Selling Bill Buckley’s Boat

 

Ship-shape at the end of the day ~ Port O’Connor, Texas

More than a home, far more than a means of transportation, the cruising sailboat combines art and engineering, design and construction, ages-old tradition and modern efficiency, all in the service of joining sailors to the sea. Spend enough time with a boat, and you’ll soon gain the sense that, although she may not be human, she most certainly is alive.

For years that liveliness has characterized the relationships I’ve had with boats in my care. Moving about on their decks as easily as I navigate within my own home, I talk to them, occasionally curse them, and eventually come to cherish them.

Given time, I also learn their foibles and their faults. I know which toe rail wasn’t caulked properly during construction. I can point out the soft spot in the decking that indicates water damage, or the creased stainless steel railing that suggests someone arrived at the dock under less than perfect control.

Certainly damage to fiberglass, varnish, or sails keeps a lot of us in business, but every time one of my boats is damaged, it stings just a little. After Hurricane Ike, the sting was nearly unbearable.

Family Time had been lifted up by the storm surge and taken to the grass.

Tranquility crossed a parking lot, then came to rest against a palm tree.

Dockmates Coral Caye and Muriel June survived hours of hitting against one another, with significant, albeit repairable, damage. Legacy, badly bruised, didn’t require a trip to the boatyard, but Gemini had gelcoat issues, and required weeks in the yard to dry out.

Treena simply disappeared, and never was found. Though not precisely lost at sea, she most assuredly had been struck by the hand of the sea.

Of course there are other ways to lose a boat, and over the course of years I’ve seen them all. Poor navigation brings an encounter with the rocks; poor maintenance results in a trip to the bottom. From time to time, customers load their boats onto trucks and take them overland, to other ports of call.

Oddly, of all the ways to lose a boat, selling seems especially painful. When the decision to sell comes as a result of ill-health, changed financial circumstances, or the increasing limitations of age, ambivalence usually makes the process both long and difficult, no matter how small the boat or how prominent the sailor.

I still remember the day I learned Bill Buckley would sell his boat.

For years I’d been dipping intoThe National Review, the journal of conservative thought William F. Buckley, Jr. founded in 1955, and watching his appearances on television’s Firing Line. Throughout those years, Buckley’s lectures, columns, and books made him ubiquitous; whether you agreed with him or not, he couldn’t be avoided.

In the course of being exposed to his opinions, I developed one of my own. Buckley, I decided, was both insufferable and brilliant. Acerbic and bold in his writing, a polemicist at heart and not much given to the sort of subtleties designed to deflect criticism, he wrote like a painter wielding a palette knife: laying on vocabulary, subjunctive clauses, and parenthetical phrases until his meaning began to sink beneath layers of language. Often, I had no idea what he was talking about, but I kept reading and listening.

His distinctive enthusiasms and joie de vivre certainly helped to increase interest in politics and campaigns, drawing in people who might otherwise have remained disengaged. During his 1965 candidacy for mayor of New York City, someone asked Buckley what he would do if he won the election. True to form, he dead-panned, “Demand a recount.”

But Buckley was more than a political iconoclast and sharp-witted pundit. A dependable friend known for unfailing graciousness and wide-ranging interests outside the political world, he was equally well-known as a sailor and lover of the sea.

Like critics in the political realm, sailors often regarded him with disdain. His was the world of yachting, with all the class distinctions that yachting implies, but it was part of the package you had to accept — or at least tolerate — if you were interested in Buckley as sailor.

His first boat was the result of a deal struck between father and son after Buckley’s father decided, in 1938, that he and his two sisters should be schooled in England for a year. Given the strength of Bill’s opposition, his father finally resorted to a little bribery, promising his son that he could have a sailboat when he returned to the States.

As Buckley tells the story, he named that first boat Sweet Isolation as a tribute to his father’s political leanings at the time. It was a 17′ Barracuda class sailboat, and Buckley raced it with all the passion of a Whitbread competitor. Years later, he caught sight of a 1930’s America’s Cup J-Boat, and the slide down the slippery slope began.

