Sunday, September 27, 2009

PBS and National Parks

Ar you watching it this week? The National Parks: America's Best Idea (Ken Burns). The first episode tonight was very moving for me, and had personal favorites talking and being talked about: John Muir, William Cronan, and Terry Tempest Williams. So good. Every night this week on PBS. Go go go.

(And as an aside, I used to think it strange talking to trees, sitting on the ground for hours watching that small world of a few square feet. But it's not. And I realize I've got more Muir in me than I previously thought--though I don't see myself spending the night in a tree during a storm to understand what the tree goes through in a storm).

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Gardens, Poetry, Silence, Absence

Here's a short piece from my memoir / manuscript Morning Glory: A Story of Family and Culture in the Garden....

My family has grown up on the prairie, in the Midwest, on land that, according to author Kathleen Norris, rubs off on us to make us feel that “we don’t need to connect. The prairie landscape isolates us from each other as well as from our history, and yet the plains are quiet, absent of people and their noise, provide for an experience of self to fit within the environment, to notice the little things that mean much.” Norris, who grew up and lives in North Dakota, frequently stays at upper Midwest monasteries for reflection and to continue her monastic-influenced spiritual education. These monasteries, according to Norris, often “follow silence at certain hours, but I had never before immersed myself in the kind of silence that sinks into your bones. I felt as if I were breathing deeply for the first time in years. To live communally in silence is to admit a new power into your life. In a sense, you are merely giving silence its due. But this silence is not passive, and soon you realize that it has the power to change you.”

There are places for silence, moments in our days that we require, not that we want, but that we absolutely need. And the more we have them, I think the closer we get to ourselves and the world. I know that when I am dusting or cooking, the world drops to the side, but not completely away, and I am absorbed in the focus of my work, just as those monks who are finding praise and glory in their silent prayers of work. But most of all, I find the kind of silence Norris speaks of so deeply and transformatively right here, in this moment, writing out these words. I suppose that I have mini moments where I allow myself to daydream on the chair or on the porch, but they are soon interrupted by other thoughts. Here, the focus is intense, onrushing, consuming, it sinks into my bones to the point that every part of me is aerated and I breathe deeply some fresh, new life—as one might do on a cool summer’s evening after a hard rain.

In these silences, these deep breaths, there is a necessary mystery I follow, sometimes discovering new roads, new ideas, sometimes ending up in a place I’d never dreamed of, sitting back, and feeling blessed for having had that moment. It is an intense shuddering through my body, it reverberates, it’s like a limb warmed up after coming inside form the winter cold, tingly, pulsating, coming alive again. This is the same feeling I get in some poetry, like this short piece by James Wright:

Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in the green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.

Did you feel that pulse? That fear and hope? Read the poem again. I’ll wait.

There’s a pensive tension in it, an unexpected rhythm, a shuttering of sense and realization and finally transcendence as we move from one image to the next and take on new perspectives—and this happens daily in our lives. It happens in smaller, almost imperceptible degrees, but when they happen we feel releases, we breathe deeply just once with a newly changed sense of realization and we can never go back to the same life before. I also think to have such an experience is terribly frightening. There is so much uncertainty in living a connected life, a fully aware life. There is much more room for heartache and destruction, to be so open is to be so vulnerable, so touchable. But to be alive one must surely dig into the unknowable. How intoxicating that this can happen even in the smallest moments.

Here’s Stanley Kunitz talking about poetry, gardens, silence, and discovery:

The poem holds its secrets and keeps its tensions by closing out the opportunity to explain…. Art conceals and reveals at the same time. Part of the concept of the garden is that you never see it all at once. This I got from my understanding of Japanese gardens, that the way to see a garden is by circling it, by walking through it.

You don’t see the garden as a whole form any point, but you begin to know it by making a tour around it. Then it becomes a garden in the mind, and you become the instrument that defines it, just as you have to create the wholeness of the poem in your mind….

In the poem, there is an impulse that moves form line to line, from image to image, but complete revelation is not achieved until the poem arrives at its terminal point, at which time what has been secret before in the poem begins to reveal itself, and you have to really meditate on the poem. It’s like someone removing a garment slowly, slowly.

