Thursday, August 29, 2019


Bird feeder at Fairbanks home

In my last blog, I wrote about birds disappearing from our yard and surrounding woods and wondered if their food had been poisoned by pesticides or herbicides, or if they had migrated early, or did they just not like the birdbath we'd filled with reverse osmosis water. They may not have liked the appearance of our new bird feeder, which resembles the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Yesterday afternoon we looked out the living room window at the bird feeder and, voila, we discovered an ominous reason for the sudden absence of birdlife (except for a few marauding crows). Atop the new bird feeder, wings folded neatly and looking like a polite statue of itself, was a Merlin falcon whose chief diet consists of small birds — sparrows, wrens, nuthatches, and titmice that once flocked to our yard, but which must have become prey for this large bird.

I’ve read that Merlins watch for prey from a perch, and what better perch than our tall bird feeder? However, he catches this prey in mid-air, flying at race track speed, and the poor smaller bird dies from sudden attack. What do raptors do with feathers and bill?

We watched him for a half hour or so until he flew into the woods where he’d probably found an abandoned crow’s nest, 10 - 50 feet above the ground. I was afraid to track him, having heard the story about a hawk attacking a friend when she walked down to her mailbox to get a better view of the bird.

We heard no bird calls as we watched, but later I thought I heard a loud cackle that this raptor often makes. The Merlin could probably team up with crows to make a raucous sonata, but crows regard themselves as creatures superior to most birds and mostly frequent the front yard where they chase squirrels into the tall hemlock. They seem to prefer food in freshly mown grass, rather than smaller birds.

In my readings, I discovered that Merlins also enjoy a good meal of snakes, rats, and bats so they couldn’t be all bad. However, I confess that I prefer the small bird population we'd enjoyed watching splash in the birdbath, and I’m considering dismantling the Merlin’s perch, the leaning bird feeder. Anyway, due to heavy rains, the birdseed has sprouted!

A further negative report about the Merlin: He’s become a threat to an endangered species of Plovers nesting around the Great Lakes. Also, he feeds upon my favorite insects, dragonflies. A statue of this favored insect was given to me by a deceased, cherished friend and sits on a table overlooking the backyard. I’m thinking of moving it away from the window in case Merlin decides to make a crash landing against the sometimes-cloudy panes while we’re away this winter.

Photography by Victoria I. Sullivan

Monday, August 26, 2019

A RAINY DAY — Dismal?

Figure lurking behind tree?

My favorite essayist, E. B. White, once penned a short column for The New Yorker in which he reported that the weatherman had forecast the day as one that would be “rainy and dismal.” White said he regarded that forecast as one that produced the demise of the era of pure science and the dawning of the day of philosophical science. Dismal? Perhaps for the philosophizing forecaster. White further said that this forecast showed the weatherman had been spending too much time indoors and “to the intimates of rain, no day was dismal and a dull sky is as plausible as any other.”

Today is a rainy day on The Mountain here at Sewanee, but it isn’t a dismal one. The plants have been thirsty for far too long, the last of the corn crop in the valley needs watering, and I’m not into predicting the impact of rain on the human spirit like the weatherman in New York. The stony ground here is drinking noisily. Unlike the muddy ground of my native Louisiana, we seldom experience flooding at Sewanee, but continuous, heavy rain sometimes causes trees to loosen their roots and fall.

I looked out this morning and saw darkened tree trunks, thinking how happy they appeared to be after showering all night. At breakfast, I went to the dining room window and saw what seemed to be a shrouded figure hiding behind a white oak, but the dark figure turned out to be only part of the tree that had lost a branch. (Evidently, we’ve been watching too many mysteries on television that probably influenced my first impression of a figure lurking behind the tree).

I looked for birds that seemed to have disappeared from our yard during the last few weeks and which we’ve tried to lure on site with filled bird feeders, but they’re still absent from the woods behind us. Yesterday, we saw two giant crows grazing in the back yard and wondered if they had scared the smaller birds away just as they’d attacked a squirrel on the fence. My friend Susan Entsminger in Colorado says that perhaps the birds have begun their winter migration already, and I’m hoping that such a natural occurrence has taken them away. 

Sister Hannah at the Convent of St. Mary asked for permission to read one of my bird poems for an environmentalist program she’ll coordinate this winter while we’ve flown further south, and I was pleased to pass it on after she reminded me the poem had appeared in my book, All Love. It’s called “Watching the Wrens”:

Where have they gone?
Infant wrens, directionless,
fluttering into a blue ocean,
their mother pushing, telling them
to expect welcomes from the unseen.

