Giving Thanks for “Yes”

One of my amusements during the holiday season is people-watching. Where crowds, lines, and captive children are the norm, amusement abounds.

During a pre-Thanksgiving swing through a local grocery, I landed behind a child and his mother in the checkout line. The boy appeared to be three or four years old, and he was fussy. Hanging on to his mother’s skirt, he circled around until he found safety, tucked between her body and the cart. Looking past us to displays of merchandise across the aisle, he pointed to something and tugged on her skirt to gain attention. Busy sorting through her purse, his mother ignored him — a mistake she would come to regret.

The boy continued to demand her attention, until ‘fussy’ transformed itself into ‘cantankerous.’ and he began to wail with rage and frustration. He was tired. He wanted to go home, and he certainly didn’t want to wait while his mother sorted through coupons. As his outraged protest grew louder and more high-pitched, his obviously embarassed mother tried her best to reason with him.

“Do you want to ride in the cart?” she asked. No, he did not want to ride in the cart. “Do you want to look at your book?” No, he did not. “Do you want me to spank you?” He certainly didn’t want that. “Do you want to go to your room when we get home?” That wasn’t acceptable, either.

In desperation, his mother looked at her overflowing grocery cart. “Do you want a cookie?” “No!'” he shouted. Startled by the unexpected response, she asked again, “Are you sure you don’t want a cookie?”  At that point, the boy began to wail and his perplexed mother tried again. “Do you know what I just asked you?” This time, there was no reply; the unhappy child only re-buried his tearful face into her skirt, muffling the sound of his refusals.

Those of us watching were as amused as his mother was uncomfortable and embarassed, but all of us — mother and onlookers alike — seemed astonished by the intensity of the child’s “No!” Caught up in the perverse pleasure of opposition, his refusals had become more important to him than a cookie.

Unfortunately, the instinctive response of that child has become the habit of too many adults. Nay-sayers abound. Petulant, obnoxious, pessimistic, and filled with cynicism, their entire raison dêtre appears to be shouting No! into the face of life. Offered the hand of friendship, the challenges of collegiality, or the possibility of intimacy, they respond by clinging ever more tightly to their rejection of every overture; every gesture of conciliation; every offer of hope.

Tiresome and exhausting in personal relationships, negativity becomes corrosive and toxic on a social level. When whole groups begin saying No to one another, more than feelings get hurt. Society becomes segmented. Fear erodes acceptance. Selfishness appears, together with its unhappy twin, a hunger for power. From urban alleyways to the halls of Congress, from boardrooms to the halls of academia, we increasingly are confronted by the spectacle of enraged, petulant children shouting “No!” to those who dare confront or care for them: an army of aging children possessing adult strength and power: children whose negativity is capable of killing or reshaping lives without regard for consequence.

Recognizing the power of negativity to erode, consume and destroy, I’ve come to depend on the folly of hope: a willingness to believe that, despite all evidence to the contrary, humanity remains good at heart, that joy is possible, and that, however broken trust may be, it still can be rebuilt. To paraphrase the famous words of William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, I chose to believe humanity not only will endure the shouts of “no” we call history, but that it will prevail over that history by the “yes” of courageous human hearts.

Is such hope naive? Has faith in humanity become outdated? Have the cruelty, ridicule, and small-mindedness of the schoolyard made dignity, perseverance and acceptance irrelevant? Faced with such questions, I find myself once again aligned with a poet of my roots. Let the naysayers of the world rant on. Carl Sandburg knew the people; he knew the power of grace; and he knew the people’s “Yes.”

