Playing The Numbers Game

Whether it was the zip code or the seven-digit phone number which came first hardly matters. Both were traumatic in their way. When the telephone exchange for my home town (PYramid2) was dropped in favor of all-digit dialing, you could hear the wails of the afflicted rising up to heaven: “They’re turning us into nothing more than numbers.”

Writing in The Atlantic, Megan Garber recalls that period of transition:

All-Number Calling—it is clear in hindsight—stood in the minds of many for the age of the impersonal, when people live in huge apartment buildings, travel on eight-lane highways and identify themselves in many places—bank, job, income tax return, credit agency—by numbers.

Stephen Baker, author of The Numerati,  contends that such simple and relatively straightforward numbers are relics of the industrial age. Today’s data miners seek to turn us into combinations of numbers as they gather, compile, and interpret information about us before drawing their conclusions about how we will — or, more precisely, how we might be persuaded to — behave.

As Baker points out, the digital revolution may have enabled us to express our individuality through the use of new tools, but it’s quite clear that others are busy devising the most efficient ways to convert our individuality into numbers on a spreadsheet.

Whatever we think of this new intrusiveness, we continue to live by old-fashioned numbers: social security numbers, driver’s license numbers, credit card numbers. We memorize them, or use software programs to track them. Some continue to write them down on slips of paper before tucking them away for safe-keeping.

Especially for people along the eastern seaboard or on the great, looping Gulf coast, two of the most important numbers come as a pair. My own special numbers are 29.54 and 95.06, nicknamed 29N and 95W, respectively. The numbers– latitude and longitude coordinates — not only provide an accurate way to locate my home on a map, they also help to predict the chance of my home getting wiped off the map by a hurricane.

During hurricane season, latitude and longitude reign supreme on the Gulf coast. From the time a depression forms in the Atlantic or Carribean, the coordinates lurk at the edge of consciousness. If a storm scoots through the Yucatan channel and heads across the Bay of Campeche, shoppers begin talking probabilities in the lines at Target. Drivers engage in cryptic conversations at the gas pumps: “Has it crossed 25 yet?”  “Don’t think so. I heard it’s still at 22”.  Around the marinas, boaters’ gossip is faintly anxious: “Did Cyrean head up-island yet?” “Nope. They’re staying put below 15 until after the season.”

As storms form, dissipate, and re-form, wobbling or surging their way through tropical waters, latitude and longitude take on the feel of ancient incanatations: mysterious, trusted charms whose endless recitation somehow can influence  a force of nature.

The response, while totally irrational, is understandable. Watching a tropical low, a nascent storm, or a hurricane making its way across the Gulf toward 29N, latitude becomes more than a number. It becomes the boundary for fear itself. Once experience has proven your place in the world can be obliterated in hours, the latitude called fear becomes as real as the monster spinning into life over the water, and people sometimes live at that latitude for years.

Some months after hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the northern Gulf coast, I traveled to Louisiana and Mississippi. During a second trip to Bay St. Louis, I encountered a little girl and her mother at the waters’ edge.

The young girl, barefooted and solemn in her green and white checked dress, circled her hands above her head like a ballerina. “Does she dance?” I asked her mother. “No, not any more. She used to, before the storm. Now, she puts out her arms, or holds them above her head. But she doesn’t twirl. She says she doesn’t want the water to come when she isn’t looking.”

Gulfport, Mississippi beach prior to Hurricane Isaac  (Megan Jordan)

None of us wants to be surprised by turbulent waters, and so we watch: obsessively, intently, compelled by the chaos swirling just beyond the horizon.  Whether a storm arrives on our doorstep or goes elsewhere to wreak havoc in a different neighborhood, there’s no escaping the watching and waiting, with all of its attendant anxiety and fear.

In the midst of the watching and waiting, we ponder the basic question: do we stay, or do we go?

Sometimes, the decision is made purely on the basis of fear. Some people flee because they never have experienced a storm, and they fear the unknown. Those more experienced in the ways of storms may run to avoid being pummeled by another hurricane’s wrath.  Anxiety sometimes leads people to provision as best they can and hunker down, staying to protect property they fear would be lost in their absence to wind, water, or looters.

But more often than we imagine, decisions in the face of a coming storm are influenced by love.

Along the coastlines, people exist who know their land more intimately than many of us know our children, our spouse, or our best friend. Attuned to its rhythms, they recognize its voice; bound to it by ties unspeakably strong, they would willingly die in its arms rather than turn away and leave.  Some stay because they love their community — the people they’ve grown up with, and a heritage they’re determined to preserve. Work requires others to remain. Steadfast and resolute, their commitment, too, is a form of love.

