I was a Phebe – nothing more –
A Phebe – nothing less –
The little note that others dropt
I fitted into place –
Six-thirty. The treetops glow with the first rays of sun. A hummingbird circles a bull thistle’s purple tuft – all looks, no substance – then zooms over to the bergamot with its washed-out, scraggly heads.
Aside from the background trill of crickets and the sound of cars and trucks on the interstate highway a half-mile to the west, I’m struck by how silently the day has dawned. Early August is always a sad time of the year for me: the dusk and dawn chorus has dwindled to almost nothing. No more phoebe, wood thrush, Baltimore oriole, indigo bunting, scarlet tanager, catbird, great-crested flycatcher. Their young have fledged and learned their parent’s songs, and some have already begun the journey to their true homes in the tropics. Without such stalwarts as the cardinal, song sparrow and especially Carolina wren, the morning would arrive completely unheralded eight months out of twelve.
Already, the early goldenrod is blooming, and by the end of the week the whole field will have turned to gold. The season’s final generation of monarchs is on the wing. A dry high has settled in, bringing clear skies and autumn-cool temperatures. My niece is in heaven – she can spend almost every waking hour out-of-doors if she chooses. She spends the nights apart from her parents, sleeping up in her grandparents’ house in what had been my bedroom when I was growing up. And though she sometimes seems to wish that every adult were as facetious as her daddy and uncles are, there’s no question that her serious, naturalist-writer Nanna is still her main role model.
Yesterday morning the two of them went for a walk down Laurel Ridge, and Eva discovered a box turtle that her Nanna had walked right past without noticing. It was half-grown – only a few years old – and completely unafraid, even when Eva picked it up. After a careful examination of the eyes and plectrum, they decided it must be a female. Eva was so excited to have been the first to spot it, she ran all the way back to the house to tell her grandpa – and anyone else who would listen.
After lunch, without prompting from anyone, she sat down with a clipboard and legal pad and began to write what she proudly predicts will be her first published nature essay. We were astonished by the neatness of her hand and her fantastic spelling for a second grader. Mom reported the following conversation from earlier in the day.
Eva: “Are you famous, Nanna?”
Nanna: “Well, no, not really.”
“But do people know who you are?”
“Well, in Pennsylvania, I guess some people know who am.”
“That’s what I want! I want to write about Nature so people will know who I am!”
Yesterday afternoon my cousin Heidi stopped over with her three-year-old daughter Morgan in tow. Eva immediately took her under her wing and managed to coax her into walking much farther than she ever had before, showering her with praise for the feat. It was amusing to see these two only-children relate to each other in a big sister-little sister fashion.
As for me, I’m just happy for the company of two spontaneously affectionate and imaginative children – even when sudden storms of temper blow in from nowhere, as sometimes happens. Most of the time I am content to play Thoreau without regret for my single, childless state. But then I get a hug from a little kid and am reminded suddenly of just how much I’m missing.
The missing All, prevented Me
From missing minor Things.
If nothing larger than a World’s
Departure from a Hinge
Or sun’s Extinction, be observed
‘Twas not so large that I
Could lift my Forehead from my work
Both quotes are from the R. W. Franklin edition of The Poems of Emily Dickinson: nos. 1009 (first stanza) and 995 (complete).
What would you do if you received an e-mail from a friend announcing that he had obtained four one-piece work suits (a.k.a. union suits) that had formerly belonged to Halliburton employees? Each sports the Halliburton logo as well as the first name of the person to whom it was issued. Best of all is a suit with “Richard” on it (think “Vice President”).
I’ve never been much for street protests, but the opportunity to borrow one or more of these suits seems just too good to pass up. So I’m thinking, maybe I should organize some sort of “Poets Against the War” reading? If the emcee of such an event were outfitted by Halliburton, that might make for a compelling five seconds or so on local television.
Poets Against the War have designated September 11 “An International Day of Poetry” – presumably in commemoration of the CIA-sponsored coup that brought Pinochet to power in Chile in 1973, as well as for the events of 9/11/01. But as I thought this over today, it occurred to me that we would be better off titling a September 11th reading Poetry for Peace. Being “for peace” is just a lot more inclusive and disarming than being against war. I don’t want veterans, for example, to feel unwelcome. In fact, I don’t even want to presume that everyone who reads would be “anti-war.” Just pro-peace.