When Kunitz says art conceals and reveals at the same time, he’s not talking about art—he’s talking about being alive, breathing, eating, sleeping. But what’s the payoff of meditating on anything? Who gives a rip? The absence of a thing is that thing. Look at the garden in winter. All I can see are monarda, coneflowers, iris, rudbeckia, asclepias, sedum, miscanthus…. Look at your life, what do you hunger or long for the most. Suddenly, it’s just as or more real then having it, and maybe the reason is partly because you’ve spent so much time becoming intimate with the idea that you know the thing in more meaningful ways than the shortcut of physicality could ever allow. One of the huge issues with modern language and communication and media, and a continued appeal of silence in the face of it, is the realization that too many words and images pollute the direct power of the original. Less is more. It allows us to circumnavigate an issue and find our way to the center—it allows us to discover ourselves in the places we inhabit, physical and emotional. I think that’s sort of what Kunitz is getting at when he’s talking about tensions and silences, and what Norris finds in monasteries. But why not hear it from a real monk, Thomas Merton:

There are not a few who are beginning to feel the futility of adding more words to the constant flood of language that pours meaninglessly over everybody, everywhere, from morning to night. For language to have meaning there must be intervals of silence somewhere, to divide word from word and utterance from utterance. He who retires into silence does not necessarily hate language. Perhaps it is love and respect for language which imposes silence upon him.

I get in trouble all the time for being silent. Even after nine years of grad school and being silent in classrooms, and being chastised by peers and teachers alike, no one has ever suggested—and me neither until just right now—that my silence wasn’t ever so much about shyness (though certainly it played a part) as it was about respect for language and the search for belonging and understanding in this chaotic world. In my personal relationships I’ve noticed a tension of silence in my refusal to chit chat with those closest to me about things that seem to be already implied or said. Words can fail when there are too many of them, and frankly, there are too many of them. They confuse the issue of being alive, of being alive not “with” but “in” the world.

I don’t understand people who jog or garden with headphones on, and I certainly don’t understand and even despise the construction workers with loud stereos fixing the siding on the house down the street. There is so much language around us everyday that there’s an overload of perception in place before we wake up, and I’m not talking about human language at all. Here’s Merton again.

I came up here [to his hermitage] from the monastery last night, sloshing through the cornfield, said Vespers, and put some oatmeal on the Coleman stove for supper. It boiled over while I was listening to the rain and toasting a piece of bread at the log fire. The night became very dark. The rain surrounded the whole cabin with its enormous virginal myth, a whole world of meaning, of secrecy, of silence, of rumor. Think of it: all that speech pouring down, selling nothing, judging nobody, drenching the thick mulch of dead leaves, soaking the trees, filling the gullies and crannies of the wood with water, washing out the places where men have stripped the hillside! What a thing it is to sit absolutely alone, in the forest, at night, cherished by this wonderful, unintelligible, perfectly innocent speech, the most comforting speech in the world, the talk that rain makes by itself all over the ridges, and the talk of the watercourses everywhere in the hollows!

Nobody started it, nobody is going to stop it. It will talk as long as it wants, this rain. As long as it talks I am going to listen.

When I’m in the garden I learn the names of birds without having to turn my back, or shutter with the seemingly large shadow moving over me. I don’t jump back (as much as I used to) when I’m dive bombed by a bee. I’ve learned to comfort myself outside by the presence of the wildness around me. I know the call of the red wing blackbird, the cardinal and blue jay, house finch and grackle and yellow finch and mourning dove and so many more. The other day a buzzing, a terrible buzzing came up behind me and I thought fur sure I’d stumbled across a hornet’s nest, but it was just a dragonfly come to perch atop a penstemon. How beautiful it was, clear shoji screen wings, pencil like abdomen and tail. And how beautiful they are at dusk, plastered along the west side of the fence in the fading sunlight, a full warmed silence until the crickets and frogs take over at dusk. Yes, language is all around us, and so much of the time we tune it out and call it silence when in fact it’s not even a fraction of true silence—it’s an echo or afterimage only.

