Naming names

A friend sent me the link to this NY Times article and asked my response as a gardener and as a writer who teaches writing. She wondered whether the flower-name Mexican hat (a type of coneflower) is racist, and if a flower resembled a beret and were called French hat, would that be racist?

“This Moth’s Name Is a Slur. Scientists Won’t Use It Anymore.”
https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/09/science/gypsy-moth-romani-entomological-society.html?referringSource=articleShare

She has given me much to think about. I suppose people ought to use the botanical name to identify such things, but most people aren’t going to refer to gypsy moths as Lymantria dispar. Though if you look at the botanical names, those too bear some consideration as Eurocentric or white supremacist, given their inherent background: so many plants are named for their (colonizing) European “discoverers” or have names that mean “ugly” or “stinky” or, in the case of Lymantria dispar, “ill-suited and unlike.”

The reason Mexican hat (or French hat, for that matter) might be considered racist is that they are inherently stereotypes. Mexico is a huge and diverse place, and not everyone there wears a sombrero any more than all French people wear berets. I suppose we could call them sombrero flowers. That would be naming them by what they resemble. And we could call Dutchman’s Breeches pantaloons flowers. That’s a whole lotta name-changing going on, and the likelihood that everyone will take to the new names? That, only time will tell.

As to gypsy moths, the name was dubbed in a derogatory way–as in, “We don’t want those traveling gypsies around (and that’s what these moths are like).” So, it is a slur. A verbal aggression against Romani people who were already tagged with a name someone else gave them (the etymology of the name is here: gypsy).

Hypothetically, we could continue to call the moths gypsy moths; but when we use the term, we can tell our children (for example) it used to be considered a bad thing to be a gypsy, but the Romani people aren’t bad and neither are the moths–the moths are just being moths and doing what moths do. It’s people who brought them to a place the moths could end up being so destructive that we now have to kill them or discourage them from breeding here. [BTW, it was the white European people who colonized the American continent who brought the moths here.]

Yes, that’s complicated. Most people don’t want to go to the bother of subtle explanations. So sometimes a name change is actually simpler. People complain about “politically-correct language” and changing English into something it shouldn’t be…it can be difficult to keep track of.

But because English is a living language, I expect and generally accept changes to the language as there are changes in our living culture. Am I always happy about “verbing a noun” or use of the words “impactful” and “relatable” or mixing up “lie” and “lay”? Um, no. Does the speed of change make my job more difficult? Why, YES! But if a person makes me aware of sensitivity in language, such as stereotyping, I respect that. It makes me reflect on language and culture.

The beauty of the world in which we reside. Here’s Ratiba columnifer (the flower formerly known as Mexican hat).

https://www.highcountrygardens.com

Reading not writing

But the next best thing to writing is reading. Or maybe it’s the other way around; if I had not loved reading, I would never have started writing.

Stacked beside the bed:

A Book of Psalms (Stephen Mitchell)

The Book of Joy (Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Dalai Lama XIV, Douglas Abrams)

The Book (Keith Houston)

The Darker Fall (Rick Barot)

Theory of the Lyric (Jonathan Culler)

Shifting the Silence (Etel Adnan)

Noise (Kahneman, Sibony, & Sunstein)

Haiku 2021 anthology from Moonstone Arts Center

I love how the first three books all have BOOK in their titles. The Adnan and the Mitchell are re-reads that settle my soul while keeping my mind active and inquisitive. The Book of Joy has been surprisingly helpful to me so far (I am reading it a bit at a time while other things are going on).

Anyway, I can garden. We have had plentiful rain and now I have plentiful beans, basil, zucchini, carrots; numerous tomatoes cluster under leaves, so whenever they ripen we’ll have more splendid organic tasty produce. I will continue to pull out the crabgrass, wild mustard, pigweed, smartweed, etc. Culling, cultivating, collecting sunlight through my vegetables and through my skin (yes, I wear sunscreen–and a hat)…there are worse things in life than an inability to compose poems. And I can read, thank heaven. Reading poetry, and reading about poetry, provides plenty of joy.

One of the practices of joy mentioned in the Dalai Lama’s & Desmond Tutu’s book is gratitude. Fortunately, that practice has never been difficult for me.

under clouds /heat rises from soil /beans grow plump


The berries

It is my custom to pick blackberries in the heat of the day. Perhaps I relish discomfort: the heat, the muggy late-June or early July weather, the thorny canes interspersed with other thorny canes and exuberant vines, poison ivy among these. I always end up scratched, sweaty, sunburned, and itchy; but I end up with blackberries.