The nest now an untidy hanging,
twigs, leaves, declarations of love
twisting in the wind
beneath green painted eaves,
secure and shadowy.

Them thinking how good it was
to be fed, making noises
to call someone home,
hoping nothing would change
if they opened their beaks

and received the message:
soon she will let you go,
and you must let her go,
singing as if you knew
where you are going… 

Thursday, August 22, 2019


CCC Homestead Water Tower

“It would be great if a program like the New Deal Subsistence Project of Homestead Communities could be instituted today,” I told the docent at the Homestead Tower in Crossville, TN after watching a documentary at the Tower. She was a descendant of one of the original Homestead families and agreed with me but added, “I’m not sure anyone wants to work that hard anymore.”

Under the regime of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and with the encouragement of his wife, Eleanor, The National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 had created a progressive program called the Subsistence Homestead Communities. It provided an opportunity for families who were permanently unemployed or displaced to purchase small equipped farms. One-hundred homestead projects were scattered across the U.S., and one highly successful one was centered in Cumberland County, Tennessee which had experienced massive flooding during the Depression of 1929.

The Homestead Project was an experiment in community living from which 233 families were selected to participate. They included 30 percent stranded farmers; 30 percent textile workers; 30 percent stranded coal miners, 10 percent labor leaders, teachers, a physician, a nurse, and two sociologists.

In the beginning years of the project, the Homesteaders were paid one-third in cash and two-thirds in credit hours. The credit hours were to be applied to the purchase price of their farms. The Homesteaders worked together toward a goal of creating their own homes from wilderness and becoming self-supporting. The houses built, one of which is featured below, were cottage style homes with 12-inch mason walls and siding of either sandstone or stone. Walls and ceilings were paneled with pine, floored with oak and heated with fireplaces. They were also plumbed and wired for electricity, eventually delivered by TVA. Many of the homes were built before roads and driveways reached them.

Home Built for Homesteader

The program wasn’t a hand-out program and is detailed in depth in a magazine published by The Crossville Chronicle which we picked up at the Homestead Tower, shown above. The Tower, built in 1938, is an octagonal stone tower that housed a 50,000-gallon water tank with a lookout tower at its peak. We didn’t climb the Tower, but we examined the exhibits of photographs and artifacts used during the Homestead Project. The Cumberland County Homestead Project in Crossville, TN gained national notice as the “Showplace of the New Deal.” 

Fifty percent of the original Homesteaders eventually owned their homes, and homeowners had learned valuable construction, farming, and business skills. They had been trained by experts in agriculture, engineering, and construction and assisted by FDR’s boys, CCC and WPA workers (both programs in which my father participated in Louisiana).

FDR once said that there was only one objection he had to the whole Homesteads Initiative, and that was the word “subsistence.” “I wish we could come up with a new term to take its place. This work we are doing is not a matter of subsistence…we want more for these families than that…it is the thing that we have called ‘the more abundant life."* 

The Homestead Project in Cumberland County, and nationwide, ended in 1946, but descendants of the Project still occupy many of the Crossville cottages erected during the era of the New Deal. Of interest to me: Of the 1500 applicants to this program, 233 were selected for “high character, ability, honesty, willingness to work and cooperate.” If participants didn’t measure up under a probation contract of two years, they were asked to leave.  

*Reference from Crossville Chronicle, “The Cumberland Homesteads.”

Photographs by Victoria I. Sullivan

Thursday, August 15, 2019


Bird Bath in Our Yard, Sewanee

Instead of singing “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” this morning, I think there should be a new refrain: “Where Have All the Birds Gone?” For the past several days, I haven’t seen any of our usual visitors to the bird bath, even after we cleaned the bath and filled it with reverse osmosis water (water that contains no pesticide, herbicide, or arsenic and which the birds usually love). When I step outside, I hear only one faint “cheep” coming from the vicinity of the thrasher habitat by the drive. The wooden fence on which they love to perch is woefully empty. Of course, the weather has been sweltering for The Mountain, but warm temps haven’t altered their behavior during the eleven summers we’ve been living here at Sewanee. We suspect that deadly pesticides are being used on the campus vegetation and have caused the demise of our lovely friends but were told otherwise the other day. However…

Perhaps we should do what a former friend of ours did while she resided in New Iberia years ago. She captured two well-known birds and caged them — a mockingbird and a blue jay, two birds that she claimed could sing louder than any outdoor members of their flock. Emily, who was a male mocking bird, lived in the kitchen of Sally’s home and serenaded visitors with an enthusiastic variety of notes, often repetitive ones, interspersed with imitations of the blue jay that resided in her bedroom. We appreciated Sally’s enthusiasm for the caged birds that seemed not to mind being eccentric, not “resting upon the air, subduing it, surpassing it, are the air,” as John Ruskin once wrote about our feathered friends.