Others leave their homes because of love. They never would subject  their aging parents, their children, or their disabled relatives to the fury of a storm and the discomforts of its aftermath. Some respond to the loving pleas of far-off family members, or realize in a fit of clarity that their love for life itself will not allow them to risk that life by confronting a surging storm. “Hide from wind, run from water” is ages-old wisdom, and here on the coast, that wisdom is taken seriously.

Fear, then, is the latitude crossing the storms of life, while love is its longitude: a line running as deeply through our lives as the worst of human fears. Confronting a storm, those who leave and those who stay often differ only in their final decision. They are equally courageous, standing at that intersection of love and fear where the questions always are the same: “What shall we do, now? What will we do, then? Will there be something left, or will the water overcome us at last, and wash our lives away?”

For now, asking the questions is sufficient. The time for decision has not yet come; there still is time to feel the air cooling and the breeze stirring.
For now, the music of life trills like a seabird taking flight, and life itself continues, lapping toward the shore.

While clouds part and stars still glimmer against a glowing, perfect dawn, someone who remembers a storm-scoured coast is walking toward the water’s edge: their child’s heart newly courageous, newly determined, and perfectly poised to dance at the intersection of love and fear.

Comments always are welcome.

 

Burned Into Memory

To pass through a fire-ravaged world — eyes stinging in the smoky haze; feet sinking and twisting in the soft and shifting ash; lips tight against bitter, blowing grit  — is to risk being consumed by irrational certainties: convinced, perhaps, that such desolation, such destruction, will last forever.  Even when burns scheduled for prairie management have been carefully planned and implemented with precision, the sight of the bleak and apparently lifeless land sears the mind as surely as the earth itself has been seared.
Continue reading

When Carl Linnaeus Meets T.S. Eliot

Texas bluebonnets (Lupinus texensis) on the Willow City Loop

I’ve always considered the phrase “flash of inspiration” to be mostly metaphorical, but it perfectly describes a recent experience. In the course of responding to my current post about Ferdinand Lindheimer on Lagniappe, Curt Mekemson said, “I find it appropriate and interesting that naturalists get to add their name to discoveries.”

In a flash, the phrase “the naming of plants” came to mind. It recalled T.S. Eliot’s wonderful poem, “The Naming of Cats.” In my response to his comment, I told Curt there was a parody demanding to be written, although I wasn’t certain Carl Linnaeus’s system of categorizing plants by genus and species could be contained in the form of a poem, and the fact that plant names are given in Latin only added to the challenge.

Nevertheless, the thought of having a little fun with binomial nomenclature — what botanists call those two-part names like Lupinus texensis — was appealing.  In fact, it was so appealing everything I’d been working on was set aside in favor of having a little pure fun.

If you’re not familiar with Eliot’s poem, you can hear a recording of him reading it here. If you already know “The Naming of Cats,” you’ll hear the echoes below. Whether Linnaeus would enjoy it, I can’t say. I’m sure that Eliot would, and I hope you do, too.

 

The naming of plants? It really does matter.
It isn’t correct to think all are the same.
You may think at first I’m indulging in patter,
but I tell you — a plant must have four different names!
First comes the name that tells us its genus —
Gaillardia, Solanum, Ilex or Phlox;
Clematis and Salvia,  Silphium, Quercus —
the Latin is easy, not hard as a rock.
There are fancier names if you think they sound sweeter,
some for the cactus and some for the canes —
Monarda, Justicia, or even Lantana
make lovely and sensible Latinate names.
And then, every plant needs a name more particular,
a name that’s specific and quite dignified —
else how could it keep all its stems perpendicular,
spread out its anthers, or blossom with pride?
For namings of this sort, I ‘ll give you fair dozens:
lyrata, drummondii, frutescens, and more —
crispus, limosa, luteola, texensis —
those names help describe what we’re all looking for.
Of course, there are names by which most people call plants,
like violet, hollyhock, iris, and thyme;
there’s nothing more common than sweet dandelions,
or peaches, or rhubarb for making our wine.
But above and beyond, there’s one name left over,
and that is the Name that you never will guess;
the Name that no researcher ever discovers —
which the plant itself knows, but will not confess.
When you notice a bloom in profound meditation,
its rays sweetly folded, or its leaves well-arrayed,
its mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
of the seed of a thought of a thought of its Name:
its sturdy and windblown,
sunkissed and shadowed,
deep and firm-rooted most singular Name.

 

Comments always are welcome.