The people yes
The people will live on.
The learning and blundering people will live on.
They will be tricked and sold and again sold
And go back to the nourishing earth for rootholds,
The people so peculiar in renewal and comeback,
You can’t laugh off their capacity to take it…
The people so often sleepy, weary, enigmatic,
is a vast huddle with many units saying:
“I earn my living.
I make enough to get by
and it takes all my time.
If I had more time
I could do more for myself
and maybe for others.
I could read and study
and talk things over
and find out about things.
It takes time.
I wish I had the time.”…
Between the finite limitations of the five senses
and the endless yearnings of man for the beyond
the people hold to the humdrum bidding of work and food
while reaching out when it comes their way
for lights beyond the prison of the five senses,
for keepsakes lasting beyond any hunger or death.
This reaching is alive.
The panderers and liars have violated and smutted it.
Yet this reaching is alive yet
for lights and keepsakes.
The people know the salt of the sea
and the strength of the winds
lashing the corners of the earth.
The people take the earth
as a tomb of rest and a cradle of hope.
Who else speaks for the Family of Man?
They are in tune and step
with constellations of universal law.
The people is a polychrome,
a spectrum and a prism
held in a moving monolith,
a console organ of changing themes,
a clavilux of color poems
wherein the sea offers fog
and the fog moves off in rain
and the labrador sunset shortens
to a nocturne of clear stars
serene over the shot spray
of northern lights.
The steel mill sky is alive.
The fire breaks white and zigzag
shot on a gun-metal gloaming.
Man is a long time coming.
Man will yet win.
Brother may yet line up with brother:
This old anvil laughs at many broken hammers.
There are men who can’t be bought.
The fireborn are at home in fire.
The stars make no noise,
You can’t hinder the wind from blowing.
Time is a great teacher.
Who can live without hope?
In the darkness with a great bundle of grief
the people march.
In the night, and overhead a shovel of stars for keeps, the people
march:
“Where to? what next?”

Comments always are welcome.

Too Many Tricks, and The Wrong Kind of Treats

 

With goblins, ghoulies, and ghosties galore skulking along the edge of consciousness, and with every horror movie classic — Psycho, Vertigo, Rebecca — being pulled from its grave, it must be Halloween.

In parts of the country where offense isn’t so easily taken, children delight in dressing up as princesses, cowboys, or Cruella de Vil.  Meanwhile, for the faux vampires, zombies, and other unspeakable night-creatures who seek to displace chainsaw-wielding psychopaths as the epitome of evil, corn syrup blood is dripping, and the body parts are piling up

There’s no question that Halloween has gone commercial. From our neighborhood haunted house to Universal Studios’ famous Halloween Horror Nights, everyone hopes to take a bite out of the consumer. Since we love to be entertained, and we love to be scared when we know it doesn’t count, the witches’ brew of Dia De Los Muertos skeletons, decorated graves, black cats, and whacked-out pumpkins makes for a perfect holiday.

In this season dedicated to thinning the veil between life and death, one of the most unlikely purveyors of horror is the American poet, Carl Sandburg.

Sandburg isn’t much in favor these days. He’s too common, and too plain-spoken. In his own time, he wasn’t considered particularly literary; today, he might well be censored, cancelled, or de-platformed.  But his vision was sharp, and he understood people. Like Whitman before him, he acknowledged the value of the workers and builders, families, and business people who knit this country together, and he honored them with his work.

After decades of allowing his poetry to fade from memory, I began thinking of Sandburg after the devastation of Hurricane Ike. Standing in the midst of tossed boats and shredded houses, the introduction to his Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind seemed relevant. ‘Yesterday’ was gone indeed, along with much of Bolivar Penninsula, a goodly portion of Galveston, and the security of people up and down the coast. “What of it?” asked the woman Sandburg named Tomorrow. “Let the dead be dead.” Today, different storms wrack our society, and different forces are attempting to dismember the body politic, but Tomorrow’s question still echoes: “What of it?”

When I compare Sandburg and Faulkner on the nature of humanity, Faulkner often wins. Despite the nature of some of his novels’ characters, his eloquent Nobel Prize acceptance speech inspires and elevates; Sandburg too often seems bleak; resigned; dismissive of the possibilities inherent in life. When Faulkner’s Gavin Stevens says, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past,” the tone somehow seems more realistic — optimistic, even — than Sandburg’s. But both men are communicating truth, and it’s Sandburg’s truth that seems particularly relevant today.

In recent months, as economic devastation, social upheaval, and political crosscurrents have surged through our national life, I’ve wondered if Sandburg ever imagined his beloved country would transform itself in this way. And yet his words are chilling and prescient: as sharp and timely as though he meant to speak them precisely to us, the countrymen and women he never would know.

