A Natural Tribute to the Fallen

Fannin Monument ~ Goliad, Texas

Thanks to Hollywood and assorted writers of historical fiction, “Remember the Alamo” has become one of America’s best-known battle cries. But before the Alamo, there was James W. Fannin, a few hundred fighters for Texas independence, and the infamous Goliad Massacre: a pivotal event leading to the establishment of the Republic of Texas.

Events leading to the massacre of over four hundred men and Colonel Fannin were complicated; a brief explanation can be found here. After the executions, the bodies were burned and their remains left exposed until June 3, 1836, when Gen. Thomas J. Rusk gathered them and provided burial in a common grave.

The grave remained unmarked until about 1858, when a Goliad merchant, George von Dohlen, placed a pile of rocks on what was believed to be the site. Decades later, some Goliad Boy Scouts found charred bone fragments nearby and, in 1930, University of Texas anthropologist J. E. Pearce began an investigation. With its authenticity as the Fannin burial site verified by historians Clarence R. Wharton and Harbert Davenport, money was allocated in Texas’s centennial year — 1936 — for the construction of the monument shown above.

The monument’s sculptor, French-born Raoul Josset, moved to the United States in 1933. Many of his works in this country are dedicated to individuals who helped to shape the State of Texas: a bronze and granite tribute to Captain Amon King, hero of the Battle of Refugio; an eight-foot bronze of George Childress, author of the Texas Declaration of Independence; and a bronze angel guarding the crypt at Monument Hill, where remains of Texans killed in the Mier-Sommerville expedition are interred.

When I visited the Fannin Monument this spring, all was peaceful. The years-old explanatory sign, rusting but undamaged, still brought a smile. Nature herself is being allowed to decorate the gravesite, year after year.

Blooming among this year’s crop of bluebonnets, Indian paintbrush, and Engelmann’s daisies was an uncountable number of huisache daisies (Amblyolepsis setigera). A Texas endemic found primarily in the central part of the state, I’d last seen them during the Great Wildflower Explosion of 2019.

One of the flower’s most appealing characteristics is the range of colors it displays as it begins to fade. Clear yellow blooms become tinged with orange, and green ‘nerves’ in the ray flowers (akin to those seen in the four-nerve daisy, or Tetraneuris linearifolia) become more obvious.

Eventually, the colors darken even more, occasionally turning a deep, reddish-orange.

Even as they age, the flowers’ beauty endures: not unlike a grateful state’s memories of the men who lie beneath them.

Comments always are welcome.

A Taste of Tradition From Turkey, Texas

Through uncounted years, I spent the Thanksgiving holiday in the Texas hill country. Sometimes I served dinner at a little cabin in the woods; from time to time, I joined friends up on the ridge, or out at Cypress or Upper Turtle Creeks.

The menu was simple as the day itself. Conversation supplanted football, and late afternoon walks in the woods were common. Evenings meant music: homemade, often inelegant, but resonant with the sound of Texas traditions. There were guitars, and sometimes a fiddle or mandolin. Invariably, the music led to dancing and singing, and more than a few back porches became dancehalls for the night.

It was our tradition.

In a book titled Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton once wrote:

Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.
All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.

Today, Bob Wills and his Playboys are gone, as are many of the hill country musicians I knew and loved. But the music lives on, and in hidden corners of Texas, that music will be playing today. It’s possible that a two-step might break out in the yard, or that someone still sitting on the steps might begin singing along. 

After all, it’s our tradition.

 

Comments always are welcome.

A Celtic Michaelmas

Michaelmas daisies (Symphyotrichum spp.) at the Watson Rare Plant Preserve

A variety of purple and gold asters long have been associated with today’s Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, or Michaelmas.  The Aster amellus, or Italian starwort, is the flower originally dedicated to Archangel Michael, but a variety of fall asters now carry the saint’s name.

One of four ‘Quarter Days’ tied to solstice or equinox — Lady Day (March 25), Midsummer (June 24), Michaelmas (September 29), and Christmas (December 25) — the feast evolved as a complex mixture of sacred and secular practices. I wrote last year about English traditions surrounding the feast, but Celts, too, had their ways of marking the end of summer’s productivity  and the beginning of a new agricultural cycle.

The baking of ‘struan Micheil,’ a cake made with oats, rye, and barley grown during the previous year, was particularly important. Alexander Carmichael, in his book Celtic Invocations, notes several details of the complicated process. Struans were baked by the eldest daughter of the family, guided by her mother. A large struan was set aside for the family; smaller ones were given to individual family members, neighbors, or the poor.

On the morning of the feast, baskets of struans were taken to the church to be blessed. Later, at home after Mass, families would share the large struan, along with portions of lamb. As Carmichael describes it:

[The Father] places the board with the bread and the flesh on the centre of the table. Then the family, standing around and holding a bit of struan in the left hand and a piece of lamb in the right, raise the triumphal song of Michael… who guards and guides them.
The man and his wife then put struan into one beehive basket, and lamb into another, and go out to distribute them among the poor who have neither fruits nor flocks of their own.

Comments always are welcome.

