Sunday, December 29, 2013

O My Darlings...Lost and Formed Anew

A piece in Audubon magazine's last issue of 2013, titled "Climate Change is Causing Some Mixed-up Wildlife" by writer Katherine Bagley, left me feeling especially lucky that I've seen a total of thirteen bird species new to my life list this year, plus one mammal, the wolf, that I'd not previously seen up close enough or long enough to count as a real sighting. The article gives instances of animals including birds, butterflies, whales and bears cross-breeding, leaving behind or in their forefront creatures better adapted to habitats that are shrinking or blending together. The behavior is thought to be a response to changes in climate and landscape driven by people-pressure

Small flying critters like birds and butterflies I can more readily expect to interbreed because, most at the mercy of the winds, they can blow into each others' nesting range. Habitats blending into each other would add that much more incentive for birds or insects of species whose numbers are declining to settle for what they can get, including cousins so distant they compose a different species for mates.

But some of the news was startling: grizzly bears in the Arctic are breeding with polar bears. In the midst of all the other documented hybrids given in "Mix-up", which listed assorted kinds of whales, seals and porpoises mainly unknown to landlocked natural history buffs like me, the bears stood out, a much stranger category of cross-breeders than the wild canines briefly cited. I'm sure I have heard of American wolves interbreeding with coyotes. But a white female polar bear getting bred by a hump-backed brown grizzly early out of his den, as the article described the scenario? A person feels custom being eroded here, and even if we thought we accept the evolutionary process of speciation as it proceeds and reject religious creationism in which everything is sacrosanct with fixed name, form, repute and coloration, the polar-bear/grizzly cross offends the sense of what normally was and still has current meaning.

Studying the wild plants and animals over time we realize that their taxonomy, or very identity as species, is loosely set and fluid. Extinctions occur, and new species come of cross-fertilization and of local populations, isolated from others, morphing into new sub-species and eventually, in keeping apart from their distant cousins, becoming recognized as separate species. As per the article, when animals hybridize, results can vary from sterility in the hybrid offspring to a hastened rate of extinction in an ancestral species that's faring poorly in its ability to compete so it can eat and reproduce. The author grants that speciation, or evolution of new species and shrinkage in the populations of others, has gone on as long as there's been an animal kingdom. The article stresses that hybridization today among wild beings, like the escalating rate of extinctions, is driven by the take-over of earth by ourselves and by our chemical overflow into air, freshwater and oceans.

We're of course each of us free to judge the issue of cross-breeding, as well as the disappearance of species, however we like. People who are emotionally removed from wild places where they might encounter uncommon animals will ask what the loss is if one kind of creature goes away to be replaced by another that's grander, showier, hardier, or whatever.

Lately I was introduced by good friends to a fictional work, The Place of the Lion, by the British theologian, poet and novelist Charles Williams. Animal archetypes figure into that narrative in ways that must have so many parallels in the New and Old Testaments and other Judeo-Christian writing that I could face weeks of searching and listing if I wanted examples to cite. Archetypes are defined as symbols or images of our human nature and the experiences that we share universally as human beings, in the sense of a 'collective unconsciousness.' The Place of the Lion in Biblical and pre-Biblical tradition uses animals like the lion, the serpent and the unicorn to express lofty principles and virtues.

Here is a quote from page 53: "that this world is created, and all men and women are created, by the entrance of certain great principles into aboriginal matter. We call them by cold names; wisdom and courage and beauty and strength and so on, but actually they are very great and mighty Powers. It may be they are the angels and archangels of which the Christian Church talks... And when That which is behind them intends to put a new soul into matter it disposes them as it will, and by a peculiar mingling of them a child is born; and this is their concern with us, but what is their concern and business among themselves we cannot know.... In the animals they are less mingled, for there each is shown to us in his own becoming shape; those Powers are the archetypes of the beasts, and very much more..."

That each beast stands for a principle or virtue, while each new person represents a commingled recipe of these same powers, deserves consideration. I think there will always be room in my imagination for angels in winged or wingless guise, personalized or vague and faceless. But if, in ancient human collective consciousness, the lion stands for strength, the lamb for innocence, the serpent for subtlety, I'd like to recognize the animals according to species as I've confronted them from my own beginnings with the help of the books that named and differentiated them. The books and the databases are known to all of us who have handled them. Each species stands for a place whose conditions gave rise to it, and the place was also recognizable as a realm of certain principles or virtues re-characterized in each animal, also in each plant.

These distinctive creatures crossbreeding will cause the reactions due in each of us according to our values. For me any species diminished by the convenience of blending its identity with a neighboring species will represent a loss of something sacred. It was sanctified by the place it came from, itself likely lost or diminished. For someone else, the new hybrid form is the new species. For some other people species doesn't matter, it's all an illusion, and what matters is the energy, divine if they see it that way, that drives the creature across the field of vision in the dramas that figure in all our lives.

This all adds up to a myriad of creatures for the artist to conceive and work with. For me, the time I have lived within has its huge spread of fauna, named and classified, of which I want not a member to vanish. In my home region there are coyotes, foxes and wolves, whose varied habits all have a place, keeping them on their own paths. In the spring when warblers come back to the woods maybe at long last I'll get more than a glimpse at the Connecticut, out in one of the swamps, in spring dress on nesting territory true to its kind. But in any observer's imagination evolution may speed up, skip over the losses implicit in accompanying die-offs, and fabulous cross-bred beasts far removed from the unicorn, the manticore and griffon will come to populate a page or a screen--or a note card:

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Echoes, Glimpsed Faces, and a Rising Wind of Transformation

Since my oldest memory, dating from maybe as far back as 1962, I have loved winter fields especially with the quiet low light of evening or of a cloudy day. The reasons connect with the secure country home my parents kept for us, and my good health all those years, a robust build of body that resisted cold, and the abundant snows of those winters when I was just starting school, having the countryside to come home to. It was cheery there, indoors and out, so the frozen lands never symbolized the dreary to me but the wondrously forsaken, where noise was stifled and drama had been erased into the crisp framework of dead and living plants, cushioned and unified by snow. Their colors were varied and subtly reminiscent, bleached versions of what had been and what in just really a few weeks would be. The shadows were blue; the highlights were most often the hot tints found in fires. Nowhere else felt so safe or, at the same time, so invigorating. All of our small family at some time or other went enthusiastically into these places.

Now that I'm graying and stiffening a little with the years I look to the loss of these places with many questions as to extent of and reaction to the loss. It might have been around 1970 when I first heard, on a National Geographic TV special, about the greenhouse effect and how it would steal more and more from the experience of winter. I've never gotten over my dismay about that, though there have been many winters north of where I grew up, spectacular on ski trails, with snowdrifts, whiteouts and early blue dark. Inevitably I've broadened my view on climate change to include it as one in a cluster of symptoms that we are, in our numbers and demands on the earth, getting to be too much for it and will be forced to change the ways we do a lot of things.

While the news brings us an ever-lengthening list of weather and ocean cataclysms like ice floes as big as Singapore breaking away from the Antarctic, typhoon Haiyan, the most powerful sea storm ever recorded, smashing the Philippines and once in a lifetime November mega-tornadoes or June downpours besetting the central U.S., local and unscientific observers like me compare past seasons to more recent ones and notice tree hardihood and rain versus ice versus snow. Those of us living in the northern countryside still drive into whiteouts, freeze our fingertips and worry about our ignition on frigid mornings. But our winters trend shorter at both ends. A long cold winter is what an average winter used to be to the generation older than us. Today's real temperatures tend to be warmer than the ones we heard in yesterday's forecast for today. Warm spells last a lot longer than the cold snaps. One of the personal questions that looms especially large for me is: if I live to be close to a hundred, what will I see of change to the places I cherish along the U.S.-Canadian border as climate change escalates? Likely I will see fires burn away huge stretches of the resinous boreal forest after it's been too hot and dry for too long. Projections are that oak savanna and grassland will grow up in its place.

