A Celtic Legacy

The widow Mackinnon and Mrs. Neil Ferguson ~ St. Kilda, 1909

From Oban to Skye, from the Outer Hebrides to St. Kilda they traveled: two Aberdeen photographers intent on capturing and preserving the life of a remarkable people.  The beautifully colored lantern slides of  George Washington Wilson and Norman Macleod,  an iconic collection put into book form by Mark Butterworth, were produced in the late 1880s, fifty years before color photography came to Scotland. Continue reading

Willie, Kinky, and Ludwig Play Luckenbach

(Click image for a musical version of the sign)

Whether you’re hoping for cold beer, down-home music, or a sense of being part of a hallowed tradition, Luckenbach, Texas can fix you right up.

Rooted in the earliest German migration to Texas, Luckenbach takes its name from Jacob Luckenbach, who sailed from Bremen with his brother August and other family members on board the Johann Dethardt. Landing at Indianola near the end of December, 1845, the family arrived a month or so later in Fredericksburg: settling on part of the Fisher-Miller land grant obtained by the Adelsverein in 1844.

Luckenbach obtained both a town lot in the new village and a ten-acre lot southwest of town, where he built the family’s first home. After becoming American citizens in 1852, the Luckenbachs sold both Fredericksburg properties and moved twelve miles southeast, to the site that later would bear their name.

The history that followed is filled with disputes and contradictions: so much so that two historical markers have been erected in the town. What isn’t in question is the role played by the Luckenbach and Engel families in its development.

When the first post office opened in 1854 (or 1858) under the name South Grape Creek, William Luckenbach was postmaster, and Mrs. Albert Luckenbach, née Wilhelmina Engel, established a store and saloon. The post office closed for a time, then reopened in 1886 with August Engel as postmaster. Engel renamed the town Luckenbach, then passed on his position as postmaster to William Engel, who opened a larger general store. When William died in 1935, his son Benno carried on the family’s postmaster tradition.

Over the years, the town rose, flourished to a degree, declined, then rose again: but in 1970, its demise seemed certain. By that time, Benno Engle had retired, and he was ready to let go of certain other responsibilities. His newspaper ad read: “Town For Sale — $30,000, including the general store/post office/saloon and about 10 acres.”

By the time I waltzed across Texas for the first time, in 1973, the post office, general store, dancehall, and collection of really fine shade trees that constituted downtown Luckenbach already had sold to a friend of a friend. Houstonians turned up their noses at Hondo Crouch and his business partners, calling them a collection of “eccentrics, oddballs and kooks.” In truth, the description was accurate. Still, out in the country, their eccentricity was a selling point, and Hondo’s town took a turn for the better.

Hondo liked to call himself an “imagineer,” and imagine he did. 

[He imagined Luckenbach] was an old west fairy-tale-like principality and gave everybody titles. He… proclaimed himself Mayor. He made Marge [Mueller] the Sheriff and appointed ambassadors to foreign countries.
The trio began to use the nearly-abandoned buildings as a backdrop for anything that smacked of mirth and diversion: “Hug-Ins”, a Luckenbach World’s Fair, a Ladies State Chili Bust, a Mud Dauber Festival — and daily sessions of song-picking, domino playing, and beer drinking beneath the 500-year-old oak trees.

Dominos, beer, and Mud Dauber Festivals might have kept things entertaining enough for the locals, but destiny was calling. Jerry Jeff Walker arrived in town in 1974 with the Lost Gonzo Band in tow, ready to record Viva Terlingua, and the Luckenbach nation was born.

By the time Bobby Emmons and Chips Moman wrote their own Luckenbach classic in 1977, Hondo Crouch had passed away, but Luckenbach was established. Today, Waylon, Willie, and the boys still bring tears to the eyes of expat Luckenbachians everywhere.

One of Luckenbach’s best qualities always has been a willingness to accept even the quirkiest traveler who makes pilgrimage to the spot. As the sign says, everyone is someone in Luckenbach — but it should add that every someone is welcome: no matter how inscrutable or strange.

That kind of attitude made Luckenbach a perfect venue for Kinky Friedman’s political fund-raisers during his quixotic run for Texas governor. I suspect no one living in Texas in the mid-to-late 70s can forget Kinky, his Texas Jewboys band, or the satirical — and hilarious — songs that poked fun at everything that could stand a little poking. The thought of today’s feminists being exposed to Kinky’s “Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed,” amuses me no end.

