Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 -- Don't Let The Door Hit You On the Way Out

I'm not too sad to see 2010 go. It was a very frustrating year for me outside the garden, in the writing world. Maybe it wasn't frustrating, maybe it was organizing / storing up / mobilizing and I can't see it yet. But in this profession--and in the hopes of attaining a teaching job, fellowships, publishers, etc--there are no points for second place or nice thoughts, just feelings of "what might have been." Looking back teaches us how to look forward, and it is always something that motivates me to try harder (by making me angry) even though it seems like I'm not getting anywhere, or that moving 2 inches isn't really progress even though it might be.

1) My poetry collection Afterimage was 1 of 6 finalists for the St. Lawrence Book Award from Black Lawrence Press. There were also 6 fiction finalists, for a total of 12 finalists.

2) Also 1 of 4 finalists for the C&R Press DeNovo poetry book award. Both of the above presses publish outstanding work.

3) Several literary agents gave me complimentary long notes on my garden / family memoir, Morning Glory. For example:

"You are clearly a talented writer, there's much to be admired in these pages. I found this lyrical, moving and rich in both setting and detail. That said, after much deliberation I just can't see a way to market this successfully to a general trade publisher, nor can I see a way to revise it that won't compromise some of the elements I liked here. My instincts tell me this is something that's a better fit for a smaller/ independent publisher, and I'm afraid those circles are just lesser known to me. I'm sorry to disappoint you, and to pass on work by a writer who is clearly talented."

4) I was offered a full scholarship to attend the Ropewalk Writers Retreat in Indiana, but instead decided to stay home and completely redraft my memoir for the entire month of June. It is a much better book as a result.

5) I was offered a partial grant to attend the Vermont Studio Center for 2-4 weeks of writing time and space in 2011, but simply can't afford it (which may be ok).

6) The only works I had published this year were an article, Monarch Butterflies: The Last Migration, in a regional newspaper, Prairie Fire, and an essay on plant rights / invasive species / origin of flowers in ISLE entitled The Lion's Tooth.

6.5) I was the #6 top guest ranter on Garden Rant for my post on flag poles in the landscape, as in, do away with them.

7) On 12/31/09 I did have my second poetry chapbook, Without Such Absence, accepted for publication by Finishing Line Press, and it came out last month.

8) 2011 will see my garden featured on the Wachiska Audubon Society's Backyard Wildlife Habitat Garden Tour on Father's Day. No doubt I'll be busy this spring outside, excitedly so.

2011 -- Well, this post may be more for me now, record keeping so to speak. I have a pipe dream about writing a short / light 100 page garden book in the next week (or month, we'll see, I do have a new class to prep for by 1/10), then turning my attention back fully to the Oklahoma immigration memoir, eventually visiting Oklahoma again this summer. I've got a growing list of publishers to send Morning Glory to, but truth be told, 2011 needs to be about writing and not wasting time and money on $25 book contests and journals whose slush piles overwhelm even me. In the fall I'll apply for teaching jobs as my wife will be done with her PhD in 2012, and that will be a full time job in itself.

At least there is the garden, which in 2010 matured much more than me, and so gives me hope. It is an amazing space that fuels my writing, and vice versa. It is always a lesson in and of itself, and a constant reminder that chaos is ordered and is not chaos at all--or, that even order needs a little chaos so life is lived more fully.

Happy New Year everyone, even though in my book every day is the beginning of a new year. Oh, it's just so arbitrary, all these numbers, lists, reflections, ritual blog posts on 12/31.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Facebook My Garden & See it From Day 1

Do so by going to my TDM Facebook page, "like" TDM, and you can see pics from the last 3.5 years, a video, and enjoy the plant orgy. That's right. Shimmy up to the plants as they sleep, skip creep, and go straight on into leap, leap, leap. Herbaceous perennial gardens blow me away--from nothing to 6, 10, and 14 feet high in one season. And native herbaceous perennial gardens, at that.

