Sunday, August 28, 2011

Pieces of Monarchs

Yesterday evening I spotted yet another preying mantis on yet another Liatris ligulistylis. It had a silver-spotted skipper in its clutches, and two feet beneath it torn yellow sulphur wings, and these:

I scanned these in, inspired by bloom day scans of Craig at Ellis Hollow. If you click on and enlarge them they seem even more beautiful in their seeming grotesqueness, the details of hair and scales. This is the second monarch to succumb to a mantis in a week, both males, luckily. But it got me thinking, wouldn't this make a great book cover? Something with a seemingly unrelated title?

Yesterday we released 12 monarchs, today 15 are due to emerge. I've gathered the last of the caterpillars from the garden and peak migration here in Nebraska is in three weeks. At about that time I should be near the end of gathering my own pieces--100s of resources, books, websites, interviews, and images to put into a book. Not the above book, but something whose wings are bright and permanent, forever, but whose body is long gone. I think that's how memory is, how story is--the leftover wings, the aura, the devices but not the mechanism or the instigator. That's maybe what words are, too, an echo of some intense origin, an afterimage, a supernova light years away whose light may never reach us.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Mating Monarchs, Goldfinch Pair, & Why Lawn Stinks

Lots of pictures this morning that I've been accumulating. Shall we be off, then?

Most of the garden this morning. A bit overgrown? 

L-R: boltonia, miscanthus, switchgrass, indian grass

Why mow your lawn....

... when instead miracles can happen? I've got milkweed, too.

Liatris ligulistylis

Caryopteris 'Longwood Blue'

Wild Senna never stops blooming

Male goldfinch--been years since they've been so active.

And there's the female in back. They always come together!

Caught these two on the birch tree. Ewww?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

I'm on the Radio

Wednesday evening, 6-6:30 cst, you can hear me live talking about my garden and writing, just link here and on the right you'll find the listen now stream. The program should also be a podcast eventually.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Higher Ed and Me

It was only a week ago that I cleaned out the last bit of my office at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. It was an office my wife and I shared, one with a south-facing window we had for just one year, after two years of one adjacent to the men's room and another year of being in a small, dark shoebox. I stood there, looking out the window at a metal sculpture, a defoliated tree in winter, and felt the cold artificiality of everything I worked for and sacrificed slide off me. I seriously almost cried. But I tend to get sentimental. It was a nice office, after all. But there was obviously more at play.

After being at UNL for 8 years, 6 in the English department, my 1.5 year gig as a lecturer was over. I've never left a job in my life unwillingly, and I'm still getting over the unceremonious aspect of this. The department had twenty lecturers on its payroll last year, and this year has five, in part thanks to the university offering more credit to incoming freshman so the students don't have to take freshman composition (I've never had a freshman student who didn't sorely need that class). But I don't think the university will be saving much money.

You'll hear a lot of rumbling and grumbling in higher ed about not being able to find work--far too many applicants for far too many jobs. I was the student rep on a search committee 3 years ago and we saw some 200 apps for one job. That's average to light, I'd say (and has been going on well before the economy tanked).

I spent 9 years in grad school because I wanted to write, have the time to write, and make some money teaching to support my writing habit. I read a ton, and it was awesome. I discovered I loved teaching, and it was awesome. I had no allusions as to why I was in grad school (not for a job), though the bright-eyed 24 year old soon lost his academic naivete--grad school is solitary work, is not glamorous, and you must work hard to take what you want and need while the university takes from you all the while (and you hope to come out a little ahead, or to break even). I'm talking about being a TA and teaching for little pay. I still can't believe anyone let me teach honors freshman my first term at Ohio State after only a week of training. It was exhilarating, like a roller coaster, but I get sick on roller coasters--just as I did for days before that first class.

I moved from Ohio after 3 years of a masters and settled in Nebraska to do a PhD, on a wing and a prayer, because my department didn't have a job for me. I was lucky to find one in a student-centered marketing firm on campus, where I bided my time hoping to be an English TA the next year. When that didn't pan out, I bided my time a second year, then was offered a TA on an annually-renewing basis. Each year I had to reapply, and each year I thought they'd say no. I wasn't one of the lucky ones offered 5 year contracts, or those with 5 year contracts plus lucrative fellowships.

