It is a particularly lovely autumn in the region, colorful, clear, dry and mild. This evening at 5 pm: 70 degrees F, crickets and frogs singing. My mood has, however, been unsettled–and I have not been writing much. Indeed, this feels like a good time for a hiatus on a number of fronts and in a number of ways. I recently read Katherine May’s Wintering, which was not terribly memorable but which offers the reader support for, well, resting. Resting one’s bones, mind, endeavors…seasonally apropos.
Mostly I’ve been on a Murakami kick, reading three books that a recently-departed friend had with him in his hospice room. Novels take the place of doing my own creative thinking. I get wrapped up in their worlds and can rest from my own. Thus reading is a form of wintering. (May agrees.)
My poetry output has been minimal recently, and I have hardly sent out any work; mostly, I feel tired and eager for the semester to come to a close (one month or so hence). There are reasons for this it is not necessary to go into. But I miss the writing.
I will return to the “best words in the best order” in my own time. So if you follow this blog, don’t think that I have fallen off a cliff–I have merely oriented differently, for a time.
Meanwhile, please remember that there are books for sale you can find on my ‘My Books’ tab. Support the small-business publishers of poetry now, for poetry is as necessary as ever, and not a luxury.
I have been re-reading Allen Lacy’s charming and informative book The Garden in Autumn. I first read it years ago and enjoyed his writing as much as I appreciated his useful ideas about landscaping with autumn in mind. I treasure books that offer more than information–well-written and inspirational texts which in this case includes attractive photographs, as well. I am outside in the clear, cool weekend days and doing some garden cleanup, but I don’t tidy things up as neatly as I used to: many insects and other small animals need some vegetative cover, and incautious hoeing can disturb nesting bees. I was almost 40 years old before I learned that most bees don’t live in hives and that our precious pollinators of many varieties need winter shelter.
Meanwhile, haiku drafts. Meant to kick myself back into creative writing gear. Practice/Zen practice.
drinking the last of my morning coffee
under my bare feet
remember to practice
resting Buddha face
Jays and chickadees call—
louder but not as constant as
crickets in the dew
on the vine
I didn’t plant!
In the profusion
of morning glories:
one gold leaf
good morning, cicadas!
at least some of us
feel wide awake
in the tulip poplar
red squirrel scolds
a Carolina wren
on crabgrass is
fresh eggs for
a dying friend
six young sparrows—
Three bats flit
at dusk the doe huffs, sneezes—
bedtime for fawns.
This evening, a steady rain at last, one I hope continues for hours. It is too late to save my vegetable garden but will help trees, shrubs, flowers as they set seeds, birds as they migrate.
Earlier today, I harvested a few remaining veggies. I cut some zinnias for bouquets and watched as a newly-emerged monarch butterfly unfurled its antennae and proboscis and dried its new wings. As often happens in the late-summer weeks, I pondered what to do for the next year’s garden. A surprising thought took shape: letting the garden go fallow for a year. After all, the patch has been working hard for over two decades now–shouldn’t it get a break?
My thought process then admonished me about weeds. The majority of the weeds that would crop up in a fallow patch well-composted over the years will be non-native plants. Those are what mostly come up in our meadow, though we do have many natives as well. But the meadow isn’t rich soil like the garden is. True, I have nurtured some natives even in the vegetable garden. I grow three varieties of milkweed as well as native asters, rudbeckia, and goldenrod (not to mention the native vine poison ivy, despite my best efforts to eradicate it). The milkweed was, this year, much appreciated and eagerly consumed by monarch caterpillars. Still, if I do nothing in spring but let the patch go fallow, I’m likely to find it has been claimed by white clover, dandelion, purslane, Canadian thistle, mugwort, garlic mustard, Japanese knotweed, Amur honeysuckle, and other common weeds that originated in Europe, the Caucasus, or Asia.
