Where Gratitude Abides

Hurricane Ike innundates the Galveston Seawall Memorial to victims of the 1900 Storm

Two months after Hurricane Ike ravaged the Texas Coast, ferry service once again connected Galveston Island with the Bolivar Penninsula. The primary link between the island and coastal communities to the east, the ferry is both a luxury and a necessity. Each trip carries a combination of residents, fishermen, commuters, and sightseers intent on nothing more than the simple pleasures of crossing the water: feeding seagulls from the after deck, or watching dolphins off the bow.

Hurricane damage to the ferries and their landings was significant after the storm. Even the channels required dredging, filled as they were with sand and silt deposited by the surging water. The need to transport heavy equipment and emergency supplies to communities like Crystal Beach and Port Bolivar was primary. But in time, even before full service was restored, anyone could come along for the trip.

One day, a woman ahead of me in a grocery line mentioned to the checker that she’d made a special trip to Galveston to ride the ferry, I asked her why. “Because I could”, she said with a laugh. “It sure felt good.” Continue reading

Vino et Veritas, Oak Island Style

Carved grapes from the tasting room bar at Frascone Winery

I’ve been drinking Red Cloud’s Finest for years. An organic Guatemalan coffee, roasted and distributed by a small local importer, it’s as good as any I’ve found. Richly complex, it tastes of the circuitous route that brought it to my cup.

Joe and Terry Butcher, owners of El Lago Coffee Company, dreamed of importing coffee the old-fashioned way: by wind-driven ship. They named their vessel Red Cloud and set sail for Belize, where they loaded 10,000 pounds of coffee beans into her hold.

Unfortunately, the first and only voyage of Red Cloud ended on New Year’s Day, 2008, when thirty-foot seas, sixty-knot winds, and a missing rudder stop combined to plunge the sailboat and her cargo to the bottom of Sigsbee Deep, in the central Gulf of Mexico.
Continue reading

Galveston Rising ~ The Trees

As the two-year anniversary of Hurricane Ike’s September 13 landfall approaches, most Galveston homeowners who still are engaged in rebuilding and reconstruction don’t need any reminders about the complexity or frustrations of the process.  Still, reminders are everywhere, posted primarily by high-minded attorneys concerned that the poor, benighted people of the Texas Coast understand the statute of limitations and its role in ensuring they receive fair and just compensation for their losses.

There’s nothing wrong with a gentle reminder, or with fair settlements for that matter.   But this is America, and contingency fees being what they are the attorneys’ messages have taken on a distinctly apocalyptic tone.  Every local freeway and road that skirts the water has at least one of the fervent billboards: The end is near!  Are you prepared?  Time is Running Out!  The door is closing!  (Request a free case review now!!!)

Reading them, it’s impossible not to think of tent revivals and tv hucksters.  The billboard advertisers seem to suggest they can save our psyches and mop up lingering insurance messes with the legal equivalent of the ShamWow, but Galveston residents aren’t naive. There are some problems no amount of legal wrangling – or money – can solve. Continue reading

Raise High the Floor Beam, Islanders….

The very definition of “heart-tugging”  is a toddler or young child standing in front of an adult, arms outstretched, begging to be picked up.  Confused, frightened or hungry for attention, they’ve already learned a key to unlocking the resistant adult heart: the single word, “Up!?”   Spoken with authority or pathos, it’s a word that brings big, strong arms down to a child’s level, enfolding the needy little bundle of humanity into a blanket of security, raising it in a flash and ensuring its safety “up there”.

The urge to flee upward seems as instinctive as our impulse to run from danger.  On my third birthday, our neighbors decided I should have a pet.  Invited to share cake and ice cream, they appeared at the back door with a tiny black puppy in a box.  It may have been a cocker spaniel ~ I remember black, glistening curls of fur and long, floppy ears.  The pup wriggled in paroxysms of pleasure as Mr. Ramey rubbed its belly and scratched its ears.  I was entranced, until they put the puppy on the floor.  Turning a few quick circles, the creature produced a cascade of wild yips and headed straight for me.     

