Thursday, March 29, 2012


Folks in middle Tennessee say that if a cold snap occurs when the dogwood blooms, we’ll experience a “dogwood winter,” but nothing has snapped here yet, and the beautiful white inflorescence of numerous dogwoods at Sewanee have been clustering a gracious plenty this last week of March. Typically, the trees bloom in mid-April, frequently as late as May, and a “dogwood winter” sometimes follows close behind the flowering.

Thankfully, the weather during this dogwood blooming is perfect, with sun-filled days when the temps climb only to 70 degrees and slight winds breeze through the Cumberland Plateau. Following the advice of gardeners around Sewanee, we planted a small flower garden in the backyard because locals believe that it is safe to dig in the dirt after dogwoods blossom. However, another note of caution for early planters -- according to farmers and gardeners, a “blackberry winter” occurs when a cold snap coincides with the time blackberries are in bloom, which is typically during early to mid-May. So perhaps we’re not out of the woods regarding weather snaps yet.

Hopefully, the weather and the white blanket of flowers will hold until Easter Sunday because many Christians regard the dogwood flowers as religious symbols of the season. Their white petals symbolize Christ’s white robe, and the red dots on their tips symbolize the blood of the Crucifixion. Also, the dogwood tree is reputed to have provided the wood for the cross on which Christ was crucified. At that time, dogwood trees grew tall; however, because of Christ’s death, the legend states that God stunted the dogwood species to prevent their future use as crosses for crucifixion. As a result, few dogwood trees today can be called “towering” (according to apocrypha that is).

The wood from dogwood trees in this neck of the woods is often used for mountain dulcimers, cane, and for fine inlays, and is also utilized for wine or fruit presses. According to folklore, another former use for dogwood was as a tooth brush. Pioneers moving West would peel off bark, bite the twig, and scrub their teeth, according to Gunn’s Domestic Medicine. However, as a lover of old Western movies, I don’t have much to say about the not-so-good-looking teeth of the heroes portrayed on the big screen. In fact, some of them were toothless (excepting John Wayne, of course)!

The dogwood tree has been adopted as the state flower of Virginia, as well as North Carolina and Sorth Carolina. When I was in my early thirties, my Godmother Dora, who lived in Blacksburg, Virginia, always wanted me to visit her in April when the Virginia woods were dense with dogwood blooms, but I missed the blooming every year. I often think of how she would have loved the Tennessee countryside in the Spring. Sunlight heightens the white blooms of the dogwoods that are at the edge of our small forest, and the trees grow well as understories in the semi-shade. I look at them and think of Oriental poets brushing into life their haiku poems about flowers and feel that early Easter blessings have already come to my province on The Mountain.

Rumi, the famous 13th century Persian poet, penned a few poems about Spring flowers resembling the dogwood blooms. One is entitled “Spring to Christ,” and a snippet is excerpted below:

“…Spring is Christ
raising martyred plants from their shrouds,
their mouths open in gratitude,
wanting to be kissed…”

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


After visiting the Smithsonian Exhibit, “The Way We Worked,” at Cowan, Tennessee Sunday afternoon, we walked up the main street of town, stopping often to peer in at closed shops. At the “Book Brake,” a bookstore owned by Tom McGee, two men beckoned for us to come in, and we entered the extremely long room that houses used and collectable books. Although we didn’t buy any books, we spent almost an hour talking with proprietor Tom McGee and Tom Wagner, editor of a publication “not affiliated with any group” entitled Cowan Comment. The latter is published six times a year, “one about every other month,” and provides interesting subjects to Cowan citizens and people who visit the community. Wagner’s mission is to encourage people to visit Cowan and to open businesses that will help revive life on Cumberland Street in Cowan. He asked me to contribute guest articles, so I plan to make more forays into the community to find fodder for blogs and informal essays.

McGee gave us free tickets to the Tennessee Antiquarian Book Fair which is held in the Monterrey Station in Cowan each year. Cowan claims the distinction of being the only small town in America with a national book fair. Most of the time these annual antiquarian book fairs are week-end events held in cities such as Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Seattle, Denver, and San Francisco. Last year, over fifty booksellers from more than twelve states participated in the Antiquarian Book Fair in Cowan, and more than a thousand book collectors and readers from throughout the North American continent attended the event. Lectures included Children’s Literacy, the Civil War in Tennessee, and “Book Collecting 101.” Nicholas Basbanes related tales from his book, A Gentle Madness, which included stories about book collectors from antiquity to the 1980’s.

