Monday, July 24, 2017


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


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


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


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


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


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


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