A Season Of Turning

Woodworker, carver, sailor, musician: Gordon Bok is an American treasure. Until several years ago, I’d not heard his name and might have missed his artistry forever, had it not been for the graciousness of a reader.

We’d been exchanging thoughts on music, and in an emailed post-script to our discussion he added, “I can’t think of a better song than Gordon Bok’s Turning Toward the Morning.”  Pointing me toward Albany, New York’s WAMC and their Saturday night broadcasts of the “Hudson River Sampler” he said, “I can almost guarantee you’ll hear something by Bok: if not this Saturday, then next Saturday for sure. And something by Stan Rogers as well. But you’ll also hear songs you’ve never heard before and will want to hear again.”

He was right. Since my introduction to Bok, his fellow musicians Ed Trickett and Ann Mayo Muir, and their rich repertoire from an entirely different sea-faring culture, I’ve not stopped wanting to hear more. I’ve learned net-hauling songs and ballads of the Maine coast. I’ve marveled at Bok’s original work and delighted in his preservation of folk tales rooted in world-wide cultures.

I’ve wondered at Bok’s pathway through life and been touched by his simplicity and kindness. I’ve even laughed at certain similarities between us.  “I didn’t understand what my father did because he worked in an office,” Bok once said, “and there was nothing that came out of it that I could feel – you couldn’t put a coat of varnish on it.”

After much reading and listening, I still agree with my friend. There are good songs — even great songs — abroad in the land, but there’s no better song than Turning Toward the Morning.  Like a small-boat day on the water, it’s easy and rhythmic, perfectly designed to soothe away preoccupations and care.

But it’s more than easy listening for an easy afternoon. It’s a poetic way of stating an inviolable truth; in the face of all that life imposes in the way of difficulties, chaos, and fear, life itself goes on. As Bok tells it:

“One of the things that provoked this song was a letter last November from a friend who’d had a very difficult year and was looking for the courage to keep on plowing into it. Those times, you lift your eyes unto the hills, as they say, but the hills of Northern New England in November can be about as much comfort as a cold crowbar.
You have to look ahead a bit then, and realize that all the hills and trees and flowers will still be there come Spring, usually more permanent than your troubles. And if your courage occasionally fails, that’s okay, too. Nobody expects you to be as strong as the land.”

Moving into Advent at a time when legislative wrangling, nuclear proliferation, urban violence, and generalized crass nastiness increasingly characterize our society, I can’t help but remember another old legend which finds echoes in Bok’s song.

Many years ago, I visited Stonehenge during the winter solstice and learned there that the word solstice itself is derived from the Latin solstitium: a combination of sun (sol) and stoppage (stitium). As the legend has it, at the moment of solstice it is not only the sun that stops. Those who choose a silent place, a quiet mind, and a stilled heart will hear the earth herself cease motion. Pausing as though to catch her breath, she waits for the sun to turn, and move, before joining him anew in their ageless journey toward the spring.

In this season of Advent, what the legends proclaim and the heart dares hope, Bok’s song affirms. Despite appearances, despite the world’s darkness in these winter-shortened days, the world continues to turn. Always, it is turning toward the morning.

Turning Toward the Morning ~ Gordon Bok (1975)

 

When the deer has bedded down
and the bear has gone to ground
and the Northern goose has wandered off
to warmer bay and sound,
it’s so easy in the cold
to feel the darkness of the year
and the heart is growing lonely for the morning.
Oh, my Joanie, don’t you know
that the stars are swingin’ slow,
and the seas are rollin’ easy as they did so long ago.
And if I had a thing to give you,
I would tell you one more time
that the world is always turning toward the morning.

Now, October’s growin’ thin
and November’s comin’ home,
you’ll be thinkin’ of the season
and the sad things that you’ve seen.
And you hear that old wind walkin’,
hear him singin’ high and thin,
you could swear he’s out there singin’ of his sorrow.
Oh, my Joanie, don’t you know
that the stars are swingin’ slow,
and the seas are rollin’ easy, as they did so long ago.
If I had a thing to give you,
I would tell you one more time
that the world is always turning toward the morning.