The Poets’ Birds ~ The Shy and Silent Ones

Juvenile yellow-crowned night heron (Nyctanassa violacea)

 

That it was shy when alive goes without saying.
We know it vanished at the sound of voices

Or footsteps. It took wing at the slightest noises,
Though it could be approached by someone praying.

We have no recordings of it, though of course
In the basement of the Museum, we have some stuffed

Moth-eaten specimens—the Lesser Ruffed
And Yellow Spotted—filed in narrow drawers.

But its song is lost. If it was related to
A species of Quiet, or of another feather,

No researcher can know. Not even whether
A breeding pair still nests deep in the bayou,

Where legend has it some once common bird
Decades ago was first not seen, not heard.

                                The Extinction of Silence ~  A.E. Stallings

 

Comments always are welcome.

Decorated Graves, Decorated Lives

As with so much in our national life, change has come to Memorial Day. Flags continue to fly, patriotic garlands hang from porch railings, and bunting flutters in late-May breezes. Nevertheless, in ways both subtle and obnoxious, Memorial Day has become primarily a beginning-of-summer ritual: a time to focus on beaches, barbeques, mattress sales, and the first road trip of the season.

In truth, the slowly-fading history and significance of Memorial Day is both more complex and more interesting than most Americans realize. 

With the ending of the Civil War, commemorations spread across the South as mothers, wives, and children of the Confederate dead decorated the graves of their fallen soldiers.

Thirty years later, American writer and illustrator Howard Pyle wrote about Decoration Day for the May 28, 1898 issue of Harper’s Bazaar:

At that time, the outward signs of that flaming and bitter strife were still fresh and new. The bosom of nature, ploughed by the iron of war, had not yet healed. Everywhere were smoke-blackened and shattered shells, each at one time the patriarchal mansion of some great slave-holding planter.
Woods and glades were thinned out by the storm of shot and shell that had torn through them with iron hail. In one place or another long rows – rank upon rank – of shallow mounds stretched up hills, along the level, through the woodlands: battalions of graves hardly yet covered with the thin young grass.
Upon a dozen battle-fields were great cemeteries, each consecrated with its baptism of blood, and there North and South lay in stillness, soldiers stretched side by side, in a fraternity never to be broken, because the Angel Israfel himself had set his seal of silence upon it all.
“In Memoriam” ~ Sophie Bertha Steel
It was to these battle cemeteries, greater or lesser, that the women of the neighboring country brought their offering of flowers.
There is something very full of pathos in the thought of those poor Southern women who had suffered so much and who had endured to such a bitter end – of those patient women of grief bringing their harmless offerings of flowers to these stern and furrowed fields of death, there to lay the fading things upon the bosom of each mound.
The North, it is said, was remembered at those times as well as the South. One cannot but hope this may be true, for it is beautiful to think of one woman of sorrows in the South reaching out an unseen hand to some other and unknown woman of sorrows in the faraway North.

On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan, Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued orders that on May 30th of that year all posts should decorate the graves of the Civil War dead with flowers – both North and South – thus formalizing what had become customary.

After World War I, the focus of the day was expanded to honor all those who had died in all American wars, and Memorial Day began to replace Decoration Day as a term of reference. In 1971, Memorial Day was declared a national holiday by an act of Congress and placed on the last Monday in May.

By the years of my midwestern childhood, the rituals of Decoration Day had become firmly established. On the weekend preceding the holiday, we traveled to family cemeteries to clear away grass from the stones, trim the bushes, and plant fresh flowers. The town’s Boy Scouts, 4-H members, and church youth groups helped the Veterans of Foreign Wars place flags on veterans’ graves, so that all who served would be remembered.

Classroom lessons included the history of significant battles, and Presidential speeches. We created red, white and blue pennants containing patriotic images – the Tree of Liberty, the Liberty Bell, or Lady Liberty’s torch – and posters containing words we barely apprehended: Freedom. Peace. Courage.

Always, there was time for personal memories. World War II lay only a decade in the past, so tokens of that time were common: rationing coupons for gas and sugar; ribbons and medals awarded for bravery; photographs and correspondence from the front.

