October 2021 Vol. 1, No.2
Irony in the Potting Shed
Bucephalus insisted we travel the byways. Because highways numb the mind and rarely direct us to look closely, we made our way up the old Natchez Trace. Descendent of foot paths connecting the lower Mississippi to salt licks in middle Tennessee, it is now a sedate, bucolic parkway with plenty of turnouts and trails stretching some 148 leagues, a sort of stroll garden in extended form. Lest you wonder the length of a league, it is the distance one could walk in an hour… For Romans, the Spanish Conquistadors, and others of similar persuasion, that is 2.6 miles. The English, faster walkers and ever so much more ambitious, chose the distance a cannon ball could be fired. That is how territorial waters were considered three miles. With bigger guns, the avaricious might want that distance stretched to the moon. But back to the Trace, native Americans followed deer and bison. They traded obsidian and flint for maize, salt, and vermillion. Later, Thomas Jefferson renamed the Trace, the Columbian Highway, marking America as a land for travel and commerce. Kaintucks, those rowdy flat-boatmen, floated goods down the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers, joining the Mississippi, bound for New Orleans. The current was too strong to pole upstream, so they had to hoof it back home. The Trace was dangerous and long. Appropriately named the devil’s backbone, it was safe haven for brigands and n’er-do-wells awaiting opportunities to fatten their wallets at the peril of all. Itinerate preachers, Presbyterians headed north, Baptists and Methodists working their way south, fought for souls and a quick buck. Andrew Jackson went down the Trace, to meet the British. Johnny Horton immortalized the resourceful Andy who fought another round after his cannons melted down. He grabbed an alligator, “stuffed its head with cannon balls and
powdered its behind and when he set the powder off that gator lost his mind.” Victory preserved Andy’s slave-trading enterprise of auctions just west of Greenville, Mississippi. But, with the coming of steam engine, river traffic upstream became practical. The gritty hoards deserted the old Trace for easier pickings on the sternwheelers.
Bucephalus rolled north from Natchez through Mississippi, and into Tennessee. The now gentle scenic drive chocked full of rolling hills and meandering streams, fading vistas with blue horizons proving Claude Lorraine got his colors right, even though his easel was set up in Italy. Nuanced greens of spring’s freshness punctuated by yellow trout lilies and oxeye daisies dot along split-rail fences
Bucephalus is the name given to a small French car, a Deux Chevaux (two horses), designed by Andre Boulanger in 1937 and manufactured by the Citroen company in the millions. By the way, Bucephalus is also the name of Alexander the Great’s horse. They traveled together conquering continents, deserts, and mountains. The commonality of both Bucephaluses is that they provide companionship plus conveyance. Alexander’s Bucephalus was hard to tame, had a big head and powerful haunches. My Bucephalus is delicate, sips daintily of nectar of gasoline, and proceeds cautiously, seldom exceeding 40 on the speedometer dial. Whether kilometers or miles I have yet to discover, but with windows folded up and top rolled down it seems like 400. Lest you fear for our safety, I have been assured it is the safest car on the road. We drive so slowly we get to an accident 10 minutes after it happens. Bucephalus is the essence of minimalism possessing nothing unessential, no distributor, radiator, heater, radio, etc., etc. There is climate control. Doors may be unhinged for improved ventilation, and one is assured of plenty of heat in summer and cold in winter. The windshield wiper has variable speeds depending upon how quickly I turn the crank. If you want 4-wheel drive, a second engine can be mounted in the trunk.
bordering woodlands. At the remains of an old mill, Bucephalus rested, cooling his connecting rods, while I nibbled old pecorino and sipped chicory coffee from a gourd cup. Is it possible to look for beauty without leisure? Did our predecessors find time to look, to contemplate, to appreciate their surroundings? Is the search for the subtle, the quiet, the beautiful a universal attendant of our humanness? I argue that is so. When a harsh environment focuses attention on survival, moments are found to retreat to a quiet quarter for a brief hiatus from the ongoing demands for self-preservation. I sit by a small brook, run my hand over a moss-covered stone and watch a water boatman scoot across the stream’s smoothness, his spindly legs not breaking the water’s surface tension. For this moment, for me, this space and time create a delightful garden. I ask, “what is the purpose of the garden?” I am hard pressed to say. Gardens come in many faces, sizes, and functions. A common thread may be difficult to find, but from a multitude of places labeled “garden” a special location, if not just for sustenance for the body, is at least a respite for the soul.
My great grandfather traveled these ways before me. I have his diary and letters to his wife, Sabrina, recording the horrid face of war. He served under Ulysses Grant in the Western campaign and was witness to the slaughters at Donelson, Shiloh, and Corinth. Just west of the Trace lie remains of Fort Donelson, Shiloh Church, near Pittsburgh Landing, and over a hummock, Corinth, Mississippi. Let his words speak for themselves.