Picking at midday means I encounter fewer mosquitoes, for one thing. And in midday I am likely to be the only berry-gatherer in the thickets. Everyone seems to love blackberries and mulberries—which ripen about a week earlier, so these berry seasons overlap. Everyone! Birds, squirrels, deer, foxes, groundhogs, raccoons, possums, bears…

Blackberry fruiting gives way to blueberries, and blueberries to wineberries and elderberries, so that bellies get filled and seeds get dispersed all over the place. I hear rustlings in the hedgerows and at the edge of the woods at night, so yes, I would rather loot my fruit when only “mad dogs and Englishmen” are outside.

Tonight, we’ll have berry cobbler.

I’m still not writing very much new work, but blackberry picking brought to mind this poem from quite some time ago. The poem’s speaker is hiking, not berrying, but I thought of it just the same.

~

Bear & Cloudburst


Blue Ridge, 4200 feet:
we start our ascent, sweet
cicely going fast to seed

trailside goldenrod in bloom.
Bees hover and hum,
we walk one by one by one by one

summer-heat left behind
smothered in pipe vine.
Track and blaze. Trail climbs

through laurel—twisted, dry
from two years’ drought, sky
overcast, color of thin whey

but the ranger doubts rain,
has hoped too long, in vain.
As we file by, he waves.

Further up. Dense shrubs
thickets of berries slubbed
like raw silk, leaves daubed

with stippled insect eggs
or lichen, fungus, swags
of spider webbing, sacs and bags

and butterflies, brute gnats
undeterred by repellent. We swat
stobs, are scratched. The scat

along trailside I recognize as bear
but say nothing, though a fear
threads my ribs tightly where

instinct thumps. Our feet tramp
soil, each step sounds the tamp
of soles ascending; camp’s

four hundred meters’ altitude
below. Skeletal crane-fly skewed
dry in a web. We walk through                       

woods, a clearing up ahead
when a pungency attests
to recent presence, and Alice says

“There’s a funny smell.”
Her voice seems oddly small.
We summon our collective will,

engage in loud conversation.
Bears aren’t known for discussion,
are likely to flee in disgust. Then,

thunder. Air, though thin,
grows humid. Under the din
the tree-line begins

to go, our path exposed
as a blade of lightning explodes
ahead, just to the north.

Pick up the pace. Slouch
back to the undergrowth, the touch
of brambles like a scutch

on skin. We scuff the leaves
in the musky, bracing odor, pleased
to be off-summit, our speed

faster than before and louder
as we plunge downhill and wonder
where the bear has wandered

and if it’s found shelter.
We’ve half a mile to weather
in the rain. I slip. I’d rather

climb into some outcropped sweep
hidden beneath a sweetgum tree,
nuzzle the berry-breathed bear, and sleep.




			

In which I regress

I was a child who liked mud puddles. Well, mud, generally–but splashing through mud puddles was an especial pleasure. Barefooted in mid-summer at the beach or in the yard; booted other times of year, because I knew better than to wreck my shoes.

Water sends me back. I’m somewhere between the ages of 3 and 11. I am in one of my happy places. A puddle. A puddle in the rain, perhaps.

Of course people, as early humans existing in the marvelous and dangerous world, would infer that water is holy.

~

~

I felt water’s holiness when I was a child. Though perhaps that was a memory of the baptismal font, with me in my father’s grateful embrace.

Hatching day

After three cloudy, seasonable days–with no rain (we are in a drought)–the temperatures here got up to around 80° F and the cicadas emerged. I took a long walk around campus to observe the hatch.

Judging by the divots in the mulch around the trees, skunks, squirrels, raccoons, and other omnivores had a feast last night. But enough fourth-instar nymphs made it up the trees that I quickly lost count of how many exoskeletons clung abandoned to the bark of pines, maples, rowans, and assorted campus-landscape trees. There were also pale, newly-emergent cicadas–not yet imagoes–most of which were drying out their wings and bodies in the breeze. A few were still in the haemolymph stage (teneral adult stage), which is fascinating. Their wings are still furled, as they haven’t yet inflated with whatever fluid circulates through their systems, and the insects look particularly weird.

Brood X hatches mostly south of us, though this county is right on the border. Definitely seeing more of them this year than I have for many years past.

Magicicada are justly famous for their loudness. There were not many full-fledged adult bugs on campus at noon today; but when I return (on Friday or, perhaps, Tuesday), I expect the place will be buzzing. The students are not here to make the place buzz–I’ll be happy to hear the cicadas.