In 1954 he became the owner of The Panic, a Dutch-built steel cutter. After nature did her worst to that boat, he moved on to a Sparkman and Stevens Nevins 40 named Suzy Wong. Suzy eventually gave way to Cyrano, a beautiful but extraordinarily large schooner which cost so much to maintain — even by Buckley’s standards — that he came, as all sailors do, to his final boat: the Patito The Spanish diminuitive for duck, Patito happened to be the pet name Buckley and his wife used with one another.

s/v Patito ~ AFP photo, Martin Bernetti

Eventually, the day came to release even Patito.  One circumstance led to another until, as Buckley put it, “the joys of ownership  began to be overcome by the pains of possession.”  In an essay about the decision-making process published inThe Atlantic, he added, “When such things happen,  one can either putter on – or quit.”  His decision was to quit, but, being William F. Buckley, Jr., that was not quite the end of the story. 

With Buckley, no opinion came without added reflection, and his reflection on the decision to sell Patito was especially poignant:

So, deciding that the time has come to sell the Patito, and forfeit all that, is not lightly done, and it brings to mind the step yet ahead, which is giving up life itself.

Eleven years ago, that “step yet ahead” was taken, and decades after I first read Buckley’s words, his voice was silenced. When death comes to a person long admired but never personally known, an individual whose presence loomed large for decades while shaping the lives of innumerable strangers, the experience of grief can be as surprising as it is real.

Combing through the columns and op-ed pieces written after Buckley’s death, reading and listening to the stories and memories shared by those who knew him best, I came across Peggy Noonan’s contribution in the Wall Street Journal, striking in its simplicity and continued relevance:

With the loss of Bill Buckley we are, as a nation, losing not only a great man.  With Bill’s passing,  we are losing his kind — people who were deeply, broadly educated in great universities when they taught deeply and broadly, who held deep views of life and the world and art and all the things that make life more delicious and more meaningful. We have work to do as a culture in bringing up future generations that are so well rounded, so full, and so inspiring.

Perhaps inevitably, Buckley died at his desk, still working vocabulary, phrases, and clauses into his unmistakable prose, even as he contemplated the nature of the path he was traveling.

Thinking about Buckley and Patito, I realize there will come a time in my own life when the boats must be let go: when for one reason or another it will be time to stop puttering, and move on.  When that time comes, and the decision to “forfeit all that” brings to mind an inevitable future, I suspect Bill Buckley also will come to mind: a memorable model for considering all such next steps with courage and grace.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Searching For Texas Treasure

Cutleaf grape fern sporangia

During a late autumn trip through Arkansas’s Ouachita mountains, I stopped at a scenic overlook to enjoy the sunset. As I stepped out of the car, I nearly demolished a plant unlike any I’d ever seen. No more than a few inches tall and without any apparent foliage, its slender stalks bore what I assumed to be seeds. Round and green, they looked like English peas, or thin strings of grapes.

Once back in Texas, I began searching for information about my Arkansas oddity. Thanks to Sid Vogelpohl’s article for the Arkansas Native Plant Society, I learned that I’d stumbled across a cutleaf grape fern (Sceptridium dissectum). The fern appears in late summer to early fall, produces a solitary frond, and is named for its round, clustered sporangia, which do resemble a bunch of grapes. Intrigued, I posted about the fern on Lagniappe, and continued searching for information.

Eventually, I learned that grape ferns also are native to Texas, although they’re confined to the eastern part of the state. Nacogdoches County, one of ten listed as a location by the USDA, was close enough to warrant exploration. Narrowing my search, I discovered the fern included in a 1999 checklist of vascular plants inventoried at Nacogdoches’ Tucker Estate, now part of the Pineywoods Native Plant Center.

Although I’ve evacuated to Nacogdoches during hurricanes and pass through the town occasionally on my way to visit relatives, the existence of the  Native Plant Center surprised me, as did the existence of a wildflower demonstration garden there. Promoted by Lady Bird Johnson and named in her honor, the garden grows more than a hundred plant species native to east Texas.

As I read about the Plant Center’s history and about the work taking place at Stephen F. Austin University’s Mast Arboretum, I was equally surprised to find that both institutions have been deeply involved with three rare Texas plants: the Neches River rose mallow (Hibiscus dasycalyx), Texas trailing phlox (Phlox nivalis spp. texensis), and a beautiful white flower commonly known as Winkler’s Gaillardia, Texas white firewheel, or Winkler’s blanket flower (Gaillardia aestivalis var. winklerii).