In 2009 I got my PhD, and it was fantastic, best day of my life. I worked with great faculty at UNL, and met some students who are now my friends--I believe, in the end, this is where I was supposed to be. The department hired me as a lecturer for the fall, but I deferred until spring so I could take some time off, recharge my batteries, work on a book (perhaps stupid in hindsight). My deferral likely gave another teacher a job. I was also offered the chance to chair the literary awards committee which allowed me--for the first time in 10 years of working in higher ed--to feel a part of the department. I got to know faculty. I got to know office staff. I worked with students in another way that was rewarding. I felt like I belonged like I never had before. And that was my problem as a part time employee.

In March of 2011 I received a letter, as did all lecturers, that the department would likely not be able to hire as many teachers for 2011-2012, and we should consider seeking other employment. In May all of us were let go--only a few PhDs who are out of funding, and new PhD graduates, received contracts (likely to bolster the statistic of recent grads who find academic employment).

So on the last day of the spring semester I let both of my classes ask me anything about teaching, college, how the department works, anything goes. I had nothing to lose. At first the questions were tepid: why'd you choose the books we read, how long have you been teaching, do you like teaching, do you have kids. Then someone asked me if I was a professor. He was upset to hear I wasn't, said he felt cheated (even though he told me privately after class he thought I was one of his better teachers). Then someone asked me how I much I got paid, to which she replied she made more working part time after school at Kinkos. The students loved this day, and I think I will do it again for every class I may ever teach in the future--they should know what they're paying for when they cash that Kinkos paycheck.

But man, I miss those students. Today as UNL begins fall classes, I told myself I wouldn't do this, but I am: simultaneoulsy dining on ashes and having faint hope, all the while, perhaps, hurting my chances of ever having a tenure track job by speaking like this in a public space (I can't tell you how much I'm holding back--but I suppose in the end it's not worth it).

This summer has taught me a lesson I was lucky to not have had to learn until now, when I turned 35 in July--life isn't fair. Deal with it. Buck up. So your hair is already mostly gray.... But higher ed is in a shambles. Here are some excerpts from an article entitled Faulty Towers: The Crisis in Higher Education, which is a spot-on piece:

"Sure, lots of people have it worse [discussing how years of grad school leave so many with no job they trained for]. But here’s another reason to care: it’s also a social tragedy, and not just because it represents a colossal waste of human capital. If we don’t make things better for the people entering academia, no one’s going to want to do it anymore. And then it won’t just be the students who are suffering. Scholarship will suffer, which means the whole country will. Knowledge, as we’re constantly told, is a nation’s most important resource, and the great majority of knowledge is created in the academy—now more than ever, in fact, since industry is increasingly outsourcing research to universities where, precisely because graduate students cost less than someone who gets a real salary, it can be conducted on the cheap....

And what exactly are you supposed to do at that point if you’ve spent your career becoming an expert in, say, Etruscan history? Academia exists in part to support research the private sector won’t pay for, knowledge that can’t be converted into a quick buck or even a slow one, but that adds value to society in other ways. Who’s going to pursue that kind of inquiry if they know there’s a good chance they’re going to get thrown out in the snow when they’re 50 (having only started to earn a salary when they were 30, to boot)? Doctors and lawyers can set up their own practice, but a professor can’t start his own university. This kind of thing is appalling enough when it happens to blue-collar workers. In an industry that requires a dozen years of postsecondary education just to gain an entry-level position, it is unthinkable....

Our system of public higher education is one of the great achievements of American civilization. In its breadth and excellence, it has no peer. It embodies some of our nation’s highest ideals: democracy, equality, opportunity, self-improvement, useful knowledge and collective public purpose. The same president who emancipated the slaves and funded the transcontinental railroad signed the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862, which set the system on its feet. Public higher education is a bulwark against hereditary privilege and an engine of social mobility. It is altogether to the point that the strongest state systems are not to be found in the Northeast, the domain of the old WASP aristocracy and its elite private colleges and universities, but in places like Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Virginia, North Carolina and, above all, California....