Link here, or down on the side bar to the right on this here blog.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Walken in a Winter Wonderland

It looks EXACTLY like this outside as I gaze through the nearest window:

And how about SNL's "Carol of Intimacy"

"Leave me alone! Please go away!
I'm doing fine! Just get away!"

Monday, December 20, 2010

Love, Absence, and the Thin Line of Existence

I've been reading for my new class next month, planning as much as I can, a class on the short story. I've chosen collections published in the last 20 years, some by first timers. Here are quotes from two debut books I've enjoyed immensely this weekend.

From Once the Shore, by Paul Yoon:

"He considered the possibility that there were many kinds of love and as you experienced one, you felt the absence of all the others. He thought of a city perpetually opening onto the sea."

From The Shell Collector, by Anthony Doerr (and a fitting quote for the winter solstice):

Context is a woman who can divine the life experiences of dead creatures (or people) by touching them and going into a trance / vision she can share with others.

"More clearly than ever she could see that there was a fine line between dreams and wakefulness, between living and dying, a line so tenuous it sometimes didn't exist. It was always clearest for her in winter. In winter, in that valley, life and death were not so different. The heart of a hibernating newt was frozen solid but she could warm and wake it in her palm. For the newt there was no line at all, no fence, no River Styx, only an area between living and dying, like a snowfield between two lakes: a place where lake denizens sometimes met each other on their way to the other side, where there was only one state of being, neither living nor dead, where death was only a possibility and visions rose shimmering to the stars like smoke. All that was needed was a hand, the heat of a palm, the touch of fingers."

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Blooming Winter Foliage

This is a TRUE bloom day, one I've never participated in because everyone just posts flowers. Blah. My love of 6 to 12 foot tall perennials is finally beginning to pay off--and one can only orgasmically fanticize about what things will look like in exactly one year. Wow. Screw summer with its trite petals. This is where it's at. I think the upcoming June garden tour should happen right now.

And then we also had a few birds pass overhead:

The grading is done, the semester is over. The office floor can once again be seen. I even opened up my computer, messed with some wires, and fixed my 11-1 memory card reader. I can't tell you how such ambition is literally sucked away like low tide during the term. Over winter break I expect to read at least ten books, and, perhaps, begin writing one or two of my own. Four weeks "off"--clock starts when I started this blog post. See you on the flip side.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Listening to Neurons

Just cut off a cockroach leg, hook up the SpikerBox, and listen to the insect neurons firing away (don't worry, they say the leg grows back).

Order yours now! I know everyone in my family would love this, and that soon after I'd be covered in vomit and taken out of the will, divorced, et cetera.

But seriously, have you ever heard of such a thing? Would this work on frogs? Cats? Humans who use their lawnmowers too often when I'm trying to enjoy my garden?

Then again, the demented natural scientist in me thinks this would be neat. I wonder what flowers sound like, if they even have a sound. Which I bet they do.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Book Proposal To You

I've been thinking how I could write a short book (100p) on my 3 years of gardening. I've been thinking about how gardening books are either about design /theory, practical advice, or narrative reflection. I've been thinking how all three could surely be hybridized (get it?) and juxtaposed against one another in a collection of short, yet linked, chapters--some lyrical, some humorous, some quasi practical, most about how much anal research I've done and how much time spent in my garden. How much obsessing. Late nights. Bad dreams. Et cetera. All the sordid details of my elicit affair (which it is, ask my wife). So below are some proposed chapter titles.

