The Years of Lyndon Johnson (Volume 4)

Things have been busy at my house as we are now showing it and trying to begin packing for our move to Virginia… But the busyness hasn’t kept me from sailing, as I crewed a boat up to Hilton Head on Friday and then on Saturday, we raced back to Skidaway (I’ll have to do a post on the long race with little wind, because we too first place in our class). I finished this book when in Virginia a few weeks ago.

Robert A. Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2012), 712 pages including notes and sources and 32 inserted pages of black and white photos.

 

This is the fourth volume in Caro’s massive study on Lyndon Johnson, and the third I’ve read. In this book, Caro begins with the run up to the 1960 Democrat Convention. It was assumed that 1960 would be the year Johnson would run for the President. With his leadership in the Senate, Johnson was a powerful man. But he kept giving off mixed signals as to his intentions to run and once he stepped into the race, he bet that no candidate could achieve a majority of the votes during the first round at the convention. In that case, many would switch to Johnson and he could capture the nomination.  Johnson was too late for Kennedy had wrapped up a majority of delegates.  As Caro has done in the other volumes, he provides mini-biographies of key players in the story including both John and Robert Kennedy.  After Kennedy was selected as the candidate, he chose Johnson as his Vice President candidate. Even this wasn’t without drama as there was a question whether or not Johnson would accept the position, as he’d be leaving the second most powerful position in the country with his leadership of the Senate. But Johnson, who wanted to be President since his childhood, accepts the position realizing he’s only a heartbeat away from the Oval Office. Caro, through extensive work, debunks the theory (that has been popularized by Robert Kennedy and his friends), that Kennedy’s invitation to Johnson was just a nice gesture and one that they assumed Johnson would decline. Robert Kennedy and LBJ would continue to have a running feud the rest of their lives. Caro makes a convincing case that without Johnson, who wasn’t as well liked in more liberal areas in the north, Kennedy would have never been able to win the presidency in 1960.

After the election, Johnson found himself sidelined. His feud with Robert Kennedy continued to grow. His advice on how to handle legislation in the Senate (something he understood) was ignored. As a result, Kennedy wasn’t able to achieve most of his agenda. Johnson, who was more hawkish, was even kept out of key meetings such as with the Cuban Missile Crisis. Compounding Johnson’s problems was the investigation into some of his supporters, especially Bobby Baker. This had the ability to cripple Johnson and perhaps even keep him off the ticket in 1964. Interestingly, Caro tells the story in a suspenseful manner as the hearings on Bobby Baker was running in Washington DC as the motorcade in which Kennedy was shot was driving through Dallas.

Upon the death of Kennedy, Johnson changed. He quickly assumed power. He knew what needed to be done to send the right signals to the rest of the world in to halt any mischief that the Soviets or the Cubans might stir up. Caro, who in previous volumes have been critical of Johnson and points out his flaws, has high praise of how he conducted himself through the end of 1963 and into 1964. Johnson was able to achieve Kennedy’s goal of a tax cut along with Civil Rights legislation. His handling of the segregationist Harry Byrd was masterful, as he presented a lean budget to win Byrd while working to keep him from blocking civil rights legislation. He was able to keep most of Kennedy’s staff and win their loyalty. While Johnson is often remembered for being mired down in Vietnam, Caro praises his ability to guide the country through this difficult time.  He also put his own stamp on the Presidency by showing foreign leaders a good time at his ranch in Texas.  In the spring of 1964, Johnson had the highest Presidential poll rating of any President.

Like Caro’s other books, The Passage of Power is a masterful volume that captures the complexity of the first President that I remember. I hope Caro will soon come out with his 5th volume, that looks at Johnson’s 1964 victory against Barry Goldwater and how his Presidency collapsed with the failures in Vietnam, leading up to his refusal to run for a second term in 1968. If you’re interested in history or in the complexity of powerful leaders, I recommend this book.

Three Collections of Poems

  David Lee, Mine Tailings (Boulder, UT: Five Sisters Press, 2019), 79 pages.

David Lee was formerly the poet laurate of Utah and has been affectionally referred to as “the Pig Poet.” About the time I was leaving Utah, Lee retired as head of the English Department for Southern Utah University. Ever since I left Utah, I have hauled around a large collection of his poetry that came out in 1999, The Legacy of Shadows: Selected Poems. When rereading some of those poems recently, I decided to see if he was still publishing and learned about this volume. It appears that for part of the time, Lee hung out in Silver City, Nevada, a town on the south end of the Comstock Lode (I lived in Virginia City, on the north end of the lode, in 1988-89). Curious, I had the Book Lady Bookstore in Savannah find me a copy of the book for my pandemic reading.

Mine Tailings is divided into three sections: Silver City, the Shaft, and The Ore. In the very first poem of the book, “Silver City Dawn Poem,” Lee touched on many of my favorite memories of the Comstock: pinon fires, the wind, the morning sun, the sage, wild cats and rattlesnakes. As a reader proceeds further into this collection (and especially in the second section, appropriately named “The Shaft”), one comes upon many harsh poems that leaves little doubt as to what Lee thinks about President Trump. Some of the poems, like “On a Political Facebook Posting from a Former Colleague and Friend that Upset Jan,” are discombobulated and fragmented, similar to the President’s tweets. Lee often borrows snippets of Trump’s own words to turn around and challenge him through a poem.  The last section of poems contains many poems that are what I considered typical David Lee poems. These contain narrative and dialogue, tell a story and are often quite humorous. One such poem is “Globe Mallow” which is about a flower that Lee and his wife stopped to photograph while driving through a Native American reservation. When a rubbernecking tourist stops and asks what he’s seeing, the man confuses Globe Mellow with marshmallow. The photographer plays along, creating a tall tale about these plants producing marshmallow fruit in the fall. The man drives off, telling his family what he’s learned. The reader is left to humorously image his disappointment when he drives back into the valley in the fall intent on poaching marshmallows from Indian land.

It was good to read some fresh poems from David Lee. I am still pondering the role of the quail (which you had in the Nevada desert, but at least when I was there not to the extent that they show up in Lee’s poems) in these poems. In a sense, the bird is a thread that flies through the various poems.

Gary Synder, Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2009).

I have often heard of Gary Synder and have read a few individual poems and essays of his, but never a full collection. After reading Michael Cohen’s Granite and Grace, a book about Yosemite, I decided I needed to read more of his poetry. The Riprap poems were mostly written in the mid-1950s, about the time when Cohen first visited Yosemite and a year of so before my birth. Synder, as a young man, worked on trail building crews in the park. The title of these poems is appropriate as one often must riprap the side of the trail with rock to prevent erosion. These poems capture the places Synder worked, along with the people with whom he lived and worked. I enjoyed his descriptions of some familiar landscape. The second half of the book is his translations of a seventh century Japanese poet, Han-shan, writings. These poems were also interesting.

