Sunday, January 20, 2019

Maine-ly Cold…

Painting by my brother Paul Marquart

So you think that the temp at 32 degrees (and lower with wind chill) in Louisiana is icy? Think of Limestone, Maine at 22 degrees below zero this morning! I say Limestone, Maine, because years ago I experienced 52 degrees below zero (wind chill factored in) one winter night in this northernmost land of winter gales on the northeastern tip of the U.S. near the border of New Brunswick, Canada. I spent one year among potato, dairy, and beef farmers on the Aroostook Plateau because the U.S. Army had sent my husband to Maine. He worked in a radar shack perched at the border of the U.S. and Canada, on “Alert,” searching for any enemy planes that might fly overhead. In the upper story of a farmhouse equipped with an ancient oil stove and a red electric blanket, we survived a bitterly long winter, peering out of the upstairs window at nearly 100 inches of snow that season.

Maine is a place where the sun rises first in the U.S., so we saw sunlight before anyone in my native Louisiana, and I was told that the air was one of the healthiest in the U.S. However, if a person has no indoor interests like reading, listening to music, or writing (and no one owned a television set in my neighborhood), she’s likely to develop a raging case of cabin fever. Think of a place once covered with thick glaciers that smoothed and rounded the hills and mountains, filled rivers, and moved rocks around, and you may be able to envision where I spent that winter. Much of the surrounding land near Limestone included white pine, fir, maple, oak, and spruce trees in dense forests that added to our feelings of isolation. 

But potatoes made Aroostook County, Maine famous. Potatoes formed the mainstay at mealtime for struggling non-commissioned officers in the U.S. Army, and pinto beans came in a close second for a regular table staple. This menu proved so fattening that when we returned to Louisiana, our families marveled at our girths. “How did you gain so much weight living on next to nothing?” they asked. On this poor person’s diet, we managed to become rosy-cheeked and round, despite suffering from the extreme cold. On payday, we sought platters of fried oysters and mugs of beer down the road in Houlton, Maine, but this was a once-a-month occurrence.

Maine’s cold winters have fostered a pantheon of writers; e.g., Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Stephen King, disparate types of literary giants; however, both were born in Portland, Maine, and are examples of those who survived merciless winters by writing and reading. As did Sarah Orne Jewett who wrote a series of interconnected sketches of New England life and whose Country of the Pointed Firs became a literary classic. I also think of the essayist E. B. White, but he had enough sense to schedule his visits during summer months.

At one time in the Maine backwoods, moonshine was a thriving industry, and smugglers hid boatloads of illegal whiskey in coves along the Maine coast — a gracious plenty of bathtub gin and rum running provided farmers with extra income. By the time we arrived, prohibition had long ended, but today I wonder whether the dense forests hide illegal activities like meth labs.

Caribou, Maine lay right down the road from us and still has an extensive collection of artifacts from the Red Paint people, but we didn’t frequent places of culture during our stay in Aroostook County, although I should have done more research since French-Canadians in my background formed a large part of the population in my area of Louisiana. The Acadian Historic Village outside Van Buren, Maine contains sixteen fully restored or reconstructed buildings showing how Acadians lived in the 18th and 19th centuries. 

We left Aroostook County near the time of the great Northern Maine Fair and the Crown of Maine Balloon Festival, two occasions during warm weather that brought people out of hibernation. We had endured perhaps the worst winter of my life, and I’ve never returned to that region — perhaps I’ll venture to the Acadia National Park or Monhegan Island one day, but a re-run to Limestone, Maine isn’t on my bucket list.

By May, defrosting had begun in northern Maine, and freezing temps (32 degrees) like those we have been complaining about in New Iberia as “unbearably cold” actually allowed us to go outdoors in shirtsleeves. By June, we had been home in Louisiana one month, just in time to escape the scourge of Maine’s north woods black flies that descend in June and hover in gray clouds of thousands that leave no patch of human skin unbloodied (shades of Louisiana mosquitoes). 

In 1998, a storm President Clinton dubbed as a national disaster covered some areas of Maine with three inches of ice. Are you readers feeling warmer yet?

Painting by Diane’s brother Paul

Monday, January 14, 2019


Glasswork by Karen Bourque commemorating Henriette DeLille

Those of us who have passed the 80-year old mark will remember Sunday afternoon drives through rural countryside as a way to end a week peacefully. At times I’m treated to such a drive across the prairie of southwestern Louisiana near Church Point, Louisiana. Usually the drive follows lunch in the home of Darrell Bourque, former Louisiana poet laureate, and his wife Karen, an outstanding glass artist. Yesterday, we scheduled the drive, not only to ramble through the countryside but to view Karen’s recently-installed glass pieces honoring Henriette DeLille in three windows of Christ the King Roman Catholic Mission in Bellevue, just down the road from the Bourque’s home.

