A Certain Slant of Light

Morning on Alazan Bayou ~ Nacogdoches County, Texas

Hopes for a perfect autumn respite — color-filled days, cooler nights, woodsmoke scented air – had washed away before a flood of interminable, days-long rains. While sodden squirrels sheltered and sulked, nightbirds huddled among the dripping oaks, hickories, and pines of the east Texas forest: invisible, unwilling to take flight. Only occasional hints of frog-song rippled across the silence: soft, hesitant trills that sluiced into consciousness as gently as the shush of footsteps along the sandy trails.

Resigned as much to the rain as to the next day’s unavoidable departure, I retired early, falling asleep to the insistent patter of raindrops. Awakened before dawn by unexpected birdsong, I made coffee, then stepped outside to gauge the weather. Improbably, the rain had stopped. Bits of blue shimmered above the treetops, and what darkness remained served only as a foil for the shafts of sunlight piercing the green canopy.

Even the most casual skywatcher has seen the sort of rays that greeted me that morning. The word used to describe them — ‘crepuscular’ — refers to twilight, and crepuscular rays occur primarily during sunrise or sunset twilight. When they appear, streaks of light seem to radiate directly from the sun, shining through breaks in the clouds or past objects arrayed along an irregular horizon, such as mountain tops.

While the shadowed areas between the rays are formed by obstructions,  the light itself is scattered by airborne dust, water droplets, or even air molecules, providing a visible contrast between shadowed and illuminated parts of the sky.

On this particular morning, days of rain had led to significant ground fog, heavy enough to scatter the light into particularly vivid and well-defined rays. As I watched, the initially monochromatic, almost white, rays began taking on color.

Despite the color, the phenomenon clearly wasn’t a rainbow. Seeing the images, sky-savvy friends suggested the possibility of a double effect: crepuscular rays combined with a corona.

Coronae, produced by the diffraction of light, often appear when thin clouds partially obscure the sun or the moon, but tiny droplets of fog or mist can produce the effect under other conditions. Sometimes, the droplets need not be transparent or even spherical; small ice crystals, pollen grains, and large dust particles also can lead to the formation of coronae.

In a corona, the intensely bright central aureole almost always is white, surrounded by a fringe of yellows and reds. Occasionally, one or more successively fainter, more softly-colored rings will surround the aureole, ranging from blue on the inside through greens and yellows to the outermost red.

With the colors more subtly mixed than in a rainbow, blues and greens can be especially hard to see, but in this photo, at least a hint of them seems to exist just below the sun.

While physicists speak of diffraction and droplets, English-language poets have attempted to describe these experiences of sunlight in quite different terms. More than a few, confounded by the inadequacy of language, have invented their own words.

In the poem “Fern Hill,” Dylan Thomas turned to ‘windfall light’ as his image of choice: a phrase that evokes apple-green light tumbling to the ground.

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, who can pile up adjectives with the best of them, turned to the thirteenth-century word shivemeaning a thin piece sliced off from a larger —  to create shivelight for  his poem, “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire…”:

Wherever an elm arches,
shivelights and shadowtackle in long ‘lashes lace, lance, and pair.

C.S. Lewis regularly turned to the sun as a metaphor in his work. When such familiar comparisons as “shafts of delicious sunlight” didn’t seem adequate, he turned to “Godlight,” as in his Letters to Malcolm:

Any patch of sunlight in a wood will show you something about the sun which you could never get from reading books on astronomy. These pure and spontaneous pleasures are patches of Godlight in the woods of our experience.

Despite the best efforts of the poets, none of these words has caught on, perhaps because they seem to describe the light without expressing the aesthetic pleasure that accompanies watching light playing among the trees.

One word that does seem to combine aesthetics with the experience of nature is the nearly untranslatable Japanese word komorebi.

Komorebi (木漏れ日) consists of three kanji and the hiragana particle れ. The kanji 木 means ‘tree’ or ‘trees‘;  漏 refers to ‘leaking through’ or ‘escape’; 日, is ‘light‘ or ‘sun‘. Because no simple English translation exists, phrases such as ‘sunshine filtering through leaves’ or ‘dappled light’ sometimes are used, although ‘the interplay between light and leaves when sunlight shines through trees’ seems especially apt.

