Wednesday, December 16, 2015

In a World Responding to Climate Upheaval

This is that era now, written up in publications and on broadcast reports in all the decades I remember but one, when the greenhouse effect would wreak its changes. They are so sweeping and intricately woven through our whole beings that most who think about it at all can't yet sort out an advisable response from a decided sacrifice or a forced ending to the ways we live, travel and make our livings. Every step and every sidestep has its reverberations, and which behavior is worse than which in terms of another outburst of carbon, methane, etc. here beneath the skies? If we're going to personally do anything to lower emissions it will have to be of obvious worth and, we figure, affordable for us. Anyway, what does it matter, up against all the wholesale stuff that keeps going on--trucking, refining and fracking, military maneuvers and bombings and urban overgrowth, because there is still economic, military and population growth?

We follow our hearts, and what are better drivers than hearts informed by minds, where this matter is concerned?

There are so many compounding effects from climate change along with shortages aggravated by massive population growth; it's disconcerting to think what may be required of ourselves not to mention whole societies. Not just in death but in survival, too, is there shrinkage. What we love we will try to save, or help it to save itself. Each of us bears a repository of intended actions and priorities. For those who have no cares about the whole situation, the world will do its best and worst to convert such people to something other than they are.

When I was still young enough to have picture books on my shelf at home and from the library, there was one library book whose cover illustration bore a sun drawn in black lines on desert-gold background, with skyscrapers on the sun, drawn in black line the way children draw things. For a moment I must have been charmed, but mostly I remember how these pictures touched me with a despair I've yet to forget--I could imagine living on an earth-like sun, maybe not the real gaseous devouring sun but a planet all about heat and light, all that you could want of it. An assortment of readers might be smitten with the picture but for me  it felt like a vision of sterility. Who would want to live on a hot planet that had burnt itself bald?

That memory came to mind last evening as I drove in the old Prius back from my downtown day, at long last, after days and days above freezing, even many nights above freezing, in a brisk December snowfall. It was not quite blinding but enough to make the roadsides uniform and slow a motorist down. A full measure of the old childhood glee awoken by a downpour of snow awoke in me so I was exuberant again, talking to myself and the radio announcer, peering along the dark route ahead for the ever-more-remarkable. Tomorrow, I said, I'll go out since the hunters are all gone and see what I find on the way to the river. Never mind that there probably won't be enough snow to ski.

It is significant what subtle but widespread effects a climate has, probably on all of ourselves. As realms known for snow and ice seem to convert, before the eyes of those of us born there or in love with their beauty, to something out of a fairy tale or dream memory, we're not necessarily enchanted. It is possible to feel partially stranded, ignoring the emergency of folks in other places watching ground alongside or underneath their home or neighborhood subside into the sea. Our personal identity, along with that of the place, is being baked away. What had consoled us with a feeling of eternity is in the early stages of a transition that will move us far from a lot, if not all, that we cherish. How our mood responds varies, but if we're tackling or waiting out other issues, we may seem to observers like someone waking up out of troubled dreams into a problematic Monday, the opening of a week defined by confusion.

Cottonwood in Pasture After Frost - watercolor & pencil, 8x11"

Friday, November 20, 2015

Questing for Epiphanies Afield

On a Sunday swoop, driving faster than my usual highway speed, aimed at the hold-out of another rare visiting bird, I felt a late-coming reward due for all my own relentless routines and labors--all the days when these art endeavors and my various promotions feel of petty consequence. Faring off to an auspicious encounter with the ancient is a familiar feeling to birders as they head out to cross county and state lines, by car, train, bike or plane in response to a sighting that would mean a life species added to a private list. Birder's adventure-lust is a kind of yearning for a rarity in the long stretches when nobody's reporting any special sightings, often as a result of monotonous weather. It can be stormy weather that whips birds in from faraway. We don't know how to be at home contented with the same resident bird neighbors: Canada geese, English sparrows, sooty shearwaters out at sea. Isn't it in a way an act of worship, going to bear witness to a long-adapted life form brought into the world through all the bravery and discomfort tied to the process called evolution?

Last week-end's bird quarry was a pair of vermilion flycatchers over in Becker County, in Minnesota's northwestern quadrant, and would take me across five counties including a stretch of the Chippewa National Forest. Deer season opener was on, so an unusual number of trucks and a few modest cars lay at trailheads along the highway as if whispering nose to nose. For me it had been since early May that I last listed a new bird, down by the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, the ruff observable at long range across a lot of warm bottomland overlooking Minnesota River mudflats.

A sweeping National Audubon bird study released in 2014 concluded, based upon projections of temperature, rainfall, vegetative changes and other alterations in climate that by 2080 over half, or 314 out of 588 species of North American birds will lose more than fifty percent of their customary range. Out of those 314 threatened species 126 are classified as climate-endangered, and projected to lose more than fifty percent of their accustomed range as early as 2050. Abstraction from these trends serves as a reminder that powerful, prevailing conditions (climates) do, even in a lifetime, phase one into another, and that a force on earth so manifold and exponential as people do drive those conditions. Then what happens when the people-force divides, as it does, into sub-forces of clashing priorities? How well do we cherish the wild birds, more or less of which are archetypes, treasured emblems or voices of a place, in our minds?

Maybe one-hundred to three-hundred of our continent's bird species seem as irrevocably slated for extinction as each one of us is in a tinier time frame--each species, each life. My reaction for this road trip is to bask in an aura of fleeting joy, meanwhile as my aging Toyota hybrid tears along as if piercing the lake country, slowing through farm towns that seem to belong to other times of different but comparable threat compared with our times. And maybe a rush of mortification absorbs enough human hearts, the prospect of these losses tearing across us  like a rip from earliest memory to a prospect of no more iconic wildlife--if the Vermilion flycatcher is not on the list of 314 climate-threatened birds because it hails from a hot latitude far to our south, our loon and Bohemian waxwing, our great grey owl and sundry favorite locally-breeding birds are. A few devotees to these creatures, to pristine places or lands and seas with their character facing peril will be standing up out of a welter of angry sorrow and saying: this kind isn't gone yet or this place still looks how I remember it. Right now we're taking a breather in a kind of temporary contentment at how, in due time and in the comradeship of recognizing an increasingly desolate future thousands of us got our president to rule against the latest mother of all transcontinental pipelines, the Keystone XL.

