Scythes revisited

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 31 of 31 in the series Odes to Tools

 

scythes

These scythes are just a few of the old farm tools we found in the barn and shed when we moved to Plummer’s Hollow in 1971. Other gems included a butter churn, a foot-operated grindstone and a chest-high, hand-cranked winnowing machine.

If the photo looks familiar, that’s because Phoenicia Publishing used it for the cover of Odes to Tools. In “Ode to Scythes,” I had written:

The scythes are emissaries
from a country
that no longer exists.

Martin Hardy in Plummer's Hollow, 2012 (1)

In fact, as I learned this past Saturday, that “country” is not completely vanished yet. The gentleman above, Martin Hardy, actually wielded those sythes (and also operated the butter churn, the grindstone and winnowing machine) as a boy back in the 1930s. His family lived in the old tenant house, the same house I live in now, for roughly the first four decades of the 20th century, living here year-round and looking after the farm while the absentee owners were in Chicago. To make ends meet, they grew oats, wheat, and other crops, kept a few dairy cows and sold the milk and cheese once a week in Tyrone. They stored the milk in the springhouse to keep it cool the rest of the week.

Though we’ve met many Plummer family descendents over the years, their attachment to the mountain is mainly a sentimental one. What memories they have are based on the few weeks they spent up here each summer. It was wonderful to meet a former year-round resident who actually grew up on the mountain the same as I did. Mr. Hardy was born in 1922, but he seems as if he could easily be 15 years younger. He recalled taking walks south along the mountain toward Altoona for fun, just as my brothers and I did, and like us, they kept chickens in the shed (the building behind him in the photo, which also houses the old tools). And while I have vivid memories of the Flood of ’72 (Hurricane Agnes), when we stood at a safe distance and watched floating trees slam into the decking of our access bridge over the Little Juniata, he remembered walking home from school during the Flood of ’36 and discovering that the bridge was completely gone. It was his grandfather, a skilled mason, who built the stone pediment that supports the present bridge, he said. It’s held up very well indeed.

I don’t think I ever shared this video for “Ode to Scythes,” the work of the British blogger and Buddhist priest Kaspalita. It was an unexpected gift, and very well executed, I thought — especially considering it was his first videopoem!

Mr. Hardy said they used a team of horses (one blind, the other sighted) to pull a mowing machine, and got out the scythes to mow the edges and the corners. I’ll bet our Amish neighbors in Sinking Valley still do much the same. I kind of question the poem’s premise now, in fact. A few decades from now, scythes may very well be common tools once again, and if any of us manage to live to 90, the tools people inquire about may not be hand tools, but things like iPads and the internet.

First “Words on the Street” book now available in print and electronic forms!

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Words on the Street cover

It’s been a long time in coming, but I’m very happy to announce that a print and e-book collection of 109 satirical cartoons featuring Via Negativa’s original, imaginary guest-blogger Diogenes is now available from that famous London publishing powerhouse, Bauble Tree Books. (If you caught my announcement at the beginning of December and are wondering why we weren’t able to get it out before Christmas, here are all the gory details.)

Visit the Bauble Tree page for the book. Or save a click and go directly to the source(s):

Print edition at Lulu (£9.99 — $15.30 at current exchange rate)
Paperback, 224 pages

EPUB edition at Lulu (£0.99 — $1.52)
For Nook, iPad, iPhone, etc.

Kindle edition at Amazon.com ($2.99)

Kindle edition at Amazon UK (£2.00)

Amazon’s French site (I’m an “auteur”!), German site, Spanish site, and Italian site (€2.68)

All of the cartoons have been re-done from what I originally published here (which were small GIF files, many of them long since vanished into the ether, presumably due to server failure or retirement by the free image-hosting service I used). A significant number of Diogenes’ signs were re-written, and a couple are brand-new.