Teneral adult magicicada. Photo by Shannon Kirby.

I feel as though a haiku might be needed here. Can anyone supply one? I’d be grateful…

Perspective(s)

Usually when I spy the red-bellied woodpecker, what I notice is the large red stripe on its…head. Today, the bird was facing me through a nearly-empty birdfeeder, and I perceived the ragged oval of blush-colored down on its underside. I felt a keen admiration for ornithologists who notice such small details. How many times have I seen the red-bellied woodpecker and noticed only its zebra-like striations and its vivid crown? Even those of us who consider ourselves practiced observers of ____ (name your favored area of observation) find we’re not as careful as we imagine we are.

I do not own a powerful telephoto lens for my old digital camera, so I rarely take successful pictures of birds. My noticing tends toward the small and not-fast-moving: flowers, mosses, flora, lichen, fungi, landscapes. I have learned to look mostly at my feet, and occasionally at the clouds. It seems that the limits of my camera and of my vision (terribly, terribly nearsighted) have led to a particular perspective that affects my photos, my botanical interests, and my poetry.

Which is, sometimes, all to the good–but not uniformly. Perspective should be varied; we humans need to imagine that other humans (and non-humans) may witness life from other points of view. This concept is fundamental to psychological understanding and to the much-vaunted and controversial “theory of mind.” It also gives us the pathetic fallacy and anthropomorphism, which expand human ideas about consciousness and offer plangent and resonant metaphors that writers can employ.

All of this came to top of mind today when a student brought in a Philosophy paper concerning Nietzsche’s perspectivism.

Nietzsche opposes philosophers who ignore the fact that individuals have limitations on their theorizing. What makes his idea so thorny is that at the same time he suggests–goes so far as to claim–that perspective (even limited, ideological perspective) is imaginative, is one of our human freedoms. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says:

“Particularly as knowers, let us not be ungrateful toward such resolute reversals of the familiar perspectives and valuations with which the spirit has raged against itself all too long… : to see differently in this way for once, to want to see differently, is no small discipline and preparation of the intellect for its future “objectivity”—the latter understood not as “disinterested contemplation” (which is a non-concept and absurdity), but rather as the capacity to have one’s Pro and Contra in one’s power, and to shift them in and out, so that one knows how to make precisely the difference in perspectives and affective interpretations useful for knowledge.” (GM III, 12)

This famous passage bluntly rejects the idea, dominant in philosophy at least since Plato, that knowledge essentially involves a form of objectivity that penetrates behind all subjective appearances to reveal the way things really are, independently of any point of view whatsoever.

Hence, we do not know and cannot know the kind of “original” knowledge that reveals how things “really are,” since each of us is possessed of a unique perspective essentially unshareable by others. And hence a conundrum for philosophers (and freshman students of Philosophy).

Wait. How did I travel from woodpeckers to perspectivism, by way of poetry? Note: Poetry has a way of doing that kind of traveling.

A quote from Joy Harjo: “It was the spirit of poetry who reached out and found me as I stood there at the doorway between panic and love.” We often stand at that door–and there are other doors–and, as we stand there, the perspective(s) we choose create decision, and purpose, and are colored by an almost journalistic observation or by an almost spiritual calling. It can be either. Both.

The woodpecker--
head and neck bright as berries--
protects its abdomen
 pink ovaries,
 soft underbelly.

Traditions

My dad liked to fly a kite on Good Friday.

I’m not certain how the tradition got started, but I remember as far back as first grade–maybe earlier–his taking us out to a park on Good Friday and sending a kite into the early spring winds. Maybe it was a sort of metaphor for hope, as was the Resurrection, according to his beliefs. Maybe just something to do with the kids when we had the day off from school.

Some years we had more success than others getting the kite aloft. There may be a metaphor in that, as well. What happens when what’s perching on the soul just huddles, dodging the weather and predators? Guano on the ground of the spirit? As a person who gardens, I could really overstretch the symbolism here: fertilization and renewal, so on.

But I haven’t been in the garden for a couple of days–we are having our blackberry frost and it has been chilly. Instead I am thinking about my absent dad and the significance of the holiday in my growing-up years. In church, the purple vestments were switched for white with gold trim on Easter; and my father, in his clerical robe and stole, looked important and shiny behind the pulpit. White flowers, especially lilies, showed up; everyone wore their best spring outfits. I feel nostalgia around these rituals, but they did not settle into my heart and create a believer of me. To my dad’s sorrow. I know my decision to leave the Church grieved him, but he accepted me and loved me all the same. He believed he’d see us in heaven, though he’d admit he had no idea what the afterlife would hold.

