My latest review for Alabama Writers’ Forum:
It’s still mild enough for the potted pansies and violas, left over from the winter, to flourish a little longer before the heat gets to them. They are joined now by the green and sprouting abundance of spring. In the midst of what is turning into an extended house hunt, opportunities to breathe deep and think hard are welcome in the ever-changing landscape of an assertive Spring.
Over the years, it has become my habit to plant declining Easter lilies in spots in my parents’ back yard. They have come back and bloomed over time to the point that the backyard flower beds have an ancillary “lily season” each April. A pink calla lily, a Mother’s Day gift to my mother from my brother’s family a few years ago, surprised us last year when it popped up amidst a pot of fading pansies. This year it’s sprouting again, in a pot all its own.
The dogwoods took their Easter cue and had their brief peak a couple of weeks ago. Red roses in the back have sprung forth while the rose bushes in front are taking their time. The crape myrtles and Rose of Sharon are revving up now for blooms throughout the warm season.
Out the back window, lavender wisteria cascades among the foliage down the mountain. Three fresh bird feeders await discovery by the many birds that come and go; so far, they’re being ignored. We’re trying to discover why the mourning doves, so plentiful in the past, have disappeared. Several cardinals have become regulars in their absence. A hummingbird feeder perches in a window, replacing the one that succumbed to old age several months ago.
More variety is available at the farmers’ markets that reopen and spring up everywhere. Strawberries now mark the procession of fruits that help to gauge the season. The lengthening of days and warming temperatures always give me a lift.
I try to be even more aware than usual of nature around me as I continue reading a new Library of America volume of three books by naturalist E.O. Wilson. I am not very science savvy, but I appreciate nature and always find Wilson’s explanations of the evolutionary processes all around us to be well-written and accessible. He explains a lot of what we’re seeing, if we will just pay attention.
Wilson, an Alabama native, is considered the world’s foremost expert on ants; his expertise seems equally astute on other flora and fauna of the world. He has been repeatedly named as one of the most influential scientists in history. Reading Dr. Wilson at the same time that I install a fieldstone and pea gravel walk in my parents’ side yard gives an added dimension of curiosity for every stone that’s overturned. Wilson is a formidable companion and guide to the wonders of the back yard and the world beyond.
A more nonsecular companion on the reading nightstand is one I just discovered. Recently, while writing a review of the latest collection of essays by writer Rick Bragg, I ran across a title that was new to me. Wooden Churches: A Celebration (1999) has an introduction by Bragg; the bulk of the book, however, is black and white photographs of (mostly old) wooden churches and services with literary excerpts from a long list of writers.
Since my annual Christmas card usually features a photograph of a wooden Alabama church, I was curious to see what this book has to offer. It’s a charming book to browse. Some of the photographs are familiar, by noted photographers, and others are more personal and obscure. There are several haunting old photographs of churches in the aftermath of Civil War battles.
Any period of life that involves real estate is a challenge. These days, while I’m neck-deep in house-hunting, the simple pleasures outside the windows, simple projects outdoors, and compelling reading are welcome distractions in brief interludes. Prospects of change become somehow less daunting in the views through other windows.
Here’s a link to my latest book review for Alabama Writers’ Forum. It’s a loving tribute to a life and a marriage. Enjoy:
Outside the upstairs bedroom window, I see the upper branches of my Chinese cherry tree and beyond. It has become the place from which I preview the weather of the day and gauge the seasons as the sunrise moves back and forth across Green Mountain.
That cherry tree is the last of the blooming trees on this section of the street to show. The first blossoms of the season appear in the treetop just as the final russet blooms of the crabapple next door give way to its bronze-hued leaves. The cherry tree in a neighbor’s backyard is on a different schedule from mine and bursts forth with white blossoms filling the back guest room window just a couple of weeks before my Chinese cherry begins its stunning, short-lived moment of full bloom.
In the back yard, the young Japanese maple, introduced last year, is budding with promise and I sigh with relief that it weathered its first winter. The camellia finally went crazy in February with crimson blooms. A few rainstorms caused them to droop to the ground and the remaining camellia blooms, holding steady, will soon drop, too. Both wild roses in the back yard – the one that belonged to my grandfather and the one I foraged from a lake shore – are fully-leafed and will start to bloom by Easter. The recently acquired Peggy Martin “Katrina” rose is thriving in its pot, ready for a suitable place to start climbing.
