, and they’re undaunted by water — even those in the Cajun Navy whose boats broke down in Houston and people tried to steal their stalled boats… even though they have been shot at if they were unable to pick up everyone in their Jo boats. I’m not surprised at their tenacity and courage. (I understand that a Gator Squad has also been organized in Houston because alligators seeking higher ground have begun frequenting Houstonians’ yards).

In 2016, I wrote a book of poetry about Bayou Teche entitled A Slow Moving Stream* that documented stories of early Cajun survival in Teche country. I include the last verse of one poem about the flood of 1927 that embodies the spirit of early settlers whose descendants are probably members of the present-day Cajun Navy:

“…The land returned to a muddy geography
into which they climbed
marveling at the ease of light,
declaring they’d never go back to Pisiguit
even if a rocking tide caused the land to tilt
and the sky became an ocean.
What had been green would be green again.”

PHOTOGRAPH BY VICTORIA I. SULLIVAN


*I will lecture and read from this book about the Bayou Teche to the Louisiana Literature class taught by Dr. Mary Ann Wilson, professor of English at University of Louisiana, Lafayette, in November when I return to Louisiana.

Monday, August 14, 2017

CHEAHA STATE PARK

Tower built by CCC, Cheaha State Park, AL

Fog hangs at 2400 ft. in Cheaha State Park, Delta, AL, and I awaken to the call of a crow walking around in the parking lot. Later, we breakfast in a dining hall with huge plate glass windows overlooking hues of green in the valley below that are dotted with dark lakes. Cheaha is a word variation of the Creek Indian word "chaha," which some Creeks called high places; other Creeks interpreted "cheaha" as a word meaning sleeping giant. Old rocks in the park are 500-600 years old, quartz deposits that formed a mountain that is the highest point (2700 ft) in Alabama.


From Bald Rock boardwalk,
Cheaha State Park, AL
We walked the Bald Rock Trail, a boardwalk now accessible to handicapped hikers, built through a pine-oak-hickory forest where the dominant trees are chestnut oak and Virginia pine. The area once housed ancient tribes who lived under rock shelters at the base of the mountain. At the end of the trail, we stopped at an overlook with a 150-year-old Virginia pine beside it that looked like a Japanese bonsai tree. Along the trail, beautiful forests of lime green-colored lichen shone through the fog as we passed through a burned out area where pokeweed grew abundantly. In the spring, flame azaleas and oak leaf hydrangea bloom near the board walk, and warblers form the largest species of bird life in the forest. In the fall, red tailed hawks and peregrine falcons swoop over the landscape. I hobbled along the trail with the aid of a cane, glad for the diversion that postponed a decision about fixing a knee that affected my mobility.

One of the attractions in Cheaha State Park is a small CCC museum and tower, a site that needed more work inside regarding the history of the tower, perhaps a video and instructive books to purchase. I had seen an excellent presentation of the CCC work in the Roosevelt State Park in Georgia and expected the same in Alabama. My father worked with the CCC during the early 1930s, and I don’t know why this program was ever abandoned. Projects like these might siphon off some of the anger now prevalent in young men throughout the world. Young men built wonderful highways, bridges, trails, lodges, and cabins and used their energies to make towers from the “stone of their grievances; the stone of their hope” I wrote in a poem. I think of them toiling away for $30 a month, $25 of which was sent home to help sustain families, many of the men enjoying three square meals daily for the first time in their lives and sleeping on beds they constructed themselves. From the CCC, my father went on to work with the Louisiana Highway Dept. and became a civil engineer. The CCC organization formed the springboard for many vocations for young men, and they left us a legacy of state parks, solid reminders of the Roosevelts’ vision for preserving the natural beauties of America, making them accessible to all of us.


Virginia Pine at end of Bald Rock Boardwalk,
Cheaha State Park, AL

I wish I could say the experience cured my physical disability but it did not; however, the foray into the natural world did lift my spirits. For years I’ve wanted to visit all the CCC buildings in state parks and write about them in a book entitled Stone of Hope or Ebenezer (which means stone of hope, because the CCC created so many of the parks from native rock). Perhaps my next book… 

We went into Anniston, Alabama, a short ride away, and spent two hours in the McClellan Theatre watching Smokey Joe’s Cafe, a musical by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller who were reputed to “pack more into a plot in three minutes than William Faulkner in a hundred pages.” The retrospective rocked with talented performers who sang, danced, and interacted with an audience who appreciated oldies like “Loving You,” “Stand By Me,” “Yakety Yak,” “Fools Fall in Love” — 38 numbers performed by CAST (Community Actors' Studio Theater). I know this sounds like hyperbole, but the singers and dancers in this theatrical performance could rival any Broadway shows I’ve seen. I wasn’t too surprised at the excellence of the musical as I knew the famous Alabama Shakespeare Festival had been founded in Anniston before it was moved to Montgomery, Alabama. Anniston has always staged first class theatre, and CAST also features free performances for children in this southern city.