An interview one recent morning on Democracy Now, with guests Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows-Larkin, climate scientists from England's Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, affiliated with the University of Manchester, stressed the need of "radical and immediate de-growth strategies in the United States, EU and other wealthy nations." I was electrified to hear this report because the meltdown of our four-season climate and disappearance of its hallmark trees and creatures has so long been a sadness, like a known-of disease in someone I love. Just two examples given of de-growth strategies were sizing down the refrigerators used in the United States, where evidently fridges are manufactured and sold bigger than in the rest of the world, and abandoning the habit of a daily shower, or even a twice-daily shower, that requires so much hot water, using tons of fossil fuel in affluent countries. Such practices are called for because, per Mr. Anderson, the developed countries of the world have missed the chance to shift their reliance to full-scale renewable energies and the impending changeover will take place too slowly to safeguard the climate we call normal for the sake of sea levels below coastal city street level and crops that come in every year.

The urgency of the climate crisis is described among researchers like the two from the Tyndall Centre in degrees of warming. Two degrees Celsius or 3.6 degrees F. are in our time thought to be the extent of further survivable global warming for civilization. But according to Alice Bows-Larkin the rate of emissions for carbon and other heat-trapping gases put us on track for something more like four degrees Celsius; a listener/reader easily senses that she refrains from grimly hinting that it could be even more than that. Two degrees Celsius was also the limit agreed upon by the Copenhagen Accord in 2012, and earlier, among the Group of Eight summit meeting of largest nations, in 2009. But as indicators of inhospitable climate, these numbers have no real coordinates in the realm of what it would take to force civilization into some mode of living in which we release so little carbon or other heat-trapping gases that offsets come into play for what we do emit, and we become neutral in how we affect the atmosphere. What drives people to change their ways is pain, not readily measurable, which can be sub-classified into grief, bodily misery (hunger, thirst, illness, agony) and economic loss. For many people, impending pain in one or more of these categories will breed change--and by impending pain I naturally mean fear. Degrees of planetary heating probably can't be uniformly matched with degrees of the different forms of pain or fear brought to bear on people in stressful times. And could increments or measurements of pain ever be used in policy-making? Probably it will need to be deaths.

To read any of today's spokespeople for the movement to curb climate change, such as Bill McKibben, is to see an implication of the extractive industries, chiefly oil, gas and coal, our leading fossil fuels, and of the other industries that ally themselves around oil, gas and coal, like automotive manufacturers. The comfort-filled, fast-paced ways of life that are established courtesy of industries enabled by gasoline and diesel-powered transport are so taken for granted that any public statement that these modes of living could be the death of civilization is dismissed as doom and gloom but is most of all kept out of the mainstream news. The internet, if you google articles on climate change is full of written pieces, a few with someone's grinning face below the headline, which soothe the glancing reader that fears about global warming are overblown. The fossil fuel and auto industries have been notorious for funding coalitions that dismiss the urgency and/or the reality of what our heat-trapping gases are doing ever faster to the one and only earth, home not just to ourselves.

Doom and gloom are not well-received in marketplaces driven by standard, everyday brands of allure; it would take an honest and powerful brand of creative advertising to arouse a mystique around a product expressly designed to stave off the degradation to earth and atmosphere caused by the overshoot of human demand. I'm convinced, based on hunch, hearsay, on-line articles and Facebook, that marketing promotions designed to save civilization from environmental collapse are on the air waves and in cyberspace right now, coming from not-so-far-off places. But we still have the fossil-fuel industries with us, to outspend us, dominate the major news channels and, by many appearances, to drive everyone but themselves into extinction if that's destiny as they see it.

Doom and gloom have been relegated to mass entertainment, where they can be shut out by anyone who doesn't thrill to the sagas they are woven into. I've delved into a literary genre of doom and gloom myself, very haltingly, first when I read Margaret Atwood's novels Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, and most lately as I finished Stephen King's novella The Langoliers. Margaret Atwood's two late novels are futurist, giving her readers a world in which genetic engineering is in its heyday, cloned and crossbred animals, wild or feral, forage in open country and corporations rule a world in which nations get no mention. The most secure of the citizens are the corporate work force, protected inside gigantic company-owned dorms. North America is hot year-round and tornado-prone daily, with a cool breeze perceptible if a person travels as far north as, she suggests, Moose Factory in what was Canada.

The Stephen King story, like others of his, features time travel. The Langoliers, as it progresses, switches scenes from mid-air in a 767 passenger jet cut off from all sight and sound of life on the ground to a deserted Bangor International Airport in Maine. King's tale challenged my imagination by segregating the notion of time eroding backward from what should to my mind be a reversal of place-making. If time was to peel backward then the technological landscape should sink and crumble, the forests should flourish and shrink back under ice caps, land and sea rise, fall and intermix. In the story however the land below the jet, forced on pain of the travelers' death to take off anew from Bangor and return west, is scorched away by balls of searing red and black, calling to mind some sort of runaway fantastical tires, which in their wake leave nothing but a breathtaking abyss. It worked well in the story as a vision of doom. But it's not the doom that we in our materialist mania for ever more growth are likeliest to spread in a series of spin-off reactions, one health and environmental crisis or several at a time, across the breadth of the continents still holding above sea level.

Crossing St. Louis County, Minnesota daily in the little old Toyota I recognize that it's bound to be the car itself that's my number-one source of carbon output, though it is a hybrid. High speeds make me cringe so I'm normally a gentle driver, passed by nine-tenths of the other vehicles. But the car burns gasoline and emits carbon. To the extent that we all share in the responsibility--to our offspring and to our wild warm-blooded and cold-blooded and plant kin--to stop dumping carbon into the air, won't I try to reduce the worst that I'm putting out, on my commutes and intermittent longer trips? And that is the question I have trouble imagining an awful lot of people asking themselves, skeptics that so many still are about the idea of winter ever being conquered (cold is their enemy) and earth's whole climate flip-flopped by our very selves. What will it take, leaving out some of the most agape-filled, civic-minded, devoutly spiritual ones like those who buy carbon offsets or especially those who demonstrate and go to jail, for a majority to say:  I'm tired of knowing I help upset the water cycle and the mountain glaciers, ruin the summers and the cool green forests, escalate the rash of extinctions, and endanger the very weather that feeds our food crops? I have real trouble imagining that behavior on the part of a lot of people. And yet, whole nations have been known to rush to co-ordinated schemes for everyone's salvation when they finally sense the urgency.

From the 20th-century author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, who lived in and wrote about old Florida in the 1930s and prior times, before it was discovered by second-home developers, I've gathered a sense as to what we have lost in America, equating that to my own memories of 1960s springs and summers and their clamor of crickets, whippoorwills and tree toads. Here is her passage from Cross Creek, in a chapter titled 'Toady-frogs, lizards, antses and varmints;' it is her description of frog chorus in the lakes and marshes. "I have lain through a long moonlit night, with the scent of orange blossoms palpable as spilled perfume on the air. and listened to the murmur of minor chords until, just as I have wept over the Brahms waltz in A flat on a master's violin, I thought my heart would break with the beauty of it. If there is not a finished tune, there are phrases, and there is assuredly a motif, articulated, reiterated." I've never been in Florida, but reading in my own time about hordes of amphibians lost to rain-borne toxins and abrupt seasonal change, I wonder if modern people in Marjorie's Florida still get to hear frog symphonies as expressive.

Everything wild that I can remember may be dwindling sooner or later like the bobwhite quail we would hear across most of the months in a year. It's another reason to draw and paint the places just in the ways they have haunted me, because as memories they are precious as the most revered ancestors and infants all rolled in one, tender and self-renewing, strange yet still fabric of our thoughts and emotions, our muscle and nerve fibres.  Here's bait, if you like, or a friendly invitation: if you relish and buy this art or  this organic fair-trade chocolate you are helping us, in our depleted and depopulated locale, to stay there and do our work without having to start our cars to work somewhere miles off that requires day to day car travel.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Rolling in amid a Pack of Wolves - (They Scattered)

Timber wolves still prosper within stretches of the U.S./Canadian border region, mostly with great reluctance to show themselves to human eyes. Coming and going now daily from Duluth, Minnesota in my spry little old hybrid car I look for wolves whenever there's daylight to expose one, just as I peer before me in the night lest anything four-legged, or a rogue car with dark headlights catching the shine of my lights, cross my path or come at me. In years past, only two wolves, to my knowledge, had crossed a road ahead of my car.

On a recent Friday morning with an overcast making all the November drabness a supreme monotone, my habitual searching toward the front found one or more animal forms, tails flowing out behind them, a sort of brown on the deep grey of the road. Beasts the size of big dogs, all with out-held tails, crossed to and fro, north or south in the two blank lanes ever closer ahead of me. The boreal bog land spread uninterruptedly back from the roadway.