Finding a Big pink rock (I was so excited! Free rock!)
Skinning Me (on a sun burn and my wife's peeling me like an onion)
Is That a Pruner in Your Pocket Or Are You Now Half a Man (mechanical misshaps)
4 showers a day and it still doesn’t rain (in the first two years I took many showers in one day cuz I coldn't stay away from gardening, in July, when it was 95...)
Rabbit Pretzels (nutrional suggestion on what we can do with them)
Gnome on the Range
Monarchical Monarchs
The Garden Center Circuit (I once went to 6 nuseries in one day, and visited some of them twice)
1st Plant to Die, Last Plant to Live
Tree me to your leader
Take the Edge Off
Winter Flicker
Watch Your Step (as in, I want you to come visit my garden, but don't you dare break ANYTHING)
Fountain Planting
Twilight Zone
What’s eating you
The Geese at Sunset
Putting Around (on my neighbor who golfed while watching us eat dinner on the deck)
650 Light Bulbs (on planting crocus in 20 degree weather before Christmas)
To be a gardener or a potter--working with clay
Stick to your ribs
Wet Robin Contest
Right Plant, Wrong Garden
Sneaking Around With a Hussy Perennial (my favorite plants)
Not a drop to drink
Nebraska Faultlines (who knew dirt could make pocket change vanish in a bottomless hole)

What would you want to see in such a book? What "gardening" books most grab you, or is it simply any depending on your mood? What bothers you about "gardening" books? Is voice, tone, and energy the most important aspect of a book? Do you prefer info over story, or how it feels / sounds? Do you like light reading, or heavy, or both at once?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Writing Life Update

Since I work in two genres, I'll do one, then the other:


In October my full length collection, Afterimage, was one of four finalists for the C&R Press De Novo book award. This week, I was one of twelve finalists (out of 300+ total submissions) for the St. Lawrence Book Award from Black Lawrence Press. I've been sending this book out for 4-5 years, and suddenly I was a finalist in two contests.

My second chapbook, Without Such Absence, was just released. You can get it on Amazon (and perhaps write a lovely review of it while you're there?):


About two weeks ago I had a rejection from an agent who gushed about my memoir Morning Glory: A Story of Family & Culture in the Garden. They were into the lyricism, structure, stories, and what not, but the book wouldn't play with the trade publishers they mostly work with. So, as I'm suspecting, a smaller press may be a more appropriate home. Who knows. Some essays from the book have also been positively rejected this month--not positively as in, yes, of course they were rejected, emphatically so--but as in looks good, sorry.

What's the take home lesson? It's December and there's still no snow in Nebraska, but the squirrels are out at the bird feeders in full force. Up to you to be the writer and find the symbolism there. First person to wow me gets a free reply from me in the comments section!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

On Prairie, Literature, and Richard Manning

I've begun the ecological research phase of my next book, and just finished Richard Manning's book GRASSLAND, which is a cultural, historical, economic, flora and fauna look at the grasslands that once covered 40% of the country, from Illinois to California. I'm pasting in quotes, with some of my reflections and context clarifications in brackets. Someone should find this interesting, and perhaps go pick up this book. What will I hopefully be doing in May? Visiting some grasslands in Iowa, Kansas, and Oklahoma.

262 -- To date, our society has shown no special inclination to mature. We still consider progress to be stoking the very economic engine that already has consumed so much of the planet’s life as fuel. We are still able to rally most “progressive” forces of our nation around candidates who say “It’s the economy, stupid,” when the fundamental issue is not the economy, it is life.

263 -- …everything we know was taught us by nature, but nature gave us brains evolved to their niche, so they are limited in their understanding. All that we know we have learned from nature, but we do not know all that nature knows [and likely never will].

260 – on botanists: I have been afield with many of them, and they are different, almost invariably quiet, distant. Undeniably, they see something different from what I see, as if the knowledge of the plants lifts a veil. The whole of it is there in the plants to be read, the full soul of a place, its life and the abuses of its life, the creation’s intentions and the manifest violations of those intentions. Botanists are our shamans.

250 -- Discussing a biologist at Walnut creek in Iowa who is studying the intricate lay of the land, how species depend on one another, the hills and streams, the topography, and the need to gather local seed to reestablish a total grassland ecology because even bluestem from Kansas is far differently suited to its place than bluestem in Iowa: “Anything else would be just gardening.” [clearly the insinuation is that gardening is just plopping in plants without considering the regional source of those plants, the interdependent community of those plants as regards to co-evolution, and the topography of the land where they grow. I think I can be a much better nongardener, in this sense, though I do think about these things very much in my limited context--my 1/4 acre lot.]

