Tuesday, September 29, 2015


Pumpkins for sale, Krogers
Fall on The Mountain, and the sky is heavy and gray; the yard littered with yellow tulip poplar  and white oak leaves. When we stand on the front porch and look through the small wood in front of our house, we can now see the lake—water that isn’t visible during the summer months. The woods are beginning to thin, and we’ve heard that deer culling at Sewanee will begin this week—wildlife, in general, will soon diminish (except for the ubiquitous cottontails that come out of hiding at night).

A bright note on this cloudy day: pumpkins have gone on sale at grocery stores and outdoor markets, and are even displayed in front of a few retail outlets. In middle Tennessee, pumpkins have been harvested already and are available for early Halloween Jack O’Lanterns. Right now, Stone Mountain, near Atlanta, Georgia, has become the scene of the annual Pumpkin Festival, an event that will last an entire month, September 25 – October 25, 2015.

This plump member of the squash family has been growing about four months and ‘though I’ve seen some huge specimens, I’m told that Utah has the corner on the marketing of giant pumpkins. Growers in this western state raise pumpkins that weigh in at six or seven hundred pounds, and one “plumpkin” topped 1,000 pounds. The Utah farmers aren’t so much interested in providing a good pumpkin pie (or hundreds of pumpkin pies) as they are in competing for the title of the grower of the largest pumpkin in the U.S.

Farmers have been planting pumpkin seeds in the U.S. for several centuries, but citizens didn’t use them as Jack O’ Lanterns for Halloween until the Irish migrated to America. Before the Irish came
Yard on Kennerly St., Sewanee,TN
into the U.S., people made Jack O’ Lanterns from turnips and potatoes, vegetables too small to make good window dressing like the snaggle-toothed pumpkins we see on Halloween. Although the Irish introduced the use of pumpkins as Jack O’Lanterns, farmers, worldwide, have been growing this vegetable for over 5,000 years.

When I see these plump, orange squash, I’m reminded of James Whitcomb Riley’s “When the frost is on the punkin/and the fodder’s in the shock,/and you hear the kyouck and gobble of the strutting turkey cock…O, it’s then’s the time a feller’s feeling at his best/with the rising sun to greet him from a night of peaceful rest…” October is prime time for the life of a pumpkin; come the first frost, and they’re likely to perish as they’re hypersensitive to severe cold.
Pumpkins in the rain, Winchester, TN

So it’s time to go over to Starbuck’s and get a pumpkin-spiced latte. Or perhaps Julia, the chef at Julia’s of Sewanee, who is a culinary artist at cooking a variety of foods, will prepare a plate of battered and fried pumpkin leaves a la Kenya style, come Halloween.

However, a caveat: you have to be careful this time of the year as the witches will be out, and they’re noted for changing humans into pumpkins. Just a wave of the wand on All Hallows Eve, and you could become the ingredient in a Thanksgiving pie.

Photographs by Victoria I. Sullivan on a rainy Tuesday on The Mountain and in The Valley

Thursday, September 24, 2015


The mission of the Convent of St. Mary here at Sewanee includes providing a Sister or minister to a small congregation of Grace Fellowship Church on certain Sundays, and the visiting member of the Religious coordinates "Reflection" time about the Gospel assigned for that Sunday. On the Sundays that I preach at St. Mary's, I also go down the road and deliver the same sermon to Grace Fellowship, and I've grown fond of the people who gather in the little church at the edge of a pond on Garnertown Road.

Yesterday, at the invitation of Carolyn and Charles ("Chuck") Tocco, a couple in this Fellowship congregation, I went out to Winterberry Place in Deep Woods to see Carolyn's studio paintings. I had seen many of her depictions of Jesus that hang in the sanctuary at Grace Fellowship and had asked about exhibits she schedules twice a year at times when I won't be on The Mountain, so she offered a private showing of her art.

I thought I'd hiked in and seen all of the deep woods around Sewanee, but Winterberry Place is situated in a wood Robert Frost would have called "lovely, dark and deepest." We drove down the Fire Tower Road just past St. Andrews School, then traveled about three miles on a paved road and on to a gravel path that ran through dense woods leading to Wormwood Lane, a lane ending at the gate of Winterberry Place.