Restoration of places is an option sometimes taken on as a mission; I can't forget the story of Hanna Mounce, featured in the early-autumn 2015 issue of Audubon magazine. She coordinates the Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project and works with a crew replanting seedlings of trees typifying the lost dry, upland forest that once supported Hawaii's rarest bird, of which only a few hundred diminishing individuals remain. A forest restored for one species holds the promise of saving any number of others. In more desolate times ahead, if cultures internalize the sense that a community's birth rates as well as death rates are best held in check to ensure abundant living for members who are and may yet be, the recreation of habitat full of complementary trees, shrubs and soft-bodied plants may well become a therapy, a discipline, and a vocation, lots like horticulture or silviculture throughout the ages.

                                Restored, protected tallgrass prairie, Becker County, Minnesota

I celebrated a distant old friend's 55th birthday and the rejection of the Keystone pipeline by observing the nearly-adult vermilion flycatcher along a metal pasture fence, in late morning sun and 55 degrees F. Though he wasn't close to my position looking through a window, the flycatcher was spectacularly lit, red as fake blood as he blurted from nabbing insect prey midair back to his perch on barbed wire; viewing conditions could not have been sharper. Among the few people present there was lively conversation and the thrill of thin, early bonds formed between folks otherwise unlikely to meet but of a common mind-set. Then my hurtle back eastward, out of prairie country into what remains of wooded acreages and lakes known for ice-fishing and cracking, dry cold in all the winters in memory.

       Vermilion Flycatcher Minds his Business  - 5x7" original watercolor on   semi-glossy Yupo polypropylene paper $50

     Life appears fair to the extent that it offers the various kinds of sustenance, and one of these is getting back to visit the source of what means most to us in our weariness and numbness, often what never changes but presents itself as a constant, a built-up thing or a living thing that reproduces seasonally true to its kind. The vermilion flycatcher and other surviving species of birds are that, are in bird books and illustrations going way back into history, and though they are in that way a constant, some of them offset the impending era of extinctions by showing up where and when least expected, like a vanguard of some other trend that we cooperatively could set in motion.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Feel of Having Been Someplace

Again there was no one else for distraction from a northern Ontario mood evoked along the waysides as I traveled by little-old-Toyota from west to east. In my mind's eye right now I am around Thunder Bay, though the window views have been scrolling since morning well to the west. Since I've been through the districts of Thunder Bay and Algoma in this province most years since I was barely of school age I've had half a lifetime of opportunity to build up a sort of mulch of vistas and bush-texture, the facades of cliff, the etches of deadwood standing up that belong to this reach of North America, with certain prospects characterized by a kind of light or weather that seem possible from many places but still tie me to this land in memory. They all could be the groundwork for endless landscape art, though who besides me would take much interest? Mainly the stubborn soul of the maker if that soul, seldom as productive as in its dreaming, counts for anything very much.

Land-mood like this has caught my notice for as long as I've been aware of places around me; it's the feeling left when I'm away from that place but recalling time I spent there. Maybe the abundant sense of it is a function of time alone in one's psyche, in the faith that these impressions are at best savored but wasted if talked about. One of the things I enjoy most about movies, even, as I remember favorite scenes is the mood of the setting, a countryside or a skyline along a city, that came to me from them, set to the filmmaker's exquisite choice of music.

Mood imparted to a person by surrounding landscape is called that land's spirit, the difference from place to place as stark as the opposing scenery is. What is there to account for that spirit comes, I have no doubt, of the leftover character of what drama unfolds there, influenced by what you would or wouldn't bump into--like air turbulence, heavy tree growth, profusion of other living or dead matter, humidity or aridity. What engenders the mood of the Canadian Shield, north of Lake Superior, in its peculiar sweetness emanating out of a quieter savagery--this is my theory--is inherent in the way all the big and little lives play out within that land. There is so much cover from ground level to treetop--there are cliffs full of crevices--there is a muffling expanse of forest cushy with needles in addition to paper-thin leaves, and there are sparse, ripped places bearing pockets and rivulets of water--so that living is secretive, hastily undertaken and sudden, often, in its curtailment by predator come unseen or heard. There is pain and stifling imposed by a long winter of nights that swallow up the wink of days whose sun arcs, there and gone again, far in the southern sky. Warmth, glints of winter blueness, autumn red and gold, resin-scented breezes are cause for seasonal celebration until, sooner and later, the participant freezes into winter's freezing dark. So much has lived and died there with an emotional framework borne of those conditions that the prevailing mood, conferred upon all nervous systems opened to it, comes of a deep sense that summer is short and death, mild or traumatic, hovers nearby. From forested mountain regions to the west the mood is bound to be similar, though in ways that can be guessed, subtly differing.

From decades ago I remember the broad-leaved hardwoods and farm fields of the lower Midwest, and now try recalling the character of what seems to have been a louder landscape. The crown of the forest hissed with summer's downpours blasted through, till winter changed the wind's voice to a roar, the gale in bare branches clicking or at times squeaking, hinge-like. Cicada sound in summer--was it the seventeen-year locusts?---pulsed louder then ebbed like a dying motor. Bird noise carried further among the pillars of those woods.

So a prairie, often gone to agriculture, has more of a spirit of the resolute--there is much less to obscure your view but you have to stand, peer, organize your intentions though in greater assurance than you'll likely feel in forestland--and on a shore, facing a sea or lesser water, you'll act similarly but pausing longer, taking scarier physics into consideration. And so the fabric of each of those places is patterned by whatever happens there, again and again and again but by assorted agents, lineages native to that place or come to visit and influenced by it. Microbial action in that fabric must both obfuscate and intensify the track of bigger and more forceful living agents.

