Anticipation

February’s coming to a close, and the forecast indicates a chance of snow soon–but the gardener feels stirrings of approaching spring.

Time to buy seeds, order supplies, plan the garden. Time to mow the meadow before the ground-nesting birds get started on their spring dwellings. Last night the temperatures went well below freezing, but the winterhazel has bloomed. Snowdrops push up from leaf litter: a glimmer of white petals still held close to the stem. Waiting for a string of warm days to open up for the early pollinators.

flowers plant spring macro

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com 

Indeed, the days lengthen at last. Next week marks Spring Break for my college, and with a little more flexible time available, I hope to pin down my garden plans. Each year, I try to incorporate something innovative in the small patch of (mostly) vegetables. This year, I’m tempted to try short-season artichokes.

Thinking about the garden energizes me, gets my creative side jumping. It’s partly the anticipation–will this plant emerge, grow, thrive, fruit? Will voles and insects and viruses attack it? Will the weather cooperate? For example, I’m glad I did not plant potatoes last year–the weather was too wet. Should I take a chance on potatoes this year? (Oh, those tender new spuds lifted from the warm soil in August…)

And tomatoes! So many varieties from which to choose.

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Bounty (our own, in 2015)

 

Anticipation feels different from expectation, though the two are related. For me, at least, the connotation of the first is more open-ended. Anything can happen, though let’s hope what happens is good. Expectation seems more results-oriented. I am not a results-oriented gardener; I like surprises, I appreciate the education I get even from failures.

Come to think of it, I could describe myself that way as a writer or poet, too: not results-oriented, more intrigued by the things I learn when I work at the writing.

Even when the results do not pan out, even when I finally must give up on a poem that is not working, I learn a great deal about where and why a particular approach fails. This is why writing requires practice, patience, and time to analyze and reflect on what those “results” tell the writer.

Do what works, then push the envelope.

Hmmmm…artichokes in Pennsylvania….

artichoke beautiful bloom blooming

artichoke in bloom : Pexels.com

 

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Observations

My brother, whose avocation is science historian and whose papers I often proofread, has acquainted me with the 18th-c. comparative anatomist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach. As often occurs when one becomes attuned to new knowledge or focus, I suddenly seem to find Blumenbach’s name or theories “everywhere.” Mostly in books, of course, but also in a natural history museum where I came face to face with a trilobite that bore his name. I have also been reading Andrea Wulf’s book on Alexander Humboldt, The Invention of Nature; Blumenbach was one of Humboldt’s professors and influencers.

calymene blumenbachii

Wulf’s book begins as a biography of Humboldt but closes with several chapters on others who were inspired by his work; she makes the claim that Humboldt’s ideas about the deep connectedness of everything on earth laid groundwork for environmentalists and the discipline of ecology. Indeed, Darwin, Thoreau, Marsh, Muir, and many others found his texts revelatory and transformative. His writing is supposedly poetic and emotional–he did not think the earth and its denizens deserved less than awe and appreciation. Even though his books are packed with measurements, comparisons, careful botanical descriptions, and minute observations of practically everything he encountered, he allows space for admiring the view. Or, so Wulf’s book says. Now, I suppose I shall have to do a bit of reading Humboldt!

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Along these lines, the lines of the natural world’s connectedness and relationships–ourselves among these, despite our frequent destruction of them–I find myself thinking of the recent death of poet Mary Oliver. I so admire the work and the woman, or what little I knew of her from a few appearances and through friends who studied with her. My social media feed has been alive with tributes, postings of her poems, and some critique about her standing as an American poet, as if that would matter to her (I doubt it would).

I can just make note that her poems have encouraged me to continue to write about nature, even when I’ve been told nature poets are unfashionable, uninteresting, or unnecessary. Her work taught me how to observe closely, like Aristotle at the tidal pools or Haeckel peering at radiolaria. First notice, listen; then describe, then try to obtain more information, and all the while percolate what experience has created within the observer herself. Maybe nothing earth-shattering comes of the process, but sometimes  there’s a poem…

Here’s one of Oliver’s early poems (from Twelve Moons, 1979), one readers are less likely to find in all of the tributes to her but which offers a sense of how well-observed–for all their ‘simplicity’–her poems are.