Back at Cheaha, I learned that hearty hikers can begin the Pinhoti Trail, the southern connection in the Appalachian Trail that extends from Alabama to Maine, 2504 miles of hiking that would take a real stepper about seven months to complete — a challenge that this hobbler will never take up!

Photographs by Victoria I. Sullivan

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

WHATEVER YOU MAY SAY


Whatever I may say about Whatever You May Say has been aptly said by a variety of poetry reviewers including Wendy Barker, a John Ciardi Poetry Prize winner, and Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate in Physics, but I add my voice to those illustrious reviewers in praise of Kurt Heinzelman’s newest book of poems, Whatever You May Say, published by Pinyon Publishing.

The forms of poetry in this volume lead the reader into metaphysical adventures and beyond catalogs of description, exposing the existential within everyday life, as well as musings about the Self. The poems remind me of an article in the New Yorker I just finished reading entitled “The Defense of Poetry: Can A Poem Change Your Life?” by Louis Menand. In that article, the last two lines echo what I thought when I closed Heinzelman’s book: “I understand that the reason people write poems is the reason people write. They have something to say.”

Eight sections of wit, wisdom, and playful lyrics comprise a collection of “something to say” that will delight readers with the poet’s explorations into the Unconscious, as well as rich, dramatic meditations about Emily Dickinson’s views on the flat light in winter and the way “shadows hold their breath…”

I have lived in El Paso, Graham, and Electra, Texas and spent two weeks at Alpine, Texas writing Texas haiku and was drawn to Heinzelman’s “Lone Star Haiku” section. Simple haikus in which Heinzelman merely recites the names of Texas towns I’ve visited resonated with me: “Boerne. Bandera/Seguin. Sugarland/Flower Mound/ Gruene,” and as the former spouse of a petroleum engineer, this one brought up memories of west Texas oil fields: “Old donkeys pump/a subtle field/sandhill cranes are grazing.” And this wry, dash-laden haiku entitled “Emily Dickinson in the Hill Country:” “Roadrunners—skip/Armadillos—hop/Jackrabbits — cower.” Heinzelman also covers more terrain familiar to me in “Hill Country:” country of hard scrabble,/scrub brush—outcrop/chafed by drouth…landscape/like an angry throat/hunting for milk…” He captures Texas landscapes like a transplant that has succumbed to the beauty of broad expanses of the Lone Star State, and as an admirer of Texas landscape and culture, I delighted in this section of Whatever You May Say.

A sad memorial to Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 shot down over the Ukraine, an act that was backed by Russian separatists, is entitled “Bodies Fallen in Fields of Sunflowers,” an intense and harrowing poem that embodies Menand’s idea that a poem changes its readers. The poem moves readers with its history of beautiful flowers that “once in full bloom/their faces stop turning/to follow the sun…three millennia before Christ/America’s native people/cultivated these flowers of the sun…” The poem reminded me of a good friend who planted a field of these tall, bright-faced flowers, and we enjoyed fresh faces until she grew tired of weeding and watering and they passed on, the memory of them refreshed by Heinzelman’s tribute.

Whatever Heinzelman has to say will perhaps touch and change readers’ lives with lyrics about a broad range of subjects from spare haiku to musings about the mysterious world of the unconscious and questions about God. For those who aspire to write poetry, Whatever You May Say is a vivid lesson in the various forms and feelings that can be expressed and come alive through the art of poetry.

Arresting cover art for this volume, “Horse in Stone,” by Steve Friebert and designed by Susan Entsminger, is reminiscent of the lines: “a wall of /scored lime-/stone pointing north” in “The Early Texas Spring,” one of the poems that indicates Heinzelman’s “transplantation.” For those interested in the botany of Texas: “Thickets of stickweed/or witchgrass/or whatever we/call it here,/done with over-/running Bermuda/and rye, now close/around lacy fronds/of wild carrot,/choking stands of/stiff bull thistle…”

A native of Wisconsin now living in Austin who teaches Poetry and Poetics at the University of Texas, Kurt Heinzelman co-founded two literary journals: The Poetry Miscellany and Bat City Review and served as editor-in-chief of Texas Studies in Literature and Language.

Available from Pinyon Publishing, 23847 V66 Trail, Montrose, CO 81403. Again, bravo Gary and Susan. It's a blue ribbon special!

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

LATE SUMMER ON THE MOUNTAIN

SOYBEAN FIELD AND MOUNTAINS FROM COWAN, TN

A beetle resembling a roach upended, his feet in the heavy air, lies near part of a speckled moth wing — porch tokens, beside withering flowers. Driftwood fencing the herb garden has become drier. Crickets protest 80-degree temps, singing the same chorus. Empty yard chairs face the bleached fence slats. We’re all looking for invisible streams, a flowing landscape. Gulls fly over, bringing news of the coast where thunder rolls in, promising afternoon rain. Equable tempers ride the wind, the heavens busy making water for a disinherited earth. I look up and see a calendar written on the moon’s face; fall unfolding in a sky dark and drained of heat.

