Moon Lake Legacies

Moon Lake Casino Pier ~ Featured in “A Streetcar Named Desire”

Tucked between Yazoo Pass and the Mississippi River, a few miles north of Clarksdale and a little south of the Helena, Arkansas bridge, it sat alongside Moon Lake, an oxbow good for fishing, if not for navigation and commerce.

Far from a typical bed-and-breakfast, Uncle Henry’s Inn and Restaurant provided its guests with a spacious gallery, a west-facing view over the lake, no scheduled activities, and plenty of solitude. Not every lodging encourages sitting and thinking, but, whether by accident or intention, Uncle Henry’s did.

Established as an Elks’ Lodge in 1926, the place was purchased in 1933 by a local named William Wilkerson. Known as the Moon Lake Club, it became a Prohibition landmark famous for good food, high living, and assorted illegalities: primarily forms of gambling. Connections to the Chicago mob led to a loss of respectability, but locals eventually cut those ties, and the Club prospered as a family destination for dancing, dining, and swimming. 

In 1946, it was purchased by Henry Trevino, the foster father of Sarah Bates Wright, and became Uncle Henry’s Place. In time, the Club seems to have passed out of the family’s control, but in 1986 Sarah entered into litigation that led to her reacquisition of the property.  After extensive renovations, she and her son, George Jr., re-opened the restaurant and inn, maintaining Uncle Henry’s name in honor of her step-father.

By the time I arrived, the place had become a little shabby and quite a bit quirky, imbued with fading elegance and filled with piles of indiscriminate memories. A combination of dust, torn draperies, and the occasional skeletal mouse quietly fading away behind a sofa made it easy to imagine Uncle Henry’s as a prototypical Southern Lady: temporarily down on her luck, but genteel and dignified nonetheless.

Obviously, Uncle Henry’s was a treasured part of local lore and legend, not to mention local life. As guests gathered for dinner, the room filled with regular customers who’d been coming for so many years the waitress knew every answer before asking, politely: “Will you be having the usual this evening?”

Somewhat later, when I mentioned Moon Lake to a pair of fishermen eating breakfast in the Cleveland, Mississippi Huddle House, they stopped eating and grinned. “Did you stop by Uncle Henry’s?” one asked. When I allowed as how I’d not only stopped but had lingered for a few days, the other man said, “Well, it’s not the Holiday Inn, that’s for sure. But it’s a whole lot more interesting.”

It certainly wasn’t the Holiday Inn. George hinted at that himself when I called for a reservation after a late, impulsive decision to attend Clarksdale’s Juke Joint Festival. Every motel had been booked for weeks, and most had waiting lists, but when  I called the humorously-named but perfectly respectable Shack Up Inn, the proprietor said, “You better call up to Uncle Henry’s. I believe I heard they had a cancellation, and they might be able to put you up. Of course, they might not, but you call George. He’ll tell you how things are.”

As it turned out, Uncle Henry could put me up and George did tell me how things were. “Now, you know this isn’t the Hilton,” he said on the phone. “We’re old and comfortable, but you’re not going to have that wi-fi business or a jacuzzi in your room.”

After my arrival, he added another caveat or two. “There aren’t any keys to the rooms,” he said, “so be sure you’ve got the right one. And don’t take a shower except before five and after ten at night, because sometimes water leaks from your shower down through the ceiling into the dining room.”

Despite the less than perfect accomodations, I was willing to adapt, since Uncle Henry’s had a couple of things going for it no Hilton or Holiday Inn could dream of matching — it had played host to William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams, another pair of Mississippi boys who’d done really, really well for themselves.

I hadn’t intended to land in the lap of Faulkner and Williams when I decided to head to the blues festival, but that’s exactly what happened.

Faulkner frequented the Moon Lake Club as an adult — sometimes sharing time there with Williams — but Tennessee Williams’s connections were forged in childhood. His early impressions and memories, combined with the extraordinarily colorful history of the place, helped him transform the Club into the Moon Lake Casino in dramas such as Summer and Smoke, Eccentricities of a Nightingale, The Glass Menagerie, Orpheus Descending, and A Streetcar Named Desire.