These thoughts easily sidetrack me into recalling a bit of a memoir from my neighbor Joan Skelton, a Canadian author and playwright, who wrote of traveling into Michigan to join friends in a discussion group. Joan keeps a rock garden, which she describes as an outdoor horde of geological finds, not a planted garden. Every stone in the garden has its far-off point of origin, someplace where Joan has been. For a long time wanting a Petoskey stone, a type of fossilized coral, she was invited into the countryside by a group member; this was in a part of Michigan near Petoskey and Little Traverse Bay where it was still possible to unearth Petoskey stones. Joan surprised herself by digging up a chunky specimen which she brought back with her to Ontario. It was rusty-toned, smudged all over by the soil it came up from, so she chose to soak it overnight in soapsuds, noting as she handled it that it looked like brain tissue. She went on to tell how the oddly colored and patterned stone refused to leave her thoughts that whole night, affecting her with sleeplessness and haunting visceral visions. At one moment she could hear wind, then a knocking at the main door, but a walk to the door revealed nobody there and no wind either moving the treetops. Everything troubling her she felt traceable to the lurking of that stone hauled out of place, so she ended up, a day or two later, scooping it up in a coffee can and taking it to a landfill, and rolling it down an embankment in front of a bulldozer in the act of burying stuff. She summarized that she had always considered all personal experience fare for rational explanation, but that the Petoskey stone proved to her that some things in the world really do lie outside of that whole normal approach, tied to realms beyond our senses or understanding.

                                                                     Petoskey stone

I can go on from there with an ancient childhood memory of my own, taking place when I was about seven, on a family hike south of Indianapolis in a dry limestone ravine inside Shades, one of Indiana's state parks. We must have been walking the regular trails for a while but when my parents decided to drop down into the ravine and follow it, I was perturbed to the core for no reason I could give when asked, even though we could see the trees and sky above our heads the whole way. I cried and sobbed like a forsaken little girl the whole way though in arms' reach of my annoyed parents, who did all they could to ignore me. We were a party of five, I think, including my sister and a boy, George. After we climbed out of the ravine I myself could only wonder why--what threat since none was present?--was I so upset in those surroundings. Was it the feeling of caves under the lip of land only maybe as high as my parents' heads? If there were caves or crannies we were in no danger of getting trapped in them, nor did we stop from just following the pathway of the ravine.

I'd been reminded of that day previously, already many years back now while I stood in a bookstore and paged through something I can't so far tie to a title or an author, about phobic people--first, a little boy who loved the fireworks and fanfare of the Fourth of July, till when that long-awaited showtime came around again he went into panic and screamed inconsolably to the mystification of his elders. His parents took him to a hypnotist whose process of questioning narrowed down his fears to a specific admission something like: when I was a soldier. Further questioning turned up evidence that the little boy, who was maybe six years of age, had some recall of being in a bloody battle full of cannon fire and the like, though no war that could be named--it could have been an American Civil War or colonial battlefield, or European. Speculation in the book was that his extreme youth kept an impression from another's life, reincarnated in him, from complete burial amid his present-day consciousness.

In the same book there were other phobics--the other one I remember was an adult with a sickening fear of heights. A questioning process from the same hypnotist uncovered another linkage with a long-ago life lost, not a blood ancestor's, but just someone' specific death, and the terror of it somehow revisited on a soul from our century. What haunted this person was a nightmarish fall from the steep gabled roof of a Gothic structure with a sharp peak and a spire. The victim had slid, then caught on or just beneath the spire, then finished falling to his or her demise. All are tales, probably having more worth than just as entertainment, drawn from tales drawn from memory, but if founded in people's true experience they do hint at things we are commonly kept from knowing about who we are, what we come from, and likewise about the earth and cosmos.

Here I am trying to relate the spirit of place with sequences of animal movement (it could be human) that has typified them, with ghostly dramas that nobody would probably think worth their time trying to verify. The mystery common to all these categories of encounter is sensed, real, not supernatural but a current holding the universe together. (Supernatural, I think, is a term to keep for these phenomena when they're not sensed but just recorded or itemized.) But the mystery is the vitality that drives us from the material world, as far from it as we can pull ourselves, then, inevitably, back to it since we are material ourselves. Art is the momentary and recurring habitation of the mystery, moved into view in order to be shared.

Because I'm seized by mystery in the phenomena of birds, I like to paint birds in weather or sky mood conveying an energy that capitalizes on the prevailing spirit of a habitat, wherever that may be.

    Watercolor :  12 x 16" tableau of finches--Redpolls--(and vole) against a wind-carved snowbank - framed, @$225

                                 Watercolor, 5x7" on glossy Yupo paper : 'At the Very End' - with Crows and Cardinal - unframed, $50

                                Watercolor : 'Wayfarers from the Arctic Night' - Long-tailed Ducks - 21x28" framed, $495

Saturday, August 29, 2015

A Circulatory Slow-up drew us Face to Face

At 55 years of age now I'm advised, after a doctor's checkup, that I have high cholesterol and should follow the dietary guidelines that were supposed to be enclosed in an article sent along with the letter. I'm still waiting to receive that article since I never found it in with the letter. Conversation about cholesterol readings and material on line say that a cholesterol score all by itself needs to be considered with other health, hereditary and lifestyle factors that all together predict the likelihood of later-on heart trouble.

Where diet is concerned I relate to the idea of foods that tempt, through easy availability in the course of the work-week. Fixing my diet to banish the vending machine snacks shouldn't be all that hard to do. My other risk factors beyond the dietary ones for heart attack later on are relatively low. A person with the means to stay home for days on end and put together delicious wholesome food high in vegetable bulk and low in the wicked fats, free of preservatives would be at a greater advantage, since those foods drive ready-made food temptation far from one's thoughts. But I'll be glad when that printed matter from the doctor's office gets here.

It seems likely to me that high cholesterol in my case (it's 240 so not extreme) is the result of age, heredity and having more than enough to eat out of what's promptly available and moderate in calories (I have always fought back against getting too fat.) Worsened circumstances would come from the loss of freedom to move, maintain muscle and go about life in that completely automated manner that's become so much the modern norm. Hardship would follow, but not devastation, from no longer having a car to make my basic rounds, but I could take up the ancestral way of life fueled fully by calories and what muscle, joints and discipline could accomplish. One goes along in the habits of life that yield predictability and the security that comes from it, but sometimes I think I am watching and waiting for enforced forms of outer and inner change. Any of us does what we have to do and changes accordingly.