A Lincoln scholar, a lover of history, a straightforward man of integrity who could touch the hearts of his contemporaries, Sandburg should speak to us today. Let the thrill seekers crowd into their theatres, and the living dead prowl their haunted houses. Let the role players mask their intent and the would-be vampires try for a second bite. This Halloween, I’m tired of the fear-mongers’ tricks, and I don’t need the treats they pretend to offer. I’d rather see my country clear-eyed, hear the poet speak, and share his unmasked words with those who dare to face and battle our own unnerving horrors.

Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind
Carl Sandburg ~ 1922
The woman named Tomorrow
sits with a hairpin in her teeth
and takes her time
and does her hair the way she wants it
and fastens at last the last braid and coil
and puts the hairpin where it belongs
and turns and drawls: Well, what of it?
My grandmother, Yesterday, is gone.
What of it? Let the dead be dead.
The doors were cedar
and the panels strips of gold
and the girls were golden girls
and the panels read and the girls chanted:
We are the greatest city,
the greatest nation:
nothing like us ever was.
The doors are twisted on broken hinges.
Sheets of rain swish through on the wind
where the golden girls ran and the panels read:
We are the greatest city,
the greatest nation,
nothing like us ever was.
It has happened before.
Strong men put up a city and got
a nation together,
and paid singers to sing and women
to warble: We are the greatest city,
the greatest nation,
nothing like us ever was.
And while the singers sang
and the strong men listened
and paid the singers well
and felt good about it all,
there were rats and lizards who listened
…and the only listeners left now
are…the rats…and the lizards.
And there are black crows
crying, “Caw, caw,”
bringing mud and sticks
building a nest
over the words carved
on the doors where the panels were cedar
and the strips on the panels were gold
and the golden girls came singing:
We are the greatest city,
the greatest nation,
nothing like us ever was.
The only singers now are crows crying, “Caw, caw,”
And the sheets of rain whine in the wind and doorways.
And the only listeners now are…the rats…and the lizards.

The feet of the rats
scribble on the doorsills;
the hieroglyphs of the rat footprints
chatter the pedigrees of the rats
and babble of the blood
and gabble of the breed
of the grandfathers and the great-grandfathers
of the rats.
And the wind shifts
and the dust on a doorsill shifts
and even the writing of the rat footprints
tells us nothing, nothing at all
about the greatest city, the greatest nation
where the strong men listened
and the women warbled: Nothing like us ever was.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Upward, then Onward

Madonna of the Trail  ~ Council Grove, Kansas

Confused, frightened, or hungry for attention, children quickly learn the value of the single word, “Up!”  Whether shouted as a demand or whispered as a plea, the word is capable of bringing adult arms down to a child’s level: ready to enfold the needy little bundle of humanity into a blanket of security, lift it high, and ensure its safety.

The urge to flee upward seems instinctive. On my third birthday, neighbors decided I should have a pet. When the time came to share cake and ice cream, they appeared at the door with a tiny puppy in a box.  Black, glistening curls of fur and long floppy ears wriggled in pleasure as belly rubs and ear scratches were offered.Then, the puppy was turned loose. After making a few quick circles, the creature produced a cascade of wild yips and headed straight for me.

My escape became the stuff of family legend. Bounding upward, I landed first on a dining room chair and then atop my mother’s prized mahogany dining table, shoes and all. The puppy continued to tumble and jump, trying to follow, while I screamed in terror, refusing to be reassured. Eventually, the well-meaning neighbors made their way home with their new dog, while I scooted off the table and was consoled with a second helping of ice cream.

Fifty years later I met French Charlie, a sailor who’d had his own experience of moving ‘up’ in the world. Born in Marseilles and given to crossing the Atlantic at the first hint of boredom, he preferred single-handing in cast-off, creaky old boats. Everyone agreed he must have had angels as crew, since it was the only way to explain his survival.

Charlie liked to say he’d made five-and-a-half crossings of the Atlantic. The phrase ‘half-a-crossing’ always got someone’s attention, giving Charlie a chance to tell his favorite story: how he left Marseilles in a bathtub of a boat; how one failure led to another; how, ankle-deep in Atlantic waters, he radioed for help before clambering to the top of his boat to hang onto the mast and await death.

