Saturday, January 31, 2009

It Is Done--The Hybrid Garden Memoir is Done

I told myself that I'd have it done, ready for the disseration committee, by 2/1/09. I worked 16 hours last weekend so that all I had to this morning was catch a few more small errors, add some thoughts that've been keeping me up at night, and batta bing batta boom. It's 240 pages with front matter and a 4 page bibliography. 75,506 words. 420,000 characters with spaces. 904 paragraphs. 5,334 lines.

I've written and researched around 75% of this book since June, though the idea for it came in the spring of 2004 in a nature writing course with John Janovy. In that class I had the beginnings--a 35 page essay--but I didn't have the drive. That drive came in May of 2006 when my grandmother passed away, and over the subsequent summer I lived the best time of my writerly life as I feverishly read about garden design and took hundreds of pages of notes. Well, best time of my writerly life until now.

I have never, ever, ever, worked so hard in my life. I am SERIOUS. I've never forced myself so hard in anything. On days when I felt sick, beyond exhausted, when I slept poorly, I made myself write. When I wanted to burn everything, wanted to bash it all to bits, I made myself write. When I wanted to be outside gardening, I made myself write.

On days when I should've been grading or lesson planning for classes, I wrote. This was a very important decision for me early last fall, and why my student course evaluations are some of my lowest since I first taught in 2000. I woke up one day and I said I couldn't fight this anymore--something had to give. I could not, not at this point in my life anyway, be both a devoted teacher and writer. It was pulling me apart. 9 years of grad school has broken me into too many little pieces, each of which everyone expects 100% from. So I put the book ahead of teaching. And I stand by this decision. I've been made whole again.

I love the book. I really do. Not just saying that in this 52 degree sunny euphoria. I've joined the ecological, environmental, philosophical, critical, lyrical, contemplative tradition of the writers I most admire. I think so, anyway.

I've never felt so much joy and so much pain at once while writing this book either. Writing is exhausting. I can't begin to tell you. I know plenty of folks think just sitting there sounds pretty relaxing, but I get less tired doing manual labor. Seriously. I put everything into it when I do something, ask my wife who says I "get on a mission." Writing this book has been far more intense than my first dissertation, a collection of poetry. That book came together easily, partly because 1/3 of the poems were written during my MFA years, partly because poetry is easier to write. It really is. And not just for length or the fact I've been writing it since I was 15.

Prose feels natural to me, too, but I think prose opens up a can of worms. In poetry, reflection is not really needed or wanted--it hurts the intensity of the image and the reader's full experience of the reading. Poetry is concise and focused, especially, and that precision is what makes it like a tightly coiled spring ready to burst with all that stored energy once the reader internalizes and experiences it. Poetry is like foreplay. (It may be the next thing too, actually....)

In prose, to a degree, the reader expects to be hand held a bit, and reflection is a greater part of that. The trick is to know when to stop rambling and let the description, research, and imagery do the work again and build the metaphor of experience--that's what poetry has taught me. Prose is spooning afterward.

So, see, I'm rambling even here, and getting a bit NC17. I believe in this book. I know a writer is supposed to, but think about all those years that "famous" writers spent writing books that no one likes, sometimes even the writer. This isn't one of those. And I hope I never write one of those. But this book is good. It is really really good. And now it waits for a talented editor to show me how much better it can still be.

For now, I bid you adieu, Morning Glory: A Story of Family and Culture in the Garden. As our cultures continues to clash with the natural world I hope, that in some small measure, you will begin to reconnect and heal that rift which has developed over time (unfortunately, ecological signs point to that rift needing to be healed overnight). I hope that as you settle back into me, as the dust of my research books and loose papers in the office nestle back in to files and on shelves, you will cool and harden like steel, you will extend your roots out into the new soil like a willow. See you in 2 months, my dear, dear friend. I can't wait to see what you will become in this moment of extended rest and rejuvenation. Perhaps, what I will become.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Why PBS Stinks

I love PBS, but their monarch butterfly show tonight was AWFUL. Here's why--and hang on, it gets bumpy:

1) The Incredible Journey of the Butterflies. The silly title suggests they seek an audience that is uber general--they don't even mention WHICH butterfly. Or, they seek 5 year old kids (not a bad thing in these ecologically troubled times) or old people who collect butterfly plates, flags, wind spinny dealies, belt buckles, spoons.... Maybe a more appropriate title would be Migration by Faith: Monarchs, or Migration in Peril: Monarch Butterflies. Perhaps they didn't want to scare anyone off with visions of doom and gloom. Perhaps that's a load of crap.