Okay, but I’m a champion at weeding in the springtime. I could pull out many of the invaders just as they are getting started. What if, however, I allowed some sprouts to grow? The volunteers, as gardeners call them, that come up on their own after wintering as seeds in the ground or in the compost–I could let them stay wherever they popped up. In this way, the garden would design itself, instead of me being the designer. It would be a year of surprises! I like that idea. I love a good experiment…why not find out what my garden wants to do, after 25 years of me trying to tell it what to do?
I can make some good guesses as to what I might find: morning glories, zinnias, some variety of squash, tomatoes of mixed parentage, nicotiana, sunflowers. Basil, possibly; chives and cilantro and dill, almost certainly.
Anything else really would be surprising, but this year I had a cantaloupe volunteer, and its fruit was quite tasty. It gets below freezing here for months in winter, and I have never had lettuce volunteer; however, I haven’t let it go to seed, either. It might survive, as the radishes seem to do.
The more I mull it over, the more I like the idea. I like the experimental aspect of it, and the speculation and the surprise. It means that instead of preparing the soil in spring, all I’ll do is spread the compost out as usual–but not dig it in. I’ll water if the spring is dry, but mostly pay attention to the things that sprout and determine as early as possible whether those are edible or ornamental, or just weedy. The downside is that I’ll get all those marvelous seed catalogs and…will I be able to resist? Also, my spouse will complain. He likes a well-laid-out, well-delineated garden so he knows where he can step and where he shouldn’t, what to water, and what to pull out. He may also object initially to the aesthetics of an unplanned truck patch. But around mid-June, I will be admiring my volunteers. It will be beautiful.
Always I find metaphors and analogies between the gardening process and the writing process. The way I put my recent chapbook (Strange Ladies) together was similar to the theory of an all-volunteer garden. I drafted those poems at different times over many years and let them sprout even though they did not seem to fit in with my other writing projects or plans. After awhile, I realized they made their own kind of peculiar and surprising design.
I recognize that experimentation is a big part of my writing process. I love just playing around with words and ideas; when I first started writing more purposefully, my poems were often a bit surreal and strange. Over the decades, I’ve experimented with craft, prompts, natural world imagery, poetic form, philosophical and speculative concepts, and memory. It’s hard for me to say where my style or genre of poetry fits. I experiment, but most of my poems are not “experimental.” Much of my work uses observations of the natural world as major image and motivation, but I am not quite a “nature poet.” It doesn’t really matter how or whether my poetry fits an identifiable description. I weed as I go along, and I let anything that looks interesting (or familiar) show me its stuff.
That’s a natural process that reflects the way I think, the way I experience the world, and the various ways I find to express myself to readers. [Crafting and revising–that’s less spontaneous, though it can have outcomes just as surprising.]
I think I prefer the lunisolar calendar to the solstice/equinox method of dividing the year into seasons. The Babylonians used it, and if you have that human need to count stuff and divide it into categories for planting and harvesting, the lunisolar calendar makes as much sense and is aesthetically pleasing, too. According to the Chinese calendar, August 23rd marked the “limit of heat.” The heat, and our current drought, may continue well into September; but as the days shorten, at least the nights cool down. The heat gets slightly less oppressive and humid. This coming week (around September 8) marks the 白露 báilù period, when “white dew appears.” I did see dew on the grass this morning.
Well, dew on the weeds. Dew on the clover and crabgrass, because the drought has killed off most of our lawn, and the tall grasses in the meadow do not get dewy. Instead, they are bedecked with spiderwebs. The red-winged blackbirds that perched on the tall grasses in June and July? They took off a little after the swallows did.
The bats, robins, hummingbirds, finches are still in evidence. There’s a distinct late-summer mood in the air, though. It is Labor Day weekend. Summer’s drought has not ended, but the slower pace of the university summer schedule has. Crickets are creaking, the swallows have departed, afternoon shadows grow longer, and the students are back on campus. I am busy.
Meanwhile, three sets of friends have had their elderly, beloved canine companions die. Dry leaves fall from the tulip poplars. Each week, my mother seems to lose a few more words from her lexicon. The jays scream every day at 4 pm.