With his boat slowing sinking beneath him, his angels brought a Danish freighter to his side. “What do you need?” called the First Officer, leaning over the railing in amazement. “Up!” Charlie responded, in the wavering tones of a brave five-year-old. Taken aboard the freighter, he watched his boat sink beneath the waves. Not long after, he decided coastal cruising might be more to his liking, and he left the open ocean behind.

Again and again, the impulse to head ‘up’ has saved lives. Wakened from sleep, a vacationer in Phuket misinterprets screams outside his window as the foolishness of children until he looks, sees the ocean scouring the streets, and blindly begins running upward: scrambling from stairwell to balcony to the rooftop where he survives, witnessing the implacable rage of a tsunami.

Astonished by the sight of tropical storm Allison pouring into his home through still-closed windows and doors, a Houstonian clambers with his children from tabletop to stepstool to attic, where he watches the swirling water fill his house while he waits for the deluge to cease.

Terrified by Katrina’s second surge, thousands of people fled to their rooftops, blessing the Coast Guard, neighbors, and perfect strangers who rescued them by water and by air.

During the passage of hurricane Ike, a couple who’d chosen to stay in their home climbed from first to second to third floors until, as the storm’s eye passed overhead and the moon emerged from the clouds, they looked out to find themselves at sea. Bridges and roads, stop signs and billboards sank beneath the flooding tide. Only the circling currents and wind-driven waves reflected the hazy moon.

Galveston’s 1900 Storm Memorial Confronts Hurricane Ike ~ Houston Chronicle

In the face of rising storms, heading to higher ground is a reasonable choice. But while people can move, structures don’t.  In the Storm of 1900, Galveston learned that painful lesson. Not only their most vulnerable dwellings were destoyed. Substantial homes, churches, public buildings, and schools were ravaged equally, leaving the survivors with a decision. Would they run from the devastation, seeking new homes on the mainland? Or would the city itself move away from the coast in order to re-establish itself as an inland center of commerce?

In fact, Galveston chose a third option. Detailed by Cornelia Dean in her book Against the Tide: The Battle for America’s Beaches, Galvestonians determined to stay on their island, avoiding future calamity by instituting a remarkable plan.

Rather than retreating from the shifting sands to points higher elsewhere, the city decided to fence itself off from future disasters with a seawall. Everything inside [the seawall] – houses, churches, offices, trees, gardens – was raised by as much as 17 feet, and then flooded with silt. It was a plan that, even in an era of engineering, stood out for its size, cost and audacity…
The lifting operation was one of sheer brawn. Laborers ran beams under the buildings and mounted them on screwjacks that burly men turned by hand. A total of 2,156 buildings were laboriously hoisted, a quarter of an inch at a turn, until they reached the requisite height and new foundations could be built beneath them. Meanwhile, children climbed rickety catwalks to reach their schools; housewives hung their laundry from lines strung fifteen feet above the ground.
Even substantial structures took to the air. At St. Patrick’s Church, a three-hundred ton brick structure, services continued as it rose to the grunts of laborers manning two hundred screwjacks beneath it.
Galveston and Texas History Center ~ Rosenberg Library

Once the seawall had been built and the city floated above its island like a cloud, the process of grade-raising began. A canal dredged through the city center obtained fill from Galveston Bay. Dredges moved continually between harbor and canal, spewing out a slurry of water and sand on both sides in a lengthy process that required years of labor. During those years, people lived, conducted business, and attended worship in their ‘floating’ buildings, making their way around town on boardwalks fastened to the top of fences.

Houses raised and ready for filling
Photo by Zeva B. Edworthy, courtesy Galveston County Museum

The largest of four dredges was given the humorous nickname Leviathan, and gardeners grew oleanders atop their roofs until new topsoil could be brought from the mainland, but mostly there was hard, back-breaking work as an entire city literally raised itself out of despair.

Galveston and Texas History Center ~ Rosenberg Library

After the 1900 Storm, residents of Galveston elevated their city and raised one another’s spirits with a vision of new life. Roughly a century later, as that same coastline faced a series of hurricanes, Galveston’s seawall held, and their tradition of self-reliance held firm.

Up and down Gulf beaches and bay shorelines, people in surrounding communities encouraged and supported one another through the recovery processes. Through the years, an increasingly important element in that recovery has been the elevation of homes. In San Leon, Bacliff, Oak Island, Surfside, Clear Lake Shores, and Kemah — in all the towns and villages of southeast Texas — the wisdom spray-painted onto one of Hurricane Ike’s still-abandoned homes is cherished: “Move Up ~ Don’t Give Up”.