Now the system is in danger of falling into ruin. Public higher education was essential to creating the mass middle class of the postwar decades—and with it, a new birth of political empowerment and human flourishing. The defunding of public higher education has been essential to its slow destruction. In Unmaking the Public University, Newfield argues that the process has been deliberate, a campaign by the economic elite against the class that threatened to supplant it as the leading power in society. Social mobility is now lower in the United States than it is in Northern Europe, Australia, Canada and even France and Spain, a fact that ought to be tattooed on the foreheads of every member of Congress, so directly does it strike at America’s identity as the land of opportunity....

But it was not only the postwar middle class that public higher education helped create; it was the postwar prosperity altogether. Knowledge, again, is our most important resource. States that balance their budgets on the backs of their public universities are not eating their seed corn; they’re trampling it into the mud. My state of Oregon, a chronic economic underperformer, has difficulty attracting investment, not because its corporate taxes are high—they’re among the lowest—but because its workforce is poorly educated. So it will be for the nation as a whole. Our college-completion rate has fallen from second to eighth. And we are not just defunding instruction; we are defunding research, the creation of knowledge itself. Stipends are so low at the University of California, Berkeley, the third-ranked research institution on the planet, that the school is having trouble attracting graduate students. In fact, the whole California system, the crown jewel of American public higher education, is being torn apart by budget cuts. This is not a problem; it is a calamity.... 

When politicians, from Barack Obama all the way down, talk about higher education, they talk almost exclusively about math and science. Indeed, technology creates the future. But it is not enough to create the future. We also need to organize it, as the social sciences enable us to do. We need to make sense of it, as the humanities enable us to do. A system of higher education that ignores the liberal arts, as Jonathan Cole points out in The Great American University (2009), is what they have in China, where they don’t want people to think about other ways to arrange society or other meanings than the authorized ones. A scientific education creates technologists. A liberal arts education creates citizens: people who can think broadly and critically about themselves and the world....

Yet of course it is precisely China—and Singapore, another great democracy—that the Obama administration holds up as the model to emulate in our new Sputnik moment. It’s funny; after the original Sputnik, we didn’t decide to become more like the Soviet Union. But we don’t possess that kind of confidence anymore."

We have a crisis that goes far beyond higher ed. Having taught 35 college courses, roughly 4 per year, making after taxes around $13,000 a year, I can tell you that our students are becoming more one dimensional. They can't think outside the box--they have tunnel vision. They are less ambitious, risk less, take fewer chances and leaps of faith. Freshman, seniors, it doesn't matter. They've been taught one way to think, programmed to see college as a trade school, high school +. Are these our future leaders and innovators? I sit here with the freedom to think anyway I want (the benefit of a liberal arts education), seeing a situation from multiple angles, distressed that today I can't have the joy of forcing a student to see the same situation from another way, to be surprised, to be pushed, to think outside the lines, to color wherever on the page and do so confidently. And I may never again. I love teaching, even on days when I loathed the job--but it's not a job, it's an honor. Those conversations in my office, those breakthroughs of personal (not academic) profundity and power, those light bulbs coming on like nuclear blasts. It's a drug.

Last year I watched the wiki academic job list come in of who was hired and where. 95% of the winners (I mean hires) had 1, 2, 3 books published. They won Pulitzers, or so it seemed. They weren't young teachers getting their first jobs--they might as well have been full professors. So this fall I'm emailing past students, seeing if I can get anyone to pay me $10 to edit an essay or poem. I started a garden coaching business, with no takers yet. I self published a collection of essays a press almost took, hoping to sell enough copies to attract another press. I'll write a memoir this fall, partly for the joy and challenge of it, partly because it's now or never, and partly because I know I'll have no chance to teach again if I don't publish a book, or three, as quickly as possible. And even then it might not matter. That's life. Am I writing for a job, or to talk to other people? And at 35 I have to say I've felt sheltered from the world, especially after 9 years of grad school, and 2 as a grad student / TA + (lecturer). I'm not prepared to be an academic colleague. I'm not prepared to be a professor. I simply love teaching and writing and have a cv everyone tells me is impressive, full of publications, writing and teaching awards, and department service. But 200 other people have the same credentials. And that's just how it is in higher ed. In life. I guess.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

10 Monarchs at Once

That's how many I counted at one Liatris ligulistylis plant with five stalks, a record. See below.

