Thursday, June 14, 2018


Great Smoky Mountains Railroad

I’m writing a book of poetry about trains, and a few days ago, my botanist friend Vickie Sullivan and I traveled to western North Carolina and bought a ticket on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad that departs from Bryson City, North Carolina and returns the same day. The drive from Sewanee along the scenic trail through Nantahala River country is a winding one, and on a Sunday afternoon, it’s a slow drive due to rafters and kayakers making their way to the Ocoee River. Despite the congestion, I always feel uplifted when we enter western North Carolina and I see the looming Great Smokies.

During the trip, we followed the Blueway Trail at the edge of the Smoky Mountain National Park — Little Tennessee, Nantahala, Oconaluftee, and Tuckasegee Rivers that flow into Fontana Lake, and I kept wishing for my old fly rod to do some backcasting. However, I’m sure that my limbs are no longer able to maneuver a float trip. 

We took the only train excursion offered the day after we arrived — the Nantahala Gorge Excursion — and saw much of the territory we’d been through five or six times during visits to western North Carolina. However, we got a closer look at Fontana Lake and traveled on the sky-high Fontana Trestle Bridge. The excursion that sounded like a well-traveled one was the “Shine and Dine Moonshine Experience” and was listed as the priciest experience on the schedule. True to its name, moonshine is the beverage featured during the train ride.

Our train ride was a unique adventure, but I’d been hoping to make the excursion that featured Dillsboro and the Cowee Tunnel filmed in the movie, The Fugitive. As this excursion wasn’t offered, we drove to Dillsboro and further to Silva the day following our train ride. Silva, a small town in the Plott Balsam Mountains, has become famous as a site filmed in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and for scenes from the movie Deliverance. Of course, we wandered into the City Lights Bookstore where I discovered further information about the Cherokee Little People after I’d found a book entitled The Cherokee Little People Were Real by Mary A. Joyce in a Bryson City Bookstore. 

I haven’t been able to determine whether these Little People were real but the Cherokee Indians say that when they arrived in the southeastern U.S., a group of people they called the Little People lived underground and came out only at night, tended gardens and returned underground after harvesting their produce. The sun rays were too harsh for them so they constructed cities underground and came out of their caves to work by moonlight. For that reason, the Cherokee also called them “The Moon People." They had red whiskers, squinty eyes, and were hardly four feet tall. According to old-timers and farmers, the flood of 1940 exposed an artifact with a leprechaun-like face known as “Lead Head” that features one of the Little People. The Little People’s tunnels are said to have been found in Cullowhee on the site of Western Carolina University but several historians report that these tunnels and artifacts were covered up and university buildings were constructed over them.

We skirted the Western Carolina University campus but didn’t make any archaeological digs while there, although I would have liked a glimpse of the mysterious coin with a strange face on each side called “Lead Head” — a face that has Dr. Spock ears and a large nose resembling an Irish leprechaun.

The Little People are no longer alive, according to most researchers but the Cherokee remember stories about them and report that they influenced the way Cherokees learned to live in the mountains. They were so missed that the Cherokee came up with the idea of the Little People Spirit People. These spirits can be helpful but they are also mischievous. Cherokees say that the Little People brought the news of Jesus to them, telling them about his life and his crucifixion. They say that when the Little People heard about Jesus’ death, they wept and wherever their tears fell to the ground, they transformed into fairy crosses which are the unique cross-shaped gems found in the southern Appalachians.

In one of the books, I discovered entitled Living Stories of the Cherokee by Barbara R. Duncan, the author relates that the Little People don’t die. “They’re like spirits,/and they (the Cherokees) could implore them to come,/and there are some who have seen them./Now you can’t see them /unless they want you to see them./And if you see them,/there’s something going to happen/whether good or bad,/either way…and you can hear them, you know,/in different ways, walking and, you know,/they are not mischievous/they are protectors.”

Train photograph by Victoria Sullivan

Friday, June 1, 2018


The above program title is often abbreviated as SOIL lest its length deter young people from aspiring to become interns who share the rhythm and routine of praying and worshipping daily, working in the garden and grounds of the Convent of the Community of St. Mary at Sewanee, Tennessee, and cultivating a life that typifies the balance of the Benedictine Order. 

Visitors often see the interns weeding the Convent garden, planting lavender, and performing as acolytes and readers on the altar at the Convent of St. Mary. The intern program has been in motion for several years, and recently welcomed Eva Bogino from Maryland, a summer intern who will be living at St. Dorothy’s, a small cottage on the grounds of St. Mary, and following the Benedictine model of prayer, work, study, and rest. I understand she has deactivated all social media for the summer! And she’s plucky to come here during our monsoon season at Sewanee.

Long-term interns are usually college graduates who wish to expand their spiritual life and to discern how to use their gifts, interests, and experiences in service to others while living alongside the Sisters. Their tenure lasts from August 15th to mid-May. Summer interns live on the grounds of the Convent of St. Mary for a shorter period — mid-May to early, August — and may be undergraduates or young people who are at least 19 years of age. 

The two young people pictured above, Nathan Bourne and Eileen Schaeffer, were the convent’s first interns and are well remembered for informal hospitality dinners they cooked and served for members of the larger community of Sewanee during their internship. These two young people were outstanding models of the internship program, actively engaging in planting and harvesting lavender at the Convent of St. Mary for Thistle Farms in Nashville (a program that uses lavender in products made by survivors of trafficking, prostitution, and addiction who are healed and empowered during a residency at the farm). 