Sitting in the gallery one afternoon, re-reading Williams’s plays and pondering what it must have required for him to transform this sleepy Mississippi world into works of dramatic art, I happened upon quite a different piece: an essay titled, The Catastrophe of Success.

An addendum to a copy of The Glass Menagerie I’d tucked into my bag, the essay originally was published in a 1947 edition of The New York Times, three years after the Chicago opening of The Glass Menagerie and during a time when Williams finally was receiving recognition as a serious playwright.

In the languor of those Mississippi afternoons, I found the essay particularly resonant — not only because I was in the playwright’s own country, but also because his words resonated with all the clarity and force of a plantation bell.

Most of us hope to succeed in one way or another, but Williams did succeed, and did so marvelously well. As he reflected on the circumstances of his life and career in the essay, the authority implicit in Williams’ words is undeniable, and worth considering.

Plantation bell ~ Uncle Henry’s Place, Moon Lake, Mississippi
The sort of life that I had previous to this popular success was one that required endurance, a life of clawing and scratching along a sheer surface and holding on tight with raw fingers to every inch of rock higher than the one caught hold of before. But it was a good life because it was the sort of life for which the human organism is created.
I was not aware of how much vital energy had gone into this struggle until the struggle was removed. I was out on a level plateau with my arms still thrashing and my lungs still grabbing at air that no longer resisted. This was security at last…
You cannot arbitrarily say to yourself, I will continue my life as it was before this thing, Success, happened to me. But once you fully apprehend the vacuity of a life without struggle you are equipped with the basic means of salvation.
Once you know this is true, that the heart of man, his body and his brain, are forged in a white-hot furnace for the purpose of conflict (the struggle of creation) and that with the conflict removed, the man is a sword cutting daisies, [once you understand] that not privation but luxury is the wolf at the door and that the fangs of this wolf are all the little vanities and conceits and laxities that Success is heir to – with this knowledge you are at least in a position of knowing where danger lies…
Then what is good? An obsessive interest in human affairs, plus a certain amount of compassion and moral conviction that first made the experience of living something that must be translated into pigment or music or bodily movement or poetry or prose or anything that’s dynamic and expressive – that’s what’s good for you if you’re at all serious in your aims.
William Saroyan wrote a great play on this theme, that purity of heart is the one success worth having. “In the time of your life – live!” says Saroyan. That time is short, and it doesn’t return again. It is slipping away while I write this and while you read it, and the monosyllable of the clock is Loss, loss, loss, unless you devote your heart to its opposition.

Re-reading Williams’s essay today, I imagine the scent of dogwood and azalea, the dark, moody flow of the great river, and low murmur of mist-shrouded voices.

Across the Helena Bridge, juke joints glisten in the rain, and from the shores along the river a plaintive, tremulous cry falls and rises like riffs of breeze across the Delta.

Rocking in the early evening gloom, I hear the clatter of a small boy’s feet running headlong across the gallery toward an unimaginable future, surefooted as any child still certain of his world. “Time is short,” he shouts back across the decades, his words twining like unstoppable vines through sweetgum and magnolia.

Hearing his voice, I stop my rocking. Planting my feet on boards that creak and complain like the bones of time itself I rise, my thoughts turning toward creation, while the clock ticks its loss, and the heart counts its gain, and life begins anew.

 

Comments always are welcome.
Today, George, his mother Sarah, and many of the locals who contributed so much color to Uncle Henry’s have passed away, and the Moon Lake landmark no longer is in operation. Needless to say, the memories remain.

I Hear That Train A-Comin’

I’ve never before posted a public service announcement, but that’s precisely what this is.  UP4014, the Union Pacific “Big Boy” locomotive that recently re-entered service in tandem with UP844, is back on the rails, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad’s completion with a last run through several states, called The Great Race Across the Southwest.

After a tour through the midwest, the engine returned to the Union Pacific Steam Shop in Cheyenne, Wyoming for maintenance. Currently located in Los Angeles, it will move on tomorrow to Beaumont, Indio, and Niland, California. For the next month and a half, it will make stops in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Colorado before returning to Cheyenne at the end of November.