But the Kinkster, as he’s affectionately known, is more than a joke. Agree or disagree with his politics and proposals, his various campaigns — for Kerr County Justice of the Peace, for Governor, for State Agriculture Commissioner — were real. His support of the Utopia Animal Rescue Ranch between Kerrville and Medina is equally real; his name, his money and a portion of his family’s land have been dedicated there for years.

Still, irony and biting satire are his stock in trade, along with the careful cultivation of a larger-than-life persona. Given his style of humor, his willingness to skewer pretentiousness in all its forms, and his devotion to animals, I can’t help wondering if he ever encountered the newly-established Journal of Animal Ethics, with its entirely serious proposal for revising language vis-à-vis animals.

Kinky and Willie, all cleaned up

Edited by Professor Andrew Linzey, theologian and director of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, the journal found its first editorial widely reported in the press, condeming as it did the use of such terms as critters, beasts, wildlife, and pets.

Linzey and his co-editor, Professor Priscilla Cohn of Penn State University, also hoped to see the elimination of such phrases as sly as a fox, eat like a pig or drunk as a skunk. Contending such language is unfair to animals, they suggested “we will not be able to think clearly unless we discipline ourselves to use more impartial nouns and adjectives in our exploration of animals and our moral relations with them.”

After I finished pondering whether dumb as a rock still qualified as acceptable language, I did some exploring.  Pete Wedderburn, a British veterinarian and newspaper columnist, mounted a defense of the editorial. As he said, “In a journal that explores how society’s attitudes to animals are changing, it makes sense to use the most objective language possible.” He went on to cite the editorial’s contention that “language is the means by which we understand and conceptualise the world around us” and proposed that “our existing language about animals is the language of past thought.”

Perhaps. But as Ludwig Wittgenstein, an earlier philosopher of language, famously said, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.”

The increasing propensity of academics, bureaucrats, politicians, and promoters of various causes to arbitrarily impose new meaning on words or phrases, or to declare them unacceptable, results in an impoverishment of language, a diminishment of expressive possibility, and a wholly regrettable constriction of the worlds in which we live

Certainly, societies come to occasional consensus about the need for linguistic change — think of once-common ethnic slurs which are in the process of disappearing — but arguments in favor of “more impartial nouns and adjectives” or more “objective language” suggest a refusal of the natural ebb and flow of language; its delightful complexity; and even its own existence as a living entity worthy of respect.

“The English language is nobody’s special property,” says Derek Walcott, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. “It is the property of the imagination. It is the property of the language itself.”

Those who declare “You can’t say that,” or “You must say this” are seeking control: seeking to limit our worlds even as they constrain free thought. To condemn the banning of books while allowing the dilution and constriction of our language without protest is more than ironic, and it does carry consequences. Lewis Carroll couldn’t have been more prescient when he tucked this exchange into Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:

“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master— that’s all.”

Even in Luckenbach, a place where philosophers tend toward the home-spun and academicians sometimes pass themselves off as bikers, they understand Wittgenstein and Walcott. When Hondo Crouch styled himself the Imagineer and invited others to participate in his imaginings, he signaled to the songwriters, singers, poets, and beer-drinkers under the oaks that, in Luckenbach, their words would be honored: not censored, not shamed, not ridiculed.

In the midst of it all, Willie Nelson – rebel, raconteur, and imagineer extraordinaire — occasionally took to the stage to sing Cole Porter and Robert Fletcher’s gentle, melodic tribute to the freedom-loving of the world. I don’t think Willie, Cole, or Robert would mind my little version, and I suspect that Ludwig would love it.

(Click for the tune that goes with the words)
Oh, give me words, lots of words that are crying to be heard,
Don’t fence me in!
Let me write with the wide-open style that I love,
Don’t fence me in.
Let me hear truth singing in the evening breeze,
Listen to the language of the cottonwood trees.
Never read a sentence, but I ask you, please
Don’t fence me in.
Just turn me loose
with some rhythm and some rhymin’ underneath my Texas skies.
Forget PC —
let me edit and re-edit till a thought takes wing and flies.
I want to write through the night til the dawn commences,
Gathering words as though I’ve lost my senses,
I can’t bear your prissy or pretend offenses –
Don’t fence me in.