I don’t know what I was thinking, but what I did became the stuff of family legend.  In two bounds I was onto a dining room chair and up on top of my mother’s prized mahogany dining table, shoes and all.    Down below, the puppy tumbled and jumped, trying to follow.  I screamed in terror, refusing a chorus of entreaties to “be quiet”, “come down” or “pat the nice puppy”.  Eventually, the well-meaning neighbors collected the pup and made their way home.  I came down from the tabletop after being promised more ice cream, and eventually received a turtle for my birthday. Continue reading

An Almost Silent Spring

Every gardener in Houston knows the significance of February 14th.   Never mind Valentine’s Day,  it’s the traditional time to trim back rose bushes.  The actual pruning may take place on the 18th, or the 26th, or even March 1st for the lazy or preoccupied, but the ritual pruning of the roses means only one thing.  Spring is on the way.

I don’t have roses, but I have three large pots filled with  Cape Honeysuckle.  A beautiful shrub native to South Africa, its  red-orange blossoms resemble tiny versions of the trumpet vine flower and attract butterflies and hummingbirds galore.  Shortly after the 14th, I gave all three a serious pruning, and settled back to watch them fill out.  As February gave way to March and March  began to draw ever more closely toward April,  the plants sprouted new growth with a vengeance while I vacillated between restlessness and a strange lethargy.  Even as the honeysuckle climbed toward the sun,  I declined into a sense of anxiety and unease.   The days grew longer and the temperatures  warmed,  but the world seemed monochromatic and dull.  Looking around, I experienced no seasonal anticipation, no delight in the world’s renewal.  It hardly felt like Spring.

In the midst of my decline, friends in Dallas and Oklahoma began to post photos of their own harbingers of Spring. I grew curious and more than a little confused. Why were pear and plum trees blooming  in Dallas, two hundred miles to the north, when my neighborhood redbuds hadn’t begun to flower?  When folks in Kansas and the Carolinas began to brag on their  narcissus, crocus and daffodils, I still hadn’t seen a dandelion. 

Eventually, I realized anew that more than homes, businesses and boats had fallen victim to Hurricane Ike.  The suffering and loss endured by the natural world had been hidden by the dormancy of Winter.  With the  passage of the Spring equinox and the turning of the season, the full extent of the damage was becoming clear.  Massive live oaks stripped of their leaves by wind and innundated by salt water showed no sign of new growth.  Cypress, always bare through the winter, were refusing to leaf out.   Stopping at a pretty, anonymous tree I pass every day, I bent the end of a twig. It snapped off cleanly with the sharp, easy crack that says “dead”.  Reaching farther up the limb, I bent a larger twig, and found more dead wood.  I stopped and turned away, unwilling to explore further.

In the neighborhoods, confusion clearly reigned in the plant world.  Many redbuds never bloomed, and pears were putting on leaves before blossoms appeared.  The Indian hawthorne was late, the azaleas hardly noticeable. Crepe myrtles and palms seemed fine, but many shrubs were brittle and yellow.

Even worse than the damage and confusion was the complete absence of so much we’d taken for granted.  Ditches always filled with bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush were clogged with salted debris.  Once-rich beds of iris and amaryllis were reduced to a few sad blooms. Across whole neighborhoods, the little grace notes of life had fallen silent.  Gone were the brick walkways bordered with marigolds, the trellises, the tumbles of begonias and baskets of bougainvillea that could drench a day with showers of salmon and magenta reflections.   Where lantana and petunias once grew, chunks of concrete foundation piled higher as hibiscus, loquat and lilies struggled to survive.  Orange and lemon trees were bulldozed while planters once filled with geraniums and daisies were turned into ashtrays and trash bins.