2) Let's talk about the ecological issues, shall we? The show gave us two glimpses of the monarch's threatened existence (by us--not even taking into account that perhaps the recent bad winter in MX that killed 80% of one roost could be attributed to global warming): an airplane crop dusting and killing a butterfly, and poor Mexicans trying to eek out a living by illegally logging the forests these insects depend on for winter protection. That's it? And only a few minutes? The whole show smacked of "ain't they just beautiful delicate little things miraculously flying 2,000 miles--hey, can you fly? Nope, didna' think so, chump."

3) So, what about MILKWEED? What about the fact people spray and pluck and otherwise DESTROY the very life source of monarchs. NOT ONE MENTION of milkweed in 55 minutes of pretty dainty little video. NOT ONE. If part of the dealio is that monarch habitats are threatened, let's also look to what we can do in North America--besides traveling to Mexico in late October and buying as many souvenirs for your older relatives as possible.

4) I needed some science--especially considering this was a Nova production. I needed more than "who knows how they navigate: sun, magnetic field, genetic je ne sais quoi." I needed something ethical and moral about pesticides and treating native species of plants as weeds. I REALLY needed something more than the final cop out of "though the species isn't endangered, this unique migration is--and isn't it whiz bang cool? It's part of our culture like the Mona Lisa and Mozart." I like the cultural appeal--I admit we need much more of this connection between culture and nature--but maybe we should play that up more, too, and not just in Mexico with villagers shooting off fireworks to celebrate the Day of the Dead (though thank God they at least did this). Let's show more Monarch Watch in Kansas. More school kids in America and Canada. More gardeners. More restored prairies. More poems and stories and songs that reference the monarch.

5) And I hate PBS for showing a monarch get caught and wrangled in a spider web and another drowning in a stream. (Perhaps I'd have liked this IF the appeal to save them was greater, thus making me want to go outside right now in this 0 degree agony and dig in some milkweed.)

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Why We Need Dandelions

Here's a short piece that I can't fit into my book no matter how hard I try. It's about weeds, plant rights, invasiveness, the origin of flowers, mass extinctions, and how detrimental we are to the world. The book is due a week from tomorrow. Amen.

At the front corner of our yard when I was growing up, where a sliver of lawn separated our driveway from the neighbors’, the mailbox stood covered in the full glory of a finicky, magenta-blooming clematis my mom finally got established. From a block away this mature vine was a beacon—the subtle and regal color, the thick petals, the puffy stamens. Someone who knew how to garden lived here. But in the grass popped up the misplaced bright head of a dandelion bent on ruining the majesty of the queen of vines. You could see it from inside the house, fifty feet away, like a pulsing strobe light. You could see it from down the street. At night. You could, invariably—according to my mother—see it from an overhead Northwest Boeing 727 making its final approach to Minneapolis-St. Paul International. It was like an overnight pimple on the rejuvenated skin of my mom’s late spring landscape.

Dandelions provide one of the first sources of nectar for bees and other pollinating insects in spring, and confirm the first glimmer of hope we had when, back in March, the temperature briefly hit sixty. With their proliferate seed heads, dandelions are a staple of the American landscape. Once, when English colonists came to the new world, they were also an imported food staple, a cultivated delicacy for garden salads. Still, as humans have spread over the last 100,000 years, reaching North America some 12,500 years ago, the development of agriculture has placed us above and out of the confines of our environments—leading to the inevitable disappearance of over 95% of the plants the pilgrims saw in the new world. According to biologist E.O. Wilson, the earth loses nearly 3,000 plant, animal, and insect species each year, or three every hour. This constitutes what many scientists call the sixth great mass extinction in the 3.5 billion year history of the earth.

As the continents drifted apart long ago, separate and distinct ecosystems began to emerge. One such place can be found in the Hengduan Mountains of southwest China, the most biodiverse temperate forest in the world. Over the course of one day, starting from the valleys to the high ridges, one can move through all four seasons as the climate changes. This strong box of genetic diversity was perfectly placed to survive the ice age’s glaciers that ravaged the fauna and flora of North America and Europe. As a result, many of the world’s most common ornamental garden plants originate here.

Toward the beginning of the cretaceous period dinosaurs were flourishing amid tropical and moist landscapes. Based on pollen spores found in ancient sediment the world over, the first flowers began to appear among these reptiles some 134 million years ago. A recent fossilized discovery by paleobotanists Sun Ge from China and David Dilcher from the United States, shows a flowering plant named archaefructus dating to around 125 million years ago in northern China. Though it lacks petals, and while alive had no scent, it is not primitive enough to be the definitive first flower—but it is the first visual record of such a plant in the world.

