Wednesday, July 31, 2019


Dabbling ducks in stream

At 9 a.m. yesterday, we joined a female American Black Duck enjoying the quiet sanctuary of the Huntsville Botanical Gardens in Huntsville, Alabama. She was hanging out in a pond at a feeding station on the Lewis Birding Trail of the Gardens and was among several ducks taking a bath in the water where giant goldfish circled. The fish appeared to have had long-time joint ownership of the pond with the dabbling ducks. The ducks eventually posed for photographer Vickie Sullivan but hid under a clump of iris for a long spell before succumbing to picture-taking.

We’d walked to the Lewis Trail in the Garden, designated as a “Hot Spot” by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society, where over 100 species of birds have been observed at all seasons of the year. Lewis Trail covers the Garden’s diverse system of meadows, wetland, and bottomland forest and winds among native wildflower and cultivated gardens. Most of the quiet time, before the appearance of children who came to watch a toy train travel through a tiny village, I watched the ducks and unwound from busy days preceding our visit to the Gardens. 

Zebra butterfly 

Once the children appeared, we retreated to the Purdy Butterfly House, reputed to contain 1500 species of butterflies in the nation’s largest open-air butterfly house. Vickie, the intrepid photographer, caught a zebra butterfly feeding on a flower to which it returns every day, but it was the only butterfly that “sat” for picture taking, so we stood on an upper level watching turtles crawl in a small pond beneath the stairwell. When we descended, we saw a sign warning us to watch for button quail, a ground dweller four inches long that attaches to humans who, if not careful, can accidentally take them home with them. I left without a glimpse of this strange critter but have read that people purchase them for pets because they can’t fly away and are unable to perch on branches or sticks.

I admit to having done more bench sitting than walking, but the visit to Huntsville Botanical Gardens always reassures me there are still magical places set aside for public viewing of lush plant and wild life. 

Although children’s squeals penetrated the tranquillity of the Gardens on every trail, I was happy to see so many of them, from toddlers to teenagers, enjoying nature. Workers in the Gardens provide mothers with red wagons for toddlers, and I hope that these young enthusiasts continue to have an interest in the outdoors... perhaps will become future environmentalists and advocates of saving the Earth from human destruction.

Friday, July 19, 2019


Spring Annunciation, glasswork by Karen Bourque

During the recent disaster of the Storm Barry that inundated parts of Iberia Parish and brought wind and water to Louisiana, my home in New Iberia was spared significant damage. While the storm raged, friends sent messages that I was lucky to be living on The Mountain at Sewanee, TN instead of the storm-ravaged parts of my native state. Many of my friends thought that at 2000 feet, Sewanee was safe from floods that could have inundated my residence at a 25- foot elevation in New Iberia. 

However, if I had been living on The Mountain in February of this year, I’d have put on high boots because southeast Tennessee received 12 inches of rain. Although flooding occurred on the Cumberland Plateau and drained off The Mountain into area coves and communities surrounding Sewanee, no damage to my home here occurred. When we arrived in March, we were appalled at the sight of a flooded corn field near Cowan, TN where we had bought and enjoyed the #1 sweetest corn grown anywhere in the U.S. That flooded area finally dried last month, but only through evaporation and the grace of God because there were no coves or rivers into which it could have drained. Fortunately, the Amish farmer had planted a crop in another spot on higher ground, and we’re now enjoying fresh, sweet corn daily.

Lapp's flooded corn field, Cowan, TN

The year 2018 was the wettest year on record at Sewanee, according to a report in The Sewanee Purple, the student newspaper at the University of the South. Despite naysayers about “climate change,” flooding has become a widespread problem in the United States, and friends in Iberia Parish, Louisiana, say “another 1927 flood may become a reality.” They refer to the wall of water that reached the Bayou Teche from Port Barre to Arnaudville and crossed the ridges of the Bayou Teche, smashing a protection levee in St. Martinville and rushing into Spanish Lake while the bayou filled with water from the east side. Over 4,000 people in Iberia Parish became refugees in camps on a ridge overlooking Spanish Lake. These camps were set up in May 1927 and did not close until July 1927.

Amid gray days of recent heavy rain on The Mountain and news of the inundations in New Iberia, I received a package containing The Consolation of Gardens, my newest book of poetry, and a ray of sunlight arrived at our home here. The cover of this book features a photograph of a beautiful glass piece rendered by Karen Bourque, glass artist from Church Point, Louisiana (shown at the top of this blog). Gold and yellow hues brought immediate sunlight into the house, and a dragonfly in the center of the glass piece affirms the joy viewers will feel when they look at the photograph on the cover. It’s a vibrant glass piece that radiates positive signals, a sacred work that captured the essence of the poetry in which I attempted to connect with nature’s contemplative and nurturing presence. Karen entitled the piece “Spring Annunciation,” and she could have subtitled it “Hope,” as it is a piece of healing art.

Beneath the Surface, glasswork by Karen Bourque

In A Slow Moving Stream, a book of poetry that I read at the Louisiana Book Festival a few years ago, I wrote of floods in Louisiana and the tenacity of the Acadians when water becomes a spring ritual. As I read one of the poems now, I’m reminded of how enduring my Cajun friends are:
Although the water behaved
as if nothing would ever hold it back
and they did not know
how much terror they could withstand,
they would not turn away.
This land of palmetto, cattail,
willows and elderberry;
swamp and wetland wilderness,
was the abundance of a higher realm
constantly lit they had discovered
where bayou and river conjoined,
a place where the deceitful water
had tried to take them away
but everything had been revealed to them
in the catastrophes of their belonging.