Komorebi can refer to an assortment of phenomena: not only crepuscular rays and coronae but also the larger patches of shimmering, movable light produced when sunlight meets fog and rain. The Irish poet Caitríona O’Reilly captures the magic beautifully in her poem, “Komorebi”:

Between the world and the word
are three small shapes,
the signs for ‘‘tree,’’ ‘‘escape,’’ and ‘‘sun.’’
I watch how the light leaks through them,
casting a shade in both directions
in the late year, on the russet path
barred with the shadows of trees.
I love how it exults, like any escapee,
on the lake in slow reflective waves,
in radiant bands ascending the birch trunks
according to some unknown frequency,
and in the cormorant extending his wet wings to it
in a messianic gesture,
as if dazzled to absolute
by the word and the world’s beauty.  

Scientists seek precision; poets seek metaphor. Meanwhile, komorebi drifts through the woodlands and down the streams, always beyond our grasp. Perhaps no English equivalent for the kanji is needed. Sometimes, an encounter with escaped sunlight filtering through leaves is quite enough.

 

Comments always are welcome.
For more information about poet Caitríona O’Reilly, please click here.

Updating a Classic

When it comes to American icons, I’m a bit of a traditionalist. I love the Statue of Liberty, the Corn Palace, bluegrass, and blue jeans. I love cheeseburgers, in Paradise or otherwise, and I’ve always appreciated Norman Rockwell’s illustrations: particularly his portrayal of Rosie the Riveter.

When Rosie appeared on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post in 1943, my parents were living in the Quad Cities. Dad worked at John Deere; my mother spent her days helping the war effort by riveting aircraft. She enjoyed the work, trusted her partner, and regaled us for years with her stories of Hellcats, nose cones, and turrets.

When she was feeling especially nostalgic, she’d pull out her recording of “Rosie the Riveter,” a song composed by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb and released in 1943 by Paramount Music Corporation of New York.

Even after my parents moved back to Iowa, Mom kept a cherished copy of Rockwell’s Post cover in her cedar chest, and a torn-out image of his Rosie tucked between some books in the den. When Hillary Clinton adapted the better-known “We can Do It” poster for her Presidential campaign, Mom wasn’t happy. “That’s not right, for them to call her Rosie,” she’d say. “That’s not the real Rosie. I’ve got Rosie’s picture in my closet.”

As it happened, Mom was both wrong and right. The “We Can Do It!” poster, produced a year earlier than Rockwell’s cover, did become the most iconic of the Rosie images. On the other hand, as Westinghouse historian Ed Reis noted in 2003:

For the past 60 years, the popular image of the World War II-era female worker in the “We Can Do It” poster has evoked strength and empowerment. The American public identified the image as “Rosie the Riveter,” named for the women who were popping rivets on the West Coast, making bombers and fighters for aeronautical companies like Boeing.
But history tells a different story. In 1942, the Westinghouse Corporation, in conjunction with the War Production Coordinating Committee, commissioned J. Howard Miller, a Pittsburgh artist, to create a series of posters for the war effort. He based his “We Can Do It!” poster on a United Press photograph taken of Michigan factory worker Geraldine Hoff Doyle.
It was to be displayed for only two weeks in Westinghouse factories in the Midwest where women were making helmet liners. They made 13 million plastic helmet liners out of a material called Mycarta, the predecessor to Formica (which means “formerly Mycarta”). So, more aptly named, this woman is Molly the Mycarta Molder, or Helen the Helmet Liner Maker.

Historical complexities aside, Rockwell’s Rosie — modeled after Mary Doyle Keefe of Arlington, Vermont — always has been my favorite. Today, I admire her air of insoucience, her obvious competence and strength. As a child, astonished by her brilliant red hair, I envied her freedom to roll up her sleeves and eat with a dirty face, and I hardly could believe that no one made her cut the sandwich she was clutching into lady-like halves.