The end of the cretaceous period, 64 million years ago, marked the most famous extinction period the world has ever seen, that of the dinosaurs and an estimated 50%of the total species on earth. The largest extinction occurred 235 million years ago when over 90% of the species vanished. Niles Eldridge, paleontologist and a curator of the American Museum of Natural History, says scientists have discovered a recurring pattern in these extinction events that cycle at about every 64 million years; and though they are usually caused by forces such as tectonic shifts, volcanic eruptions, and meteor impacts, the current period is clearly caused by creatures living on the earth. As human agriculture, through the monoculture of its crops, brings an end to ecosystems that support vast species, as fences and poisons and suburbs create barriers to migration routes, as foreign invasive species are brought in accidentally or to beautify our foundation plantings, in our eyes native species become pests and die away.

Through farming, humans no longer fit in to the larger picture, are no longer bound or balanced by a place’s ability to physically sustain them. But eventually, at around ten to thirteen billion people, our agricultural effects may catch up with us and we will outgrow the planet’s capacity to nourish us, even with the advent of genetic engineering of crops and animals. With projections of human population to be at 8 billion by 2020, we simply dwarf the estimated ten to thirty million species of other life forms that we rely on to replenish and maintain our world. If we truly are in the midst of the sixth extinction, Eldridge says that the hope of our population cap will mean the level of lost species should not reach that of the largest extinction 235 million years ago.

Such statistics aren’t meant to terrify, or even to humble in the strictest sense, but they should make one more aware of the value—beyond nature for nature’s sake—of the biologic and human cultural diversity that needs to be preserved in order to balance ourselves with the world for the first time in our species’ history.

When I was growing up my dad had a gas edger. He fitted a makeshift metal tube to the exhaust of this edger and shoved it down into holes we found in the yard. For my mom, if she could, she’d use as violent a means to rid the world of dandelions—with a passion for Armageddon that I’ve only come to know recently, all dandelions must die. Their seed must be wiped from the earth. One spring I casually mention over the phone how happy I am to see dandelions, that their emergence means the forsythia and tulips are not far behind. “I HATE those damn dandelions,” she replies. “I wish I could pluck every last one of them so we’d be done with it.” It seems strange to me as I think about dandelions as a foreign species, brought here by us, thriving in spite of our chemicals. Don’t they now have a right to exist, much as the fictional Frankenstein did?

In Switzerland the government has requested that an ethics panel weigh the dignity of plants, or, to find out what plants’ rights actually are. Is pulling a dandelion morally wrong? According to journalist Katherine Kersten, “The Swiss have added a provision to their constitution requiring ‘account to be taken of the dignity of creation when handling animals, plants, and other organisms.’” The ethics panel was formed in an attempt to give such concerns practical examples and applications. One illustration is the following, where Kersten is citing Wesley Smith from the Weekly Standard:

"A farmer mows his field [apparently an acceptable action, perhaps because the hay is intended to feed the farmers’ herd—the report doesn’t say]. But then, while walking home, he casually ‘decapitates’ some wildflowers with his scythe. The panel decries this act as immoral, though its members can’t agree why. The report states, opaquely: ‘At this point it remains unclear whether this action is condemned because it expresses a particular moral stance of the farmer toward other organisms or because something bad is being done to the flowers themselves.’"

This panel does not consider that genetic engineering is unacceptable to the plant’s dignity, but it would be so if it caused plants to lose their independence as free, reproducing, wild organisms. I wonder how many “introduced” cultivars of plants in the gardening industry have lost their own dignity over the centuries? But still, is my mom insulting the fauna, feverishly yanking every dandelion flower and sharp-leaved stalk from the ground? The entire wildness? The creation itself? Or is she saving the native plants? If we genetically engineered a dandelion that acted more like a prim and proper front-of-the-perennial-border ground cover, what would change? Our dignity might increase at the expense of the plant’s—perhaps.

Walking along the back fence of my small lot, I noticed my neighbor—who lives on a mostly wild three acres—came along his back property line and yanked out large prairie thistles. Then, apparently, he laid them down parallel to my fence, almost as if they were sacrificial offerings. I don’t know if he thought I’d planted them, or what statement he might have been making. I do often seed just over the fence line—perhaps he saw me—simply because I’m amazed his wild backyard only grows invasive cedars, not one wildflower benefitting bird or bee anywhere. We need prairie thistles.

And we need dandelions. I need dandelions. They’re the first bright sign in spring that winter is finally over, yes, praise be, finally over. And I’ve come to appreciate them for this reason mainly, but also for their importance to, say, emerging queen bumblebees hungry to start a new colony. I also have fond memories of frying their blossoms at camp one year, and drinking warm Kool-Aid to wash them down. In a way, this flower is my first flower—likely the first one I ever touched as a child, the petals staining my knees as I roughhoused outside or whose seeds I blew in to the air.