A high school art teacher once told me that in drawing and painting you should first sketch the shadows, and then the forms of what you intended to draw would reveal themselves more truthfully on their own.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Summer Blows, Fall Rolls (rate my off rhyme?)

Spring--blah. Summer--over rated, too hot. Fall--many flowers AND dead grasshopper sex.

In bloom are new england aster, aster laevis, aster lateriflorus, aster puniceus, aster tartaricus, aster oblongifolious, sedums, boltonias, butterfly bushes, goldenrods, sages, helianthus, eupatoriums, monkey flower, turtlehead, agastache, penstemon, cardinal flower, and clematis virginiana aka sweet autumn clematis. Heck, some of these are only just barely starting to flower. Bring on the 40s next week.

Welcome. Tickets please. Don't have any? My giant preying mantis and grasshopper bouncers will show you the way out.

If had more than one turtlehead I wouldn't like this nearly as much.

Eupatoriums: 'Baby Joe' and 'Prairie Jewel.'

Helianthus 'Lemon Queen', eupatoriums, clematis virginiana.

E. 'Wayside'

Look back toward the house.

Boltonia 'Snowbank' begs to be cut back next June. Yikes. Roots aren't even big enough yet to hold it straight up.

Happened to walk by just as it was deskinning.

Push yourself up into the silk. (Unfortunately, a few days later tachnid fly larvae emerged.)

I couldn't open my tool chest for over a week until this guy emerged. Notice the proboscus.

Yeah, sure, he blends in perfectly....

Can a live grasshopper have sex with a dead one? Sorta looks like it.

And finally, we have viceroy eggs on the dwarf arctic blue willow shrub. Easy to spot--placed on the very tip. The young instars will overwinter in silk tubes made around willow stems. I think we may now have more viceroys than monarchs flying about.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Trip to Spring Creek Prairie

Tons of photos to ensue. Spring Creek Prairie Audubon Center is less than 30 minutes southwest of Lincoln, NE, and is also where my wife and I had our wedding reception two years ago. We visited it Tuesday, an overcast and warm / damp foggy morning.

The prairie sits on 800 acres of never-tilled land, and also hides the remnants of the Nebraska City to Ft. Kearney Oregon Trail cutoff (see pics below, but we didn't see any wagon ruts due to foliage, I'm guessing).

Lots of native plants, lots of Piet Oudolf looking vistas, and--unfortunately--lots of invasive weeds (which I'd assume will get less and less as the prairie ecosystem fully restores itself). Stop talking. Show me pictures. Ok. Click to expand if you'd like.

The welcome and education center, replete with shop.

One of many mown paths we found ouselves simply wandering on. We ignored the map.

Everything is beginning to die back. The grey is especially pronounced on this morning, but I still find the view breathtaking. Do you?

A comfy place to rest. There was so much thistle everywhere--likely invasive varieties--and so many insects on them, I put in a seed order when I got home for Cirsium discolor, the native pasture thistle.

Glad to see my ironweed isn't the only stand that looks like junk.

It's all about the linkages of shadows. I had an art teacher in high school who taught us to first draw the shadows of what we were trying to capture, then that object would more truthfully be rendered. A lot of metaphor in that idea--that shadows define us as much if not more than our actual selves. Shadows: memories, hopes, dreams, worries, fears, defeats, impressions, loves, beliefs. All that is left of us in the end is a shadow, much like the image of a photograph.

What cool texture of milkweed pods.

My wife insisted this looked like a nest of baby rodents.

I found this indentation added much character to such a relatively small area where we walked. We encountered a pond, a marsh, this gorge, tree lines... everything.

Prairie sculpture.

I'm really partial to this image. It's like sedimentary gradations. In the middle is, I believe, a stand of buckthorn--on the left still green, on the right already a warm bronze. Lovely texture.

I saw the sign, and it opened up my eyes.... (name that annoying band)

Guess this is where the wagon trail is.

He stood still for me long enough to get a nice shot of both him and the thistle bloom.

Spotty patches of Salvia azurea where peeking through various grasses, and really stood out.

Quintessential plains view.

On a dark day these unknown grass / weed heads stood out like a halo. In fact, if you click on the image, it sure seems to me that each one does indeed have a halo.

