Janisse Ray and Miss Crumrine

Nov. 16, 2014 Savannah Morning News column

It’s hard to know what Jean Crumrine would have said about the Conference on Growing Local and other things sustainable that the inimitable Janisse Ray and her husband Raven organized last weekend in Tattnall County. Who would want to do anything differently, I could imagine her saying. Crumrine, who died last month at age 97, was an early reader of Mother Earth News. She loved nature, loved gardening, loved trying new things. One of the last times I saw her at her bucolic property off Old Montgomery Road, where I would go to load up my truck with horse manure from the stables she kept on her property, she was off to buy groceries with one of her grandchildren. She needed some fresh yeast. She wanted to try to make a Challah, a traditional Jewish braided bread.

That was the trip the wavy key to my truck snapped off in the ignition as I went to start the fully loaded vehicle. While I waited for someone from Bradley Lock and Key to come and rescue me and my two dogs, who by this time had stepped on the lock of both doors (no power locks; I had the old analog locks that pop up and down), sequestering themselves inside the car, Miss Crumrine – that’s what I called her (and as often as I could, I just loved saying her name) – came out to see what the problem was. She lived near the stables, just behind Hess Elementary School. She was wearing faded blue Keds. A pair of glasses dangled from a shirt button. If she kept the glasses around her neck, she said, they got in the way as she weeded, even after someone built a waist-high vegetable bed for her so she wouldn’t have to bend over.

With Miss Crumrine for company, this wasn’t a bad place to be stranded. There was Charlotta, a corpulent and congenial billy goat that kept the horses company; Barney, a cat that Miss Crumrine swore could mesmerize a snake; a blind pony; 16 horses in the stables; five peahens; a couple head of chicken, and five mournful peacocks calling what sounded like “help, help, help.”

She got her first peacock when he wandered up from the woods, she told me. At one time she had 25. Once a county sheriff complained, saying, “Miss Crumrine, your peacocks are stopping traffic on Ferguson Avenue.”

The mournful peacock cry was not the only sound. There was a high and whistling wind. That’s when I first heard the word “soughing,” as in, “When you stand here,” Miss Crumrine said, “you can heard the soughing of the pine trees.”

“It’s poetic,” she said when I looked puzzled at the word. “It means the wind through the pine needles.”

Then there was the sound of guns from the nearby Forest City Gun Club and the clamor of trucks grinding in reverse from the wok on the nearby Truman Parkway. The Truman was starting to carve up her 20 acres of pasture, gardens and barns, an issue that the preacher brought up at last weekend’s memorial service, according to a friend who went to the service, where someone was playing a bagpipe.

Miss Crumrine could have sold the land for the Parkway, he said. She knew she was sitting on a goldmine. But she was content living simply and just enjoying her gardening and her property. She did not need to sell it just to have tons of money.

It’s that same ethos that permeated the Janisse Ray conference, where nearly 100 people crowded into the Tattnall County high school to hear more about ways they could be good stewards to the earth. Fish and chips, said Holley and Louise Divine from Turkey Hill Farm in Tallahassee, Fl., when talking about composting. Discarded fish parts and wood chips. That reminded me of the obituary that surely someone in Miss Crumrine’s family wrote for the Savannah Morning News.

“When asked where she wanted to be buried, she replied, ‘The fish and shrimp in the Vernon River fed me and my family for years. It’s only right I feed the fish once I’m gone.’”

There’s a good chance Miss Crumrine read the book the Florida farmer Holley recommended, too, “The Soil and Health,” by Sir Albert Howard, written in the 1940’s. It’s all about compost and cover crops, Holley said, something Miss Crumrine already knew something about.

Miss Crumrine told me she learned about nature by reading. But she liked novels, too. She’d wait for her father to pick her up in front of the library on Bull Street after she got out of the 38th Street School, now a SCAD classroom building.

She was a generous, straight-talking woman. She knew how to grow where she was planted. She and Janisse Ray understood Wendell Berry, who said, “What I stand for is what I stand on.”


