Part 1, New Mexico and Oklahoma
(IN SEVEN PARTS )
By LARRY JOSEPH CALLOWAY
As we, Patricia and I, began our drive in a Murano loaded with camping gear on a southern route from Crestone to Washington D.C. we established an informal division of blog labor, a reversal of occupational roles. She would be the journalist. I would be the judge. She would tell stories and keep track of things. I would hand down opinions. Soon I wanted to trade jobs because while she could enjoy the ride and report on whatever came down the pike, I would have to think.
I did not want to think about politics — the CNN audio on Sirius radio was all about “government shutdown” and “default.” I did not want to think about, on the other hand, the sad lot of ordinary rural Americans suffering out of sight of the politicians. After some judicial deliberation I chose another category of human behavior to observe and judge: namely, religion. After all, we were driving through the American bible belt. Pat liked this and suggested that on Sundays we should stop and go to church, especially to mega-church if we found one.
So, here we go. Let me first of all define religion so that we will not be detained along the way with argument. (more…)
Part Two, Oklahoma and The Cherokee Nation
At a restaurant called EAT in neon letters three feet high I ordered chicken fried steak and gravy, which is the essence of the official Oklahoma State Meal, created by the legislature in 1988 to promote beef and other agricultural derivatives including corn bread and pecan pie. EAT was crowded, and many of the noon customers were voluminous. There is no famine in this land (Gen 26: 1).
Not at least the sort of famine that drove Abraham and then Jacob and his sons into Egypt, where God saved them. The biblical stories of manna from heaven and the miracle of the loaves and fishes require you to suspend disbelief. But what if the famine and the salvation were allegories? Abandoning their God and going down to Egypt, worshiping “the idols of Egypt,” the people were at last brought back, spiritually. Estrangement, being a stranger in a strange land, is the greatest suffering. That is why the prophets and some of the Psalms lament Babylon. Dwelling in exile, as Jeremiah and Ezekiel admonished, brings estrangement from God. Which is to say: Religion is cultural. Suppress it and a way of life declines and dies. It’s in the Book!
How then could Christians ignore these profound themes of the Pentateuch? How could they not know the evil of exiling a people? In Tahlequah, Oklahoma, in a set of dioramas at the Cherokee Heritage Center, we saw the tragedy of exile. In the 1830‘s the Cherokee people in the American southeast were dispossessed. Their remarkable acculturation — a high rate of literacy, adoption of constitutional government — did not save them from depredation by frontier Americans under protection of southern politicians. They, men-women-children, were rounded up by the hundreds and marched a thousand miles by U.S. soldiers. The tragedy is now called “The Trail of Tears.” Those who survived were settled here, in “Indian Country.” What remained of their traditions was suppressed. Their children were educated in places like the girl’s school that once stood on these grounds. (more…)
Part 3, The Ozarks and New Orleans
Because much of the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas is federal, all the campgrounds were closed, so we found ourselves checking-in at the Dogwood Motel in Mountainview (pop. c. 3000). The young man at the desk recommended a catfish restaurant and the Ozark Culture Center north of town.
Catfish needs no definition. Even anthropologists argue endlessly about culture, but at the proud little state park culture is about music and storytelling and broom making and copper annealing and dress making and wood carving and wool carding and weaving and cigar-box guitars and letter-press printing and quilting. You go from studio to studio where exhibitors show how things were done, as musicians in a pavilion outside sing old-timey songs. Bill Clinton visits here often, they say.
The printer caught my interest, the quilter, Pat’s. I was reminded how much work it took to hand-set type and justify it and make the impressions right. A printer apprenticeship was five years. The foot-treadle press must have been satisfying work because the printer, not the machinery, was in control of the speed and the paper feeding. The quilter showed Pat how to design and sew a “log cabin” patch, a square that has dark colors in one corner giving way to light colors in the opposite corner — like the cold side and the fire side of a log cabin.
Part 4, the Natchez Trace
Thich Nhat Hanh teaches walking meditation. Early one morning in Hanoi he took a long line of us walking — slow and mindful, step by step, breath by breath — against the rush-hour torrent of 125 cc motor scooters, as government agents, no doubt, watched. I am wondering how walking meditation would go over in the small towns of the American South, if I tried it.