The Monterrey Station that houses the Book Fair was built in the 1920’s and is touted as being one of the largest indoor event complexes in southeastern Middle Tennessee. It was formerly used as a shoe factory and a yarn mill and contains 20,000 sq. ft. This year’s Fair will be held July 21 and 22, prior to the opening of the Sewanee Writer’s Conference here on the campus of the University of the South. Documents concerning the Civil War, the American Revolution, and both World Wars will be showcased, as well as many collectable and rare books, first editions of mysteries, science fiction, and literature. The event will offer a real book feast for bibliophiles! (A copy of the ticket for this event appears at the beginning of this blog.)

Cowan gained its fame as a railroad town, as mentioned in my last blog, but the first settlers were farmers in search of new land and a new life – Scots/Irish immigrants from Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina who came to the area during the 1800’s. During the early 19th century, Cowan was a stage coach stop between Chattanooga and Nashville. Farmers sent their produce to markets by road to the Elk River at Estill Springs, Tennessee where it was shipped by river to ports on the Tennessee and Mississippi Rivers, notably the port at New Orleans. The town was named for Dr. J.B. Cowan, a medical officer on General Forrest’s staff during the Civil War, who is reputed to have given a large area of land to the town. Cowan became a rail center prior to the Civil War when rails were laid from Nashville through the Cumberland Tunnel two and one miles east of the town.

Cowan residents have seen various industries come and go – the Sewanee Furnace which produced 70 tons of pig iron per day at its zenith; the Davis, Hicks and Greene Timber Company that built a railroad over the mountain into Alabama and shipped logs by locomotive; a pusher terminal where special engines helped heavy freights of 125 cars and passenger trains through a tunnel in the Cumberland Mountains so that the cars could start down the opposite side; and farming operations that produced corn and cotton.

I obtained a bit of this information from an article by Dr. Andrew Rittenberry in an issue of the Franklin County Historical Review. He wrote “The City of Cowan has risen from the depths of the backwoods into a prosperous small town with industries and businesses. She possesses a great many hopes for the future: and a love and fondness of her past.” Cowan is a town whose time has come and is poised for revitalization. This Cumberland Valley town resembles many small towns in America that are gaining notice for their uniqueness and for their contributions to American culture and industry.

P.S. Thanks to my good friend and reader, Dr. Mary Ann Wilson, professor of English at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, for yesterday’s comments regarding the first blog about Cowan: “You have such a generous, appreciative voice in your blogs and make the worlds you create so real…”

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


Pinyon Publishing is rapidly becoming “the poet’s press,” and its latest title, Everything Barren Will Be Blessed by Don Thompson, is a wonderful example of the fine poets featured in this small press’s list. I love Thompson’s collection – it’s a significant landmark on the landscape of poems about the West, from the abstract painting by Susan Elliott on the book’s cover to the rich poems that capture the Southern California desert and fertile valleys. I am particularly inured to this “poetry of place” because it features the area I wandered as a tourist every summer for twenty years.

Don Thompson’s voice is that of a contemplative who can deal with solitude and silence and who is capable of spiritual insights as well as playful composition. I found that the collection enlarged my own passionate observations about the natural world of Southern California. The poems are filled with grace and an audacious imagination. Thompson takes us far, as John C. Van Dyke wrote in The Desert: “…beyond the wire fence of civilization…where the trail is unbroken…”

An example of the poet’s ability to combine playfulness and profundity in four quatrains about the Southern California valley is entitled “Preacher Valley” (which Thompson knows well as he lives on a cotton farm in a house that has been inhabited by four generations of his wife’s family):

“Everything we need to know
has been written in unhurried longhand
between the hills and the sky.
You can trace it with your finger.

It’s all carved in stone, too,
in those jagged musings of freeze and thaw.
Cottonwood and scrub oak
have been pinned to the earth like memos.

It’s even written for us
in the crabbed scrawl of the grass
and the scribbles of tumbleweed—
forever irritated, impatient

because we never notice
and go around muttering discontent,
self-obsessed and oblivious
as if our hearts were illiterate.”

Thompson is also well-acquainted with the wildlife of Southern California, writing about coyotes, hawks, and other bird life; and about the vegetation of pistachio trees and tumbleweeds “bounding along/while little ones hustle to keep up…” His word portraits about animals, particularly coyotes, are both witty and urbane; e.g., “Strangers:”

“Solitary coyotes usually move on
when they see someone coming—
uneasy, though not panicked.