Henriette DeLille (1812-1862), a French-speaking woman of West African descent, was brought up in the French Quarter of New Orleans as a free woman of color who received education in music, literature, and nursing and was also a member of the system of placage in which mixed race women became kept women of wealthy white planters. During the 1830’s, DeLille began to break away from this system of social mores, became a nun, and eventually formed the Sisters of the Holy Family, an order that provided education for the disenfranchised people of color, as well as care for the elderly, and which burgeoned into a worldwide mission for the poor that remains active today. 

Karen’s beautiful stained glass windows (one large centerpiece window and two smaller pieces in windows on each side of the centerpiece) are a tribute to The Venerable Delille, in which Karen created images of the Holy Trinity using vivid blues, greens, and a brilliant red symbolizing DeLille’s heart and Christ’s love. Golden rays above the center image represent God, and the Host and chalice in the center suggest a vision of Christ and his love for creation. Although the stained glass windows proved to be difficult to photograph, Vickie Sullivan captured the imagery well in the light that illuminated the lovely glass pieces Karen had been inspired to create. She says she feels privileged to share this art with others so they can “explore their own spirituality more deeply as they pass through a real world filled with challenge, trial, mystery, and miracle.” 

Darrell and I climbed the steps to the choir loft and looked down at the immaculate interior of this mission church which he says congregants maintain without outside help — cleaning, painting, and repairing when necessary. He has written a book of poetry commemorating Delille that is in press with Yellow Flag Press and will appear this year. I‘ve read the manuscript, and believe that the Delille commemorative book and another forthcoming one that contains his versions of ghazals accompanied by the art of Bill Gingles will be acknowledged as his finest works. 

Darrell was recently named Humanist of the Year by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities and will be honored at a ceremony this spring. We’re always honored to break bread with the Bourques when we sojourn in Louisiana during the winter months and our visits are customarily celebrations. We’ll enjoy another visit because Darrell wrote this morning that he’d eaten a piece of the king cake we'd brought for dessert yesterday, and he bit into the baby (a plastic baby imbedded in the cake, and the person biting into a piece containing it has to serve the next cake during pre-Lenten days).

Catalpa trees photographed by Karen Bourque

On the ride back to the Bourque’s home, Darrell meandered by crawfish ponds that had once been rice fields and showed us his family’s former land, including a line of catawba trees on his grandfather’s property that had survived, several of which Karen photographed for Let the Trees Answer, a book of poetry I wrote last year. I’m sure you Louisiana fishermen know that these trees harbor a plethora of catawba worms, yellow creatures with black lines running down their back that make good fish bait. I’ve caught a gracious plenty of catfish using them, but they’re pretty squishy when you bait your hook!

Thursday, January 10, 2019


Peanuts Treasury

In the comic strip, Peanuts Treasury, Lucy, Charlie Brown’s nemesis, laments the dawn of the new year, saying, “I hate this year. Everyone said things would be better but they’re not!” In the next frame, she tells Charlie that she doesn’t think this is a new year at all. “I think we’ve been stuck with a used year!” she exclaims. She goes home and tells Linus that there was a day back in 1935 (the year of my birth!) when a “used year” occurred. Not content with upsetting Charlie Brown and Linus, she moves to the outdoors where she finds Snoopy dancing happily and yells at him:”Don’t you worry about all the things that can happen?” and when his ears begin to droop and he sniffles, she declares: “That’s better…live in dread and fear…be sensible.” However, Snoopy suddenly turns his back on her and dances away, saying, “He he he he he he he.”

As always, Charles Schulz redeems situations that Lucy sets up to cause gloom and cynicism among her family and friends. Not to mention her readers! I sorta’ felt that kind of redemption this morning after the long siege of gray days and rain here in south Louisiana ended, and I stepped outdoors to find my backyard “in the pink.” A lone camellia bush in the backyard was covered with elegant variegated pink faces, just daring naysayers like Lucy to cast her spell of dread and fear over them. 

Camellia flower

Variegated Camellia flower

This camellia bush has undergone at least 15 years of benign neglect — no fertilization, no watering during drouths, no bug killing compounds — and has survived. It was planted by my godfather Markham Peacock on the banks of a coulee bordering my backyard, and if I were to pay attention to the one-quarter Scots blood in my background, I’d say his spirit has reincarnated or at least kept the beautiful plant alive.

Pink isn’t my favorite color but that color challenges me to denigrate the radiance of a pink camellia. The camellia flower is my Alabama friends’ state flower, and here in Acadiana, gardeners favor it because it ignores gloomy winter days and blossoms despite gray skies and heavy rainfall. 

