Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Into the Great Unknown

No one knows if Linnaea borealis is alive and well in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Over a century ago an amateur botanist saw the twinflower in the high mountains of Sevier County, TN. For the past thirty years, the curator of the NC Botanical Gardens has been trying to find it.

Photo - Mark W. Skinner @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database

In August 1892, Albert Ruth was exploring the Smokies when he spotted a pair of pink flowers rising from a single, slender stem. Linnaea borealis acquired its name because it was a favorite of Carolus Linnaeus, the father of taxonomy. The flower is common in the Northeastern United States. Ruth was the first (and still the only) person on record as finding the plant anywhere south of West Virginia.

In 1981, ecologist Peter White began combing the Great Smokies to find the twinflower. Since then, he has found 200 other plants never before known to grow in the GSMNP. White is one of the hundreds of scientists participating in the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory (ATBI), an ongoing effort to catalog every species of life in the Park.

But the twinflower has not yet been found.

Farther north, it tends to grow near the paper birch, so ATBI researchers have examined the occasional clusters of those trees in the Park, but without success.

The Park sprawls over more than 520,000 acres, a enormous area to go hunting for one particular plant, and an enormous area in which to find every form of life that is present.

Photo - Al Schneider @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database

Until a friend forwarded me a link to the full story about the quest for the twinflower - http://research.unc.edu/endeavors/spr2009/every_living_thing.php – I was not familiar with the work of Peter White.

Actually, that was not quite the case. A few minutes after I read the article, I picked up a wildflower guide that I purchased earlier this year, a book that I’ve carried almost everywhere for the past few months. This time, I happened to notice that the lead author of Wildflowers of the Smokies was Peter White.

And as it turns out, White will be the featured speaker this Thursday evening at 7:00 for the Zahner Conservation Lecture Series in Highlands. His talk is entitled, "Turn the Poet Out-of-Doors: a Natural History of Robert Frost."

To Earthward
by Robert Frost

Love at the lips was touch
As sweet as I could bear;
And once that seemed too much;
I lived on air

That crossed me from sweet things
The flow of--was it musk
From hidden grapevine springs
Down hill at dusk?

I had the swirl and ache
From sprays of honeysuckle
That when they're gathered shake
Dew on the knuckle.

I craved strong sweets, but those
Seemed strong when I was young;
The petal of the rose
It was that stung.

Now no joy but lacks salt
That is not dashed with pain
And weariness and fault;
I crave the stain

Of tears, the aftermark
Of almost too much love,
The sweet of bitter bark
And burning clove.

When stiff and sore and scarred
I take away my hand
From leaning on it hard
In grass and sand,

The hurt is not enough.
I long for weight and strength
To feel the earth as rough
To all my length.

Monday, June 29, 2009

The Man in the Red Flannel Shirt

Just the other day, some self-annointed guardian of civility and decorum ripped into a friend of mine, pointing an accusatory finger at my friend as a prime example of "your typical backwoodsman" (to use his phrase). Mr. Prig, as we shall call him here, marshaled conclusive evidence – specifically, my friend’s penchant for flannel shirts.


Apparently, Mr. Prig is convinced a man utters a fashion statement by wearing flannel and the statement is an emphatic "I Am Uncouth and Depraved."

What an ass I’ve made of myself all these years, on those many occasions when I have gone out in public wearing a flannel shirt. I had no idea what that revealed about me. Honest!

Determined to rid myself of this embarrassment, I went home and examined the contents of my closet. Reluctantly, I started pulling all my flannel shirts from their hangers and began filling a heavy-duty 40-gallon trash bag. I grew sad and nostalgic, recalling the happy days I spent wearing those shirts. But that was before I knew. Now, older but wiser, there’s no return to my halcyon innocence. I shudder to think that I could be so naïve. No doubt, people were snickering and elbowing one another after I walked past, hissing knowingly, "There…pshuhff…there is your typical…back…woods…man."

I had no idea!