As the world, the biosphere and the presence and travel routes of animals, including the birds, change through the pressures that global human usages impose I watch from all my vantage points, moving and stationary. Old scenes, lost and faded glories of nature have all the persuasive power of thoughts of a tomorrow without that color palette, that migratory species. Other people's descriptions of a rare sight--like the lynx that spurted across the Trans-Canada highway in front of my sister's car, eluding a camera shot in part by running straight up a rock wall--give me hope of a world in which there will indefinitely be some of these creatures and a few appreciative souls to report on them. We can't indefinitely, willfully act on the world to assuage our limitless hungers without it reacting to stifle those hungers. What's coming is corrective, whatever we may be done out of.

October is coming soon with Octoberous looks that are known and worth rediscovery. With the frosts of autumn these parts will likely again see the young of big northern-nesting sparrows--the white-throated and white-crowned and the Harris' sparrows, with their scratching in old leaf carpets by our pathways and a long-drawn 'chee-ee-eep' to help in their identification. Wild songbirds along American back-roads are as spellbinding as the English author J.A. Baker found his peregrine falcons in his book The Peregrine, Harper & Row Publishers, 1967. I lately read a hardcover copy, a gift from my Aunt Mary Jo, from cover to cover despite my unfamiliarity with the birds of Europe, where I have never gone, though I think I could so easily get familiar if I stayed there. But the earth is in so many ways small; what travels or ever traveled over the relatively short stretch of ocean between North America and western Europe has genes of same origins.

Speaking of a person's fitness to travel under power of heart and lungs, Mr. Baker some fifty years ago found himself so needing communion with the migratory falcons of the British Isles that he flung himself by bicycle along rural roads near the eastern coast on a hunch that he'd encounter one or another bird that he'd been patiently stalking for hours on end, to view and to describe. His book is almost entirely word-pictures of his region, its weather, tides and bird movement as it related to a falcon in his lenses:
     "...Head to wind, like a compass needle cleaving to the north, he drifted, steadied, and hung still. His wings closed and curved back, then opened and reached forward, splaying out wide like an owl's. His tail tapered like a dart, then opened in a broad spreading fan.... When he banked in the sun, he flashed from blackness to fire and shone like white steel. Poised on two thousand feet of sunlit air, he commanded the birds of the valley, and none flew beneath him. He sank forward into the wind, and passed slowly down the sun. I had to let him go. When I looked back, through green and violet nebulae of whirling light, I could just see a tiny speck of dusk falling to earth from the sun, flashing and turning and falling through an immense silence that crashed open in a tumult of shrilling, wing-beating birds....

'At three o'clock I had a pricking sensation at the back of the neck that meant I was being looked at from behind. It is a feeling that must have been very intense to primitive man.... Two hundred yards away, the hawk was perched on the low horizontal branch of an oak.... For more than a minute we both stayed still, each puzzled and intrigued by the other, sharing the curious bond that comes with identity of position. When I moved towards him, he flew at once, going quickly down through the north orchard. He was hunting, and the hunter trusts no one."

The book ends with the author and a peregrine tensely at rest five yards from him: "I know he will not fly now. I climb over the wall and stand before him. And he sleeps."

Over a length of time the author had accustomed the wild peregrine to his slow approach and even his usefulness in scaring up small birds good for a hawk to prey upon.

A similar, taut encounter with one of our American heartland sparrows is exhibited here, hand-illustrated in watercolor and pencil much as the real autumn-day observance really happened in the arboretum of Saint John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. The original 12 x9"  watercolor has now sold, but prints at 10 x 8" or smaller are available on order. The title is "Startlement: Harris' Sparrow on an October Shore." More than many bird paintings it is about the eternal in the momentary, just how a wild bird sighting is apt to happen as it commits itself to memory. 

Friday, July 31, 2015

...Till We Surge, then the Whole Earth Wither

In a world of two to three more billion people will there be any more wild landscapes for retreating to or just burnt-off mountain ridges and barren desert? I've seen and heard the outlooks much rosier than my own, that rejoice in the ingenuity of people building our way into a sense of security, stacking ourselves in high-rise condos, powering our structures entirely with wind and solar, fuel-cell and other renewable energies. I just saw a TV show about the triumphs of global high-speed travel and agriculture making humans the unparalleled masters of the earth, though significantly the narrative about the 21st century as it continues to develop bore a lot of ifs. Not addressed, as if it were completely off the topic, were these questions: Will there still be territory for any cougars, bears, wolves, apes, cheetahs, elk, etc.? What will be left of the diversity of wild birds? What will still live in oceans and freshwater, and will we have commandeered all earth-space for our housing and food-growing in manufactured soils? Also I never heard this question taken up: would very many people relish living in this fashion? Presumably the generations to come would grow up in expectation of little else.

Will there still be much individuality among the billions of people, or will conformity in terms of tastes and behavior become more prevalent along with the confinement, so that we're more like varicolored leaves grown on a few dominant types of tree? Will there be memory of and yearning for an earlier era of open spaces--and people--that had distinct character, and large legendary vertebrates that migrated away from winters thick with ice?

There is that popular viewpoint that we will take charge of earth's environment in order to prosper as a mammal of ten and eleven billion in number, and the other, maybe-even-more articulated viewpoint that we'll crash like everything else that ever outgrew its habitat, because we'll use up too much of our resources and you can't make new resources out of nothing. The most interesting survey I've ever seen on the range of possibility with regard to basic materials for building cities is here, in one of the Forum Papers published by Negative Population Growth. Their site has other articles equally skeptical that our prospective limitless growth is viable with its requirement for infinite water and raw materials. The TV show made it plain that we and our descendents will have to build a lot of new cities, to accommodate the new billions and the ones quite likely flushed out of major coastal cities of our time like New York, London and San Diego by rising seas. In step with population explosion is greenhouse warming, escalating those atmospheric forces that batter at the land, sea and polar ice caps.