Buck Moon–from the Field Guide to Insects

Eighty-eight thousand six-hundred different species

in North America. In the trees, the grasses

around us. Maybe more, maybe

several million on each acre of earth. This one

as well as any other. Where you are standing

at dusk. Where the moon

appears to be climbing the eastern sky. Where the wind

seems to be traveling through the trees, and the frogs

are content in their black ponds or else

why do they sing? Where you feel

a power that is not yours but flows

into you like a river. Where you lie down and breathe

the sweet honey of the grass and count

the stars; where you fall asleep listening

to the simple chords repeated, repeated.

Where, resting, you feel

the perfection, the rising, the happiness

of their dark wings.

 

 

Her poems are not metaphysical by any means, but Oliver is avowedly spiritual, which is not a fashionable thing. I am not spiritual, but I have always respected that in her. May she rest in the perfection and the happiness of those dark wings.

 

Biodiversity & storytelling

As I have mentioned before in many previous posts, telling stories matters to humans. It’s the best way to get a person’s attention: if a writer wants to bring a fact, claim, event, person, or history to light, the best way to reach a wide audience requires spinning a good story about it. I recently finished reading a book about so-called living fossils, including bacteria and worms (not my favorite subjects), because the author’s enthusiasm for his subject was scaffolded onto a story of world-travel and time-travel. In the process of learning about coelacanths, horseshoe crabs, and echidnas, Richard Fortey also makes an impassioned plea for biodiversity–and storytelling.

“…I am not in sympathy with the idea that what matters about a species is how we humans react to it, which seems allied to a view that nature is only validated by observation from this particular hominid…We don’t reckon the worth of a species by the “damage” its extinction would do to other ecosystems. We cannot rank the products of more than 3 billion years of evolution in utilitarian lists. The richness of the biological world is the most wonderful feature of the biosphere, and every story is worth telling no matter how humble, or indeed insular, is the the organism concerned.” [my italics]

–Richard Fortey, paleontologist and expert on trilobites, in his book Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms: The Story of the Animals and Plants that Time Has Left Behind. https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/54786/horseshoe-crabs-and-velvet-worms-by-richard-fortey/9780307275530/

The lyric, the epic, the myth, the story written in the genome or the geology or the great vast cosmos–all of the things we know contain mysteries–intrigue us when we hear a narrative. Who knew that microbes and bacteria and alga have stories? They cannot tell their own unless “the storytelling animal” interprets them, raising their stature and importance in the eyes of “particular hominids.” In 1971, Dr. Seuss invented The Lorax for such a purpose.

It takes all kinds of people to tell good stories. Keep reading!

Breaking, breathing

For now, I will be taking a break, putting on the brakes, pausing for a breather. Briefly, though! Blogging has been not just a good discipline for writing practice but also for thinking practice. It has offered me a place to “bookmark” books that matter to me and to reflect on my teaching, my environment, my garden, and on The Big Stuff–consciousness, values, aesthetics, culture.

Urged along by other poetry bloggers (see Poetry Bloggers), I have posted 60 times in 2018. I felt quite disciplined about that feat until I looked at my WordPress statistics and learned that, for example, in 2014, I wrote 74 posts. This year I was no more or less active than usual (say the statistics). My average number of posts per year over the decade is pretty close to 60. Respectable enough–there are other things to do.

The college semester has closed. We are now “on break.” And I want to take advantage of the gap by making a break with our family tradition, just this once, and to relish the pause my job contains when the students are off campus. I’m especially happy to be breaking bread with Best Beloveds this holiday season. Before the year closes, I plan to enjoy long breaths in high altitudes and to look at the Milky Way.

May your breaks and breaths be of the best and most nourishing kinds.


Dave Leiker photo

Diminishment

When a friend who grew up in Central America visited the USA for the first time, she arrived in New York City in January. She encountered the airport, security, passport service, crowds, parking lot, the traffic en route to Central Park, shivering a bit as she went in and out of heated places to the cold weather and back. But when she finally found herself walking the city streets with her host, at 3 o’clock in the afternoon amid the many noises of downtown, she stopped and stood still a moment–listening intently.