The dandelion is a weed because it doesn’t belong here. The dandelion is a weed because it has the ability to spread quickly and thickly on disturbed land, and its progeny will always lay waiting just beneath the soil, hidden under other plants, caught between blades of grass or cracks in concrete where the rain settles it in so we can’t get to it. The dandelion is a weed because it reminds us too much of ourselves, of how our own thoughts and actions can suddenly become loosed from our ethics and morals. It seems such a plant should be placed at the center of our gardens.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Opossum My Possum

Look at what we have living under our patio. We think. Ain't it ugly? Good news is, if it were outside right now you couldn't see it--the snow is coming down that hard. And it was 60 yesterday.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Huzzuh! Published Essay Comin' Yer Way!

Finally. I mean... REALLY. I was beginning to lose hope and faith in the quality of my prose.

Sou'wester is going to publish a short essay from the memoir. "Her Garden" will appear in print at some point, don't know when yet. Validation is sweet, you know? Only my second essay ever published, and just the first from the manuscript.

I was curious about my submission stats over the last year or so, and was shocked by the numbers (these do not count book and individual poem / essay contests, or chapbook contests, which in themselves number 103):

2007: 61 prose and poetry submissions to literary journals, 2 poems published.

2008: 67 mostly prose submissions, some poetry, 1 essay published (or will be).

These numbers may very well mean I'm a terrible writer. That IS a possibility. I don't buy it, but then again, I'm on the inside looking out. Plus, I've simply received too many nice notes from various editors.

Tonight I shall celebrate by not working, watching much tv, and going to bed on time.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Morning Glory Chapter

I'm nearly done, as far as I can go now (which is pretty far) with my hybrid memoir, my 2nd dissertation (hybrid = narrative, lyric, travelogue, reportage, and slightly academic nonfiction). My largest concerns are more description of my and the mother's gardens, titles for the three sections, clarifying some too-heady philosophical bits, and possibly something else I won't say here because I have to think long and hard about if I really want the book to take this turn; I might add it in after I hear what the committee says, but sometimes the absence of a thing--the implication of its presence only--is far more powerful than the actual reality of it at hand.

I doubt I'll surface again for a while, if anyone cares. Battlestar Gallactica is back on TV for its last season. Travels are once again at hand. Classes have begun. Teaching is being attempted. So here is, what I believe will be, the penultimate chapter to the book, Morning Glory: A Story of Family and Culture in the Garden (240 pages in TNR 12 pt font, but around 330 in Courier 12pt).

The temple bell stops,
but the sound keeps coming
out of the flowers.

--Matsuo Basho

It is likely the last warm day of the year and the morning glories are already open—it’s not even seven. Sitting on the deck the low sun creates a haze in the garden, and around the tips of these blue-vined blooms there seems to be a halo, one which echoes on the fuzzed bumble bees who slide into flower after flower, legs dangling below, as if on wobbly zip lines. Everything is sunlight.

In the long yellow throats of morning glories the bees rest for a moment, perhaps reflecting, calculating, perhaps getting oriented. Then each pulses—the bloom seems to shutter all the way from the stamen’s core to the petal’s tip, and the front legs of the bee push pollen to the caches on the hind legs.

All morning this October bees collide with the blooms. Dozens at once, hundreds each hour, thousands each day. The asters have begun to fade, the ironweed and sunflowers are turning to seed, but the morning glory waits for that fragile dip into winter, the morning when the air barely freezes, and for a few days afterward each bee must work harder to open the limp, closed blooms and gather what’s left. Back in the hive the queen will take what’s brought to her, the only one who will survive the winter and begin the colony again in spring.

One morning, a day or two past frost, a bee is on the ground, just below the dying morning glories. Bending down carefully I nudge it with my finger and it flickers its wings, briefly pulses its body like a ringing phone. I blow on it as softly as I can. I blow again. It rights itself, wipes its eyes with a foreleg, then lifts toward a part of the garden where the sun is warming the chokeberry’s red, autumn leaves. The sky is a crisp, clear blue, perfectly empty, perfectly absent of life, but still holding the echo of migrations. Above me in the wrinkled green leaves, toward the end of one young vine not yet touched by its silent heart, a morning glory is about to bloom.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Garfield Minus Garfield vs. Me Minus Diss

I've not been sleeping well, likely because I continue editing in my head as I fall asleep (I came up with a good idea last night). I should just stay up all day every day from now on. Prose is far more vicious than poetry in its ability to not be as malleable as I see poetry being, or, I'm a nitpicker and tinkerer since I was trained as a poet. All the first drafts of my prose are far too expository and rambling, so now I'm making them more tight, metaphorical, and imagistic.