Despite my affection for Gaillardia generally, and my familiarity with the unusual colors it can produce, the thought of a rare white blanket flower astonished me. Clearly, it was time for a trip to Nacogdoches.

Arriving at the Native Plant Center, I first asked a pair of young men if they knew where I might find the cutleaf grape fern. They pondered, then pointed to a booted woman pulling a red wagon filled with plants and plastic pots. “You need to talk to Dawn,” one said. Eventually, I learned the woman was Dawn Stover, the person responsible for herbaceous plant collections at both the Mast Arboretum and the Plant Center, as well as for their horticultural greenhouse facilities.

When I asked Dawn if she knew where, or even if, the cutleaf grape fern still grew on the grounds, she wasn’t certain. She thought it might be growing somewhere in their forty acres, but she couldn’t take me to a particular site.

“Well,” I said, “do you happen to know if there are any of the Winkler’s Gaillardia still blooming?” Her eyes lit up, and she grinned. “I can show you some,” she said. “They’re over here.” In less than a minute, we were standing in front of several beds filled with beautiful flowers.

Winkler’s gaillardia flower and seed head

As I began photographing the flowers, Dawn explained the history of the Native Plant Center’s work with them, and her own development of a color form with purple rays and dark centers. A few of the purple flowers still were blooming, but given my love of white flowers, the native seemed far more attractive.

Endemic to Texas, Winkler’s Gaillardia grows only in Hardin county, with some occurrences reported in Tyler and Newton counties. Seeing them at the Native Plant center had been delightful, but the experience left me determined to see them in their native habitat: the sandy soils and pine-oak woodlands of East Texas’s Big Thicket. I soon learned that the Roy E. Larsen Sandyland Sanctuary — a 5,654 acre Nature Conservancy site located between Kountze and Silsbee — provides habitat for Winkler’s Gaillardia, as well as for the endangered Texas trailing phlox and a beautiful scarlet catchfly (Silene subciliata).

The Sanctuary, a combination of swamp, open-floor forest, and southern pinelands, is rich in plant and animal species, and serves as part of a comprehensive effort to protect and restore the longleaf pine ecosystem on the west Gulf coastal plain.

A bit of luck allowed me to make contact with Shawn Benedict, superintendent at the Sanctuary, and he graciously offered to spend some time with me when I arrived. I thought I detected a bit of amusement in his voice when he said he was certain he could help me find some white firewheels. He had reason to be amused; he already knew what I discovered only after I arrived. Scattered throughout the pine and oak woodlands that stretched into the sanctuary, the gaillardia were plentiful and obvious: some still in bud, some in seed, and others in full bloom.

Winkler’s gaillardia bud

After we admired the flowers, Shawn provided a brief tour of other Sanctuary highlights, and then went off to other things. For two more hours I wandered the trails, amazed by the variety of plant life. In that world, so different from the coastal prairies I’m most accustomed to, I wasn’t able to identify many of the plants fading away in the late October sunlight. But finding the Winkler’s Gaillardia had been my goal, and I’d succeeded beyond my wildest imaginings.

At the grand opening and dedication of the Pineywoods Native Plant Center and Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Demonstration Garden on April 8, 2000, Lady Bird herself was able to attend. After the festivities, she wrote a letter of thanks to David Creech, co-founder and for several years co-director of the Plant Center, including these comments about the luncheon decorations and the gifts she received:

I especially loved the wildflower table arrangements and little pots of Winkler’s white firewheel. Tomorrow, the men will plant my white firewheel, and I can’t wait to see the beautiful rare blossoms grow in in my very own yard! Thank you so much for your generosity in allowing me to take enough for the ranch, my house in Austin, and the Wildflower Center!

Lady Bird is gone now, of course, but the rare flower she loved continues to bloom in her gardens, at the Pineywoods Native Plant Center, and in the sandy soil of an east Texas preserve. When early summer arrives, I’ll be searching for it again. This time, I know where begin.

 

Comments always are welcome. This piece originally appeared on the Native Plant Society of Texas website, and has been slightly edited.

The Poets’ Birds: Geese

White-fronted geese (Anser albifrons)

Named for the distinctive white band that surrounds its bill, the white-fronted goose commonly is known as the specklebelly, thanks to dark brown or black patches and bars that mark its breast. Not readily apparent on the ground, the ‘speckled belly’ becomes obvious when the bird takes flight. Given its pinkish bill and orange legs and feet, it’s not a hard bird to identify, but this small flock flying above the San Bernard Wildlife Refuge was the first I’ve seen since coming to Texas.