Today, elevation happens differently — no dredges are pumping slurry into neighborhoods — but the sense that higher is better has been written into hearts as well as building codes. Sometimes the progress is slow. But the work goes on, and every completed home lifts the heart a little higher.

Tiny bungalows and cottages rest on new pilings as lightly as a feather. Gardeners work the soil, hanging petunias and bougainvillea for color. Families incorporate bits and pieces of personal history into new construction while pondering questions washed up by the surge: How shall we reshape our lives? shall we stay, or shall we go? Are the answers offered by the past adequate for our day? Is there a way, finally, to rise above circumstance?

Even in years unmarked by the anguish and devastation of a major hurricane, the lessons of Galveston’s Great Storm are worth remembering. Not every flood is due to the river’s rise or a hurricane’s surge. Not all the debris floating through our lives is so easily disposed of as plywood and plastic. Not all of the filth that clogs our minds and coats our spirits can be washed away like so much clinging mud.

There are devastations of the spirit, surges of pain, winds of conflict or change that shake our certainties, unnerving us as surely as the worst storms of the season. Remembering those who both endured and prevailed over the natural world, we may find our own inspiration to create some higher ground; to raise our sights; to shore up our foundations and re-build our ties to one another before another, unexpected storm seeks to sweep us all away.

Comments always are welcome.

Cemetery Season

Some call it the end of winter; some call it spring. Increasingly, Texans call it wildflower season, but I’ve come to think of it as cemetery season: that time of year when human preferences for tidiness and uniformity are challenged by nature’s urge toward abundant, irrepressible growth. In at least some of our cemeteries, nature wins, and a visit to one is sheer pleasure.

In Galveston, it’s the six-block area known collectively as the Broadway Cemeteries that crowns the season. Comprised of seven burial grounds plotted between 1839 and 1939, it includes three associated with faith communities (Hebrew, Catholic, and Episcopal) and four which are non-sectarian. Some allow wildflowers to flourish while others don’t; in spring, the difference in appearance between the mowed and the unmowed is remarkable.

The cemeteries themselves have interesting histories. Today’s Oleander Cemetery, previously Potters’ Field, provided a resting place for the indigent. The New City Cemetery, originally known as the Yellow Fever Yard, was established around 1867 in response to a particularly virulent yellow fever outbreak that ravaged a city already familiar with the disease. From 1839 to 1867, at least nine yellow fever epidemics swept through Galveston; in 1853, sixty percent of the city’s approximately 45,000 residents contracted the disease, and 523 died.

Evergreen and Old City Cemeteries are filled with victims of a different sort: many who lie there perished in the Great Storm of 1900. Of course, apart from the twin insults of disease and natural disaster, each cemetery also provided final resting places for some of the earliest immigrants to Texas; soldiers from both sides of the Civil War; businessmen; legislators; and entirely ordinary families.

 In spring, the twin pillars of history and remembrance are joined by a third: the simple beauty of the flowers.

Some spread across the ground, spilling out through fences into the surrounding neighborhood. Some travel upward, accepting the crevices and cracks of aging crypts as an acceptable home.

Even the simplest stones are enhanced by the flowers surrounding them. James Grice, known as ‘Shorty’ by the fishermen he served, established a waterfront bait and tackle shop after arriving from Liverpool, England. He slept in the back of his shop, and willingly served even those customers who felt the urge to fish at midnight.

Jennie Rust’s stone has its own simple dignity, though it raises a question or two. During the Great Storm of 1900, a father named Charles Rust was knocked from a wagon while attempting to carry his family to safety; he perished with three of his children. Jennie died in 1880 at the age of eighteen, so she clearly wasn’t the wife of that Charles Rust, but I suspect the desperate father and Jennie’s Charles were somehow connected.

Not all graves are so simple, of course. The Broadway Cemeteries contain a remarkable collection of Classical Revival vaults, Gothic Revival mausoleums, and towering obelisks. 