Headquarters Detachment, 17th Regiment of Illinois Volunteers, Grissom’s Bridge
Dear Sabrina….you are living in a land of plenty compared with the utter destitution of the country around us here. One of the wealthy planters living close by us told me yesterday that he had only about a half a bushel of cornmeal with no garden or anything growing, and with no money and no prospect of getting anything. Provisions are 5 times as high here as they are in Aledo…
22nd December 1861
The night is dark and stormy. Occasional snowflakes are flying with heavy winds which makes our canvas tent crash as if every thread was breaking. Hope it will stand until morning for it is much better than nothing.
31st December 1861
The stars are shining clear and bright and dazzling and twinkling in the revolutions as if the world was at peace and all there, but my mind was somewhat clouded, occasioned by the cannonading heard yesterday evening.
11 February 1862 Fort Donelson
The sun rose this morning and beautiful is the excellent climate but a wilderness country.
13 February 1862
Ordered to advance upon the enemy’s lines. We marched slowly up on their breast work under the very muzzles of their cannon and there met the most galling fires seldom ever witnessed. We held our position within 50 feet of the enemy for nearly an hour under bursting bombs, greathuzzaz, and musketry falling so thick that one could compare it to nothing but a terrific hailstorm. Our regiment there lost probably 100 men killed and wounded. It commenced rain at dark but now turned to snow.
23 February 1862
I am now seated upon a log up on the field of our late battle. Everything around me is quiet but too much remains to remind me of the late desperate struggle here, scarcely a tree or a sapling can be seen that is not totally torn and mangled with bullets while around me as far as I can see the grounds taken up with graves, yes here to use the language of Byron, rider and horse, friend and foe, all are in one red burial blanket. Here is the last resting place of some of my personal friends, brave men rest here. History shall record your noble deeds, while I hasten to another position of the field of conflict.
30 March 1862 Shilo Church, near Pittsburg Landing
Morning beautiful, took a good wash in the creek. This is Sunday, there will be no drill.
3 Apr 1862
Morning cool with some dew. The trees are getting quite green. Things look cheery for April. The volleys of small arms can still be heard in the distance. The evening is a beautiful one; the stars are twinkling in the heavens, the moon is setting clear and bright, and frogs are peeping in every direction with the joy of a spring evening and seem to mark our war-like demonstration.
6 April 1862
7:00 am Firing was heard to our left.
7 1/2 Firing is more increasing. We are attacked by the enemy full force.
8 am The engagement is growing. Our brigade is in the line of battle and marching.
9 am The roar of cannon and musketry is deafening. Our brigade is fighting with unequal fury though we are compelled to give way.
11 am The field is still raging desperately.
2 pm Fight still going on unabated. Our men have been driven back some distance.
3 pm The fight is slackening. We are gaining ground.
3.5. Heavy encounter is now going on.
4 pm We have now a line of battle complete and do not intend to retreat anymore. Our losses must be heavy. Sundown heavy with cannonading and musketry that is still going on, that has been an all day fight. The enemy are said to be in full retreat…111 bullet holes are in my tent. This shows something of the desperation of the fight.
9 April 1862
It rained all night. The roads are becoming almost impassable. Rebel generals Johnston and Bragg are killed. The killed on both sides will amount to 10,000 men, and wounded 20,000. The day here has been burying the dead and hauling in the wounded.
13 Apr 1862
The morning is clear and pleasant. The sun shines out for the first time since the battle one week ago. During that time, it has refused to shine upon so horrific a scene and would to God that I could shut the vision from my memory.
18 Apr 1862
The morning is cloudy but pleasant. I left camp this morning and strolled to the river and having a hook and line I got some bait and am now trying to fish. Seated under a high bank with my fish pole resting on a bush over the water. I am watching it with all the attention of a schoolboy. I expect to catch no fish, but it is all the same to me. While employed, I can enjoy the beauties of Tennessee with her flowery banks in quietude and forget that I am a soldier and liable in any
moment to be called from so peaceful a pursuit to participate in the carnage of a furious battle.
1 May 1862
The morning dawns pleasant and beautiful which the floral aspect of the forest in which we are camped makes everything appear lovely to the admirer of nature. What a pity that an army must destroy the beauties of everything here in a few days. Everything will be fell to the ground. Such is the horror of war.
It is impossible to stay longer. Bucephalus has cooled. I need to leave. Looking over an old map, I see a forgotten terrain. The print is small but yes does show Difficult Road crossing Defeated Creek on the way to Mud Lick, Kentucky. This seems an appropriately morose way to go. But just as I crank up Bucephalus, an old friend telephones, suggesting that peregrinations be interrupted for a visit to the banks of the Cumberland River, east of Gallatin. That offer of hospitality cannot be refused and prospects are good for fresh perch and collard greens.
Dustan Osborn, member of the Board of Trustees of the Hammond Museum and Japanese Stroll Garden, is a practicing medical oncologist in Washington state. After earning a PhD in Biophysics, he attended medical school, then completed an oncology fellowship at Harvard’s Dana Farber Cancer Center. His avocational interests include photography, old books, and the history of scholarship. He is on the prowl for hole-in-the-wall eateries and interesting places where the crowds don’t go.