The complete schedule can be seen here. My own plans are to see it arrive in Hondo, Texas with friends, catch it on the move between Flatonia and Eagle Lake, and then make a stop at Houston’s Washington Avenue Station for an up-close-and-personal look at a bit of living history.

Many of you will have read my previous post about UP4014 and UP844 titled “Double-heading to Cheyenne.”  This fine video, showing a portion of the current tour, is only one of many produced by people who already have had the privilege of seeing the locomotive at work. I wish all of you could see it in person, but for those who live anywhere near the route, I suspect even the briefest glimpse will be worthwhile.

Comments always are welcome.
To follow the progress of UP4014 both graphically and by Twitter posts, please visit the convenient Union Pacific tracking page.

 

Double-Heading to Cheyenne

Union Pacific Steam Engines 4014 and 844 exit Weber Canyon, headed to Ogden, Utah (Bob Kise)

For three years, Union Pacific’s Engine No. 844 cooled its wheels in Cheyenne, Wyoming, undergoing a major overhaul in the company’s steam shop. The last of the company’s steam engines, produced in 1944 by the American Locomotive Company in Schenectady, New York, the so-called ‘Living Legend’ never had been formally out of service, but age takes its toll, and the need for maintenance was obvious.

The locomotive began rolling again in 2016, traveling first to Cheyenne Frontier Days, and then to the opening of the Big River Crossing in Memphis. The Boise Turn Special, an eleven-day run to help celebrate the 92nd anniversary of Boise’s historic depot, took UP 844 over 1,600 miles of Union Pacific track through Wyoming, Utah, and Idaho.

Eventually, she traveled to the midwest, then on to Texas. Stops along each route allowed both dedicated railfans and the casually curious to see, touch, and hear an important part of American history.

Recently, UP 844 has been ‘double-heading’ — traveling in tandem with Union Pacific’s Engine No. 4014, affectionately known as ‘Big Boy.’ The pair made their way westward to Ogden, Utah to help celebrate the 150th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, and soon will be back in Cheyenne. In the coming months, Big Boy 4014 will travel other parts of the Union Pacific system, allowing even more people to experience a piece of living history. That such a thing is possible — Big Boy back on the rails and able to tour the country– is something of a miracle.

UP No. 4014 leaving Evanston, Wyoming, headed to Ogden, Utah (Greg Brubaker)

During World War II, Union Pacific operated some of the largest and most powerful steam locomotives ever built. Known collectively as the ‘Big Boys,’ they were designed to solve a particular problem.

Seventy years after the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, the mountains of Wyoming and Utah continued to confound Union Pacific. Moving heavy freight over the mountains often required multiple locomotives, which meant a need for more workers and more fuel. The climb over the Wasatch mountains between Ogden, Utah and Green River, Wyoming was particularly difficult. According to William Pearce:

The 176-mile stretch of track started out at 4,300 ft (1,310 m) above sea level in Ogden, climbed the Wasatch Range to 7,300 ft (2,225 m) at the Aspen Tunnel, and then dropped to 6,100 ft (1,859 m) at Green River. Occasionally, up to three helper engines were used to assist heavily loaded trains over the Wasatch mountains.

In 1940, the railroad’s mechanical engineers sought to solve the problem by designing a new class of engines which came to be known as “Big Boys.” Twenty-five were built, each measuring 132 feet long and weighing 1.2 million pounds. Because of their length, their frames were articulated, or hinged, allowing them to negotiate curves. Their wheel arrangement (known as a 4-8-8-4) included a leading set of four pilot wheels to guide the engine, two sets of eight drive wheels, and four smaller following wheels to support the rear of the locomotive.

After delivery to Union Pacific in 1941, UP 4014 joined the other Big Boys in helping to move millions of tons of war supplies. According to steam historian John E. Bush, “Without the Big Boys, the Union Pacific never could have moved all that material for the war effort.”