Here, lush blooms surround one of two Willis family mausoleums. Peter James Willis, one of several family members interred in the impressive edifice, arrived in Texas from Maryland in January 1836, shortly before the fall of the Alamo. He returned to his home state in June of that year, but came back to Texas in October, bringing two younger brothers — William and Richard — with him.

The trio went to work on Buffalo Bayou, supplying wood to steamboats. They intended to use their profits to open a store in Washington on the Brazos, but fending off Brazos river bottom mosquitoes wasn’t easy, and William died of malaria. After that, the two remaining brothers moved to Montgomery, Texas, and opened their store.

In 1845, Peter  married Caroline Womack, the daughter of a prosperous planter. One of their six children, a daughter named Magnolia, married wealthy businessman George Sealy in 1875. George and his brother John were involved in cotton, banking, and railroads; John’s son, owner of the Magnolia Petroleum Company, is said to have named it for his aunt Magnolia.

My favorite Willis family story involves Magnolia. According to family legend, the construction of the landmark Sealy mansion was instigated by a statement made by Magnolia after the birth of the couple’s fifth child in 1885: “Sir, I’ll give you a second son, if you’ll build me the finest home in Galveston.”

Whatever the actual circumstances, the Neo-Renaissance mansion was completed in 1889. An elaborate carriage house designed by Galveston architect Nicholas Clayton was finished in 1891: the very year the couple’s second son was born.

The less elaborate but still appealing crypt of the Haden family can be found near the edge of the Episcopal Cemetery. Dr. J.M. Haden, born in Lowndes county, Mississippi in 1825, contributed significantly to the health and well-being of Galveston residents.

A graduate of Jackson college in Columbia, Tennessee and La Grange college in Alabama,  Dr. Haden received his M.D. in 1847 from the University of New Orleans. After serving the United States military and then that of the Confederacy,  he returned to Galveston at the end of the Civil War to begin the practice of medicine. Elected president of the Galveston County Medical Society as well as the board of directors of the Galveston Medical college, he went on to head Galveston’s Board of Health. During his tenure, it became recognized that yellow fever had been brought to Texas from outside the state, and his obituary, published inThe Galveston Daily News  on October 31, 1892, noted his role in containing the disease:

It is probably due to Dr Hayden’s measures adopted in the [yellow fever] epidemic of 1878 that such a strict state quarantine has been established, and the testimony of leading citizens is preserved which credits his vigilance with the preservation of this city from horrors of the epidemic which swept over some of our neighboring communities during his administration of our health affairs.
An unusual example of murderer and victims buried together

Occasionally, gravestones hint at nearly unimaginable horrors. After emigrating from Germany to Galveston with his family, Louis Alberti eventually married Galveston native Elize Roemer and established a successful butcher shop with his brother-in-law.

After Louis and Elize’s first-born child, Louis, Jr., died of tetanus at the age of seven, friends and family noticed changes in his mother’s behavior. Ten years later, after the births of several other children, daughter Caroline was born in 1894, then died in April of that year, before reaching her first birthday.

By May, Elize began exhibiting aberrant and violent behavior, and was sent to live with her parents in a different part of Galveston. After a few weeks she returned home, despite showing continued signs of disturbance. On the evening of December 4, 1894, Elize called her children into the dining room and offered them a few sips of wine: a customary practice in Victorian times.

Not long after, Louis began hearing screams from his children, and rushed home from his shop next door to find them in agony. Under questioning, Elize admitted she had put morphine into the wine, intending to kill both the children and herself; only Louis’s return to the house had kept her from suicide.

Despite attempts by physicians, four of the children died: Willie first, then
Dora, Ella, and Lizzie. Emma, 16, recovered enough to be sent to the hospital for a day, and she survived. Fourteen-year-old Wilhelmina escaped, since she was studying in a different room when her mother called.

The next day, Mrs. Alberti was arrested and charged with insanity. Asked if she knew what she had done, she replied that she did, and regretted only that she had not been able to take her own life. “I have been ill for the last eight months,” she said, “and know that I could not fill my obligations to my babies. They are better off.”

After the murders, Alberti spent time in the San Antonio Asylum. After her release, she returned to Galveston, and — free to achieve her goal at last — committed suicide.