247 -- …the culture of plants is the same as the culture of people.

245 – [part of his logic against vegetarianism] Why is it not ethical to kill and eat a single bison? A single bison does not stand alone, is not an individual. It is, rather, a manifestation of a place, the net result, the capstone of fie, wind, and grass—grass to the horizon—and the hundreds of plants that live in it, and of the fungi, insects, the birds, the wolves, the prairie dogs, ferrets, burrowing owls, compass plant, horned lark, sunflower, and cone flower, all of these things, and can only be understood as such. The return of our eating bison marks the return of all these things to our lives.

[I used to be against saving the mega fauna, the obvious animals. But if you save the largest, the capstone fauna, you must, by extension, be saving, preserving, recreating all that sustains them—which is an intricate web filled with co-evolved organisms designed for a specific place and time. For us to be taken outside this place and time is to be taken out of creation, something as stupid as placing your hand in a vat of liquid oxygen. Perhaps it does start with bison.]

229 – The solitude of the prairie is like no other, the feeling of being hidden and alone in a grassland as open as the sea. Walking toward the horizon through the hills, tawny and loose like the folds in a cougar’s skin, one has a sense that over the next ridge there will rise a brown cloud of bison and over the next, the Pleistocene, unspoiled. Unless one has walked pure prairie, it is difficult to imagine how such a sense of freedom can flow from a landscape that is the giver of harsh rules.

[All over in book – we have a 70% grain surplus, and we use it to fatten cows, and we eat those fat cows and get heart disease and what not. If we raise bison, roaming free across the plains, we would not have to spread fertilizer or pesticides, the bison would take care of themselves. Their grass-fed meat would be much leaner, and we’d be connected to place psychologically and physically.]

155 – Virtually all of agriculture is an attempt to artificially prolong a first or immature stage of succession. The grasses we have domesticated are seral species [annual 1st stage plants in a disturbed area] that grow well only in monoculture. They grow quickly and concentrate energy on producing seed [whereas later perennial grasses store energy in roots and rhizomes, and thus create prairie]. They store carbohydrates in these seeds, which is precisely why we value them as food. From an ecological sense, then, agriculture is a sustained catastrophe. It is the practice of plowing [and cattle overgrazing], then preventing nature from healing itself. It is imposition of a monoculture on a system that wants nothing so much as to diversify and stabilize.


97 – Our science, our poetry, and our democracy fail because they lack specific information of the plants….

206 – We who inhabit the grassland need a new story, a sort of illiterature that rises from the land.

192 – The West is made of one long series of necessary and true fill-in-the-blank stories, and sometimes it seems we are doomed to love them cyclically and perpetually, simply because there is no such thin as The Story. as the colonial culture of the West, we have no culture, which is just the same problem as having no story that tells us how we fit in the place. This is not an original idea, and in fact there is a self-conscious and active movement among western writers to invent a literature for the place. We need stories that will settle us to the land, not more stories reacting to those who would and do destroy it, but as long as the destruction goes on, these accounts of our struggles will be our only story. They are necessary, but seem doomed, a new sort of colonialism.


141 – 1 square yard of bluestem grass has 25 miles of roots

83-83 – 1870 over 2 million bison taken from one heard in NE and KS.

The plains slope 10 feet for every mile toward the MS River.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Before It Snows, Late Fall... & Merwin Poem

I doubt my photos stand out from the rest I see hurled up on the internet, but here they are. Ringing endorsement? Apathy? No. The garden is beautiful right now. If this lineup of brown looks monotone to you, click on and expand the images. You know what I'm talking about. The birds have been feasting. They know. But I'm ready for snow, excited to see what the plants do to it, and what it does to them--the highlighting, the sculpting, the reflection of one on the other.