“But–where are the insects?” she asked.

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“We notice the losses,” says David Wagner, an entomologist at the University of Connecticut. “It’s the diminishment that we don’t see.”

Because insects are legion, inconspicuous and hard to meaningfully track, the fear that there might be far fewer than before was more felt than documented. People noticed it by canals or in backyards or under streetlights at night — familiar places that had become unfamiliarly empty. The feeling was so common that entomologists developed a shorthand for it, named for the way many people first began to notice that they weren’t seeing as many bugs. They called it the windshield phenomenon.

Brooke Jarvis, New York Times Magazine Nov. 27, 2018

While I do not expect to hear insects in New York in the dead of winter, the “windshield phenomenon” is something I noticed here in the USA during the 1980s. I recalled long cross-country trips in the car with my parents and the constant need to clean smashed bugs from the window and front bumpers or grilles, back when I was a child. And somehow, once I was driving, that task became less necessary. I decided that pesticides such as DDT were responsible for fewer bug-splats, but I did not consider the long-term ramifications that Jarvis describes:

Insects are the vital pollinators and recyclers of ecosystems and the base of food webs everywhere… In the United States, scientists recently found the population of monarch butterflies fell by 90 percent in the last 20 years, a loss of 900 million individuals; the rusty-patched bumblebee, which once lived in 28 states, dropped by 87 percent over the same period.

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Right. And a loss of bees leads to a loss of any plant requiring bees for pollination. A loss of beetles and dragonflies and mayflies and even the much-maligned mosquito leads to birds that starve, not to mention amphibians, reptiles, and some omnivorous or insectivorous mammals–particularly vulnerable bat and marsupial populations. The bottom of the food chain matters more than most human beings ever stop to consider.

One part of this article mentions the important, even crucial, role of people who study nature without having gotten degrees…the so-called amateur botanists, lepidopterists, and hemiptera observers. Another reason I find this article so interesting has to do with how Jarvis employs thoughtful, reflective moments in the piece, while maintaining a journalistic stance:


We’ve begun to talk about living in the Anthropocene, a world shaped by humans. But E.O. Wilson, the naturalist and prophet of environmental degradation, has suggested another name: the Eremocine, the age of loneliness.


Wilson began his career as a taxonomic entomologist, studying ants. Insects — about as far as you can get from charismatic megafauna — are not what we’re usually imagining when we talk about biodiversity. Yet they are, in Wilson’s words, “the little things that run the natural world.” He means it literally. Insects are a case study in the invisible importance of the common.

Maybe it’s my personal inclination towards the natural observation, but I find some resonance here. It’s what I tend to do when I write poems–to celebrate the common, or at any rate to notice it. I notice, too, the diminishment.

Some readers have told me my poems feel sorrowful, and maybe that sense of diminishment hunkers behind even the more celebratory poems I write. That’s an idea worth my consideration as I revise my work. Maybe Diminishment should be the title of my next collection.

Anyway–read Jarvis’ article. You will learn much. Even if you’re one of those folks who “hates bugs.”

Murmurings

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Center Valley, PA, USA

On a crisp, abundantly clear day (for a change!), I opened the car windows to listen to the corn stalks rattling in the breeze. After an unusually wet year, the fields have been too wet to bring out heavy farm equipment, like gleaners. They would get stuck in mud. So the corn stands and, finally, dries in the rapidly-cooling air.

And rustles and swishes, and produces the susurration associated with tree foliage, only louder, harsher. The November sun heightens the contrast between the grassy-looking stalks and the crowd of shadows below the strap-shaped leaves. Zea mays: one of the incredibly numerous poaceae monocots. Field corn, in this case. It surrounds two sides of the campus where I work. On windy days, I can hear it murmuring. It has a wistful sound to it, each plant crackling softly against its many neighbors.

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Ascribing human emotions to non-human things is something poets often do and for which they have been occasionally excoriated (see the pathetic fallacy). It is really I, not the field corn, who’s feeling wistful. There’s no reason not to occasionally explore things such as the pathetic fallacy, anthropomorphism, or clichés in poems, though. Poems can be places for play, puns, irony, and over-the-top expressiveness…where else but in art do we have so much possibility for free rein and experiment?