In my child’s mind, that sandwich became our point of connection. Accustomed to grilled cheese or peanut butter and jelly, one of my greatest treats was a “Spamwich” — SPAM® sliced thin and fried crisp, served on white bread with a little mayo. I couldn’t imagine anyone refusing a Spamwich, and and I imagined that Rosie would have preferred a Spamwich, too, even though the role of SPAM® in World War II left many veterans distinctly ambivalent about the product, and I don’t remember anyone saying, “Hey! C’mon over and we’ll fry up some SPAM®!”

Over the years, SPAM® became a bit of a joke — shorthand for all that was low-brow, low-cost, and low-quality. Thanks to its extended shelf life, it continued to be tucked into hurricane supplies, stowed in the galleys of cruising boats, or stacked on the shelves of deer lease cabins, but it rarely was eaten. For all practical purposes, SPAM® disappeared from my life.

Then, I traveled to Minnesota.


In Minnesota, food and folklore mesh. The Jolly Green Giant lives in Blue Earth, a community surrounded by rich farmland and canneries devoted to beans, corn, and peas that bear the Giant’s likeness on their labels.

Just up the road in Bemidji, the Great Blue Ox named Babe still is hanging out with his friend, Paul Bunyan. I first met the pair when I was about ten years old and barely came up to Paul’s knee. The next morning, when I begged my parents to let me order the “Lumberjack Breakfast” at a local diner, a knowing waitress suggested one breakfast might do for us all. It did, although I suspect she added some extra bacon.

After a hearty breakfast, there’s no reason for today’s travelers not to head over to Austin, Minnesota and visit the SPAM® Museum. As their website puts it,

“Few experiences in life are as meaningful and meaty-filled as those you’ll have at the magnificent SPAM® Museum. Referred to by meat historians as The Guggenham, Porkopolis, or M.O.M.A. (Museum Of Meat-Themed Awesomeness), the SPAM® Museum is home to the world’s most comprehensive collection of spiced pork artifacts.”

“Spiced pork artifacts” may be one of the most terrifying phrases in the English language, but they have a lovely building, and a nice sculpture out front pays tribute to those who gave their lives for the sake of potted meat.

Inside the museum, galleries of early photographs show the earliest days of the George Hormel “Provision Market.” Hormel entered the business world as a traveling wool and hide buyer. Eggs, wool, poultry, and hides helped to keep his company in business while their trade in meat products was being developed.

As the business grew, product lines expanded and the Hormel name was imprinted on far more than slabs of bacon and salt-cured hams.

Technological advances meant that new forms of processing and packaging soon were being sold along with the food itself.

As the business continued to grow, advertising campaigns became more sophisticated; Hormel was one of the first to seek out celebrities willing to endorse their products.

Over the years, SPAM® permeated Minnesota culture so deeply that even traditional handcrafts were adapted to help promote the product. What could be better than a quilt or wall hanging to remind you of the virtues of SPAM®?

After roaming the museum for an hour, I found myself wishing there had been a little café devoted to all things SPAM®. A sliced and fried spamwich is fine as far as it goes, but what about Chicken-fried SPAM®? SPAM® Flautas? Scalloped SPAM®? or the mysterious but strangely appealing SPAM®-alama-Ding-Dongs?

All these dishes and more were served at SPAMARAMA, a years-long tradition in Austin, Texas. Even The Smithsonian loved SPAMARAMA, sending videographers to catch the action for their series, America: Wild and Wacky.

After a twelve-year hiatus, SPAMARAMA returned to Austin last month as news swirled about the introduction of a new version of the canned meat: Pumpkin Spice SPAM®. Once publicized by Hormel as a joke, it’s no joke today; the product will be introduced on September 23 and, if the rumors are true, the advertising slogan will be, “Pumpkin Spice: If it’s good enough for STARBUCKS®, it’s good enough for SPAM®.”

Since my visit to the Museum, I haven’t begun serving up SPAM® on a regular basis. Still, since 1937 this quintessentially American food has continued to feed soldiers and kids, college students, cruisers and struggling families. I still keep it in my hurricane supplies, and one of these nights I might just fry up some slices, nice and crisp. I’ll use whatever bread I have, and add a dollop of mayo. In honor of Rosie, I might even forego slicing my spamwich in half.