Aster laevis seed, which I
promptly shook off in the breeze

Creepy coneflower seed

'Prairie Fire' Crabapple

Black-Eyed Susan Ruby Something or Other

Ahh sweet texture

Dew Light -- W.S. Merwin

Now in the blessed days of more and less
when the news about time is that each day
there is less of it I know none of that
as I walk out through the early garden
only the day and I are here with no
before or after and the dew looks up
without a number or a present age

Rabbits ate the right side of the sumac last
winter, will they balance it out this winter?

Amsonia hubrichtii

Lysimachia 'Firecracker' in foreground, bright orange,
with a divine shaft of light shafting the fall garden. 

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Influential Writers Meme

On Facebook this meme is going around, and since I've never done one, I provide you with exhibit W--15 writers who have influenced me, or who I will never be able to get out of my head (for good reasons). In no particular order:

1) Henry D. Thoreau (nf) -- Walden
2) Rainer Maria Rilke (p) -- Lots of poems
3) Tim O'Brien (f) -- In the Lake of the Woods; The Things They Carried
4) James Wright (p) -- The Branch Will Not Break
5) W.S. Merwin (p) -- Travels; The River Sound
6) Walt Whitman (p, nf) -- Lots of poems
7) Louise Gluck (p) -- The Wild Iris
8) Robert Frost (p) -- Lots of poems
9) Linda Hogan (nf) -- Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World
10) Scott Russell Sanders (nf) -- Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World
11) Bill McKibben (nf) -- The End of Nature
12) Terry Tempest Williams (nf) -- Refuge: An Unnatural Hitsory of Family and Place
13) Michael Pollan (nf) -- Second Nature
14) N. Scott Momaday (nf) -- The Man Made of Words
15) Loren Eiseley (nf) -- The Star Thrower; and others

Boy, that was fast. I could've kept going for another 15 or 150. In truth, there are many books that linger with me or that were key to one period or another in my life. Perhaps the above are the obvious choices, some are more recent, some might seem cliched. I tried to be diverse yet not sensor msyelf, and include authors who have 2+ books I consider a big deal. There ya go. Feel free to meme yourself and post a link in my comments section.

Yesterday I got another fantastically-positive rejection from an agent for my memoir Morning Glory. I've had many this year--on the book, on essays from the book, and several near misses on my full-length poetry collection Afterimage (which was recently one of 4 finalists for a book prize). It's been a fuzz hard staying motivated to keep sending out work, because sending out work takes a good deal of time and thought; I'm not the kind of person who submits williy nilly, or who doesn't spend too much time being emotionally involved in pretty much anything, hence exhaustion. Anywho, I'm a whiner. Today is turkey, fresh bread, and chocolate cake, perhaps some James Bond. And maybe stuffing a few envelopes, too (but not with bread and seasonings, although...). Did I mention it's 15 degrees with a 0 wind chill?

Monday, November 22, 2010

Wifi Wounds Trees -- Stop Internetting!

"Radiation from Wi-Fi networks is harmful to trees, causing significant variations in growth, as well as bleeding and fissures in the bark, according to a recent study in the Netherlands.

In the Netherlands, about 70 percent of all trees in urban areas show the same symptoms, compared with only 10 percent five years ago. Trees in densely forested areas are hardly affected."

And sad news for cornhuskers re corn:

"The study exposed 20 ash trees to various radiation sources for a period of three months. Trees placed closest to the Wi-Fi radio demonstrated a "lead-like shine" on their leaves that was caused by the dying of the upper and lower epidermis of the leaves. This would eventually result in the death of parts of the leaves. The study also found that Wi-Fi radiation could inhibit the growth of corn cobs."

Full (brief) article here.

See that maple outside your local coffee house where you go for the free internet? Every email you send wounds it. Guilt it up. If ever I needed a reason to get off the computer more, here's one.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Snowblower Giveaway

Seems liks everyone has one, and the host blogger then gets a free snowblower. Hey, I'd like an electric snowblower (especially if it snows like it did last year). Here's my imaginary giveaway. Feel free to enter.

I'm also willing to "test" an electric wood chipper / mulcher, Audi A5 coupe, and a Frank Lloyd Wright inspired home on 100+ acres of Midwest prairie, lake, and woods.