I managed to strain my back on the second day of unpacking when I moved to this house years ago and the doctor ordered three days of bedrest. My bedroom had been the first room I set up so I closed the door and let it be my refuge while I got back in shape. During the day time, I would open the curtains and watch the activity of the birds in the trees and the traffic and pedestrians on the road beyond. It was the perfect place to read.
Over the years, I have observed robins busily building nests in the cherry tree, eggs hatching, and one year I happened to be home on the morning that the babies left the nest. I pulled up a chair and quietly watched. Within an hour, they were all gone and oblivious to me cheering them on.
When a deadly outbreak of tornadoes ravaged much of Alabama in April 2011, the storms took out the power grids and cell towers throughout a wide swath of north Alabama. My neighborhood was without power, internet, and phones for five days. The night sky was amazing with no power for more than fifty miles in all directions. There was a dusk to dawn curfew and my sleep was erratic. At all hours of the night, I found myself lying in bed and staring out the window at the empty dark landscape and the night sky above. An occasional utility truck or police car might pass and any unexpected sound would prompt shining a flashlight out the window, often highlighting the stop sign on the corner. It was much later when I worried that my bright flash of light might have shone into the windows of the houses over in that direction.
Over time, the pattern was established of a retreat to the bedroom and the window whenever a break was needed. Nowadays, I am in the habit of opening the curtains first thing in the morning and reading as the sky goes from dawn to daylight and I prepare to face the day. Reading before rising seems to bring clarity to the day.
This week, I am busily packing to move to another city in a few days. The town I’m moving from after eighteen and a half years has never felt like home, but this house – with my books, and art, family mementos, and “stuff” – has.
And the view from my window has sustained and fortified me through all times and challenges. This morning, outside the window, the first hints of pinkish blooms on the cherry tree are beginning to show.
My latest review for Alabama Writers’ Forum.
Back when I thought I should at least feign an interest in the writing of Ayn Rand, I heard architect Howard Roark (Gary Cooper) utter the following line of dialogue to Dominique Francon (Patricia Neal) in King Vidor’s overwrought film version of Rand’s The Fountainhead (1949):
“This is Alabama marble – very high grade, very hard to find.”
I watched The Fountainhead many years ago, and I suspect that quote was my first inkling of the quality of Alabama marble. It is usually referred to as “Sylacauga marble,” for the Talladega County town in which the vein of marble is focused. The seam is thirty-two miles long, 1.5 miles wide, 400 to 600 feet deep, runs from the Coosa River to near the town of Talladega and is the longest marble deposit in the world. 500 million years old and 98% calcium carbonate – Sylacauga marble is considered one of the purest and whitest in the world and is often compared to Italian Carrara.
Edward Gantt was the first entrepreneur to develop marble quarries in the Sylacauga area in the 1830s. One of Gantt’s abandoned quarries is open for public view. At the Gantt’s Quarry Overlook, 10-ton blocks of marble line the viewing platform. White mining roads wind through the grey chasm and down to the greenish water filling the abandoned quarry floor.
Italian sculptor Giuseppi Moretti began to use Sylacauga marble while in Alabama designing Birmingham’s mammoth cast iron statue of Vulcan – Roman god of fire, metalwork, and the forge – for the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. Moretti and partners opened marble quarries around Sylacauga in the early 20th Century.
Moretti’s first art sculpture from Sylacauga marble was his Head of Christ, which was displayed in St. Louis in 1904 along with Vulcan. It is a sculpture for which Moretti claimed great pride and which travelled with him for the rest of his life. He expressed a wish that the Head of Christ would be displayed eternally in Alabama and it can be seen today at the Alabama Department of Archives and History in Montgomery.
Sculptor Gutzon Borglum’s bust of Abraham Lincoln, on view in the U.S. Capitol, is carved from Sylacauga marble. Sylacauga marble is prominent in the architecture of the Lincoln Memorial, the United States Supreme Court Building, and other notable architecture and art throughout the United States.
More prosaic uses for marble include as a soil additive, as a whitening agent in paint and paper coating, and as an antacid (think Alka-Seltzer and Tums), among other things.