Poet’s corner honors Flannery O’Connor

Savannah Morning News column

Nov. 9, 2014

It was a perfect storm, the Very Reverent Dean of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine intoned, trying to explain why the late Sunday afternoon induction service of Mary Flannery O’Connor into the American Poets Corner was starting so late. His voice reverberated in the 232-foot tall vaulted ceilings of one the largest churches in the world. If you didn’t hear him the first time you might the second as his words circled back around past the gigantic granite arches, drowning out certain words I wanted to hear.

Traffic in Manhattan was a mess. Over 50,000 people were running in the New York City marathon, past crowds of supporters ringing cowbells and cheering for people they didn’t know, through a wicked October wind and under a pale light illuminated by the glow of the golden ginkgo trees. But as I made my way through Central Park – how could I take a subway when so many people were running, for hours – it wasn’t hard to spot the Cathedral in Morningside Heights built on the highest piece of land that would be found. It takes up a city block. The walls must be warm because there are whole colonies of people sleeping uninterrupted and unbothered in cardboard box structures next to the building.

Adding to the confusion, the time had changed, falling back an hour, interrupting timepieces still operating on an analog system, like the clock at the IFC theater in Greenwich Village, which had not been changed, confusing the crowd of people who had showed up an hour early for a 10:15 morning showing of “Citizenfour,” the story of Edward Snowden. No choice, said a woman next to me, bundled against the cold. She was ducking into the nearby Catholic Church, St. Joseph’s to escape the cold. I chose the Waverly Restaurant, an old-fashioned, 24-hour diner that showed up in John Lithgow’s latest movie, “Love is Strange,” about two men in Manhattan who marry but are forced, for financial reasons, to live separately.

It didn’t help, the Cathedral’s Officiant continued, that it was All Saints’ Day, a joke that went over my head but that must have meant something to the 100 or so people crowded into the Great Choir area of the Cathedral because they chuckled.

It was an august crowd that included Flannery’s first cousin, Louise Florencourt, a lovely woman who went to Radcliffe and was one of the first women to graduate from Harvard Law School (“Flannery,” she told me, “will be forever young”), and Rosemary Magee, the director of Emory University’s Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library, the recent recipient of a trove of O’Connor’s letters and early manuscripts.

But once the Bishop arrived, fully robed, making his way with his staff, found his way to his special chair, the choir began and the induction service proceeded. As in Westminster Abbey in London, the man next to be explained, this church (can you call a Cathedral a church? I never found out) believes in celebrating the arts. This year, the 50th anniversary of her all-too-early death, it was Flannery O’Connor’s turn, although they kept calling her Mary Flannery O’Connor, not knowing this Savannah-born genius dropped the Mary as soon as she could because she thought “no one would want to read the works of a common Irish washerwoman.”

If they didn’t know the Mary part they did know a lot about the underlying themes of violence and grace in her writing, which spoke to her deep faith and reverence for the Catholic Church, no matter that she was being inducted into an Episcopal Church. Not that any of the speakers shied away from the way she “demythified” the south with her descriptions of people who were shallow, demented and/or absurd. As St. John’s poet in residence Marilyn Nelson said, “Flannery was our sister, teacher, mentor and guide. She couldn’t help herself from seeing us as we truly are.” And while her mother might has urged her to write something “happy,” Flannery preferred to focus on mystery and otherness.

Because this is New York, where creativity abounds, the program included a performance by the Compagnia de Columbari, an international collective aimed at generating theater in surprising places, such as St. John’s.

After several people spoke of her work vis a vis the French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and other more erudite matters, seven actors from the Compagnia de Columbari took the stage and gave a dramatic reading of “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” and while the purple head didn’t seem quite right, the performance rang loud and true of the challenge it means to be human and flawed.

“I can, with one eye squinted, take it all as a blessing,” O’Connor wrote.

Of that we can all agree.