Nancy Bevilaqua, Gospel of the Throwaway Daughter: Poems (Kindle, 2004)

While drawing loosely on stories in the New Testament and other “non-canonical” writings of the first centuries of the Christian era and blending in the setting of the Biblical world, Bevilaqua has written a collection of poetry that area are alive with possibilities. These poems are steeped with a sense of place and often are linked to Mary Magdalene. One can feel the sunrise or the night sky, the parched earth under the midday sun, or the brilliance of stars at night, and the dusty feet from traveling along dirt paths. All these images draw the reader into this world.  I appreciated Bevilaqua’s ability to make the reader feel they are present in the first century even though I found myself (against the author’s advice not to read these poems from a religious perspective) wondering about their theological significance. There are certainly poems in here drawn on events of Jesus’ passion. In some ways, these poems attempt to recreate a piece of a lost world, reminded me Alice Hoffman’s novel, The Dovekeepers. In telling the story of the end of the Jewish rebellion against Rome in the first century, Hoffman draws from the experience of four women at Masada. Bevilaqua even has one poem placed at the Battle of Taricheae, an earlier defeat of the Jewish army in their revolt against Rome. Both authors, a poet and a novelist, create a wonderful sense of place at a particular time in history and should be appreciated. I read this collection on my Kindle.

A sapphire dawn, and silver palms. Venus
near the earth
still charred and yet I smell a coming
storm. He is sleeping
on the roof. I am too much awake.
-the opening lines of “Dawn, Migdal”

 

 

 

 

Heading to the Mountains

Rock Castle Creek

I was not planning on making a change, but it’s happening. Maybe it was COVID. We’ve certainly have had more time to think and ponder about what is important. Could God be using this time to open me to listening? Whatever it was to bring this on, I have accepted a call to two small historic rock churches located eleven miles apart and right next to the Blue Ridge Parkway in Southern Virginia. These are two of six churches built by the Rev. Bob Childress in the first half of the 20th Century, at a time when this part of the county was remote and often violent. Ever hear of the Hatfields and McCoys? Childress story has been captured in Richard C. Davids’ biography, The Man Who Moved a Mountain. Once he was converted, he began to encourage the people of the mountains to help one another and not just look after their close family members. Sixty years after his death, five of his six “rock churches” are still going strong.

As I said, I wasn’t looking to move and thought I’d spend another year or two on Skidaway before trying to find more relaxed position. But back in March, I learned of an opening of a large camp and conference center in Texas that was looking for a new president and CEO. Their current one was retiring at the end of the year. They wanted a minister in this position and it was suggested that I had some of the skills of which they were looking. I have led churches through relocations and large building projects, along with having done fundraising and development work. I sent them a C.V. thinking they’d probably not be interested. They responded back and had me answer a bunch of questions. I wrote an extensive essay. Then they invited me to interview. While the position would have prestigious and I’d been well compensated, there was something (other than moving to Texas, which was another issue) that kept nagging at me. We discussed it as a family. I’d always thought that when I turned 65, I would try to find a small church to serve, knowing that my pension would be adequate to take care of the rest. Here I was, just two years away. There was a certain amount of trepidation about assuming, if offered the position, a job that would require a lot of travel, along with the headaches of managing a huge staff and raising a lot of money (mostly from Texas oil leaders, who weren’t able to give their oil away this Spring).  Was this something I really wanted?

Bluemont Church

While this was going on, I saw an advertisement for a pastor to serve two churches along the Blue Ridge Parkway. My thought was, “I wish this was two years from now.” But then, the more I got to think about it, I decided to check it out. I sent them an email. Less than a week after receiving my query email, I received a call from the chair of their Pastor Nominating Committee. Early in the conversation she said, “We want you as our pastor.” I responded, jokingly, “You don’t know me.” That’s when I learned that while they hadn’t met me, they knew a lot about me as they had watched sermons and read this blog. I agreed to visit and found everyone to be nice and the area to be wonderful. At the end of my visit, they made an official offer for me to become their pastor candidate (the congregation still had to vote).

I realized that I could live on what they were paying without having to tap into my retirement funds. As they say, the rest is history. I pulled out of the interview for the Texas position. However, I realize now that position served as the catalyst for me being led to this new call.  Last week, we signed the contract that made it all official. I will assume the position in October. I will be preaching twice a Sunday, leading Bible Studies, but mostly pastoring the folks living up on the mountain along with a lot of seasonal residents with cabins who attend the churches during the warmer months.

God’s ways of leading are mysterious until much later. Like Abraham, we head off on a journey, unsure of our destination, but sure of the one we follow.  I am going to miss the good people at Skidaway just as I am looking forward to meeting the good people on the mountain. I have been blessed. I have enjoyed my time here, just as I have always found something to enjoy everywhere I have lived. After all, it’s all God’s world. And God is going to see us all through this transition.

Mayberry Church

I have always loved the mountains and the Appalachians are my first love. Long before spending significant time out west, I hiked the Appalachian Trail. The southern mountains are beautiful in all seasons. While the colors are spectacular in the fall, the spring is full of life. In the winter, the mountains often rest under a thin blanket of snow, and in the summer, everything is green and lush. And the history in these ancient mountains runs deep.  While there is much I will miss by not living on the coast, especially sailing, I look forward to spending more time paddling rivers, hiking in the mountains, and bicycling along numerous “rails-to-trails” in the region.  It’s also a little closer to my parents and easier to get to Donna’s family (you don’t have to drive through Atlanta from there).

View of the “Buffalo” (from the house that’s under contract)

If you’re ever up this way, stop in.  Sunday worship at Mayberry begins at 9 AM, followed by a 10:30 AM service at Bluemont.  I think they keep the time close together, knowing the pastor has to travel 11 miles (with the Parkway’s 45 mph speed limit), as a way to make sure I won’t go into overtime! The Mayberry Church is located just a few miles south of Meadows of Dan (and US 58). The Bluemont Church is eight miles north of Fancy Gap (US 52), which is where the Blue Ridge Parkway crosses Interstate 77. As we’re going to be dealing with this pandemic for a while, one of my first tasks will be getting the services up on YouTube.  I’ll let you know through this blog when that happens and how to find it.

Life is always exciting, but now I have to go pack some more boxes.

Lunch rest while on a hike last week along the Blue Ridge

 

 

The Cross and the Lynching Tree (with a personal note)

James H. Cone,   (Marynoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011), 202 pages including notes and an index.