The large and outspoken sector of society that says we and our descendents will have to adapt to the new blessings of science that installs us in dense vertical-living arrangements--mega-cities--forgets to consider the hordes of forgotten people who have nothing, in many cases, to call their own and live and die in slums. Many U.S. cities by now have them, the colonias or the homeless encampments, seen or not through the windows from freeways, boulevards and rail corridors. Too many documentaries about the brave high-tech future have written out not just our wild furry, feathery and scaled kin, as inferior and undeserving as anything not ourselves, but also the various kinds of wild people--slum dwellers, economically marginal heirs to rural holdings, tribal citizens and eccentrics like myself who delight in the balance of nature. We will have to adapt or die, we are told, and so we will. The mega-cities are here and will expand as much as they are able to do. As they run out of recoverable resources, their own inhabitants, accustomed to their own kind of confinement and regulation, will face further dwindling choices. As money is implicit in the production of television, money plus a suave acceptance of increasing loss, insularity, and relentless infringement on the world outside the most prosperous urban society are on display and taken for granted. But considering the present and our entire past we are unlikely ever to found utopias, free of corrupt networks, rid of poverty and inequality. In fact the mega-cities are likely to exclude a growing number of individuals.

If an old-timer from the twentieth century had to accept that her remaining lifespan was limited to new routines, as much of her own choosing as could be hoped, in one of those sprawling, towering cities against her will but through combined misfortunes, maybe she would take on, alone or with others, the importation of  little creatures and plantlets, shrubs and saplings from the countryside to to enhance what it means to live in that city. Sometimes specialized life forms are able to adapt to narrow quarters. Or maybe, faced with the doom of lives led in an open exchange of pollen, insects and pollinators under the wide sky--a sun so fierce through an atmosphere so superheated that it had grown deadly to anything not under a roof--she would turn inside out, inserting old panoramas that lay like pages in her memory into the present day and mixing them up. Maybe she would go further and people them with her human dead, by this time an old lady herself, and one more who is sustained by nothing else so much as her own delusions warped together out of times past. Haven't there always been freaks and romantics, young or ancient? Who and how will they be in the generations to come? Are they today, in part, the people who play doomsday video games, their cliffs and escarpments re-envisioned as skyscrapers under siege?

A new friend's contributed reading, the Modern Library's 1933 edition of Great German Short Stories and Novels : an Anthology, edited by Bennett Cerf, reawakens my own German-American heritage, and introduces 'The Sorrows of Werther' by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to instill my recent days with literary romanticism. An excerpt is full of resonance on this theme, progressing to that of the blighted soul which seems so prophetic of the death of civilization through our combined forces of presumption, an attitude multiplied by a billions-strong humanity in a way that eighteenth-and-nineteenth-century writers like Goethe could hardly estimate:
     'Must it ever be thus,--that the source of our happiness must also be the fountain of our misery? The
     full and ardent sentiment which animated my heart with the love of Nature, overwhelming me with a
     torrent of delight, and which brought all paradise before me, has now become an insupportable
     torment,--a demon which perpetually pursues and harasses me. When in by-gone days I gazed from
     these rocks upon yonder mountains across the river, and upon the green, flowery valley before me,
     and saw all Nature budding and bursting around ; the hills clothed from foot to peak with tall, thick
     forest trees ; the valleys in all their varied windings, shaded with the loveliest woods ; and the soft
     river gliding along amongst the lisping reeds, mirroring the beautiful clouds which the soft evening
     breeze wafted across the sky,--when I heard the groves about me melodious with the music of birds,
     and saw the million swarms of insects dancing in the last golden beams of the sun, whose setting rays
     awoke the humming beetles from their grassy beds, whilst the subdued tumult around directed my
     attention to the ground, and there I observed the arid rock compelled to yield nutriment to the dry
     moss, whilst the heath flourished upon the barren sands below me,--all this displayed to me the inner
     warmth which animates all nature, and filled and glowed within my heart. I felt myself exalted by this
     overflowing fullness to the perception of the Godhead, and the glorious forms of an infinite universe
     became visible to my soul! Stupendous mountains encompassed me, abysses yawned at my feet, and
     cataracts fell headlong down before me ; impetuous rivers rolled through the plain, and rocks and
     mountains resounded from afar. In the depths of the earth I saw innumerable powers in motion, and
     multiplying to infinity ; whilst upon its surface, and beneath the heavens, there teemed ten thousand
     varieties of living creatures. Everything around is alive with an infinite number of forms ; while
     mankind fly for security to their petty houses, from the shelter of which they rule in their imaginations
     over the wide-extended universe. Poor fool! in whose petty estimation all things are little...'

We and our ancestors have abstracted from a sense of our own might, against a backdrop of nature's grandeur and the Godhead, leading people of our time to the notion that we will only grow more able to orchestrate a world of our own selecting removed from what scares us in nature.

The romantic is the element in ourselves that adores our origins, whether in nature or in historic civilization, cherishes beauty and heroism, and tends to embrace the divine as inspiration for all these things. Well within this very tradition I remember a workplace conversation late in the 1980s when news reporting was picking up on the threat of global warming, how my supervisor and I consoled ourselves with the thought that whatever happened due to climate catastrophe it would always be beautiful to behold. Beauty is relative, just as it's true to the eye of the beholder, so that beauty is permissible in the prospect of great decadent cities in the future as they sponge up all the water and elements they hunger and thirst for.

Not a day passes that I don't conceive of a hugely bloated humankind laying waste to all the wild on earth till that waste undercuts most of our lives and doings, leaving just a scrawny remnant of society or no one very much eking out their nourishment. I feel overwhelmingly grateful and sad to live in the time when I live, and in this region of poor soils, swamps and long winter nights, fishable fish and a large vestige of the native plant community that has held sway here since there were people to document it. I go and find what living treasures stand before my eyes and make as much of them as I can in images of praise, with a full heart and electrified nerves.

