Gardening in April

Spring seems serious at the moment. Bumble bees already busy at the barely-open pear blossoms. Hyacinths and daffodils everywhere, and muscari and the redbud opening up. Time to spend more hours in the dirt!

The past two years, I have made the vegetable garden less crowded; the children are grown and I do not want to can, freeze, or give away tons of vegetables the two of us cannot consume. I’ve decided to offer a larger portion of the garden to bees and butterflies by adding more flowers to the mix. Also, I have added wood mulch paths. Shredded wood mulch provides a good environment for salamanders, toads, useful insects, and other “minor fauna” (see my book–The Minor Fauna). This year, while tooling around in the soil doing preparation for plantings, I’ve been thrilled to find toads and salamanders–as well as isopods, (pillbugs, sowbugs and woodlice) and, of course, several varieties of worms.

I’ve been in the garden and taken a woodsy walk; every politician and world leader ought to stop whatever they are doing and take long, quiet walks in nature and long, deep breaths and then do some thinking before they make any more decisions. They might want to read some Wendell Berry, too.

Works for me.
~
Berry was only 30 years old when he wrote these poems (and also “The Peace of Wild Things,” which many people tell me is their favorite poem). He has labored on his thinking in the decades since, and remains a poet worth reading.

muscari

April Woods: Morning

Birth of color
out of night and the ground.

Luminous the gatherings
of bloodroot

newly risen, green leaf
white flower

in the sun, the dark
grown absent.

~~

To My Children, Fearing for Them

Terrors are to come. The earth
is poisoned with narrow lives.
I think of you. What you will

live through, or perish by, eats
at my heart. What have I done? I
need better answers than there are

to the pain of coming to see
what was done in blindness,
loving what I cannot save. Nor,

your eyes turning toward me,
can I wish your lives unmade
though the pain of them is on me.

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Annelids

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This is my compost pile, early spring. See those redworms? Eisenia fetida: the squiggling workhorses of the compost heap. We used to call them red wigglers. They are earthworms that don’t actually live in the earth but on it; they ingest plant matter and the result is worm castings, which make for excellent garden compost. A pound of redworms can eat 3.5 pounds of food waste per week.

I have every reason to believe that the worms pictured above are descendants of an adventure in vermiculture dating back to 1996 or ’97, when I purchased one pound of redworms as a science project for my children (as well as a way to get my rather lethargic compost pile working more efficiently). Since I always “start” my next heap with the not-fully-composted remainder of the previous season’s detritus, I am reasonably sure that some of the redworm egg casings get in the mix.

My son was young enough in 1996 that he does not recall the redworm “farm” we kept in the house one late winter and transferred to the compost heap in spring. He doesn’t even remember where the pile was at our former residence. But he does, somewhat grudgingly, help me turn this year’s pile onto a big tarp and spread the finished stuff onto my vegetable patch. (He’s a bit squeamish. The worms don’t bother him, but the millipedes do.)

And he enjoys stopping by the garden fence and reaching for a ripe cherry tomato straight off the vine in summer.

For me, the turning of the heap in early spring is one of those rituals that signals the arrival of pleasanter weather and new fragrances.

I have not been writing much poetry lately; life has been distracting. The ideas are nevertheless mixing and stirring, I hope.

 

 

Dogs & lions

By chance, I encountered the poem “Thorn Leaves in March” by W.S. Merwin (1956, Poetry magazine) a day ago and felt levels of resonance such as poems can evoke. The powerfully “clear expression of mixed feelings”–thank you again, W.H. Auden–converges with seasonal details in this early Merwin piece and merges, completely by happenstance, with events in my current life.

Walking out in the late March midnight
With the old blind bitch on her bedtime errand
Of ease stumbling beside me, I saw

At the hill’s edge, by the blue flooding
Of the arc lamps, and the moon’s suffused presence…

My elderly dog stumbles beside me on these late-winter nights; I do not think she will see another full-blooming spring. Resonance.

alicelamb

Rescue of an orphaned lamb.

“As a white lamb the month’s entrance had been…” Well, that has certainly been true of this year’s weather. And the lamb allusion makes me think not just of the old saying about March but about my daughter, who is spending this month’s last two weeks working among ewes on a farm in Scotland as lambing season progresses.

Merwin’s speaker refutes the aphorism; his March comes in like a lamb because it is white, and goes out in white, as well:

…as a lamb, I could see now, it would go,
Breathless, into its own ghostliness,
Taking with it more than its tepid moon.