But once, rounding a blind corner
on a winding road
between one nowhere town and another,

we came upon a crowd of them,
two dozen or more,
scattered across a hillside;

and each turned to stare,
fearless, not much interested
to tell the truth—

the way we watch a stranger go by,
wonder where he’s going, if anywhere,
and forget him as soon as he’s gone.”

I read this volume of poetry last night at bedtime and didn’t turn out the light until I had finished reading the last wonderful poem. As the title indicates, poet Don Thompson has blessed the barren landscape of California desert and valley with this collection of accessible poetry about the San Joaquin Valley area. This is a book of poetry that will deepen readers’ perspectives and their sense of connection with nature. The poems are notable for “right” detail and metaphor, as well as memorable images that delight and nourish mind and spirit.

Everything Barren Will Be Blessed is the sequel to Thompson’s Back Road, a collection of poetry that captured the Sunken Garden Poetry Prize for 2008. This is an impressive voice published by an impressive press that has become a real match for 21st century small presses.

Everything Barren Will Be Blessed can be ordered from or from Pinyon-Publishing, 23847 V66 Trail, Montrose, California 81403

Monday, March 19, 2012


Jarod's grandmother remembers
Sunday afternoons on The Mountain here at Sewanee are desultory, particularly during the Spring break on the University of the South campus where we live in a modest cottage. The solution to ennui usually takes the form of a “field trip,” and yesterday we drove down the Mountain to the valley where the town of Cowan has been offering a unique Smithsonian exhibit entitled “The Way We Worked” at the Cowan Center for the Arts.

Cowan is a city with a population of 1737 people, and its claim to fame is as a railroad town, the site where the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railway formerly employed 600 people from the area. It was the last stop before a steep uphill climb onto the Cumberland Plateau, and pusher locomotive engines were required to help the trains make the ascent, a 2228 ft. grade which had to be mounted before reaching a tunnel which ran through the Cumberland Mountains two miles from the town.

St. Mary's Station on the railway route
As a companion exhibit to the Smithsonian, the Cowan Railroad Museum offers a display showing railroad tools, methods of train travel, as well as photographs of Cowan’s largest employer between 1916 and 1928: the Davidson, Hicks, and Green Lumber Company which operated three sawmills and 25 miles of railroad. The coal and iron industries near Cowan are also featured in this exhibit.

The Smithsonian Exhibit includes kiosks with photographic essays of The Way We Worked, Where We Worked, How We Worked, Who Works, and Why We Work, including an interesting study of “Women Against the Odds,” documenting the war effort of women at work during WWII. An interesting statistic from the 20th Century: 37 percent of the workforce in 1975 involved women, and 63% were involved by the year 2000.

Jarod Pearson on board of Cowan RR Museum
One hundred eighty six photographs, with accompanying text comprise the exhibit, along with flip books, audio clips, and video screens. While we enjoyed the exhibit, we renewed our friendship with Jarod Pearson, proprietor of Sernicola’s Restaurant and the Franklin-Pearson House, a Bed and Breakfast facility. Jarod is on the Board for the Cowan Railroad Museum and told us that he helped write the proposal for the grant funding the exhibit. “We were pleasantly surprised when we received word that our proposal was the best proposal submitted,” he said. “I wrote the texts describing photographs and was told to put the stories in language that could be understood by fifth graders as school children would be primary attenders. I had to scan the photographs in high resolution for presentation, and create the stories that feature Cowan industries.”

In addition to the Smithsonian Exhibit and the Cowan Railroad Museum Companion Exhibit, an Arnold Air Force Base Display, Falls Mill Display, University of the South Display comprise exhibits in the Cowan Center for the Arts Theater. Next door in the Training Center, displays from the Crow Creek Heritage Preservation Society show how people of the Crow Creek Valley made a living as miners, railroad workers, farmers, brick makers, and as workers in the logging and tanbark industry. Photographs from The Grundy County Historical Society Heritage Center are featured, the latter showing photographs of the Swiss Colony at Gruetli, the Sam Werner Lumber Company, and a display about Dr. Lilian W. Johnson, Advocate for Agricultural Cooperatives. Franklin County Historical Society and Kokomo Grain Company also carried out the theme of how workers form the backbone of Franklin County.

I know the work ethic is strong in Franklin County as we have had carpenters, plumbers, electricians, and housekeepers working on the cottage during the past four years, and while they have been sometimes sporadic about showing up to do the work, when they appear, they crawl under the cottage, climb on the roof, remove windows for cleaning, working in teams of four or five, sometimes in blazing August temperatures that would fell a Louisianan.