I have been feeling a bit run dry myself. Like a small stream that needs a thunderstorm or, better still, a few good wet days to replenish it. As in: not writing. Yet I have found Charles Simic’s 1994 The Unemployed Fortune-Teller: Essays and Memoirs quite inspiring, if “inspiring” in this case means nourishment for the mind and heart without actively producing anything in terms of output. The book is part of the University of Michigan’s wonderful, decades-long series Poets on Poetry.
Simic writes, “A poem is an invitation to a voyage.”
Oh, let me never get so busy I cannot go on such voyages!
The squirrels have begun an assault on my vegetable garden, drawn by a stunning and unplanned stand of sunflowers starting to go to seed. I can’t say I blame them, and I don’t mind that they eat the sunflowers–the birds can grab plenty. It’s the intelligence of squirrels that rallies the assault: they find a food source, tell their friends, and then explore further into the garden. That’s where I get annoyed with them. In this dry, hot weather they seek out the juicy tomato fruits and, while there, sample everything else they can find.
But their appearance is due to human circumstance and intervention. The development of a suburban cul de sac next door instead of the cornfield of past years, for example, and the pressure that has led to fewer predators in our little environment. More deer in smaller acreage, and deer eat oak saplings, so we have fewer oak trees maturing along the woodlot. With less mast available, why not turn to sunflower seeds, tomatoes, pears, even squash? Squirrels will take advantage of those changes. Very adaptable creatures.
Adaptability is admirable, and required if beings are to stay alive, let alone evolve. When I visit my beloved, aphasic, widowed mother, I marvel that she can nevertheless, under enormous changes, navigate the world. Granted–she has assistance. But not all human beings with assistance manage to maintain a benign and compassionate sense of self as their bodies fall apart with age.
Which brings me to Lost and Found, a Memoir, by Kathryn Schulz. My book group read this one recently, and I started reading it without doing any research about the book or the author–too busy with other things, and sometimes I like to be surprised by a text. By page 60, I was teary-eyed, because the story Schulz tells resonates with me. This month marks the second anniversary of my dad’s death, and the book begins with the death of Schulz’s beloved, curious, intellectual, chatty father.
This is the “Lost” of Lost and Found. Schulz writes beautifully, and writes beautifully of how complex and fraught the impending death of a loved one can be–the decisions, the fears, memories, even the forms that must be filled out and submitted so that the insurance and medical bills get properly taken care of. Meanwhile, we grieve and remember and numbly try to keep on in our suddenly bereaved “normal lives.” Schulz describes the environment of grief accurately and poignantly.
The “Found” section of the book describes love: new love, romantic love, the thumping of the heart and surprise at finding a person who’s the person. Here, Schulz’s experience differs considerably from mine, yet her writing took me back to days of feeling the heady excitement of getting to know someone deeply, intimately. The memoir, though it begins in sorrow, ends with the vulnerable opening into the shared territory of long-term relationships, whether those are among families, friends, or spouses.
As wretched as the world often is, we–and the rodents, insects, plants, etc.–find ways to adapt for far longer than seems likely. In the face of war and climate catastrophe and the loss of what we love, some of us manage to change and stay resilient, teaching new skills to those who come after us. We do so through art, literature, dance, music, community, love. It isn’t easy and it isn’t certain. But it’s all we’ve got.
So many “heat bubbles” world-wide this summer. We happen to be in one of them–high temperatures, even at night, and barely any rain in the past three weeks. No rain in the forecast for days ahead. Drought. Temperatures in the 90s. It’s not even as humid here as it usually is in summer. But humid enough. I dislike air conditioning as a rule, but boy am I grateful for it and privileged to have it.
The sunflowers in my garden grew taller than average this year yet are now drooping from high temperatures and lack of water. Young deer show up outside of their usual territories while trying to find forage that isn’t crispy. They (and the birds) gobbled up the wild berries so quickly that I managed to pick only a pint or so of wineberries. The drought hit after blackberry season, though, so we did get a nice harvest of those.
