Last August, as part of Sewanee’s Finding Your Place program, I took my students down the mountain to Sherwood to visit the quarry and the Epiphany Mission church. The community is a proud and lively one and the experience of the place is rich and deep. Everywhere you go in Sherwood, there is the chalky gray color of limestone coupled with a slight smell of sulphur.
Surrounding Epiphany Mission are the remains of a prayer garden, made of limestone blocks that the priests paid local boys a dime a day to make during the Depression. The impression one gets is of a grotto, the Holy Mother safely enveloped within, or of ruins the sort one might see in Greece or Rome.
The quarry from which all this limestone comes is across the highway, and we had the good fortune to be led on tour by owner (and former Franklin County mayor) Monty Adams. At one time 80 years ago, the old Gager Lime Manufacturing Company employed almost 500 people. The pride felt in the enterprise was expressed architecturally in the company’s plant, aptly described by the Tennessee Preservation Trust thus:
Unlike most late nineteenth century industrial sites, which typically exhibit little or no reference to contemporary architectural styles, the Gager Lime Manufacturing Company is unique–displaying elements of the Egyptian Revival and Gothic Revival styles. Crenellated parapet walls ornament several storage silos, making the complex appear castle-like. Other buildings feature stylized “papyriform” pilasters surrounding the window bays-another nod to ancient Egypt.
Today, only a handful of people work at the Sherwood Mining Company, but they still manage to move out hundreds of tons of limestone a month. Trucks rumble past the old Gager Mining ruins.
All of Sherwood puts me in mind of W.H. Auden’s great post-war poem, “In Praise of Limestone,” which begins,
If it form the one landscape that we, the inconstant ones,
Are consistently homesick for, this is chiefly
Because it dissolves in water. Mark these rounded slopes
With their surface fragrance of thyme and, beneath,
A secret system of caves and conduits; hear the springs
That spurt out everywhere with a chuckle,
Each filling a private pool for its fish and carving
Its own little ravine whose cliffs entertain
The butterfly and the lizard; examine this region
Of short distances and definite places.
Indeed, behind Epiphany Mission runs a stream fed by impressive nearby springs, where water tumbles over hollowed-out rocks and the whole is surrounded by large hickory trees.
The concluding lines of Auden’s poem are a rumination on the physicality of limestone, its capacity to be rendered artful as art and “solely for pleasure.”
Sins can be forgiven, if bodies rise from the dead,
These modifications of matter into
Innocent athletes and gesticulating fountains,
Made solely for pleasure, make a further point:
The blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from,
Having nothing to hide. Dear, I know nothing of
Either, but when I try to imagine a faultless love
Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.
These thoughts are in my mind as I enter the Epiphany Mission Church, built in 1964 like a phoenix on the ruins of an older sandstone church. Limestone and wood predominate, and Auden’s description of the stone as having an “older colder voice, the oceanic whisper” is palpable throughout.
We return to Sewanee later in the day, back to a world of sandstone buildings, rich in yellows and browns supplied by the iron deposits the stone contains. Travelling up the mountain, we pass through hundreds of millions of years of geological development. we leave behind the ancient sea-floor and its insistent, reassuring, inevitable gray.