It took both hands for me to heave that sack of shame into the back of my battered pickup truck. I would get around to hauling it to the dump in a day or two. Perhaps, after that final break, I would feel a great sense of propriety about myself.

But I couldn’t leave it alone. Like a tongue probing a broken tooth, my mind kept going back to those flannel shirts. This was something I needed to understand more fully. Maybe, if I could put those shirts into some sort of historical context, it would all make sense.

I took a deep breath and tried to pull up some helpful images from my memory banks.


Flannel shirts…

Flannel shirts…

Oh, yeah. The Brawny Paper Towel Guy. He used to wear a flannel shirt. But I knew that he had gotten a makeover just a couple of years ago. It was a big deal at the time, maybe the biggest transformation of a grocery shelf icon since the day that Aunt Jemima traded in her do-rag for the tastefully stylish corporate career-woman look.

You go girl!

As they say.

But the Brawny Guy. I couldn’t quite picture his current incarnation.

The mullet is gone. Right?

And the mustache. Gone. Right?

And that double-bit axe. He doesn’t strut around with an axe on his shoulder any more. Right?

The flannel shirt must be gone, too. Right? If you’re trying to project the metrosexual image, then a flannel shirt just doesn’t work. It would lead people to believe that you’re a…a…a typical backwoodsman. Discerning shoppers would pass you by and quickly pick up the Quicker Picker Upper. Right?

I started digging through a pile of supermarket circulars, looking for the Brawny Guy. I was sure that he had slipped into another shirt, but I couldn’t remember what kind.

Not finding him in the recycling bin, I went online, where I discovered a message from the Brawny Paper Towel Guy:

Sometimes, when I'm having a hard time, and I need to do something to make me feel better, I saw wood. Come saw some wood with me. Just relax your shoulders and let the saw do the work [a slow methodical back and forth sound of a saw softly cutting through wood is heard] That's it. Yeah. Feel better? I feel better too.

I’m serious. He said that. If you don’t believe me, you can go listen to him yourself, at the NPR website.


Yes, National FREAKIN’ Public Radio. Take that, you skeptics who accuse me of fabricating stories. There’s your evidence.

[All things considered, I would urge straight women and gay men to refrain from clicking on that NPR story. Consider yourself duly WARNED.]



Is that good enough for you?

The Brawny Man has a lot to say, but the medium of radio leaves us in the dark about his choice of shirts these days. I would guess that he didn’t wear a shirt, flannel or otherwise, while achieving stress relief by…”sawing wood.”

Anyhow. I finally found a picture of the NEW Brawny Guy and, sure enough, he has exchanged his flannel shirt for…


This answers absolutely nothing. I can see that I will need to expand my historical horizons in order to fully understand the flap over flannel.

Perhaps going back to a time before plaid cotton degenerated mankind into a state of barbarity would help us to comprehend the significance of the fashion faux pas in a fallen world.

So, I have gone back...to sixteenth century Italy and cruel King Carvolacchio:

There now. Wouldn’t genocide be oh so much easier to stomach when your tormenter is dressed like a man of wealth and taste? Imagine the King, here, in a flannel shirt. But, no, it’s simply not possible.

That was Europe, though. How about life in America? Where does the flannel shirt fit into the history of God’s chosen land?

Roanoke Island.


When he marched into the backwoods to found the Lost Colony, Sir Walter Raleigh wasn’t wearing some uncivilized attire:

No, he was dressed properly for the occasion. Imagine how badly things might have turned out for the colonists if Raleigh and his followers had been wearing flannel shirts.

Somewhere along the line, though, your typical backwoodsman decided it was time to start dressing like your typical backwoodsman.

I think it was around the time of the famous frontiersman Grizzly Adams. At least he was one of the earliest Americans to be filmed wearing a flannel shirt on a regular basis. Granted, he groomed that beard of his meticulously:

But all the whisker-preening in the world wasn’t enough to overcome the social stigma that goes with flannel. It’s no wonder that his only friends were an old coot named Mad Jack, an Indian named Nakoma and a bear named Gentle Ben. Do you seriously believe that you would see a foursome like THAT teeing off for a round of golf or pursuing other equally civilized pursuits?