I’m still not sure whether I’ll try Pumpkin Spice SPAM®, but I might. The company’s already given us jalapeno, garlic, chorizo, turkey, teriyaki, and Portuguese sausage varieties; this latest update might be as good as the classic.

 

Comments always are welcome.
For those who don’t know how SPAM® became ‘spam’, the bane of internet users, this video from Business Insider will help. In 1998, the New Oxford Dictionary of English, which previously defined “spam” only in relation to the trademarked food product, added a second definition to its entry for ‘spam’:  “Irrelevant or inappropriate messages sent on the internet to a large number of newsgroups or users.”

The Poets’ Birds: Wood Storks

 

Despite the wide variety of birds I’ve featured in this series, I never thought to include the wood storks (Mycteria americana). Having seen them only once, in August of 2016, I always assumed their visit to the Brazoria Refuge was an aberration. The Cornell birding site supported that conclusion, noting that the species occurs in only a few areas of the United States: particularly in wetlands or preserves along the Florida, South Carolina, and Georgia coastlines.

On the other hand, storks believed to originate in breeding colonies in Mexico and Central America have been reported in the lower Mississippi River Valley, Louisiana, and Texas during the late summer and fall. That could help to explain my second sighting of the birds in early July of this year — in the same area of the Brazoria preserve where I first encountered them.

I assumed that the pair shown above, and a half-dozen others wading among the grasses, soon would be gone, but by July 21 an impressive group of a hundred or more — both juveniles and adults — were roaming the flats, perhaps attracted by the falling water levels in the freshwater ponds and the consequent heavier than usual concentrations of fish.

The bird’s fishing technique is unusual, and fun to watch. Dipping its open bill into the water, the stork waits for a passing fish. Once it senses a fish, the stork snaps its bill shut, and dinner is served. According to National Geographic, the fish don’t have much of a chance; wood storks are capable of snapping their bills shut in as little as 25 milliseconds.

Despite the group as a whole being almost beyond the range of my camera, a few individuals were close enough for me to capture some of the oddly appealing details of their appearance. On both occasions the storks were accompanied by flocks of roseate spoonbills, but those photos can wait for another day. Here, it’s the wood storks’ time to shine, along with William Logan’s memorable poem.

 

Behind the movie theater’s neon beau monde
cooled the dank waters of a retention pond,
cyclone-fenced, palm-guarded, overgrown.
You walked there when you wanted to be alone.
For weeks nothing stirred the blackened reeds,
which were enough, those days you felt in need.
Then, one evening through the gathered gloom,
as if something uncanny had entered a room,
across algae green as an Alpine meadow,
eight white ghosts floated faintly through the shadows,
pausing, worrying, then slowly moving on,
the waters like a chessboard scattered with white pawns.
When bankers review their fat portfolios,
they draw such dark beaks open and closed,
great shears to cut some invisible thread.
The pale birds stalked like something newly dead.
One lifted a black-edged wing, in search of food,
and somehow that broke your somber mood.
Yet on they marched, like Dante’s souls through Hell,
awaiting the Last Judgment’s redeeming bell,
working their way in silence, fallen aristocrats.
You said they looked like ladies’ hats,
white as the color of love, if love has color —
bright white, you meant, only a little duller.
                                                            “On the Wood Storks” ~ William Logan

 

 

Comments are welcome. For more information on poet William Logan, please click here.

Darkness, Light, and the City

A historical note from the Museum of the City of New York  ~ July 13, 2019
Photo ~ Ariella Axelbank
Saturday’s blackout in New York City was neither so extensive nor so dramatic as the one that occurred forty-two years ago, but it evoked memories nonetheless. Given the remarkably coincidental blackouts, my 2014 reflections on the experience seem timely; New York’s power is back on, but the memories linger.

On July 13, 1977, at 8:37 p.m., a lightning strike at the Buchanan South electrical substation on New York’s Hudson River tripped two circuit breakers. At the time, Buchanan South should have been converting 345,000 volts of electricity from the Indian Point nuclear plant to lower voltage, but a loose locking nut, combined with a faulty upgrade cycle, meant that the breaker wasn’t able to reclose in order to allow power to resume flowing.