UP Big Boy 4012 hauling freight through Green River, Wyoming, November 1941
(Otto Perry image via Denver Public Library)

Union Pacific used the Big Boys until 1959, then replaced them with diesel-electric locomotives. Most were scrapped, but some were put on display: in St. Louis; Dallas; Omaha; Denver; Scranton, Pennsylvania; Green Bay, Wisconsin; and Cheyenne, Wyoming.

In 2013, Union Pacific announced that it had re-acquired a Big Boy from the RailGiants Train Museum in Pomona, California, and hoped to restore it for the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. Many expressed scepticism; even the machinery needed to create replacement parts would have to be redesigned and reconstructed. But in the end, the goal was accomplished, and UP Big Boy 4014 is rolling again.

During my childhood, I found the poetry and romance of steam enticing. In the classroom, teachers told stories of strong, indestructible iron horses, or taught songs about winsome little creatures called “pufferbellies.”

In my naiveté, I believed that pufferbellies were roaming our neighborhood, and thought I ought to be able to catch one — like a firefly, or grasshopper. One Sunday afternoon, I headed off toward the schoolyard, determined to find one of the creatures. Before long, my dad caught up with me and asked, “Where do you think you’re going?”  “To find the pufferbellies,” I said. Silence billowed between us like steam. “The what?” ”The pufferbellies. We learned a song about them in school. I want to see them.”

He asked if I could sing the song for him, and I could. I remembered every word, and sang the first verse twice.

By the time I finished, he was laughing. “Sweetie, I know where the pufferbellies live. Why don’t we go see them?”

Later that afternoon, we bundled into the car and drove to a place he called the depot. At the depot, while people boarded trains for such exotic destinations as Des Moines and Omaha, we sat on a bench, waiting for a train to arrive. Hearing the low moan of the arriving train’s whistle, feeling the vibrations in the ground, and covering my ears against the sharp, steam-shrouded screech of the brakes, I came to a conclusion: real trains were far more exciting than pufferbellies.

Rock Island Depot ~ Newton, Iowa

I began riding my bike to the depot to watch the trains come in, and began reading the names on freight cars at crossings: Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe; Burlington; Great Northern; Illinois Central; Cottonbelt.

I learned new songs, sung by men with names like Boxcar Willie and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. The Wabash Cannonball, The Wreck of Old 97, and Paddy Works on the Erie weren’t pleasant fantasies; they were grounded in railroading as a way of life, celebrating the engineers, boomers and brakemen, switchmen, conductors, and engineers who worked the yards.


In time, I began walking the trestles with friends, shivering with anticipation and fear as we tempted the afternoon freight. Once, I visited a roundhouse with my grandfather, where the engines and their turntable delighted me. On road trips I begged my dad to race the Streamliners highballing along their glistening tracks, and in the rich summer nights I lodged myself between crickets and stars to hear  mournful whistles dissolving away into the dark.

Decades later, photographer and friend Tom Parker captured UP 844 rolling through Frankfort, Kansas on her journey south from Cheyenne to Harlingen, Texas. The Valley Eagle Heritage Tour, named for a popular Missouri Pacific passenger train which operated between Houston and Brownsville from 1948 to 1962, was a railfan’s dream.

Like a giant pufferbelly escaped from bonds of inattention and neglect, UP 844 was riding the rails of imagination as surely as her rails of steel. From the moment I learned she’d roll through Houston before heading southwest, there was no question I’d be at the stations, whistlestops, and country crossings to witness the historic journey.

UP 844 steaming through Kansas ~ Tom Parker

At a crossing southwest of Houston, waiting for one more glimpse of the great locomotive, I found myself pondering the world represented by an outdated but still compelling technology.

In that older world, the metaphor of the well-oiled machine still had force. In most occupations, skill and perseverance were more important than connections. Deals were sealed with handshakes, and a man’s word was his bond, rather than a contemptuous and cynical attempt to manipulate others.

In a world marked by divisions, it’s worth remembering that, for many railroaders, the only divide that counted was the Continental Divide: an obstacle eventually overcome by a Golden Spike of vision, foresight and ingenuity. Certainly manipulation and not a little greed were part of overcoming that divide. Nevertheless, five days after the spike was driven in 1869, passenger train service was instituted. Pulled by the astounding iron horses, people journeyed from Omaha to Sacramento in four days rather than four months, and they fell in love with their trains.