Everywhere we looked, we saw flowers and gardens, and the Toccos stood on the porch to welcome us, attempting to shush the barking of several dogs (mixed breeds, Carolyn explained) that had been penned up so we could visit without interference. Just inside the front door, we glimpsed several of Carolyn's large oil paintings, one of a snow scene in the woods and another depiction of Jesus on a hill overlooking an ancient city.

We walked through the house and onto the back porch to get a view of the bluff that overlooks the town of Pelham, Tennessee and toured the tea house at the end of the porch. I had brought Carolyn a copy of my book, Porch Posts, and it proved to be a perfect gift because the Tocco's porch would make a good photograph for any home and garden magazine and appears to be a favored room of the home. My friend Vickie, who accompanied me, had brought her book Why Water Plants Don't Drown as a gift, and it was also a "hit" for the Toccos, two seasoned gardeners.

Carolyn, a native of Sewanee (actually Garnertown) has been painting since childhood and spent four years studying art with a private instructor in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She has done most of her excellent work in oils, although she has tried acrylics and watercolors, choosing oil as her favorite because "it's the most forgiving medium," she says.

Before we went upstairs to see Carolyn's studio, we sat and exchanged stories about our backgrounds. Both Carolyn and Chuck had been in the Air Force and met at an airbase in New Jersey, and both say that when other retirees tell them that they retire to travel, they're amazed because they've already had their peripatetic experience, traveling with the Air Force to stations in Alaska, Okinawa, Thailand, Guam, the Philippines, Hawaii, and other posts.

When the Toccos decided to join the retiree population, they were living in Sweetwater, Tennessee where Chuck worked as a Systems Engineer at Watts Bar Nuclear Plant (TVA) following his stint in the Air Force. Both sang in a Methodist Church choir in Sweetwater, and nowadays Chuck sings solo and a capella for the Grace Fellowship congregation.

Although Carolyn's former work had included a sophisticated assignment as an Air Force Communications Specialist executing flight plans and decoding cryptographic messages in a "vault," her background as a hardy Tennessean served her and Chuck well when they bought the ten acres of woodland in Deep Woods. She joined Chuck in clearing the land much as women of Tennessee stock must have done during pioneer days. "Chuck used one chain saw, and I used another until we had cleared the entire space for our home on the bluff," she says.

We climbed stairs to Carolyn's studio and entered a room with long windows that let in the generous shafts of light that artists need for painting. Bookcases on two walls contained Carolyn's eclectic reading, including books of poetry, religious writing, and classics. We were also intrigued by a small insect display that Carolyn had been collecting for her "bug paintings." Renderings of owls, dandelions, cotton plants, milkweed pods, horses plowing in a field, sheep, and other outdoor scenes leaned against the wall beneath the long windows, and a painting of a road resembling the entrance lane to Winterberry Place stood on Carolyn's easel. Carolyn paints in the afternoons and says the subjects for her paintings are inspired; she disciplines herself to carry out the work as "it is a gift from God."

We lingered longer than we had planned and were invited to return another time when Carolyn
promises she'll have two of her small paintings ready for us—a "bug painting" and a "berry painting"—mementos of this wonderful artist's haven in the deep woods on The Mountain at Sewanee that we'll take back to bayou country in October.

Photographs by Victoria I. Sullivan

Friday, September 18, 2015


Nymphoides invader
I've written a gracious plenty about hikes and plant hunts lately, and many of these explorations with Vickie Sullivan have been missions to find water plants in the lakes around Sewanee, Tennessee. Dr. Sullivan was recently asked to be the kick-off speaker/lecturer for the Ora et Labora Program Series sponsored by St. Mary's Convent here at Sewanee, and our treks through chigger-ridden areas and searches for elusive lakes have been focused on finding plants that live in wet-habitats.

In the past, Dr. Sullivan has been more at home in the wet habitats of Louisiana and Florida, so my depictions of failed searches and scant findings on The Mountain were not hyperbolic sketches. However, yesterday at Lake Cheston, she discovered enough specimens to illustrate the talk she'll give on September 26, and after bathing these specimens under the garden hose, she placed them in a small aquarium on the front porch, leaving them with the admonition, "Y'all stay alive now." I think they're safe from the wildlife in the surrounding woods, but one always takes a deep breath when putting a plant in the garden or leaving any kind of vegetation in vessels outdoors around here.