And speaking of Grizzly Adams, you must agree that flannel is at least partly to blame for this:

It’s the flannel.

Look at Paul Bunyan…

Consider the destructive force of ONE man, albeit one unusually large man, wearing a flannel shirt.

Fast forward to the pinnacle of the Victorian era in America. On July 29, 1879 the New York Times published a review of the Moosehead Lake Lodge in Maine:

It is just this free and easy life, in which you can do as you please, in which you can come to the dinner-table and not be disgraced if you have on a flannel shirt…

And ever since, this country has gone to hell in a handbasket.

Read that passage from the New York Times carefully. It tells you everything you need to know about the decline of America.

“Do as you please…”

“NOT be disgraced if you have on a flannel shirt…”

Look where that has led us.

A Neanderthal puts on a flannel shirt, flails his electric guitar and becomes a rock star.

Another example of “your typical backwoodsman type” puts on a flannel shirt, scratches his butt and becomes a movie star.

This used to be a great nation.

The operative word is “used to be.”

Now I get it.

I see where we went wrong.

I see where I went wrong.

Thank you, Mr. Prig. You are absolutely correct.

Friends don’t let friends wear flannel shirts.

For further study of the cultural significance of the Brawny Paper Towel Guy see:

Saturday, June 27, 2009

A Surprise in the Bean Patch

I was picking peanut beans this morning and found something unexpected...

...a nest containing four little turquoise and brown eggs.

It is the work, I'm guessing, of a sparrow. If any reader can confirm or correct that supposition, I would appreciate it.

Normally, I don't eat green beans and eggs at the same meal. However, this seemed a fitting occasion to have them share the plate.

Those tiny eggs didn't add up to much of a omelette, but boy was it tasty!

I savored the flavor while contemplating an old ditty from William Wordsworth:

The Sparrow's Nest

BEHOLD, within the leafy shade,
Those bright blue eggs together laid!
On me the chance-discovered sight
Gleamed like a vision of delight.
I started---seeming to espy
The home and sheltered bed,
The Sparrow's dwelling, which, hard by
My Father' house, in wet or dry
My sister Emmeline and I
Together visited.

She looked at it and seemed to fear it;
Dreading, tho' wishing, to be near it:
Such heart was in her, being then
A little Prattler among men.
The Blessing of my later year
Was with me when a boy:
She gave me eyes, she gave me ears;
And humble care, and delicate fears;
A heart, the fountain of sweet tears;
And love, and thought, and joy.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Partake of All Good Things

We must remain as close to the flowers, the grass, and the butterflies as the child is who is not yet so much taller than they are. We adults, on the other hand, have outgrown them and have to lower ourselves to stoop down to them. It seems to me that the grass hates us when we confess our love for it. Whoever would partake of all good things must understand how to be small at times.
-Friedrich Nietzsche

Friday, June 19, 2009

Turtle Time

To a Box Turtle

Size of a small skull, and like a skull segmented,
of pentagons healed and varnished to form a dome,
you almost went unnoticed in the meadow,
among its tall grasses and serrated strawberry leaves
your mottle of amber and umber effective camouflage.

You were making your way through grave distances,
your forefeet just barely extended and as dainty as dried
coelacanth fins, as miniature sea-fans, your black nails
decadent like a Chinese empress’s, and your head
a triangular snake-head, eyes ringed with dull gold.

I pick you up. Your imperious head withdraws.
Your bottom plate, hinged once, presents a No
with its courteous waxed surface, a marquetry
of inlaid squares, fine-grained and tinted
tobacco-brown and the yellow of a pipe smoker’s teeth.

What are you thinking, thus sealed inside yourself?
My hand must have a smell, a killer’s warmth.
It holds you upside down, aloft, undignified,
your leathery person amazed in the floating dark.
How much pure fear can your wrinkled brain contain?