The region is mostly Protestant and about one-third Southern Baptist. Our drive through Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee on backroads left the impression that another third of the people attend non-denominational churches distinguished from each other by catchy themes. We noted signs proclaiming: Church of Divine Intervention, Abundant Life Church, Life Changing Ministries, Free Will Baptist Church, The People’s Church and Baptist Ministry churches of New Zion, Old Jerusalem and New Hope of the Brethren.
I imagined many of these were solitary creations of men like Robert Duvall’s preacher in “The Apostle.” Take, for example, Jehovah Java in Lake Providence, LA. It is an excellent espresso coffee shop in a Starbuckless world, and it is part of a non-denominational church. It was created by a minister and his wife who love the Bean and the Lord. (more…)
Part 5, A North Carolina Holler
Appalachian “hollers” (hollows) are perfect little worlds, or used to be. They provided everything a large family needed: timber, firewood and game from the surrounding mountains, grazing on the descending slopes, farming in the fertile bottom lands, and even fish in the streams. And in almost every holler was a church and a cemetery next to it. The people were Baptists. They baptized in the water — total immersion. My grandfather and grandmother on my dad’s side were from the Appalachia’s of western North Carolina, near Mars Hill, which now is a picturesque little college town.
The college was started by the Southern Baptist Convention, but in recent years it has turned to other sources for funding. The region is diversifying. Many of the rural churches look abandoned. They are eclipsed by McMansions on the hills. In one of these land coves north of Asheville, half way between the Blue Ridge Mountains Parkway and the Appalachian Trail, we found Calloway Road.
I knocked on the door of a modular home, arousing a large dog inside. A pretty woman about the age of my daughters hushed the dog and came to the door holding a soft warm cookie with a bite gone. I told her my father’s people came from around there. She listened carefully. I smiled. Finally, she said, “I’m a Calloway. Would you like a pumpkin cookie?” She left and returned with two in a Ziplock bag. Pat and I ate them later. They were spicy with flecks of dark chocolate but not too sweet.
Amanda took us down the hill to meet her mother and father, Charles and Linda (same names as my parents), a greying couple who were at work in their farmyard. They were stacking boards for a communal barn raising set for that weekend. They had a pet mule, some goats, a few beef cattle, a young border collie and a garden. There were other acreages nearby, and Charles affirmed most of the neighbors were family. His grandfather, of the same generation as mine and perhaps from the same river drainage north of there, bought the cove about 100 years ago. He lived into his 90‘s and raised a self-reliant family.
Linda, Amanda, Charles
Part 6, the capitol grouds
In a time of militant religiosity, when “God Bless America” is the standard ending of most political speeches, it was encouraging to visit the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial, Washington’s newest. There is no “God” in the 14 quotations approved by his family to be cut in white stone. How do you explain a memorial to a powerful minister that does not mention God? Certainly he was not Godless, this man of peace, liberation and non-violence. Suddenly it occurred to me that the divine presence there on the edge of the Tidal Basin on the nation’s spacious capitol grounds is universal Humanity.
One quote of the Rev. Dr. King says:
“If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation. . . “
No, the absence of the word God there requires no apology. Rather, the quivering politicians should be asked to explain their use — and I mean use — of God. The slogan “God bless America” was invented during a time of war with God on our side. It is a declaration of patriotism, even an implicit directive to those who do not fear the Old Testament God. (more…)
First Posted June 2006
When I was a boy one of my father’s sisters gave him a tree, a sapling, and we planted it in the back yard in Denver. He said it was a black walnut from the mountains of western North Carolina, which are practically owned by the Scotch-Irish, his people. That gnarly stick of a tree survived from winter to Colorado winter, growing a few feet a year in the rich alluvial soil of our back yard.
Each summer I’d look for the black walnuts – a blossom, a green pod on a branch, a fallen clunker with a shell like a hand grenade – but the tree never bore. It needed pollination, I would learn. It needed to be back in Madison County, N.C., of which both my paternal grandparents were third- or fourth-generation natives. The little tree kept growing, and even after my father was gone it spoke to me of roots.
A family tree!
