Today’s eft

muscariSometimes, winter feels long. When the weather fails to provide chances to get into the garden, I feel “antsy.” Something in my operating scheme malfunctions, and I lose focus–even my writing process suffers. I keep thinking of how my mother tells me she likes to get her hands in the earth, dig in the crumbly soil, plant things; and she has never been much of a gardener in the classic sense. Not the way my mother-in-law was: a perfectionist, an expert, a person who liked to plan a symphony of colors and leaf shapes, a progression of bloom times.

My mother just needs to get her hands dirty.

~

Today, the weather turned unseasonably warm, a brief window on a weekend that permitted me my garden escape. So I found myself thinking of these two Beloveds while I dug in the dirt, sowed some carrot and beet seeds, and evaluated the progress of the early lettuce. When I work in the garden, my mind wanders, then empties. It’s good for my writing and good for my soul. I suppose there’s merit in it for my physical body as well, as long as I remember not to overdo things and put out my back! Then, too, I am accompanied by these two women, so many gardening memories and instruction, so much that I’ve learned in the process of growing vegetables and plants.

~

Some of my friends consider me an expert in the garden, but I am merely modestly educated, mostly in the School of Experience. Expertise? I considered enrolling in the Master Gardener certification program; but frankly, I prefer to garden with beginner’s mind. I love what experts have to teach me and, being bookwormish by nature, I learn a great deal by reading books by experts.

Mostly, though, I learn from the garden–or from the hedgerow, the woodlot, the fields, the meadow, the wetlands. I’ve discovered that sometimes, the experts’ methods are not replicable in my yard; but a series of trial-and-error experiments of my own may produce the desired result. I have learned to let go of some of my “desired outcomes,” because the plant world and the weather control my stewardship of the soil more than anything I can attempt to do.

Letting go…well, that is the Zen of landscaping and raising vegetables and putting in a perennial bed. Also there is the constant, tedious maintenance–the tending and nurturing–that requires discipline. The discipline can be mindful, and it can also foster empty mind.

~

And there is, awaiting at every moment, discovery.

Today’s discovery in the garden was an eft. This one was hiding, next to an earthworm (which it resembles when its feet are tucked close), under a slab of slate I’d left out near the strawberry patch.

newt-eft2

Hello! And may you shortly find a body of water in which to live out your amphibian days. And may no predator consume you before you mate and create further newts. And may this fine, warm-soiled spring provide us all many opportunities to dig in the soil and get our hands dirty.

~

[This newt is a salamander in the subfamily Pleurodelinae, and the wiki commons info for the photo, which I have altered slightly, is here].

 

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Blooms, books, buddies

I headed southward on a recent trip to visit a friend and to see if I could find spring, since my Pennsylvania valley has been extensively clobbered by late-winter/early spring snow storms. In southeastern North Carolina, the air was cool but the plants were blooming. Spring at last! May it head northward soon.

springblooms

~

On my travels, I took along Grant Clauser‘s collection The Magician’s Handbook. One of my best-beloveds has been learning sleight-of-hand and card tricks lately, and as a result I found it especially fun to “get” Clauser’s references to trick names and magicians’ moves in these poems. The poems demonstrate Clauser’s sense of humor, balanced with insights about contemporary life and a good use of metaphor, sound (nice alliteration in particular), and poignancy that never teeters into sentiment.

I thought my hostess in North Carolina would enjoy The Magician’s Handbook; she randomly read a few pages and liked the book so much that I gave it to her.

~MH poems

Poetry collections are terrific gifts for poet friends, of course; but it is particularly rewarding to introduce a friend to a poet’s work. I would not have discovered half of the writers whose work I love if it had not been for friends and fellow writers’ recommendations, although various public libraries and many a bookstore browsing session have been places of discovery, as well.

I like to read poems while traveling. On the one hand, it proves difficult to keep from being distracted by crowds, announcements, and departure times–which can make it hard to focus on the challenges a poem presents to its readers. On the other hand, poems tend to be brief enough that the inevitable interruptions do not completely disrupt the flow or content of the page; for that reason, I tend to struggle to read fiction while traveling. The brevity lends itself to gesture, so I can pick up on mood and tone and the sound of the poem (in my head–I don’t read aloud in airport terminal lounges). Later, when I am home again, I re-read the poems. That gives me a different perspective on the work.

So…I guess I will have to purchase another copy of The Magician’s Handbook for my re-reading pleasure. Meanwhile, my friend in North Carolina has something to read as a start to National Poetry Month, which is April!

Hey, that’s what friends are for! [And many thanks to BJG for her hospitality, Southern and South Jersey style.]

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.

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

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meadoweeds~◊~

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~~