Today we travel faster, but I’m not sure we travel better. When those engines from an earlier time begin to move, people gather. They stand at crossings and linger at whistlestops, traveling miles beyond good sense to see a highballing steamer race across the prairie or idle at a switch.

Beyond the charms of retro technology, there’s a palpable sense of people wanting to meet people, to hear the whistle and feel the vibration: to reach across the years that divide us from our past in order to touch the steam, steel, and grit that made this country work and to witness the proof of a challenge well met.

As long as UP 844 and UP 4014 keep rolling; as long as the people who love and sustain them survive; as long as the whistles sound and the firebox glows, there’s railroading to be done. There are prairies to cross, and foothills to climb. There are mountainsides where the great, vertiginous sky reaches off to infinity; high plateaus where the winds blow free and a person can breathe in the air of acomplishment and history.

Children will love their pufferbellies, but railroading’s for grownups: for people willing to pick up and roam; to work beyond exhaustion; to trade security for freedom, and speak with integrity.

Of course there will be difficulties. No one wants to face the broken tie, the washed-out bridge, the screaming downgrade acceleration, or the jumped tracks. But ask any old-timer from Old Cheyenne — or anywhere else for that matter — and he’ll tell you it’s worth the ride. Today’s railroaders would agree.

Comments always are welcome.
Thanks to Tom Parker, Aaron B. Hockley, and Daniel Lipinski for images used in my video. Thanks also to Hal Cannon, the Deseret String Band, and Okehdokee Records for permission to use the group’s version of “Railroading on the Great Divide.” This previously published post was re-written and expanded to include some history of the Big Boys, and acknowledge the introduction of UP 4014 back into service.
 

Sailing a Sea of Flowers

Rockport, Texas

As winter’s strong northerlies subside and seas become more predictable, boats along the upper Texas coast begin to move. After passing through Galveston’s jetties and leaving behind the freighters and tankers of the fairway anchorage, some turn left, toward Mobile Bay, the Florida Keys, or the tropical waters of the Bahamas. Others turn right, taking a south-westerly course along two hundred and fifty miles of Texas coastline: a course punctuated by a series of sea-focused and island-moored ports as different from Houston, Austin, and Dallas as you could imagine. Each port has its own personality, and each evokes memories from my own years of working and cruising along the coast.

My first offshore trip began in Freeport, an industrial town anchored by the largest Dow Chemical complex in the world. Only a few hours from Galveston via the Intracoastal Waterway, it provided an easy first leg for our cruise, and easy entrance into the Gulf.

As we left Freeport’s jetties at sunset, our intended destination was Port O’Connor, home to the Poco Bueno fishing tournament. Affectionately known as the Poco Loco, the tournament’s a yearly highlight in an area known for extraordinary fishing.  Port O’Connor’s also the gateway to a favorite anchorage at the Matagorda Island Army Hole, where a bold raccoon once boarded our boat and made off with every Pepperidge Farm cookie on board.

After weather forced us past Port O’Connor, we set a course for Port Aransas, the sole established town on Mustang Island. Accessible only by ferry, boat, or bridge, Port Aransas was significantly damaged during Hurricane Harvey, but rebuilding continues, and there’s no question the town’s growing popularity as a destination for foodies, crafters, birders, and cruisers will continue.

Thirty years ago, the town’s reputation was somewhat funkier and more laid-back. Populated by island lifestyle enthusiasts who weren’t always sure how to maintain their lifestyle, it became known as Hippie Hollow South: a tribute to a well-established Austin attraction. As the saying went, “Port A’s the Key West of Texas. Everyone wants to live here, but not everyone wants to work here.”

Lydia Ann Lighthouse ~ Port Aransas, Texas

In truth, the next port down the coast, Mansfield, probably bests Port Aransas when it comes to a laid-back approach to life. For decades its reputation has been summed up in its nickname: Port Mañana. A census-designated place with a population hovering around 226, it’s favored by fishermen more than sailors, although anyone cruising the length of the Intracoastal Waterway can stop there for enough fuel, ice, and beer to get them to Port Isabel, the last of the Texas ports along the coast.