As well as these. Gorgeous in the breeze.

What makes prairies so beautiful to me are how overlooked they can be--especially this time of year. It's easy to stop and gawk in July at the various blooms, but to stop and gawk at the subtle foliar forms, changes of color, the way each species naturally organizes itself and literally leans upon one another above and below the ground--well, there's something to be learned on a few metaphorical levels. To walk among the end of a season with hope and faith, to imagine what was and will be, is to live fully in the now; I think prairie vistas are especially instructive in this regard as they wear their changes on their sleeve, so to speak.

Best Nebraska Blog

I command thee to go vote for TDM as the best Nebraska gardening blog over at Blotanical. Come on.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Starting Another Book--Hopeful Hopelessness

I'm preparing a last batch of essays and poems to send out for the mad fall rush, then I focus. I hope. On a third book manuscript. The other two are floating out there in the world, pissing me off, making me cry.

Today I got yet another encouraging rejection on my writing, and lately it's been the creative nonfiction. Left and right, but few takers. This is really, really, getting tiresome. I am competitive, I am envious, I am jealous. I am confused, I am saddened, I am disnechanted. And if I wasn't, I don't think I'd be a writer or any damned use to any potential reader. That's not much comfort, though.

So I feel like I need to quickly reflect, purge my system of these other two manuscripts--though I know that if taken (no, it's when, right??) I will likely invest much time in them again.

Afterimage: Poems -- Frankly, I could care less who takes this book any more. Sound crass? I used to think it mattered who published your work. Well, it does, but you know what... I don't think it matters nearly as much for poetry as prose. The audience for poetry is far less, and I think the poetry book is more a statment for the c.v. that says something like "Yes, I'm competent, see? I can write poems, know what I'm talking about, and can focus and train myself enough to actually produce a book. Yeah, I'm a writer."

Morning Glory: A Story of Family and Culture in the Garden -- This thing is seven months young--vs. the poetry which has been shopped around for five years--so I am much more concerned about where it ends up (it is a hybrid memoir that is maybe proving a bit tricky to market, partly because of the hybridity, partly because I'm still learning how to write queries and proposals). I think first books often don't mean as much to one's opus as later books and where they come from, but first books are like first dates. Memorable first dates. Or just really nice handshakes--you know the ones, because most people don't shake hands very well at all.

So I'll soon be off to Oklahoma and Kansas to undertake something incredibly massive--a memoir of sorts (and maybe a side collection of poems), but that's all you're getting. I've no idea where it will lead me, what narative will unfold to bring order and focus to further research and--eventually--the writing. After a slew of rejections recently in the midst of sending out work (it's like eating Haagen Daz as you run to the toilet) I think that, ultimately, the only thing that can possibly satiate my impatience and dismay and doubt is to focus on writing again. Like never before. Because I ain't half bad at it. I think. Maybe. What do you think? Oh man, validate me, please.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Nebraska Statewide Arboretum Plant Sale

Was a delight. Got to talk to the assistant director Bob Henrickson--who in many ways reminded me of Mr. Renegade Gardener Don Engebretson. You know, the mavricky (not the Palin kind), opinionated, occasionaly swearing, dirt under the nails, overly tanned plant junky. We lamented the state of arboretums planting way way way waaaaayyy too many annuals and non natives (pricey and tacky), after I mentioned I was surprised with such at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum a week ago. Bob said you'd think regional, large arboretums and botanical gardens (like the Lauritzen Gardens in Omaha) would demonstrate the local and regional areas and various micro climates, thus teaching most folks good things.

Then he gave me a free liatris squarrosa because he said it needed a good home and couldn't stand another winter potted up. Other plants I got:

Aster ptarmicoides--upland white
Allium cernuum
Echinacea pallida
Liatris scariosa 'Alba'
Liatris microcephala 'Alba'
Echinacea angustifolia--narow leaf coneflower
Monarda fistulosa
Pulsatilla patens
Zizia aptera (bring on the black swallowtails!)
Lespedeza capitata--roundhead bushclover
Filipendula ulmaria

And my 15% member discount was lovely.

