This is my last Sunday in Sewanee. I fell asleep to the deafening sound of cicadas, a thrumming from the upper branches of the trees that surround the house. In spite of stories of escaped convicts, I can’t help but keep the sliding doors open so I can hear the sound. The land is alive with the cacophony. Bring it on. The more there is, the merrier I am. It was the brilliance behind Rachel Carson’s book title. Two words. No rambling subtitle telling all. Just two words, three syllables, that spoke volumes: Silent Spring. Give me noise from the natural world. Remind me, unceasingly, that there is life. Keep the silence at bay.
I’ve just finished reading Arli Hochschild’s acclaimed Strangers in Their Own Land. It’s about her extended time spent with Tea Party supporters in the South. From her home in Berkeley, she sought out Louisiana, trying to scale what she calls the empathy wall — complex and high — that divides the reds and blues of this fractured nation. There is a family within its pages, the Arenos, that once lived off their land on the edge of the bayou, eating its abundant fish and frogs, raising cows and hogs and chickens. Then, illegal dumping of toxic waste not far upriver and that all came to end. Everything died. Everything. The cypress trees and menhaden and the herons that ate the menhaden and the livestock and most of the Arenos family members, who succumbed to cancers that had never run in their family before.
Silence. No frogs. No kids screaming and careening around the yard. Silence.
The bayou feels far from this high Cumberland Plateau I’m perched on, surrounded by the buzzing trees. And wildlife abounds. I’ve become quite fond of a deer who no longer is spooked by me when I come out onto the deck, which I do whenever the skies aren’t opened up and pouring down rain and thunder. (The mushrooms explode across the leaf litter of the forest.) There was a box turtle by my loaner bike and a bat sleeping beside the front doormat. I saw a millipede-like-creature hitching a ride on the back of a snail one evening, and I nursed a lame grasshopper back to health one night. And the fireflies – oh, the fireflies. I can’t quite remember when I last saw so many, compensating for the disappeared sun at the end of the day, lighting up the ground, the air, the leaves like flying souls with secret messages.
There’s been what I think, with the help of Jim Peters, a Sewanee philosophy professor/bird watcher I befriended, is an immature red-tailed hawk who’s always around, screeching. I thought it was lust, but the philosopher suggests a weening immature and that makes more sense. “Mom, feed me!” the bird screams from every treetop and the peak of my roof, but Mom knows it’s time, even though the young bird only has a fifty percent chance of making it through its first year.
Nature’s always been tough. Tough on the wild, tough on us humans too.
I’ve been seeing pileated woodpeckers again, and I tumble back to my Oregon days, when their Woody Woodpecker call echoed through Douglas firs instead of these deciduous forests. But I can close my eyes and it’s all the same, the sound so distinct.
And squirrels? Too many to mention, which is why I shall. I notice they are smaller and sleeker than the ones up north. They traverse the tree trunks at high velocity, chasing and being chased by other squirrels, leaping and always finding a branch to land on, and running again. Faith.
There was an armadillo — fat, perfect, dead — on University Avenue on a Saturday afternoon. Newcomers to the mountain, I’m told, over the last decade. It could be the warming expanding their range. It could be that cooks turn to the aisles of the Piggly Wiggly more than the free meat found roadside. And there was the perfect hourglass on the back of the black widow spider tucked into an ornamental hitching post on campus. I wasn’t sure if I was more delighted by seeing it or by the student who showed it to me, (what wonderful drive made him look into the blackened hole??), or by his own delight in being able to share his find.
I’ve been here because I’m teaching creative nonfiction for the Sewanee School of Letters. I’ve had the pleasure of sitting around a seminar table in Gailor 114 with eight wonderful graduate students from Alabama and Wyoming and New York and beyond and teasing apart stories I bring them and stories they bring all of us. I encouraged them to become incessant observers as we read Virginia Wolf’s “Street Haunting” and Annie Dillard’s “On Seeing.” We discussed what it is exactly that John McPhee does in “Travels to Georgia” (speaking of roadkill) and John Hersey in Hiroshima. We juxtaposed E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake” with James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son.” We talked about how memoir can become so much more through H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. We explored the many modes of storytelling through Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis and a short film about the existential crisis of a plastic bag (narrated by Werner Herzog) and the most brilliant #truestory Instagrams of Neil Shea, who taught this same Sewanee class the past few years.
And in my off-hours, I turned to Hochschild, returned to Annie Dillard’s Holy the Firm, discovered the words of fellow faculty members — Jamie Quatro’s fiction and essay writing and Nickole Brown’s poetry — reveling in the ability to cross-pollinate with writers from other genres. In the car, I’ve been listening to James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men on loan from the library and decided that the oral form is superior to the written if one can be in the place of the story. Scenes in front of a church, or on the Gudger’s front porch, or writing by lamplight, are all now imprinted in my mind with the greenery of the South passing by.
Summer’s half over and soon I’ll return to Cape Cod and there will be new things to listen to. There will be waves and crickets and voices of loved ones and there will be the unmistakable sound of one’s own front door, opening and closing behind me.