Only 9, just missed the 10th

Gratuitous garden picture

In about 10-14 days we'll release 20+ monarchs in about a 24 hour period. That's how many are in the "J" today. Still finding a few eggs outside on specific milkweed (I guess there is a pecking order for milkweed positions in the garden).

Monday, August 15, 2011

Monarch v. Mantis and 40+ Cats

This male monarch met his demise on a Liatris ligulistylis. Lots of mantis action in the garden this year.

On the other side of things, I have 40 monarch cats in a 10g aquarium, and about 20-30 more soon to join them, for what will likely be a total of around 100 this year--1/2 of last year. We released 7 butterflies today, I think 4 were female (so far this year it's been more males in general, though I'm not keeping copious records--dealing with all the poop keeps me plenty busy).

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The WORST Landscape Advice on Local TV Ever!

Watch this short video that was on a local news program, then read my comments. I just can't believe this is the kind of crap people pay good money for, and then honestly believe it increases their home's value.

Here's the link to the video. Watch it, laugh, sigh, grone, and then come back here.

Ok, these are the issues in order as they came up in the video:

1) The landscaper says that before the job it was just a basic lawn. FYI--it still is! If the owners wanted something more elaborate, one kidney-shaped planting berm out front is bupkis, especially one as sparsely planted as that.

2) Roses, spiraea, salvia, and barberry (hello 1990!). These are the best, low maintenance choices the landscaper could find? What a lazy landscaper! I bet they buy barberry in bulk and call it a spring order in like 5 minutes.          
3) Don’t be afraid to go big? See #1. When is he going to go big? Anytime soon?
4) You want to diversify, says the reporter—where is the diversification? See #2. It looks pretty darn monotone to me! The plants are all at one level (and will be when they mature), and evenly spaced (just like in nature!). And it looks like pretty much every other landscaping job I've ever seen--that's not adding value at all!
5) Customer wanted pink rocks. They originally had more mulch but wanted rock since it's more low maintenance, and it has a weed barrier underneath.
Three things: 1) If you ever plant anything else there, it will be sheer torture moving that rock and cutting the weed fabric and 2) Rock dries out the soil as it absorbs the sun's heat, thus killing plant roots, thus killing the plants. Some investment! 3) Two inches of soil-enriching mulch and I don't see any weeds in my beds. Just saying.
6) More character at front door by adding gazing balls? “Don’t be afraid to overdo that” the landscaper says. What? You should be very very very afraid to overdo that. A person looking at a home will see more as less, and less as more. And wasn't the second coming of gazing balls back in like, what, 1995? I only see them at Home Depot anymore.
7) Have your home professionaly landscaped? Why? So it can look basic and blah like this? Look, for 1/2 the money I will give you just as low maintenance a design AND it will look far better. Plus, if you have kids, they might appreciate interacting with birds, butterflies, and such outside. You can improve the local environment AND have a more unique, money-bringing landscape with hardly any work at all for much less than this guy charged you. Just think how much you spent on the Bobcat, truck, and trailer that offloaded all that heavy rock which does nothing to improve the soil and ensures your plants will need more water and may not live to see next year. 
Holy cow, amen!

Friday, August 12, 2011

Book Giveaway

Three days left to enter the book giveaway on Goodreads for my collection of essays, Sleep, Creep, Leap: The First Three Years of a Nebraska Garden. Link here.

You can read an excerpt of the book via my author website under the nonfiction tab, or go to the Amazon paperback listing (book is available on most any ereader, too). Getting some good reviews on Amazon.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A Little Prelude

Yesterday was the first time since about the summer solstice that we did not have a dewpoint above 60. And frankly, most of July involved 70+ dewpoints with a daily 110 heat index. As a result, several plants are showing strange spotting.

The monarchs are finally here. The aster and goldenrod buds are nearly formed. Liatris aspera is about to burst open. I even noticed some turtleheads peeking out from their stalks.

Though enduring this summer's heat was awful, its having seemingly passed means that fall is nigh. Too nigh. Maybe tonight, given forecast low temps in the 50s. What do you do on these pre-fall days, when in the shade your hair stands up on end, but in the sun you sweat? I find this mix very sweet. In winter I enjoy driving with the sunroof open and the heat blowing hard on my legs. I like different textures in one bite of food. I like to bridge the gap, to feel the space between opposites--maybe this is why I'm always tempted to put my finger in an electrical socket.