I was amused last week when I bought groceries in Kroger's at Winchester, Tennessee and as I was checking out, an eighteen-year old man struck up a conversation (another facet of Tennessee workers-- garrulousness. They make you a part of their lives immediately). “How are you?” he asked. When I replied that I was doing well and how was he, he was off and running. “I’m so glad to be working,” he said. “Everyone should be glad to be working. I graduated from high school this summer and was sitting on the couch doing nothing and thought to myself, ‘Man, you are poor; what are you doing sitting on the couch?’ So I got up and came down here and got this job bagging groceries. I’m glad to have a job.”

No, I didn’t ask for the story, but such accounts are characteristic of the workers around these parts, and I applaud them for their work ethic. “The Way We Worked” display at Cowan illustrates the strength and endurance of workers in middle Tennessee who have kept our society and economy running despite downturns, politicians who make false promises, bank crashes, inflation, and wars.

“The Way We Worked” exhibit, offered in partnership with Humanities Tennessee, Museums on Main Street, the Smithsonian Institution, Cowan Railroad Museum, and State Humanities Councils nationwide, will be open until April 21. Lectures will be offered Sundays and Thursdays every week until April 19. The exhibits are free, but donations help support ongoing work of these organizations.

Monday, March 12, 2012


I’ve placed photographs of my brother Paul’s yard on my blogs in the past – scenes of his beautiful garden, benches, and lattices he has built to create a lush California scene that deserves to decorate a postcard. Yesterday, his wife, Lori, sent me a photograph of the latest addition to his yard that she and Paul saw and bought on a walk through the neighborhood in northern California – a totem pole. I’ve included the photograph of it but have no idea what this particular totem symbolizes. I do know that totem poles are often representative of kinship groups and aren’t objects of worship.

In the particular coastal area where Paul lives, totem poles are more common than in southern California and are the products of local descendants of aborigines. The carving culture has actually moved down from British Columbia and Washington to this area along the northern coast. Although the totem poles once represented clan lineage and legends, today, they are mostly artistic representations.

Some of them have been used in aboriginal cultures to represent shamanic powers, but I don’t think Paul’s carving belongs in that category. During the 18th century, Christian missionaries denounced totem poles as objects of heathen worship and tried to destroy them. In some places, notably in Canada and the Southwest, totem poles have been labeled as “junk art,” a naming that demeans native cultures and the skillful carvers within those cultures.

Totem carvers often use animals to denote special powers of the individual owning them. In my young adult book, Martin Finds His Totem, Martin, the hero, who has Cajun and Chitimacha lineage, sets out to find his totem and discovers that a hawk is the bird that will represent his special healing powers. The passage in which he discovers his totem:

“Through the drizzle, I glimpsed a long-winged hawk, with an equally long tail and gray back and head, soaring just above the ground around the lake, its wings held back in a V. Then I heard a squealing noise and knew that the hawk had flown close to the ground to overtake a field mouse by surprise. The hawk dropped out of my vision, but when it soared above a tree, I heard it make a sharp whistling sound like “kee-kee.” I was fascinated at the sight of him and decided not to leave my tent or to give up my search for a totem. Could the hawk be the animal I looked for? My dad called this bird, with its disk-shaped face like an owl, a harrier, and I knew the hawk had keener hearing than other hawks. What a powerful totem he would make if he was mine. But how would I know?…”

Martin makes this choice of a hawk for his totem because he’s told by a shaman that every young man needs a dream animal to protect him.  In actuality, many carvers of animal totems that decorate poles feel that the bears, birds, and other animals represent protection for the carvers.

I’ve written Paul's wife, asking her to identify the carvings on the new totem pole and to tell me what they symbolize.  I hope that his new object of yard art isn't one of the totems that shows symbols of quarrels and murders about which Native Americans prefer to keep silent --the topmost figure is rather ominous-looking!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012


When the Spanish arrived in the area that is now known as New Iberia in 1779, they named their post Nueva Iberia, in honor of the “land of flowers,” a phrase describing their native Iberian peninsula. I don’t know the types of flowers and plants that enchanted them on their arrival during the 18th century, but today, the azalea, a flowering shrub with its lavender, red, white, orange, and pink blossoms, abounds in most yards and gardens of the city each Spring. New Iberia has its own Azalea Trail with designated paths of the colorful plant and joins with other southern cities in North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina in honoring the flower by organizing azalea festivals. The azalea is also one of the symbols of Sao Paulo, Brazil.