 

The late James Cone (1938-2018) tackled a tough topic, linking together the most powerful symbol for Christians, the cross, and the most shameful symbol of white supremacy, the lynching tree.  The shame of the latter has been with me since the fourth or fifth grade. We had just moved back to North Carolina and in our state history book, there was a photo of lynching in Moore County that occurred in the late 19th Century. The main thing I remember was all the people, many young, were smiling around a dangling lifeless body. It was as if they were having a party. I was born in Moore County. I quickly did the math and realized that some of my great-grandparents (several of whom were still alive) could have been in that photo. I was horrified and didn’t want anyone to know that I’d come from that county. Of course, lynching wasn’t limited to Moore County. There were more lynchings (and ex-judicial killings) in other counties within the state and even more in other Southern states. Lynching wasn’t even limited to the South. Lynchings occurred all over the country. While some victims were white; in the West, Chinese and Mexican were thrown into the mix. But most of the victims were African American. Lynching was a way to keep the race terrified and, having been freed from slavery, under the control of their former white masters.

Cone set out to ask, “Can the cross redeem the lynching tree?” and “Can the lynching tree liberate the cross and make it real in American history?” (161)  There is a danger to our theology when we spiritualize the cross. There is a danger to our humanity when we ignore the lynching tree and deny the sin of white supremacy and the horrible treatment that African-Americans have experienced since first being brought in chains to American shores in 1619.

Cone begins his study with a detailed look at the cross. As a religious symbol, the cross is a paradox. Like the lynching tree, the Romans used the cross to terrify and keep at bay those who might threaten the Empire. Death on the cross was horrible. Yet, the church adopted this horrific symbol, claiming that God’s power is greater than the worse evil humans can inflict on others. For the human mind, as the Apostle Paul points out, the cross is a contradiction. But God can redeem this symbol and today the cross instead of being the horrific symbol of the empire’s power, is a sign of freedom and hope. As Cone explores as the beginning of his book, the cross is a common theme in both Black and White churches, but because of the experience of the two races, the cross is experienced differently. In White Churches, its more about the other world. That’s true in Black Churches, too, but there the cross is also a powerful symbol of hope for a people who have been oppressed.

Cone explores the theology of the cross of Reinhold Niebuhr. Perhaps the greatest American theologian of the 20th Century, Niebuhr had a lot to say about the cross. (Cone suggests Reinhold Niebuhr may be the greatest American theologian ever, but I would argue that point. However, Niebuhr was a major theologian and a scholar in the public realm during the 20th Century.)  Much of Niebuhr’s early writings (1920s-1940s) was done at a time when lynching was at its height. And while Niebuhr spoke out against white supremacy, Cone finds it strange that he never linked together the cross and the lynching tree. The second theologian Cone explores is Martin Luther King. While King, coming from the African-American tradition, focuses on the cross, also avoids linking it with the lynching tree. However, the poets and musicians from the Black tradition, do make the link as Cone explains:

They ignored white theology, which did not affirm their humanity, and went straight to the stories of the Bible, interpreting them as stories of God siding with little people just like them. They identified God’s liberation of the poor as a central message of the Bible, and they communicated this message in their songs and sermons. (118)

Cone’s fourth chapter focuses on the women’s voice from the Black community. While some women were lynched (warning: there are horrific details of lynchings in this book), most victims of lynching were men. Women spoke out for the men who, in the face of the lynching tree remained quiet and tried not to be seen. However, the lynching tree, like the cross is stripped of its gender and made an experience of all who encountered it, whether as a victim or as a witness. Perhaps the best-known woman’s voice to raise the issue of lynching was Billie Holiday. In 1939, she began singing the song “Strange Fruit.” No publisher wanted to record this song, so she sang it in nightclubs. No one could doubt the meaning of the lyrics: “Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze, strange fruit hanging from the poplar tree.”

This book may be difficult for white middle-class Christians to read, but we can’t deny that these things happened. If we want to get into the experience of how others understand their faith, we must listen to their voices. We must acknowledge their pain. In this book, Cone forces us to see the horrible treatment of a race and how it contradicts the Christian message. We need to lift up the lynching tree, in confession, realizing the sin it represents and live in the hope of a God who has the power to free us from such a past and shape us into a new people who might live in sister and brotherhood with those of a different hue.

This is the second book I’ve read by Cone. In the late 1980s, while in seminary, I read A Black Theology of Liberation. As a seminarian, I also studied under Ronald Stone, whose writings and conversations helped Cone shape his interpretation of Reinhold Niebuhr’s views of the cross. While the subject matter is often difficult, Cone is an engaging writer. In a time when American seems to be coming apart at the seams, this book should be read by those of us in the majority culture so that we can “walk a mile” in the shoes of those who are of a different color and whose experience as an American is different that ours.

Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy

David Zucchino, Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2020), 426 pages including notes, bibliography, and index along with 12 additional pages of prints.

On November 10, 1898, Wilmington, North Carolina erupted into violence. It began with an armed mob of white men burning the building which housed the Daily Record, an African American newspaper. Supposedly, this was because of an editorial that had been published months earlier that challenged the idea that lynching was necessary to keep black men away from white women.  After the fire, the mob terrified the African American community while white community leaders set out to exile leaders within the African American community along with members of the City Council and the Police Chief. Backing up these groups were reserve soldiers and sailors who had just recently returned home after having been deployed during the Spanish American War. By the end of the day, Zucchino estimates that there were 60 dead and that most of the black community had fled into the swamps. Some would leave right away; others would leave over the next few months and their absence would change the community forever.

After the terror created within the African American community, the leaders of this coup, turned to the elected and appointed leaders within the city government, who were mostly Republicans who had been elected with the help of the black vote. The election two days earlier had been a landslide for the Democrats (who at this time in history were the conservatives and had made the election about white supremacy). But with the mayor and aldermen not up for re-election, the leaders of the coup used the violence of the day as a reason to march on city hall and to demand the resignation of the city’s leaders. Then they placed their own people in power. The story reads like a who’s who of Wilmington’s leading families who were involved in the coup, along with clergy and members of the Jewish community.

David Zucchino, a reporter by trade, is not the first to tell this story. But Zucchino, with engaging prose, offers new insight into the events leading up to 1898 as well as what happened afterwards.  While much of what had been said about 1898 throughout history had been a lie, but the book could have also been called “Wilmington’s Secret.” This is not the kind of story a community speaks about publicly and, until the 100th anniversary of the event approached, most people knew little about what happened in 1898. I lived in the Wilmington area from age 9 to 24 and only knew rumors about 1898. I even played baseball at Hugh McRae Park (which recently has been renamed), unaware that the park was given to the country to only be used by whites. Even in the late 60s, I don’t remember seeing any blacks in the park. McRae was one of the leaders of the white supremacy movement in Wilmington. It wasn’t until the late 1990s, when I was home visiting my parents and picked up Philip Gerard’s novel, Cape Fear Rising, that I began to fully understand what happened. Since then, I have read four other books about this episode in history.