I'm waxing here as another season appears to be suddenly waning. Fall always comes with a sense of apprehension, whether it's the rush to soak up as much warmth as possible--like the dragonflies on the west side of the fence at dusk--or my conditioning of an impending school year. This fall I'm not teaching, I'll be writing a 90,000 word memoir and applying for academic teaching jobs for 2012. There is a void, a space, an uncertainty, an unknowing that demands practicing faith in the most religious sense possible. Fall is very ascetic. I have always thought of fall as my favorite season--the ghosts of summer lingering, fingering through the cool corners of daylight, hope and dread intertwined like mating monarch butterflies, something, something is close by and everything is more alert in that steady waiting.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Is It a Lot of Work? Nope.

Earlier this week my wife took her cat to the vet. As soon as he arrives, they put him in a harness (straight jacket) so he can't claw their faces off. This would happen, and has happened.

The receptionist noticed my wife's name and asked if her's was the garden she saw pictures of in the paper a month or two ago. Well, yes, sort of. She asked my wife if I spent a lot of time in the garden, if it was a lot of work. If I was there, I would have fallen over laughing. Then told her to hire me.

No one believes me when I say I hardly do anything in my garden anymore--except swoon over it. Sure, I go out everyday and putz around, and I suppose if I wanted I could trim and tidy until I was blue in the face.

In March of this year I dragged out spring cleanup a whole week--cutting down hundreds of perennials by hand and using them as mulch. I also went to the city dump several times to get free compost, which I dusted over the garden and some of the lawn.

That's all I've done. I did just water the garden for the first time this year a few days ago--we haven't seen a good rain in a month. That watering was more for the new plants I put in this spring. The established plants all look good. And as an aside, I have a penchant for tall perennials and thick planting (plants will then support each other above and below the soil). I think this is serving me well. Hardly any sun makes it through to the soil, thus I have pretty much no weeds, and under the plants the soil is still moist an inch down, whereas in open areas it's the usual August dry.

So, don't be like this monarch butterfly and run yourself ragged:

Plant tall, plant thick, plant the right thing for the right place, and then mulch. You'll look more like this tiger swallowtail:

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Garden Book You Need Now

Sleep, Creep, Leap: The First Three Years of a Nebraska Garden, is ready for you. I wrote the book last winter with one press in mind, and although the editors liked it, the marketing department did not. A few solid compliments from other presses--and stories of other author success--and I've decided to self publish my collection of essays in hopes of attracting a publisher. Will you please help me spread the word? I'd even love to do an author q&a at your site, interview, guest post, something quirky--whatever!

Below is the back cover copy:

Peeling off sheets of skin from a sunburned back. Spending $1,000 at five nurseries in an afternoon. Raising 200 monarch butterflies. Hearing the wing beats of geese thirty feet overhead at sunset. How one piece of mulch can make all the difference. These are the stories of Benjamin Vogt’s 1,500 foot native prairie garden over the course of three years. After a small patio garden at his last home teases him into avid tinkering, the blank canvas of his new marriage and quarter acre lot prove to be a rich place full of delight, anguish, and rapture in all four seasons.

Full of lyrical, humorous, and botanical short essays, Sleep, Creep, Leap will leave you inspired to sit a while with your plants, noticing how the smallest events become the largest—and how the garden brings us down to earth so that we can come home to our lives.

$4.99 in paperback from Amazon (112p, 13 images, list of native plant sources)

$2.99 for Kindle, iPad, Nook, and Sony Reader (12 images)

[And in case you were wondering, I priced these books at the minimum threshold for certain basic services. On each sale, I'll get about $1, ebook or paperback. I don't intend to make money on this, it's not really the point.]

For a book excerpt and more about me, link here to my new author website.

And why not join my Facebook book launch page? Just so many ways to be distracted.

Finally, here's a book trailer with loads of images:

Ok, that's enough. I already feel cheap about all of this. But authors who score a press, even a commerical one, have to do a lot of the work on their own anymore. If you get a copy I'd love to know what you think of the book--yay or nay. It'll help me either way. Now, off to work on another book since it's been 100 for 6 weeks, and the garden can only be visited by wistfully gazing out of my kitchen window. (I do have about two dozen monarch caterpillars inside, so they help comfort me.)