I slowed and slowed the car as I quickened with exhilaration. These canines looked at least as big as German shepherds, though some wolves grow as high in the rump and shoulders as a deer. Their response to the car seemed semi-practiced, as though they had an action plan--in case of a car coming the As go north and the Bs head south--which group are you in?--yet at the same time nonchalant like teens making way for a car while they play street hockey. I slowed to a stop. The car, a first-generation Prius, makes no engine noise as it brakes. Maybe the wolves could hear the electric motor or other thin, high non-characteristic car noise.

However that was, one animal remained in sight, shoulder-high in grass and seedlings on my right. It had a picture-perfect wolf face, with blunt muzzle, head and shoulders gold-tinted on white with black tips, a bit of pink tongue forward, ears neat to the head unlike the coyote's tall ears. The exchange of glances was real yet ultra-brief, a reward from out of the wild, something I had hoped for over all my remembered years. I gathered from that glimpse a fellow-animal's cautious curiosity, mixed with the same nonchalance as that of the pack-mates crossing and re-crossing the road within the past half-minute. The wolf was crouched, viewing me just like a guy inspecting a newcomer at a distance of twenty feet or so for one second, gone like a magician's handkerchief in the next. My foot quivered on the pedal as I got back in motion and left the scene of deeply secret clannish movement.

There is a hunting season in Minnesota on wolves now, with a quota or 'target harvest' of 220 kills for the months included. Recently I heard or read an official with state government talking about wolves with what may be the stock Department of Natural Resources middle point-of-view, that yes, wolves are intelligent, sensitive creatures but that no, they don't merit the bleeding heart defense coming from people who say there should be no wolf hunts. That's just romanticism. They are legitimate game animals. But, making a stretch from out of the wild into human affairs, if you were to ask me I'd say that the point of view that abortion of human fetuses should be made illegal is romanticism of human fetuses--babies, of course, since babies is always going to be the word of choice. Comparing the level of sensory development of most aborted babies with the same in a full-grown adult wolf shot and killed calls into question whether the elective abortion or the wolf kill is the act of greater cruelty to the victim.

I take this viewpoint not out of hatred for babies of my own kind but out of a desperate love for the other creatures whom our endless expansion is crowding out their own territory since we always need to clear more land, dig it, farm it and build over it. We seem not to be able to shake the notion that people should multiply till the whole earth and every possible other place is taken up by our civilization, as if nature could be managed to become nothing but a grand human life support system, or as if we would really want to live in a universe completely of our own construction, with maybe a little relic forest, brush or desert like a decorative border. Taking the religious perspective about either matter is inevitably getting personal; you cannot convert me to your religion.

I would prefer a world that holds the values belonging to only a scattering of people, maybe especially to aboriginal peoples: that human beings have no greater importance than any other species we neighbor with, and that we live peaceably in motley forms and adaptations, sometimes learning and modelling each others' magnificent expertise to each others' greater glorification. The wolf in its solo resourcefulness and social graces, with its muscular power and embrace of landscapes just as those places evolved, makes a fascinating model for possible human interaction with the world.

I'm a great fan of Farley Mowat's Never Cry Wolf, in which the author worked as a biologist for the Canadian Wildlife Service and lived alongside a pack of Arctic wolves in the Keewatin District north of Churchill, Manitoba. His wolf neighbors gained his admiration on a whole series of levels: first of all, their resourcefulness in eating oftenest what was near at hand, especially mice, when their reputation among the white hunter constituency of Canada was that of voracious deer-slaughterers, helping denude the tundra of caribou. But also the wolves had a sense of fair play among themselves and extending to the lone researcher living at the edge of their territory in a tent. An unmated male wolf baby-sat for the mother whose litter of pups had exhausted her with their rambunctious bouncing and biting, letting them bounce all over him. The alpha male, father of the pups, immediately respected the scent boundaries that the man had made, wolf-fashion with squirts of his own urine, along a line of low shrubs. The adult wolves lined up along a ridge to watch the man, with obvious good humor, as he tumbled down the slope of crumbling sand and dislodging rock, overloaded by his own gear. He learned that the native Eskimo people had no wolf prejudices like those of European humankind, and knew each of these wolves as individuals from long acquaintance. He learned to relax and drop the idea that he'd better have his rifle or revolver at the ready when the wolves were near.

Wolves are clever, retiring and seldom seen, by comparison with many of the other creatures that share their realm and their exuberance with the atmosphere that sustains them. We all, it seems proven by people's observations time and again, have emotions of joy, curiosity, respect for others who pass by and do us no harm, bereavement, fear, foreboding, anger and vengefulness when hatred was enacted against us. The northern lands that are hold-outs of today's remaining wolves have their smaller life forms that sing, whirl with unfathomed mixes of passion and enliven the people, probably the hawks and other birds, the foxes, the deer and other four-legged community members who witness them.

Along with the occasionally heard and seldom-seen wolves, I savor the sight of birds everywhere. The gaiety of birds is confused again and again with their evasiveness, a drive to save their own lives from hawks, maybe more than any other predator. In the northern U.S. and Canada one intensively social bird, full of bounding travel-zest and pale wintery tints of white, dawn-pink and dark, is the redpoll, which sorts into at least two distinct species, the common and the hoary. The animus of wolves romping, galloping, lurking and howling is echoed by the redpolls foraging along the paths we travel and swirling into flight, diverging and converging as they leave the scene to re-group somewhere else.

Here is a link to the redpoll note card, a frameable item at 5x7 inches or 12.7 x 17.7 cm. Like most of my others, the card is blank inside with a little descriptive text on the outer back flap. Common and Hoary Redpolls on Take-off

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Real Chocolate and Other Gifts of the Trees

In the northern latitudes extending onto the belt of Arctic tundra you enter a realm of birches, various species giving way to each other as longitudes, soil types and land masses change. The northernmost in the family are shrubs, and there is a yellow birch, a black or sweet birch, a silver birch, and American paper birch, that really showy best-known of the clan, with its white bark curling loose to expose salmon-pink inner patches. The peelable bark has provided generations of craftsworkers with material for canoes, rafts, baskets, cookpots, shelter, footwear, writing paper, toys and fire starter.

A co-worker recently posted that as a child he was afraid of birch trees. I can imagine a kid alarmed by any crooked white thing in a dark woods. Once long ago there was a contest on the radio with a cash prize for the person who dared the strangest stunt. The winner was a guy who ate a whole birch tree, leaves, twigs and all, it seems after I had asked about those details. Size and degree of rawness were sketchy at best when my sister, the one who heard about it, told me.

Birch was the choice when an art client commissioned me to design a family tree as an anniversary gift for the folks, who live here in birch country where they raised their three offspring. The project was illuminating on many fronts, triggering a sense of how a tree's characteristics, if you start to pick and choose from among them, can resonate with a family's traits. The listing in my Etsy shop for a family tree made to order asks that the customer choose a favorite kind of tree along with any other specifications to be part of the illustration. Trees after all are cherished fellow-beings, as individuals and as types. There are family trees, phone trees, coat trees; they are symbols of any organization, whether seen as the one in the many or the many in the one.

Here is homage to the birches from my own writing of 1988, titled The Education of Trees (in Memory of Scott Starling:)
               "Seeds of the birch tree chose rockfield, pocked with bog;
                 Betula lutea (Yellow Birch) peeled a gold rind;
                 Betula papyrifera (Paper Birch) traced cold humus to the Arctic, wrapping its trunks
                 in white lapels, its badges darkening it as its descendants eked from dells on
                 the tundra, recommending reclining postures, which Betula minor (Dwarf Tundra Birch)
From any perspective, people who are enamored with birches are most concerned with the aesthetics or poetics of these graceful white-barked, orange-barked, silver-and-gold or black-barked trees.

The influence of some kinds of tree is hugely pervasive around the world through flavoring and food value, as in apple or citrus, coffee, and most significantly to our household, cacao which leads to everything chocolate.