Rejoicing in the world’s beauty, the sharing of fellow humans’ suffering, and the way words can express the things that matter–the Biblical poetry–those things have settled into my heart. My consciousness. Hence metaphor and symbol and rhythm, songs of grief and praise.

They rise.

Like the hyacinths and daffodils rising from the half-rotted leaves of previous autumns. Like the flicker rising from the grass after scoring a grub. Like the early morning fog rising as high as the nearby hilltop, then merging into clouds. Like the sprouting kale seeds, the new pea leaves.

Like the thing with feathers. Or a kite.

~

I listened, this afternoon, to Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion and remembered Good Fridays with my father. That’s all the poetry I have to share today.

The last time my dad flew a kite was 2016, I think. And it was October, oceanside.

Dad (using the walker, far right) keeps a kite in the air above the Atlantic.

Moderately good intentions

We had some mild, sunny days around the equinox, days that lured me to the yard and garden. The neighbors’ pussywillow pushed its fuzzy catkins out in the warmth, and the sight of daffodil and hyacinth leaves making their way upward was cheering. A rather sluggish field vole ran out from under some mulch, much to my annoyance–the voles have really torn up the ornamental beds and the lawn under the cover of the snow. There’s a large meadow behind my house; why don’t the voles stay out there? At any rate, I wanted this one away from the garden. I figured I could catch it and let it go in the hedgerow where the grasses are dry and thick.

Field Vole (Microtus agrestis) from Warren Photographic

I was wearing garden gloves and the vole was a bit startled by sunlight but too fast for me. Because I had a hose in my right hand, I aimed it at the vole. I figured the wetting would confuse it enough that I could sweep down fast and scoop it up with some thatch, then release it. Or really, I wasn’t thinking much. But it did work: the vole, suddenly damp, froze for a moment. I snatched it and cradled it in my gloved hands (they bite!) and let it go along the edge of the meadow.

My compassionate spouse admonished me, though. He said it was cruel to spritz the vole. I realized he was correct. In the moment, I was considering my good intentions to remove the creature to a “better” place to forage; but that in itself was not a very kind thing–it was my wish, certainly not the vole’s! And I am positive I frightened it terribly.

The episode made me reflect on how often we privilege our own desires as being motivated by good intentions. We reason our way out of thoughtless behavior by saying “But I didn’t mean…” I have done so far too often. I think this is what props up microagressions and passive acceptance of egregious social behaviors like racism. Today I stumbled across an article by Shayla Love that suggests our much-vaunted concept of our true moral selves is illusion. She cites an article by psychologists that concludes that “[t]he true self is posited rather than observed. It is a hopeful phantasm.” Strominger, Knobe, & Newman’s article on the true self is here.

“Though we all believe in a morally good true self, our definition of what’s moral varies—and we define the ‘morally good’ part of our true selves based on our own values.” (from: https://www.vice.com/en/article/v7mwa3/why-your-true-self-is-an-illusion) ~Shayla Love.

~~

Meanwhile, this week marks one year since my latest chapbook launched into print–right at the start of US pandemic lockdowns. Find it here: https://prolificpress.com/bookstore/chapbook-series-c-14/barefoot-girls-by-ann-e-michael-p-317.html

So I am celebrating in a very small way, hooray for the little things! For the fact that my 88 year old mother has had her vaccine, and so have I, and now we can visit in person and appreciate little joys like cranberry, raisin, almond, and dark chocolate trail mix, floral bouquets, slow walks through the garden starting to green up and–soon–bloom. Maybe I will even be able to take her out for a beer (at an outdoor restaurant) in a month or two. I can read her some of the poems I’ve written about my dad. We can just sit and watch the birds.

For the fact that my students are slogging away, enduringly hopeful that by the time they graduate the USA will somehow be better. Maybe it will. With their help.

For the fact that my siblings and I have friendly relationships with one another–and honest ones.

Hooray for my spouse, mowing the meadow with his 1947 John Deere Model M tractor! For a new manuscript of old poems that I’m finally spending some genuine, careful, critical time revising.

For this poem: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/58762/catalog-of-unabashed-gratitude

and thank you, friends, when last spring
the hyacinth bells rang
and the crocuses flaunted
their upturned skirts, and a quiet roved
the beehive

And for this one (RIP, Mr. Zagajewski) https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/57095/try-to-praise-the-mutilated-world-56d23a3f28187

Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.