Comments always are welcome. Photos, except where otherwise indicated, are mine.

Liberating Language

I’ve nothing against baseball, though I confess I’ve never watched a complete World Series. I enjoyed following our football and basketball teams in high school and college, but I’ve never attended a professional game in either sport. Years ago I could score a tennis match or round of golf, but those days are gone and I don’t regret them. In short, I’m a terrible sports fan.

On the other hand, I adore Super Bowl parties.  The food’s great, the crowd’s congenial and the atmosphere’s relaxed. In 2009, a friend with Pittsburgh connections sent me a Terrible Towel and I went to the party as a temporary Steelers fan. As it turned out, team allegiance mattered not a whit when it came to enjoying the highlights of the day – including the broadcasters in the booth. Everyone watching agreed Al Michaels and John Madden were a winning combination. Always humorous, their commentary was sharp and insightful, though no one paid them much attention unless there was a disputed call or an especially noteworthy play.

All that changed in the game’s second half, when a player took off on a medium-sized run of perhaps fifteen or twenty yards. At the end, Michaels said, “Well, he ran that one with alacrity”.  Silence enveloped the room as everyone turned to look at the screen and three people demanded in unison, “Alacrity?”

It was an appropriate word, properly used and perfectly in context. Still, alacrity seemed to be doing its own version of broken-field running as it forged its way through clusters of declarative sentences and monosyllabic comments, four unexpected syllables that stopped an entire party in its tracks. Continue reading

The Saining of Speech

From Oban to Skye, from the Outer Hebrides to St. Kilda they traveled, two Aberdeen photographers intent on capturing and preserving the life of a remarkable people.  The beautifully colored lantern slides of  George Washington Wilson and Norman Macleod,  an iconic collection now in the hands of Mark Butterworth, were produced in the late 1880s, fifty years before color photography came to Scotland,

Even as Wilson and Macleod pursued their photography, Alexander Carmichael was traveling the highlands and islands from Arran to Cithness, from Perth to St. Kilda, collecting traditional prayers, invocations and blessings of the people. Between 1855 and 1899, he compiled his Carmina Gadelica (Gaelic Songs),  magnificent examples of Celtic tradition combined with Christian faith.

After St. Patrick’s arrival in Ireland and St. Columba’s missionary journey to Scotland, a unique culture, theology and spirituality began to evolve.  Our modern eagerness to separate sacred and secular would have seemed laughable to those early converts.  In the words of Avery Brooke, “Celtic Christians seldom left the spiritual behind in the living of their lives, nor the world behind in their prayers.”   Tolerant of  Celtic beliefs and practices, Christian missionaries were more than willing to adapt the prayers, blessings and invocations Celts wove into the fabric of their daily life. As Brooke says, “Christ was the Chieftain of Chiefs, but the old tales, songs, customs and runes – not to mention the crops, the fish, the daily work and nightly sleep – were sained, or marked with the sign of the cross, just as were  fæiries, banshees and people.”

At heart, saining was a matter of consecration, but not in our modern sense of setting aside or apart. We tend to understand consecration as removal from the realities and routines of daily life, but for the people of the Isles, consecration elevated and hallowed every ordinary circumstance. Continue reading

Fading Phrases, Rising Words

The sky clears, a rising wind from the north sending a fog of celebration out to sea.  The moon herself rides high and fast between the scudding clouds.  This moon called Blue, not blue at all but white, whiter than any snow, shines brilliant and harsh, lighting the transition between old and new as one year gives way to the next.

Standing solitary and moonlit in these ephemeral hours, tangled in this fragile web of no-longer and not-yet, it’s possible to glimpse tokens of a truth hidden to hordes of thoughtless revelers in the street: this is the way of life. What has been passes away into that which was, even as the yet-to-be stirs toward vitality. Armies rise and nations fall. Children squall into existence while parents sigh into death. In the farthest reaches of the galaxies, stars explode with pulsing light while on our own shy, spinning globe rotting leaves and the stench of mud evoke a season’s final turn. Continue reading

Lamb, Loom & Seed ~ Touchstones for Life


Treasured as a traveling companion and source of inspiration since coming to me as a gift in 1979, Alexander Carmichael’s wonderful collection, Celtic Invocationscelebrates a faith and world-view I find deeply appealing. An English translation of Carmichael’s famed Carmina Gadelica ( or Gaelic Songs), it was compiled as he traveled Western Scotland from 1855-1899 and  is rooted in the culture of the highlands and islands, stretching from Arran to Caithness and Perth to St. Kilda. The prayers, invocations and blessings it contains represent a combination of Celtic vibrancy and Christian richness.  When St. Patrick arrived in Ireland and Irish St. Columba (521-597)  carried the faith on to Scotland, the culture, theology and spirituality which resulted was unique.  It remains so today.