Indian Paintbrush - native U.S./Canadian wildflower on blank note card is listed here:    on?ref=shop_home_active_3

Habenaria psycodes or Smaller Purple Fringed Orchid is here:

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Eternal Forget-Me-Not

In these times of U.S. terrorism at home and abroad, of an estimated 60 million displaced people (per the United Nations) around the world, land and sea confrontations in regions that overlie mineral wealth and persistent speech denying that there is a climate crisis, I feel like nobody's advocate so much as earth's own, let the people just blend cunningly into the many surface layers. A week ago I stepped back in time again, on my own with among family ghosts (not seen, though felt.) There are rocky, thin-soil places with dark nights and extremes of temperature where you can still lose yourself in the manner of a lone, last survivor, the matter facilitated by having no phone or electronics. My sister and I are heirs to a piece of shoreline known most of all for cliffs, boulders and cold water. Any neighbor was at least a mile away while I was there seeing about roof repairs, wandering among trees and rock outcrops, renewing familiarity with the features and voices of June, and ultimately painting the flower called true forget-me-not, Myosotis scorpioides. The plant crowds the borders of our up-and-downhill road full of seeps and swarming puddles and mosquitoes, and fills the crown of the road with early summer blossoms the size of your smallest fingernail, most sky-blue, some white, with a yellow opening in the middle like an eye-hole.  My acquaintance with this region goes back to early childhood.

When we were growing up, the cars of family and friends came and went here, especially in August. For years our Daddy, our uncle and cousins sawed fallen trees for firewood with chain saws; an engine would be squalling or puttering some time or other between the clatter of one or the other gasoline-engine pump. Our pump filled two fifty-gallon tanks from the lake with water that for years was fit for washing and drinking, provided we treated a pitcherful with halazone tablets before we drank from it. Neither of us middle-aged sisters runs that equipment now; we don't want the bother of spark plugs, oil and gas, chokes, filters and small-engine repair because this stuff defines our incompetence. We carry our water, and there is a whole variety of benefit for me to hand-saw and split firewood with the exact same saw, sledge hammer and wedges our dad used to ply before we had the chain saw, even in Indiana in the 1960s.

Everything in the house or its distant, mouldering shed, and all the wavelets lapping or the surf, the Swainson's thrushes' song with the tonal quality of air blown through the valve of an inflatable mattress, the red-eyed vireo or the warblers in the tree crowns is a throwback to the 1960s and 70s for me, but I'm the one human being hearing it. The songbirds seem fewer in number than in those times, though the same variety is still around. I don't crave civilization but how did I get to be this single person left to talk to myself, read fiction and essays, wild plant handbooks and the French-English dictionary? I have moved on to a more innate lifestyle, leaving behind a man or two whose priorities will only ever differ from mine. Is this much independence really the choice of the many single women and men moving through and past their prime years? Often there would seem to be no choice, and that's true among many creatures larger and smaller than ourselves:

                                      The spoor of a moose

So often I find I'm living on the glow of memory as much as anything else, with family dwelling in it, and wondering what's to come, and what course my inevitable dwindling process will take. But I have energy yet. The forget-me-nots were my best focus for new spring floral art, upon completion of a root system for the illustrated miterwort, a less than common plant growing on the land of my neighbor Deb in Minnesota. The drawing of the miterwort, or bishop's cap, is bordered with sprigs of forget-me-not.

Every day I'm reminded that what doesn't want to be forgotten is not lost, though its passage into memory was due process--this is the nature of change. In spite of calamity and outrages that fill news pages, the greatest share of death or breakup in this world, wrenching though the experience may have been, ends up taken as a parting of the ways based on foreseeable causes. One soothing realization has been that the sharpest grief need not be equated with depression, which I think grows out of aggravating circumstances such as anger at fate. Grief, apart from anything else, is a packet of emotion that can bulge, not necessarily crippling but able to grab at the core of a person quickly wringing the tear ducts in the next moment. It seasons the present with a powerful tang from the past.

                                                           The miterwort, Mitella diphylla

My forget-me-not is featured this way on the newest of my cards:

                                              See the 'Card Images' page at

The text on the back is: Forget me not, though I recreate myself. It took me a while to decide between that wording and ...though I regenerate myself .

Days, weeks, months and years after the loss of someone dear, any one of us may still be thinking 'if you could only know what I'm up to/who I've become/what happened to me/her/him/ light of all the many things that may happen to re-shape one soul or the body that bears it.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Why I Joined 5,000 Citizens, Marching for all we Hold Dearest and Most Hopefully