Another photograph of one of Karen’s glass pieces, "Beneath the Surface," appears on the cover of this book, one in which a field of yellow ranunculus is featured — again, a beautiful piece of healing art.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019


In the Cajun lexicon, the word “envie” (pronounced ahn-vee) means a yearning or longing for something, most generally, food —a gumbo when the first chill of fall occurs, or when shrimp and crawfish appear on restaurant billboards in the spring, or perhaps all year taste buds yearn for boudin. However, the yearning can also be a desire for a new car, a new dress or suit, a set of black iron pots in which to stir up a good gumbo, any material object.

I seldom get envies for objects beyond my budget, but on our last travel adventure to Kentucky, I passed a shop in the central shopping district of Berea, Kentucky and saw several dulcimers displayed in the window of a master craftsman and was seized by a sudden envie for the instrument, although I know zilch about playing a stringed instrument. A clarinet and a recorder lurk in my musical background, but I no longer have enough breath to play either wind instrument. 

The dulcimer that attracted me was constructed of tulip poplar wood, and I went into the shop to get a closer look. Inside, I kept circling it before finally daring to touch it and pluck a few strings.

“Think of reading poetry while plucking the strings of this Appalachian delight,” I told my friend Vickie who had accompanied me into the shop. She was busy examining wooden salad bowls that might be filled with food to satisfy her envie for lettuce and other “grass” that I call salad ingredients.

“Mmm,” she said. “You don’t know one thing about string instruments. Think of that $400 as an impulse buy.” 

I began to bouday (Cajun French for “sulk” and pronounced boo-day). “But those three or four strings could add so much drama to poetry readings.”

“You don’t need any more drama in your life,” she quipped and went back to her salad bowls.

Her indifference to an object for which I had an overwhelming envie only fanned my interest in the unattainable, and I spent an hour talking to the sales clerk who played “Frere Jacques” for me on the handsome instrument. I sang along with the tune and looked at my friend who had become restless and turned her head in an apparent veto of the dulcimer. I finally decided I could live without a dulcimer and left my envie on the table holding my desire.

Dulcimers are Appalachian instruments that first appeared in the early 19th century among Scots-Irish immigrants (maybe one of my Scots Greenlaw ancestors who settled in Virginia developed an envie for a dulcimer and played one). However, like many histories of objects, the history of the Appalachian dulcimer is purely speculative. An Appalachian, Charles Maxson of West Virginia, says that early settlers in Appalachia were incapable of constructing a complicated violin because they didn’t have time or tools to do so, but they could build dulcimers, so the instrument appeared in the homes of those Appalachians who loved to create music in the evenings. 

Dulcimers are usually made of walnut, oak, cherry, and apple, but the one for which I had an envie was made of tulip poplar, a lighter wood. The craftsman who owned the shop I visited used mostly salvaged wood to create his instruments, and the clerk told me that my envie might have been for an instrument made of wood 200 years old. The most popular forms of dulcimer are those shaped like ellipses, teardrops, and hourglasses. The picture on a brochure of Berea (above) features these beautifully-shaped instruments.

I also like that dulcimers are similar to Middle Eastern string instruments, and while suffering from my envie I envisioned reading verses from my most recent book of poetry about Persia, The Ultimate Pursuit. 

Ultimately, a $400 envie is a luxury item in my budget, and I don’t have any poetry readings scheduled this year, not to mention that I’d probably never advance in my musical evenings beyond a rendition of “Frere Jacques,” so… 

Tuesday, July 2, 2019


Stone Fence at Shaker Village

Robert Frost touted the value of walls or fences when he penned the famous lines, “good fences make good neighbors.” He spoke of the fences built in New England, but the Appalachians built more good fences of dry stone walls in central Kentucky than anywhere else in the U.S. We discovered a gracious plenty when we recently visited Berea and surrounding towns in the Blue Grass area of this state.

These beautiful old walls border pasture land along the curving, rolling hills near Danville and Lancaster, Kentucky. Barns painted black and bearing quilt designs on their faces loomed in the background and formed a weird contrast of color to our idea that all barns should be painted red.

During the 18th century, stone walls in Kentucky were built by Irish and Scottish immigrants who later taught black slaves to lay them freehanded with no mortar, and the walls cover mile after mile of Blue Grass country — ageless walls hewed from rock formations and quarried to create sturdy enclosures. Something about their timeless appearance inspired a feeling of safety in me. We weren’t surprised to discover more of the walls at Shaker Village in Pleasant Hill that apocrypha reports surround forty miles of the village.

To better understand the formations from which stone was extracted for the many walls throughout the Kentucky countryside, I purchased a book about geological formations on Kindle but got lost in the chapter about Geologic Time. Unlike Louisiana geologic history, the history of beautiful rock formations in Kentucky hasn't been determined by information supplied from oil drilling. I did learn that the deposits of heavy minerals during the Citronelle formation were formed during the Pliocene and are the likely source of stones for fences. Vickie Sullivan, our intrepid photographer, captured these stone walls in shot after shot but complained about the light working against photographing their natural beauty.

Stonemasons aren’t plentiful in Blue Grass country today, but a Dry Stone Conservancy near Lexington, Kentucky has a mission of preserving dry stone structures and trains artisans in the building and maintenance of these “good fences.” Their mission perhaps validates Frost’s enigmatic line about good fences making good neighbors, and I think the poet probably meant that such structures imply a mutually agreed upon and shared responsibility of upkeep. However, his “Mending Wall” has been the subject of many interpretations that question the integrity of so-called “walls.” A more practical interpretation could be that builders of these walls wanted to keep livestock from wandering away from home.