I put you down. Your tentative, stalk-bending walk
resumes. The manifold jewel of you melts into grass.
Power mowers have been cruel to your race, and creatures
less ornate and unlikely have long gone extinct;
but nature’s tumults pool to form a giant peace.

Parrots, tortoises and redwoods live a longer life than men do;
Men a longer life than dogs do;
Dogs a longer life than love does.
~ Edna St Vincent Millay

You can't make a turtle come out,
You can't make a turtle come out,
You can call him or coax him or shake him or shout,
But you can't make a turtle come out, come out,
You can't make a turtle come out.

If he wants to stay in his shell,
If he wants to stay in his shell,
You can knock on the door but you can't ring the bell,
And you can't make a turtle come out, come out,
You can't make a turtle come out.

Be kind to your four-footed friends,
Be kind to your four-footed friends,
A poke makes a turtle retreat at both ends,
And you can't make a turtle come out, come out,
You can't make a turtle come out.

So you'll have to patiently wait,
So you'll have to patiently wait,
And when he gets ready, he'll open the gate,
But you can't make a turtle come out, come out,
You can't make a turtle come out.

And when you forget that he's there,
And when you forget that he's there,
He'll be walking around with his head in the air,
But you can't make a turtle come out, come out,
You can't make a turtle come out.

-Malvina Reynolds

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Hope's Daughters

Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are anger and courage. Anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain as they are.

- St. Augustine

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Amazing Spiderwort

It has been great fun to get more acquainted with wildflowers this year. I only regret that I’ve waited so long to give them the attention they deserve. The past couple of weeks had been a fairly slow time for finding new flowers. As the trees leafed out and the forest canopy closed, the early spring flowers deep in the woods have faded.

Now, it’s time to look elsewhere. This week, a flower hunter could do worse than to look alongside the Blue Ridge Parkway from Balsam Gap to Waterrock Knob. Rhododendrons and flame azaleas are hard to miss, even if you’re zipping past at 45 MPH. But anyone who gets out and takes the time to look will find lots and lots of smaller flowers blooming. I’m still culling from a couple of hundred photos I took there this week.

The spiderwort, one of the few flowers I could have identified before this year, is blooming in abundance. I enjoy taking macro shots, and even though a photographer might pass up the spiderwort for more charismatic flowers, it is a splendid subject if you stop and take a closer look. Generally speaking, bright sun is not the ideal condition for taking wildflower pictures. I’ve found, though, that with flowers that lend themselves to close-ups, the bright sun helps in achieving clear, sharp results. Predictably, this is less true for white flowers. For some reasons I don’t quite understand, yellow flowers are even more difficult to photograph well in bright light, at least in my experience. That’s not a problem with the blues and purples of the spiderworts.

I had known that the spiderwort was of particular interest to botanists although I had forgotten why. They have several notable characteristics:

-The plants are easily hybridized.

-Their cell structure makes it relatively easy to observe the flow of cytoplasmic fluid through the plant.

-Due to its large chromosomes, spiderwort is the plant of choice for viewing (under a microscope) cell division in the stamen hairs.

-Old petals don’t fall from the flower, as with most plants, but seem to melt due to certain enzymes.

One of the most curious traits of the spiderwort is its response to ionizing radiation, such as gamma rays. Upon exposure, the stamen hairs which are normally blue will turn purple or pink. So the plant is studied as a natural barometer of air pollution and radiation. Less than two weeks after contamination from low “safe” doses of radiation or hazardous chemicals the stamen hairs will start to mutate and change color. Since the spiderwort can absorb toxins and store them internally, it gives a more useful measure of the cumulative effect of contamination over time, compared to other means of measuring external and temporary levels of toxins.

Reportedly, the Cherokees used the spiderwort for food and medicine. The young leaves were eaten as salad greens. The plant was mashed into a paste and rubbed onto insect bites to relieve itching and pain. The roots were used in a poultice to treat cancer. A tea made from the plant was used as a laxative and for stomachaches.