The tree that bears cacao beans is described as small, especially in its cultivated state,with white wood and frail branches. The leaves are large, glossy, red at immaturity, changing to green. Picking the pods requires long-handled knives for the higher reaches of the tree, machetes for the lower branches. Fragile branches and shallow roots typical of the trees used for commercial production prevent climbing to get at the crop by any means. Though most of today's chocolate harvest comes from African countries, another third or so comes out of South America where cacao originated and appears to have been first enjoyed by the Mayans and the Aztecs, its human history going back more than two millennia. Theobroma cacao, the tree's Latin name, means food of the gods.

This household's Meadowlands Chocolate Company offers bean-to-bar chocolate in four varieties, each from a distinct part of South America--Belize, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Venezuela. Each variety has a sub-flavor of its own, in contrast with the chocolate of major brands offered in vending machines and convenience stores or the luxury chocolate offered for Valentine's Day and its equivalents. Meadowlands Chocolate is not candified by dollops of added sugar in the manufacturing, or by milk or emulsifiers; instead the unadulterated terroir or unique regional flavor can be discovered and recognized, the taste of the very soil that fed the beans, much the same as with fine wines. My own favorite is the Venezuelan Amazonas, with a warm drawn-out quality that seems a perfect blend of chocolate, sweetness and forest itself. Beans for this product are brought by canoe from within the Amazon region where the manual harvest takes place using the patient methods described above.

Organic cane sugar and organic cocoa beans are the only two ingredients in Meadowlands Chocolate. The bean supplier carries only certified Fair Trade and other certified organic products. Organic certification, in its quest to promise ongoing harmony between the crop plant and its retinue of harvesters, pollinators and land supervisors, serves in part to simplify, or clarify, the connection between the artisans and the tree that is their source.

From another perspective, there is a whole jungle of motley crops and beauties and supportive strengths for endless art, music and feasting once you step out even to the edge where the tame confronts the wild.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

In Fall, Singing Two Heroic Herbs of Summer

In September it was time to start a move, and when apartment-cleaning, daily work, a commissioned art work and then the move itself began to bring on an interlude thick with detail I began acknowledging the warning tickles of  a cold. In my midlife I've grown susceptible to bronchial congestion that would bloom into pneumonia if left untreated. Prescription antibiotics in the years I'd been insured would squelch those symptoms within hours but more and more resulted in a left-over cough and irritation, then in a few years a vulnerability to re-infection that I could feel with every onset of a new contagion. In 2013 for combined reasons I've gone without health insurance and, facing the move and my usual Canadian travels in the month to come, I felt the clampdown of grim challenge in the sore throat and fatigue that foretold an end-of-summer cold. My house-mates (not the first but the second set of friends to make the claim) urged raw garlic on me and sent me away to Duluth with two whole bulbs of garlic, suggesting I eat it like pills.

So I gulped the cloves one at a time or broke them over pasta and cauliflower and green beans at supper time, while the cold infection developed because I couldn't afford to spend days lying down to sleep it off. I must have breathed garlic breath on my co-workers since whenever I burped I burnt the end of my nose with puffed fumes of garlic. But the familiar congestion never caught hold in any breathing passageways. The recent cold instead remained the gentle kind I remember having as a schoolkid or young adult, with sneezes and a three-days' cough in the last stages. I ate up one whole bulb of garlic, ceasing use of it when the cough had run its course, and then gratuitously escaped that feeling of bronchial residue that used to clue me in that the full course of synthetic antibiotics left bacterial survivors lurking after I had used it up. Now I am a convert to garlic therapies, in whatever formulas they might be laid out by practiced healers.

A friend and peer in Indiana years ago gave me The Herb Book by John Lust, Benedict Lust Publications ©1974. In this book garlic is ascribed a range of healing properties with beautifully arcane names: anthelmintic (a worm-purge,) carminative (a fart-starter to relieve belly gas,) cholagogue (a bile promoter,) antispasmodic (a spasm and cramp-dampener,) and expectorant (hastening the expulsion of mucous from the breathing passages.)

Part of the mystique that this past summer held for me included my first-ever acquaintance with another much wilder and exceptional herb in some locales considered threatened unless propagated, the native North American queen of the prairie or Filipendula rubra. Nothing I've read so far introduces any medicinal or salad-making properties in this plant, though in all the eons that human beings walked and foraged our continent it's hard to believe they never collected queen of the prairie or tried it out for its secret benefits.

I wanted the painting to honor not just the plant in its wind-swayed weirdness--a rose with a foam-like or plume-like floral structure, its leaves subdividing like the fingers of a spread-open hand but saw-toothed along all edges--but also the day on which I sat before it, with the wind ushering a complex of clouds from west to east into ever new sprawls and pile-ups. Wisps of rain cloud would complement plumes of pink flower. The day was of a type within infinite time, and the mixture of plants deepened and tangled into green and greenish black fibrous shadow. The mixture forced me into abstraction. The queen's precisely developed leaves might only bare glimpses of themselves through ever-differing green-shadow, implying depths so far within that blackness conquered the green.

A great share of my joy on that scene came of knowing I would soon be living just down this road from this plant colony of chilly-water fens, within a mile of the middle reaches of the St. Louis River, and would come home as I did today into the impending autumn, the first spurts of winter, the vanguard of cold weather with its walls of drear against the horizons, but the openings in those ramparts of dark cloud not a menace to me but a wink of old tomorrows and yesterdays, gold-trim along edges revealing jolly blue. High, low, openings here, there, and beyond them streaks of rain, smears of snow, inhospitable but more inviting to me than any domesticated skyline.

The queen of the prairie painting on the featured card is about earth's profusion of waters, sky waters and ground waters, engendering a somehow equal profusion of plants. Along these very roadsides grows caraway, a member of the parsley family going back to the wild from long-forgotten herb gardens, a once-cultivated plant which in that manner is akin to the garlic. Every plant I remember neighboring the queen of the prairie figures in to the living thatch-work of green in this work of art through the power of visual suggestion.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

A Memorial Testament to a Fellow Forager - Gisela - Who Set an Ageless Example as to What Matters

Here's my tribute to an older girl buddy as well as mentor, my friend Gisela Schlueter Terrell who stunned me by dying late this spring, just a few weeks after a last e-mail passed between us. She was a librarian in the first ten years of our acquaintance, at Butler University's Irwin Library in Indianapolis, where a two-year grant had funded the opening of a Rare Books and Special Collections department in what must have been 1979. Gisela had come from the Lilly Library at Indiana University Bloomington, an hour or so's drive to the south, to start up Butler library's Rare Book room; meanwhile I was employed as a typist and file clerk in the cataloguing department. Apparently she saw some quality or other in me that indicated I needed rescue, as Gisela was a great rescuer where there was any possibility of a mutual benefit, and it must have had to do with a Midwestern American insularity and colorless propriety that pervaded that bright, white library, designed with row upon row of closely set arched windows, the design of a world-famous Seattle-born architect, Minoru Yamasaki, in 1963.

The Rare Book room in Gisela's time was up at the top floor of the building and was not a popular place, long and lavish as it was with ranks and ranks of stacks, full of ancient volumes and boxed documents behind a locking wooden door, and so made a special refuge for a naive and impractical girl aged nineteen, full of the sight of northern horizons and romance, whatever romance happened into view, and the big German-born librarian, with long black ponytails and teasing blue eyes, and the brown skin coloration of somebodies from very far away and far back into time. I would talk of my obsessions and fears, all very abstract, and she would listen, listen and sympathize or starkly critique me in that dark European voice full of inflections and frequent snorted chuckles. Sometimes she could be swiftly harsh in her opinions, yet she was unfailingly polite, and was as much given to scoffing, at me or whoever was the subject, as she was to well-founded praise. Her judgment came of wide experience, since she had been a classroom teacher in Germany, a gymnastics instructor as well as an orchestra violist and music teacher, and later, in America, had been involved in 1960s political actions. She had two or more PhD degrees and was mentally quick in her reasoning and analysis while being gifted with strong intuition, which made her an decisive critic as well as a giver of apt suggestions where art, writing, cooking, plant propagation or a love or friendship was under discussion.