Live Oak Gardens cover

J. Lyle Bayless, Jr., who once owned and developed Live Oak Gardens of Jefferson Island, just a few miles away from New Iberia, was enchanted with the Jeanerette Pink Camellia growing in front of the Joseph Jefferson mansion on the Island when he bought the property. He observed the death of the beautiful pink blossoms of this camellia one bitter winter and its return to life only two weeks later and began to cultivate so many varieties that he had to house the 1,000 awards he won in camellia competitions in “The Camellia Room” of the Joseph Jefferson Mansion. Mike Richard, who now owns Live Oak Gardens, has continued to cultivate the legacy of Bayless.

Although the wind blows out of the north, and temps dipped to the 40s, we’re still “in the pink,” with our hardy camellia, and Lucy can’t cast her dark spell over the many colorful vistas throughout New Iberia, Louisiana this morning. As Snoopy says, “He he he he he he he.” 

Photograph of Camellia flower by Victoria Sullivan

Monday, January 7, 2019


When more gloom than sun surrounds Teche country, rain falling daily and cold following, I am grateful for the art on the walls of my house, especially the prints of Walter Anderson’s work. This Mississippi artist who suffered from mental illness but who did not let this illness stay his hand from drawing and painting was a humble man who had a reverence for nature and knew that painting, drawing, creating block prints, sculptures, poetry — was not about competition: it was about Art. As he wrote, “his object in being was realization — to realize everything from the smallest object in nature to the most casual acquaintance…”

For several years, my friend Dr. Victoria Sullivan and I traveled to Ocean Springs, Mississippi to research books and articles and to explore Anderson’s habitats. We also visited the Walter Anderson Museum of Art so many times, we could have become docents for this wonderful place. We were preparing for an article Vickie would write about the botany in his work, and I to compose a poem — both scheduled to appear in Interdisciplinary Humanities, a publication sponsored by the National Association for Humanities Education. The entire journal was devoted to Walter Anderson, and the editor, Lisa Graley, a professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, declared that “never before have we worked with a group of authors from such diverse backgrounds who were so enthusiastic about one singular subject…" She also wrote that “through the efforts of Anderson’s mother, he was brought up in an environment where the creation of art was a way — not just of life but of living…”

Vickie’s article, “Plant Life ‘Realizations’ in the Murals of Walter Anderson” covered 12 pages, while my poem, “On First Looking into Anderson’s Refuge,” was spread across two. Vickie studied, in depth, lines and forms which Anderson used to depict flora and fauna —trees; e.g., slash pines, which Anderson had captured in a linoleum block print, Chinese tallows (shaped like a woman’s head and shoulders) in another linoleum block print, and wrote extensive, elegant descriptions about the murals from Walter Anderson’s Shearwater Cottage, describing colors and forms of plants; e.g. pipeworts and Yellow Flowered Pitcher Plants, Wood Lily and pink Morning Glory flowers. She also described Sweet Gum and Red Oak trees, and flowering Dogwoods that Anderson painted in the murals for the Community Center in Ocean Springs (another place we frequented during our explorations). She included Anderson’s own writings about his activities from his journals, especially the Horn Island accounts. 

“I live and have my being in a world of Shape and Color,” the artist wrote about his work accomplished during sojourns on Horn Island where he studied plant and animal life. Vickie expressed her admiration for him in a concluding thought that “his spiritual thoughts had moved from turbulent (referring to his mental condition) to recognition of a mystical element within himself. The mystical sense from which he painted interprets nature’s manifesting light.” 

My own poem published in the Interdisciplinary Humanities contained four verses, the second and fourth of which appear here:

He stopped caring for humans,
they were abstractions, pure forms
to people his myths, fantasy props
drawn in hooks and curves,
an ancient language,
signs and symbols, pictographs,
lines trapping the emergency of moment,
claiming history, organic and watchful;
he did all of this wearing a crumpled felt hat,
managing to tip it in gentlemanly gesture
to unknown women
(for whom he had no desire),
to unknown men
(who offered no campfire camaraderie),
alone in a pure world
whose tragedy was a dead animal,
calamity, a hard storm;
he, the eye of God piercing cloud banks
over an island beckoning shipwrecks,
the hand of God poised over unblemished page,
following shorebirds…”

At the cottage, a disheveled figure,
he fell asleep in thickest night,’
left hand on the page of fantasy,
right hand clutching pen
after sketching a fairy tale,
re-designing legends,
he lived there too,
bringing whimsey to vague parchment,
using both hands,
scratching literature into visuals,
words unfolding, then folding outward,
transposed into another art.

These excerpts are only the tip of the iceberg in the story about Walter Anderson but I know that The Interdisciplinary Journal containing essays, poems, memories about him was Lisa’s hope for readers to visit the museum and see Anderson’s stunning murals. I think of those warm, eventful days we spent exploring the world of this brilliant artist, and each time I sit at the breakfast table and look up at a print of his“Walls of Light,” some of the gloom of these winter days dissipates.