Also adding value to the book is a short preface by my friend Kaspalita, a UK-based Pureland Buddhist priest and blogger. Now you may be wondering, “Why a Buddhist? Why would you not ask a graphic artist to introduce a book of graphic ‘art’?” But Words on the Street, as an inaction comic, is all about sitting, and who knows more about sitting than a Buddhist priest? We could argue about the difference between mindful repetition of the nembutsu and humorous repetition of the same drawing with different words, but never mind. Here’s some of what Kaspa said:

Anne Bogart described great art as something that stops you in your tracks and won’t let you move beyond it. Dave Bonta’s few words provoke a similar arrest. His placards draw forth a wry smile and, as good satire should, leads us into a critique of the many questionable aspects of our society.

Bonta’s words are given another layer of meaning by their fixed context, the unchanging homeless character whose placard they grace. “Friend Me” takes on a completely different significance seen here, as opposed to on one’s favorite social networking site.

Each page I flick to raises a smile and then asks me to come back to it and think, and then to think again. In this book Dave moves towards cementing his reputation as satirist and as an important contemporary gadfly.

Hear that? “An important contemporary gadfly”! If anyone not as fully trustworthy as an ordained priest said that, I’ll bet you’d be inclined to raise an eyebrow, wouldn’t you?

Needless to say, reviews would be very welcome. I’m told some review copies of the digital version may be available — contact the publisher.

Keep in mind that all of my royalities from the sale of this book and ebook will go toward supporting the Via Negativa blog network, including the production (and hopefully much more reliable hosting!) of brand new Words on the Street cartoons. So think of it as a sponsorship for something you’d like to see continue. (Well, of course, you can also think of it as a fabulous Valentine’s Day gift if you like.)

Also in that vein, if you like Words in the Street and/or want to support Via Negativa, don’t forget to visit my storefront at CafePress. Send me photos or videos of Via Negativa t-shirts, mugs, etc. “in the wild” and I’ll be happy to post them with a link back to your blog, if you have one. (No need to include your face if you’re shy.) Ditto for photos of the book being read in unlikely places.

In fact, let me conclude this post with some shots of Cynthia Cox modeling a t-shirt with my personal favorite Words on the Street cartoon. Cynthia is an award-winning poet based in the Houston, Texas area whose work I first came to know years ago at a blog called the twitching line; she now shares poems, videos and other fun and wonderful things at mareymercy. Herewith her riffs on “Clichéd — please help” (click to embiggen):

Cynthia Cox cliche 1

Cynthia Cox cliche 2

Cynthia Cox cliche 3

Why you should join the river of stones

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Fiona and Kaspa at Writing Our Way Home are once again challenging folks to “notice something properly every day during January” and write it down — to join their “river of stones.”

Writing small stones is a very simple way of engaging with the world around you, in all its richness and complexity and beauty. They are a gateway into praise and clear-seeing. They will help you to acknowledge the ugly things (the slugs in the compost pile) as well as the pretty ones (blackbird song). You don’t need to be a writer to write small stones – the important thing is starting to open up to what’s around you.

I guess I’ve been writing what you could call small stones for four years now, one a day except on rare occasions when I’m not at home. I’m a bit more focused on the quality of the writing and the accuracy of the observations than some participants in the “river of stones” writing challenge, so I don’t know how applicable my experience would be for everyone who takes part. But for what it’s worth, here are four things I’ve learned from doing it, lessons which I think might be more broadly applicable to other kinds of creative writing as well.

1) The most obvious subject is usually the best one to write about — or as the Zennists say, “first thought, best thought!” Doing the same thing every day is often a chore, and can quickly become overwhelming if you take it too seriously or hold yourself to too high a standard. Don’t be afraid to be boring or humdrum once in a while. You may say to yourself, “I always write about squirrels,” but if the neat thing you saw a squirrel do this morning is in fact what made the biggest impression on you, that’s probably what you should write about. And what I’ve found is that nine times out of ten, these obvious subjects result in the most popular small stones, measured in terms of retweets and favorites on Twitter and likes and comments on Facebook. Does that mean they’re necessarily the best? No, but since part of my agenda is to get other people interested in noticing what’s in their own yard or street, it’s important to write things that resonate with ordinary readers from time to time.

