Monday, September 16, 2019

SOMETHING SQUIRRELY

Squirrel at bird feeder

Author Beatrix Potter may have been enchanted with squirrels when she wrote The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, but she did portray Squirrel Nutkin as saucy and badly-behaved and almost had an owl eat him for his misbehavior. I readily agree with Potter’s portrayal of Squirrel Nutkin since an army of such ill-behaved tail swishers have invaded my backyard and sit underneath our new bird feeder waiting for sunflower seeds to fall from heaven when it’s filled daily. The feeder has a black baffle to keep them from climbing the pole, but I’ve heard they can chew through metal.

These bushy-tailed rodents are a nuisance, and I’m thinking of finding a Mr. Brown, the owl, to eat a few of them, or at least for the owl to use its talons to pull the squirrels’ tails in two when they try to scamper away (as reported in The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin). I know that I’m at risk of being called an animal hater, but we’ve worked hard at ordering a bird feeder, putting it together, and furnishing it with the right kind of seed to attract the birds we thought a Merlin hawk had done away with several weeks ago. However, the squirrels love to make the nuthatches and titmice scatter when they come to feed, and I’m not sure they don’t sometimes catch and consume the tiny birds.

After all, these critters are just rodents, and I don’t like the sight of them sitting under the bird feeder, frightening my feathered friends away. Thank goodness we don’t have any flying ones in the backyard… just big-eyed critters that come down our oaks head first, ready to pounce on our birds, long incisors bared.

I’ve never hankered after squirrel stew, but I know that James Beard has a recipe, and in south Louisiana, it’s been a favored dish (Cajuns, they say, will eat anything. Consider the mudbug!). My mother was known for stirring up a squirrel stew in a black iron pot she placed over a wood fire in the living room fireplace, thinking this arrangement made the dish more authentic and tasty. I never dared to taste it and am glad I didn’t. Nowadays, those stews are banned because squirrels are often exposed to toxic waste and in some locales have been known to cause certain types of dementia.

Thank goodness, we don’t have a colony of white squirrels in the backyard. These unusual critters often frequent university campuses because students bring them in, touting that the albino squirrel brings good luck — campuses in Texas, Kentucky, and Ohio, to name a few. So far, only gray squirrels seem to have taken up residence on the Sewanee campus,

Although squirrels symbolize energy and socialization, and orphaned ones who’ve been raised by foster human parents will return to their parents. I can’t imagine taking one in to raise. I do know my backyard squirrels aren’t Cajun immigrants because they don’t like cayenne pepper, garlic, and black pepper — perhaps because they sense that those seasonings are always used in a tasty stew or gumbo of which they may become the chief ingredient.


Photography by Victoria I. Sullivan

Friday, September 13, 2019

CHAPELS

Convent of St. Mary, Sewanee, TN


At one time, New Iberia Louisiana’s premier artist, Paul Schexnayder, and I thought of producing a book about Episcopal chapels in Louisiana. He’d illustrate; I’d do the text. However, we both got caught up in work for other books, and all that remains of the proposed volume are the rough texts for three chapels, two of which I've attended in Louisiana and another one in a non-Louisiana region, Sewanee, Tennessee.

This morning, I discovered the notes for texts about two chapels that would’ve appeared in the volume dedicated to Episcopal chapels. At this stage of my writing vocation, I doubt if I’ll get around to writing the aforementioned book, so I decided to share the notes I made in a “chapel blog,” beginning with one labeled "Lagniappe," the non-Louisiana chapel at St. Mary’s Convent here in Sewanee, Tennessee where I worship regularly and sometimes preach six months of the year.

Angel at Convent of St. Mary, Sewanee

The chapel at the mother house of the Anglican Sisters of St. Mary, Sewanee, Tennessee was designed by Architect Robert Seals and consecrated in 1988. It was constructed of native stone similar to many of the buildings here in Sewanee, and the following text (after revisions) would have appeared as lagniappe about a noteworthy Tennessee chapel in the volume featuring Louisiana chapels:

They teach us about living in stillness with the One who guides a community that follows St. Benedict’s Rule. The Sisters, dressed in their unadorned blue jumpers with white blouses, wake up to a gray world of mist, praying the words of St. Benedict: “Let nothing be preferred to the Word of God.” At 7 a.m., a bell that was transported from their original Mother House in Memphis and placed in the tower of the stone chapel, calls them to Morning Prayer and the Eucharist, two of five offices they celebrate each day. 
    The white-walled chapel is the cathedral of our faith where we feast at The Table with this group of disciplined women. A cat lurks in the hall; an aging dog curls up on a cushion beside the Prioress’s chair and frequently goes to the altar to receive a blessing. Through the clear glass window behind the altar, mist rises over the rugged steep overlooking the Cumberland Valley. Outside, a black locust tree welcomes rain now pattering on the blue tin roof. The downpour drenches a garden of roses where a miniature stone angel sits on a swing, surveying her domain. 
    At the plain oak altar with a cross carved in center front, we gather for The Eucharist. On this particular day, the scent of Easter lilies, incense, and candle wax from the Resurrection celebration mingles in the chapel, along with the fiery words of a presiding priest who exhorts us to practice inclusiveness and justice. 
    The Sisters not only offer the world their prayers for all people, they include us in the chanting of Psalms and the Eucharist, then serve us breakfast in a refectory with windows on every side where they look out at a world they praise daily. Hospitality is part of their lifework. They began offering the sacramental life to mountain people on the Feast of the Transfiguration in the 19th century and have kept their doors open to all people since that time. The Sisters are kinswomen of the Order of St. Mary once led 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. 
    At early morning Eucharist, Sister Mary Zita, a Filipino nun, sits in front of me, a sock cap with a star design on it atop her head. She is silent, bent over her prayer book. She joined the Order of St. Mary of Sewanee after Prioress Sister Lucy of St. Mary of Sewanee went on a mission to the Philippines where she visited this religious order in the mountain province of Sagada and recruited the little nun. 
    “Life,” the Sisters would say, “is best lived in community. The Community 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 stewards of God’s gifts. Let nothing be preferred to the Word of God. The altar is the home of our abiding.

