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“Meet Your Neighbor” Mary Priestly

Posted on Thursday, October 8, 2015 at 10:10 am

Mary Priestly moved to the mountain at 18. Like so many others, the mountain worked its magic on her, and she has made it her home.

“I grew up in Chattanooga,” says Mary. “When I was 18 my father decided to come to seminary, so we moved to Sewanee. I had visited Sewanee and Monteagle several times growing up, and was really thrilled to move here. Our moving van fell off the mountain — it signaled a break with the past!

Mary left the mountain to attend college, but soon returned.

NOW mary priestley“I transferred from the University of Florida to Sewanee my sophomore year, the first year girls were accepted. I majored in Forestry. Later, I got a master’s in biology at MTSU and a MFA in creative writing from Sewanee’s School of Letters.

Mary says she has always worked in education.

“I taught science – every grade K-college, but didn’t stay anywhere more than six or eight years. Right now, I’m curator of the herbarium at Sewanee, a very part-time occupation. Botany, plants, drawing plants, writing about them, and hiking are activities that are all related.

“I have written several things, all self-published. I am thankful that the Grundy County Historical Society sponsored the printing of ‘Dad’s Railroad,’ a book about the Mountain Goat that I wrote for the children of the mountain.

“This place has such rich history. Most recently, I wrote a series of essays titled ‘Fiery Gizzard, Voices from the Wilderness.’ Both are available at

“Right now I’m working on a botany book for all ages. The working title is ‘Ask the White Oak.’”

Where does Mary find inspiration?

“The land and the people who are attached to it is what the Fiery Gizzard book is about. Same with Dad’s Railroad.”

Mary is very involved with community.

“I’ve been active with Friends of South Cumberland for a long time. Protection of the park is really important, I think. It’s important for all of us that we have these beautiful undeveloped parks. Also, the parks are quite a draw, and I’m convinced that someday the local community will see economic benefit from having the biggest wilderness park in the state park system right here.”

Mary is married to Mac Priestly, retired from the Sewanee Math Department faculty. They have three children “all grown and flown, and one grandchild.”

As you can see through Mary’s work and community involvement, she is passionate about the mountain.

“This is a great place — and the longer I’m here the more wonderful things I discover. I guess I’ll have to go back to the inspiration for those books — my favorite thing is the land and the people connected to it. When I visited the mountain as a child, I never dreamed I’d get to spend my life here.”

Mary says she has too many hobbies!

“Besides writing, drawing, and hiking, I like playing the accordion. I’m in three musical groups, including my own Bazzania Girls Band.”

She says her knitting might surprise people.

“I knit like a wild woman. Nothing difficult — but I’ve got something going all the time. Want a scarf? Mittens? Fingerless gloves? I can whip them out in no time.”

And, what is she listening to right now?

“Hank Williams on Pandora!”