I wrote this a few days ago in the middle of a hot day, and then rain obliged us, bringing in a spell of cool air. The heavens also showered corn patches along the road to Cowan, Tennessee, and even flooded our struggling herb garden at the back door, which perked up the mint, rosemary, thyme, chives… Like amateur farmers, we seem to watch the weather more often than we did in Louisiana. I suppose it’s because we find so many fresh vegetables and fruit at markets on The Mountain and have eaten them aplenty this summer, especially corn and peaches, huge home-grown tomatoes and cucumbers. Many days we drive into the Valley just to look at and buy a few ears of corn and a carton of peaches at the vegetable and fruit market on the highway leading to Winchester. 

I sometimes long for the city so I can get a shot of “culture,” but I think more about the pastoral aspects of life on The Mountain than I did ten years ago. We pass a sign advertising a chicken farm for sale and tell friends we’re going to buy it, but the notion soon passes. Pulling weeds in the small herb garden by the back door is about as much farm activity as we can muster. And we’re sorta’ turned off when we read about the nine billion chickens that are killed each year in the U.S. The unfortunate poultry are raised in warehouses with 20,000 other chickens, and half of them are fed feed with arsenic in it because this concoction is reputed to foster growth. Some of us remember the spacious chicken yards of our grandparents where chickens roamed freely and weren’t fed anything to promote abnormal growth. Anyway, chicken farms? No way!

I do read and think about agriculture a lot; thus the interest in weather, I reread my favorite essayist, E.B. White, who divided his year between bustling New York City and a getaway place in Maine. His description of late summer is worth a few “words worth:” 

“Summer, languishing but not really sick, receives her visitors with a certain deliberateness -a pretty girl who knows she doesn’t need to stay in bed. The yellow squash illuminates the aging vine…and zinnias stand as firm and quiet as old valorous deeds…the farmer picks up the first pullet egg, a brown and perfect jewel in the grass; …[This is] the day a car stops and a man gets out and tacks up a poster advertising the county fair…” (from The New Yorker, September 3, 1949, p. 17.)

Last night we attended a dinner featuring “radical hospitality” in the cottage of summer interns at St.Mary’s Convent We met guests from different locales in the South, including Louisiana, a fund development director from Boston, and a physical therapist from Chicago, and during dinner, the thought occurred to me that we sometimes had no need to search out a shot of culture in nearby cities as it was right there at the table among congenial young people who had migrated to The Mountain and liked the good life here. 

Photograph by Victoria Sullivan

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

ONE OF THOSE GLAD SURPRISES



We often overlook what’s in our landscape when serendipity is right under our nose. Today I discovered a garden my botanist friend, Vickie, had told me about that she passes on her walks for exercise four or five times a week: the Shakespeare Garden here on the campus of the University of the South at Sewanee, Tennessee.

I'd never heard of a Shakespeare Garden and was surprised by the number of them that are cultivated on campuses of universities and in public parks and gardens throughout the U.S. As a poet and an advocate of poetry, I decided to visit the garden sponsored by the local garden club, a small haven that provides a place to sit on a rock bench and contemplate some of the words of the English bard who’s reputed to have loved gardening.

The photographs in this blog are only snaps of a few plants in the Shakespeare Garden on Tennessee Avenue that are well tended and carry out the theme of some of Shakespeare’s plays. Space in a blog permits inclusion of only a few of those plants that inspired the gardeners, but I was drawn to many of the herb plantings since herbs seem to be among the plants that deer don’t feast on here on The Mountain…and, I might add, we have a straggly garden at our back door.

Interest in creating Shakespeare gardens was revived in the United Kingdom in 1852 and spread to the U.S., but plants that Shakespeare mentioned in his many plays were included in medieval herbal manuals. Plants in the Sewanee garden include marjoram and thyme and indicate the bard’s love of herbs; however, the entry to the garden features a cultivated climbing rose that he lauded in Romeo and Juliet: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet…” (Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2.)


For those visitors to the garden on the University of the South campus who aren’t familiar with Shakespeare’s flower citations, placards with brief quotations and identifications of the plays that mention the particular plants have been placed at the base of plantings.

At 9 a.m. before the summer heat sets in, a visit to the small garden is a meet way to begin a day, and here’s hoping more garden lovers will discover the Shakespeare Garden at Sewanee and spread the word about the poetry of small “literary gardens.”

Photographs by Victoria Sullivan.