Sylacauga marble is having a renaissance for artistic applications as evidenced in outdoor installations throughout downtown Sylacauga. Sylacauga Emerging by Alabama sculptor Craigger Browne is an impressive work in front of the Sylacauga Municipal Complex. It depicts a worker carving himself out of a block of marble. Nearby is Don Lawler’s Falling Star, commemorating the Hodges Meteorite, which crashed through a farmhouse roof outside Sylacauga in 1954, striking Ann Hodges, asleep on her couch.
If in the Sylacauga area, keep a watch for numerous examples of the pristine marble that is native to the region. Chances are, you’ve already seen it or used it in other places.
Because of pandemic, parades were cancelled in Mobile — the origin city of American Mardi Gras — and New Orleans, its American capital. I have amused myself with online viewing of New Orleans-based “Yardi Gras” displays on porches and yards throughout the Crescent City. In my years as a teacher, I would throw beads to my students at the end of Fat Tuesday classes to celebrate. Last night, before I went to bed, I realized that my stash of beads is depleted and I only have a few strings of purple, green, and gold beads to distribute to neighbors.
There were enough. I will remind myself to order beads before Mardi Gras next year — when we can only hope that things will seem substantially more “normal.” The word “normal” has taken on new meaning in the past year. In the past, I often spoke it with a sense of scorn and condescension; who decides what’s “normal” and what’s not?
Now, “normal” just means being able to go out more or less fearlessly, to socially interact. “Normal” means having our lives back in whatever sense of “normal” that used to apply.
A Mardi Gras wreath adorns my front door. It was a gift from my next door neighbor who died a year ago. I always put it out two weeks before Fat Tuesday; as a traditionalist, I must have it down before midnight tonight.
It will be adorning my door in a new location on Fat Tuesday 2022.
In December 2019, my alma mater, and the university my father proudly served until his retirement, dedicated a statue and installation on the Black Warrior River, which flows on the northern boundary of the campus. The University of Alabama gifted a statue of Minerva, Roman goddess of knowledge and wisdom, to the city of Tuscaloosa in honor of Tuscaloosa’s bicentennial. The 30-foot statue stands on the edge of the river in the park at Manderson Landing. Leading up to the mirrored pedestal on which Minerva lands in a silvery splash of water is a bronze outline of the river set in a concrete walk and punctuated with a timeline of significant moments in the city’s history. The history timeline is presented alongside the river’s circuitous path from Tuscaloosa to Demopolis.
Sculptor Caleb O’Connor created the Minerva statue and Craig Wedderspoon, who directs the sculpture program at the University, designed the timeline walk.
When I was a student at the University, Manderson Landing was a dirt parking lot on the side of the river. River Road (now Jack Warner Parkway) followed the path of the river from the community of Holt to downtown Tuscaloosa. During my time in Tuscaloosa, I was struck by how little the town interacted with its river. For a time, I lived at Rose Towers, which was the northernmost building on the campus and the nearest to the river. From my 11th floor window, I could see the river’s path all the way to downtown but, other than towboats and barges, human activity on the river was basically non-existent.
Rose Towers was imploded years ago and fresh new-ish student housing predominates on the north side of campus. The riverside has been developed from town to the campus with commercial interests, a farmers market, walking trails, and abundant park lands. Campus enrollment has doubled since my time there and the campus itself is packed with new roads, new campuses, new buildings, and never-ending construction.
Overall, the campus is more beautiful and maintained than it was in my time, but the various fraternity and sorority rows are even tackier and more obscene than they were “in my day.” My pride in the campus wilts a little when I have to pass through the overblown houses of the ostentatious panhellenic ghettoes. My disgust with that element of college life dates back to my pre-college days and it seems to grow more intense rather than mellow with time. (In the summer before my freshman year at the University, I received a recruitment letter from the Interfraternity Council; I corrected the grammar and spelling and sent it back. They never bothered me again, which was my intent.)
But I was in town this time to visit Minerva and the river. A visit was planned soon after the dedication, but the lost year of 2020 put a halt to the plan.
The goddess of wisdom adorns the seal of the University of Alabama. I must admit that, through my undergraduate and graduate school years, I was always led to understand that the goddess on the seal is Athena, the Greek original for Minerva. The origin stories and realm are the same, but in the years since I left Tuscaloosa, Athena has apparently been transmogrified into her Roman persona.