Once in a while, I s'pose, whether child or adult everybody gains something by being thrown into a role that is barely suitable for who they are, it's just: too bad for you! One of my oldest friends down in St. Paul signed me up for a chant leader, even though I had already said I would come to yesterday's Tar Sands Resistance March, since public events, especially ones as relevant to health and well-being in the North American heartland, are best enjoyed when two together can double the pleasure. I came unpracticed, had never used a bull horn, and felt my personal resistance to the task of leading chants mounting since I lack almost all the instincts of a cheerleader. Moreover, eighteen years ago a long, severe bronchitis seems to have thinned out what yelling voice I have, much as I remember my mom's voice in her middle years made forever a small degree hoarser by laryngitis and all the accompaniment. Even a syllable attempted in a bawling voice simply scatters; it's a job for someone intensely motivated by a crowd and best of all endowed with a big voice.
     Demonstrating is a practiced skill like anything else, I see that now. I could, after all, hold and flip around the little scripts bearing the words of call-and-response while holding the speaker of the bull horn and pressing the button, even if I rebelled against the words themselves because, being as I am, I was instinctively, subconsciously rummaging for new word arrangements with no vagueness or unintended meaning like 'Tar sands oil has got to go!'--because that could be read as 'tar sands oil has got to go down the pipelines to the refineries for gosh sakes.' I kept grousing to my companion that I can't do this in various terms that I didn't like hearing out of my own mouth--what else had I come to these long-familiar streets to do? Frustration attended me down the course between police barricades with the sense that I was a terrible slacker, on display like a dummy marcher with a silent megaphone. My companion, also given a bull horn, had some qualms about how un-vocal our whole block of marchers was coming across but no inhibition about a delivery that lacked all sense of tempo much less tonal quality; to the entertainment and awe of others around us he evinced all the raw youthfulness deliverable from a geezer (his own term as he approaches 64 years of age, his boyhood voice and zests intact) along with a keen wish to witness the people united, never defeated. There were times I had to chime in with him because I could and should. When I did and we were a pair with bull horns, other voices to the sides and rear joined ours.
     'LOVE WATER, NOT OIL! Love water, not oil!' the chanting proceeded till individually and together chanters felt the words going stale. Up the line would be strains of something else. 'LOVE BICYCLES!' he began chanting, and then the response 'not oil!' would murmur. 'Love bicycles!' I chanted along with him, then changed it: 'LOVE HYBRIDS!' which remained our chant alone, no sharers. Those much younger marchers around us relished a chant leader but wanted to do chants either known to them or of their own making. We listened to them and then, through our bull horns, amplified at least one of their chants, whether someone had conjured it on the spot or not; 'Hey! Obama! It's hot out here! Hey! Obama! You talked the talk, now walk the walk! No Keystone pipeline!'
     As I listened to our disharmony at the outset and strained against my own revulsion at the wording we were supposed to incite in others' mouths I thought: we need rehearsals and orchestration...this needs to be carried off by people who have a feel for performance, better organized so the effect is maximum and elegant in the ears...  But this is for heavens' sake a people's march, I am missing the beat and everything. It's for anyone and right now. Anyone can do better than I'm doing including me.
     What if though, in a state like Minnesota, rich in big choirs thanks to the German-Scandinavian heritage which gives rise to such music, there were an endowment for a street procession, costumed and sung in harmonic parts, miked to ultimate glory, danced and be-sloganed with upheld signs and the most evocative of T-shirt art on the torsos of huge opera singers trained to the utmost limberness as they capered to the capitol or city hall--in towns all over the state, into neighboring states and provinces? What if? This could be done; we don't lack for theatrical people and composers who could collaborate for the cause of a climate that keeps us and a biosphere that functions as beautifully as ever...
     We were doing the best that we could, getting better as we went. Demonstrations are normally ad-libbed a lot; the training and preparation led by brave souls like our Patti and others of mixed generations, unflappable-seeming people with dedication worthy of as much reward as a city contractor's, at their best an attempt to place order on something that will inevitably develop as it goes, according to the inspiration that hits the different personalities caught up in it.
     I learned that demonstrations can become a habit, or avocation, in which a person's own style has value that should not be overlooked in the planning stages: don't let anyone else sign you up for a role best expressed through someone else's unique energy. Know what your own is and go prepared. Somewhere--I remember where now--I had written myself a note for a sign I could fashion that reads from my heart and soul--I just didn't think of it in time to draw it up and put it, two-sided, on a flat wooden stake so I could hold it up for all the community to sample.


Then I could have marched, even carrying my own megaphone if I wanted to invest in one, and been
a type of voice most natural to me. But there will be future marches. As more than one of the spokespeople on the state capitol steps yesterday said: we have a lot of work to do.
     The photo above was of a sign I spied at Lambert's Landing beside the Mississippi River, the gathering point for the march before it got moving, where we all felt as much disorganized and miscast as we were probably going to feel. I wished then that I had a sign like this lady's, as hers expressed the out-and-out danger facing us if we do not face down, undercut and replace or reorganize the corporate interests whose main interest appears to be doing whatever they deem most profitable in dollars even if the most valid indicators of the most basic science show it will make our only planet deadly for our very selves or our offspring.
     It would be useless in a way, then or now, to add to the list of further threats that we can't escape as a result of our overpopulation: soil depletion, mineral depletion affecting all industry and urban expansion, water depletion, the increasing strife among the desperate. The idea that nothing grows without limit besides a cancer is too grim for politicians and business modelers to include in their public statements. We are each of us coming from where we're coming from. The focus of the day, of the decade and coming ones, is climate change.
     I took up global warming or climate change as a personal threat even at ten years of age or so, on first hearing of it on a TV program, probably a National Geographic special, somewhere at the beginning of the 1970s. Because I have always loved winter and chilly windblown landscapes where snows are abundant and welcome and so are all the wild animals, I was affronted even then that we all put together could inflict fever on an earth so generous in varieties of climate, suitable for all temperaments. Now that I'm past fifty years of age and able to live year-round in what's left of the boreal region with its tamarack swamps, aurora borealis, long winter nights, porcupines, bear, moose and their main predator the wolf, I'm doing as much art as I can evoke in reverence to this realm,

Freshet from a Ghost-Marsh - original watercolor/mixed media painting about 18 x 32"

even though my watercolor/mixed media landscapes are so hard to sell. They are gloomy I suppose, to a lot of art buyers, barely if at all familiar and symbolic of the cold and unwelcome, the dank and the repressed.
     The work above suggests the real landscape's dissolution by melt; an icy lakelet is offset by the river in the rapids of ice-out, a flock of red-throated loons--which nest on Arctic shorelines--awash into the foreground. A sole wolf looks over his shoulder back beyond upheaved root systems, snags and stumps that, typically, have outlines and features of a beast or corpse, or a defunct cannon or other throwaway. From the lodging a flooded lean-to exposes its washed-out interior with an old coat billowing forth on the rivulet that took out two walls.
     This semi-forbidding, spongy and rocky community of plants and fish, birds and bugs all specialized to cold, long light and long dark with watery seepage is one of many kinds of places that will succumb, at least at the latitudes where we see it now, to a hotter climate worldwide. Being out on that land normally quickens me, the way a week-end outing does when we feel its brevity before the long work week. What shy thing might I see through there that I've never seen before? But in my soul its ragged horizons will live as long as I do, even if I'm denied the real vision of them. This is not true for many of the native inhabitants, certainly not for the Ojibwe and the Hidatsa, within Minnesota and to the north and west into Alberta, or assorted people whose lives, as they say, are the land that would be crossed by and fouled by the inevitable leaks in multiple oil and gas pipelines. The First Nations' spoken language, their names when uttered, convey a kind of foreign lyricism to my Euro-American ears that sings a bit of other ages, a lost adaptiveness and intuition and built-in rhythms that took direction from earthly behaviors, those of animals and wind and water currents, that I know a bit but not in that put-together that means everything that ever mattered since creation.
     Somehow, in ways all put together, there will need to be ongoing resistance, changes in profit base, changes in the whole economy, our diets, our modes of transit--everything we do--if we are to keep the generations of humanity alive within the land that bore more and more of our ancestors. Yesterday was one of the rare few days when I and a lot of people of so many, many different origins who convened in St. Paul could feel a sense of collective will toward making the best of the coming crisis, whatever it will look like. If you gravitate to legend, I believe there is one from our aboriginal people that says if you see a hawk or an eagle, it means you are on the right path. As everyone yesterday sat hearing the speakers on the capitol lawn, a red-tailed hawk dipped over us in spirals, then coasted away, and back. I then thought I saw it tuck itself into one of the slots on the far edge of the capitol dome, on some business or other.