Monday, July 24, 2017

SPRING’S KISS




In 2014, Border Press published Between Plants and People, a book of my poetry about plant life accompanied by eighteen color photographs by Dr. Victoria I. Sullivan, a noteworthy botanist. It contained metaphors describing the impact of plants on humans — food plants, medicinal plants, and decorative plants, and is an innovative account of “humanistic botany” in poetry.

The second volume of plant poems I wrote this summer, with accompanying photographs by Dr. Sullivan, is now in press. Spring’s Kiss, a book of poetry praising the qualities of wildflowers that inhabit and create beauty in the plant kingdoms of the world, is a nod to Susan Albert’s: “One person’s weed is another person’s wildflower,” and many of those weeds are included in this volume. Medicinal, as well as aesthetic qualities of the plants, are touted in some of the poems, and the beautiful blooms of these weeds reinforce Albert’s observation about plants.

The cover of this volume is a photograph of Karen Bourque’s glass rendition of the Pickerel Weed as inspired by Susan Elizabeth Entsminger’s illustration of the aquatic weed in Why Water Plants Don’t Drown by Victoria I. Sullivan, and the photograph was used in the cover design by Martin Romero, a landscape architect who renders the final designs for my book covers.

Spring’s Kiss can be pre-ordered from Border Press, P.O. Box 3124, Sewanee, TN 37375 for $20 including shipping and will also be available from Amazon by Aug. 15.


Saturday, July 22, 2017

SEARCHING FOR WATER, FINDING HISTORY

Tims Ford Reservoir
When temps soar to 90 degrees on The Mountain here in Sewanee, Tennessee, I long to see a body of water — a lake, a river, a bayou (?) nearby. In Louisiana, my residence during winter months, I live near the Bayou Teche, and the sight of its brown waters often gives me mental respite from summer heat.

Yesterday, during the hottest part of the day we decided to satisfy this longing for the sight of water by going over to Tims Ford State Park, which is on the Tims Ford Reservoir, by riding around parts of the 10,000-acre Tims Ford Lake. The Dam there was constructed at the headwaters of the Elk River, one of the first major dams built by the TVA. The State Park, established in 1969 was created with 1000 acres of land on the largest scenic part of the lake when it became a recreational resource. When I viewed the lake, I felt my body relax and a surge of energy within despite the heat.

We took refuge in the Tims Ford Park Visitor Center where a ranger talked with us about the history of the Park. If we had been outdoor sportswomen, we could have stayed in one of the Park’s air conditioned cabins and enjoyed boating, fishing, even golf, as Jack Nicholas designed a signature 18-hole golf course within the Park for golf enthusiasts. However, we were more interested in some of the historical structures left from the flooding of the lake, particularly the Marble Plains Baptist Church, originally organized as Marble Plains Methodist Church in 1857.

We began our search in the Park for the Marble Plains Baptist Church at the direction of an associate of St. Mary’s Convent, Sewanee, as he knows about my interest in the history of old churches, especially rural ones. The Marble Plains church was once part of the Methodist Conference but in 1993 was deeded to the Marble Plains Church and Masonic Lodge for $1 and became the Marble Plains Baptist Church. It’s now supported by the Duck River Baptist Association, the Tennessee Baptist Convention, and the Southern Baptist Convention. It was named for a marble bed on Elk River about five miles below Winchester, Tennessee that extends down the river ten miles on either side, and the Church actually owns some of the Elk riverbed marble.

Marble Plains Church and Masonic Lodge
Photographs show the pristine church that was built in 1913 after a fire destroyed the old structure constructed in 1857. I admire the zeal of the church goers in this 104-year old church because they raise money from 237 members to pay completely for additions and equipment when maintenance is required. Obviously, church members tithe! 

According to a history of this country church written by Verna Mae Weaver Ernst, church historian, baptisms no longer take place in Tims Ford Lake, and the 1913 bell still works (but requires a hefty, well-muscled person to ring it). Mrs. Ernst, a woman now in her late 80’s, is presently helping raise money for a large, well-kept cemetery next to the church. Brother Jack Hice has been the minister at the church for 27 years, and on Sundays, according to the church historian, “the crowds, the fellowship, the sermons, and lively music make the old hilltop come alive.”*

Mrs. Ernst relates a humorous story about a former minister (from the Methodist Conference) in her historical account of the Marble Plains Church. Rev. Samuel Jack Shasteen, “a large strong man” who preached at the Church fourteen years, arrived early for services one Sunday and found a man waiting for him. The man vowed he was going to whip the preacher [for reasons unknown] and the preacher agreed to the fight but said he wanted to stage this “whipping” in the woods. When the pair came to a log, the Rev. Jack asked that they take off their coats, lay them on a log, roll up their sleeves, then kneel by the log and pray. They joined hands, and the Rev. Jack launched into prayer: “Dear Lord forgive me for what I am about to do, this is being forced upon me and please, Lord, have mercy on any ignorant man who would challenge one of your servants who could crush him like an ant, if he wanted to. Lord, I remember at one of your churches, Will Jones challenged me; he only lived a few days. I really felt sorry for his good wife and those children. Then, at another of your churches, Jim Brown challenged me; he was never able to work again. So, Lord, please have mercy on this poor wreck.” The minister felt the man’s hand slip from his grip and heard the clatter of fast-moving feet. The man had run away leaving his coat on the log.