She had a little house with a quince tree, a hammock between two other trees, and gardens with beans and rhubarb, root vegetables and cucumbers, strawberries and I remember not what else. Off in the hardwood forest of surrounding Owen County, Indiana grew pawpaw trees and the occasional persimmon, black gum and sycamore, eastern cottonwood, black walnuts, oaks and maples and tulip trees. Ginseng and golden-seal were two scarce herbs growing wild there, which Gisela would harvest sparingly for herbal use and sell at local marketplaces where they would be shipped off to end-users in Asia. At week-ends down at her house I tasted a green persimmon (so bitter you could taste it with unheard-of taste buds on your teeth) and breakfasted on guinea-fowl and duck eggs (produce of a neighboring small farm,) shared in the task of making butter with a vintage glass butter churn that came with wooden paddles in the mechanism, assisted in the hourly pressing of wild honey out of a section of tree trunk placed on the hearth to loosen the honeycomb for a few December days, and later heard and saw the only Kentucky warbler I have ever encountered, a few steps away down the county road she lived alongside.

The house, including its few acres of backwoods, was something she had just managed to buy out of earnings from her employment at the IU Lilly library half an hour's drive away. Built by a preceding landowner, this house had only two rooms with a back bathroom, and had a root cellar which, if I remember correctly, Gisela had hand-dug under a few square feet of the main room, beneath a trap door. A rear sun porch with translucent green vinyl siding and roof was also her own addition. Cats lived out on the front porch, which was open sided, but were not allowed indoors; in later years domestic geese gained residency of the front yard and gardens, which they patrolled with the most reliable and loudest of vigilance. In June of 1980 as a guest for my first time I spent the night in the hammock, hearing no end of whippoorwill cries from the forest floor in each direction. Sultry heat, sung by cicadas with that pulsating intro and ebbing buzz that speaks of Indiana or Iowa or equivalent latitudes, a song still so far as I know not yet heard in Minnesota where by now I've lived most of my life, made up the soundstage of those summer or early-fall days. It was borne from amid the forest's leaves, crisp and darkly green, as large as adult shoe-soles, encircling the yard on three sides, for Gisela had left the the woods alone where ground for pathways or gardens had not needed claiming.

Some time after I was gone away to study and live in the north, first to London, Ontario and following that to Minnesota, Gisela met, fell in ecstatic love with and married the son of a neighbor, Clyde Terrell, a pond-builder with carpentry skills and other back-country know-how who owned a bulldozer and wanted release from an unhappy marriage. Gisela, who had known marriage, desertion and widowhood,  destitution and hunger as well as some of the personal dangers that can confront young women who are obviously on their own, helped him with the process of getting a divorce, since each of the new couple had independently longed to move west to the mountains. They married and lived for a few years in Owen County together, then in the early 1990s left to explore Wyoming and Montana for a homestead. They found land they could buy within the Bighorn Range, in Sheridan County, Wyoming, in the village of Story, where they established a cabin together and kept horses during what must have been about eleven exhilarating though financially challenging years. With the approach of 2005 Clyde, nearing the age of 70, was diagnosed with lung cancer. Gisela, as she told me last year, was 'under no illusions' as she cared for him, driving him to and from Denver for treatments, till his death on Labor Day week-end of that year.

So in this dignified aftermath of a dream pursued, met and lived, and heartbreak, and many mountain afternoons spent alone or with Clyde following trails, at trout streams and in dells below the sheerest of peaks, snow-cooled and re-baked by desert heat, and following many orchestral concerts in which Gisela played the viola for weddings or reunions, and rehearsals in donated space or lessons given in her living room, I met my old friend again after twenty-one years of irregular contact just by phone, letter or email. This was on the third of June, 2012, as I followed her printed directions off northbound I-90, past Buffalo, nearing but not yet to Sheridan.

The log house where I found her was strange but familiar, a transformation of the old clapboard shack in Indiana, having the same dark interior, jovial signs posted in bathroom or kitchen, dried herbs hanging up, and floor to ceiling book cases. Now, minimized in their midst, was also a computer. In the yard stood ponderosa pines and, out back, much aspen and narrowleaf cottonwood.

We spent most of one week together, sharing evening or midday dinners that included heart of deer and bear meat pot roast (friends and neighbors had traded or given her the wild game, though she shot and dressed a deer per year on her own land for the venison as Clyde had taught her how to do) and taking car trips into the highest elevations of the Bighorn Range, seeing moose and marmot, summer snowpack, mesas, torrents within red canyons and sagebrush flatlands. All alone at the top of a Douglas fir one day I heard the song of an Audubon's warbler, the western version of our yellow-rumped warbler found east of the prairies, impossibly wistful and ringing between rock heights like a best-ever utterance of forlorn hopes.

Once as we hiked a road together I noted that Gisela, who had formerly exceeded my own height by a couple of inches but now, with the onset of a hunch in her shoulders, stood a tad shorter than me, had a stride that made me hurry my fastest to keep up--even though she was nearly seventy years of age to my fifty-two and a smoker who smoked little brown cigars for as long as I knew her. The gardens, the old sheepdog Mya and just the attractions of mountain slopes not very far in the distance, a backdrop to all errands made by car, kept her constantly stepping, striding, stooping, hauling, mixing, toting, bowing, tuning, summoning, often braving spasms of arthritis. She had grown stringy, stooped with constant busyness, on a diet centered around lean meat and her own fruit and vegetables. Her ways were the ways of our ancestors.

In my mind she's a persistent survivor, to the extent that I wonder when if ever I'll accept her as a real person truly dead. From most of what she ever said to me I think she believed she'd live to an ancient age, and so, had she lost the desire and outlook to do so, especially as a veteran tobacco user? At this stage I expect never to learn how she died, if it was sudden or long premeditated, attended by someone or in solitude, eminently influenced by Clyde's death at the same age of 70 years or coincidental with that.

A book I'm currently enjoying, Old Border Road by Susan Froderberg, Little, Brown and Company ©2010, has in its middle the quotable lines: "And do not the dead surely lay their claim? Perhaps more so than the living....Do as commanded or elsewise live in fear. Girl, I tell you this--death is but one less day to be afraid." And so, with the certain sense that the dead do live on inside those of us who knew them best or at least for a really long time, I rest and act upon the discernments and urgings of Gisela--that life is not easy, that it goes back on you just when you're lifted up by your fortunes, that mullein is safely gathered alongside highways and railway rights of way with today's pollution-control technology for engines, that on meeting a cougar in open country one must simply stand one's ground and make oneself look as big as possible.

I remember her AMC Gremlin down in Indiana, its rusting body held together by flowers and caterpillars, raindrops and other ornamentation painted up and down it in different colors of enamel, and the Ford Fiesta that succeeded it. I remember the days she didn't come in to the library due to car trouble, or the summer day she had to stop at every creek between Indianapolis and the town of Spencer to re-fill the radiator. I remember the day we came upon car thieves dismantling vehicles beside a shallow pond, and she made me stand aside while she passed them at close range to be sure they saw that she saw. (Later, they murdered her young dog Troll with a shotgun blast at close range, and were subsequently rounded up and flushed out of Owen County for good by outraged rural neighbors who had come with their own ultimatum on hearing of what had happened.)

She was a person as large as all humanity, whose code of ethics and acceptance of other traditions covered life-ways immeasurably old, modern American, native American, civilized and pre-civilized European or Eurasian--that is my best assessment of Gisela. But by now she's no longer in a position to argue with me...

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

A Sudden Obituary (a bit Late) and the Legacy in Art and Mountain Panorama

A friend of mine going back thirty-three years died, I just learned over the past week-end by accident, a year to the date that we last saw each other. Before that week in early June 2012 it had been twenty-one years since we last visited, other than over the phone. She lived in the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming, and was a marvelous teacher, gardener and player of stringed instruments. A music teacher and ex-librarian, she was my mentor, without ever admitting to the decided value of the hugely varied lessons she imparted to me. I'm so far left wondering what could have happened, accident or illness, to have felled this staunch person at an age, 70, that seemed too soon.

Last summer, drawing on my old youthful joy in spending time in the deep countryside with her (our acquaintance goes back to those years in an Indiana significantly more rural than it is today) I drove from Duluth out to Rapid City, South Dakota in one long day full of lofty clouds and sun, touring in the car a ways around the Oahe Reservoir outside the city of Pierre as dusk settled. Next day it was on, via the Theodore Roosevelt National Grassland, to Wyoming in that area between Buffalo and Sheridan, where immediately the same day I began to get acquainted with such birds of the mountainsides as red-naped sapsucker and the calliope hummingbird. The watercolor kit had ridden with me in the car and a choice of hound's tongue or gypsy flower (per my friend it bore the local folk name of beggar's fleas) came quickly for a several-days' painting project.