When the darkness falls around you
and the north wind comes to blow
and you hear him call your name out
as he walks the brittle snow.
That old wind don’t mean you trouble,
he don’t care or even know,
he’s just walking down the darkness toward the morning.
Oh, my Joanie, don’t you know
that the stars are swingin’ slow,
and the seas are rollin’ easy, as they did so long ago.
If I had a thing to give you,
I would tell you one more time
that the world is always turning toward the morning.

It’s a pity we don’t know
what the little flowers know
they can’t face the cold November,
they can’t take the wind and snow.
They put their glories all behind them,
bow their heads and let it go,
but you know they’ll be there shining in the morning.
Oh, my Joanie, don’t you know
that the stars are swinging slow,
and the seas are rollin’ easy, as they did so long ago.
And if I had a thing to give you,
I would tell you one more time
that the world is always turning toward the morning.
O, my Joanie don’t you know
that the day is rollin’ slow
and the winter’s walkin’ easy, as it did so long ago,
and if that wind should come and ask you
“Why’s my Joanie weepin’ so?”
won’t you tell him that you’re weeping for the morning.
Oh, my Joanie, don’t you know
that the stars are swingin’ slow,
and the seas are rollin’ easy, as they did so long ago.
And if I had a thing to give you,
I would tell you one more time
that the world is always turning toward the morning.

 

Comments always are welcome.

 

The Poets Birds: Crested Caracara

Crested Caracaras (Caracara cheriway) taking the sun at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge

Despite neither appearing nor behaving precisely like a falcon, the crested caracara is considered a member of the falcon family. Resident in Florida, Texas, and Arizona, its range extends southward through Mexico into tropical areas of Central and South America. Its name, Caracara, may be an anglicization of the Guarani Indian traro-traro: an imitation of the unusual rattling sound the bird makes when agitated.

Often referred to as a Mexican eagle, the caracara is thought to be the bird originally depicted on the national emblem and flag of Mexico before being replaced by the golden eagle.
Continue reading

The Poets’ Birds: Ducks

Black-bellied whistling duck (Dendrocygna autumnalis)

 

For years, every morning, I drank
from Blackwater Pond.
It was flavored with oak leaves and also, no doubt,
the feet of ducks.
And always it assuaged me
from the dry bowl of the very far past.
What I want to say is
that the past is the past,
and the present is what your life is,
and you are capable
of choosing what that will be,
darling citizen.
So come to the pond,
or the river of your imagination,
or the harbor of your longing,
and put your lips to the world.
And live
your life.
“Mornings at Blackwater” ~ Mary Oliver

 

Comments always are welcome. The photo comes from the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge.

 

Breeze

 

Had
this breeze
refused an
evening rising,
we might have missed such
clouds; such silent, feathered
gliding down hidden, sharp-edged
currents; such easy slope toward night.
Had this breeze not risen, there might have
been no falling, nor memories at all.

 

Comments always are welcome.
Newer readers might not be familiar with one of my favorite poetic forms: the Etheree, a syllabic poem containing, in its basic form, ten lines and a total of fifty-five syllables. For more information about the form, please click here.

The Poets’ Birds: Osprey

“Osprey” ~ John James Audubon

 

Oh, large, brown, thickly feathered creature
with a distinctive white head,
you, perched on the top branch
of a tree near the lake shore,
as soon as I guide this boat back to the dock
and walk up the grassy path to the house,
before I unzip my windbreaker
and lift the binoculars from around my neck,
before I wash the gasoline from my hands,
before I tell anyone I’m back,
and before I hang the ignition key on its nail,
or pour myself a drink—
I’m thinking a vodka soda with lemon—
I will look you up in my
illustrated guide to North American birds
and I promise I will learn what you are called.
                                                                   “Osprey” ~ Billy Collins

 

Comments are welcome. For more information on Collins, a former United States Poet Laureate, please click here.

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.