I looked around in the old church and spied a bulletin board typical of Baptist denominations that recorded the number of members who had attended last Sunday’s services, marveling at the number of congregants who gather there every Sunday and make “the hilltop come alive.”

Members of this country church feel that the structure, as well as the increase in attendance, constitute a “miracle” that occurred when the old church almost died with only ten members, ages ranging from 60’s - 80’s in attendance-- these sturdy believers kept the doors open while the Tims Ford State Park and Dam were being built.

*Historical information provided by writings of Verna Mae Weaver Ernst

Photographs by Victoria I. Sullivan



Wednesday, July 19, 2017

PEACH PILGRIMAGE



In the third verse of “From Blossoms” by Li-Young Lee, the poet writes: “…to hold the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into/the round jubilance of peach,” a verse that The Writer’s Almanac advises readers to enjoy “with a juicy, delectable, gold glowing farmer’s market peach in hand…”

Such delectables are often difficult to find in local markets, but for three years we have followed the tip of our good friend Kathy Hamman and traveled across the border into Alabama to get our supply of this fruit each summer. Crow Mountain Orchards in Fackler, Alabama is only an hour’s drive from our base here at Sewanee, Tennessee and is a closer destination than orchards in Georgia, South Carolina and Hill Country, Texas that produce some of the most delicious peaches in the nation (although I’ve heard that the orchards in the middle of California gold country are close rivals). 

Crow Mountain Orchards are owned by Bob and Carol Deutscher who cultivated the orchards of peaches, nectarines, apples, pears, berries, and cherries on 150 acres at a 1700 ft. elevation during the 70’s. They advertise that although most orchards in the southeastern U.S. had shortages of peaches this year, Crow Mountain peaches have produced a gracious plenty. 

We traveled to the distribution offices of the peach orchard following a description that appeared on their web site, making “16 turns before reaching AL Rt. 79 from Winchester,” that took us from the Winchester valley to Bear Hollow Mt. Wildlife Area. Along the way, we passed the Wall of Jericho, four Holiness churches, dense forests, and roadsides with abundant Queen’s Lace that had escaped the mowers. The turn-off onto Rt. 39 from Rt. 33 does boast a Crow Mountain sign, which only appears at that point, and we were prepared for the route into the “boonies” where the orchards are located.

Dark clouds hung over us as we entered a market filled with customers from states surrounding the Alabama site. Although the owners’ daughter was busy ringing up sales, I began to question her.

“What’s the name of the variety of peaches I’m buying?” Signs advertised numbers only.

“I really don’t know,” she confessed. My 88-year old father still works seven days a week in the orchards, and he’s planted so many varieties, we’ve lost track of the names.”



I picked up a carton of what I know to be “juicy, delectable, gold glowing farmer’s market peaches,” passing over the pears that appeared to be fruit that would make good preserves. The memory of my grandmother standing over a stove making pear preserves during Louisiana summers without air conditioning is engraved in my memory! When she died, we discovered pantry shelves filled with pear and fig preserves without dates marked on the rusting lids. All that hot work for uneaten fruit! Actually, I think that “putting up preserves,” as 20th-century cooks called the process, meant that you were a thrifty homemaker and a good cook, a reputation that women of that era coveted.

As we left the Crow Mountain market, dark clouds opened up, and we went home through a heavy rainfall that cleared when we reached the valley. Because of the rainfall we were unable to get photos of the peach orchards, which are picked daily, according to Deutscher’s daughter, but did manage a shot of this beautiful fruit before we began to devour it. No doubt about it —Crow Mountain peaches rank right up there with the over 130 million Georgia peaches produced last year. However, in my opinion, the ones that surpass all others are produced somewhere in South Carolina and marketed near the border of the Outer Banks of North Carolina where an entourage of the Sullivan family and I spent a week in a vacation home, making peach cobbler several nights in a row.




Saturday, July 15, 2017

TUNING INTO NATURE DEFICIENCY SYNDROME

A few evenings ago, Brenda Lowry and Joshua (Bubba) Murrell from New Iberia, Louisiana, stopped by en route to the 2017 Summer NAMM in Nashville, Tennessee, an event featuring all aspects of music. The two talented musicians and songwriters brought us a bag of fresh vegetables, rather than the guitars they usually transport on their travels.

“Those vegetables are from Bubba’s garden,” Brenda explained. “Gardening has been his project this summer.”