I am not especially interested in emceeing a rally or demonstration. I’m not a big Kerry supporter. But when a man can be publicly derided as a flip-flopper simply for seeing both sides of an issue, you know, that gets my back up! In this atmosphere, simply holding an event where people have to actively listen to those they may disagree with cannot help becoming a political act, I’m afraid. Even without the Halliburton suit.
(Remainder of post removed for violating Via Negativa’s ban on self-promotion)
My brother Mark’s family is visiting. Yesterday, I had an interesting conversation with my sister-in-law Luz about clay tile roofs. When they paid a contractor to rebuild her mother’s house in Juticalpa, Honduras, they replaced the roof tiles with tin. How come? Well, short of setting them in concrete, it seems there’s no way to fasten the tiles securely in place.
I was especially intrigued by Luz’s description of the traditional manufacturing technique: women in Honduras used to make the u-shaped tiles by bending slabs of wet clay over their thighs.”Surely they’ve graduated to using logs now?” “Well, I suppose so. But you never know.” Parts of the country remain deeply traditional, though electricity, television and internet cafes are spreading to the remotest villages.
One consequence of the loss of traditional techniques is that in the bigger towns and cities, like Juticalpa, it has become impossible to find anyone who understands the delicate art of roof tile readjustment. As I understand it, the tiles are nested together and keyed to notched roof beams in some way. All is fine and dandy until the neighborhood cats start using the roof for nuptial activities. Their constant running about is enough to vibrate individual tiles out of position.
“Can’t you just get up on a ladder and move them back into place?” “It’s not so easy. I’ve tried it. Mark’s tried it. It’s practically impossible if you don’t know what you’re doing. You should’ve seen us three years ago, during the rainy season. Every night we had to keep moving our beds around so we could sleep without getting dripped on!”
And concrete? “No, because kids, you know, throw stones. The tiles are softer than the concrete. One broken tile and you have to replace the whole thing.”
So after supper I am sitting here going through my e-mail when my eight year-old niece comes in and grabs me by the hand. “Uncle Dave!” “Niece Eva!” “Tell me the names of the plants in your garden!”
I let her drag me outside. “You know this one, right?”
“Yep. They’re all volunteer plants that I rescued from the compost pit. And you should know this plant, too. Here, smell a leaf.”
She takes the proffered leaf, crunches it against her nostrils, then chews on it. “Smells like limes!”
“So it’s lemonbalm, remember? We made tea out of it last spring.”
“What’s this yellow one?”
“That’s rudbeckia. I got the seeds from Pop-pop originally, over ten years ago. It just keeps re-seeding itself, year after year. Now that he’s dead, I have something to remember him by.”
And so it goes: bouncing bet, lamb’s ear, thyme, butterfly weed, bindweed, tansy, peonies. She wants to know not only the name but each plant’s reason for being there.
“This tall purple stuff is bergamot or oswego tea. It does make a nice tea, but really, I keep it for the hummingbirds.” I make her feel the square stem characteristic of the mint family, then show her catnip, with the same property.
“Is that for cats?” she asks, knowing that the only cats around here are the fully wild ones that show up from time to time.
“Yes, well, it does make cats crazy-hyper. But it has the exact opposite effect on humans. It’s an essential ingredient for sleepytime tea. I don’t plant it – it just grows wherever it wants to, and I pull out the ones that get too aggressive.”
After a while of this, she inadvertently pays me the ultimate compliment.
“Uncle Dave, this is the strangest garden I’ve ever seen! You can’t tell the good plants from the weeds!”
To retreat into silence – but not my own silence. The silence of images, of another’s carefully tended garden, front or back.
To retreat, retrieve, re-tread. To treat each word as a revelation, a piece of the greater silence.
To retreat, but not to withdraw. To be that mote in your eye, that skip on your mental compact disc.
To retreat into the thick of things: new fields, full of unknown flowers. Into forest and thicket, unfamiliar trees alive with unknown birds.
To re-treat with ice cream, with mangos, with passion fruit. To treat each other: would that make it double-Dutch? A confusion of tongues and jumpropes.
To retreat in order to engage. First to take leave (of what?) and only afterwards to greet, face to face.