Now I'm off to spread my proprietary seed blend on A Street here in Lincoln: various members of joe pye weed, ironweed, milkweed, liatris, and coneflowers.

Side question--anyone know why my Helianthus 'Lemon Queen' buds go limp and fall off just before blooming? A dark spot forms about 1-2" down the stalk where it sags and drops. I am at 50% bloom this year and it sucks.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Texans! Save the Monarchs!

According to Monarch Watch, the drought in Texas may produce one of the lowest--if not lowest--overwintering population of monarch butterflies in Mexico this year. The drought has lead to fewer nectar plants in the final pit stop / major gathering place for monarchs before they make their final leap to Mexico. So if you can, restrictions or not, water your flowers.

And while you're visiting Monarch Watch, get your garden up to speed and then have it certified as a Monarch Waystation.

But if you're in Minnesota this weekend, you can help Monarch offspring that will come back north next spring by attending the Minneapolis Monarch Festival. Make milkweed seed mudballs, enjoy 4 acres of restored prairie on Lake Nokomis, make me happy. (You can also come dressed as a monarch butterfly but, personally, I think you'd look terribly strange.)

Of course, according to the Nature Conservancy, in 90 years we might not have enough water to even take care of our own food sources. They've recently forecasted temperatures in the middle Great Plains to rise by as much or more than 10 degrees--with Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa leading the pack. You can download a report on your state. Have fun.

A dry spring in Nebraska led to to a later and lesser appearance of Monarchs in my garden, at least that's my theory. I got home yesterday after a long weekend away and only found 5 caterpillars outside--4th and 5th instars. Last year, we were still plucking many younglings off the milkweed well into late September. Peak migration here is around September 15, so it does make some sense that there aren't many egg layers around.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Swallowtail Deskinning, Monarch Assassinated, Spider v. Grasshopper

Lots of insect intrigue and gore pics to follow. You ready? I promise some nice garden pics too, though.

This is the first year I've tried raising black swallowtails inside, and lo and behold, it's a lot like doing monarchs. See?

Unfortunately, the above swallowtail came out yesterday and couldn't inflate one wing. We put him in the garden anyway--freezer euthanization isn't my thing yet. (Yes, I know it should be.) It could've been a virus, or maybe it's because he never could attach his derriere to the stick so just hung there for two weeks.

Did have a swallowtail and monarch do their thing at the same exact time:

Though I think we have far fewer fall monarch cats outside this year, my wife insists it's because they're dispersed on almost 20 various milkweeds. Last year one cat pupated on the siding, and this year there's one on my storage chest. I best be careful opening it these next two weeks:

Ok. Here we go. Some sort of assassin bug--I do believe--got a monarch cat. Notice the green blood trailing down the leaf under the body like some bad horror flick on Scifi, oops, I mean SyFy.

But below is something joyous. With so many grasshoppers (hundreds, millions) every time I walk through the garden I stir them up. A few inevitably jump into spider webs. Here you can see this spider pouring silk out and pasting it on to the victim. Huzzah!

I have two 'Chocolate' eupatoriums, and one has almost lost all of its buds due to grasshoppers eating them. These are the last plants to bloom in the fall, and I am pissed off (better than on, right?). I'm worried about how many grasshopper eggs might be in the garden.

Speaking of eupatorium, here's one called 'Wayside' I am in love with. The blooms are either an irredescent blue / purple--much like blue lobelia--or they are a dusted grey / purple. Only thing bluer in my garden is the 'Nekan' sage.

Angelica gigas never sets seed for me--no idea why--so I have to buy 1 year old plants every year. Worth it, though:

That was a gratuitous cat image. He likes to fold laundry with me and play with the socks.

I enjoy this combo and this angle. The globe thistle seedheads pick up the grey of the switchgrass and little bluestem, while the 'Baby Joe' eupatorium does the same with the grasses. By the way, Baby Joe is nearly 6 feet tall--I assume the wet clay is to blame for its girth.

Say it with me--the favorite view. We should just call it TFV from now on since I use this shot so often. Doesn't the sedum way off bring the eye in by reflecting the color of the bridge, mulch, and steppers? Humor me.