Bubba, a Grammy award winner, has a gracious plenty of interests — music, electronics, skills as a computer technician and game creator, writing, guitar making…The fact that he is now a successful gardener is not surprising. I noticed him stopping at our back door to inspect the overgrown herb garden we had planted near the entry to the kitchen. Before coming into the house, he showcased his knowledge of taxonomy.

“What kinds of mint did you plant?” he asked.

I looked around for my resident botanist, Dr. Sullivan. “I know we planted chocolate mint,” she answered, and Bubba then named another variety. He identified every herb we had planted, except for the weeds we had allowed to grow. I was impressed.

Bubba is probably up to date on the news about Americans suffering from Nature Deficiency Syndrome and the evidence that we spend 80-99 percent of our lives indoors, which has resulted in a lifestyle that affects our psychological and physical health. According to one of the many articles published about therapy for treating this syndrome, gardening is among the cures — an activity that helps humans recharge and elevate their bad moods. In fact, Craig Chaiquistone, a psychologist at the California Institute of Integral Studies, reports that we have all the antidepressants we need “in the ground.” Therapies for nature deficiency disorders range from green therapy to earth-centered therapy and can result in decreased anxiety and depression, as well as improved self-esteem.

As I live in a small wooded area on campus here at the University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee, I surmised that I could probably benefit from the Japanese method of “forest bathing” that is part of their national health program. So after Brenda and Bubba left, the following afternoon I went out on the porch to be with nature. When I stepped outside and sat down to be with the wildness of my overgrown garden, I felt at home with ideas I had read about this therapeutic discovery regarding the nature deficiency syndrome.

For thirty minutes I enjoyed the scents of rosemary, dill, mint, and other herbs and watched skipper butterflies and bees dipping into the blooms of Dianthus, breathing in the fresh air that is reputed to cure our nature deficiencies. While I didn’t scoop dirt from the garden and hold it in my hands for twenty minutes (part of a process called “earthing”), I did “clean my mental windshield” as touted by David Strayer, another cognitive psychologist. And the sounds of insects thrumming their mantras helped me switch off after a morning of research and writing.

My garden still needs weeding, but I felt in step with Henry David Thoreau’s sage words: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” I suggest that you turn off your smart phones and need for instant gratification and step outside to get in touch with the pulse of nature. An article I read about nature deficiency suggests that observing nature can lead to an increased tolerance for slower paces or the development of patience. For more skeptical readers, scientists now report that they have been able to see biomarkers of the changes in people affected by immersion in nature. For more verification, read the works of Transcendentalists Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Photography by Victoria I. Sullivan



Monday, July 10, 2017

PAW PRINTS ON MY SOUL



Monks, nuns, and sisters in Orders that practice the Benedictine way of life are noted for hospitality when newcomers knock on their monastery or convent doors. The Anglican sisters in the Community of St. Mary, a Benedictine Order, carry on this tradition here at Sewanee, Tennessee. As an associate of CSM, I’ve met a diverse group of pilgrims who come here on individual and group retreats, as well as regulars who attend services at the convent and share breakfast with the sisters after weekday and Sunday Eucharists.

Last week Deb Gerace, an overnight guest from Kennesaw, Georgia, sat next to me at breakfast in the refectory, and I learned that she was only here for an 'overnight' —“just to step back for a little while,” she said. I asked her if she was a priest on retreat.

“No, a chaplain and therapy dog handler.” She laughed, assuming that I’d think this a strange vocation.

“At a church?”

“Everywhere. My husband Mike and I, and our two former rescue dogs who have become therapy dogs — Sammy and Babycakes — minister to homebound at our own church in Kennesaw, Georgia, to people in nursing homes, rehab centers, and schools…wherever we’re needed.”

Gerace has told the story of training two dogs (who have their own disabilities) for this ministry in Paw Prints on my Soul, describing the dogs as having good dispositions, energy, loyalty, and a willingness to please. Two initial “gigs” for which the dogs trained were at Christ Episcopal Church Gerace attends, the church’s pre-school and in a visit with a cancer patient. On another occasion, they dressed in costumes while Gerace, also a singer/guitarist, gave a music performance and Sammy entertained with a learned wolf howl at a special Halloween show.

Lap sitting, bed sitting, performing to music, the dogs became the inspiration and therapy for the sick and dying, “often triggering a stream of consciousness from somewhere deep inside the jumbled memories of bed-ridden people,” Gerace writes. She and her husband Mike later joined a Chaplain Crises Training group so that they could visit post-disaster areas and share Sammy and Babycakes with traumatized survivors.