When a second lightning strike caused two more 345,000 volt transmission lines to fail, only one reclosed properly. Given the loss of power from Indian Point and the over-loading of two more major transmission lines, Con Edison tried to initiate fast-start generation at 8:45 p.m., but no one was overseeing the station, and the remote start failed.

That’s when the lights went out at 123rd and Broadway, in the Morningside Heights section of Manhattan. Newly returned from my time in Liberia, I was visiting friends who also had worked there. While we enjoyed the twin pleasures of after-dinner conversation and the view from their eighth floor apartment, all of New York seemed to disappear.

It’s common enough for storms to cause lights to flicker and dim, and power can go out in a neighborhood even without a storm. Transformers explode; winds bring down power lines; squirrels play tag; and through it all people sigh and complain, wondering how long it will be until they can make coffee, turn on the computer, or watch tv in air-conditioned comfort.

But that night in Manhattan, in the moments between Con Ed’s failed re-start and the lighting of the first arson fires in the street, we knew something was different. Looking down from our perch, we watched traffic come to a halt as astounded drivers tried to get their bearings and control their anxiety. Scanning the horizon, we found no horizon: only a black, impenetrable abyss stretched before us.

The night seemed endless. A vibrato of sirens, the delicate horror of shattering glass, the ebb and flow of crowds around piles of goods looted from bodegas and coffee shops were utterly surreal. Lit by the glow of flames and surrounded by smoke from burning tires, the scene resembled an etching by Albrecht Dürer.

Eventually, as the fires began to be extinguished and the thinning crowds gradually lost their appetite for mayhem, we rested: three sleeping as one kept watch, and all of us wondering what would be next.

As the first tendrils of light began to climb around buildings and into the streets, the sense of relief was palpable. Civilization’s veneer had worn a bit thin over the night, not only because of the arson and looting which erupted in the darkness, but also because of the darkness itself. As we plunged into that inexplicable abyss, candles and flashlights did nothing to allay fears so primitive only the rising of the sun could bring release.

In the morning brilliance, the entire city seemed to stretch, heaving a vast sigh of relief. On the street, someone opened a fire hydrant, allowing a faucet’s worth of water to stream down, gentle and benign. Filled with sudden good humor and ready to trade stories, New Yorkers lined up with soap and towels, toothbrushes, plastic wash basins, and razors, ready to become human again.

Thinking back to that night, I remember my response with absolute clarity. I wanted to go back to Liberia. Today, I might not be so inclined. But at the time, looking down into those chaos-filled streets, the West African bush seemed preferable to civilization in any number of ways: not the least of which was the quality of its darkness.

I had learned to experience darkness as a blessing during childhood. Dressed for midwestern safari, I’d clamber into the car beside my dad and off we’d go, traveling graveled country roads that led far from the lights of our little town. In summer, we’d pull out quilts and lay on the ground, amazed by the bright river of stars streaming across the sky. If it was cold and snowy, we’d wrap in blankets for extra warmth, drink hot chocolate, and admire Orion, with his belt and his sword.

I learned the constellations — Orion, the Big Dipper, Cassiopeia, Scorpio — and I began to learn those exotically-named stars: Aldebaran, Antares, Polaris, Betelgeuse, Sirius. Little verses helped me find them in the sky. “Arc to Arcturus, spike to Spica,” was a favorite, and arc to Arcturus I did, gazing with passionate curiosity into sky-borne mysteries seemingly close enough to touch.

With passing years, trips into the country became less frequent, and adventures with my friends were measured in lumens. The bright lights of Broadway, the ambiance of San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore — even Paris, the City of Light — drew us out of our midwestern darkness like a cloud of great, fluttering moths.

If circumstances forced us to settle for the lesser lights of Des Moines, Paducah, or Evansville, no matter. Our lives were arcing in new directions, and Arcturus was forgotten.