I'm posting the flier about Dr. Sullivan's workshop that's being circulated in Sewanee and its environs. It's an invitation to those who live further afield in case they want to sally over from marsh country or other environments to hear what she has to say. She won't be mentioning any of our failed explorations, and she was fortunately immune to the chiggers that attacked me on one of our hikes to find aquatic plants, so she should present her subject without unsightly scratching and twitching on the 26th.

Here's the flier Sister Madeline Mary designed to advertise Why Water Plants Don't Drown, title of the program and of the book written by Dr. Sullivan and illustrated by Susan Elliott, another botanist and artist from Montrose, Colorado:

Monday, September 7, 2015


There are moist areas around lakes and sometimes near berry patches that harbor a tiny creature called the chigger. The chigger is barely visible to the naked eye and is variously known as the harvest mite or red mite. Whatever its moniker, when its feeding tube enters human skin, a few hours or maybe a day later, the victim will know that she has been the object of a mighty attack by a bug that creates unbearable itching.

That hike to the elusive Lake Dimmick, somewhere near Sewanee, Tennessee and described in my previous blog, not only ended in a never-to-be found body of water, I, and only I (not the intrepid botanist who led the exploration) was the prey of an army of chiggers that hid in the grassy non-trail I dubbed the "road not taken." 

Friends who have suffered similar assaults have recommended everything from oatmeal baths to baking soda soaks, but I'm still scratching through nights of insomnia and when morning comes, I arise making vows not to make an annual hike in 2016. Yesterday in church, heads turned as I squirmed through the service while seated on a squeaking wooden chair, resisting the urge to scratch in places that would have required near un-robing. I was only glad that I didn't have to preach yesterday as the listeners would have had to watch body contortions more like a revivalist preacher and most unlike an ordained, dignified Episcopal deacon. Just let me get home and scratch, I kept praying.

This morning, after I had slathered cortisone cream on the myriad places where the chiggers had left their enzymes (so I read), I decided to sublimate the itching with a bit of doggerel. Although I've omitted some of the expletives that I've been expressing, the doggerel will have to suffice as part of my treatment for wounds from the Chigger Rebellion. I won't repeat what I said to Dr. Sullivan for taking me on the Lake Dimmick hunt and exposing me to the army of red mites that lay in wait for someone who is allergic to everything except typewriter or computer keys, pens, and paper to record such nonsense as follows:

There's so much vigor
in a red-headed chigger
smaller than the head of a pin;

such trouble they trigger
as the welts grow bigger
and violent itching sets in.

They're really not catching
once you start scratching
hither, there, and therein

wrinkles and folds
and some crotches I'm told,
violating most delicate skin.

I know the truth begs
that a mite with six legs
stays with you through thick and thin,

but at 1/150th of an inch
it's clearly a cinch
you'll always know where it's been.

I apologize to Robert Frost for the bad rhyming, but at least the bit of poesy rhymes, and he's the poet who disdained free verse, saying that it was like playing tennis with the net down. Doggerel probably places the net at least a foot aboveground.

Hoping your Labor Day does not include a hike in moist areas near a lake or berry patch. The bites are more than a mite bigger than the bugs!

Thursday, September 3, 2015


At the dawn of the New Year, I resolved to take a hike and since fall is almost near and the 2015-year has almost ended, I figured it was time to carry out that resolution. So a few days ago, I decided to take my annual hike here in Sewanee, Tennessee. I should have known better than to ask my botanist friend, Dr. Sullivan, to accompany me. After all, she's the one with whom I had made field trips during hottest August days to dig for Eupatorium plants in the hardened soil of roadside ditches, moving on to the backwoods of Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama where people often appeared waving shotguns, a pack of dogs behind, warning us that they didn't want "people from town" bothering them. And another field trip with her involved collecting plants with a Japanese scientist during Hurricane Elena, an occasion marked by Elena chasing us to St. Augustine, Florida before making an about face and chasing us all the way back to Louisiana. As I said, I should have known better than to schedule a hike with her when she used the word exploration during the course of a conversation about hiking.

