Sunday, February 28, 2010

Crocus Leaves in the Grass! And a Gluck Poem

You gotta look hard, especially when you aren't used to looking for anything the last 4 months, but they are everywhere. Snow crocus. Just behind the melting snow line. Snow-less crocus.


There was an apple tree in the yard --
this would have been
forty years ago -- behind,
only meadows. Drifts
of crocus in the damp grass.
I stood at that window:
late April. Spring
flowers in the neighbor's yard.
How many times, really, did the tree
flower on my birthday,
the exact day, not
before, not after? Substitution
of the immutable
for the shifting, the evolving.
Substitution of the image
for relentless earth. What
do I know of this place,
the role of the tree for decades
taken by a bonsai, voices
rising from the tennis courts --
Fields. Smell of the tall grass, new cut.
As one expects of a lyric poet.
We look at the world once, in childhood.
The rest is memory.

-- Louise Gluck

(It's a busy week ahead, tons of student conferences, sorting student entries for our annual dept. literary awards, prep work for my KS research trip, and visiting writers auditioning to captain Prairie Schooner--UNL's national literary journal--into new waters as editor-in-chief. Change is everywhere. Alas, it doesn't come in $100 bills.)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Birds, The Sun

Outside it is 22. This morning it was 0, and will be again tonight. But something has shifted. Standing in my socks and sweater on the steps out back (pants too), it didn't feel cold. I could see my breath, but I could not feel the dry cold in my throat. I've not felt real sun in days, maybe a week (what a busy week), and though I am not really a sun person, feeling it meant something today. I was cold, yet I was warm, and it wasn't just the sunlight.

Dozens upon dozens of robins and chickadees, sparrows and blue jays, dart from ceder to elm to gutter's edge, their feet on the metal echoing down into the house. I hear a woodpecker from somewhere in the stand of trees. Chickadees chase and call each other, meticulously tracing each other's path like a snake's body. There are more geese at dusk, larger flocks pacing west toward the open cornfields and farm ponds.

It's not spring, we are 20 degree below average, and this is fine. The 6" of snow in the garden is lovely, keeping my fall transplants safe. Along the house's south wall, where the snow is gone, the preserved green of tansy and penstemon and agastache nearly fool me into believing it is April. It's not spring, and this is fine.

Inside I'm laying on the couch, sunlight warming my feet only, not reaching in to the living room as far as it did just one month ago. I'm reading a book. I'm thinking about both of my memoirs--one ready, one in the research stages. I'm wondering what I'll find in Kansas. I'm daydreaming about planting yellow twig dogwood and carex and liatris. Will I find any trace of my family? Of myself? Two robins scrape the tree line and settle on the roof--I hear them chasing each other across the asphalt shingles. It is a spring rain. The rejection letters in the mail are almost always positive now. We are in transition. The lines are blurred. It is winter. And so it must be spring.

Monday, February 15, 2010

A Rant On Our Perceptions of Environmental Degradation

First, I think it's important to say that I am not a bleeding liberal and never will be. Nor am I really all that much of a republican. I pick and choose on each issue. Not that it matters. What matters is that we always tend to prescribe any conversation about important social issues to political idealogies and groups, when that does nothing but separate us first from each other, and then from the issue, making us stagnate. Which seems to be the perpetual state of Washington.

I often get myself into stupid and ultimately silly discussions (arguments) about our perception and actions toward the environment. No issue concerns me more than how humans live in the landscape. If this issue doesn't become politicized, it will often slide down to the next level, and become a religious issue--which I think can be a good thing, because so many people believe in some kind of diety, and because so many people feel something larger than themselves when they spend time in a natural setting (wild or created) and call this feeling god.

I get accused of being too emotional about environmental degradation. Yes, ok, fine. It's going to get worse as I get older. But isn't the core problem that we DON'T get emotional? People tell me all the time to not be emotional or irrational about the issue of global warming or pollution or mountain top mining, but shouldn't we be emotional about it? If someone came and blew up your family and home, would you be emotional? If your friends were floating dead on the ocean current because they've eaten nothing but plastic for months, would you be concerned?

The way I see it, we don't care. I'm not saying humans are self centered or egomaniacal, though we can be. I'm saying if it doesn't directly affect us now, it doesn't matter. This is obvious, I suppose. But we lack the metaphor that creates deeper meaning in our lives, that connects us more deeply to ourselves and our loved ones, and as a result, the world we really do depend on. That missing metaphor is, let's say, an endangered milkweed species in only one county of Illinois. How separate is its disappearance from our world than the right for women to have equal pay or for a person to be able to walk down a city street at night and not fear being mugged, raped, or murdered?

Here's author Lisa Knopp from her book The Nature of Home:

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.

Here's another quote I think extends the conversation, from poet Robert Bly:

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.

There is no doubt in my mind that we fear ourselves, and for good reason. We are afraid of what we will do when we are angered, stressed out, on the edge. There is the fear of loving something or someone totally and wholly and losing one's self. Maybe that is the greatest fear--losing one's self. It is hard for us to let go of the outline, the rules, social decorum, or to let go of indoctrinated reason.