Forgotten, that is, until years in the African bush and a newly-acquired taste for offshore sailing pulled me back into darkness, teaching me its pleasures anew.

With no moon to obscure them, starlit paths cross land and sea. Night creatures scurry ahead of nearly invisible shadows, their paths lit by the flickering of uncounted distant stars. Ribbons of phosphorescent spume stream across the waves, scarcely distinguishable from the milky river flowing through the sky.

When unexpected and unwanted darkness falls — as it has in New York City, and Louisiana, and California, and Venezuela — the experience can be unnerving at best. At worst, it can make life seem unbearable, even as it gives free reign to the worst of human impulses.

But that other darkness, that more comfortable darkness, still enfolds the world like a favorite childhood blanket. Wrapped in nature’s darkness, safe and secure, we’re free to lift our eyes until our gaze arcs to Arcturus and beyond: toward galaxies beyond our sight, and a universe beyond our understanding.

The poet reminds us: Arcturus already is there, steadfast at our vision’s edge. We need only lift our eyes.

Edvard Munch ~ Summer Night on the Beach
I live near the sea. On these summer nights
Arcturus is already there, steadfast
in the southwest. Standing at the edge of the grass,
I am beginning to connect them as once they were connected,
the fixity of stars and unruly salt water,
by sailors with an avarice for landfall.
From where I stand the sea is just a rumor.
The stars are put out by our street lamp. Light
and water are well separated. And yet
the surviving of the sea-captain in his granddaughter
is increasingly apparent. (More than life was lost
when he drowned in the Bay of Biscay. I never saw him.)
As I turn to go in, the hills grow indistinct as his memory.
The coast is near and darkening. The stars are clearer,
but shadows of the grass and house are lapping at my feet
when I see the briar rose, no longer blooming,
but rigged in the twilight as sails used to be –
lacy and stiff together, a frigate of ivory.
~ Eavan Boland

Comments are welcome. For more information about poet Eavan Boland, please click here.

Cherishing Betsy’s Legacy

She hangs in my kitchen, this nameless woman holding a chicken in her lap. She watches me move between stove and sink, and I return the favor, attentive to her placid presence.

Over time, I’ve come to know a thing or two about her. The directness of her gaze tells me she isn’t afraid of being seen. She’s as busy as any modern woman: her apron tells me that, and her distinctly practical hair. She didn’t mean to turn away from her chores to pose for the camera on that morning, but when asked, she cooperated: perhaps happy for a moment’s rest.

Surprised, made wary by her inexplicable behavior, the dog presses close, protective and alert. Still, they’ve spent his lifetime together, and her hand calms his fears.

Around her portrait, scraps of ephemera provide clues to the nature of her world. An invoice from A.E. Want & Company, one of Ft. Worth’s premiere wholesale grocers at the turn of the last century, is dated September 14, 1921, nine years after the company gained a certain notoriety by suing the Missouri, Kansas & Texas railroad over a carload of frostbitten Minnesota potatoes. The potatoes, valued at $155.87, were judged defective, and the railroad was ordered to pay.

At her feet, a decorated business card announces Mr. A.D. Perry, a “reliable seedsman” from Syracuse, New York. And in the background, covered with penciled notations suggesting the quick, calculating mind of a business-like woman, are the music and lyrics to a nearly-forgotten American standard: Sweet Betsy from Pike, a song still able to convey all the humor, grit and tenacity of American pioneer women across the decades.

“Sweet Betsy From Pike” ~ 2nd South Carolina String Band

I call my kitchen companion Betsy, because of the song. Debbie Little-Wilson, the Texas artist who created the collage, titled it She Made Her Own Groceries, and indeed Betsy did. Flour, sugar, and salt may have made their way to her through Mr. Want’s wholesale company, but vegetables and fruits came from the seeds she ordered from Mr. Perry, received in trade or saved from her own crop. Milk cows were common, and game was plentiful. As for eggs, the chicken in her lap suggests their source.