If I have identified it correctly, the spiderwort I found in such abundance along the Parkway this week was the Mountain Spiderwort, Tradescantia subaspera var. montana. Fortunately, thanks to some prior study of the wildflower guide I had known to be alert for another member of the spiderwort family. Otherwise, I might have ignored the Commelina communis as more of the same. As with the Mountain Spiderwort, this plant has three petals, but it would be easy to assume that it is missing one. While two of the petals are blue (and bluer than the Mountain Spiderworts that I’ve seen) the third petal is smaller, white, and easily overlooked. Some people call this plant Mouse Flower since the two blue petals do resemble a pair of mouse ears. But it is better known as the Common Dayflower, which refers to the blooms lasting only one day before melting away.


I always see my father's eyes as blue
When spiderwort comes up in spring. I saw
It first when no one in Nebraska knew
What name it had in Gray's old botany.

None but my father. He would leave his team,
Take down the book he'd sold the seed-corn for,
Scan page, and say: "That's spiderwort." In fall,
"Oh, no, not weeds. That's blazing star." I'm glad

Except for what my mother must endure,
He left us hungry, chased some wan, wild goose;
But told me names of shepherd's purse in spring
And tumble-weed and golden-rod in fall.

- Margaret E. Haughawout (1929)

Thursday, June 11, 2009


Whenever I go online these days, it’s BING, BING, BING. Well, I haven’t checked out the new techie Bing thing yet. Maybe it really is the greatest deal since sliced bread.

But when I see BING on the screen, I don’t think of search engines and such.

I get hungry for an especially tasty variety of sweet cherry.

Or I recall the opera impresario Sir Rudolf Bing.

But mostly, I flash back on another Bing…

Der Bingle…


Bing Crosby makes me laugh. He wears that fedora and clenches that pipe like he’s the coolest dude on the planet.

What a hoot!

Bing Crosby made a movie in 1956 that I really enjoy – High Society. How could you go wrong with a cast that includes Frank Sinatra, Grace Kelly and Louis Armstrong?

He got down with Satch on what might be my all-time favorite movie musical moment, Now You Has Jazz.

Maybe Bing WAS the coolest dude on the planet. Who else could say that he sang with Louis Armstrong AND Ziggy Stardust? I can’t watch this next clip without wondering what corner of the universe David Bowie flew in from. He has a delightfully unearthly look without even trying. And there's something so bizarre about Crosby and Bowie crooning together.


Who knows? The new Bing might turn out to be the next Google. But for me, there will always be one Bing, and one Bing only.





[Alright...enough with the ancient history. Let's rock.]

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Robert Bushyhead at Nikwasi

A couple of days ago, I picked up the Macon County News and read of efforts to learn more about the Nikwasi mound in Franklin with ground-penetrating radar. What really caught my attention, though, was an anecdote related by Anne Rogers, from the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at Western Carolina University. According to the article, Rogers attended a Nikwasi dedication ceremony years ago:

She said that after local politicians spoke at the ceremony, Cherokee speaker Robert Bushyhead walked past the microphone and climbed the mound to address those assembled. Bushyhead spoke in Cherokee. Rogers said suddenly the clouds parted and the sun illuminated him. "I had an appreciation for this as Cherokee land," Rogers said.

I had the good fortune to hear Robert Bushyhead speak on several occasions and immediately thought of him when I read George William Featherstonhaugh’s account of a 1837 visit with the Cherokee. The English-born Featherstonhaugh was the first United States government geologist and traveled widely. He happened to reach Cherokee country in August of 1837, during a council meeting at Red Clay, Tennessee.

When he described a Cherokee orator named Bushyhead, how could I not think of Robert Bushyhead?