Zucchino begins his story with the fall of Wilmington to Union forces in the final months of the Civil War. In short chapters that focus on an event or a point in time, which reads like a newspaper column, Zucchino paints a broad picture of what was happening in Wilmington prior to 1898.  Wilmington was a place of opportunity for African Americans and many moved to Wilmington seeking a better life. At this time, most African Americans in North Carolina still had the right to vote and many did, which led to the 1898 election in which the black population was discouraged to exercise their rights. In the aftermath of 1898, the state would establish laws that would essentially disenfranchise black voters. Zucchinno shows that the event of November 10 was carefully planned. It was the ultimate example of playing the “race card.” The white leaders within the city excited fear of a black uprising among the white population, but they kept the white citizens from acting until after the elections. They even stopped earlier attempts to get Manly and his newspaper (which had published the supposedly offensive editorial months before the November events). By waiting till after the elections, they were able to intimidate the black population from voting while keeping the federal government from becoming involved. Even on November 10th, they were careful not to avoid endangering federal government property and employees (such as the head of the Customs for the Port of Wilmington, who was African American) because of a fear of the federal government becoming involved.

Zucchino doesn’t end his story in 1898. He looks at the impact on what happened in Wilmington on the rest of the country and tells what happened to the leadership on both sides in the decades following the coup. As he points out, even in 1998, at the 100th anniversary of the event, there was tension as to how the story would be told.

While there are many books about the 1898 coup, Zucchino’s book is professionally written and brings the events to light in a clear manner. This is a worthwhile addition to the growing library on both this horrific event and the rise of the Jim Crow South, as well of an example how fear, hatred, and misinformation can be used to incite evil.

My review of We Have Taken a City, another book about this event, click here.

Rocks, Water, and a Personal Note

Michael P. Cohen, Granite and Grace: Seeking the Heart of Yosemite (Reno: University of Nevada, 2019), 220 pages. A few hand drawn maps and line drawings at the top of each chapter by Valerie Cohen.

When most people think of Yosemite, they think of the valley with its huge waterfalls and sheer-faced granite cliffs where, at night, you can see the flashlights of climbers’ bivouac in hammocks slung along the rock walls. But there is another side of Yosemite. This part of the park is high above the valley and surrounds Tuolumne Meadows. The top of the park is also granite, mostly sculptured by glaciers. It is here, in a series of essays, that Cohen focuses his study of the rock that made the park so famous. For nearly three decades, Cohen taught at Southern Utah University. During the summer, he and his wife would leave the sandstone of the Colorado River Plateau for June Lake, on the backside of Yosemite. The two of them have been coming to Yosemite since childhood. Early in their life together, Michael worked as a climbing guide in the park while Valerie worked as a summer ranger.  Now in his 70s and no longer climbing the steep pitches, Cohen reflects on a lifetime living around Yosemite.

Granite and Grace centers around a series of essays that are often told from the point of view of a walker/hiker/climber in Yosemite. As Cohen recounts walks and climbs, he branches out to discuss various rock formations. Within these essays, he covers the geology of granite, how it was formed under the earth and is often found at the edge of continents. He writes about how the science around granite has changed especially within increase understanding of plate tectonics. He discussed the makeup of granite and why it’s appreciated by builders and climbers for its toughness. I had to laugh in appreciation of Cohen’s fondness for granite as he speaks of eating many meals upon it, but not wanting it as a countertop. (Granite does contain some radioactive minerals and houses built on granite have to be carefully constructed to avoid radon gas buildup). The reader will learn the role of ice in shaping the granite found in Yosemite’s high country. Weaving into his personal quests and the science behind granite, Cohen draws from a variety of literary sources. He quotes authors like John Muir and Jack Kerouac, poets such as Gary Snyder and Robinson Jeffers, and recalls songs from Paul Simon and Jefferson Airplane. While the book is part memoir that mixes in geology and literary interests, at its deepest, it is a philosophical exploration of an individual trying to understand a small section of the world.

In the concluding paragraph of the last chapter before the epilogue, Cohen writes a lyrical paragraph about granite’s “otherness and freedom.” His opening sentence, “I am attracted to granite and intimidated—especially by its textures—precisely because it is not flesh,” sets the stage for reflecting on how the “otherness” of this rock that doesn’t care or care if you care can provide a sense of peace. I was reminded of the last line in Norman McLean’s novella, A River Runs Through It. While Mclean finds peace at being in the river’s waters that gathers all that is, Cohen finds peace in that seemingly solid rock which is totally foreign and indifferent. Both views, I think, are valuable in our understanding the complexity of the human experience.

I recommend this book for anyone wanting to know more about Yosemite (this is not stuff you’ll find in guidebooks). There is something for most everyone in these pages. If you’re curious about geology, there are insights. If you want to know who we relate to the world in which we find ourselves, you’ll find parts that will speak to you.. Cohen is a deep thinker who searches for the precise word to describe his thoughts. In reading the book, if you’re like me, you’ll pull out the dictionary (or google) to look up many of his words. And, if you’re also like me, you’ll want to go back to Yosemite. His description of the Dana Plateau (which was an island above the impact of glaciation) made me realize there are places I still need to explore.

I was given a copy of this book by the author (see below) but was not compelled to write a review.  This is the fourth book I’ve read by Cohen.

Michael Cohen along the John Muir Trail, 1997

A Personal Note:  My first visit to Yosemite was in 1985, thirty years after Cohen’s first visit. I had flown to San Francisco where my girlfriend at the time was in grad school. We drove to Yosemite for a few days. I was amazed as we snaked up the road that parallels the Merced River. By the time we got into the park, I had used up all my film and had to buy expensive film in a park store to continue photographing the amazing sights. It was between Thanksgiving and Christmas and was snowing. The next morning, while my girlfriend spent the day inside the cozy cabin reading and preparing for exams, I laced up my boots headed out at daybreak. I hiked up toward Nevada Falls. It was amazing (I again ran out of film). Along the way, I met a hiker with a loaded pack. He had skis and crampons strapped to his pack that was filled with winter camping gear and provisions. He was heading up over the top to Tuolumne Meadows where he planned to ski along the highway and down Tioga Pass to Lee Vining. There, he was going to be picked up three days later. I was intrigued. Tuolumne Meadows was beckoning me like Eden.

I have been back to the park a half-dozen times since 1985 and, with one exception, I have always come into the park from the east, into Tuolumne Meadows. When another guy and I completed our hike of the John Muir Trail, Michael Cohen (the author) joined us near Devil Post Pile. As I was living in Cedar City at the time, I had gotten to know Cohen when I audited his class on creative non-fiction. Michael hiked with us for several days as we made our way down Lyell Canyon and into the Meadows. Wanting to avoid the crowds of Yosemite Valley, Michael’s wife Valerie picked him there, while the two of us continued on for another two nights into the valley. When most people think of the park, they think of Yosemite Valley with its huge waterfalls, sheer granite cliffs, and hordes of tourist. Few make it over to Tuolumne Meadows. Cohen’s book will help those who only travel through the valley understand what they missed in the high country.