It’s not just the deer behaving differently because of the weather. I notice that squirrels and some birds have altered their usual patterns as well. This evening, I got a panicked call from a friend who lives in a nearby city–a bird had found its way into her son’s attic room through a poorly-installed window air conditioner, and all the windows up there were stuck shut due to the humidity. The poor bird was fluttering crazily, and she had no idea how to free it. I’m guessing the bird (it appeared to be a juvenile catbird) was seeking shade and shelter, and saw the gap between the wall and the unit as a safe space as the sun began to go down.
I have not had a lot of experience rescuing caught birds, but this is the second time in a week I was summoned to assist a frightened avian. On Monday, one of our summer library assistants asked for help with a fledgling robin that was unable to clear the brick wall of our entry ramp in order to join its parents, who were chirping from a nearby shrub. That task was easier than rescuing an attic-trapped bird, but I succeeded in both cases.
I shall rename myself Papagena!
Meanwhile, we have finally taken steps to remove house sparrow nests from our damaged cedar siding, an eviction over which we have no regrets. The layers of nesting material in former woodpecker holes (which the house sparrows enlarged and populated) make an interesting study in avian biology; they also make a mess. More about the problematic house sparrow at this post. Suffice it to say, there’s a ton of work involved, including lift boom rental, that we must manage under lousy-hot conditions.
Bird-catcher, bird-rescuer, and bird-evictor. Here I am, keeping things in balance.
I’m reading Margaret Renkl’s book of brief essays, Late Migrations, which evokes in me a revival of memories not too dissimilar from hers. We are near in age, and though she writes from Tennessee and Alabama, her unsupervised childhood running barefooted through peanut fields and along creek banks at her grandparents’ house feels parallel to my unsupervised childhood running barefoot along creek banks surrounded by small towns and cornfields. I too slept on the screen porch at my great-grandmother’s house, fan running, insects humming, heat lightning brightening the humid summer nights.
Renkl writes about watching Walter Cronkite on television and seeing the Viet Nam War, vivid to us in spite of the screen’s small size and black and white images. As teenagers in the mid-1970s, Renkl and I benefited from fairly liberal sex education classes in high school. I also benefited from a brief era of integrated junior highs and high schools, however; not the case in Birmingham, Alabama. Like hers, my parents scraped by in suburbs close to the city in houses with cement stoops and no porch. Though they eventually made their way into the solid middle class, my folks attained financial stability long after I had left home.
The essays note the change in climate, both cultural and natural, that has occurred over the past six decades. Renkl observes the increasing brevity of Southern winters and wonders how the temperature will affect the migratory birds–will they wait too long to head south? Will their food sources also change, or will the migrants find less to eat to sustain them, especially on the return trip north when they need to power up their bodies for mating and nesting? How will the birds navigate an increasingly human-altered globe-scape, a world of all-night lights and glass towers, wind turbines and redirected rivers? And will native birds survive the aggression or overpopulation of invading species?
I see that last concern in my Pennsylvania back yard, where the number of European house sparrows has probably quadrupled in the past three or four years. A passionate birder friend of mine has told me, flatly, “Kill them.” That seems harsh; in Renkl’s book, she gets the same advice about squirrels in her attic! There are, however, compelling reasons to find a way to discourage these aggressive and noisy little birds (see Todd Holden’s article here). My spouse and I have not yet gotten the heart to destroy birds, though they are enlarging woodpecker holes made in our cedar siding corner-boards and then nesting in the openings. We have had no bluebirds, except the occasional one just passing through, for four or five years. A coincidence? I think not!
The memoir aspects of Late Migrations resonate with me, and so do the essays in which she reflects on what we are losing (on earth and among our Beloveds). The author decides to let the chipmunks continue to reside in tunnels under her house and to leave the squirrels in her attic in peace. I’ve come to terms with our hungry, marauding whitetail deer population, our groundhogs, and the Asian stinkbugs, among other creatures. The house sparrows, though, are as bad as the mugwort, knotweed, and wintercreeper in our perennial gardens and hedgerows. I may have to take more meticulous precautionary steps before next spring arrives.