Because Featherstonhaugh had such a way with words, I’m including more passages than I had first intended from his book, A Canoe Voyage Up the Minnay Sotor:

The expense of feeding this multitude, which was defrayed by the council, was very great. Fifteen beeves were said to be killed every day, and a proportionate quantity of Indian corn used. Twenty-four native families were employed in cooking the provisions and serving the tables which were set out three times a-day. The beef was cut up into small pieces of three or four inches square, and kept stewing for several hours in large pots. The broth of this mess, without the meat, was the first dish offered to us at the excellent Mrs. Walker's, but when it was handed to me I found it was nothing but a mass of melted fat, the surface of which was oscillating about like quicksilver, and I had to send it away at the risk of giving offence.

… Having refreshed ourselves with a cup of tea, we walked out with General Smith, the Indian agent for the United States, to see the Council-house. Crossing the Cooayhallay, we soon found ourselves in an irregular sort of street consisting of huts, booths and stores hastily constructed from the trees of the forest, for the accommodation of Cherokee families, and for the cooking establishments necessary to the subsistence of several thousand Indians. This street was at the foot of some hilly ground upon which the Council-room was built, which was a simple parallelogram formed of logs with open sides, and benches inside for the councillors. The situation was exceedingly well chosen in every respect, for there was a copious limestone spring on the bank of the stream, which gave out a delicious cool water in sufficient quantities for this great multitude. What contributed to make the situation extremely picturesque, was the great number of beautiful trees growing in every direction, the underwood having been most judiciously cut away to enable the Indians to move freely through the forest, and to tie their horses to the trees. Nothing more Arcadian could be conceived than the picture which was presented; but the most impressive feature, and that which imparted life to the whole, was an unceasing current of Cherokee Indians, men, women, youths, and children, moving about in every direction, and in the greatest order; and all, except the younger ones, preserving a grave and thoughtful demeanour imposed upon them by the singular position in which they were placed, and by the trying alternative now presented to them of delivering up their native country to their oppressors, or perishing in a vain resistance.

Featherstonhaugh provides one of the most detailed descriptions of Cherokee dress that I’ve ever found:

An observer could not but sympathize deeply with them; they were not to be confounded with the wild savages of the West, being decently dressed after the manner of white people, with shirts, trousers, shoes and stockings, whilst the half-breeds and their descendants conformed in every thing to the custom of the whites, spoke as good English as them, and differed from them only in a browner complexion, and in being less vicious and more sober. The pure bloods had red and blue cotton handkerchiefs folded on their heads in the manner of turbans, and some of these, who were mountaineers from the elevated districts of North Carolina wore also deer-skin leggings and embroidered hunting shirts; whilst their turbans, their dark coarse, lank hair, their listless savage gait, and their swarthy Tartar countenances, reminded me of the Arabs from Barbary. Many of these men were athletic and good-looking; but the women who had passed from the maidenly age, had, owing to the hard labour imposed upon them by Indian usages, lost as usual every feminine attraction, so that in my walk I did not see one upon whom I had any desire to look a second time. In the course of the evening, I attended at the Council-house to hear some of their resolutions read by an English missionary, named Jones, who adhered to the Cherokees ; a man of talent, it was said, and of great activity, but who was detested by the Georgians. These were afterwards translated, viva voce, into Cherokee by Bushy-head, one of the principal half-breed Cherokees.

August 5.—The voices of the Cherokees already at morning worship awoke me at the dawn of day, and dressing myself hastily, I went to the Council-house. Great numbers of them were assembled, and Mr. Jones, the Missionary, read out verses in the English language from the New Testament, which Bushy-head, with a singularly stentorial voice and sonorous accent, immediately rendered to the people in the Cherokee tongue, emitting a deep grunting sound at the end of every verse, resembling the hard breathing of a man chopping trees down, the meaning of which I was given to understand was to call their attention to the proposition conveyed by the passage. This I was told is an universal practice also in Cherokee oratory. When they sang, a line or two of a hymn printed in the Cherokee language was given out, each one having a hymn book in his hand, and I certainly never saw any congregation engaged more apparently in sincere devotion. This spectacle insensibly led me into reflection upon the opinion which is so generally entertained of its being impossible to civilize the Indians in our sense of the word. Here is a remarkable instance which seems to furnish a conclusive answer to scepticism on this point. A whole Indian nation abandons the pagan practices of their ancestors, adopts the Christian religion, uses books printed in their own language, submits to the government of their elders, builds houses and temples of worship, relies upon agriculture for their support, and produces men of great ability to rule over them, and to whom they give a willing obedience. Are not these the great principles of civilization ? They are driven from their religious and social state then, not because they cannot be civilized, but because a pseudo set of civilized beings, who are too strong for them, want their possessions ! What a bitter reflection it will be to the religiously disposed portion of the people, who shall hereafter live here, that the country they will be so proud of and so blest in was torn from the Aboriginals in this wrongful manner. God be thanked, that in acquiring the dominion of India, Great Britain protects and blesses the people whose country owns her sway !