Once year, I shared a letter from my Uncle Jack, who fought in the Pacific but lay buried in Manila. His letters somehow disappeared into the great maw of time, but I have my father’s words to his brother:

We got your letter today and were sure glad to hear from you and that you are OK. It must be something over there. We kind of figured you must be up in the front, as we had not heard of you for some time…
Saw in the paper that the kid I used to ask you about was wounded over in Leyte. From that I figured you must be in there, too, as he is in the same division as you. Things must be bad there in more ways than one. From the papers it sounds like you are doing OK, though. Sure hope so…
Had you heard that Don was wounded? He was hit by a piece of flak. I guess his flying days are over from what he says. Sure hope you get through this campaign without injury. It sure must be nerve-wracking to fight all day and stand guard all night…
Take care of yourself and be careful. Hope this thing is over and you get home pretty soon. Write when you can…

Once school was dismissed on Friday, the routine never varied. Saturday morning meant a parade. In the afternoon, we cooked for Sunday’s trip to my grandparents’ home and then, at Sunday worship, we listened as a deacon read the list of congregational members killed or missing in action. We sang hymns acknowledging the realities of worldly conflict, and listened to sermons meant to comfort those still grieving their loss.

On Memorial Day itself we returned to the cemetery for flag ceremonies and speeches: a different sort of comfort.

On May 30, 1896, Father John J. Woods, pastor of Brooklyn’s Holy Cross Church, delivered some typical remarks. After members of the Veterans and Sons of Veterans’ Mutual Benefit Union marched with a fife and drum corps past decorated houses and cheering crowds to Holy Cross Cemetery, they heard these words, later reported in The Brooklyn Eagle.

“Where in the history of the world can be found any preamble or constitution as that of America? Its enunciation carried hope and consolation to the downtrodden and afflicted of every country, its promulgation and realization by a handful of valiant patriots sent consternation to cruel tyrants and earthly potentates, and proved that more than a human hand guided the destinies of the young republic.
The corner stone of this republic was laid in the noblest blood that ever flowed in battle, for it was shed for principle and God-given rights that no tyrant or power can stifle, much less destroy.
Our forefathers grabbed the sword and musket not to extend their territory or possessions, not to further ambitious objects, but to protect their heavenly gift of liberty. ‘Who will dare,’ cried they to the world, ‘deprive us of our right to seek happiness? Who will dare fetter us by unlawful and excessive taxation? Who will deny us the right to worship our Creator according to the dictates of our consciences? None, unless at the loss of our fortunes, our lives and sacred honor.”

Always, Decoration Day closed with a concert in the park. Battle-scarred or whole, old or young, bereaved by conflict or blessedly untouched, we gathered to hear the familiar songs.

After singing along with Cohen’s “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and clapping and toe-tapping our way through Sousa marches, our program invariably concluded with “The Battle Hymn of Republic.” Sometimes there were tears, and Peter Wilhousky’s arrangment still touches me: recalling as it does a time, not so long ago and perhaps still recoverable, when people of every political stripe, of wildly varying economic status, of every faith or of no faith at all, were willing to set aside differences in order to stand together in reverence before the majesty and mystery of a nation “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

As we come to our own Memorial Day celebrations, honoring those whose graves we decorate and cherishing the memory of their service on our behalf, perhaps we would do well to remember that lives, too, can be decorated: draped with the selflessness, integrity, honesty, and valor that constitute the best garlands of citizenship.

If we choose to live by such values, we may yet ensure that our dead have not died in vain; that our nation shall have a new birth of freedom; and that, in the words of Lincoln, “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Battle Hymn of the Republic, arr. Wilhousky

Comments always are welcome. Illustrations come from a collection of family postcards. The post, updated from one previously published, still is relevant.

Lunch At The Miracle Cafe

If I hadn’t stopped to chat with Jeffrey Casten as he loaded soybeans into his semi, or been drawn into the woodworking shop by the aroma of fresh sawdust, or taken time to wander the field behind the abandoned school, I might have been a little farther down the road. But three o’clock had come and gone, and I was hungry.

Dropping south from Osage City, traveling through country rich in scenery but poor in amenties, it occurred to me that lessons learned about keeping my gas tank full might also apply to my cooler. I’d grown accustomed to convenience stores every few miles in Texas, Arkansas, and Missouri. Their absence in rural Kansas surprised me. I began to suspect I’d have to wait until Emporia to find a meal. Continue reading

Unwriting The Unwritten Rules

With a set of jacks, a hopscotch marker, and a jump rope in hand, entire afternoons could pass before anyone thought to say, “I’m bored.”

While we envied the skill of the Double-Dutching older girls, we took our turns at the single rope and were content. Pigtails and ponytails flying, we jumped to rhymes still known today: “Teddy Bear,” “Spanish Dancer,” “Cinderella.”

We giggled at verses filled with favorite beaus, kissing, marriage, and baby carriages, but the rhymes weren’t freighted with adult meaning. Their short, easily memorized lines were nothing more than markers for the entrance and exit of jumpers from the ropes. Continue reading