Prose doesn't succumb so easily to this process as one might think, especially in a book that has researchy-essays followed by narrative followed by lyrical / prose poetry followed by narrative followed by researchy.... How can such a book move successfully between such diverse sub genres in nonfiction? Leaps of faith. Metaphor. Like stanzas in poems, or sonnets in a sequence. And yet....

"When I gave up writing poetry I was very sad, for I had devoted 15 years to the study of how the structures of poems carry meaning. But I was delighted to find that nonfiction prose can also carry meaning in its structures, can tolerate all sorts of figurative language, as well as alliteration and even rhyme. The range of rhythms in prose is larger and grander than it is in poetry, and it can handle discursive ideas and plain information as well as character and story. It can do everything. I felt as though I had switched from a single reed instrument to a full orchestra." (Annie Dillard)

If you don't read Garfield Minus Garfield, you are missing out. Here is the comic from 1/9/09, and it resonates on a deep, postmodern level.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Choosing Book and Section Epigraphs, With Some Voltron

I had a string of 6 pretty darn good drafting days, and today focus is out the window like fruits and vegetables this month (viva Christmas cookies). I'd not planned on messing with this blog until late February, but maybe messing will appease me in some small measure--I am writing here, I am thinking about the book due in a little more than three weeks. Hey, at least I have the bibliography done. (Watch out if I ever have to do an index--I'd go postal, or I'd go grad-student-for-nine-years-now-let-me-the-heck-go.)

Possible main and section epigraphs, which very much feel to me like trying to put together the various lions to form Voltron (did you hear they might make a live action movie soon?):

“Aztec priests ground up the [morning glory] seeds as a potion which they used in ointments to make themselves fearless, or to appease pain.”
— Elsevier’s Dictionary of Plant Lore (by D.C. Watts)

“As a hue [blue] it is powerful, but it is on the negative side, and in its highest purity, as it were, a stimulating negation. Its appearance, then, is a kind of contradiction between excitement and repose….we love to contemplate blue, not because it advances to us, but because it draws us after it.”
--Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, “Theory of Color”

“A metaphor is more than just a way to decorate a literal statement. Aristotle spoke of a metaphor’s ability to induce insight. That insight comes through a recognition of the similarities and the differences between the two things being compared…. If you doubt the power of a single metaphor, spend the rest of this day considering how different our treatment of each other, our philosophies, the health of our planet would be, if for the past millennia we had personified nature as a father instead of a mother.”
— Lisa Knopp, The Nature of Home

“There are only two attitudes toward nature. One confronts it or accepts is. The former finds in nature but the rawest materials to do with as one will—a form is imposed upon chaos. The latter discovers in chaos a new kind of naturalness—and to naturalize nature is to accept it.”
--Teiji Ito (Japanese garden writer 20th century)

“How fortunate any of us are to survive our own living. Our nesting is often so tenuous, as lightweight and frail as the combs the wasps build, meticulously rounding and joining each cell, where a brood will form and eventually emerge, wings taking to the air. If I close my fingers and squeeze, surely the structure will collapse, turn to dust. But it proves surprisingly elastic…. The comb folds in the middle but doesn’t break." – Lee Martin

“What is it that makes us long for other worlds? What hunger? Is it our common flaw to always believe we could have other lives, better lives? Is it this—this greed that keeps us hurtling toward one another and away?” – LM

“Two or three things I know for sure, and one of them is the way you can both hate and love something you are not sure you understand.” – Dorothy Allison

“Two or three things I know for sure, and one of them is that to go on living I have to tell stories, that stories are the one sure way I know to touch the heart and change the world.” – DA

“Stories can save us.” – Tim O’Brien

“Sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That’s what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.” – TO

“Since the roots of our [ecological] trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious, whether we call it that or not.”
--Lynn White

“There is an old occult saying: whoever wants to see the invisible has to penetrate more deeply into the visible. All through Taoist thought, there is the idea that our disasters come from letting nothing live for itself, from the longing we have to pull everything, even friends, in to ourselves and let nothing alone. If we examine a pine carefully, we see how independent it is of us. When we first sense that a pine tree really doesn’t need us, that it has a physical life and a moral life and a spiritual life that is complete without us, we feel alienated and depressed. The second time we feel it, we feel joyful.”
--Robert Bly, The Morning Glory: Prose Poems