Despite the reminders of human frailty and foibles hidden among the stones, every cemetery provides an amusement or two. Here, an angel seems to be pouting, and with good reason. The drape of Mardi Gras beads on the cross in front of her hasn’t changed in a year; she probably would enjoy more beads, in different colors.

I hope she can’t see this stone, visible in the photo of Dr. Haden’s crypt. It’s not only decorated with three times the number of beads that decorated it last year, it has snails ready to join the party.

In spring and summer, grackles qualify as Broadway’s most enthusiastic party animals. They feed among the flowers and nest in palm trees, while the boys show off for the girls from atop the gravestones.

More than birds and flowers flourish above the crypts. Trees and shrubbery seem willing to set up shop wherever conditions are right; someday, enterprising birds may nest in one of these oddly-rooted trees.

Many palms scattered throughout the cemeteries weren’t available for nesting this year, having lost their fronds to our February freeze. Still, grackles were flying into and out of this trio of palms next to an obelisk marking the grave of Abraham Parker Lufkin (1816-1887), a cotton merchant and Galveston City Council  member for whom town of Lufkin is named.

Hints of green suggest this palm, too, will survive and continue to provide a pretty backdrop for the memorial to paint store owner Joseph Rice; his wife Mary; and several of their children. Changing technology brought grief to this family when daughter Louisa, quite deaf, was killed when she walked in front of a street car whose motor she couldn’t hear.

Despite the intriguing histories contained within the Broadway cemeteries, and despite the beauty of the flowers decorating them, the greatest delight on my day of exploration was a gravestone I’d never before seen. The identity of the child is unknown, as is the hand of the sculptor. Even the inscription was invisible until the stone was raised some years ago, but its tenderness, and the love of those who chose its words, is unmistakable.

Who plucked this flower the angry gardner cried
The Master hath his mate replied
Thereat the gardner paused and held his peace

Comments always are welcome.

A Perfect Storm

Dislodged by autumn’s rising winds, acorns have begun bouncing and tumbling across the landscape, the sound of their fall exploding into the air like the percussive chatter of firecrackers.

If you’re standing near a car when the first gust strikes and the oaks release their seed-crop, the racket is astounding. If you’re sheltering beneath a tin roof, the sound amplifies and becomes deafening. A storm of ripened acorns may be less destructive than hail, but it’s no less impressive.

I experienced my first acorn storm in the Texas hill country, an area of valleys and ridges threaded through with several varieties of oak. The swell of redbuds in spring, the extravagant yellow blooms of prickly pear, the Virginia creeper climbing toward autumn’s true red: all delight the eyes, but the oak can surprise the ears.

I first heard of ‘acorn storms’ on a hill country porch. We’d been rocking and rail-sitting, drinking sweet tea and watching the deer, when someone mentioned the acorn crop. Stories began to flow about lean years and fat, hunger and starvation. As the tales grew more extravagant, I began to laugh. “You might as well be talking snow,” I said. “When you call it the Great Acorn Storm of ’78, you sound like a bunch of Yankees sitting around the woodstove, recalling a particularly memorable blizzard.”

In truth, acorn storms remain as unpredictable as blizzards. Even when the crop is good, there’s no sure way to know when they’ll fall, so there’s nothing to do but wait until the acorns’ great, clacking fall sounds the dinner bell for a multitude of woodland creatures.

Autumn oak shot at Kerr Wildlife Refuge near Hunt, Texas.

My own first experience came just after midnight in a cabin outside Kerrville. A single acorn falling on the tin roof from the oak overhanging the cabin sounded like a gunshot. Roused from sleep to full, heart-pounding attention, I watched prowling shadows wrap their fingers around the window frames, stealthy and intrusive. The same gust of wind that separated the seed from its tree set the outside lantern swaying, giving life to the shadows, but as the wind laid and the lantern grew still, the moving shadows settled back into darkness, and the night grew still.

Convinced at last that neither man nor beast had come to claim my life, I settled back myself and began drifting into sleep. Then, another acorn fell and scrabbled down the roof, followed by a second. As the wind crossed the ridge and began swirling into the valley, branches bent and bowed as a torrent of acorns fell, filling the night with strange, percussive rhythms and the sharp, metallic clatter of their tumble down the roof. It was, I told friends later, a perfect storm.