The lion, he claims, is “The beast of gold, and sought as an answer,/Whose pure sign no solution is.” No lion in this quiet, late-winter/cusp-of-spring snowfall–the light is silvery, the budding leaves of the thorn trees translucent and cold. The speaker stands beneath the “sinking moon” and wonders, questions, listening for something he knows he will not hear.

The old dog, domestic companion (neither lion nor lamb), completes her mission; the man lets go of metaphysical thoughts; the earth inexorably turns toward summer–despite the snow.

I’ll keep this poem in mind as the next snowstorm heads my way on the equinox.

 

Roadkill

As the spring equinox approaches and creatures rouse from dormancy, the number of roadkill incidents spikes. Yesterday as I made a left turn into my driveway, I noticed a groundhog carcass lying in the middle of the street. I was stopped to retrieve my mail anyway, so I figured I should move the body off.

And then it moved–bloodied mouth opening and shutting, one heavily-clawed forepaw shuddering slightly. It wasn’t quite dead.

Poems about road kills sprang to mind. I thought immediately of Stafford’s “Traveling through the Dark” and that moment of swerving, replete with caesuras, in the last couplet; Billy Collins’ “Ave Atque Valealso skittered into my thoughts, that bloated woodchuck waving “hail, Caesar” to the passing vehicles.  As I pulled a plastic bag from my car, one of my own poems resonated–“Burials,” which is in my collection Water-Rites (available through this link and posted below).

I made a glove of the bag and grasped the poor beast by its tail, a precaution: it might have been lively enough to snap at me. Not the case this time. A car running over the body would have put the groundhog more quickly out of its misery, but by daylight drivers tend to avoid road kill; it gets smashed during the night hours. So I left it on the embankment to gasp out its last breath with the birds larking about above it and some damp wintry weeds under its dark body.

This sort of experience feels oddly metaphorical…obviously, not only for me but for people like Stafford and Collins. I am sure one could put together an anthology of very lovely roadkill poems.

~groundhog-day-groundhog

BURIALS

1.
Last week the neighbors’ dogs eviscerated a woodchuck,
left it, stinking, at the perimeter of our woods

which is how we found it, by the smell—
body bloated, partly hairless:

a scientific demonstration on the rapidity
and absoluteness of decay, the brief time it takes;

but today my daughter cannot bear the stray cat’s
road-killed stillness, the soft, domestic body,

the pet, which isn’t hers—she begs to bury it.
The schoolbus arrives with my promise

to give the cat some cover. Under mulberry I scrape
a shallow grave, in thin and gravelly roadside soil,

cover it with fallen leaves, an autumn prayer—
nothing more, because I know burial does not forestall

death’s swell, its stink, desiccation,
absoluteness; I do what I promised,

disguising the body’s inevitable progression
from the eyes of my grieving child.

2.
Shall I cover my gray hairs
with dry leaves, shall I layer
my wrinkled hands beneath clay,
hide my own departure—

or shall I teach my children
to understand the truth of maggots,
which consume equally
the treasured and the stray—

which arrive unasked,
fulfill their contract with the earth,
never seeking recognition
or time, more time?

~

© 2012 Ann E. Michael

 

Spring fever

…I had one this year. By which I mean I had a fever caused by a viral infection that hit me at the peak of blossom time, and as a result, I spent a warm spring week mostly indoors.

I could have been out in the garden, weeding and prepping soil and planting beans, had I been hale and well. Instead–well, this year the vegetables will get a late start, and the perennial beds may not be particularly well-groomed, and the pears are unlikely to be pruned.

Laid low for over a week, I have regained enough wherewithal to return, gradually, to work and to managing short walks around the yard. Often, I take my camera. I wonder why I feel compelled to photograph the plants. I see them year after year. I enjoy looking at far better photographs by far better photographers than I, yet I prostrate myself before the gallium (mayflowers) and try to capture some feeling of their delicacy. I have pondered whether this desire stems from some Western-Romantic cultural hand-me-down, echoes of Wordsworth et al…but then I remember how Asian poetry revels in the blossom and the budding leaf and the moon’s reflection on water, and how ancient poems compare a man’s curly hair to hyacinths or a woman’s blush to the rose.

The aesthetic appeal of springtime–and all the seasons–of landscape, and of animal grace and strength–has been around for eons.

bee-1-~◊~

Because my brain has felt fried, I have not expended much effort on words lately.