Works for me, I guess …but I have always preferred my Greek mythology to the Roman appropriation. Even so, I am proud of Vulcan, the Roman god of the forge and metalworking, who is the symbol for Birmingham. I know that his Greek predecessor is Hephaestus, but the name Vulcan seems to wield more power.
O’Connor’s Minerva is a stunning addition to Tuscaloosa’s riverscape. She is a modernized creation with flowing hair replacing the traditional helmet. Luminous raiment flows against her taut and powerful body. She appears to be landing in water after a flight and her right arm releases an owl into the firmament. The sculpture is not monochrome; a subdued and powerful mix of hues captures and plays with the light, giving the form an even more changeable and human presence. She is inspiring and spectacular.
Minerva’s mirrored and curving pedestal emerges from the rocks of the landing and provides added luminescence to the goddess who towers above the river to anchor the north side of the campus. Wedderspoon’s history-laden walkway provides historic context and a sense of place to a dramatic interlude in the local landscape.
For an alumnus of the University of Alabama, who has begun to feel a sense of distance from the place, the inspiring monument at Manderson Landing has reignited a sense of connection and community that I found on that campus all those years ago.
January 22: It was never my plan to wake up at 5:30 this morning, but I did. Opening the bedroom curtains, a gentle post-rain fog hovered over the street, blurring the street and occasional headlights. Last night I was in the middle of reading a Calvin Tomkins 1970s essay on the Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.)-designed pavilion for Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan. That geodesic-dome architecture was perennially surrounded by Fujiko Nakaya’s installation of artificial water vapor – a thing I would have loved to see.
Being awake in the fog at 5:30 this morning, there seemed no better time to finish the Tomkins essay, so I retrieved the Tomkins book, took a seat by the open window looking over the foggy road, and began to finish the essay as the fog dispersed and the sun eventually shone. The ground was white grey, the trees were frosted, and the mist was frozen.
Eventually the sun broke through with a golden light. A bright red cardinal, lurking in the bushes, flew onto a tree branch. He was transformed, for a moment, into a brilliant golden glow. In the past year, cardinals have become, for me, some kind of omen.
Such contemplative moments are a luxury always, but today – at the beginning of a welcome new administration in the Oval Office – they are especially cherished.
I think that most of us have taken on a more philosophical mindset during these months of relative isolation. “Look around you and pay attention” was a directive I often gave to acting and directing students and it’s a directive I find myself following closely in this challenging period of an early COVID-driven retirement.
It seems that, in these moments of privation, I am drawn to things that try to make sense of our challenges. I seek escapism, but also those things that make sense of this current moment in time.
COVID19 SUTRAS, by Hank Lazer, is a new book of poems and sutra-like meditations that deals with our cultural isolation, division, and longing in ways that inspire, incite, and calm the soul.
Intimations, the new book of COVID-inspired essays by Zadie Smith, gives a sort of skeptical hope. Smith — intuitively – knows the landscape, but approaches it with humor, acid, and civility. She remains among my favorite living authors. Her thoughts on our current time lend strength.
Don DeLillo’s The Silence is a brief and pointed novel – written before the pandemic – about a time when social entitlements are suddenly, inexplicably, withdrawn. What happens, DeLillo wonders, when electronic assumptions fail and society is left to wander, cluelessly? It is significant, I think, that DeLillo’s cultural deprivation occurs on a Super Bowl Sunday.
The Silence was most evocative, to me, of Edward Albee’s 1966 play, A Delicate Balance. In Albee’s play, a group of individuals comes together in incomprehensible fear of something existential and undefined.
In a recent New Yorker, Lawrence Wright’s intense investigation of COVID19 and the American response – “The Plague Year” – provides insight into a real-life crisis of existence and our current moment that can’t be wished away.
There is strength in the essays of Verlyn Klinkenborg. His essays on “The Rural Life” in the New York Times were an anticipated feature in my readings of that newspaper through the years and I am now making my way through the sequel, More Scenes from the Rural Life. I also look forward to reading Klinkenborg’s The Last Fine Time, the chronicle of a family-owned tavern in Buffalo and, especially, Several Short Sentences about Writing, his tome of advice for all writers.