Michael also appears in another book I reviewed in this blog, Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking.

 

Alice Outwater, Water: A Natural History (New York: Basic Books, 1996) 212 pages with index and notes. Line drawings by Billy Brauer.

In this collection of what seems to be independent essays, the author describes the history and evolution of water in North America. She begins with the fur trade and nature’s engineers, the beaver. In subsequent chapters, she writes about prairie dogs, buffaloes, alligators, freshwater shellfish, as well as the forests and grasslands. She explores the path of rainfall and how its been altered as we have altered the environment. She discusses the role of the toilet and sewer systems. Toward the end of the book (175ff), Outwater brings together all these seemingly diverse ideas as she discusses our attempts to “save the environment.” She points out the fallacy in many environmental efforts. We attempt to preserve an “endangered species… as if they were items in a catalog… [while] missing the larger ecological picture.” (181). At first, I was wondering where Outwater was going with these essays as they seemed to be independent of one another, but by the end of the book, I understood her point. She encourages us to see how the natural work really does work together.

Water: A Natural History is really a history of human impact upon the waters of North America (mainly the United States). Outwater recalls how we have misused our water and are now changing our views and our behavior as we strive to clean up our rivers and streams. She appears optimistic even while acknowledging there is more to be done. And example of her optimism is from seeing how the non-native zebra mussel, which was introduced by an ocean-going ship into the Great Lakes, is taking over the role of native mussels that have been wiped out by human activity. Having lived in the Great Lakes region for a decade, I know her view isn’t shared by many who see the zebra mussel as problematic.

Much of the concluding chapters of this book comes from Outwater’s work as an environmental engineer in the Boston Harbor cleanup project. Her writing is clear and concise. She caused me to ponder much about water and how we depend on it. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in one of things necessary for life—water.  And I also find her name, “Outwater” to be appropriate for someone who writes on the topic!  This is my second book by Outwater. I had previously reviewed her book, Wild at Heart which also covers many of these same themes.

Lessons from Dad

As Father’s Day is this weekend… 

Fishing off the jetty at Cape Lookout on a foggy day

It’s not true that I’m crazy about fishing. I enjoy it, but mostly I enjoy being outdoors and fishing is one way to fulfill such a desire. My father, however, is crazy about fishing. Most of what he taught me about life came through the lens of this sport.

We moved “Down East” when I was nine years old. “Down East” in North Carolina means on or near the coast. My parents had always wanted to live near the ocean and when my father got an opportunity to transfer to the area, he took it. Dad quickly learned the art of fishing for flounder and taught my brother and me. We spent hours on the rising tide, fishing for flounder at Masonboro Inlet. Although such fishing may not be as graceful as using a fly rod, it requires at least as much skill.

My father, as a teen, fishing on the Linville River

 

Dad taught us to tie our own rigging, using an 18 inch piece of light wire with a triple hook on one end and a one ounce torpedo sinker on the other. The rigging was attached to the line of a lightweight spinning rod. A live minnow, which we generally caught with throw nets (another acquired skill), was hooked through the lips. Walking in knee deep water armed with a light spinning rod we’d cast the line out into the depths, searching for holes where a flounder might be hidden. The line was slowly retrieved, the weight keeping the minnow near the bottom where flounders lay. You carefully felt for tell-tell bumps on your line, indicating a flounder taking the bait. When that happened, you’d loosen the drag and give the flounder about a minute to take the minnow into its mouth, before yanking the line in order to set the hook. If you prematurely yanked the line, you’d pull the minnow out of the mouth of the flounder. From such fishing, we learned patience. Hurrying only caused you to miss fish.

Fishing off the jetty at Wrightsville Beach ~2010

Shortly after we moved to the area, Dad brought a 14 foot johnboat with a six horsepower Evinrude outboard motor. For years, that was the only boat he had and it was perfect for navigating the creeks running behind Masonboro Island, a nine mile long barren strip of beach that stretched from Masonboro Inlet to Carolina Beach Inlet. He’d take us fishing on the beach for founder on the rising tide and for Bluefish during the fall run. The island became like a second home. Since the creeks only have water in them on high tide, a fishing trip that was more than an hour or two committed you for at least half a day. Often, we’d make a two day trip, camping overnight. In the fall, at low tide, we’d collected oysters and in the evening roast them over coals. At times, breakfast consisted of roasted bluefish.

At the helm while fishing offshore, 2010

On one of our overnight fishing expeditions, my dad hooked a huge fish on a heavy surf rod. For nearly an hour he fought the fish, as he’d get it almost up into the surf only to have it run back out into the ocean. Finally, he beached the largest Red Drum I’ve seen. The tide had already dropped and there was no way we could get the fish back to the mainline till the next morning. My dad knew the fish might be close to a record, but since he couldn’t get it to a weight station, and since our cooler wasn’t large enough to hold it, he gutted the fish, stuffed ice in its hollowed cavity, and buried it in the sand. The next morning, we dug the fish up and took it to be weighed. Even after being gutted and drying out a bit overnight, the fish still weighed 47 pounds, just a couple pounds shy of the season’s record. My father stoically accepted fate. If he had been able to get the fish to the marina the day before, he might have set the record. However, if it bothered him, he never let on to it. Another lesson taught by action, you don’t complain about things you have no control over. This, by the way, included mosquitoes and sand gnats and the weather. There was no need to complain about the obvious.

Paddling in the Okefenokee. A good son would have warned his dad instead of waiting to catch a photo of when he discovered the alligator

My father seldom spoke of the beauty of it all, but the times I spent on the beach with him instilled in me an awe of creation. I’ve seen more sunrises and moonrises on the ocean that I can count. I’ve watched many sunsets behind the marsh grass of the Myrtle Grove Sound. I taught myself early the names of the stars, especially the autumn sky, since fishing was best in the fall. There’s nothing more majestic than watching Orion’s belt rise above the ocean on a moonless night. Enjoying the outdoors was something he taught silently.

My dad and mom on Gun Luke in Michigan, 2008

 

Over the past fifteen years, I’ve seen another new side of Dad as he cared for his wife, my mom, as her mind and mobility slowly disappeared due to Alzheimer’s. Mom and Dad were sweethearts in high school and have been together ever since. He goes down to the nursing home where my mother lives to feed her breakfast every morning. While they have restricted most guests because of the COVID-19 pandemic, they still let my father come in and feed my mom even though she no longer acknowledges him or anyone. In these latter years, my father, through his commitment, is silently displaying grace and love and is an example for all who are around him.