Mr. Ross invited us to dine with him at his house to-morrow. In the evening the same scene of gormandizing was again exhibited, the woods gleaming with fires in every direction; several thousand Indians being scattered about in small groups, each with its fire, near to which a few sticks were set up, and a blanket or two laid over them to screen the women and children from the wind. The greatest tranquillity prevailed, and I walked about among them to a late hour, observing them, and asking the men the names of things with a view to catch the pronunciation.

August 6.—Rising at day-break, and taking a cup of tea, I went to the Council-house to attend divine service. From a rostrum erected near it, a native Cherokee preacher delivered a very long sermon to a very numerous assemblage of Indians and white people who had assembled from various parts. The discourse came from him with great vehemence both of action and voice, gesticulating and grunting at every instant, and never stopping to take breath, as it appeared to me, in half an hour. It was like a continual stream of falling water. All the Cherokees paid great attention to the sermon, and the most perfect decorum prevailed. After the sermon we had a psalm, led by Bushy-head, the whole congregation uniting in it. Mr. Jones then preached in English, and Bushy-head, with his stentorian voice, translated the passages as they came from the preacher, into Cherokee. During all this time, the ardent beams of the sun were pouring upon our bare heads. I felt at length as if I could not bear it much longer, and therefore went away before we were dismissed, rather than by covering my head to appear to offer any irreverence.

But I digress…

Returning to Robert Bushyhead, I found his obituary published in the Telegraph (London), of all places. I recommend clicking on that story to learn more about his role to preserve the Cherokee language, despite government policies that almost erased it from the culture:

Bushyhead first heard English when he was six, a year before he was enrolled in a government boarding school. The emphasis there was on discipline and the children were forbidden to speak Cherokee. Bushyhead and his friends would sneak down to the furnace room to talk Cherokee. They were frequently caught and punished with a severity normally reserved for illicit smoking or chewing gum. Almost all the children punished later declined to teach their children Cherokee for fear that they might suffer similar punishment.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Thomas Berry, 1914-2009

We might sometimes reflect and recall that the purpose of all our science, technology, industry, manufacturing, commerce, and finance is celebration, planetary celebration. This is what moves the stars through the heavens and the earth through its seasons. The final norm of judgment concerning the success or failure of our technologies is the extent to which they enable us to participate more fully in this grand festival.
Thomas Berry - from The Dream of the Earth


I just learned, via Sojourners, that Thomas Berry has died. It must have been 25 years ago that I went to hear him speak at UNC-Asheville. Berry was someone with something to say. Someone and something worth hearing.

Here's the post from Sojourners:

The Legacy of an Eco-Prophet: Remembering Thomas Berry
by César Baldelomar 06-03-2009

Today’s most pressing task for humanity, I believe, is to halt the current environmental crisis. Thus, churches worldwide should be working to reduce greenhouse gases, protesting the destruction of rain forests, and becoming a leading voice against the arrogant stance that humans are the pinnacle of God’s creation. This idea that humans are above all creation, as well as the notion that Christians are not of this world, has led to a serious devaluation of creation in the Western world. After all, why should I care about nature if I am not dependent on it, and if my ultimate destination is a heavenly realm?

