All Creatures Here Below

Original Photo by Adam Whipple

The road to the lake is so twisted that one stretch is named “The Dragon’s Tail.” Our truck, bristling with canoes and kayaks, yaws through the tight curves like a ship coming about, far too sluggish for the thrill-seekers swarming thick to challenge the dragon. Motorcycles and hot rods stack up behind us like a trail of creeping ants, and when we turn off the highway they gun their engines, freed. The boat launch is quiet though, the dusty pebbled road lazing with its concrete toes in the water. We load canoes as close as we dare to the sinking point, the grind of the final push giving way to sudden silent weightlessness as they slip into the water, gunwales low to the murky green.

On the water we’re sluggish again, but there’s no wind today to shove our burdened convoy backward. There are also no jellyfish beneath us, as there were in the early years of these trips–quarter-sized wisps pulsing through the dim, impossible as faeries. It’s silent here, but for the murmur of water, the subdued splashes of our paddling, and our jests tossed from boat to boat. An excess of sky seems to have pooled between the mountain ridges, rippling with wet laughter, so there are clouds above and below us. We taunt each other across a mile or so, and with shoulders burning, we make landfall. The Island.

Our advance scout rolls lazily out of the silken cocoon of his hammock to greet us as we clamber up the shifting rocks. Joe made the journey alone, by moonlight, to claim this ground before any rivals. He accepts our praise with a bleary smile. Without his midnight quest we might have been forced to camp somewhere other than this, the magic spot. We heave gear up the steeps, amid head-sized stones that turn over to gnaw our ankles. Thirty feet from the water a fringe of gnarled pine roots reaches out into empty air, marking the border from bare rubble to stubborn forest. We sling our hammocks between leaning grey pillars on the edges of the island’s narrow wooded crown, leaving open a dirt patch around the firepit. There are a few among us who can’t sleep with so much air between them and the earth , so they grub among the roots and rocks and sloping ground for the least bad place to lie down tonight, and wedge tiny tents into what gaps the island has left them. All the activity startles gray-brown lizards who dart into stony crevices or up tree trunks, where they turn invisible on the bark.

There are coals glowing dull amid the pale ash from our morning fire. Dug in, we fall to feeding these into crackling life. By tradition there must be meat cooking as often as possible, and we need to start making inroads on the absurd amount of beef and pork in our coolers, or we’ll have to haul it out when we leave. While marinated steak sizzles on a black iron griddle, contributions to the island library begin lining up on the long plank spanning two flattish boulders, with smaller rocks pressed into service as bookends. Lewis and Chesterton have made the trip with us, along with Dostoevsky. Golding has not been forgotten. Every genre is accounted for on the dusty plank, where leather-bound, gilt-edged tomes snug up to creased paperbacks with only remnants of coversan ephemeral Alexandria in the wilds.

Others arrive in twos and threes, until our chatter spreads out and goes spilling off down the rocks. A swimming creature is sighted. No, it isn’t a beaver, it’s Dave, come without a boat and swimming all the way in. He arrives with eyes red and swollen from the cold water, and we older ones reminisce about having the energy of youth. From there the conversation turns to the year an armada of wild boar swam from the nearer southern shore and landed on the island; and the tale is told once again, with much gesticulation.

We fill our bellies with steaming pork in memory of the boar as evening draws in. Small and innocent looking flies snatch mouthfuls from the backs of our ankles, leaving a welling drop of blood each time. A breeze carries them off and palavering goes on without further predation. Pipes and cheroots are lighted and fragrant smoke wafts amid conversations of fatherhood, books, authors, church planting, the correct pronunciation of Pinus strobus, third-party candidates, the kid who was seized by the head and pulled from his hammock during a bear attack half a mile from here, impending marriages, and how long you think you could live alone on an island, far away from mankind. We gather gingerly on the sharp rocks as the sun sinks between framing mountains across from us, setting the lake aflame. As the last gleam flares a harmonica appears in old Maynard’s hand to sound out the Doxology, and we join our voices to the familiar strain and the unheard song of the emerging stars.

“Praise God from whom all blessings flow,” we sing, especially those of community and camping, among nature’s wild imagination.

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Charging the Congregation

I sat in the passenger seat of my friends’ car as Indiana beamed under a rare mild July day outside. Cornfields sped by and washed into an impressionist blur. Stephen was driving, and Rachel sat behind me. The Greatest Showman played in the background for the kids.

“When you’re careless with other people, you bring ruin upon yourself,” said an actress.

The adult dialogue up front felt similar. We talked about divorce among our friends. In my short marriage thus far—thirteen years—being close to divorced young people has been not only an emerging theme, but a cup of great frustration. I wrote a song about the relative pain of it years ago; it’s emotionally nauseating merely to hover near the situation. Looking in, I can’t imagine the soul-wounds sustained on the inside of the upheaval. Once you’re so close to a person—intimately, emotionally, dependently—there’s no way to completely extricate that person from your heart. Divorced people know this, and the rest of us can guess. My most pressing complaint during our Indiana drive was different, however, because I remember my cousin’s wedding.