The aforementioned six-volume collection by Calvin Tomkins, The Lives of Artists, is making me most happy. Starting with a profile of Marcel Duchamp in 1962, Tomkins’s essays, spanning seven decades, present a very personal history of art in the second half of the 20th Century and beyond.
This crucible year of the 21st Century challenges our strength and stamina. Great writing currently explores it; great writing also provides an escape from the day-to-day obstacles it offers.
At one point in Intimations, Smith writes, “The people sometimes demand change. They almost never demand art.” That might be true, but in times of stress and change, we often look to the artists for sustenance, understanding, and courage.
A holiday ritual that wasn’t curtailed this year was the sending of Christmas cards. Professional Southerner posts in previous years have detailed my annual search for historic and/or picturesque churches to be found around Alabama during the December holiday season. One of these structures usually is featured on the next year’s Christmas greeting.
This year’s church, Sacred Heart Chapel, overlooking Mobile Bay from Baldwin County’s Eastern Shore, is a church that dates from the 1880s. I’ve photographed the chapel many times over the years. Until 2019, none of my images struck my fancy as being Christmas card-worthy, although the building is a lovely example of 19th Century Southern coastal architecture. Its large front porch is a particularly charming feature.
The chapel is only used for summer services. A year ago, walking along the deserted grounds, I was struck by the simple grace of the Gothic windows against the white planks of the building. Beyond the porch, the broad churchyard sweeps down to a vista across Mobile Bay, interrupted only by the ruins of an old pier from a previous hurricane.
Even before the pandemic, I had decided that the side view of Sacred Heart would be the 2020 Christmas card image. There was something hopeful in that outward view. Comes the pandemic, and I was firm in my conviction that whatever hope I saw in that particular image would be part of a holiday message this year.
The main message inside the card includes the message “Looking Forward to Christmas and the Year to Come.” And, as always, “Peace on Earth.”
The search for an image for the 2021 Christmas card is more abbreviated this year since I was not able to travel the length of the state to photograph churches and other scenes of December.
Among the tourism trails of north Alabama is the North Alabama Hallelujah Trail (www.northalabama.org/trails/hallelujah) featuring thirty-two places of worship that are at least 100 years old and stand on their original sites. Many of these are examples of vernacular Southern church architecture, others are Gothic or grander, one is a synagogue, and one is simply an open-air facility with cedar posts and a roof.
My mother’s family is from Cullman County, Alabama, — the descendants of Scotch-Irish immigrants who landed in Virginia and the Carolinas in the late 18th-early 19th century and settled in the frontier of Alabama soon afterward. My annual Christmas cards have featured churches from all over Alabama but I never located one in Cullman county that called out to be used. Family-related churches in Cullman around the communities of Kinney Grove, Ryan’s Creek, and Bethany – some of which were built by some of those ancestors – have been replaced by more prosaic modern buildings that don’t make the Christmas card cut.
The Hallelujah Trail features a church in the Cullman County community of Logan. A couple of weeks ago, I had the perfect opportunity to travel down to see it in person. Much of Cullman County is off-the-beaten-path and Logan seems even more remote than most. It’s beautiful hilly country with plenty of farms, pine thickets, and ponds along the narrow roads.
At the end of one particular road is Shady Grove Church, which started out in the 19th Century as pews in an arbor. The current building dates to the late 1800s. It’s a serene place on a lonely road, surrounded by the quiet of pristine forests. Across the road from the church is an old cemetery which holds generations of locals along with the remains of soldiers from both the Union and Confederate armies.
The doors to the building were locked but, through a window in the front door, the entirety of the church interior is visible. A unique touch, a hand-carved church structure, decorates the arched cove behind the pulpit. A wooden outhouse provides necessary services behind the building. Somebody had made the effort to install fresh flowers in small vessels in each window; it’s a small touch – but one that speaks to the dedication that keeps Shady Grove Church a place worthy of a remote road trip.
In activist/poet/writer Katha Pollitt’s “Plague Poem,” she muses, “Perhaps it is best that we go away now” as she considers ongoing environmental and social sins. It’s an interesting thought, but this Christmastime, I choose to hope for the best and for an opportunity to right the wrongs that plague us when we get to the end of this current spate of unfortunate circumstances.
Merry Christmas … And all hope for an amazing and triumphant New Year.