Rev. John Farmer’s ‘Reflections’ column

by John Howard Farmer

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Down by the Shore

Forgive me, but I need to rush by winter, for it is my least favorite season. I’ll be OK eventually: it’s just that turkey day unfolds into Claus day and right upon its heals follow snow days. The closer I get to spring it slower arrives.

Years ago, while living in northwest Tennessee I would ache for things, things warm, things Tidewater. As snow melted and buds popped, my heart longed for the Northern Neck of Virginia. So, nothing to do but get closer to water: any kind of water, even mud puddles. Shallow brown rivers, which nipped at the levies even began to seem OK.

I guess I just like being out of doors. So, as seasonal climate changes painted the landscapes of my life I have wandered out to explore nature.

Both the Nile and the Tennessee Rivers flow north, dump into other bodies of water then journey to the sea. From the Nile over to the Suez Canal there are Coptic Christians. It is rumored that they have unique information relative to the first century Christian Church locked away in their sanctuaries and hid amongst their private libraries. They are quite closed-mouth about the issue.

Along the Tennessee rivers Christians adhere to a more experiential expression of faith. Water plays a big part in those shoreside congregations. Gospel music lubricates the exploding sermons and ejaculatory prayers. It takes a certain amount of stamina to worship in those houses of faith.

There was a day in the early 1800s when things really baffled the experts in northwest Tennessee. The mighty Mississippi changed course. It actually ran backwards for a spell. (Tell me God doesn’t have a sense of humor.) Sure enough God shook the earth and a quake depressed the land along the shore, east of the Mississippi. A hole opened up. In an area between Lake and Obion counties, near Tiptonville, God pulled the River backwards to fill Reelfoot Lake. Some 20 miles long, and about five miles wide, it is a shallow body of water, ranging from about two to nine feet in depth. The lake drew its name from a 19th century Indian chief who had a bad foot, Chief Kalopin as a Chickasaw warrior noted for his irregular gait.

The lake became a favorite place of mine. It was a grand place to meet God. All along its shore stood mighty cyprus trees with their knobby knees thrust aloft to sneak a bit of oxygen. The lake had so many roots and stumps barely submerged that an interesting type of watercraft evolved. The boats I first saw there (ahead of the fiberglass explosion) were affectionately called stump-jumpers. A bit of a wedge rested just ahead of the prop and encouraged the boat to bounce over things lying below the waterline. They had small gas inboard engines, started by pull ropes. They looked a good bit like canoes, though wider. Those waters are calm for the most part, so the sides of the boats were low cut. With a bit of practice one could dive off, swim about and jerk down on the sides and pop out of the water quick enough to keep from swamping the craft. Given my copious frame of late, I suspect I would sink one and all if I tried that now.

In 1925, Reelfoot was sequestered into the fish and game preserve. Along its shores restaurants, bait houses and boat rental spots live in the memories of many nature lovers. Water-hungry eyes of retirees—just like here—have grabbed much of the shoreline. However, vast parts of the region are open to the public.

I used any excuse that I could to be around Reelfoot. When I found out that there were nesting American bald eagles in the area I organized frequent safaris. We would drive slow through the bean and corn fields, cross over the shallow muddy regional rivers and eventually pop into a clearing where the state had built a pavilion. Fried catfish, hush puppies, chopped raw onions, wilted lettuce salads and meringue-covered pies fueled the tourists well enough.

After lunch and a bird-watching bus ride I would retreat to the pavilion to wander slow about the piers and terraces constructed along the shore. High railings with wide bench seats made pleasant spots to stop and listen. Those were easy meditation areas. Deep voiced toads sang. Jumping fish, ducks, geese and wiggly creations would part the waters. Late spring, early summer, that portion of the lake greened over with duckweed—little pearls which laced themselves tight across the water. It gave the illusion that you could step out on the water and free of the piers and walks float across the lake.

Jesus once stepped along the shore and invited some fisherman to increase their haul. One chap did step out on the water and flitted across the lake, until that is, he took his eyes off the master. My time along every shore is devoted to thanking our creator for the view.