My uncle was officiating, and he took the opportunity to lay out the reason for an old tradition.

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The WordPlayers Present: Jane Eyre

Charlotte Brontë’s masterwork Jane Eyre is something most of us read in grade school. We remember the gilded Victorian prose laid over absolute reams of paper. We remember, perhaps, vaguely liking parts of it—the curious figure flitting about Thornfield Hall, the fire, the mystique of the rolling moors—but having rather a difficult time with the pacing and the oppressive atmosphere. I may have to revisit the novel, though. Firstly, of course, I’m older. Secondly, I spent a delightful afternoon viewing the WordPlayers’ rendition of Paul Gordon’s and John Caird’s musical stage adaptation, playing this coming weekend at the Bijou Theatre in downtown Knoxville.

The cast gives life to the characters in such a way that I wish they had been there for me in high school Senior English. After leading last year’s Little Women to great effect, Casey Maxwell returns now to play the steadfast, stoic Brontë heroine with evocative depth. Coke Morgan’s Mr. Rochester is the perfect cynic, giving you just enough reason to dislike him even while drawing on your sympathies.

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When Your Words Disappear

“Vulnerable” by Kate Hinson

I write. Or I should say, I used to write, and I loved figuring out what I thought and felt through the process of typing out words. Then life got messy. The words got stuck behind the blinking cursor and the tears.

In the middle of the messiness, a friend recommended Wayne Brezinka’s Brezinka for Beginners Mixed Media Workshop. Wayne lives in Nashville, Tennessee. Back then, I lived 7 hours away in Lake Wylie, South Carolina. But I drove to the weekend painting class, not quite sure what to expect.

I was nervous and felt like I was going to fail the test. There were no tests, but I still felt that way due to the perfectionist in me.

Wayne Brezinka is a gentle, brilliant man who varies his classes, from technique exercises to collage history to talks on fear. Wayne creates collages made of cardboard, fabric, vintage newspapers, and various found objects that often have tie-ins to his subject matter. His subjects range from birds to landscapes to famous individuals to trucks to … you get the picture. He can do anything.

But I got stuck on the first exercise.

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Burwell Gardens

 

On the west corner of Burwell Avenue and McMillan Street in Knoxville, Tennessee, sat a vacant lot. To the north, Sharp’s Ridge rose in a sudden spine of hardwoods and undergrowth, brokering the notions of neighborhood loyalty between Oakwood-Lincoln Park and Inskip. A block away, running southeast, Central Avenue hummed with a calico array of colorful shops and businesses where North Knoxville’s varied yet distinct cadre of denizens spent it days. Yet for all this, the one lot stayed vacant. It once appeared to have been bushwhacked with some regularity, either by the city or by neighbors who had tired of the mosquitoes, but nobody bought it until the city acquired it and put it up for auction.

It was then that Colton and Tiffany Kirby, Benjamin and Molly Conaway, and John Human bought it and started Burwell Gardens. The idea was to kill two birds with one stone—pardoning the expression—and address both the issue of vacant lots (historically a potential attraction for crime, drug use, or a massive kudzu incursion) and the problem of fresh food shortages in the area. As of now, Burwell Gardens is officially part of the non-profit Cultivate Wholeness and is in the midst of raising funds for things like water lines and gardening materials.

Colton was kind enough to sit down and tell us a bit about the nature of what the Burwell folks are doing, the larger implications of community-oriented urban gardening, and the needs of the neighborhood.

FH: What’s the process your team underwent to get the land and work with the City of Knoxville?

Colton Kirby: We bought the property on auction, it was surplus real estate owned by the city. Acquiring it was pretty straightforward. We got a later start with it than what we wanted since we were at the mercy of the city regarding the closing date. However, once we closed, it was fairly smooth sailing. Since it is privately owned property, we can basically do whatever we want on there and since there are several laws in place that encourage gardening and small-scale urban farming, we’ve not hit any major snags yet.

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Every Morning Coffee: a review of Every Moment Holy

The holiday season passed with a flurry of shredded wrapping paper, sugar comas, and age-old family traditions. A shiny new year with infinite possibilities and opportunities is spread before us like a banquet. A whole new year, when we can finally do all those things we promise ourselves we are going to do each and every new year, for which we never manage to find the time, of course.

I’m not one of those folks who puts together yearly resolutions I intend to follow through with. It’s simply not my nature. There are times that I do envy those who think that way, but those moments are rare. I enjoy the days as they come, knowing that each day is similar to the last. I have my morning ritual: start the kettle, grind the coffee, fill the French press, wait four minutes then call out “Plunger Boy!” My five-year-old son’s morning is thrown completely out of whack if he doesn’t push the plunger on the French press. Then I go to my office and read the news. All of us have similar rituals, even if they aren’t coffee related.

At the core of what it means to be human is an inherent desire to have order and intentionality in our lives. 

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