Many religious thinkers from various religions say we must be made vulnerable in order to know god. The same idea of vulnerability goes for falling in love and being able to, let's say, create a workable healthcare system. There is always much at risk: my sense of myself that is barely pieced together as it is after only a few decades of being alive. And before I know it I'll be dead and gone anyway. I am afraid. We are terribly afraid.

It is not my direct fault that our national symbol, the bald eagle, is again being threatened. As they pick apart the leftover carcasses of a hunter's kill, eagles devour poisonous lead shot. I did not shoot that deer. I did not feed that eagle. I can't do anything about it. And the eagle doesn't affect me. These ideas are very true. But you can decide not to hit your child, not drive your car as much, hold a door for someone, or plant a tree. You can, as Benedictine monks do, find the smallest actions are the greatest praises toward a possible god, or at least realize that in the smallest actions, when we let go, we've overcome our fears and solitude even though we are, by design, alone and wary in our environments--just like every other creature.

Maybe the missing emotional metaphor in our lives is more anthropomorphism. It could be as simple as staring out the window on a windy afternoon, snow slipping from the branches of an elm, and seeing my grandmother taking off her plastic hair net before she came inside to make me potato soup.

* A lot of the above ideas come from my memoir, Morning Glory, as do the quotes.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Night Migrations--Louise Gluck

This is the moment when you see again
the red berries of the mountain ash
and in the dark sky
the birds’ night migrations.

It grieves me to think
the dead won’t see them—
these things we depend on,
they disappear.

What will the soul do for solace then?
I tell myself maybe it won’t need
these pleasures anymore;
maybe just not being is simply enough,
hard as that is to imagine.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Garden Non Destruction, Thanks P*n*s of the Prairie

I was expecting people to whack me upside the head, not agree with my reasoning. I hate blue jays because they wake me up in the morning? It's too much work? Have you seen the glory that is my garden? Look here. Here I mean. That is heaven--especially when the monarchs come.

No no no. I want to double the size. But not here. I am very unhappy with the front, though--hostas and astilbes that I once thought were my best options for shade and part shade. After 2.5 years, I've schooled myself real good in this area--plus I want something more uniform. That means all / mostly carex. Sedge I mean. Should do well in a permanently moist, compost-enriched, half slim shadey sorta spot that stays frozen late into spring. I'm still looking for the best carex. Maybe I will just plant carex in between the hostas and astilbes. And a dogwod or two.

Point is folks, I'm sorry for the deception, and shocked at the gardeners who came here and said go for it. Yikes. I'm the guy who tosses wildflower seed over the fence on to the neighbor's acreage, and out the car window going 50 on nearby semi-rural roads. The inside of my car is sprouting coneflowers and milkweed between the cushions.

I'm a seed flinger, just like the inspirational statue atop the nearby Nebraska state capitol, the Penis of the Prairie as we locals call it.

Look at the big foot that seedy gent has. You know what that means.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Garden Destruction

I'm ripping up my 1500 square foot garden. It hasn't worked right since the start or been what I hoped, and there are just far too many animals that are eating things. And the crows and blue jays wake me up in the mornings. Just too much to take care of finally for how busy I am with work and writing.

So sod is coming back in. I'm sure most will hate what I'm doing, but it should help the house sell faster whenever we do move, and it'll blend back in with the rest of the neighborhood finally.

Au'revoir jardin.

If anyone wants to dig up anything, you have until March 15.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Not Knowing Why--Poem by Ann Struthers

Adolescent white pelicans squawk, rustle, flap their wings, lift off in a ragged spiral at imaginary danger.
What danger on this island in the middle
of Marble Lake? They’re off to feel
the lift of wind under their iridescent wings,
because they were born to fly,
because they have nothing else to do,
because wind and water are their elements,
their Bach, their Homer, Shakespeare,
and Spielberg. They wheel over the lake,
the little farms, the tourist village with their camera eyes.

In autumn something urges
them toward Texas marshes. They follow
their appetites and instincts, unlike the small beetles
creeping along geometric roads, going toward small boxes,
toward lives as narrow or as wide as the pond,
as glistening or as gray as the sky.
They do not know why. They fly, they fly.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Twisty Ghost Sucks Out Girl's Brain, and Other Figures in Ice

I'm starting a new art series based on my winter rain chain. I've titled each piece to evoke what I see in the image--what you see may be different, and as a result, incorrect / less valid / quite pedestrian. Not my fault. If the image titles sound like newspaper column titles--or popular songs from the 1960s--it's because I'm also starting a new series of newspaper columns (or popular songs from the 60s), which I hope will turn into a 5,000 page novel composed of said columns (or songs), interlinked by scratch and sniff word find puzzles. I'm hoping Norton will take it. Are you buying any of this? As always, click on photos to expand.

Twisty Ghost Sucks Out Girl's Brain

E.T. Phone Swan

Recline the Headless Dragon Cat

Polar Bear Lizard Plays With Stalactites

Worm Da Baby Bird

Go Go Gadget Bottle Opener Hand