The hound's tongue is a weed of pastures rather than a native North American plant, yet in its odd fuzziness and olive drab tone, its florets the meaty pink of a dog's dripping tongue, it seems as habituated into the nearby slopes of grass as my friend, a native of Germany, was into the range land and mountains of the American West. I found a patch of ground with both sun and shade to sit within, where a specimen of hound's tongue or Cynoglossum officinale made itself available, and spent four to five days finishing the details mainly in watercolor and gouache. The card front in its photo is shown here, with a link to where it's for sale:

When I think about that gypsy flower in blossom alongside a sparkling rill beneath a line of cottonwood trees, with magpies' prattle over in the sun's direction and from behind me the flattened little death-knell sound, like a screech owl without the tremolo, that later proved to be the western wood pewee, I think about our car excursions up to the passes in the Bighorns near the Montana state line, where snowbanks enclosed the two paved lanes on either side. My friend, putting in her gardens for the year's food crop, never-the-less took afternoons off to drive me with her to such places as Shell Falls and Crazy Woman Canyon; we saw miles and miles of the changing topography that makes up Wyoming including sub-alpine slopes with whitebark pines, and way below them the red rock chasms, sagebrush deserts and, partway up again in elevation, meadows dampened by snow-fed springs, a-flit with mountain bluebirds the greenish blue of a twilit sky.

I remember her explanations of the sights around us: her elderly Australian sheep dog with the bald and hanging teats and one crossed eye, formerly the property of some unknown sheep herder who had obviously used her as a breeding machine and almost as likely had kicked her at least once in the face somewhere bordering on the eye socket. This dog had entered into a new life at the grand age of ten, a canine career that must have felt to her like a paradise, as one old lady rescued and given to another for purposes of mere gentle companionship with guardianship as a possible fringe benefit.

There was also the story that came with the glimpses up in the mountains of runaway truck lanes: of the young transport driver who fell asleep somewhere high above Sheridan or Buffalo, realized on waking that he'd lost his chance to use the emergency lane and knew he was fated to crash into the town below the heights where he'd found himself. He dialed 911 and had the local sheriffs clear the whole route ahead of him and provided his speed and location. As predicted, with the main drag fully emptied of cars and trucks, he hurtled into town on schedule, missed a diagonal bend and crashed to his death into a building emptied of people, the walls and roof collapsing around him. The local folk took up a collection for his widow and tiny children.

There was the day I spent mostly alone, creeping along the Penrose hiking trail, further teaching myself the local flora including the clematis called sugar bowls and finding my first Lazuli bunting in song much like the indigo bunting of the Midwest, till my friend dialed my cell phone to check that I still answered and had outlasted any cougars or armed strangers or precipices. One night we splurged like big hungry girls with the metabolism of youth, eating three platefuls apiece of Asian buffet meat and vegetables. In her home I ate roast bear and heart of venison for my first time. I learned of the healing properties of mullein tea for old bronchial mucous, and vowed I'd forage my own back in Minnesota, which I have now done.

So now, more than a year later, with the western expanses of America a beacon at my workaday back each day I make my living in the north-central U.S., I have the gypsy flower art image to help remind me of this legacy in the person of a great critic, teacher and humanitarian, who had once led or misled me into thinking she was a gypsy of the Romany strain, a survivor of Hitler's pogroms and death camps. The gypsy flower might, among other things, stand for the drifter and re-colonizer in all of us.

When I envision the future with its dire impending constraints like unaffordable car travel and withering summer droughts taking place between floods and consequent washouts of roads taken for granted now, I wonder if these places forgotten by human enterprise, little bits of ground probably smaller than the tracts we hold sacred now, will still exist and be visitable by ordinary folk who yearn over them. I tend to think that they will, if at great expense in money and personal safety, somehow--maybe by bus or bicycle...

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Feeling like a Queen of the Prairie

I am celebrating the great, unexpected good fortune of being able to live in the country again, as I did through childhood, at the urging of good friends an hour from Duluth--and celebrating the concept of summer everlasting in our minds, summer with its weird discoveries or epiphanies from the natural world. Maybe half a mile down the road from my new shared home is this stand, just below the road bank, of a native American prairie plant belonging within the giant rose family, called queen-of-the-prairie. It will be in a watercolor which will have to proceed at its own pace.

While we in our fifties or coming into our sixties feel or see, at moments, our aging surface layers or inner parts, a wild and lesser-known plant like this one, coming into its prime just off our shoulder speaks to us of rejuvenation, whether it's individual or community. When I first saw this plant while passing in a fast walk meant to burn fat I knew it by name immediately, though I'd never seen it live before, only in pictures in several wildflower manuals. Some plants and animals are like that, so showy or just plain distinctive that someone else's photos instill a lasting memory of the look matched with the name.

Queen-of-the-prairie is like a pink floss or a foam as the eye sees it, on top of the pale orangey green stalk. Originating, apparently, in the northern and central prairies of the United States where there's wet soil, the plant has found its way eastward into New England by way of gardening and escapes from gardens. Down in the grasses below the inflorescence are the leaves, colonial, sharply veined and toothed, deeply lobed and golden-green. What a privilege, to share habitat with things like this that nobody contrived or apparently planted, it just came into being by natural process through thousands of years and holds out, where nobody may for the longest time have grazed livestock or mown hay, much less laid pavement.

Watch for the 2013 watercolor, which continues my line of native North American plant note cards. I'd halfway like to have it done right now, right here to advertise. But every time I go to work at one of these, now from a folding chair due to the risk of deer ticks, I have to consciously tell myself that the project can't be hurried or everything will suffer. Evolution takes eons to bring us the life form we know, and artwork meant for its glorification takes as long as the artist's whole life support system requires, as long as the inevitable mistakes take to be found and improved upon, as long as the utmost patience will bear.

I am so full of gratitude, when I stop to think, of all that's been possible and may yet be possible in my time.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Away to California but Back to Mid-Continent - Refinding a Hardy Ephemeral

Better late than never--courtesy of generous friends I was recently able to visit the West Coast for my first time, spending a week in Sonoma County, California. For anyone who has never ridden Amtrak's Empire Builder westward or east along the Canadian border, skirting Glacier National Park in Montana, connecting at Portland, Oregon with the Coast Starlight which climbs up and over the Cascades to chug up or down Oregon and California, it's armchair travel worth the money and the time.

I had never been in California or any of the Pacific Northwest, and never seen a palm tree growing naturally out-of-doors. Occidental, California where we stayed, is in the thick of redwood country and within the hills of the Coast Range. Taking it for granted that in our time the landscape of most inhabited places would still be recognizable to our ancestors of, let's say, three hundred years ago, the look of north central California today, take away the grape and olive plantations, the estates and the towns with their ornamental groves of imported trees and flowers, would have been the color, texture and tree outline carried home by the European horseback travelers who first scoped it out as a paradise they would come back to. Most newly-beheld places must bear a surface resemblance to a few more familiar ones, but as I made my acquaintance with the definitive trees that make this landscape what it is, redwood and tan oak, California laurel, interior live oak and Pacific madrone, I knew beyond a daydream that I was on the other side of mountain ramparts distinctly separating me from the Midwest, Ontario and New England, the places I've walked the most. Redwood profiles do not resemble those of any other conifer so far in my experience.

At Powell's City of Books, the giant used-book store in Portland, Oregon I bought introductory manuals for the trees and wildflowers of California. Especially of service was the older book, the tree guide, Trees of California by Willis Linn Jepson, published by the University of California in 1923. The circular pattern of redwood shoots' maturation into a ring of full-size trees, the centrality of redwood lumber in the history of California's statehood, and the huge diversity of pines and firs to be found if a person traveled inland and northward from Sonoma County are all impressions I gained from that little book with its exquisite pen-and-ink illustrations of cones and foliage drawn to scale in an age before photography could adequately show the hallmarks of trees, herbs or other life forms.