Our modern tendency to separate sacred and secular would have seemed laughable to those early converts.  In the words of Avery Brooke, “the Celtic Christians seldom left the spiritual behind in the living of their lives, nor the world behind in their prayers.”  Brooke also notes the unusual tolerance of Christian missionaries toward Celtic religion and traditions.  Because so much of Celtic life was “sained”, blessed and taken up whole into Christianity, Celtic tradition which might otherwise have been lost is accessible today in the wonderful prayers, blessings and invocations which were woven into daily life.  To quote Brooke again, “Christ was the Chieftain of Chiefs, but the old tales, songs, runes and customs, along with the crops, the fish, daily work and nightly sleep were sained – marked with the sign of the cross – as were the fæiries, the banshees and the people.”

When I think of  Celtic Christianity, the word which seems most appropriate is “consecration”.  We tend to think of consecration as a “setting aside” or “setting apart” for a holy purpose.  In our world, the consecrated is separate, quite removed from the realities and routines of daily life.  For the people of the Isles, consecration served to elevate and hallow all the circumstances of the day even as it emphasized their dependence on life’s giver and sustainer.  

Certainly there were morning prayers and evening prayers, invocations of the Saints and hymns to Jesus.  But there was far more than obviously “religious” prayer woven into the fabric of Celtic spirituality.  There were rituals which marked the passing of the days and the cycles of the year. There were blessings for households, for the “smooring” (smothering) of fire at night and for the kindling that “lifted” the fire in the morning. There were songs for the heifers and milk cows, prayers for protection of cattle and songs of praise for the ocean and moon.  There were blessings for fishing, hunting and reaping,  prayers for traveling and prayers for sleep.  Celtic prayer was less something one “did” than an attitude toward life: grateful, receptive and filled with recognition that divine grace and providence is the mysterious ember glowing in the heart of humanity.  Like the home ember nurtured each morning and protected each night with ritual and prayer, the spark of the divine was meant to be tended by humanity. (Click here to read more)

Free the Oxford English 47,156


I’m not a rabid football fan – I always feel badly for the team that loses – but this year I had an invitation to a Super Bowl party, a Terrible Towel to wave and a new recipe to try. It seemed the perfect time to make my way to a friend’s home, settle back and watch the fun. They had a new, super-sized tv guaranteed to make watching the game enjoyable no matter which team you were cheering for, and I appreciated Al Michaels and John Madden in the broadcast booth, even though no one seemed to listen to their coverage unless there was a disputed call or an especially noteworthy play.

No one listened, that is, until sometime in the second half, when a strange thing happened. A player took off for a medium-sized run of perhaps 15 or 20 yards, and Michaels said, “Well, he ran that one with alacrity”. Suddenly, the entire room fell silent as everyone turned toward the television and three people demanded in unison, “ALACRITY?”

It was an appropriate word, properly used and perfectly in context, but it was pretty darned strange to see that wonderful four-syllable team doing its own version of broken field running through a maze of simple, declarative sentences and spare, one or two syllable phrases. That single word stopped an entire party in its tracks, leaving it scattered and stunned at Michaels’ audacity.

The response reminded me of people’s curiosity when I used the word skry in my latest poem, The Grammarian in Winter. I had several publicly posted comments about it, and even more emails, all from folks who essentially said, “SKRY?”   When I was writing the poem and the word came to me, even I wasn’t completely certain of its meaning. I looked it up, found alternative spellings, confirmed the definition and plunked it into my poem, where it serves it purpose beautifully. It’s an unusual word, perhaps even archaic, and it’s no longer heard in casual conversation unless you’re running with a crowd that casts entrails out behind the garage or takes three day weekends to attend Wicca conventions. But it’s a good word, and I was happy to give it a home. Continue reading