Off Broadway

The Evergreen Cemetery on Broadway Street, Galveston

Few first-time visitors to Galveston realize the cemetery they pass on their way to the beach is a collection of seven cemeteries. Built over the span of nearly two centuries, four are city-owned, and three are private; known collectively as the Broadway Cemeteries, they’re rich in history, and a magnet for photographers and artists during the spring wildflower bloom.

Only some of the cemeteries allow flowers to flourish, but where they do, Coreopsis tinctoria runs rampant, mixing primarily with firewheel (Gaillardia pulchella) and lazy daisy (Aphanostephus skirrhobasis).

Given the cemeteries’ location, it can be hard to photograph the flowers without including the surrounding homes, tire shops, fast food restaurants, and skateboarding teenagers, but every year I enjoy giving it a try.

One of my favorite images from this spring made use of elevation differences between the sidewalks and the burial plots to allow framing the Coreopsis against the sky.

On a cloudy, gray day, the contrast between the flowers and some of the older graves pleased me.

Visible graves at some of the cemeteries represent only the most recent layer of burials. Stones occasionally were lost during three grade raisings, so plots were resold and new graves placed above the old. Occasionally, only the top of a gravestone is visible, while the rest of the structure remains buried.

Not a fire hydrant, but a finial belonging to a buried marker

Unfortunately, vandalism isn’t unknown. In November of last year, many historic stones were broken and otherwise damaged. The perpetrator was caught, and some markers have been repaired, but many history lovers still grieve the losses. Here, a stone knocked from its base leans against a tree.

In some cases, nature seems to be consoling the broken markers.

While my favorite angels weren’t significantly damaged, they now stand closer to one another.

Unwilling to close the cemeteries to the public, the city did install new fencing and lighting. There are rumors that concerned citizens occasionally patrol the property as unofficial guards.

 

A different and more pleasant kind of history abounds in the cemeteries. Here, the Willis family mausoleum in the Episcopal cemetery remains stately and attractive.  Peter James Willis, born in Maryland in 1815, moved to Texas and established a dry goods store at Washington-on-the-Brazos; eventually,  P. J. Willis and Brother became one of the largest mercantile establishments west of the Mississippi.

A daughter, Magnolia, married George Sealy, one of her father’s business associates, on May 12, 1875; Galveston’s John Sealy Hospital is perhaps the best-known reminder of the family’s influence.

Their luxurious home, Open Gates, became a center of Galveston business and social life. Magnolia engaged the New York architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White to build the mansion, thought to be the only building in the South designed by Stanford White, and the home’s elaborate carriage house was designed by preeminent Galveston architect Nicholas Clayton.

As you’d expect, the mausoleum is equally tasteful. The lock on the doors isn’t to keep members of the Willis family from leaving, but to prevent passers-by from spending the night there.

Galveston’s ethnic heritage is rich and complex. Italians, Germans, English, Swedish, and Dutch share space in the cemeteries. Here, a reminder of the Celtic tradition stands tall.

As for the pace of life in a cemetery, it might best be represented by the snails I discovered on several graves. I’d not noticed them in the past, but when I read that snails will climb rocks to obtain minerals needed for shell-building, their presence on stone markers made perfect sense.

Beyond that, it occured to me: even when life moves slowly, it’s still life.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Michaelmas and Its Daisies

Late purple aster (Symphyotrichum patens)

In England, Michaelmas, or the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, traditionally is celebrated on September 29. Long associated with the beginning of autumn and the shortening of days, it is one of four ‘Quarter Days’ tied to solstice or equinox: Lady Day (March 25), Midsummer (June 24), Michaelmas (September 29), and Christmas (December 25).

Although associated with religious festivals, Quarter Days also served a secular purpose; in the past, Quarter Days marked a time to hire servants, pay rents, or begin leases. Traditionally, Michaelmas also marked the end of harvest: the conclusion of summer’s productivity and the beginning of the new agricultural cycle.

As the turn toward winter began, various late-blooming asters became associated with the celebration of St. Michael. Just as the saint was considered a protector against darkness and evil, the so-called Michaelmas daisy was considered a token of resistance to the advancing gloom of autumn and winter.

The Michaelmas Daisies, among dede weeds,
Bloom for St Michael’s valorous deeds.
And seems the last of flowers that stood,
Till the feast of St. Simon and St. Jude.

Today, an assortment of asters have come to be considered Michaelmas daisies, and most belong the genus Symphyotrichum. Generally tall, clump-forming, and autumn-blooming, they can be abundant in North American marshes and fields.

Perennial salt marsh aster (Symphyotrichum tenuifolium)

Ancient traditions associated with the feast of St. Michael include feasting on a goose that had been fed on the stubble of the fields; baking breads or cakes with grain from the last harvest; and making dolls from the last of the corn shocks. Today, Michaelmas daisies still are exchanged or gathered to decorate tables, and verses such as this, from Malcolm Guite, are shared:

Michaelmas gales assail the waning year,
And Michael’s scale is true, his blade is bright.
He strips dead leaves; and leaves the living clear
To flourish in the touch and reach of light.

 

Comments always are welcome.