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

Life On Rich Mountain, Part I ~ Building Up

A June morning on Rich Mountain

The earliest settlers in the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas arrived about 1830, traveling primarily from the mountains of Tennessee, Kentucky, and northern Georgia into the area’s fertile, if remote and isolated, river valleys.

In time, some left the valleys for higher elevations. The long, even crest of Rich Mountain, named for its uncommonly rich soil, was especially appealing. Wide enough to accommodate homes, small fields, and garden patches, it combined fertile soil with a multitude of springs bubbling just below the ridge. Aileen McWilliam,  herself a child of the Ouachitas and a historian of Rich Mountain, recalled:

[The soil was] in some places so deep that the rocks gave little trouble, and so loose that it required little tillage. A small pocket of soil among rocks could be planted by using only a hoe to make a depression for a few seeds. The atmosphere was conducive to the growth of lush vegetable crops.
Though the growing season is relatively short, growth is rapid, and the winds and cold temperatures of the moutaintop hold back the fruit tree buds that in the valley come out too early, and are nipped by frosts.

Continue reading