A few years ago with my sister presenting my father a cake at his 80th (or was it his 08th?) birthday dinner at the Pirate’s Table in Wilmington, NC.

Ancient History, Poems, and a Baseball Story: Three Book Reviews

Steven Pressfield, Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermoplyae (New York: Bantan Books, 1998), 386 pages.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel that is based on ancient Greek historians’ writings, especially Herodotus.  The story is told through the eyes of Xeones, who was from the city of Akarnania. He alone had been found barely alive after the Persians wiped out the small Greek contingent conducting a delaying tactic against the much larger Persian army at Thermoplyae. Thermoplyae (the hot gates) is a narrow pass that received its name from the hot springs in the mountains. Xerxes, the Persian king had his surgeons work hard to save Xeones so he could learn more about Greece and the bravery of the 300 Spartan soldiers had shown at the pass. Xeones insist that he was just an aide to a Spartan officer, but would tell what he knew. He begins the story from his youth, when his city of birth was destroyed by another Greek city. He and his older cousin, Diomache, were able to escape (even though Diomache is raped several times by enemy soldiers), but as they made their way to the hills they learned how to survive in a cruel world.  Xerxes wants to go to Sparta with the hopes of becoming a warrior and defeating his enemies. Later, while they are living off the land with Bruxies, an old man from their city, Xeones is caught at a farm and his hand is nailed so that he no longer is able to hold a spear in the fashion of a Spartan warrior. He feels his life is over, but has a vision of Apollos who gives the vision of using the bow. His wounded hand can’t grasp a spear, but it can pull back the string and he becomes an excellent archer. Eventually, Bruxies dies and Xerxes and Diomache split up. Diomache heads to Athens and Xerxes to Sparta.

 

Once in Sparta, Xeones learns about the Sparta ways. While he will never be a part of the Sparta elite, he is chosen as partners to help young Sparta men in the rigorous training to become warriors. He becomes an aide to an officer, which places him at Thermoplyae. Pressfield does a wonderful job of providing a picture of Spartan society as Xeones tells his story to the Persians, as well as their preparations and the battles they fought as they kept the Persians from obtaining the pass for several days before failing after a group of Persians were led through the mountains and able to get behind the Greeks. The reader gains knowledge about Greek society, religion, and mythology roughly 500 years before the Common Era. However, the language of the warriors is often coarse and book describes a lot of violence (which was true of the time in which they lived).

 

Paul J. Willis, Rosing from the Dead: Poems  (Seattle, WA: WordFarm, 2009) 99 pages.

This is a wonderful collection of poems by a professor from Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. There are three sections of poetry, each about a “chapbook” length. In “Faith of our Fathers,” we learn the meaning of the author’s name, his interest in baseball and football, as well a beloved Sunday School teacher who “fell from grace.” In “Higher Learning,” the author writes about becoming more aware about life. There are poems about other professors, the library, language, the downhill road to bifocals (and a few pages later trifocals) and even a poem about smart classrooms.  The third section, “Signs and Wonders” is my favorite. Most of these poems are set in the outdoors, whether in a backyard or deep in the wilderness. Most of the poems are in the American West, but a few are set at other places around the country. Willis has a keen eye to spot something unique and then to write about it. At places, the outside world slips in such as the hearing of a freight train during the night. Many of the poems are set at places that I find special like Telescope Peak, which rises high above the western rim of Death Valley. Willis is the only poet I know who can tie together “ripening ticks in the fall” and Advent.

I first read this collection in 2012. I had come to know Paul through the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College in Grand Rapids. As a board member of Pierce Cedar Creek, an ecological center about 50 miles away, I encouraged Paul to do a reading. That day, before the reading, Paul and I hiked six or miles within the property. It was early spring, the skunk cabbage had pretty much played out. It was too early for there to be trilliums in bloom, but the May apples were appearing. That evening, Paul presented a poem he’d written that afternoon, after we’d take that hike, about what was happening in the bottom lands. It was good to revisit these poems.

 

Dave Moyer, Life and Life Only (New York: IUniverse, 2009), 188 pages.

I have mixed feelings about this book. It’s a wonderful story of Dan learning what’s important after several failures (as a pitcher after a career debilitating injury and a failed marriage). But I was disappointed in the writing, much of which felt I was just being old the facts and not being brought into the story. The book could have been greatly strengthened by more dialogue and narrative and less of a statement of what happened. At times, it felt like I was being told the details, but not shown the action. The author does tries to link world events that happened during the years of the book, which can be a very good way to show the passing of time, but it felt a little over the top and often as we were given lists of the things that happened in a given year. The book would have been strengthened if such events could have been woven into the story. The same is true of Bob Dillion songs. Dan is a Dillion fan. While some of the songs are worth listing, especially when they could be written into the narrative, a list of every song played in a concert was a little too much for me. However, like Dan, I agree that “Blind Willie McTell” is one of Dylan’s best. I also thought Moyer did a good job describing Savannah (of which I live just outside of), which is where Dan had played with a traveling ball team and a city he’d later travel to with his first wife. She was a Georgia Peace from Swainsboro (I’ve even been to Swainsboro).  While Dan seemed to make a mess of things with his first wife after his arm problems kept him from pitching in the majors, he does get things right with his daughter and with his second wife.

Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life

Nancy Koester,  Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 371 pages, B&W photos, notes.

Harriet Beecher Stowe is best known for her novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The novel’s popularity fueled the anti-slavery movement in the North and helped change the narrative of the American Civil War from an attempt to restore the Union to a crusade to rid the nation of slavery. The novel is often criticized for being overly sentimental. It has been ridiculed even in the African American community. The term, “Uncle Tom,” is used for members within the community who were unwilling to fight back against white supremacy. In the novel, Tom is a Christ-figure, who accepts his death after a severe whipping for not being willing to whip other slaves to force them to work harder. Malcom X called Martin Luther King an “Uncle Tom,” although that’s not surprising considering Malcom was not a Christian and would not understand the sacrificial position of Uncle Tom or Jesus Christ. Despite these criticisms, the book was a best seller in the 19th Century America and Great Britain. The book not only encouraged the American abolitionist movement, it’s popularity in the United Kingdom help keep Britain from coming into the war on the South’s side.

Stowe was more than just the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  She was the daughter of Lyman Beecher, a well-known Calvinistic preacher whose large family produced many major public figures during the middle of the 19th Century including Henry Ward Beecher, who is often considered the greatest preacher of the century. Henry was close to his sister Harriet, and together they worked against slavery. Lyman’s other children were also accomplished in their fields.