Better than the paper kind, I thought. You can’t taste a genealogy, can’t chop it up to put in ice cream or sprinkle on brownies. You can’t make fine oiled gun stocks or cabinets out of kinship charts. I didn’t care about doing the Alex Haley thing, which turned out to be fiction anyway. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go back to any backwoods Appalachian “holler.” I had grown up reading “Li’l Abner” and “Snuffy Smith” in the comics. I knew the stereotypes. TV brought “Ma and Pa Kettle,” “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Hee Haw,” Festus on “Gunsmoke,” and so forth. Hey, I could relate to these comedy characters, but I didn’t want to discover we were actually . . . related!
Then came “Deliverance” by the troubled Georgia poet James Dickey, whose inbred, demented, violent stereotypes cast a shadow on the southern mountains in general. The movie with Burt Reynolds and John Voight was a blockbuster, and “Dueling Banjos” from the sound track was a hit. It was filmed on the Chantanooga River, which runs along the Georgia-South Carolina border, but that was a little too close to home, the “home” I had never seen, and would not see until. . . (more…)
Essays north and south
(The January Crestone Eagle features my account of a journey into the heart of the new Inuit state of Nunavut in Canada. Here’s a link for non-Crestonians:
The following account of a journey to Tierra del Fuego a year earlier balances things out.)
Darwin And The Yamana People
By LARRY JOSEPH CALLOWAY
The fires of Tierra del Fuego are gone. The Yamana people, whose smoke signals announced Magellan in 1520, are gone. Their bark canoes carrying fire, gone. And nobody for now lives at Wulaia, which in a missionary’s dictionary of the Yamana language meant beautiful-sheltered cove (aia).
On a summer day in January we landed at Wulaia in rubber Zodiacs from the Mare Australis, a clean new expedition crucero of Chilean registry. For now, this is the only cruise through the restricted Murray Narrows south of the Beagle Channel, a passage from Ushuaia to Cape Horn.
View of our ship from Wulaia
On the pebbled beach, with the mother ship shining like an ice berg among the blue islands of the cove, we shed our orange life vests and took a guided walk. Except for the masonry hulk of an old naval station, Wulaia is graciously unimproved. Our guide said the cruise company has leased the site from the Chilean government and plans to restore the vandalized two-story building as a visitor’s center with dorm rooms for archeologists. They have dug in the strata of discarded mussel shells and concluded the place was inhabited for perhaps 10,000 years before the arrival of Europeans. (more…)
Mean Streets, Peaceful River
by Larry Calloway (c) 2012
In the new Bangkok air terminal a long sculpture on the way to international departures depicts a tug of war, demigods v. devils, in the clean bright primary colors of Theravada Buddhist temples. This moral chemistry, this dynamic equilibrium of unresolved issues that has gone on since the beginning is a fine Hindu creation myth.
In this story, “Churning the Ocean of Milk,” the Asuras and Devas pull back and forth on a rope hitched around a spindle. (The rope is a mythological snake, the spindle is a sacred mountain, and the winners will get immortality if they last, but we’ll never know.) From the disturbance of the Milky Way came a number of things, depending on the version. The version in my Western eyes as I departed – perhaps finally – was cosmic. It was creation via the slightest first tick of information in the ocean of Zen Emptiness, like Milton’s Satan crossing Chaos and leaving a track from which all organization evolved. The sculpture also is Thailand, where the nightclubs are as famous as the temples (and a whore would never touch a monk) and yellow shirts and red shirts hold staggered demonstrations and democracy alternates with military dictatorship and committees on national reconciliation don’t reconcile. Whatever, the reciprocating engine produces something wonderful like . . . life.
Thailand then, Laos now
- A king at rest
(C)text and photos by LARRY CALLOWAY
The first thing I noticed from the door of the Pan Am 707 at the old airport in Bangkok that day before the rainy season in May 1963 was Air America. A C47 or some other transport with that logo was parked in plain sight. We knew it was the CIA’s airline and we knew its headquarters probably was the American base at Udorn Thani up north (where somebody said all the prostitutes had gone). We knew there was a war beginning in Indochina. But all this was none of our business. We were young volunteers in President John F. Kennedy’s Peace Corps.
Forty-five years later stepping off an Asia Air jet I noticed the steel-channeled concrete at Udorn airport is still in good shape. Built for the heavy B52 bombers, I thought. “Work horses.” But Indochina was at peace now, except for border skirmishes, and I was finding my way to Laos, where we could not go back then.