St John’s wort on Melton Lake Greenway

St. Johnswort

Bright yellow bushes of shrubby St. John’s wort greet visitors to the Melton Lake Grenway’s Boardwalk in Oak Ridge, Tennessee in summer. The bright yellow flowers are still distinctive against the dim evening light and the dark blue of Melton Hill Lake.

Melton Lake Greenway’s boardwalk isn’t for everyone. It’s right next to a coal fired steam plant, which might be enough of a turn off for many to not even consider what the trail has to offer.

But what it has to offer at this time of year is bright yellow St. John’s wort flowers, many birds and fishing, although none of the fellows I saw seemed to catch anything. As Yvonne put it, the area looks like a marsh on the edge of the ocean, even if all it borders on is a narrow lake.

St. Johnswort is a reminder of how lost I am at identifying and talking about plants without my dear old “kickass botanist” Dad. For more on our relationship read our book., but in short, he’s been around to identify every plant around us on every hike for most of my life since I was toddling around barely taller than the roots in the trails we walked.

After hearing recently from him the bushes that had so delighted Yvonne and I was St. Johnswort, I quickly did some research and saw, the US Department of Agriculture says it is an exotic plant that crowds out native species and poisons livestock. So, in an earlier version of this post, one that earned me three “likes” already I wrote:

“A non-Tennessee plant on an artificial lake, surrounded by power cables and towers. And yet I somehow still enjoy the landscape.”

All well and good, but wrong. As Dad pointed out and I should have figured out, there are multiple species of St. Johnswort and the one we were looking at, which grows as a bush, i.e. Shrubby St. Johnswort was native.

St. John's wort by dim light.
St. John’s wort by dim light.

At any rate, most people if they think about any variety of plant at all, think about it as an herbal tea that’s supposed to make people feel emotionally better, curing anxiety and depression. It often works for me, although Yvonne loathes its taste.

10 mile Creek Greenway mural

Crawdad, 10 Mile Creek Greenway, mural. No, I’m not calling it a crayfish. It’s not a fish. Crawdad is the scientifically accurate term.

So after crossing a tunnel, visitors to 10 Mile Creek Greenway in Knoxville are greeted by this mural.

Green heron on the 10 Mile Creek Greenway mural.

Pictures don’t really convey the mural by artist Curtis Glover accurately, as part of its charm is looking for the individual creatures, some of them obvious, others hiding in details. A sign gives all of their species.

What I applaud this mural for doing is getting people to see what lives in the 10 Mile Creek area. Runners, cyclists and people using 10 mile Creek Greenway to get from point A to point B have no time to dig through the creek and find crawdads, but the mural lets them see just how full of life 10 Mile Creek really is.

Midnight Hole and Mouse Creek Falls

Midnight Hole
Photo via Trip Advisor. I will post some of my own once I find them. I promise.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park can warn against jumping in pools, climbing on rocks and swimming in its water all it wants.

But it’s not going to work. People will do all of the above. Which they did at Midnight Hole on Labor Day last year when I visited.

I’m more on the careful side. I just swim. And so does my frequent hiking companion Yvonne Rogers. But for many, enjoying jumping from a bolder into briefly numbing mountain water is the perfect end to the summer. And I can’t and won’t stop them at Midnight Hole.

(As a side note Yvonne Rogers, my girlfriend who can really rock a two piece on trips like this always reacts with mock anger after being called just called “frequent hiking companion.” Which is why I run the phrase into the ground on this blog).

The water is a deep pool with trout, at its deepest near the rocks where thrill-seekers routinely jump. It’s also frigid beyond belief.

Smokies summer

Summer in the Smokies is like washing yourself in a pool full of shades of green. You don’t see far beyond the trees around you, although those are so tall that they make city trees look like grass blades, in spite of not even being the oldest growth and being silly short-by-comparison East Coast Trees, not redwoods. You’re in a room with walls that don’t end but rather just put up green leaves here and there so you only see in clearings.

There’s a voice inside me that says “Yes, it’s a forest. With trees. Enough already.” Such is the inner conflict of people who write about nature on a regular basis.

The exact look clearings with their summer flowers and butterflies such as the mourning cloak also are unique to summer. None of them will flutter about in the winter.

And just like that it will all be coming to an end. Leaves already began on my trip last year to look yellow.

I will miss the thick green. And I will miss feeling even at all like plunging in ice cold water even for a second once this summer ends too. I’m happy to be posting this when it is summer again.

Last year Labor Day came and went. And I joined many that day at midnight hole, by the side of an old logging road, trying to grab summer before it crumbled on us into dried leaves and artificial pumpkin flavoring gimmicks (which, go ahead and shoot me, I love both of). But we have to enjoy summer when it’s here and fall when that’s here and winter when that’s here.

Mouse Creek Falls

Mouse Creek Falls was our eventual destination. The road to it, was also traveled by people on horses, which we saw passing by and tried to avoid stepping in the manure.

There’s no sign marking Mouse Creek Falls. We missed it the first time passing it, and kept going until we saw a sign telling us just how staggeringly far we’d come past our point. I told Yvonne I’d chosen this spot and Ramsey Cascades precisely because it would be shorter when, in reality, we wound up going just as far. But neither of us were mad.