Harriet Beecher married Calvin Stowe, a widower without children. Calvin was also a theology professor at Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, where her father was President. It was a struggling school that was made even more challenging sitting across the river from Kentucky, a slave state. While in Cincinnati, Harriet began to publish articles in various papers. After the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, she would be the primary breadwinner of the family. Later, Calvin moved his family east to take a position in Maine and then to Andover Theological Seminary in Massachusetts. This had an added advantage of Harriet being closer to her publishers (she often would visit them in New York while staying with her brother Henry in Brooklyn).

With Harriet’s success, the Stowes made three long trips to Europe, building relationships with British abolitionists. Harriet, like many of her siblings, moved away from her father’s stricter Calvinistic views. She questioned eternal damnation and the idea of predestination. In her travels to Europe, she began to appreciate the Catholic Church and, after her husband’s retirement, became an Episcopalian. She also dabbled in spiritualism and seeking to connect to those who had died, especially after the death of her son. While this was more than just curiosity, she always maintained that a Medium could not offer the comfort of Jesus. She may have left behind much of her father’s theology (and she blamed Jonathan Edwards for what she was as problematic with New England Calvinism), she remained firm in her commitment to her Savior.

In the Civil War, her son would lead a company of freed blacks.  Racial reconciliation remained important to Harriet, but she also worked on other social reforms of the day. Although she saw her primary role as a wife to her husband, she was also supportive of the women’s right movement and knew many of the early founders.

Harriet had a strong sense of what was right and wrong. On her European travels, she had met Lady Bryon, the estranged wife of the poet Lord Byron. Harriet had been told of Lord Bryon’s affairs and even incidences of incest. After both of their deaths, Lord Bryon’s last mistress wrote a book about her life with Bryon and attacked his wife as cold and unloving. Harriet felt she needed to set the record straight and wrote an article (and later a book) pointing out the poet’s failures and comparing him to Satan, who used his charm for seduction instead of for God’s glory.  For this, Stowe was criticized, but it was something she knew how to handle after the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. While the book was popular in the North, she was despised and criticized in some corners in the North and across the South. Stowe’s critique of Lord Bryon provided inside into the control of a patriarchal society and while the book was published a few years before the “Me Too” movement, it appears Stowe would have been sympathetic.

Harriet and Calvin’s life had many tragedies. One was the loss of a son by drowning a few years before the Civil War. Another son, Fred, was wounded in the ear during the war was in constant pain afterwards. His parents purchased him a farm in Florida with the hope he could start a farm that gave work to freed blacks. Fred eventually left the farm and took to the sea, and never again saw his parents. Fred Florida adventure did introduce the Stowes to the state and they began to spend their winters there. She would write two books that help popularize the Florida to those in the north. A half century before Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ writings help bring an end to the practice, Harriet attacked the widespread killing of birds for the use of their feathers in women’s hats. Her training in the Westminster Catechism could also be seen in her satirical writings about hunters in Florida who think the “chief end of man is to shoot something.” She wasn’t opposed to hunting, just killing for sport. In a way, Stowe was an early environmentalist. The only son of the Stowe’s who took up their father and grandfather’s position in the pulpit was Charles. But this, too, became a concern when he flirted with Unitarianism.  However, he stayed within the Congregational Church. She was also bothered by the charge of adultery against her brother, Henry. He would be vindicated (even though he was probably guilty), but Harriet remained his defender.

This book provides insight into a complex woman along with her family who were major figures in 19th Century America. Koester’s writing is easy to read and comprehend. I recommend this book to anyone wanting to know more about Harriet Beecher Stowe and the era.

Walking Around Austin

Austin, from Zikler Park

The other day I was telling someone about going to Austin in early March. He told me of all the places he lived, that he liked Austin the best, that it was a blueberry in a bowl of tomato soup (that’s a political joke, you’ll have to figure it out).

Was it only two months ago that I was in Austin? This is a weird time we’re living. In early March, two days before I flew down for a seminar by the Foundation for Reformed Theology on the writings of John Leith, a Presbyterian theologian of the second half of the twentieth century, South by Southwest was cancelled. I didn’t realize just how large of a music event this was, which may have explained why there were so few rental cars available. But I flew down in flights that, once they called up standbys, were full. This was only two months ago.

The 7 11’s where I grew up never had signs like that! Was it formerly a bar or tavern? Photo taken on a walk around town.

My flight options into Austin from Savannah were not great. Since I had to be at Austin Theological Seminary on Monday at nine in the morning, I considered preaching on Sunday and then flying down. But by waiting until the afternoon, the earliest I could get to Austin was 10:30 PM, which would have put me exhausted. Instead, I decided to fly down early on Saturday. This would leave me a day and a half to explore the city, before engaging in discussions.  It was a good choice. On March 7th, I took an early flight to Atlanta and then on to Austin, arriving in the city at 11 AM. I’d decided to forgo renting a car, so I took a bus (that seemed to be waiting on me) into town. I got off just north of University of Texas’ campus and two blocks south of the seminary.  It was a few minutes after noon when I arrived.

The guy at the guest counter was accommodating for my early arrival. I dropped my bags in my room. While they normally don’t have food service during the weekend, this day there was a multi-cultural seminar going on and some of the faculty, who were talking behind me as I asked the person at the desk where to go for lunch, invited me to join them. I had wonderful homemade tamales and other Mexican and Native American food. It was made even better as I got to talk over lunch with a number of the students at the seminar.

Near the LBJ museum

Then I headed out. As I have been reading Robert Caro’s multi-volume biography of the first President I can really remember, Lyndon Johnson, I head over to his library and museum on the east side of UT’s campus.  I was curious of the spin they’d put on this complex man. I thought the library looked like an oversized mausoleum.  As I came into the museum, a docent greeted me. I was told that it was a free day, which surprised me, but I didn’t complain.  We talked a few minutes and I had to tell him the first joke I can remember, which probably came from an old Boy’s Life magazine around 1965:

What do you get when you up your finger in the President’s ear?
Johnson’s wax.

I was sure he had heard it, but it turns out he had not and had me tell it to a few others working in the museum. While the museum was honest about some of LBJ’s struggles and failures, it avoided dealing with some of his childhood and education issues and the extramarital affairs he had. Caro tells of LBJ’s affair with the wife of one of his big financial supporters. Forget morality, that took nerve (and a lot of risk)!  One of the neat displays had a wax figure of Johnson telling jokes. LBJ was known for his jokes and stories (and getting into people’s faces).

Large prehistorical Texas bird

It was around 4:30 when I left the library. I headed over to the Texas Memorial museum. By the time I got there, I only had 20 minutes, but since I was told the day was free, I decided to see what I could. I also asked why things were free and learned that this day, at the beginning of the South-by-Southwest festival, is the traditional day for upcoming freshmen to visit the University of Texas. So, they made things free. The orientation day had been canceled, but they kept the museums free.  The Memorial Museum focuses on natural history and has a huge skeleton of a prehistoric bird that practically fills the main room on the first floor. Texas does like to show off how big things are there.