In some neighborhoods,  garden after garden has been replaced by patches of empty, sand-covered dirt as homeowners wait for construction to begin.  The houses can be rebuilt in a year, but it will take more than a few years to replace the beauty and complexity of the gardens.  Whatever its style, a real garden requires time, commitment and care, and many of these gardeners never will live to see their dreams flower in quite the same way.  A garden is far more than a carload of plants from Home Depot or Lowes, and certainly more than the new flowers now planted at our intersections and in front of apartment complexes.  Those flower beds are neat and tidy, but they’re absolutely identical from one location to the next.  For all practical purposes they’re “rent-a-flowers”, and in three months they’ll be replaced by something else.  They add a bit of color to the landscape, but have nothing to do with gardens, or with all of the love, curiosity, surprise and delight that gardens bring.   

As one of my gardening friends put it after watching  a front-loader drive through her salvia and dusty miller beds, “This year we’re going to have to take what Mother Nature offers.”  Her off-handed remark was my salvation.  Instead of exhausting myself watching for signs of a normal spring, I began looking around to see what was happening despite the extraordinary circumstances.

This past, utterly gloomy and damp Tuesday, I was driving down a main street through town when I happened to glance across the esplanade and noticed a flash of gold in a vacant lot.  An impulsive u-turn later, I pulled into the lot and discovered a stand of gallardia-like flowers shining as though lit from within.  Looking around, I was astonished.  There were sunflowers  scattered here and there, and a bit of scraggly wisteria climbing the telephone pole. There was a mysterious white berry with flowers along a collapsed fence, and the tiniest but most vibrant little coral-colored  flowers I’d ever seen.  There were tall purple things and creeping purple things.  There was a remnant of a white geranium on what appeared to have been a trash heap, and yellow-green blossoms the size of a pinhead scattered throughout it all.  In that single vacant lot, I found at least a dozen varieties of wild flowers, all  passed by hundreds – if not thousands – of motorists a day, none of whom saw more than a glimpse of the taller flowers.

I was so astonished I made two more stops at vacant lots, one next to a boat chandlery and one in a neighborhood which itself had gone to seed since the storm.  There were fields of white and pink primroses, lantana of all sorts, more wisteria, and great sweeps of tall, graceful yellow and purple flowers I couldn’t identify.  It was truly astonishing.  In the midst of a world where human gardens had been swept away like so much scattered seed , Mother Nature had moved in and strewn her gifts with a generous hand.  It was not that the beauty of flowers was missing from the world.  They only had moved, taken on new forms, and were waiting to be discovered. They were, in fact, hiding in plain sight.

After finding the third flower-strewn lot, I called my friend and said, “Get your camera.  There’s something you need to see.”  For the next two hours, we stalked the urban wildflower, amazed at the variety and profusion we found.  Later, as I enjoyed and processed the photos, it was clear the temporary trowel-for-camera trade had been worthwhile. 

As with so many things in this post-hurricane world, things rarely are as they were.  But it surely is Spring, and  the grace notes are starting to sound ~ one  exquisite blossom at a time. 

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An Equality of Joy

Only hours after the passage of Hurricane Ike, every survivor left standing in the rubble understood that far more than houses had been leveled by the storm.  The body of belief about what Ike would or would not do had been dismembered.  Spirits scoured clean of emotion lay empty and desolate as Bolivar beaches.  With possessions ravaged and dreams laid waste, incomprehension was rampant.  Victims stared toward the horizon with thoughts as scattered and broken as the plywood debris fields that seemed to stretch into infinity.

Even at the time, there were victims willing to acknowledge that human factors played a role in the devastation.  Pride kept boats at unsound moorings and families in homes that were certain to be inundated.  Unfounded trust in a last-minute turn of the storm’s path led some to reject advice from wiser and more experienced folk to pack their cars and leave.  Occasionally, simple recklessness chose to gamble on the final outcome, continuing to count cards of wind and surge as though pushing back from the table would be an option if the game seemed to be getting out of hand.