Getting Snarky At End of Semester Realizing I Spent Too Much Time Teaching and Not Enough Researching And Whoa It's Supposed to be 15 Degrees This Week

Friday, November 19, 2010

Veil -- Poem by Todd Davis

Been a while since I posted a poem (been in nonfiction mode), but this one blew me away. What do you think? Subtle, understated, complex, elegant--lyric with a juicy touch of mercurial narrative?


In this low place between mountains
fog settles with the dark of evening.
Every year it takes some of those
we love—a car full of teenagers
on the way home from a dance, or
a father on his way to the paper mill,
nightshift the only opening.
Each morning, up on the ridge,
the sun lifts this veil, sees what night
has accomplished. The water on our window-
screens disappears slowly, gradually,
like grief. The heat of the day carries water
from the river back up into the sky,
and where the fog is heaviest and stays
longest, you’ll see the lines it leaves
on trees, the flowers that grow
the fullest.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Fall, I Hardly Knew Ye

I've been sorta busy. Trip to Iowa City, grading essays like crazy, reading dozens of books for a new, upperclass short story lit class I'm teaching in the spring. We had our first snow two nights ago, just a dusting, which followed 3 inches of rain (the last rain we had was about a tenth of an inch in late September, and I've been dragging hoses all over the last week trying to de-crack my clay soil).

Below are pictures because, well, I'm tired. I hate in when bloggers confess / apologize for not posting in some time, and here I am doing it. I guess I hate myself. If anything, my trip to Iowa for the NonfictioNow conference made me realize a few things: 1) I can write, I should write, no matter how it kills me I must sacrifice my body (which is a very real thing--I tend to write not like a marathon runner, but a sprinter) and 2) there are some really amazing writers I'll never hear of (but I did discover some!). That's heartening and even a little comforting, but only in a dark way. Not all that tasty root beer fizz rises to the top--some of it eventually pops and becomes syrupy liquid or vapor, vanishing into thin air. I guess what I'm saying is I could really go for some A&W, Barqs, or IBC to get me through the rest of the semester. In fact, Barqs always reminds me of a winter school camp trip in 4th grade where I first learned to snow shoe and cross country ski in Minnesota. It was cold up there near the BWCA. Strange how the cold can warm you up.

Last cosmos

(l-r) Bluestem, ninebark, spiraeas, buckthorn

Don't you love a full-textured dead garden?

Bald cypress = A+ color

Bald cypress cone

Golden smokebush color = A+++

Wild senna seeds

Last serviceberry leaves

Willow-leaved sunflower

Spring is only about 3 months away.... But does time really need to go any faster? Soak into me winter. Soak into me long, deep, and patiently. Dig in to me, and help me get my roots further out into the soil of my next book's research before the spring / summer of writing bursts forth. Make me ready. I am ready.

Hotel curtain at dusk in Iowa

Saturday, October 30, 2010

I Succumb to You, Autumn, Like a Memory

The morning glories have died. Their stems and leaves are wilted and limp this morning. The bright green of those heart-shaped leaves is a mass of forest green, nearly a rich black soil--of which they will now become.

It was not a hard freeze, but it was another 30 degree night. At 11pm I almost went outside to cover them, as I did two weeks ago, but I was tired. I wanted to give in to my body after a long day, a long week. I wanted sleep. It was time to let go.

I move my hand into the damp silk of foliage, no longer careful like I was yesterday when hidden bumble bees would emerge like smoke from the long throats of blooms. In the wind I let one leaf rest on the back of my hand until it lays flat. It is like my grandmother's hand. Clammy, limp, tired, and ready to say something final we don't need to say--the touch is a thousand words, a synapse that fires from neuron to neuron and passes on the memory. And the memory of memories.

Each spring it takes me longer than I'd expect to start morning glories. I plant unique varities after soaking the seeds overnight. I wait for 14 days. Nothing. I soak and plant again. I wait 14 days. A leaf, like a mushroom, here and there. I wait for the vines to wake slowly, as they always do, a millimeter a day. Then an inch. Then one day a foot or three. Which plant will it be?