"I need to find a lake where there are some aquatic plants," she said. "I can't seem to locate it exactly but it's somewhere between Highway 41 and Jump Off Road (yes, the name of the latter sounds ominous enough to discourage hiking, but...). There's a marker on the Mt. Goat Trail that leads to this lake. It's called Lake Dimmick, and the exploration could suffice as your hike for the year."

"Do you think it's very far?" I said, my "suspicion radar" vibrating wildly. The last exploration she'd proposed and that I'd taken with her had involved walking the entire perimeter of a very large lake near Sewanee.

"Oh, I don't think it could be more than a mile," she said. "As I said, it's just an exploration, and we can time the hike. If it takes longer than a half hour, we'll turn back."

My mistake was in trusting a plant-hunting botanist to turn back on any trail that led through a forest with heavy vegetation—too many plant species along the way. Other friends with whom Dr. Sullivan hikes stay on a nice, hard-topped stretch of the Mountain Goat Trail, but with a tenderfoot like me she usually carefully selects unknown trails through rough terrain on very warm days. I don't know if it's a test of endurance for me or that everyone else has the good sense not to join her in her explorations into the unknown.

We hiked a short way on the hard-surfaced road of the Mountain Goat Trail, then turned into the woods at a marker that read "Lake Dimmick" and followed it downhill, across a stream where clumps of lovely fern grew, and crossed a highway to another wooded area. It was uphill and downhill for a long stretch, and we came to another Lake Dimmick marker with arrows pointing in both directions. In fact, all the markers for Lake Dimmick had arrows pointing in both directions.

"I think I need to look at the map on your cell phone," she said tentatively.

Uh oh, I thought, this doesn't look good. I gave her the phone, and we peered at a map that showed we might be going in the opposite direction from the lake. Off course, as usual, I thought.

"I think we need to backtrack and make a turn the other way," she said.

After we had backtracked a short piece, my common sense revived. "Well, why don't you just make that turn, and I'll wait here," I said. "However, it looks like Frost's 'road less traveled by'—you know, 'grassy and wanting for wear.'"

"This situation doesn't call for poetry," she said crossly. "You just stay here with the cell phone and call me if you need help" (This assurance came from someone who had forgotten her cell phone at home, and I looked at her in amazement). The truth was that I'd most likely be calling Sewanee police if the animal that had left a large pad of scat on the trail came looking for food while she explored.

Dr. Sullivan hadn't disappeared completely from view down the grassy trail before she turned and waved her arms at me. She looked like Columbus discovering water instead of land and when I caught up to her, she had begun to look dejected—just stood at the edge of a small pond, one black-eyed Susan dangling from her hand.

"Was that what you were really looking for?" I asked.

She ignored my question. "We might as well start back. Look, there's a helicopter circling overhead. Did you call out a search party?"

"It occurred to me. But never mind, let's go back to that creek we crossed, and I'll take a picture with you standing beside it. I'll label it Lake Dimmick, and you'll feel better about your exploration. You can tack it to one of those signs showing 'Lake Dimmick Trail' with arrows going in both directions and hope that it'll confuse those hikers who created the signs—they'll think the creek is a tributary of the lake. Anyway, I never heard of marking trails without putting the number of miles to the destination. Hikers up here are sadists. You know, don't show the number of miles the trek takes, just 'ever onward,' and the next thing you know, you're in Chattanooga."

Again, she ignored me. We trudged on.

Two hours later, we emerged from the exploration, got into the Subaru, and headed home. Well, I told myself, I'll have done my exercise everyone keeps urging me to do. Two hours of exploration=one year of hiking. I won't have to do this again until 2016. My botanist friend still wants to locate the lake, but when I reached home, I went out on the porch and began a recitation of "The Road Not Taken," which she had disdained while we were on the elusive Lake Dimmick trail. "The woods are lovely, dark and deep/and I have miles to go before I sleep," I chanted, bellowing it into the small wood near our front porch.

Maybe Frost had a botanist friend.