Meanwhile, I use Cornell University’s Merlin app early in the morning and late in the evening (when the house wrens are less vocal) in an effort to determine which birds are hanging out in our little ecosystem–the birds I can’t see, or that I can’t identify by sight (like the blackpoll warbler). Two evenings ago: a bluebird.
Words fail. And I work in a classroom setting, as do many of my friends and colleagues, and my children’s friends and colleagues (now in their 30s and willing to be teachers–bless them!). These events are not things we can ignore by staying in our own little bubbles of “it can’t happen here.”
Words have failed so profoundly that I’m out in the garden instead, or indoors cleaning my bathrooms or reading books. Books–always my solace when my own words fail.
My latest good read is David Crystal‘s 2004 The Stories of English, already out of date in its last chapter–a fact I’m sure he gleefully acknowledges. I adore his love of how language evolves and find his non-prescriptivist approach refreshing and necessary if we are to keep literacy and communication alive. This book gave me so much information, enriched the knowledge I already have about our language, and made me laugh, too. Granted, it is word-geek humor…but that’s how I roll.
And I needed a few laughs this past week or so. My heart aches; I am sore afflicted for more reasons than I care to explain at present, though the headline news certainly has much to do with my mood. Crystal’s book got me thinking about the course I teach (come fall) and how I’ve already toned down the prescriptiveness in order to convince my students they can write and can be successful with written communication; that they are not “wrong,” just that their audience for written work differs, in college, from high school and from text messaging and other forms of writing. Crystal says we who teach English need to get over the concern about split infinitives and pronoun antecedent agreement and focus on clarity and genuine expression. I have no argument with him there–but many people I know would quibble and complain. And the English lexicon offers us so many options for how to say we disagree!
A book about words–but no, a book about human communication through the mediation of words, spoken and written, and how we got to the forms (plural!) of English we now use to express ourselves. There’s a kind of splendid optimism in Crystal’s thinking about language that somehow made me feel a little less low in spirit. Ah, yes. The solace of books.
The weather warmed and got windy, and that bodes reasonably well for garden prepping even if the last frost date is still almost a month away. I got digging, sowed more spinach and carrots, cheered on the lettuce sprouts, and–with some help from Best Beloved–pried most of the winter weeds out of the veg patch and set up a raised bed or two.
While I was out there pulling creeping charlie and clover and reviewing my garden plan for this year, it occurred to me that my process in gardening parallels my process in writing. My approach to each has similarities, probably due to my temperament though perhaps due to the way I go about problem solving. The process is part habituation or practice and part experiment, with failure posing challenges I investigate with inquiry, curiosity–rather than ongoing frustration. And sometimes, I just give up and move on without a need to succeed for the sake of winning.
I have no need to develop a new variety of green bean nor to nurture the prize-winning cucumber or dahlia. My yard looks more lived-in than landscaped; on occasion, we’ve managed to really spruce the place up, but it never stays that way for long. I admire gorgeous, showy gardens but am just as happy to have to crawl under a tree to find spring beauties, mayapples, efts, rabbit nests, mushrooms. My perennials and my veg patch grow from years of experimentation: half-price columbines that looked as though they might never recover, clumps of irises from friends’ gardens, heirloom varieties I start from seed. The failures are many, but I learn from them. Mostly I learn what won’t grow here without special tending I haven’t energy to expend, or I learn which things deer, rabbits, groundhogs, and squirrels eat and decide how or whether to balance my yearning for food or flora with the creatures that live here and the weather I can’t control. There are a few things I’ve learned to grow reliably and with confidence–ah, the standbys! But the others are so interesting, I keep trying.