My notes about this chapel end here, but for those who wish to know more about the Sisters of St. Mary at Sewanee, Ten Decades of Praise is available in the library of the Convent of St. Mary, Sewanee, Tennessee. Also available is my book entitled In A Convent Garden, poetry about the Sisters.

Photographs by Victoria I. Sullivan


Thursday, September 5, 2019

SOMETHING FROGGY


In Japan, frogs are revered as creatures 200 million years old that bring prosperity and abundance and have appeared in haiku poetry for centuries. Consider the most famous haiku penned at a haiku gathering by Basho in the 17th century: “The old pond/a frog jumps in/the sound of water.” Simple lines about a critter in the Amphibian family that often evokes in humans a fascination with movement. 

My entire family, dating back to my mother, who painted a watercolor of a frog posing in the woodlands beside an elf, was fascinated with these long-legged, webbed-toed/fingered creatures. I’ve had a long-time interest in frogs, especially bullfrogs, one of which bellows under the bushes beside my bedroom window in New Iberia, Louisiana. It has a vibrant bass voice that field guides describe as “jug-a-rum,” and I miss its sonorous songs when I sojourn here on The Mountain at Sewanee, Tennessee. I was excited when I thought I heard a frog singing last week, but my mid-80 ears often deceive me; most of the time I hear the incessant buzz of insects.


At seven, my youngest daughter, Elizabeth, spent hours during summer vacations catching frogs at water’s edge of a camp in Toledo Bend, Louisiana that we once owned. And Elizabeth begat Joel who developed an abiding interest in frogs and other reptiles. He was preceded by Martin, my oldest grandson who, at nine, became fascinated with the different songs frogs sang when he put on boots and walked into a small swamp near my home in New Iberia, Louisiana.They included the grunts of pig frogs, bleats of sheep frogs, the chuckling trill of southern crawfish frogs who resided in holes where the usual chimneys atop them had disappeared, and, of course, the bass notes of the singing bullfrog.

Joel is the family member who inspired me to write a long poem about the Beelzebufo frog or devil frog, the largest frog ever to live on earth. This frog’s fossil remains were found on the island of Madagascar, according to an article I discovered through NSF News. The poem I wrote was not average book-length but was made so by the illustrations of Ben Blanchard. Ben is a talented young friend who, at the time of my discovery about the Beelzebufo frog, had just graduated from a Raw Food Preparation and Organic Gardening School sponsored by Tree of Life and was living in Sedona, Arizona. He had returned to Louisiana to visit his mother, then residing in the Ginger House next to us, and had just treated us to his “Third Eyes Cream,” a dessert made with frozen bananas, raw chocolate, and Goji berries.


The story of the Beelzebufo frog inspired Ben, and we later exchanged ideas about a book we’d name The Beast Beelzebufo at a meeting in Starbucks, Broussard, Louisiana. Ben’s illustrations were entirely his interpretation of the poem inspired by the giant frog, and his art work aptly embellished this story about a creature with thick-armored skin. The illustrations in this blog showcase Ben’s talent, and I was sorry to see him forego his interest in illustrating children’s books (he later wrote and illustrated his own, Willameena Moonbeam, while living in Austin, Texas) to follow a career in film. 

For those interested in catching frogs, Roger Conant outlines the slapping down process in A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians: “Slap your flattened hand over the frog, pinning him down while you grasp a leg, or legs, with your other hand. Don’t slap too hard or casualties will occur. You will have the best success in stalking your quarry if you don’t look directly at it. Move in at an angle, watching it out of the corner of your eye.” I can’t imagine Elizabeth or Martin, my amateur herpetologists, being so cautious about stalking a frog and wish I’d observed them in the act so I could recount their methods. However, I did get a firsthand look at some slippery bullfrogs before advising my intrepid frog lovers to let them go as the innocent critters needed to leap about spreading the good luck attributed to them. 

I look forward to hearing the bullfrog’s serenade when I return to New Iberia in October. I’ve read that the songs of frogs symbolize the rebirth of self. “Jug a rum, jug a rum.”


Artwork by Benjamin Blanchard, the ultimate “renegade and road scholar,” now living in Austin, Texas. 

Photographs by Victoria I. Sullivan