Sally developed a new hatching project during the time that she housed the caged birds. A friend brought her three round eggs about six inches in diameter, weighing from two to three pounds apiece and asked her to incubate them for hatching. They weren’t blue jays or mockingbirds and were an unusual species to have been born in old Louisiana — ostriches. Now, an ostrich egg hatches within 40 days. The mama ostrich sits on them all day while the papa sits up nights keeping them warm. If the egg doesn’t have a mama or a papa, an incubator is a good stand-in. Sally, a scientist who researched mammals, had access to an incubator in a lab that kept the eggs at 98.5 degrees Fahrenheit, and Sally turned them daily.

The eggs, when hatched, were to be returned to the owner who'd launched Sally in this hatching project. But we worried a lot about their loyalties. When birds hatch, they go through the process of imprinting. The person around when the birds break through into the world and who handles them at birth becomes their natural caretaker.

Now Sally’s blue jay talked to her every morning, and her mockingbird delighted her with a song in the evening, but somehow we couldn’t visualize the long-necked ostrich, which can take 15-foot steps at 40 miles per hour, whizzing through Sally’s household without causing some disruption. We submitted the advice to Sally that on the 40th day, she should stick her hands in her pockets, call in a handler and vamoose in 15-foot steps at 40 miles per hour to escape imprinting the newly born. 

Flamingos in Chinese exhibit, Huntsville Botanical Garden

The last time I visited Sally’s home, I didn’t see any evidences of baby ostriches and actually, the caged birds had been liberated. I was glad that they’d been set free. Meanwhile, I’ll keep watching the bird baths and sit on the porch listening for the cries of beloved birds. I hope that they’ll want a bath soon, or at least they’ll come and sit on the fence surrounding my backyard like they usually do. However, if they don’t show up soon, I’m going into the leaseholder’s office and threaten to bring over one of the irascible emus I often see in a yard in the Cowan valley and loose it from captivity. Talk about a commotion, as we Cajuns say!!

Photographs by Victoria I. Sullivan

Saturday, August 10, 2019


Yesterday afternoon, I received a sad message from Susan Entsminger about Gary Entsminger, my publisher/ editor/ and cherished friend of Pinyon Publishing who published Chant of Death, a mystery I co-wrote with Isabel Anders of Sewanee, TN, as well as many of my poems in Pinyon Review. Although Gary had written to me several weeks ago about the blood clots in his lungs and explained that he planned to recover, I was stunned to learn that he had died. Gary wasn’t just an editor/publisher to me, he had become a close friend, and through email we had developed a relationship that, for lack of a better phrase, made us soul mates. It was and still is a spiritual friendship that covered eleven short years, and he, along with one other male poet, is probably the outstanding mentor in my life. I came to know him through long emails, the books, and collages of photographs he sent me throughout the years, and through his constant endorsement of my work. I never met him in person or heard his voice, but he was among several voices I heard every time I sat down to write. Susan took the photographs in this blog that show him climbing peaks in the Colorado Rocky Mountains near the plateau where he and Susan set up publishing headquarters in a log cabin and lived an intentional life of sustainability.

During the early hours of this morning, I kept trying to write a tribute to Gary in my mind, but I have had a difficult time imagining that he is no longer alive. When I went into the dining room for breakfast, I asked Victoria Sullivan (another writer Gary published. His wife Susan rendered the drawings for Vickie’s Why Water Plants Don’t Drown) to find the photographs of him on my computer. Needless to say, Gary’s spirit has a large place in this household. While we mourn his death, we were comforted last night by a message from Darrell Bourque who said, “I know his eternal energy is working its way to Right Source and I know that some of it is coming to you… as you grieve his passing.” 

Language seems to fail me this morning, so I defer to a prose poem I wrote about Gary in 2012, the title of which is the title of this blog and which appeared in a book of my poetry entitled Everything Is Blue:

Among my papers I find two cards, embellished photographs of a book cover: a yellowed parchment bearing ancient chants bordered by stains of spilled blood; cards that record a happier time, your good intent to make me a ‘brand,’ a recognized author of mysteries.

For nearly three years you have nurtured me, a poet on this stony mountain still searching for metaphor and mood after a lifetime, unrecognized in the mist of once known -- becoming known again, becoming read again…

You stalk my words with good intention, urging me to love the lines I write, assurances to a broken winged writer lying under the hemlock now wrapped in arms of unrelenting trust.