2) Unself-conscious immersion in the world outside one’s own thoughts is key to the whole process. For most of us, immersion in the creative process is addictive, a source of intense pleasure, and there’s a great temptation not to go beyond that. No doubt you can find plenty of readers just by continuing to write about the things you already know. But if you’re honest with yourself, I think you have to recognize that your best writing happens when you open yourself up to what you don’t know. Well, I contend that you don’t need to do anything more special than pay attention to the world in all its bewildering complexity to experience that kind of wonder and bafflement on a regular basis. I find that just a few minutes of mindful awareness can yield creative dividends for hours. In fact, I often purposely refrain from trying to write a small stone for a couple hours after I come in from the porch, giving my observations time to age. A mere grain can germinate and take root — or get under your skin, like a grain of sand in an oyster.

3) You can never know too much about what you’re seeing or hearing. William Carlos Williams famously declared “No ideas but in things.” But it’s hard to enter into the lives of other beings and objects if you don’t know much about them. Start by learning their names — what writer doesn’t benefit by enlarging his or her vocabulary? Even if you live in the city, there are probably birds or trees that you see every day whose exact identity you aren’t sure of, though you might not be aware of it at first because they’re such a familiar sight. Look them up. Once identified, there’s plenty of information to be found on the internet.

This is a huge part of how I’ve been able to keep my daily microblog going for so long without boring the shit out of myself or (I hope!) my readers. Sure, sometimes it might sound more lyrical to say “a bird” rather than “the Carolina wren,” and there’s always the risk that readers who aren’t as familiar with nature will misconstrue a common name to be your own, original adjective + noun combination, but nothing says you have to use the full name every time. I just think it’s a good idea to know it. (And at The Morning Porch website, I get around this by using tags, which can be more specific than the term used in the post.)

4) A practice of enforced brevity can encourage good writing habits. Twitter’s strict 140-character limit, while completely arbitrary and a little constricting for many, more conversational uses of language, is perfect for focusing attention on word choice. I make tough decisions every morning about which words, phrases and observations I have to leave out. Almost always, I think the results end up being much stronger and more lyrical than they would’ve been if I’d been able to indulge my usual verbosity. And in the four years I’ve been doing this, I’ve noticed it spilling over into my regular writing as well. Bad writing happens when decent writers are unwilling to let go of any felicitous expression. It’s natural to form attachments to the products of our imaginations, but we have to be merciless with ourselves and ask, What does the writing need? What is the sound and the rhythm trying to tell us? Though I think I was already fairly good at editing my own work, daily microblogging has made me even quicker to reject words and ideas that just don’t fit.

Woodrat Podcast 42: Tea with Fiona and Kaspalita

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
Fiona Robyn and Kaspalita on the waterfront at Aberystwyth, Wales
Fiona Robyn and Kaspalita on the waterfront at Aberystwyth, Wales

Brew yourself a nice cuppa and join Fiona Robyn, Kaspalita and me for a conversation about writing, religion, spirituality, science, small stones and more. We met on May 7 in Aberystwyth, Wales; Fiona and Kaspa subsequetly tied the knot on June 18th, and starting on July 1 they will again curate a month-long river of stones, with contributions from around the world.

Fiona Robyn is a novelist, a blogger, a therapist, and a creativity coach. She is very fond of Earl Grey tea and homemade cake. Kaspalita is a Pure Land Buddhist priest, a sometime blogger and is still learning to play the ukulele. Together they are on a mission, they say, to help people connect with the world through writing. In addition to the river of stones (see the aggregator blog) they also host the Writing Our Way Home forum and run e-courses on writing, spirituality and connecting to the world. Fiona has even written an e-book, available as a free download, called How to Write Your Way Home.

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Theme music: “Le grand sequoia,” by Innvivo (Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike licence).