Consequently, we now find ourselves at a major turning point in human, and indeed earth, history. Several scientists have reported that global warming has become the greatest threat to human survival. And these same scientists have confirmed that humans and our activities are the main cause of earth’s fever. Yet, there are still many who doubt the scientists’ conclusions, and, sadly, the majority of them may be Christians. Wendell Berry has argued that “The certified Christian seems just as likely as anyone else to join the military-industrial conspiracy to murder Creation.” Robin R. Meyers, in his book Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus, states that “The science we say we trust (unless it threatens our way of life or our religious beliefs) has spoken clearly, and our way of being in the world has become unsustainable”

To halt and reverse the ecological crisis presently enveloping our planet, we must raise consciousness of the universe’s awesome story as an interdependent system still developing. One of the greatest storytellers of the universe story, Fr. Thomas Berry, passed away on the morning of June 1, 2009. Through his voluminous writings and life work as a prophetic cultural historian, ecological philosopher, and theologian, Berry lives on. Let us reflect on his life by acknowledging some of his significant contributions as an environmental spirituality teacher.

Thomas Berry, born November 9, 1914, in Greensboro, North Carolina, held that all must be seen within the context of the universe. Modern science – with its theories about the universe’s origins, evolution, and the interaction of species with other species and with their natural environment – can, according to Berry, awaken the modern mind to the incredible universe story. This universe story, far from holding humanity as creation’s zenith, sees all things as interrelated and dependent upon each other.

This radical notion of interrelatedness is diametrically opposed to contemporary Western culture’s dominant “atomistic-mechanistic” ethos, which views everyone and everything as individualistic atoms or mechanical agents with no relation to each other. In this vein, the natural world itself is seen as a dead pile of raw material ready for humans to extract and convert into commodities. The market then determines nature’s inherent worth by placing a price tag on the commodity. So trees are worthless unless they produce top-notch baseball bats or reams of fancy paper.

The same atomistic-mechanistic thinking also applies to humans. Many philosophers and sociologists argue that in modern Western culture a person’s worth is determined not by virtue of his or her personhood and relationships with others and the universe, but by how much money that individual makes a year. And since earning copious amounts of money usually means trumpig someone else, this individualistic system rewards intense competition, usually to the detriment of relationships. This system has destroyed our ability to understand and appreciate the mystery of creation and its complex web of relationships.

Berry also argued that there have been two great books in the history of Western civilization. One is the Bible, and the other less known one is the Book of Nature. He stated that it is time to temporarily put the Bible back in the book shelf (perhaps because of its abuse by Christians who read it literally) and open up the Book of Nature, which can be found anywhere – in trees, birds, insects, oceans, lakes, rivers, mountains, grass, flowers, sky, stars, and the moon. Only by understanding our universe story can we truly be in awe of the Divine’s creation. In his book The Great Work: Our Way into the Future, he states, “The more we learn about the Earth the more clearly we see it as a privileged planet, a creation and a homeland of a multitude of living beings.” To put it differently, the more we “read” the Book of Nature, the better equipped we will be to transform our mode of thinking from atomistic-mechanistic to organic-holistic. This ideological shift from individual to communal and relational will lead to environmental sustainability and social justice.

This article, of course, does not do justice to a prophetic man who exerted passion for all creation. But I do hope it will lead young people to delve into Berry’s work and continue his legacy. This way, we ensure that he lives on, but, more importantly, we save our planet and our future generations from peril.

There is an ultimate wildness in all this, for the universe, as existence itself, is a terrifying as well as a benign mode of being. If it grants us amazing powers over much of its functioning we must always remember that any arrogance on our part will ultimately be called to account. The beginning of wisdom in any human activity is a certain reverence before the primordial mystery of existence, for the world about us is a fearsome mode of being. We do not judge the universe.
Thomas Berry - from The Great Work

Finally, here's Thomas Berry from a 2006 interview:

And this:

Tuesday, June 2, 2009


Treetops, 3/20/09