Specklebellies nest in the high Arctic before following the Mississippi, Central, and Pacific flyways to wintering grounds in California’s central valley, the Mississippi alluvial plain, or the marshes and wetlands of coastal Texas.The birds often mix with snow geese, or fly with assorted species of ducks; in other photos of this group, a few northern shovelers can be seen.

Decades before I experienced great flocks of geese of any sort, I became entranced by Frankie Laine’s “Wild Goose,” a song released in 1950. I drove my mother to distraction by playing their 78 rpm recording of it again and again, thrilled by the thought of flying with the geese.

“Wild Goose” ~ Frankie Laine

I suspect few remember Frankie Laine today, but his metaphorical goose remains a part of our culture, thanks to Mary Oliver. One of her best-known and best-loved poems, “Wild Geese,” celebrates that same harsh and exciting call: perhaps inviting new generations to follow where the wild goose goes.

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Making a Run For Mardi Gras

Le Capitaine and his Chicken

In 2012, not long after I’d written a thing or two about chickens, a friend from Louisiana emailed a suggestion: “Cher, you want a complete chicken experience, come to Cajun country for Mardi Gras. They dance for chickens over here.”

As proof, he sent along the trailer for Pat Mire’s documentary, Dance for a Chicken. After watching with a certain degree of astonishment, I tucked the link into my bookmarks and resolved to make my own run to the Louisiana prairie to witness the celebrations.

For two years, I remembered the email only after it was too late to make plans, but in 2015 I remembered, and made some inquiries. A few phone calls later, I had the name and address of a Church Point family willing to host a visitor from Texas. I called another friend who lives down on the bayou and said, “Pack your bags. We’ve got chickens waiting for us.” Continue reading

Embracing Imperfection

Still Life With Basket of Fruit ~ Balthasar van der Ast

The times, they are a-changing. Doubt that, and even the briefest foray into your local grocery store will convince you otherwise. Today’s retro shoppers, armed with a list and a cart, find themselves blocked at every turn by store employees pushing multi-level wire racks through the aisles as they gather canned tomatoes and lettuce for harried or lazy consumers who’ve adopted the practice of online ordering.

Some customers pick up their order at the store; others have it delivered to their home or place of business. In either case, technology has freed them from an onerous set of tasks: the need to visit a store, physically pull items from the shelves, and stand in line to pay for them.
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A Poem for a Poet

departure

 

Woods
walker,
wanderer,
wisdom seeker:
she willed us along
beneath willows and oaks
toward the life-giving water
of words. See, she says, how they rise
and flow ~ quenching imagination’s
thirst, flooding away darkness from our eyes.

 

Comments always are welcome.
My etheree was written in response to Mary Oliver’s death. For more information on the form, a syllabic poem that, at its most basic, contains ten lines and a total of fifty-five syllables, please click here.

Tears, Laughter, and Love

It was the simplest of exchanges. On the day poet Mary Oliver died, I responded to a reader’s acknowledgement of her passing by saying, “Yes, and I was surprised by the depth of my grief. I don’t believe I’ve ever wept at the death of a ‘celebrity’ before.” “I understand,” he said, “and as I’m certain you know, that’s all right.” Smiling, I replied, “Indeed, it is.”
And that would have been that, had I not continued to think about other simple exchanges that have shaped my understanding of life. I’m posting the story of one such exchange today: in memory of Mary Oliver, in honor of Charles Treger, and in appreciation for all who understand the role of beauty, truth, and tears in our lives.

 

Tucked into the heart of an old Houston neighborhood, Villa de Matel gleams with burnished light. Home to the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, the convent serves the larger community as a place of worship and retreat, as well as being a retirement home for the Sisters.

A large Lombard-Romanesque Chapel designed by architect Maurice J. Sullivan serves as its centerpiece. Consecrated in 1928, it’s noted for high vaulted ceilings, German and Irish stained-glass windows, massive marble pillars, and intricate tile work. Like the Rothko Chapel, another Houston landmark, it’s impressive without being ornate. Its numinous space shimmers in the silence, inviting visitors to pause, rest, and reflect.
Continue reading