For a variety of reasons, I’ve always thought of Port Isabel as the edgiest Texas port. Hearing her name, I remember the anxiety of being shadowed by another vessel on a long offshore run between Isabel and Galveston, not to mention a few minutes of panic after being stopped by the DEA just before entering West Galveston Bay.

In the end, the explanation was simple enough. Shipments of illegal weapons had been moving through Port Isabel, and as we tacked into strong north winds during our sail up the coast, our erratic course attracted the attention of the Coast Guard. After tracking us through the night, they  handed us off to the DEA agents who stopped and boarded our vessel.

Professional, and entirely pleasant once they figured out we weren’t gun-runners, they let us go on our way with a grin and a wave. Still, the thought that we’d been under surveillance for smuggling makes me laugh, and the memory of those undercover agents, Miami-Vice perfect as they lounged on their speed boat in muscle shirts and sunglasses, is delightful. Every time I hear Smuggler’s Blues, I think of them.

But of all the ports along the Texas coast, my favorite always has been Rockport. Named for a rocky ledge that underlies its shoreline and known for shoal water, it’s still a lovely cruising destination, with first-class marinas and a cluster of good repair yards nearby.

When an unfortunate encounter with Rockport’s skinny water led to the loss of a rudder, my appreciation for their repair yards grew exponentially. At the same time, being grounded in the Rockport-Fulton area — both literally and figuratively — allowed me to explore local attractions like the Fulton mansion, home to George and Harriet Fulton.

After George Ware Fulton married Harriet Gillette Smith, eldest daughter of Henry Smith, the first provisional governor of Texas, the Fultons and their children moved back to Ohio, then Maryland. In 1867 they returned to Texas, where Fulton founded the Coleman-Fulton Pasture Company, a cattle operation, as well as helping to develop the towns of Sinton, Gregory, and Rockport. Their mansion, built between 1874 and 1877, was a bit of a marvel, with central heating and air conditioning, gas lighting, and indoor plumbing.

The Fulton family was large, and as civic-minded and generous as they were wealthy. Most are buried in the Rockport cemetery, but their simple and dignified markers aren’t immediately obvious.

Two of George and Harriet’s grand-daughters, Ina and Emma, died in childhood; Emma’s is the oldest marked grave in the cemetery.

Emma Fulton (1874-1876)
Ina Fulton (1880-1881)

In truth, the Fulton graves were a serendipitous find. When I heard from a friend that spring wildflowers were blooming in the Rockport City Cemetery, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to re-visit the Fulton mansion, to see how post-Hurricane Harvey repairs were progressing in the area generally, and to see more of our flower-rich Texas spring.

Given the four-hour drive to Rockport, I wanted to be sure the flowers hadn’t faded away, so I called the Chamber of Commerce. The woman who answered the phone barely could contain her enthusiasm. “Flowers at the cemetery?” she said. “Oh, my gracious. You must come! They’re past their prime, but they’re still lovely, and you won’t be disappointed. They’ve been so thick this year — like a sea of flowers.”

By the time our conversation ended, my decision was made. It was time to return to Rockport: not by sea, this time, but by land, in order to experience the Chamber of Commerce endorsed ‘sea of flowers’ for myself.

I wasn’t disappointed. The cemetery combined Rockport’s iconic, wind-bent oaks with a variety of flowers, including our beloved bluebonnets.

Everywhere I looked, bluebonnets lapped at benches and covered gravestones with great waves of color.

In other areas, bluebonnets gave way to phlox, wine cups, coreopsis and blue curls, as well as a few firewheels (Gaillardia pulchella) and lazy daisies (Aphanostephus skirrhobasis).

The blue curls were well past their prime and most were putting on seed, but I’d seen them only once in the wild, and was happy to encounter their lavender accents around the graves.

Winecups, coreopsis, blue curls, phlox ~ and that one white daisy
Blue curls (Phacelia congesta)
A bee curled over a blue curl

In an area of military graves, coreopsis and several species of plantain predominated. People will attack plantains with an enthusiasm usually reserved for dandelions, but allowed to grow and mature, they’re actually quite attractive.  I thought it interesting that so many Confederate graves also were marked with our nation’s flag.

A damaged, but not destroyed, marker surrounded by plantain, phlox, and coreopsis
Hooker’s plantain (Plantago hookeriana)
Thanks to Steve Schwartzman for encouraging a second look at what I’d previously identified as Heller’s plantain (Plantago helleri)

Everywhere I looked, a limited number of species combined in different ways, under different light, to create a kaleidoscope of colored patterns.

Phlox, bluebonnets, coreopsis, plantains, and prairie larkspur
White prickly poppy, coreopsis, and phlox

In the midst of so many familiar flowers, there were plants I’d never seen, like this prairie larkspur (Delphinium carolinianum).

There were oddities, including a plains coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria) paired with a natural variant I wish were a species. There’s already a propeller plant, so I decided to name this one the pinwheel coreopsis.

Was nature having fun?

One of the most striking plants I found was a large shrub or small tree with extraordinarily red flowers. Even though it’s not yet identified, it’s too pretty not to include.

Spicy Jatropha, or Peregrina (Jatropha integerrima)

As I wandered through the cemetery, one plant was noticeably absent: the Indian paintbrush. Once I realized they were missing, I searched more intently, but found no evidence of them. What I did find were yuccas, cacti, and agaves; combined with Mexican olive and desert willow trees, they gave the cemetery a piquant, south Texas flavor.

Charlie K. Skidmore’s family no doubt established the town of Skidmore, northwest of Rockport
The Skidmore plot was surrounded by beautiful yuccas
Mexican olive flowers drew pollinators of every sort

Looking again at the map of Rockport that sits atop this page, I hardly can believe that, for years, I passed within two blocks of the City Cemetery on my way to and from Key Allegro without realizing the cemetery was there.

Times and interests change, of course, and I’m certainly glad to have learned of its existence. I’m already looking forward to next year’s visit.

 

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

A Silent Singing

South View of Salisbury Cathedral from the Cloisters ~ J.M.W. Turner

Even in this more secular age, a faint scent of chaos wafts through the last days before Christmas. “I love Christmas,” says the woman squinting at her notebook in the checkout line.  “But I swear — if I never make another cookie, it’ll be too soon.”

I love cookies as much as the next person, but my sympathies lie with the woman. My own preparations have become simpler and less time-consuming over the years. Still, I occasionally find myself thinking, while pulling trays from the oven or standing in line at the post office, I could stand some peace and quiet.

Some quiet would be especially nice. The pressures of the Christmas to-do list are one thing, but the season reverberates with noise to the point of distraction. Hearing Justin Bieber’s version of All I Want For Christmas piped through the produce aisle is more annoying than festive, and the irony of Silent Night drowning out conversation speaks for itself.  While seasonal songs blare away, children nag, parents fuss, and the noise made by impatient drivers circling the shopping mall parking lots sounds for all the world like the honking of a thousand demented geese.

Even the hours meant for sleep are disturbed by the ebb and flow of incessant, internal questioning: What have I forgotten? Who will be offended? Can we afford it?  Will there be time?   It’s little wonder that, by Christmas Day, many are ready to throw out the tree with the wrapping paper and get on with it. Twelve days of Christmas seems a horror. Who needs more Christmas, when what we’ve just had has left us exhausted, disappointed, or drained?

Seasonal excesses aside, most people consider their Christmas pleasures — gathering with family and friends; experiencing the beauty of worship; enjoying the exchange of gifts — to be well worth the expenditure of time and energy they require.

What we rarely consider is that our celebrations take place in the context of a world far older than our customs and more expansive than our plans. The world in which we celebrate turns on an ageless axis, independent of human intent and purpose. Though often hidden, that world can be searched out and surprised; occasionally, it reveals itself in unexpected ways.

I experienced that hidden world some years ago, while on holiday in England. After stopping in London, I traveled on to Wiltshire, intending to celebrate Christmas at Salisbury Cathedral.