With that in mind, what came to mind is a decade-old poem I played with long ago. I thought of it, located it in my files, and realized how well it suits this year’s rainy weather. It has never seen print, so this is its first public “share” to the small world of readers. Just to be wistful, and to listen to murmurings.

Fallacy Pathétique

Awful, the sobbing breast of the nearby hill
draped in funereal rain,
moping trees with bedraggled leaves
under dolorous skies.

How coarse and crass the indigent crows
mocking day’s solemnity
over pleading calls for mercy, compassion
from the myriad finches.

Do not quench sorrow but be drenched in it,
small streamlets fast-running
down ratty embankments dull with mud.
O, morning, mourning,

lease your grief to field and gravel and
the huddled owl’s
damp-pinioned back hunched in sleep.
Be terrible and bleak,

stained with the nouns and adjectives of despair,
run down the mountain
with a mouse carcass on your swift spine,
meet the road in a reeking ditch.

Vocation, avocation

Somewhere recently–was it the Sunday New York Times?–I read an opinion essay about how recent surveys of US citizens indicate that we have fewer hobbies than we have had in years past. The columnist wondered whether that lack is due to a zeal to be the best at whatever we engage in–the best jogger we can be, the most avid cyclist, the best collector, knitter, paper-crafter, woodworker, violinist, what-have-you. She suggested we’ve somehow lost the joys of being hobbyists: amateurs who do or create something because it is fun or relaxing, or because trying to learn a new skill makes us feel good. A true hobby is something we don’t have to be perfect at, because that is not the point.

As my students wrestle with the tasks of college and their concerns about their futures, the concept of vocation arises often. What to do with a life? Earn enough money to live reasonably comfortably, even if the job is not a passion? What if it’s not even satisfying? Should people choose a bearable career and find enjoyment in avocations? Or persist at what they love even if society doesn’t always reward the path they’ve chosen? Or–the options are legion.

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I believe in vocation as passion, and I also practice hobbies. My career is in higher education, and I enjoy and learn from my job. My vocation is writing, particularly writing poetry; my passion lies in that direction more than any other, but poetry has not been a career path in my case.

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My hobbies have evolved over the years. For decades, gardening has kept me happily occupied out of doors–but I have no need to become a Master Gardener, and my gardens are often minor failures in one respect or another. The garden, however, soothes me, distracts me from anxieties, helps me to become a better observer, teaches me much. When learning about plants, I got interested in botany and wild flower identification, so I am a more informed hiker and nature-saunterer than I used to be.

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garden photo: pepper, sassafras leaf © 2018 by Ann E. Michael

 

Photography’s also a hobby I pursue, an interest of mine since my late teen years (back before digital). The view through the frame has always intrigued me, as well as the opportunities that different lens lengths offer the photographer as to framing and focus. I especially enjoy macro lenses. It’s fun to zoom in closely on insects, flowers, and small areas of everyday objects. Photography encourages different types of observation.

The earliest interest I can recall having is art: painting and drawing in particular. From the time I was tiny, even before I entered kindergarten, I loved to draw and paint and to look at art in books and museums. During my teen years, I studied art at Fleisher Art Memorial in Philadelphia and headed to college thinking I would minor in the fine arts. My talent did not match my aspirations, and a thorough self-analysis at around age 20 led me to recognize I could be creative more successfully in other ways…by that time, I was writing more seriously than I was painting.

But now? I have taken up painting in acrylics. Mostly sketches of clouds. There’s no pressure on me to do well; I can paint many mediocre pictures of clouds and feel relaxed in the process, meditative, observant, a casual learner.

cloudsketch

mediocre acrylic sketch of clouds, by Ann E. Michael

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As I wrap up this post, I realize that my career and my hobbies have encouraged observation from multiple and new perspectives. And my vocation? Poetry practically relies upon the writer’s ability to switch into creative and imagined points of view, as well as to have the opportunity for closely-observed objects and experiences.

Vocation, avocation, passion, career. I count myself lucky.