Writing poems? Kind of similar. After so many years of working on free-verse lyrical narrative, I feel confident in my control of those poems and can usually tell when they’re not operating the way I want them to. Then I wait and revise and rethink, but there’s a familiarity to the process. Whereas I am far less confident with sonnets–nonetheless, sometimes a poem really works best in a form like that. So I know I have to expend more energy on it. Other times I find myself needing to experiment. I try mimicking another poem, tearing apart my line breaks, or revising in a form I barely know. I play with puns or alliteration, alter punctuation to stir up the rhythm or surprise the reader (or myself). Breaking my habitual approach to starting or revising a poem leads to curious results, sometimes intriguing ones.
But, like my garden ambitions, my writing ambitions exist more as a means to learn and experiment. I do not set out to produce the decade’s best poem or to develop a unique style or form that academics will admire and study. (I just made myself chuckle.) Heck, most of my work has not yet seen print–and with good reason. Not every rose is an RHS Garden Merit award winner.
For now, here’s a poem I wrote over a decade ago, one that will be appearing in a forthcoming chapbook. More on that when I know more myself.
STILL LIFE WITH WOMAN
Loose sleeve envelopes her brown hand
which rests upon an apple or a secret
cupped beneath; only the stem shows,
fruit’s oblate body intimated by
the solidity of her skin against
the table’s plane.
This is a moment undiscovered,
a painting by Vermeer—
blue, white, quince-yellow, poised—
her palpably-dimpled wrist sloping
toward the precise, thumbnail shadows of
her relaxed fingers. We know
blood imperceptibly alters the shape of her veins
every second her heart beats, we know her womb
continues its cyclical pulse, that she inhales
and exhales, a living form, yet—
still: an inclination of the white, loose sleeve,
half an eye open, she covers some promise.
This is only one second before
surprise or boredom, a miniature:
one of those moments we find ourselves
in parity with every other thing,
equal in being to quince, fan, mirror,
that pitcher of water on the sideboard,
that window, full of light.
We just passed the vernal equinox, and here in the Lehigh Valley (the Lehigh is our resident river, though the Delaware is awfully close) the early jonquils are blooming. As are crocuses, forsythia, ornamental plums; the magnolias are starting to burst their fuzzy, cocoon-like bud scales. These vernal events seem somewhat ahead of schedule–not by much, but enough for a nature-nerd like me to notice.
I also notice the redwing blackbirds arrive earlier than they used to. Twenty-five years of keeping a garden journal provide evidence of that.
We live 340 feet above sea level in zone 6A, or what used to be zone 6A–we’re definitely trending warmer, despite occasional fierce storms that drop deep snow unexpectedly, despite weeklong stretches of winter temperatures below 15 degrees F. Summers linger longer and are either much wetter or much drier than “average,” and overall degree days for the past 15 years are above historical averages. Indeed, 2020 was the warmest summer on record here; I checked. Told you I was a nerd.
When my daughter lived in Asheville NC about 12 years ago, I noticed the rain, as well as flourishing vines, and lichen, on so many of the trees. She said that the Blue Mountains in that area are a temperate rain forest, but the humidity bothered her less than here in eastern PA because of the higher altitude: Asheville’s at about 3000 feet elevation. In the last 8 years or so, I’ve noticed the same tree-clinging lichen in my region–a new development. I have lived here over 30 years and had never seen it before. Another thing I notice is how much more vigorous the vining plants, many of them non-native, have become and how rapidly they shoot up into the overstory, choking off the tops of tulip poplars and oaks and pulling down the trunks of dead ash trees. The growing season has lengthened a bit, which is worrying from an environmental perspective even if it means I may eventually be able to grow camellias and figs.
And I can’t deny finding some of the milder weather pleasant, especially the sounds of tree frogs filling the nights earlier in the year. They soothe me at the end of day. Yet these crucial amphibians are very much at risk as the world warms. I may have little choice about whether we can return to cooler, damper summers, but I can make choices about how I live in the world and about what matters. It bears keeping in mind as I work the soil for another season in my garden.
witch-hazel’s yellow threads // flung by warming gusts // where crocuses emerge
oh! they cheer me : jonquils emerging : green leaves spearing brown leaves