Although Nathan and Eileen, like succeeding interns, engaged in agricultural pursuits, they also participated in study beyond the Convent and explored ways in which their faith connected with human communities and the natural world. Past newsletters from the Convent of St. Mary describe their work and their devotion to the Intern program. Copies of these newsletters are housed at the Convent of St. Mary. 

Short term interns in the SOIL program (also called The Organic Prayer Internship Program — TOPIP) have been provided with housing and some meals, and long-term interns are offered the same arrangement, as well as a modest weekly stipend. The "long-termers" sometimes work outside the St. Mary Community to make extra money.

Those of us who are associates and other members of the congregation who worship at the Convent of St. Mary love the engagement with these interns who are following their “Rule of Life” or mission: “Spiritual and personal growth and development and vocational discernment guided by the Benedictine model of prayer, work, study, and rest that is rooted in intentional communal living in harmony with the natural world, the Community of St. Mary, and the greater Sewanee Community.”

Prioress Madeleine Mary says she’s looking for new interns, and we who attend services in the Chapel at St. Mary and function as Associates look forward to welcoming these young people. Readers of this blog who know qualifying applicants, please guide them to the application form at the Community of St. Mary website:, or write to Prioress Madeleine Mary at the Community of St. Mary, Southern Province, 1100 St. Mary’s Lane, Sewanee, TN 37375. 

Photograph by Prioress Madeleine Mary

Saturday, May 26, 2018


When I returned from a trip out of state, tired and my mind devoid of any kind of poetic thought and found a new book of poetry from Pinyon Publishing in my mailbox, I felt an infusion of energy. Where the Waters Take You by Neil Harrison is that kind of infusion. He speaks to my condition with a voice of lucid tones, writing about the natural world and what his clear eyes see in that world.

However, he is at his best when he writes about childhood, drawing readers in from the beginning of Where the Waters Take You in “The Lost Child,” a simple but complex poem about “an entity of perpetual change,” the child who is eventually lost to the world, “still forming and forever adapting/[to]this eternally unfinished home.” In these lines, the reader gets his first glimpse of an underlying wisdom permeating three sections of absorbing verse.

After reading these powerful and unflinchingly honest poems, I surmised that Harrison is a solitaire and a “poet of place” settled in Nebraska. He acknowledges this sense of place in an amusing poem entitled “Already There.” We enter into this idea of regional verse through the lines “I think we all knew he was going somewhere,/the way he’d take off on his tricycle,/though it’s clear now he was already there./On that big red-and-white trike he’d tear/down the sidewalk as fast as he could pedal/and we knew one day he was going somewhere…on his roundabout way to New Orleans, where/he lived for a time, then faced death so well/we all still believed he was going somewhere./Though it’s clear now he was already there.” The poem reminds me of a friend from Alabama who was always riding her tricycle westward to California to “find herself” and ended up in the South writing nostalgically about The Road Home to Alabama. I also thought of Thomas Wolfe who began writing about his native North Carolina while he lived in Europe.

Harrison’s impassioned elegy about death, “Spring Burial in the Sandhills,” reveals how deeply he plunges, then emerges, bringing us a poignant message that deserves numerous readings: “A carnival helix of the great wild birds/spirals upward far to the west,/winged escort singing you/up from the season of planting and birth,/out of the cyclic skein of time, where/what we here consign to the earth/has already flowered.” 

Another favorite of mine is entitled “Addiction,” in which Harrison uses a bird as metaphor — it could stand as a statement for the current obsession with opioids: “Nothing quite so human as this/quest to get higher than ordinary/on whatever wings come to hand —/food, drink, sex, drugs, some/elusive degree of wealth or fame./Gambling on those hollow feathers/fastened with that ancient glue, the dream,/another hero almost touching the sun/begins to awaken, already engaged/in the all too common fall.” Again, we hear the poet’s voice simple, yet complex, profound, yet funny, speaking of human willfulness and the tragic consequences of addiction.

We watch with Harrison as the outdoorsman performs his evening watch in his native Nebraska in the end poem, “The Evening Watch,” where “down through the ages bison died…as the day winds down, in the fading light/the view of that broken ridge brings to mind/a painting of a man at prayer, long ago,/ three friends fast asleep nearby…and from the river bluffs to the horizon and on/the stacked bones watch with me.”  The poet is alone in a wild place at dusk, and he paints a picture as vivid as scenes depicted in Wilderness Essays by the naturalist John Muir, his “sudden plash into pure wildness — baptism in Nature’s warm heart…” Harrison’s poem speaks of his mystic communion with nature, enticing readers to view the loveliness and the mysteries of the natural world.

Neil Harrison has written several books about the natural world: In A River of Wind; Into the River Canyon at Dusk, and Back in the Animal Kingdom. He is a former instructor of English and Creative Writing at Wayne State College in Wayne, Nebraska, and at Northeast Community college in Norfolk Nebraska where he also coordinated the Visiting Writers Series. He now resides in Norfolk, and according to Pinyon Publishing, “makes diamond-willow walking sticks, wine from various wild fruits, and excursions to the local fields and streams with his third Deutsche Drahthaar, the Happy Dog.”

More kudos to Pinyon for publishing another banner poet. Available at Pinyon Publishing, 23847 V66 Trail, Montrose, CO 81403.