But in the end, as entire communities stood looking out across the  stunning collage of broken boards,  shattered lives and shards of memory, I heard not a word of anger or recrimination directed toward another human being.   There was astonishment, stunned silence, wounded grief and despair at the depth and the breadth of  loss.  There was frustration and anxiety that could surge into panic at the slightest provocation.   From time to time there were flashes of rage against the unfairness of life, the arbitrary nature of institutional decisions and the glacial slowness of response.  But although it probably happened, I never saw one person rage directly against another.  Viewing the carnage, everyone appeared to be in agreement: there may have been wrong decisions, inadequate preparation and less than helpful responses, but in the end it was nature which had done the damage.  Before that overwhelming power, everyone was equal. Continue reading

Persuaded to Poetry

 

Some years ago,  I published The Sentinel,” an essay about Florida environmentalist Charles Torrey Simpson and a pair of shells I found washed onto a Texas beach.  

The shells, a deep, rich purple, are known in scientific circles as Janthina janthina. Elegant, tiny sea snails, they form great rafts, then float around the world. When Simpson found such a raft in the Florida Keys, he chronicled his experience, and through his notebook entry I was able to identify my own bits of purple. 

Soon after I posted about Simpson, one of my readers offered a request.  Her love of all things purple had been stirred by the piece, and she wanted a “purple poem.”  At the time, I didn’t think of myself as a poet, and demurred. As it turned out, she did think of me as a poet, and was convinced  I could produce some verse for her.

We went back and forth, teasing one another about it for days, until she finally became insistent. “Please do give me that poem,” she said. “I know it’s in there, and I can’t wait till you spit it out.” Wanting to be polite, I said, “The poem, she is a-percolating. Or should I say, “a-purple-ating”?

When I heard nothing more, I assumed our discussion had ended. Then, this note arrived:

Ahoy Shore,
Can you see my right foot a-tappin’?
Bet you know why.
I’ll give you a hint. It’s small and shiny and purple and yearns to be heard (or read). I cannot wait to hear its
voice.

I felt like an over-scheduled fresco artist with the Medici breathing down my neck. I tried to put her off, saying:

“My dear ~ you can’t force the creative process. Poems have come in their own good time.
However: in the spirit of things, I can report that the phrase “amethyst breezes” is on the clipboard. Nice, huh? And, just for you, a little ditty to tide you over, like an apple before dinner.
“There once was a small purple shell
that traveled the ocean’s deep swell.
It floated and blew
across seas green and blue,
in a hurry its story to tell.”

And that, it seemed, was that. On the other hand, while my friend stopped talking about the poem, I didn’t stop thinking about it. The phrase “amethyst breezes” brought to mind Georgia O’Keefe and her vibrant colors. I began pondering her relationship with Steiglitz, intrigued by the way “color” and “black and white” related to one another. I started fiddling a bit with the poem.

But Hurricane Dolly came along, threatening the Texas coast with storm surge. Through all the surges yet to come — Gustav, Rita and Ike — the poem lingered in my files until one day, looking at photographs of hurricane destruction, I saw more clearly what can happen when hurricanes overcoat the world with layers of ghastly gray mud. 

As I compared the vibrant colors of the natural world with the monochromatic tones of a storm, one phrase came, and then another, until — at last — the poem was complete. No longer a generic “purple poem,” it had become a celebration of color in the midst of a gray and dingy world.

Storm Surges
Left to their own devices,
oceans sigh away the sunset,
strip horizons bare
and leave their swells to mutter
beneath the bruising dark.
Fearful, nearly frozen, the moon
ascends the ratlines of the stars —
missteps, then falls
and disappears from view.
Scaled by the wind’s cold knife
clouds release their torrents across the flying spume —
bits of stinging darkness
tumbling to the sea.
Bereft of fuschias,
emptied of limes,
heaven’s palette drips gunmetal,
gray —
smeared by unwashed foam
and streaks of mud-tinged spray.
Beaneath the surging water
earth dissolves herself away,
flowing into silence
to dream a dancer’s dream —
cerulean tangos beneath tangerine clouds,
amethyst breezes,
and goldenrod skies.

Comments always are welcome.