I remember arriving in New Iberia in January, 1964, and to my dismay, rain fell steadily almost the entire month. I looked out at the gray sheets of rain as I drove over the old bridge arching above the muddy Bayou Teche and wondered if I’d ever like living in the area. However, by late February, the city had begun to come alive with azaleas. The sight of these bushes with their vari-colored blossoms inured me to the Queen City of the Teche, and every year I marvel at the few azalea bushes blooming in my yard, wondering how they have thrived without fertilizer of any kind or expert pruning.

People in Oriental cultures love azaleas. The Chinese poet Tu Fu featured the azalea in his poetry, and the Japanese sponsor an azalea festival in honor of the Tsutsuji azalea in Tokyo during early April each year. In China, one meaning for azalea is womanhood – to the Chinese the plant also denotes thoughtfulness and pensiveness through its designation as “the thinking home bush.”

Tu Fu wrote a story entitled “Sea of Blood Red Azaleas,” using the azalea as a symbol of homesickness and exile, and I know I'll ponder this meaning when I return in mid March to The Mountain at Sewanee, Tennessee for a Spring and Summer stay. Tu Fu’s poignant allusion to the azalea is immortalized in “Alone, Looking For Blossoms Along the River,” the last stanza reading:

“I don’t so love blossoms I want to die, I’m afraid,
Once they are gone; of old age still more impetuous,
And they scatter gladly, by the branchful. Let’s talk
Things over little buds – open delicately, sparingly.”

And this Haiku from the Japanese poet, Matsu Basho, writing in the 17th century:

"rock azaleas
have they been dyed by the red
tears of the cuckoo."

The photographs in this blog are of azaleas in my yard that have been blooming for three weeks now.

Thursday, March 1, 2012


To me, youth means having a face that is alive. I’m not talking about mascara, eyeliner, lipstick or lip gloss, make-up, and all the other masks touted by conventional society and its ideas about female beauty – I’m talking about the vitality in a person’s eyes and the inner spirit reflected in the naked face. When I read and hear the comments of some women now in their middle years who’re grasping at physical youth or a “presentation” of youthfulness – cynical women who have begun advocating that aging women have nothing to offer society, bypassing the wisdom and compassion of women in their last four decades of life, I sigh. I sigh because in their faces, I already see a certain toughness and bitterness, pinched looks that reflect no beauty, connectedness, grace and unconditional love. I read a passage in Womanspirit Rising by Carol Christ and Judith Plaskow and sigh again: “the power of the young woman is illusory, since beauty standards are defined by men, and since few women are considered (or consider themselves) beautiful for more than a few years of their lives. Some men are viewed as wise and authoritative in age, but old women are pitied and shunned…”

I love Shakespeare’s description of Cleopatra: “Age cannot wither nor custom stale her infinite variety.” About nine years ago when I was 68, a good friend gave me a book of photography entitled Wise Women by Joyce Tenneson, inscribed with the words “For a wise, spunky and lovely woman,” and I treasure both the book’s contents and the inscription. Wise Women is a book that underlines the vitality, courage, and grace of women who are still practicing their vocations – poets, activists, dancers, musicians, grandmothers in photographs that reveal what it means to grow in strength and grace as they get older.

Tenneson’s work accomplishes what she hoped in producing this book – it helps dispel the negative attitude that advancing age is a time of degeneration, physically and mentally. She photographed the faces of women in their last four decades of life who remain dedicated to bringing a sense of beauty and connectedness to other women, portraying many women whom the aging process has actually enhanced. The book is filled with wonderful pictures of role models for older women… and for younger ones who fear aging and try their best to claim the Fountain of Youth through cosmetics, aping youthful styles in dress, focusing obsessively on fitness, crash diets, even becoming anorexic to achieve perceived youthfulness.

Women once died early before reaching the stage where their insights, wisdom, and compassion could be shared with society, but today we’re living longer and making use of our faculties to convey a positive life spirit. The women represented in Wise Women are women whose closeness to death gives them perspective on the problems of life and who continue to be healers, writers, lawgivers, wise crones… In the words of my friend Isabel Anders, writing in The Faces of Friendship: “We have not come to this point for nothing. We have been called to be part of others’ stories as they have been within ours. As we stay together, with, by, and for each other, we are saying ‘Keep on, there’s more ahead!’”…

Several years ago, I wrote a book of poetry entitled Just Passing Through, and one of the poems symbolized my attitude toward this notion of growing older:

the trees are promised gold, red, brown,
yet only the dogwood acts
as though change is welcome,
accepts the leaf turning, departing green,
shakes out hues of flaming flower,
embracing the grace of diffraction.

The painting on the cover of Just Passing Through was rendered by my brother Paul.