After my rush tour through the Natural History Museum, I walked over to Pho Thai Son, a Vietnamese restaurant I’d seen along Guadalupe Street, on the far side of the campus.  I enjoyed an evening meal of Pork and Lemon Grass on a salad base. I then walked back to my room at the Seminary and went to bed early.

I found this a little sad… there must be some lonely rivers somewhere.

I’d decided to attend church at Central Presbyterian, which was about a mile and a half walk from the seminary.  It was the day we changed to daylight saving time, but since I was an hour off from my usual time, I didn’t notice losing the hour. Since there was no meal service at the seminary on the weekends, I left early hoping that I could find something to eat along the way. Walking through the campus on the “Speedway,” I came upon a unique sculpture. I often wondered what happened to all those old aluminum canoes from the 70s. Now I know, they are welded into a canoe tree that stands to the side of the speedway (which is really a walkway). Getting to church early, without passing anyplace to eat, I find Bidemans Deli, a block to the west.  I had breakfast and read till a few minutes before church was to begin at 10 AM. At church, they started with an announcement about the closing of South-by-Southwest. This church was a site for many of the musical venues, but without the event, they were out of a lot of money. I was impressed that the church included all types of people. There were homeless (which they feed afterwards) and those in suits. I was casually dressed as I planned to make the most of my day.  Most of the congregation was on the younger side, but I learned that many of their regulars who were older were not there out of the fear of the virus. There was a guest preacher this day. He was articulate, and I enjoyed listening to him even if he spent a little too much time talking about himself and his family.

Reflection of the Catholic Cathedral

After church was over, I backtracked and attended the sermon part of the mass at the Catholic Cathedral.  There, the priest must have been Vietnamese or from somewhere in Southeast Asia. His homily was packed with information, but he read the sermon and never made eye contact. I found myself wondering if he had even written the sermon, or if he was just reading someone else’s. However, unlike the Presbyterian Church where people were already staying away due to virus fears, the Catholic Church was packed. I listened to the homily and then left, heading to the capitol as my first stop as a tourist.

The Texas capitol looks a lot like the United States capitol, only dirty. It is also a few feet taller, something Texans are proud of and I have no idea how many people bragged about this to me. Not wanting to start a war, I did not tell them I thought their capitol looked dirty. I wanted to make it safely out of the state. The “dirty look” comes from the reddish colored marble. Originally, they were going to use limestone, but found that Texas limestone discolors. The contractor suggested importing white marble from Indiana, but that flew over about as well as a block of marble. Instead, they found a Texas quarry that could mine this reddish-brown marble and used it. Texas tried to build its capitol on the cheap (using convict labor). The miners in the quarry decided to strike instead of teaching the convicts how to do their job, which meant that the marble cost more than planned. But they saved on all other aspects of the building.

One of many water features in the Botanical Gardens

After touring the inside of the capitol, I walked around looking at the monuments dotting the grounds, then headed South. I had wanted to go see Ladybird Johnson’s wildflowers, but learned that was two miles beyond bus service. So instead, I headed to Zikler Botanical Garden. Walking south, I crossed the Colorado River on the Congress Avenue Bridge, known for its large colony of bats during the summer (they are not normally seen until April). Then I headed up Barton Springs Road, stopping for an ice cream cone to tide me over till dinner time. Along the way, I passed Terry Black’s Barbecue. They had five huge cookers going, using split hardwood. I talked with one of the pit workers and knew where I was going to go for dinner.  I head on to the Botanical Gardens, which sit up on a hill overlooking Austin. I enjoy the view and the scenery, especially the Japanese garden. There were many lovely water features that started at the top of the hill and created cascading creeks flowing down the sides.

After a few hours of walking through the gardens and some time to write and read, I began my walk back along the river, watching several rowing crews practice on the water. Then I cut back over to Barton Springs Road, where I’m shocked at the line at Terry Black’s. I was told it was a 45-minute wait. If folks are waiting that long it must be good, I thought, and joined the line. It was.  I had some of their pork and a brisket, both which were good. The banana pudding was passable.

The sun was setting by the time I was fed. I continued back toward the campus several miles away, crossing the river on the Lamar Street bridge.  I walked fast through a mostly empty city, arriving back at the campus around 8:30 PM. Several of those in the seminar had arrived and we talked a bit. They had not eaten and decide to go out for dinner while I read a bit before turning in early.  It had been a good day and I figured I’d walked at least 15 miles.

Chapel at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary (The trees were just beginning to bud out)

The rest of the week rushed by. We meet for three hours each morning and another three hours in the afternoon, followed by dinner. The first night was at La Mancha, a Tex-Mex establishment. On Tuesday night, we had barbecue at “The County Line,” which had a wonderful view of a stream that look so inviting for fishing. Wednesday, we ate “Hoovers,” a well known Southern cuisine establishment that’s been featured on “Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives.” All were excellent restaurants. While we were involved in talking and making presentations, we kept an eye on the stock market and on the news of the country shutting down due to COVID-19. The market was taking some huge drops, would regain a bit, then drop again. There was a weird feeling in the air. In the seminary’s lunchroom, they were wiping the tables and putting up safety signs.

On Wednesday evening, I worked on a letter to go out to the congregation. With staff, we sent drafts back and forth, ironing out safety procedures for worshipping during a pandemic. After several revisions and phone calls, they sent the letter (which I posted here) out on Thursday in an email blast.

“The Bible”

Our last day was Thursday. John, another participant, and I had half a day, so we skipped the airport shuttle and walked over to the Harry Reason Center at UT’s campus. This building holds collections of interesting historical artifacts and papers. We both took pictures standing behind an original Gutenberg Bible. They had an exhibit of David Forster Wallace and Gabriel García Márquez, both of whom the Center holds many of their papers. Both exhibits were interesting. We then headed back to the seminary, picked up our bags and took the bus to the airport. It was March 12, and a completely different attitude could be felt. The place was not very crowded. We flew through security and after a final dinner, we were on our way home in half-filled airplanes. The world had changed.

I was always a little nervous walking around this tower on UT’s campus

When I went into the office on Friday, exhausted from the travels, things were seriously shutting down. While we decided not to shut-down worship on Sunday, we sent another email out to the congregation, encouraging them to stay home and to watch our service via live-stream. All but one other of the churches on the island had closed. We only had around 35 in worship on March 15. It was the last week of any kind of regular service. Ever since, a skeleton crew of 6 or 7 have put together a live-streamed worship service. Our draft pandemic procedures were quickly made obsolete.

It now seems as if it was two years ago that I was walking around Austin.