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So I will let the images speak for me

lilac~◊~

…and for themselves.

solomonseal        trillium

~◊~

meadoweeds~◊~

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~~

Symbiosis: Lichen, moss, John Donne

lichenslate~

Lichen on slate makes a kind of mandala, a small moon, or star, of mutualistic symbiosis–because lichens are amazing compound organisms: a fungus and an alga, although apparently there can even be three living, botanical parts to some lichens. I find this amazing. Unsurprisingly, “Reproduction can be tricky for a compound organism,” because which organism’s reproductive directive does a composite organism adopt? Some explanations can be found at this site, the homepage of THE book on lichens by Irwin Brodo and Sharon and Stephen Sharnoff.

It is spring. The rain brightens up the mosses, and photosythesizing organisms begin to turn green. Bryophytes lack a vascular system, so they cannot draw water up through capillary action via xylem cells. They have to absorb water instead, and that is why mosses generally need moist, shady places in order to thrive.

Mosses decay, adding more moist humus to keep the soil damp or to extend the reaches of creeks very gradually, which is good for the riparian ecology and for the moss. A more metaphorical symbiosis, but we could stretch the concept.

japanesemapleSymbiotic relationships fascinate me, partly because of the evolutionary brilliance–nature is so “wise”–and partly because symbiosis is richly metaphorical if one’s inclined to think that way (which I am). For example, my personal sense of the relationship between art and poetry feels symbiotic: the disciplines “need” one another, help one another out, in terms of how I imagine and structure my world.

I do not think the world needs me, but I need the world; that’s dependency, not symbiosis. But mutualism–human beings need that reliance on one another. We are community-building creatures for all our harping on being self-reliant and independent. “No man is an island.” That over-used phrase (along with the over-used phrase that closes the same poem) is worth revisiting in Donne’s original:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

~

“Any man’s death diminishes me/because I am involved in mankind.” Would that more of us would remember these lines, and consider how they inform the poem’s lovely and significant purpose.

Leading the witness

Please forgive me if my recent posts are devoted more to teaching than to poetry, gardening, and speculative philosophical thinking–the semester end approaches, and I am endeavoring to ascertain whether my students have acquired any new knowledge about poetry and literary analysis. There are these supposedly-evaluative items known as “grades” which I must register for the college administration.

Spring and AllSo, exactly what, if anything, have they learned thus far? Considering that for the first few weeks of class I practically had to apply forceps to their vocal chords to get them to speak in class at all, let alone express a thought concerning poetry, most of them have progressed. Only a few students volunteer to answer a question I pose or offer an opinion in response, but when I look one of them in the eye and ask “What do you say?” I now get an answer instead of an embarrassed shrug.

This is headway indeed. Granted, the method I have used to initiate response might more accurately be called “leading the witness,” as opposed to Socratic inquiry. Most college sophomores I’ve met are so stymied by the whole genre of poetry that the classic method of advancing knowledge through inquiry results in nothing but puzzled silence and guessing, most of the time. I soften the approach by suggestions that, I hope, will lead to inference on the student’s side but that do not give away exactly what I am looking for. Because I do not always know, myself, what I am seeking. Because I want, once in awhile, to be surprised and delighted by a student’s inference–usually a point of view I have not previously considered (because I am not 19 and not a literature novice).

One of the things I love most about good poetry is the opportunity to be surprised, and perspective shifts offer the unexpected. I can lead the witness, perhaps, but I cannot lead all 30 witnesses (or whatever number of them happen to be paying enough attention to be led). The student I call on will respond directly and then inspire other, slightly variant, responses from classmates.

A discussion may actually ensue! Oh, joy!

I try to take note of which students seem to be engaging most actively so I can somehow calculate that into the evaluation, but I have not really developed an effective way to indicate the hoped-for “a-ha!” moment into a grade.

Theoretically, grades are objectively based upon a carefully-constructed rubric that reflects what the student knows about the discipline or subject area. I have therefore invented criteria, percentages, and the like for assessment as required by academic best practices–or at least by academic protocol. Having been always a student at seminar-style, narrative-evaluation-based higher education institutions, I admit that I find the typical grading methods disheartening and arbitrary.

Meanwhile, I continue leading the witnesses until the end of the semester.

~

By the way: It is April, and once again National Poetry Month. Please, go out and purchase a book of poetry. Or borrow one from the local library. Shout your barbaric yawps into the springtime air!

IMG_0575Iris reticulata