Apart from their ability to compel the attention of inexperienced city folk, acorns are interesting. They come in assorted sizes and colors, and sport a variety of rakish caps. Smooth, small acorns from live oaks differ considerably from those of the Bur oak, a tree whose large acorn wears a furry, vaguely Russian-looking cap.

Regardless of size, all acorns are a critical part of the food chain. Squirrels and deer dote on them, as do mice, rabbits, foxes, and raccoons. A variety of birds also enjoy them: not only the wild turkey, jay, and woodpecker you might expect, but also water birds like the egrets.

The crop size varies from year to year, partly because of differences in the production cycle of different species. Bur oak production peaks every five to seven years, while live oaks produce extraordinary numbers of acorns every four to ten years. During so-called ‘mast years,’ walking beneath the trees can be like walking on ball bearings.

Publications from county agents, universities, and arborists note this wide variation in yearly acorn production. Most also include a caveat against attempting to draw other, more speculative conclusions from the number of acorns produced. ‘Speculative conclusions’ is a polite term for folk wisdom which believes in the predictive power of acorns. My own grandparents were certain an abundance of acorns signals a harsh winter to come, and a friend who grew up in Nebraska shared this bit of weather wisdom from the plains:  Busy squirrels, blizzards swirl.

Beyond natural cycles, the perfect combination of sunshine and rain can produce a bumper crop of acorns, just as the crop can be diminished by disease, drought, or freezing temperatures.

On the other hand, many believe that diseased or drought-stricken oaks produce more acorns, not fewer, as a way of ensuring the species’ survival. During the worst of our Texas droughts, someone always suggests that a bumper crop of acorns is a last gasp from water-deprived trees.

Arborists seem divided, but there is something both poignant and hopeful in the thought of thirsty, over-heated oaks setting their sights on survival by creating, nurturing, and finally shedding huge numbers of acorns. Potential trees, tiny bits of green-yet-to-be, the acorns cover the ground: huddled beneath their leaves, dreaming of the sunlight and rain that will transform their lives.

As it turns out, acorns also function as a handy metaphor for certain seasonal realities.

When my mail carrier mutters about the burden of delivering catalogs in the weeks before Christmas, I sympathize. I expect to receive a few old favorites — LL Bean, Vermont Country Store, American Spoon Foods — and a few still arrive to remind me of years when I sought special gifts — Orvis, Moonstruck, Whiteflower Farm. But somewhat oddly, this year’s catalogs are filling up the mailbox on a nearly daily basis. Most are from companies I’ve never heard of and with whom I’ve never placed an order: companies with names like Monticello, Acacia, Bits and Pieces and, in a bit of delicious coincidence, Lumber Liquidators.

As the mail carrier handed me the latest batch of glossy enticements, she caught my expression and said, “Nuts, isn’t it?” Indeed, it is. So many catalogs make me slightly uneasy. Designed and distributed to entice shoppers into purchases running the gamut from glittering baubles to simple trash, they seem an unintended sign of retail desperation.

In a diseased and drought-stricken economy, with the threat of frozen spending on the horizon, merchants across the country could be mistaken for slightly desperate oaks, attempting to ensure their survival by raining down catalogs like acorns around our feet.

As small businesses and restaurants close in my neighborhood; as cities board up against violence and looting, I hear the rumors and whispers beginning to circulate. An owner sells a boat here; a person quits a club there. A friend gives up her gym membership. A neighbor decides against lighted outdoor decorations for Christmas.  A single mother’s job is eliminated; a family reduces their income in order to homeschool a child. In the silence, each fact drops with a sharp, disconcerting sound; we look up, startled and anxious, wondering about its source and trying to interpret its meaning.

In Washington, of course, things are neither so grim nor so fraught with anxiety for the senators, staff, lobbyists, and representatives who make it their business to shape the life of a nation. In cities and states, murmured platitudes and demands for obedience apply to the many, but not to the few. As autumn deepens, as the winds of desolation rise and the clatter and clamor of failing businesses and falling hopes echo across the land, they somehow manage to live in their usual ways.

It may be that the sturdiness of their office walls and the splendor of their chambers shield them from the sounds we hear. But autumn has come to America, and the acorns are falling. We can only hope that some will take root, and flourish.

 

Comments always are welcome.