But the only morning glories that bloom are self-seeded 'Grandpa Ott,' the same dark purple as last year. No chocolate or white, no blue. But they come. The vines come like an olfactory sense and cover the deck railing, then hide the deck, the window, shade a part of the wall. Butterflies pupate in the deep, thick shadows. Tree frogs shelter from afternoon sun. A preying mantis feasts on a skipper, its body parallel to a thin, curled shoot diving out into the negative space of air and sky.

The morning glories have died. The birch leaves are down. The amsonia is sunlight unto itself. The shadows of cedars cover half the garden. The asters are a week gone. Nothing is left, yet everything is here, still, dug in and waiting. Like the purple morning glory seeds I planted only once, years ago, and that will come again in May. I'll wait. I give myself to the winter now so that I might earn the spring and come into the balance of seasons, and if I'm lucky, myself. I remember my mother's morning glories. She remembers her grandmother's. And so the morning glories remember us all.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Tour of Fall on UNL Campus

Here are some pics of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus on a chilly, blustery, about-to-be-cloudy late fall morning. Yes, that was a long sentence. English profs have that kind of power.

In the Sheldon Gallery sculpture garden

Crabapple marbles and leaf jacks?


The sculpture through the trees I call "The Flat Canoe"

Roxy Paine's tree outside my office window

Monday, October 18, 2010

Migration--Trains, Mennonites, Bison, Native Americans

Less than a mile north of my home in Nebraska is a main BNSF rail yard, the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe lines now one conglomerate who both, in the late 1800s, vied for my family’s business as they and thousands of other Mennonites immigrated from Russia to the Great Plains. In cold winter nights the sound of railcars colliding together is like dry thunder as long trains of Wyoming coal are linked with long trains of shipping containers.

Less than a mile south is Pioneers Park, where on the far west end a few dozen bison and elk roam several acres. Perhaps their migratory instincts have been erased over the generations, or they may simply be latent and suppressed. Behind the barbwire fences that revolutionized borders, they pace around a small pond, rest beneath cottonwoods, stare at a small bit of prairie out beyond a dirt road and hear the same trains I hear at night. Those railroads carved up their world like they did the many Native American tribes. Railroad companies advertised overseas about cheap land for sale near rail lines and new towns, land the companies got for free from the government. Foreign agents visited towns and villages to rally poor Europeans, set up ocean passage, and donate railcars for cedar trunks, wagons, and stone farm implements.

Immigrants poured in from Russia. Almost 20,000 in five years. Some chose the Burlington Northern and settled in Minnesota and the Dakotas, some the Santa Fe and Kansas. All knew distance as a westward trajectory, homesteaders seeking religious freedom along the gridlines of progress. The buffalo fell from 50 million to a thousand in a century. The great Native American tribes were crammed into a dozen or so reservations in Oklahoma Territory—a place with the most diverse intersection of ecological regions of any state in the country.

As I lay waking in the morning I hear the short, sharp calls of a cardinal at the feeder, spaced every few seconds apart. To me they are a winter bird, a sharp holiday red against the faded green of invasive eastern red cedars they shelter in. The birds are home wherever they are, doing what they can in a landscape that changes radically every decade. The houses move out further, the trees move north as the earth warms. The fences and the highways dissect the land and separate us from it, making us no longer migrants but sheltered animals in a world we made without understanding the world of which we are. I hear the train cars colliding eastward toward bigger cities. I wonder if the bison can hear them, and if that call is now a primal fear. I wonder how far the hard echo reaches in the chilled morning of this late autumn, and how latent our instincts are to migrate again, one last time, beyond the lines we imagine hold us safely apart from one another.