In Texas, the abundance described by John Milton Hadley in 1855 also would have surrounded her:

The supply of wild fruits exceed that of any country I ever knew. Straw- rasp- goose- blackberries grow plentifully. Plums — persimmons — crab apples — wild cherries and grapes also abound. There is an unlimited extent of hazel nut thickets, and hickory trees are found and walnut — besides most other mast-bearing timber — All which are apt as I’m told to be very productive. Hence, thee can have “nuts” to crack. Now, I have not been over the territory and can not tell from my own sight what the afect [sic] of it presents, but there is variety in everything I learn as everywhere else.

Challenging as Betsy’s life may have been, it was a life marked by freedom as well as by hardship: a life constructed through choice and shaped by circumstance. Looking at her, I think of Mrs. Crooks, whose beautifully penned letters to my great-great-grandmother Annie are among my own treasures. One, dated May 19, 1881 and written in Poplar Hill, Kansas, found its way to Annie’s new home in Chariton, Iowa:

Crops are usually good and vegetables of all kinds in abundance. We have had lettuce, onions and radishes from the garden and soon will have peas. There will not be much fruit this year, the severity of the weather killed the peaches [and] the apple orchards are not many in bearing yet.
Elmer is farming — 300 acres in wheat, 75 in corn, about 5 in potatoes, early corn and vegetables. How are you and Mr. Crowley? Does he sigh for Texas when the cold north winds blow and the snow and ice is plentiful? Is it hard to wean him from the land of sunshine and flowers?
Elmer sends his best wishes to you all and we both hold you in grateful remembrance for your kindness to us while on our way to Kansas.

Today, Poplar Hill has disappeared. The post office where Mrs. Crooks would have mailed her letter closed in 1889. As for Chariton, the Lucas County town where Annie’s husband David helped organize the 34th Iowa Infantry at the beginning of the Civil War, and in which they settled after their post-war years in Texas and Missouri, it remains home today for David and Annie; for their children and grandchildren; for their great-grandchildren and more, resting in the heart of the land that sustained them.

They weren’t perfect, these forebears of ours who made a country. They had their own share of strange ones and lazy ones, and for many families the liars, cheats, and thieves became the stuff of legend. But they knew how to break a prairie and plant a crop, how to build shanties of sod and lay rails of steel. They mined the coal and laid the roads, built the schools and educated their children, birthed their babies and buried their dead, and against all odds made it work by virtue of their resilience and stubborn determination.

Were mistakes made? Of course. Were they always successful? Of course not. But even in the face of failure they loved their country and cherished their independence. Remembering grandparents and great-grandparents who fought and died to ensure their freedom, they lived out their days counting the cost of self-evident truths and and inalienable rights. They preserved and planted the seed of liberty with as much deliberation as they planted their corn and peas, and brought in its harvest with equal delight.

As surely as Betsy made her own groceries, they made their own country, tending to the responsibilities and hard work of citizenship with diligence and care.

My mother and her baby sister, gaining independence on their grandparents’ farm

Reflecting on the founding of this nation and the responsibility we bear for its continuation, I find myself uneasy, sensing a change of focus, a societal shift, a seeming determination to institutionalize dependence at every turn.

Increasingly, we are told we cannot be trusted with our own lives: with our health, our children, or our economic decisions. We are told we do not have the strength, the tenacity, or the wisdom to weather the storms of life or deal with its catastrophes.

We are assumed to be too frail to accept the realities of life, too ignorant or uneducated to understand them. We are assured that only the self-appointed experts among us have the knowledge or skill to set the parameters of our lives, while those who know nothing about us demand that our youngest, our most frail, and our aged have the conditions of their lives determined by governmental fiat rather than by the loving decisions of supportive families. When curiosity, conviction or the quest for a better life leads us to strike out in new directions, far too often our progress is impeded by barriers put in place by those convinced we have no right to chart our own course.

No doubt each of us has taken risks that ended in great reward and engaged in risky behavior that brought unhappy consequences. We have been wrong about individuals and supported bad policies, but we also have been right about people and causes and benefited greatly because of it.

Some of us live financially comfortable lives while others constantly are scrounging for a few more dollars. Some of us have achieved our goals, while others continue to press on. But through it all and however imperfectly, we sense that growth and maturation is the point of life. The independence of adulthood is meant to replace the natural dependence of a child, and, in the end, it is the willingness to accept both risk and responsibility that brings life’s greatest rewards: to nations as well as to individuals.