We passed time along the fog-drenched and wind-whipped Pacific Coast, as cold as Duluth and Two Harbors, Minnesota--counter to my expectations for some reason drawn from stereotype. My most vivid plant encounter along those state-owned pull-outs and beaches near Bodega Bay was with the pink and lavender blossoms, their anatomy so much like the fleabane from Midwestern weed patches and roadsides but squat on the ground, the flowers as broad as a little girl's hand. The leaves were three-cornered and fleshy like exotic desert foliage, but I wanted to think of these plants, creeping on the ground in typical adaptation to a place of near-constant gales, as members of the composite family which includes the daisies, asters and sunflowers. With the other purchase from Powell's, The Wildflowers of California, Their Names, Haunts, and Habits by Mary Elizabeth Parsons (Dover Publications, Inc. of New York, 1966), but most of all with a tip from my host Barbara who called it ice-plant, and then the internet, I learned that these flowers were of a totally other family called fig-marigold, or Mesembryanthemum, most members of which strayed to America from southern Africa. Ms. Parsons, the handbook's author, speculated that the three species known along the California coast may have been introduced there without the direct help of human hands.

We car-traveled around the county between the towns of Occidental, Guerneville, Sebastopol, Jenner and Santa Rosa, allowing me the chance to walk and see twelve new species of birds, most of which I wouldn't reliably meet east of the Pacific seaboard. From the bus windows between Santa Rosa and Martinez, the train stop, I saw agricultural flatland, always with the hazy storm-cloud blue of the dry mountain chain that lends its special allure and must typify the Coastal Range, the land as a whole provoking impressions not new but familiar, gathered from book- and article-reading down the years, sealed by awareness of being nearly as far west as possible in the continental U.S.

Sun, as in sunny California gives this land its reputation for days on end here, baking and cracking mud into tiles irregularly shaped in a wildfowl refuge, nearly devoid of ducks, that we passed alongside. Fields adjoined streamside groves between dwellings fenced and tree-sheltered, the evening angle of the sun mellowing the daylight across all this semi-arid country full of anonymous settlers' westward dreams of space and a moderate climate, speaking to me of my own and others' nostalgia, a life either chosen or settled for, since the settler had run out of choices on meeting the coast. I was glad to have visited here firsthand, as a validation of all the amassed reading if forgotten particulars.

In the weeks just before this trek of two weeks total, back in northern Minnesota I had watched one of the most reluctant onsets of spring ever in my memory, snows arriving like sweepings from some overhead storage loft into the month of May. One significant Saturday hour by hour gave way to a parade of overlapping winter and spring weather drama, yielding everything but thunder and lightning. That day I was driving back roads north by east from the town of Aitkin--which the previous day had hosted a rare painted bunting that had blown this way from the Gulf Coast region but likely blown homeward in the night's frigid northerly--to the locality of Meadowlands. All this countryside is nearly as flat as river delta; some of it was prehistoric lake bed and contains peat bogs. Stopping at the home and work space of good friends I went wandering toward the St. Louis River where the prior week-end I had been startled by blue-violet petals on the woods floor like a rebellion, a freakish kind of blossoming in defiance of persistent freezing. This was the native perennial known as hepatica or, as foretold by its Latin name hepatica americana, a woodland harbinger of spring in the American heartland, modest like so many cold-tolerant plants, the leaves lobed and purple-splotched, a little bit suggestive of a liver.

As I stood over the isolated flowers they looked mostly the blue of the ever-amassing and scattering storm clouds of that early afternoon rather than lavender. Any effort to start a watercolor would grow speckled by the melting-spots of snow pellets so I just took photos and hurried back to the house, the whole mood of the day become one of hurry-hurry, gales from the north overhead roaring in the woods canopy, driving clouds, admitting sun, strewing snow that switched to rain and back to white pellets. Sometimes a deluge of pellets whitened out my view from the car between meadows but before I got back among the trees the sun would boom into clarity and raise the outside temperature on the car's readout by seven or eight degrees in the fewest of minutes.

Austere border country of a kind shared between the U.S. and Canada, unlike the fields, gardens or redwood sanctuaries of California, has its parallels in a nation of less diverse culture with fewer naturalized Eurasian trees and shrubs, a more raggedy, homogeneous bushland that resonates as the Canadian provinces, Minnesota and the Dakotas must with lands in Russia or Scandinavia. Inhospitable fens, cliffs and badlands beckon to some people with a fascination that might be akin to the aura of moldy basements, industrial ghettos or warehouses to people who play dungeons and dragons or make photos of failing architecture in all its glory of attempted perfection.

Accompanied fittingly all those driven miles by a CD on the car stereo, Nordic Roots, "An ideal introduction to the vibrant traditional music scene developing across the Nordic lands: incredible playing, catchy tunes, brilliant arrangements and strange instruments playing pre-medieval as well as modern compositions", produced by the label NorthSide in Minneapolis,  I was full of themes that deserved commingling, the hepatica or liverleaf at the center because it showed itself in the vanguard of the coming season of flowers. Infinite yearly cycles, with the yielding of winter into what may have seemed in its own time as a crippled, inadequate spring felt represented in that music and in that scene in front of my shoes, carried home in that vision that became this card image.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Spring, not to be Denied

Sun-lovers move where the sun is daily present, even like a bonfire in the afternoon sky, or else bemoan every delay to the green season, even sometimes the rains that bring it on. A few of us, furry, scruffy, wolvish human beings disguised in a stack of shirts, knits and jackets, secretly delight in the shivering of the bare bushes even if we curse the sea-borne winds that bite our hands and make us grab gloves even in May, because a heat-baked outdoor scene to us is like a scream that won't stop sounding, we have to get away to where the sounds are fainter and movement slower and much more tentative. Still, we cold-weather types freeze and bend over or stand tall, awed by the springtime finds we make in nature, and by brisk encounters over our heads.

Yesterday, these wild cherry buds were breaking open, tight and yellow-green.

Nearby a noise overhead stopped me in my stride--a mechanical stutter like some hand-held tool of old with two moving parts, something small and steely and something heavier with a grinding clatter. One merlin, a small falcon extra-nimble like something shot and retracted from an elastic cord, was besieging a crow where the road led between trees and river's mouth. The crow made the low clatter, the falcon jingled. Apart and together, apart and back together, beyond me and off to the side, the siege continued for whatever hidden reasons, but antics and face-offs are a fit with the motives of spring, whatever they're about.

Later in the day, indoors in the call center, I was remembering hepaticas from last week-end, in woods an hour to the northwest, isolated blue-violet outbursts from brown ground barely offset by any first sprigs of green. The leaves would be removed from the flowering stalks, old-green with red tinges like the liver the plant is named for.

All these seem precursors to something else we're really waiting for, or other somethings in succession. Late as this season is, the main part of spring has yet to unfurl, but when it does we have a menu of items at our hands and feet. Here is a set of spring floral note cards for sending thoughts or for putting where they best fit. 

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Ruptures or Shutdowns are, Eventually, our Fate

What do I know now? I have lost what I feared all along I was losing, seeing plenty of warning signs, but I waited to see it through. Now I know...this much, and it feels...this bad, and it can only be true that a new period of adjustment will follow, in the knowledge that like any loss it could be compounded so many times over; in the whole wide world losses do come to so many of the most wretched in multiples. The earth seethes with the shock and bereavement of all manner of beings, human and non-human, even less noticed than oozing above the courses of dark underground springs.

News articles summarize or detail slaughters, introducing to us their desolated victims, but after the most high-profile reporting and up before, through and after the investigations and trials--should crime victims be lucky enough to have recourse to criminal justice--we almost never read about the evolution of the pain suffered, the bouts of escape from it and the return, the ways time periods and happenings are reconciled in the minds, the moves and severings and fresh starts made for better or for worse. What if there were a separate news bureau devoted to the long-term aftermaths of survivors from yesterday's best- or less-documented crises? But instead this is the stuff of private diaries, where it's ever recorded at all.

But really here I'm only talking about major, grievous disappointment, not murder or mayhem.

O the love relationships that each of us may have sanctified based on rosy assessments that had taken root most of all in our own private minds! Oh, and the writers who have written that they knew a fellow person's thought, could just see it, or knew what would come next, when the fulfillment of that knowledge, so emboldening to the writer, owed itself instead to well-informed guesswork. There is no science of what people will do, or how things will turn out in the end, after so many lesser, day-to-day ends.

If we felt sure that we read someone's heart, saw the delight in it that corresponded to our own, then noticed it recede or learned that we misread the face and the words, how are we ever to know the degree to which our intuitions about the loved person or the potential in becoming a couple were wrong, or how much the obstacles to a shared future lay more in that person than in ourselves? And are we safe in trusting our intuitions about new love again?

