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Why is there a pelican statue in a landlocked Tennessee state park?
By Tom Adkinson

LEBANON, Tennessee – Dixon Lanier Merritt doesn’t rank up there with Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost, but one of his poems appears in plenty of anthologies, and you’ve probably heard it yourself.

It’s a limerick, that lowbrow art form that’s actually harder to write than you might think. Merritt’s enduring verse is about a pelican, and its story is told in a Tennessee state park that is 500 miles from the nearest pelican habitat. Oh, you know the one.

The Pelican

A wonderful bird is the pelican.
His bill will hold more than his belican.
He can take in his beak
Enough food for a week,
But I’ll be damned if I see how the helican.

pelican statue at Cedars of Lebanon State Park
The pelican statue at Cedars of Lebanon State Park almost appears to be smiling at Merritt’s limerick. Image by Tom Adkinson.

Merritt’s five famous lines were inspired when a reader of his column in The Tennessean newspaper sent him a postcard from a Florida beach showing one of the peculiar-looking birds. The year was 1910, a more reserved time, when the limerick’s final line might have caused a few raised eyebrows.

Pelicans can strike almost regal poses when they warm themselves in the Florida sunshine. Image by Tom Adkinson.

Despite a long and diverse career (newspaper editor, columnist, poet, educator, historian, writer of often humorous press releases for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and even Tennessee’s director of public safety), his name might have faded away were it not for his ode to the pelican. Don’t let anyone tell you that Ogden Nash, famous for other limericks, wrote Merritt’s.

dixon lanier merritt - the pelican
Dixon Lanier Merritt was much more humorous than this portrait from the early 1900s might indicate. Image by Tom Adkinson.

Another reason Merritt may have written his pelican poem is that he truly liked birds and was what we’d call today a serious birder. In fact, he and four Nashville friends established the Tennessee Ornithological Society in 1915 – and that brings us to why there is a statue of a pelican in Cedars of Lebanon State Park, located in the county were Merritt was born in 1879.

cedars of lebanon state park trail
Ten miles of woodland trails meander through the 1,138 acres of Cedars of Lebanon State Park. Image by Tom Adkinson.

The Lebanon Year Round Garden Club established a native plant garden in the park and named it for local celebrity Merritt. The garden’s crowning touch is a metal sculpture of a pelican, which almost seems to be smiling. The sculpture is the work of another local figure, Dan Goostree, and the Lebanon chapter of the ornithological society provided a plaque with the limerick that is affixed to a rock wall beneath the sculpture.

winter hike
Winter hikes on uncrowded trails are popular, especially in a pandemic year. Image by Tom Adkinson.

Open spaces and a 10-mile system of hiking trails make the 1,138-acre state park appealing all year, especially in a time of limited travel because of the coronavirus. Nine cabins that can sleep up to six people, plus three camping areas for tents and RVs, are park assets, and Nashville is only 30 miles away.

The park’s natural appeal is somewhat subdued but still very important. There are no big mountains, no cascading waterfalls and no panoramic overlooks. Instead the park encompasses an ecologically significant limestone glade habitat where 19 rare and endemic species of wildflowers are protected.

cedars of lebanon state park
Cedars of Lebanon State Park is 30 miles from Nashville and 500 miles from pelican habitat. Image by Tom Adkinson.

The land had been timbered over by the early 1900s, but a reforestation effort by the Depression-era Works Progress Administration put it back on the path to being a quiet place to enjoy nature and contemplate just how much food a pelican’s beak really can hold.

Trip Planning Resources: and

(Travel writer Tom Adkinson’s new book, 100 Things To Do in Nashville Before You Die, is available at

Published December 18, 2020

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