I lie down at night, pondering new blessings: my poems you have published, my “essays” you carefully read. A man who reads everything, you always find the something others fail to notice, raising your glass to say “Cheers” for the poet who fears she is lost, the hungry fox who is a writer.

In the winter, you toast with IPA, in the summer, you sip chardonnay. Language is your red hot salsa, wit and perfection part of your garden, you imagine a parable in each season and what you shall make of this tomato, this berry, brought in from the sun, anthems soon rising from the steaming pot.

You write of hauling barrels of water for Susan’s plateau garden, of hiking 12,000 foot peaks in one morning, send me photographs of a bearded man with ascetic brow, standing on a lonely trail alongside a black Lab facing a meadow leading to the unknown.

Every scene is a fragment of the larger picture: making books that balance readers’ spirits, the lion man who knows that plants will sprout and grow, each seedling harvested, a moment given over to creation, sturdy and useful.

I hold you in my skull as an idea that scorns danger, your will arguing fiercely against the thing we writers most fear… that our words will not matter, that our language will not last.

Gary was a poet (Four Ravens and Two Miles West), a publisher, naturalist, computer programmer, has written nine programming books; over 100 scientific and technical articles; and computer software that helps scientists understand patterns of biodiversity and biogeography. With his wife Susan, he wrote Fall of ’33, Ophelia’s Ghost, and Remembering the Parables, books that integrate fiction, philosophy, history, poetry, and art. He was also a musician and music composer (guitar, mandolin, keyboard), writing tunes like "If the Birds Spoke to Us." 

Gary nurtured writers scattered throughout the U.S. and abroad (especially Chinese poets) and was an authentic Renaissance man. Although he called himself a “Luddite,” he remained on the cutting edge of the arts as evidenced in Pinyon Review, a journal celebrating the arts and sciences that he established in 2012. He was featured in many of my past blog posts on “A Words Worth” ( Follow the links to purchase his books at Pinyon Publishing (23847 V66 Trail, Montrose, CO 81403). Several interviews with Gary appear on the Pinyon Publishing website. 

Here is one of my favorites among Gary’s poetry in Four Ravens. It’s entitled “Yew:”

“No one knew
how the yew
survived so long

generating roots
branches strong
some said —mystical

from those places
where poets rhymed
with old magicians

where birds entwine
in branches
singing of immortality”

Rest in peace, Gary Entsminger, let light perpetual shine upon you. 

Love, Diane

Monday, August 5, 2019


Live Oak on Bayou in Arnaudville

This morning amidst the continuing news about mass shootings and tragedy of the last few days, and while I pray for peace in our troubled country, I received an email from my dear friend, Karen Bourque, a master of glass artistry who lives in Church Point, Louisiana. She had attached a photograph of her latest glass piece featuring a tree in Cajun Country. Like many of Karen’s glass pieces, the work brought with it a feeling of peace. The piece wasn’t requisitioned by me, but Karen shares images of a lot of her work with me, and I share my poetry with her — an exchange of inspiration, and sometimes synchronicity. She said she was reading a poem each night from my latest, The Consolation of Gardens, and meditating on it, and I was cheered by the thought that, although I’m not on any bestseller list, some of the poems have carried the “consolation of gardens” to cherished friends.

The email with an image of her lovely glass piece reminded me of an oak tree that Karen, Darrell, Vickie, and I viewed after lunch one afternoon in Arnaudville, Louisiana and that Karen used as a model for the cover of my book, A Slow Moving Stream, published in 2016. One of the poems, “The Mind of Trees,” captured my mood and “spoke to my condition” this morning. It is partially excerpted below:

The trees outlasted their language.
No matter who came
the language disappeared into English:
French, Spanish, German, Chitimacha.
English filled the horizon,
the patois of each clan banned,
buried under the oaks, the words waiting.
The trees absorbed all of it
and when hurricanes felled them
they were cut into logs,
the loggers, finding stories in their language
imbedded in the rings,
began to preserve what had been lost.

Word by word they created
an articulation of arriving,
the sound of memory offering itself
from a distant longing. They heard
what they had been told not to hear —
testimonies for their being there.
And they praised the trees
for finding a way without them.

The poem is open to interpretation, but I believe it’s pertinent to what is going on in our country and am glad to repeat it here. Thanks for the “pass along” this morning, Karen Bourque.

Photograph in “The Mind of Trees” by Victoria I. Sullivan and glass piece image on the cover of A Slow Moving Stream by Karen Bourque.