Arriving without reservations, I found an inn where I could settle, and soon came to enjoy long conversations with the innkeeper and his wife. Cheerful sorts, bubbly and accomodating as keepers of inns should be, they were filled with practical advice for the holiday-makers under their roof.

Eventually, they discovered I hadn’t planned to make the trek to Stonehenge — “that pile of rocks in a pasture,” as another guest put it. Aghast, they implored, “But you must go to Stonehenge!” When I suggested the site might be better visited in summer, they exchanged a glance that probably meant, “Now see what this poor, benighted American is saying.”

Acknowledging that summer solstice celebrations are more publicized and more comfortable, they detailed the advantages of a cold weather visit. “For one thing,” they said with only a hint of a smile, “in the dead of winter there are far fewer tourists clogging up the roads.” At the time, that was true.

Lured by twin promises of unclogged roads and good conversation, I agreed to make the trip. As we traveled and chatted, they unraveled strand after strand of solstice lore.

While I knew that the winter solstice marks the shortest day of the year, and that on that day the sun descends to its lowest point in the sky, I didn’t know that the word itself — solstice — comes from the Latin solstitium, a combination of ‘sun’ (sol) and ‘a stoppage’ (stitium).

According to one legend recounted by my hosts, not only the sun stops his movement at the time of solstice. Those who happen to be in a silent place, with a quiet mind and stilled heart, may hear the earth herself pause: taking time to catch her breath while she waits for the sun to turn and move, beginning his ageless journey toward the spring.

Charmed by the legend, I became increasingly eager to explore the old “pile of rocks in a pasture.” When we arrived, crowds that had gathered for celebration on the day of solstice were gone. There were no ticket-takers, no vendors, no guides. There was only a strange and forlorn emptiness: a cold sun shining through high, thin clouds,  a tumble of implacable, cold gray rock, and winter-singed grass dusted with snow. Around the circle a cold wind sighed, rocking the single bird soaring high above the plain.

Moving toward the stones in silence so complete I could hear blood beating in my ears, a sense of presence, profound and palpable, gripped my heart. Suddenly anxious, no longer certain of our solitude, I turned as if to confront an assailant. No one stood behind me. There were only the rocks, the sky, and a hush of wind singing across Salisbury plain.

Each year as darkness deepens, as days grow shorter and the sun hastens  toward its solstice turn, I remember Salisbury plain: the stones, the silence, and the song. At the time, I hardly imagined that my first experience of that deep and richly textured silence was not to be my last.

Blessedly, such experiences depend neither upon the stones of an ancient culture nor the shades of a people lost in time. A sense of presence, an experience of deep connection to the larger world in which we live, seems intrinsic to life itself. It comes to us as birthright, although there is no predicting how or where it will appear.

Wherever the mystery of connectedness surprises us — in a snowstorm-emptied New York street or a mist-shrouded grove of redwoods; at a baby’s crib or a parent’s grave; in an empty classroom or in an overflowing church — its nature is unmistakable.

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
                                                                          T.S. Eliot ~ Little Gidding

There will be no Stonehenge in my travels this year, no moment of wonder in the emptiness of a windswept English plain. But the sun is lowering, and the pause will come; soon enough, the solstice will arrive. If we are wise, we will find a bit of space, a little emptiness, some moments of silence in the midst of our over-filled lives to embrace its coming and its promise.

Preparing for ourselves a room built of the very solitude and silent attentiveness that so often eludes us, we may well find that, as surely as the sun stops and the earth breathes, the same wind singing silence over our world’s cold-singed plain will touch our hearts with its strange, vertiginous joy.

Comments always are welcome.

Life On Rich Mountain, Part II ~ Some Stayed Behind

A June evening on Rich Mountain

Around mid-summer, Arkansas wineberries begin to ripen. Prickly tangles of fruit and vines native to China, Korea, and Japan, the wineberry (Rubus phoenicolasius) arrived in the United States around 1890. Intended for use as breeding stock for new varieties of raspberries and blackberries, the plant’s beautiful red canes soon were planted as ornamentals as well. Perhaps inevitably, the wineberry escaped cultivation and began spreading through the wilds of North America. Continue reading