Today, questions abound. Are we willing to exchange the rewards of risk for the poor substitute of comfort? Will we choose passivity over active participation in our life and governance? Will we forego excellence in favor of mediocrity? Will we fall victim to those who play on false or unreasonable fears, or will we be courageous? Will we allow ourselves to be made dependent, or will we look for strength to those who understood the power of self-determination; who had a vision of true independence; and who preserved a nation for us through their effort and their will?

Time will tell. But Betsy, straightforward and serene, stands as a reminder. Her legacy can be ours, should we choose to accept it.

Some of my own family’s nation-builders

 

Comments always are welcome.

The Poets’ Birds: Sparrows

Savannah sparrow  (Passerculus sandwichensis) ~ Brazoria Wildlife Refuge

Botanists and wildflower enthusiasts have their DYCs — the difficult-to-identify sunflowers, sneezeweeds, tickseeds, ragworts, and rudbeckias collectively and humorously known as ‘darned yellow composites.’ In the same way, more than a few birders refer, somewhat ruefully, to LBBs: the ‘little brown birds’ that can be equally difficult to identify.

American sparrows certainly qualify as LBBs. This lovely savannah sparrow at least has a bit of yellow above its eye to help those interested in knowing its name. But most people aren’t aware of or interested in such distinctions, and so the sparrows — brown, ordinary, and easily overlooked — live out their lives in relative obscurity while the cardinals, hummingbirds, and orioles of the world bask in our regard.

One person who found sparrows worthy of attention was Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906), one of the first African-American poets to gain national recognition.  Befriended and encouraged by such luminaries as James Whitcomb Riley and Frederick Douglass, he self-published a volume of poems titled Oak and Ivy in 1893. By 1895, his poems were appearing in such major publications as The New York Times, and in 1897 he embarked on a six-month reading tour of England.

Today, Dunbar’s influence continues. A line from the third stanza of his poem “Sympathy” provided the title for Maya Angelou’s autobiographical novel, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, but caged birds weren’t his only concern. In “The Sparrow,” he addresses issues even more relevant today: species loss, human insensitivity to the natural world, and our rejection of the gifts life offers to us.

A little bird, with plumage brown,
Beside my window flutters down,
A moment chirps its little strain,
Then taps upon my window-pane
And chirps again, and hops along,
To call my notice to its song;
But I work on, nor heed its lay
‘Til, in neglect, it flies away.
So birds of peace and hope and love
Come fluttering earthward from above
To settle on life’s window-sills
And ease our load of earthly ills;
But we, in traffic’s rush and din,
Too deep engaged to let them in,
With deadened heart and sense plod on,
Nor know our loss till they are gone.

 

Comments always are welcome.
For more information on Paul Laurence Dunbar’s life, please click here.

 

Prufrock and Peaches

The peach orchard ~ May, 2019

Poor J. Alfred Prufrock. One of T.S. Eliot’s most memorable creations, he roams the streets and rooms of his poem — “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” — haunted by a hundred indecisions.

Sometimes distressed by the grand questions of life, he becomes equally paralyzed before the smaller decisions it requires, asking “Do I dare disturb the universe?” while remaining unsure how to part his hair.

In the midst of his dithering, he asks a question I’ve always found amusing: “Do I dare to eat a peach?” At the height of our peach season, filling my baskets at a local orchard and daring to eat a peach or two as I plucked, I pondered J. Alfred’s question, and tucked this answer in with the fruit.

 

To
dare to
pluck, to sift
through leafy boughs
in seach of summer’s
bounty; to taste what heat
sends, dripping-sweet, down chins and
elbowed branches; hearing orchards
sing of rain-drenched life, of growth, of joy ~
it’s here the answer ripens as it will.

 

Comments always are welcome. For the complete text of Eliot’s poem and the context for Prufrock’s question, click here.
For more information on the Etheree, a syllabic poem containing ten lines and a total of fifty-five syllables, please click here.