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.

A Curious Case: The Woodmen and the Women

talimenaoverlook Ouachita National Forest,  viewed from the Talimena Scenic Byway

Less formally known as Talimena Drive, the Scenic Byway uncurls along the ridgeline of Winding Stair and Rich mountains. Passing through southeastern Oklahoma and western Arkansas, its fifty-mile length includes the highest points to be found between the Appalachians and the Rockies; the wooded valleys of the Ouachita National Forest, rolling away to the south and to the north, belie the complex and ultimately hopeful history of an area obsessed with its trees.

I would have missed Talimena Drive had it not been for a friend’s suggestion that I take the more circuitous, though ultimately more interesting, route through the mountains while on my way to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville. Quite apart from stunning vistas and emerging fall color, the more leisurely drive also would allow for a visit to the Muse Cemetery: an opportunity to confirm that my own muse hadn’t been interred while my back was turned.
Continue reading

Where the Show Still Goes On

In retrospect, it seems fitting that Barnum and Bailey circus rider Josephine DeMott Robinson presided over the naming of the baby giraffe.

Working in tandem with acrobat Zella Florence, Josie already had encouraged an assortment of female animal trainers, wire walkers, hand balancers, dancers, and strong women (including Katie Sandwina, the “female Hercules”) to hold a suffrage rally at Madison Square Garden. Barnum & Bailey’s presentation of an elaborate, Cleopatra-themed show during its 1912 season seemed a perfect opportunity to introduce the world to its first circus suffrage society, not to mention the giraffe, soon to be named “Miss Suffrage.” Continue reading

Garlands of Remembrance

As with so much in our national life, change has come to Memorial Day. Flags continue to fly, of course. Patriotic garlands still hang from porch railings and bunting flutters in the small-town breeze while veterans’ groups gather at cemeteries and march in parades. And yet, in ways both subtle and obnoxious, Memorial Day has become primarily a beginning-of-summer ritual, a time to focus on beaches and barbeque, mattress sales, movie-going and the first road trip of the season.

The meaning and history of Memorial Day is both more profound and more complex than most Americans realize. For several years after the end of the Civil War, commemorations spread across the South as mothers, wives and children of the Confederate dead decorated the graves of their fallen soldiers with flowers. Continue reading

When Life Writes A Sequel

Once upon a time, in a land rather different from Texas, an artist fond of chairs (particularly red chairs) and enamored of trees (especially whimsical trees able to use their branches to tickle cobalt suns or pistachio moons) whiled away his days stitching creaky little chairs and graceful trees into tapestries of hillocks and roads.

One day, the artist posed his favorite chair and a favorite tree against the sweet, subtle glow of a marmelade sky. He posted a photograph of the painting at his blog, then posed a question to his readers. Would they be willing to compete for the honor of providing a suitable title for the painting before he took it off to meet the public?

His readers were willing, and some of you surely remember the events that followed.  Cobwebbed and empty beneath its tree, the Red Chair evoked for me other seasons, other times. I remembered an aging chair tucked beneath an ordinary tree in my town’s historic graveyard, dappled by afternoon sunlight and shadowed by a falling night. I recalled spending warm summer afternoons engrossed in that slatted chair, imagining the lives of early pioneers and the Civil War soldiers buried nearby. Above all, I invented stories about the chair itself – how it had come to be there, how it had come to lean so comfortably against its own strongly-rooted companion. Continue reading

The Tombstone Follies

 

Since beginning to blog, I’ve become a bit of a child again: grasping and sometimes greedy, ranging through the aisles of the cyber-store pulling down sites, programs and possibilities like so many penny candies.  With my basket already full of images and words to play with, I want more.   I want to design my own site.  I want to learn html and master CSS.  I want to frame images, create smooth, fluorescent lime-green buttons and carve out text like so many Roman columns.   I’ve seen people chrome-plate cherries, make ordinary ponds shine with shimmering light and turn Tom Cruise into an alien.  I want to do those things, too – just for fun.

Luckily, there’s a site where I can learn to do all those things: Worth1000  I affectionately call it “Photoshop Run Amok”.  Whether you’re ready to learn, drool in the presence of striking images and photographs or simply are curious about what’s out there, it’s a terrific site, capable of dissolving hours of time.