In  July 1990, another agonizing time, I wrote this poem about the lasting power of infatuation, called  
A Panorama of Loves:

   Stars! Near, immense stars, far, far sown--
   each one, unknown jewelwork of hovering starlets--
   each a beloved, replete in its majesty.
   Forces do breach and strew them, bursting them
   from within, sometimes, off through the gape of stars.
   One star may dazzle another, but does it escape and flare,
   star of its own fate, or smother itself in strange starfire?
   Shooting-stars flee across ages of waiting space--
   breathtaking traces unfurl through their wakes, decades long.


Some time near that same date came this other poem, Grief: The Exile:

   The old boat rises,
   and settles, its timbers controlled by
   the waves that divide them and nails that uphold their oneness.
   Why hast thou left me to rupture away from thy pillar?
   Thou couldst have hefted me loose long ago, with thy hand
   unsnagging my anchor.

   The old boat straggles,
   and wallows, the stub of a rope floating
   hopeless to anchor me ever again.


Blessed is a long memory, or shared remembering, for dicing up and scattering the thoughts that humiliate us or freeze us in a place we'd best be moving beyond. Blessed every bit as much are the tricklings of well-being when we least expected them and can't account for them: thoughts of space and opportunity, or realizations that we pre-grieved for a while so this latest, really, came more as heart-ache than shock.

Blessed are old, timeless things--how many can this industrialized world protect, unwittingly or determinedly?--since they reliably gave comfort when sought. The sore thoughts may be at bay now but raw pain, its special loneliness, won't leave till sometime--I trust--we notice that it has departed the way a body ache has healed and gone; we suddenly remember that we haven't been suffering that thing lately.


Wednesday, April 17, 2013

On the Wing...Compensating as Best we Can

It is true, just as written in a 19th-century medical encyclopedia I remember browsing many years ago in the Irwin Library's Rare Book Room at Butler University down in Indianapolis, that the best antidote for sorrow is a change of scene. Sorrow, of course, has countless subtypes, and they morph, and they are mistake-driven, and they are broad reflections of our shared inability to see so many situations fully for what they are or will be. Sadness also comes from the expectation of loss, and may closely approach the echoing pain of bereavement with all its sense of permanence. Still the person has to acknowledge being self-entrapped in a situation that is not right in certain vital respects, and must own being powerless to do anything about it other than break away with a full complement of still more painful regrets. So the answer, fully endorsed by the antique medical reference that came with a long descriptive main title, then two more alternative long titles appended to it as was the custom two centuries ago, for me was to head off to Minneapolis. An invitation to attend a concert down that way had been timely.

It felt a bit thrilling to hit the freeway and car-power myself at cross-country speed, after driving only streets, state roads and a few bits of semi-urban freeway all the weeks since visit another friend at her art gallery in the farming outskirts of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro land at the rooming house called the Alamo among other sturdily decrepit houses in the neighborhood known as Dinkytown, all the while beguiled away from the thoughts that lead, near home, between eddying ponds of doubtfulness. History would catch me up once I exposed myself to it; here was this concert over at Sundin Music Hall in my old St. Paul environs (see with six men and six women pronouncing old Latin and Hebrew texts embedded into the musical scores of J.S. Bach, Heinrich Schutz and an Italian composer, Salamone Rossi; what an embroidery, a labor, of lives and learning, discovery and re-discovery. These ancient languages, phrased forth in harmony by people still sleek-faced with youth, in an age when we communicate more and more in acronym and other computer-driven abbreviation. What work, what agelessness, an exhibit of things worth keeping when so much detail has crumbled away and shed both its poisoning and its nourishing properties--even lives and works proclaimed as exceptional during their own brief unrecorded heyday.

On the way back my Minneapolis-based friend and I came through another forecast torrent of snow as we traveled our two-lane route up across northwestern Wisconsin. Temperatures were a degree or two above freezing; nearing Siren, Wisconsin I felt the little car skidding even at reduced speeds and joined the few other drivers crossing up through town at a creep. Slush lay over the pavement and could be expected all the way up the seventy-some miles that remained till we reached the Twin Ports and the end of our run. But salt or other road treatment must have begun past the town of Webster, where we abruptly left behind the slickness to continue along shining wet blacktop like a beacon the whole rest of the way, having the entire road to ourselves probably due to the white-out that swirled on all sides. Once to the right I saw the orange breast of a woodcock wheeling up-over in some kind of startlement, wings triangular, mission his own version of safety. In enough regards the scene out our windows could have been November or December except for the long white light of a spring evening, blizzard-beset as it was, lingering towards its own strange dusk. Far to the sides of the roadway there were likely the season's first red-winged blackbirds and maybe a meadowlark or two nestling in the sogginess, knowing how to wait it out. This is a winter that through a sequence of big snows seems to beg to be remembered. And we've been needing that moisture.

Here at home a winter's piece of work is done, an image as much about weirdness as it is about repletion, or maybe about what happens when we take on more than our bodies or personal nerve networks can bear. But the overweight hummingbird is in his element of blossoms, or baggy nectar-pouches if you prefer, and hasn't collapsed yet. Everything is still beautiful. Right now I strive to believe that half of all anticipated troubles are never met with, because although they lurk, we refuse to go face to face with them, and instead act so as to ease the preconditions, and so something else which can be the best of all outcomes takes place, eventually. The pain of coping must relax, intensify, relax and transform into other states of mind.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Good Friday...Any Friday and An Expedition

Good Friday is traditionally a Christian day of mourning the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, though as a person raised amid Christian teachings loses sight of the rites celebrated in churches, a holy day is liable to take on personal meanings, or mere meanings of the hour or day, connected loosely if at all with the sacred meaning.

On Good Friday 2013 I had decided to take advantage of thawing weather and head north into public land beyond Ely, Minnesota, the habitat of spruce grouse and source of the setting I am painting around a spruce grouse drawn from a photo I shot in Lake County two and a half years ago. Passing up through national forest along Highway 2 I sighted my subject bird, the spruce cock, in the roadway doing as his kind will, eating grit for use in grinding his food; he has a crop full of sand and pebbles which takes the place of a mouth full of teeth.

The encounter, it pleased me to think, boded well for the artwork that would continue from the top of that cliff I traveled toward, 112 miles north of Duluth, where snow likely blown and melted away should have handily exposed a little of the surface I yearned to paint. By my arrival, no trails had been broken by anything but deer in the campground I had to cross, and the snowshoes more often than not sank deeply at each stride, making for slow and sweaty travel. Reacting at intervals to my weight, a section of snow as big as a bathroom floor around me would sometimes fracture and whoosh downward, releasing air with an almost industrial-sounding blast from a range of hollow spots beneath. At other times the snow crust barely crushed under me. My laborious, calorie-fueled procession took its own time as the beast of burden continued to a settling-place on top of the rock dome where indeed I found the semi-bare conditions I had hoped for, the roots of pines exposed on pinkish cliff.

Sorrow, mostly a private matter except to those people I've told about it, accompanies me lots of places these days. There are various helps for sorrow but one of the best is huge country, too inhospitable for alien plants or much of the digging from urbanization to expand their reach. Here is the home of the wild beasts and specialized birds still left on earth, and sorrow might well arise from thoughts of the earth so glutted with humankind that these very places like the rest become infested with ourselves, our roads and our facilities.

It is natural to hate sorrow and fear all that poses a hazard of it, recognized in different ways by different people. At the same time sorrow persists, accompanies folks everywhere in low-grade, residual or full-blown intensity and is opposed with work and contemplation. Sorrow gives rise to corrective courses, new chapters and illness, which makes way for branching off and innovation by those more or less affected. Sorrow challenges our lives the way competition, seismic upheaval and disease challenge the trees at root level. We go into the wild and see what the trees have done by way of response.

We go back out into the streets, or, if we have the option to do so, we linger at those places deep in vegetation dead and alive, where we build something hidden, as we see it, to other people. We know ourselves sufficiently torn down by our choices and those of other people that we will make our creation manifest when the good hopes brought back in us somehow, through days and nights characterized by that forest, the heavenly bodies belonging to everyone and the drama of all events determine that the time is ripe.

Artwork can be viewed or ordered here: