Places 2

 

My Grandparents’ Hill Top Home

I will make the case that to explore and affiliate with life is a deep and complicated process in mental development.  To an extent undervalued in philosophy and religion, our existence depends on this propensity, our spirit is woven from it, hope rises on its currents. ~ E.O. Wilson from Biophilia (Harvard University Press, 1984) 

The first memories of the natural world I recall in any specificity are from the family visits to my grandparents’ farm on the Watauga River in east Tennessee. The Feathers descended from John Feathers who immigrated to America from Ireland in 1850. Small farmers all, my relatives were subsistence farmers probably carrying on the tradition of people whose lands were always subject to seizure by foreign or religious powers.  They were independent, making their own food, clothing and furniture, raising children by the Good Book and taking simple pleasures in seasonal celebrations, dancing and singing, and harvesting and preparing the fruits of the Earth.

I did not know my father’s family until well after the Depression years that hit hard. Dad remembers being hungry, after all the animals had been slaughtered, when the beans and corn that had been put away in the cellar in blue-tinted jars had been emptied…when his mother made gravy from bacon fat and baked fresh biscuits to hold their hunger at bay.  But they made it through with hard work, sacrifice and luck.  When I showed up on Earth, their little farm was still there to welcome my sisters and me each summer or Christmas of our lives tromping from military base to military base.  Over these many years of annual migrations to my grandparents’ farm my character began to form and I learned where I came from, and something up ahead of me began to take shape.

A distinct memory is the feel and sound of our car wheels rolling up the gravel driveway late at night and getting my first glimpse of the lit windows in the large two-story house under the big maples. Deep shadows cast by a summer moon onto the white clapboard shingles or running across the lawn after a December snowfall primed the excitement in my heart as I anticipated my grandparents waiting on the front porch with its yellow light above the door.  Before the car came to a full stop, the doors flung open to release a tumble of jubilant children. The admonitions of our parents and greetings of our grandparents as they nestled us in their arms melded into the ever present rush of the river below the hill sweeping us into its flow and reverie once again.

I always considered the hilltop farm and its contours my home, which I explored like a small insect in my very own world.

Places make a quilt of memories woven of faces, feelings, and senses.  Any one of these can evoke an entire memory or set of memories from long past – so powerful are they laid down in our very core. I can recall vividly the sound of ripe watermelon ripping open after my grandfather had slashed a big gash down its middle and his sausage-sized fingers pulling it apart to expose the glistening red fruit. The aroma of its warm flesh, plucked fresh from the garden on a hot summer’s afternoon, laid bare for our refreshment under the cool shade of a towering tree, remains with me to this day, a half century later. Every time that I cut open a watermelon I am drawn into the good, wholesome feelings of those cherished days with my grandfather, sisters and cousins, spitting watermelon seeds across the lawn and watching my parents relaxed on a porch swing up the hill in the sheltering embrace of the old homestead.

These are my first memories of place. They are a tapestry of nature, nurture, and the flow of time. Yet I see now that they have a timeless quality and remain as fresh with me as the moment they happened.

 

 

 

The Little Farm of My Meditations

There is a small farm called Dream Acres. It is not of my dreams. It is real. Its curving meadows lie adjacent to the place where I live. My living room and bedroom windows look out on it whereby I view its seasonal changes and the daily coming and going of bird, cow, coyote, raven, buzzard, airplane, and farmer. I observe the delicate changes of light and wind, rain, and cloud on its surface.

When I first arrived here I was annoyed that I could hear the eternal drone of an interstate, and that another busy thoroughfare bordered the other end of the farm. I watched the cows to know if it bothered them like me, or, to discern if we all had just given-in to it. A perpetual state of mourning as it were.

Days and months passed and the cows came onto the meadow to graze and went to sleep in the barn at sunset. Years passed. New groups of cows and steers adjusted to the long, narrow meadow and the grassy sink hole with its gnarled, sturdy tree at the bottom — the only feature in an otherwise green grass and golden reed sea.

I also adjusted to living high above the meadow and its constant presence in my life on the third floor of the apartment complex. I suppose some bovine members might meditate on my comings and goings which are as regular as their own. What do they think of me? Alone above the earth looking down on moonlit nights when they have chosen to sleep under the stars on warm nights, or during the rainstorms or frosty mornings when I check on them to make sure they are alright?

Early on I began to photograph the meadow with my cell phone camera. I shared photos on Facebook and here on WordPress. Later I learned that old friends, John and Erin, had taken a painting class and asked permission to paint the little farm. I can’t wait to see what they see from the photos. I guess the little farm is now seen by dozens of people as the place where I live.

When I was growing up, my family visited another small farm in east Tennessee – Watauga. My grandparents’ farm. It was on these yearly visits that I formed a loving attachment to Earth. One cannot live without it, no? Like an umbilical cord it ties us to our origin and stabilizes us through the storms and droughts of daily life.

Remembering the beloved place I envied the cows at Dream Acres who lie warm upon its grasses under the stars, breathing the scents of soil, grass, pungent odors of manure, and the sweet air. Some long ago memory–blood memory–rises in my subconscious and I feel one with the Earth standing on my little porch under that same canopy of stars just as my relatives from Scotland, Ireland, and the Appalachians, all farmers. All coming and going with the meadows and mountains that formed the borders and vistas of their lives. I guess I come honestly to my nostalgia for small farms and their secret lives of which I am blessedly welcome at Dream Acres.

My grandparents’ farm house in Watauga, TN.

Helene Hanff Letters: How to tell a story without trying.

Years ago I watched a lovely video about Helene Hanff, a New York script writer with a passion for antiquarian books. 84 Charing Cross Road is the title of it. Based on the book of her letters to Marks & Company, a colorful, poignant story emerges about a starving New York screenwriter and Londoners recovering from the devastation of the war who became her friends through their love of literature.

The shop employees became Helene’s friends over a 20-year period of correspondence. She had learned, from an English couple who lived in her building, that Londerers were under strict rationing of meat, eggs, and other commodities in post war England. She began to send packages filled with canned meats, dried eggs, and later, nylons to the women employees at the store. Each one began to write Helene notes stuffed into the envelope with those of the proprietor, Frank Dole. Most of the letters are hilarious, others sad, but all dripping with the little details of lives during this period of history in the U.S.A. and London: 1949 – 69.

However, the letters between Frank Dole, proprietor at Marks & Company, and Helene, function like an artwork where a few essential lines allow the viewer to fill in the full portrait. I love books like this that spark the imagination while providing an essential record of the times in which they lived. It is a love story of a kind which you will just have to investigate yourself to know what I mean. 

Helene Hanff’s humorous and unedited opinions on everything from “cardboarddy” American published books to baseball are timeless. We learn about a self-educating writer whose love of English literature filled her mind and soul with inspiration as she followed her heart’s delight through the diligence and exceptional taste of Marks & Company and whose employee — Frank Dole — roamed the castles and estates of Merry Ole England finding rare and second-hand antiquarian books of English Literature. Helene’s tastes were specific to the point of eccentricity but Frank “got” Helene. His letters include a satisfying refrain that makes this second-hand book lover feel deep satisfaction: “a good clean copy”. 

Helene writes that she loves a book that has been read before with notes or marks that link them as voyagers on the same journey. Do you relate? I am a reader who loves that. I like to find original purchase receipts from, say, the 1950’s or earlier. Maybe its been made on an old receipt pad, the ones with the black inked page in between the proprietor’s copy and the buyer’s receipt.

The copy of 84 Charing Cross Road that I purchased is a limited new edition published by  another antiquarian book company in London — Slightly Foxed. My edition came in a nice cloth binding and eggshell-colored paper with gilded edges, a very “clean copy”, and a note handwritten by one of the women proprietors. I regularly tune into the Slightly Foxed Podcast to learn about books, publishing, and authors “across the pond”.

It was not until after Frank Dole died, and Marks & Company closed, that Helene thought to publish the letters. She finally received a decent enough income from the popularity of the book that allowed her to visit the London “of English Literature” and the old building and shopfront at 84 Charing Cross Road which had become such an important part of her life.

Think about what letters you may possess that could tell a story which is actually never fully manifest on the page but which is evoked between the lines. I highly recommend that you read Hanff’s book before you embark on that journey! Also watch the video, in which Helene is played be Anne Bancroft and Frank by Anthony Hopkins.

Order your book from Slightly Foxed. Let’s help out those London girls with a passion for good literature.

 

 

Replenishing the Earth – Wangari Maathai

Winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2004

Wangari Maathai grew up in her homeland in Kenya, living close to the earth and learning traditional Kikuyu values and practices. Her memoir, Unbound, describes her daily activities as a child, her mother’s teachings, and how her people regarded the streams and forests in a land where the balance of nature is delicate, not to be abused without serious consequences for its inhabitants.

In Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World, Maathai’s wisdom is distilled onto each page, every sentence the next drop in the flow. Wangari describes herself as working practically to solve problems she learned about in discussions with communities and among women’s groups. Their need for clean water, and for access to earn a living, were her daily concerns. Eventually, Wangari and the women she served established the Greenbelt Movement that planted over 30 million trees in Kenya.

In Replenishing, Wangari’s concerns about the destruction of the environment in Kenya are examined in light of the world’s sacred traditions. Always a practical perspective, her observations and reflections give readers much to consider often through humor. For example she writes that God in his wisdom created Adam on Friday. If he’d created him on Monday he’d have perished for lack of food!

Wangari Maathai’s clarity of thought is invaluable in this age where massive destruction of oceans, rivers, wildlands, and forests have imperiled life the world over. She and the women of Kenya remind us of the earth-shaking power of people to replenish the earth, if we choose to do so.

Listen to an interview with Wangari Maathai on OnBeing.org.

 

 

Songs of Ourselves – Great Read

In 2015, Blue Heron Book Works published a collections of blog posts, journal entries, and other writing forms from writers across the nation. Bathseba Monk, the intrepid and visionary editor of Blue Heron Book Works, and her editor Mary Lawlor, put together a book of American voices as varied as the landscape between our coastlines.

Songs of Ourselves is a real trip into and across Americana. If you haven’t read it, I compare it to about two dozen Blue Highways wrapped into one volume.

Listen to Tomas Benitez: Quietude in the Gully. No moaning animals or ruckus. It’s as if the Pomona Freeway Ocean knows and slows to a steady heartbeat rhythm. The waves rumble with a distant peace. La Luna is framed by the dark outline of the palm fronds on the left, the Yucca tree on the right seems to be reaching up like a hand holding her aloft. She is so beautiful tonight; it is all about her I suspect. Maybe the animals are huddled in their shadowed hollows also watching her. Not even Jinx is dancing in her moonlight. We’re in church. ~ pages 15-16.

Well worth the read. A treasure of American voices across our land. Buy it here.

 

National Parks: Citizen Library

Carlotta Walls LaNier

In the previous post I described my joy in visiting the Central High School National Historic Site which preserves and tells the story of desegregation in Little Rock, AK. There I bought two memoirs, one by Daisy Bates (The Long Shadow of Little Rock), the other by Carlotta Walls LaNier with Lisa Frazier Page (A Mighty Long Way). [*This link includes an interview with Mrs. LaNier and an excerpt from the first chapter, and links to purchase a copy of the memoir.]

Both memoirs brought me renewed appreciation for the personal struggles of individual Americans striving for their civil rights, and the importance of parents being involved in their children’s education. Reading both books rendered a deeper understanding of historical events through the lived experiences of my fellow Americans. The NPS Interpreter was also a powerful communicator who brought history to life–another important function of our National Parks.

On my current sojourn in Kentucky, I drove to Mammoth Park –another National Park site–preserving and interpreting one of the world’s great natural wonders. In 2016 it celebrated its 200th anniversary!

Stephen Bishop Portrait

In their gift store, I headed for the books section. There I found a historical novel by Roger Brucker, about Stephen Bishop, a famous and early explorer/guide at Mammoth Park (Grand, Gloomy, and Peculiar). Stephen was a slave at the time his owners assigned him the duty to serve as a guide at the privately owned wonder.  It was already a favorite travel destination for wealthy and local people. The associated hotel inn for guests owned slaves who cooked and cleaned for guests. Charlotte Brown was a slave working at the inn. It was there that she fell in love with Stephen Bishop. They would eventually marry.

The novel’s story is told through the voice of Charlotte Bishop. The narration is based in part on Charlotte’s real story. Historical documents and testimonies from people who met and knew Stephen and Charlotte guided the author in writing this delightful book. (I am about half way through.)

My point is this: if we do not know history, how can we navigate the future? Each of these National Parks sites, and the books I found there, provide citizens with living history. Our National Parks are repositories for learning and recalling great moments and individuals in history.

A Tale of Two Cities: Tucson & Pensacola

Pensacola BeachMy parents moved to Pensacola as retired military. Nearby Pensacola Naval Air Station gave them access to the commissary, officer’s club, and other amenities. They were smitten, as are so many visitors, with the incredible beauty of the Gulf coastal region and relaxed Southern lifestyle.

After moving to Tucson in 1999, I began annual treks to the beach and back, linking me to what at first glance appears to be environments at opposite ends of a moisture continuum: desert to marine systems. But I began to find uncanny parallels:

  • Barrel BlossomsThe spectacular high desert of Tucson with its tropical blooming cacti and tall saguaros, evolved from a subtropical environment as recently as 8,000 years ago – America once had a large inland sea in the Midwest;
  • The Gulf and coastal environs evolved from a dry savannah that supported lions, elephants, and other megafauna that thrive in dry, hot weather;
  • The desert hills of Tucson and the sugar white dunes of Pensacola both support prickly pear cacti and similar species of horny toads!

    Prickly Pear Fruiting

    Prickly Pear Fruiting

I also found that we are on very close latitude lines: Tucson is   32.2217° N and Pensacola is 30.4213° N.

 

 

Where I live!

Where I live!

Strains of Jimmy Buffet come to mind:

It’s those changes in latitudes,
changes in attitudes nothing remains quite the same.
With all of our running and all of our cunning,
If we couldn’t laugh, we would all go insane.