St. Mary’s Convent already has its special healing dog, Penny, an adopted part pit bull, part Labrador retriever who has never had any training in healing or crises intervention, but she’s the Convent’s hospitality hostess and has her own “pew” in the chapel — a basket lined with blankets right behind Prioress Madeleine Mary’s chair. This gentle, calm canine attends all the Chapel services and knows when to settle in for the prayers and when to get up at the dismissal. Sister Elizabeth says that Penny has tended several sisters when they were ill, not by invitation but by intuiting that she’s needed, sleeping in their rooms until they recover. I’m allergic to animal dander, particularly cat dander, but I can now be near Penny without suffering allergic reactions. I’ve never heard Penny bark! Sister Madeleine Mary relates that she’s known Penny to growl at strangers they encounter on walks near the Convent because she knows they aren’t sisters or associates, but she isn’t the kind of dog to greet people with aggressive behavior; in contrast, she runs up to greet Convent visitors, gently brushes up against them, receives a few pats on her head, then goes her way. All of us associated with St. Mary’s Convent know that Penny joins the healer dogs, Sammy and Babycakes, in being a creature that leaves paw prints on others’ souls.

While doing research recently, I read a book entitled Mystical Dogs by Jean Houston that described the mystical qualities of dogs and the comfort they provide during dark nights a human may experience. She tells the story of a prison pet partnership program in which inmates train dogs to serve the physically disabled, the elderly, and the blind. “…Our present day canine friends inspire and support us through that stage of the mystic path known in some traditions as ‘the dark night of the soul…over and over again throughout my lifetime, with its share of personal dark nights, my dogs have known not only what my soul has needed, but also that I would survive, even when I felt that I would have a hard time doing so…they have known how to supply the faith, the warmth, the rapt attention, and the bodily presence that human friends and helpers cannot always provide…”

Houston believes that animals aren’t afraid of the darker aspects of life and are happy with us even when we feel broken, explaining that they like nothing better than searching for lost things, whether it’s a buried bone or a missing part of a human soul.



Saturday, July 8, 2017

CAMPOUT


This morning I moved a stack of books, and a little black notebook filled with the memorial postcards my mother collected on my family’s “moving west” adventure, circa 1946, fell out on the floor of my study. Every time I see the postcards of a roadside park near Burnet, Texas I wonder why my parents didn’t settle in Hill Country near Buchanan Dam. By the 40’s, Buchanan Dam had become known as the largest multi-arch dam in the world, and the area had begun to bustle.

At this time, we were on the famous Diddy Wah Diddy adventure to California — and, no, my father hadn’t quit his job to set out to pan gold — in fact, none of the family ever knew what his goal was, beyond following an inclination to “drop out.” We spent a month roughing it at a park I’ve never been able to relocate, even after two searches in the Buchanan Dam area during the 90’s. I surmise that we camped out near the Dam, probably on Lake Buchanan or Inks Lake — both major retirement and recreation places today.

Seven decades ago, this Hill Country paradise offered primitive lodging and places to eat, but my mother, a seasoned Golden Eaglet Girl Scout in her youth, and my father, always good for an outdoor adventure, thought it was a fishing, boating, and camping haven — and they were right. But why didn’t they settle there? At the time my father had sold everything we owned and replaced our worldly goods with camping equipment. We were virtually homeless!

The memories that well up in me are of a hot Army tent large enough to hold six Army cots and an old black trunk Mother used at Mississippi State College for Women with minimal clothing in it; of a charcoal grill on which my mother cooked everything from oatmeal to grilled chicken; the dubious “reading lamp” of a Coleman lantern; and the daily job of hauling water from somewhere in a park that also held a couple of public toilets. We bathed in one of the lakes and on a side trip to Austin, skinny dipped in the Brazos River along with TeeNap, our cocker spaniel that accompanied us everywhere. I was dubbed the “luxury-loving girl” because I didn’t have the proper respect for camping, but I only feared the experience would become permanent, and I loved school, a facility that didn’t seem to be open to us, in my father’s opinion. “Gypsies go to school in life,” he said.


Despite this experience, I feel inexplicable nostalgia every time I visit hill country. It was a place of cedar, oak, and mesquite, and in the nearby towns of Burnet, Llano, and Marble Falls, residences were built of beautiful native rock, a material that inspired my mother to use some kind of rock to embed in our memories… forever. When we returned to Franklinton, Louisiana and she became pregnant with #5, she hauled rock from a creek near the stucco house, in which we finally settled, during her sixth month of pregnancy and supervised the building of an outdoor table and benches made completely of rock similar to ones she had seen in Texas roadside parks.

I will never know why my parents didn’t settle in the Lake Buchanan area as it has mushroomed into an ideal place to live. I suppose that the area offered no employment for my father who was a certified civil engineer, and the Dam had already been built. He returned to Louisiana to sell Ford automobiles with my Grandfather Paul a couple of years before going back to the drafting board.

The great Diddy Wah Diddy trip that was the Great Buchanan Dam Camp-Out was recounted at every family gathering until my parents and four siblings passed into the campground on the other side.