Roaming around the site one evening,  I came upon one of the funniest images I’ve ever seen.   Created by Andrea Guglielmi for the Celebrity Tombstones contest, it’s entitled “Pacman”.   Even non-gamers recognize PacMan, and I burst into laughter at the visual joke: 

After the first giggles had passed, I kept laughing because the image recalled another, quite real cemetery experience that reduced an entire carload of mourners to near-hysteria, the kind of laughter that leaves you  unable to breathe, with tears running down your face. 

At the funeral of a friend, I was invited to join some family members on the trip to the gravesite.  We chatted and reminisced as we drove through quiet San Antonio neighborhoods, until we reached the cemetery entrance.  As the driver paused at the gate, six people saw the sign at the same time:  NO PLANTING WITHOUT PERMISSION.  Surely the administrators meant only to discourage unofficial geraniums and mismatched petunias, but their ill-considered phrase couldn’t have been funnier, even given the circumstance.  As we gasped for air, the driver grinned and said, “Don’t worry about it.  Happens to everyone.”

Certainly death is a serious matter, but more often than we admit it also can be an occasion for high hilarity.  When a dear friend in Salt Lake City was dying of cancer, she talked freely about her wish to be cremated.  She seemed to enjoy pondering possibilities for distributing her remains but one day, apropos of nothing, she announced, “Whatever you do, don’t sprinkle me over water.”  She loved the water, but to our great amusement and her own laughing chagrin, she admitted her reluctance was grounded in the fact she couldn’t swim.

A few years later, cremation again became the subject of conversation at a party in Houston, when a group of friends began talking about cremation vs. burial.  Eventually, the talk turned to tombstones.  One of the men asked, “Well, if you were buried, what would you want your epitaph to be?”

We sat and pondered the question through another bottle of wine, until an entomologist with the Texas Department of Agriculture suddenly erupted in great peals of laughter.  “I know!”, she exclaimed.  “I know exactly what I want on my tombstone – You Can’t Bug Me Any More !”

It was the beginning of a delicious evening.  After a little more time and a little more wine, a couple who both enjoyed successful careers in television news designed a double tombstone with two matching, blank television screens and the words, Stay Tuned – We’ll Be Right Back.

A woman whose husband died only a month after abandoning her for another woman giggled and giggled before gaining the courage to admit she wanted her stone to say, Buried Single, But We’re Double Dead.  She enjoyed the sentiment so much she took the next step and created a full parody of Barbara Mandrell’s song.  I hear she still sings it now and then, under the right circumstances.

I wasn’t varnishing boats at the time, but now that the career change has been made, there’s no question what would be on my own tombstone: a bucket, a brush and the phrase, She Varnished From Our Sight. 

Every now and then I think of those epitaphs, and I’m just as amused.  They don’t seem improper, twisted or frivolous. They’re funny; they help to put a human face on an inescapable reality: the experience of death.  According to family legend, my Great-Aunt Rilla used to travel out to the cemetery to gaze on her own little plot of ground.  Questioned about it, she’d dismiss the impertinent soul with a wave of her hand and one of her favorite malapropisms: Tempus Fidgits.

The truth, of course, is that time flows its inexorable, mysterious way while we are the ones who fidget, unwilling to accept either its course or our own inevitable end.  As people knew centuries ago and as Annie Dillard so eloquently writes today, the memento mori – a reminder of death in the midst of life – focuses the attention and clears the eye, enabling us to accept the world and our place in it with a degree of realism and serenity.

Dillard’s essay in the November, 1973 Atlantic, later included as a part of her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, makes the point in a manner both eloquent and true:  

The world has signed a pact with the devil; it had to. It is a covenant to which every thing, even every hydrogen atom, is bound. The terms are clear: if you want to live, you have to die; you cannot have mountains and creeks without space, and space is a beauty married to a blind man. The blind man is Freedom, or Time, and he does not go anywhere without his great dog Death. The world came into being with the signing of the contract. A scientist calls it the Second Law of Thermodynamics. A poet says, “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower/ Drives my green age.” This is what we know. The rest is gravy.

 

Copyright © 2008 Linda L. Leinen.   All rights reserved.
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