* I was born and lived in Oklahoma for ten years before moving to Minnesota. Oklahoma has been a barren place for me full of soul-sapping depression and heaviness once you cross the border--in the red dirt you feel the whole history of the country's expansion sped up into a few decades, a microcosm of insanity. Minnesota has meant freedom and self expression for me, wilderness in every romantic sense. But as I live in Nebraska--almost perfectly between my two homes--I look south and see what the legacy of ecological, industrial, and cultural romanticism in America has left behind, and the strange new power it can provide as we redefine are now native land, for better or worse. And so, perhaps, begins the second memoir. Eventually.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Vanilla Ice on Landscaping

I hope everyone watched The Vanilla Ice Project on DIY. It's more about renovating a mansion with his posse, but tonight he put in some tacky annuals and tiki torches. He did seem to know something about palm trees, and being from the northern Plains, that was like gospel. He also explained why some "bushes" (cringe) were leggy.

Ice ice baby....

If any previous student of my Intro to Lit class is reading this, you will have fond memories of the first day of class and my singing Ice's entire main theme song. Is it literature? Is palm spelled backwards mlap?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Twilight Geese in Autumn

A few evenings ago I made my nightly pilgrimage around the garden and yard. After inspecting and filling the dozens of holes dug by migrating robins and brown thrashers, I made my way to check on the fall foliage of the birches, maple, and willow.

Along the back fence is an opening that looks out to my neighbor's 3 acres, and in the distance--about 200 feet--is a thick stand of mature trees on the edge of their property. Where that stand of trees ends and meets the thin line that runs along the back of my lot, is a small pond which marks the end of a long flyway, if you will, reaching back across many acreages running parallel to my neighborhood.

An autumn dusk is always breathtaking. The air is crisper and drier, the sunlight sharper, the musk of rich decay feeding new soil sweet and thick and reminiscent of the woods I would explore growing up in Minnesota. I am always home when I smell this air, holding it as close and far inside me as possible with each deep breath.

At dusk my chilling body leans against the chain link fence, and I can hear in some great distance Canadian geese--another call home for me. The cries shout far in this air, at this time, and I know they are searching out their nightly place among the cornfields not too far away, or the many small ponds that dot a nearby park. I don't think they are coming closer, but moving south, away from me, as they do this time of year.

But their calls remain constant, neither growing fainter nor louder. It's like my heartbeat, racing north, leaning slightly into the wind and suddenly darting right or left to catch an impulse, a desire.

I can't see them. Behind the cedars and elms is where they must be, but I am so low here, between the trees, a small gap in the line, I'll never see them.

Suddenly one lone call pierces loudly, rushes forward like a warning, a groping in the dark. I hear their wings like someone slipping on a warm coat in winter. Then there they are, no more than 20-30 feet off the ground, mapping the earth in front me. A perfect "V" of two dozen birds, pushing and pulling air, stable in the dichotomy of their actions, pulsing from east to west. I've never been so close.

The edge of the "V" closest to me is missing a bird, and as the formation slides by so low that for a moment I childishly think I can reach up, hook on and be carried away, I believe they have made a place for me.

And they have. The moment lasts all but two or three seconds, but I no longer exist in the same way that I did before. I am no longer the same person. As the calls slide over the horizon chasing the last faint yellow and magenta sunlight, I am here and nowhere, far away and closer to my place.

Stay still. Don't breathe. Be ready. They may come around again.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Monarchs Passing

Four in the garden this afternoon. On a cloudy, calm day, it sure seems strange to have this many monarchs on this date. Clearly, they are late in migrating.

Today our last monarch was set to emerge from its chrysalis, but it only managed a tiny edge of one wing. I presume it's dead by now, or will be shortly. It led a strange life, not eating for many days before it went "J", then when it did go the chrysalis, as the caterpillar, was undersized.

So, to the garden to find monarchs--and other insects--which will see us through the week and into a four day weekend (viva academic jobs and their fall breaks).
Seeing Triple

Synchronized Feeding

Male Monarch by Phallic Liatris Seed Head

Painted Lady on Aster Tataricus

Bees on Solidago

Jeff Goldblum

Sunflower Seeds

Indian and Switch Grass at Dusk

Snow Crocus in Fall

Medusa Verbena

Gratuitous (Gorgeous) Monarch Pic