Tuesday, July 4, 2017

HOW GREEN IS THE VALLEY


Rain falls on the 4th of July, threatening the flag raising, Arts and Crafts Fair, the cake contest, Cornhole Contest, the parade, and the Air Show, not to mention the fireworks blowout at Sewanee, Tennessee where I live part of the year. However, for Valley farmers near Cowan and Winchester, Tennessee, I give thanks for the recent heavy showers.

I’m glad I went down to Lapp’s in the Valley to garner my week’s supply of corn yesterday. This small market of plants and produce has been selling yields of the sweetest, most tender corn I’ve tasted in many a year, and the fields, amply watered by rain this year, are still a robust shade of green. In fact, the entire valley is a verdant carpet right now, and not all the ironweed and milkweed along roadsides have been sprayed or mowed down. However, recently we did have to search for Chicory plants to photograph for a book of poetry I’m writing.

Tennessee harvested 830,000 acres of corn last year, and if the Valley is any indicator of production, growth should exceed that harvest in 2017. I missed National Corn Cob Day June 11, but I appreciate the hoorah given this succulent vegetable. Coupled with barbecue ribs, corn on the cob is the quintessential food for 4th picnics, and I have six ears on the kitchen counter waiting for consumption.

The corn sold at Lapp’s is homegrown in fields behind his flower and produce market, and he should know how to cultivate this plant because he formerly lived in Amish country near Lawrenceburg, Tennessee where farming is part of the Amish lifestyle. Some of Lapp’s produce includes giant tomatoes that exceed the size of the usual store-bought mushy-fleshed tomatoes, and when cooked make delicious homemade tomato sauce for pasta.

Lately, I’ve enjoyed riding down The Mountain from Sewanee to The Valley — Cowan, Winchester, and Tullahoma — a drive that reminds me of coming out of the desert onto the curving road leading to Big Sur, California in the spring/summer. Sometimes I envision living in the Valley where I can look up at The Mountain, rather than living on the Cumberland Plateau and searching for places where I can peer over the bluff at the Valley below; however, I have no desire to live on the bluffs near Sewanee because I’ve heard that winds and storms in these areas are fierce.

Rumors are that property in the Valley is $100,000 cheaper than on The Mountain, but, alas, temps in the summer are often as much as eight degrees hotter. Yet, when I round the curve near Winchester and see the green fields (unfortunately, some of which are brown from herbicide enthusiasts) stretching out in the foothills of the Cumberlands, and the red barns gleaming on the landscape, I have a yen to drop down into a more pastoral setting … where I can buy fresh, sweet corn every day when it’s in season.

Happy 4th! Hope your picnic lunch includes a sweet ear of corn!


Photographs by Victoria I. Sullivan




Monday, June 26, 2017

FIREFLIES

A few nights ago as I watched television, I glanced through the open blinds on the French doors and saw pinpoints of lights glowing near the back porch. Aliens landing? A reflection from the television screen? No, the tiny flashes were fireflies! Memories of summer nights in my childhood flooded my mind. I hadn’t seen “lightning bugs” in years, and I had the impulse to fetch a jar from the kitchen and begin collecting them as I had done when I was a child.

I’m not wrong in supposing that fireflies, like many insects, birds, and plants, have been disappearing from forests, fields, and marshes throughout the world, particularly in humid, warm locales near water. Research shows that fireflies once populated these areas in such numbers that people profited from sponsoring firefly tours. However, pollution, pesticides, logging, and development of waterways have contributed to the demise of these magical beetles that once lit up summer nights. Even light that streams from our homes and streets have taken over the night and disturb the fireflies’ flashing patterns.

I’ll miss the light show of these winged beetles that still takes place in the Great Smokies National Park of Appalachia in late June. We visited there only a few weeks ago but the show wasn’t scheduled during our stay. According to The Week magazine, this particular species of lightning bugs that frequent a hardwood forest in the Smokies are synchronous and blink in unison during their mating ritual… but the ritual ends with their death. Sightseers visit the area in hordes to see the luminescent show. In southeast Asia, tropical fireflies also precisely synchronize their flashing. A few unlighted lightning bugs use only pheromones to signal their mates, but most species use bioluminescence to do their courting.

Those who have poignant memories of lightning bugs flashing in the summer nights of their youth can contribute to their “lastingness” by avoiding the use of pesticides in the yard, by leaving old logs near their homes intact, by not mowing often as the bugs love long grass, and instead of leaving the blinds on doors open at night, close them so the fireflies aren’t confused by human lighting devices and fail to attract mates.

Robert Frost was evidently fascinated with fireflies and wrote a wry verse about “Fireflies in the Garden:”*

“Here come real stars to fill the upper skies,
And here on earth come emulating flies,
That though they never equal stars in size,
(And were they ever really stars at heart?)
Achieve at times a very star-like start.
Only, of course, they can’t sustain the part.”

P.S. If you see fireflies in the night and have an impulse to get a jar and start collecting, don’t forget to let them out the following day.

  • quote from The Poetry Foundation