We headed back to a place we had thought was just a hitching post (see this page for more details on that kind of mistake However, it was worth seeing the site in the romantic light of evening. While not as large as many waterfalls in the Smokies and certainly not the roaring Bald River Falls in Cherokee National Forest, it has what Yvonne called a “fairy-tale” quality, seeming like the kind of place where she figured unicorns might likely live. I recommend it as a spot to visit with your lover, if your lover doesn’t mind stepping around horse crap.

‘A Funny Thing Happened’ to musicals

“It is only slightly overstating the case to say that all American pop culture since the 1950s from Rock n Roll to Stephen Sondheim’s highbrow deconstructions of their aesthetic has been a reaction to Rogers and Hammerstein,” –Stephen Holden,  The New York Times.

I write about what I want. Today, I’m writing about musicals, not travel or nature. So bite me.

I just recently finished seeing “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” in Oak Ridge. The cast and set designers did an excellent job. It brought back memories because I was in a production in college.

Me as the courtesan Vibrata. I do wish my dress showed off my fake breasts better, but still pretty great.

“Forum” might at first seem like a dead end. Vaudeville shtick, gloriously dated gender roles — show tune music that makes no bones about being show tunes, chorus girls. Oh and sex slavery played for laughs. In reality though, it was actually a sign of the direction musicals would take. Or rather the direction they wouldn’t take.

For everything that “Forum” is, there’s a pretty important thing it’s not. It’s not Rogers and Hammerstein.

The stage musical “The Sound of Music,” arguably Rogers and Hammerstein’s most famous, came out in 1961. “Forum” came out in 1962.

“Forum” in its stage incarnation interestingly enough has a scene in which a character tries to think happy thoughts to calm himself down … and fails.

Rogers and Hammerstein musicals have, for better or worse, shaped what people, especially older people, think musicals are supposed to be. People who say they hate musicals are probably thinking of that model. And indeed it’s a model that includes other shows like “Oliver!” “Annie” and “Fiddler on the Roof.” Sentimental, family friendly, and above all else: realistic.

Realistic is the wrong word here. Rogers and Hammerstein musicals do indeed have people singing when singing wouldn’t really fly in our world as a way to address themselves or others. They also make little to no attempt to represent cultures or historic periods accurately, just ask people from Austria or Thailand.* But no one breaks the forth wall, nothing is truly campy or over the top. You aren’t being reminded that you’re watching a play like in “Forum” where the lead actor starts out addressing the audience and explaining the exactly what kind of play you’re watching: one that isn’t serious. A comedy tonight.

In Forum, there’s no attempt to assume this is reality.

Looking on movie musicals with American origins over the past few decades, there are only a few that actually seem devoted to the Rogers and Hammerstein kind of sincerity. The others, “Mulan Rouge,” “The Producers,” “Mama Mia,” “Chicago,” “Rock of Ages,” “Into the Woods,” to a lesser extent “Sweeny Todd,” all exist with either a sense of camp, unreality, taking light things that are serious or avoiding serious things altogether. The only 100 percent sincere in the Rogers and Hammerstein sense musical released recently in movie theaters that I can recall was “Dreamgirls.” Which I doubt many people still care about. Please note: I’m not endorsing the above, I’m just saying that none of them are really following the old model, or if they ever do, they’re not following it closely.

Plenty of modern people’s exposure to old fashioned style musical numbers, outside of Disney is “Family Guy” of all places, which says something about how modern people view musicals: as something that belongs in a realm of unreality and insincerity.

The truth is, I’m not really an expert on the mainstream musical as it’s progressed. I’ve never seen “Hamilton” or “Wicked!” I’ve not even seen “Rent.” But what I can say is that the brief period of Post-Watergate, boomer musicals seemed like a deliberate attempt at skewering everything Rogers and Hammerstein stood for.

Take “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” the movie of which actually references Watergate. It’s silly, forth wall breaking and yet still with a lighthearted view of sex. In other words, it’s not dissimilar from “Forum.”

It was striking that I saw “Forum” after seeing “Urinetown” (from 2001) at the Clarence Brown. It struck me the two shows had more in common with each other than either did with “Oklahoma!”

And at the end of the day, that’s a good thing. Musicals are a place where songs can have unreliable narrators. They’re a place where reality can just end. They can be a place where any idea can become important just by being sung, something which can lend itself to silliness by its very nature.

The world will probably never see another Rogers and Hammerstein. At the very least their model is not the only one. And that’s a good thing.

*As a side note, while I’m definitely not much of a Rogers and Hammerstein fan, I don’t hold their shows’ inaccurate portrayals of foreign settings and real people against them or their collaborators. “The Sound of Music” is really about imagining the reasons affluent Americans might fall to a totalitarian regime: because they might find it sexy or just want to use what they view as history’s inevitable tides to their advantage. It has little to do with why Austria embraced Hitler. The King and I uses Thailand and its class relations to explore American slavery and by extension its current manifestation at that time, Jim Crowe.  It’s so thinly veiled it includes a ballet-within-a-show of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The exotic settings are there to hide that you’re doing a serious portrayal of something that either could happen or has happened and something rather dark at that. It’s a way of sneaking your message to an audience that might not otherwise listen.