Wednesday, May 6, 2015

All the Haunted, to the Farthest Edges of the Earth

It's coming to me lately that, just as older friends say and writers write, it's enough to contact the dead inside myself, where the dead live on, even if nothing happens to the departed soul otherwise except disintegration. It's enough, to think and say that the dead live on because, intact, the character of the departed person lingers in the memory of the fond survivor (me,) and acts upon the survivor by force of my innermost thought. What I see from my folding chair in a wooded swamp, of a would-be limitless profusion of tree-tips, clouds I first remember seeing, sunlit yellow, in the presence of my mom, is enough movement by way of my sight to animate what is left of her in me, and so would be my sight of her hung portrait done in pencil by an unknown friend in her community, and so would be anything seen, heard or considered that sparks my memory of her. This is the commonest kind of experience, true as long as living memory retains the soul of someone who died.

The most defining traits of the dead person's character, whatever they were, could hardly help but shape that person's influence on us after death. The yearning fantasy that follows from this admission is: do those personality traits still cohere to act in one or another dimension, even right in our world which is, after all, a forest of membranes that may admit or obstruct an unknown variety of energies, whether packaged together or free-flowing? If personality, or emotion-driven force, operates in the world freed from persons who once were living, charismatic agents, do components of those personalities still, with divine or evil intent, work within the living organisms today, traveling via the sensory rigging? I trust that in a widespread manner they do.

All the currents and cross-currents of sensory recognition, deliberate and subconscious action and all that goes on below our senses, vestigial or vanguard, adds up to a haunted world, or, moreover, a haunted universe. All who have ever exerted personal will in the world and their successors, all the intentions united or at cross purposes with each other, all the birth and dying across the fan of living species have a role in the formation of what clutters the earth. How the living and the once-living impact the whole universe is a matter, of course, open for eternal speculation. In the wild, the tightly-interwoven forces of creation and destruction might be conceived of as parallels of good and evil in the realm of our own society where good and evil bring reward, enhancement, fertility, profusion or else downfall. Enough evil in the midst of our own affairs brings retribution and ultimately collapse of society. Plague, volcanic upheaval, flood, landslide, fire and typhoon or tornado are the parallels, results of imbalances, in nature. Where human evil, shaping up as excess, is imposed long enough on nature we can expect to see cataclysm, drawn out as likely as not through many human lifetimes.

If there are ghosts of our own dead undetectable for the most part to ourselves, it is easily conceived that they linger, through necessity or vast preference, outside the dimension of time and space that we the breathing occupy, any access back to our zone being freakish or exceptional. So our lives with regard to this post-experience are at best round after round of hopeful conjecture spun off of tidbits, clues from what we witness, read or hear of. If castles, old battlefields, farms, mansions, hotels and boarding houses, theaters and more of our own construction hold the ghosts of unfulfilled persons, so must forests and wetlands hold some of the same elements--even where no one is there to conceive a vision of them.

To my imagination some of our Minnesotan and Canadian peatlands, which proliferate in this largest of northern counties, look haunted by what used to live there during eons of a more abundant and diverse wilderness. What I'm seeing may be the same aspect that persuaded long-ago First Nations people that the Windigo and other spirits of the dead, not necessarily human dead, prowled those dank places. These were cannibal and misleading presences. Tumbles of wrecked trees, victim of storm winds and shallow frosty soil, subside into fantastic formations. A traveler today, playfully looking out, occasionally longing for whoever and whatever she or he may never see again can hardly help ascribing them character. The transition happens easily as you drive along the county roads.

This mixed media painting, nearing completion as we lose the grey and taupe of the winter landscape, is a vision of the far north where trees hesitate to grow, though a few have made their stand only to topple in the winds of the Arctic Ocean, the Bering and Beaufort Seas and parallel waters a-brim with ice. Soils are shallow and root systems are as a consequence flat like the feet of geese, ducks and the featured red-throated loons being flushed down a spate that suggests rapid melt from unaccustomed balmy winds. A lone wolf, like a sole survivor, peers backward in a remembered direction. Root clusters and hulks of once-living trees wield clawed arms and horns and prongs full of either menace or makeshift opportunity. The title is Spookage - the Liquefying North. As much as it is about anything, the work is about the amassed influences of all who have gone before us, features we fear and animation that we yearn to have again, plus the beckoning beyond that life is a tangled process of reaching into.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Consolation in a View of Crumbled Left-overs

As it turns out both my parents have died in the month of March, one late in the month, one early, nine years apart. In the wake of my mom's passing on March 3rd I find myself reaching out again, the way I used to do, to the unseen beyond what I see to ask: where is she? out there? anywhere? If someone we loved with an unsurpassed depth has died it feels at the very least like an anticlimax not to know what, even though the personality may disintegrate, the individual's escaped energy has drifted into if in some degree intact. Are they somewhere else or are they a part of the whole nearby surroundings or, as some people believe, are they reduced down to an essence and recycled into someone newborn? But I find myself in no hurry to get caught up in disciplines, or organized religious teachings, in pursuit of what must be indeterminable till we die. Knowledge if there really is any on this topic would be my hope, yet it might come at a crippling price.

Old folks in the chilly latitudes have been said to die, more than at any other time, in late winter, faced with mounting hardships of the kind that prevailed in the era of fireplace heat. Now, just upon the spring solstice the whole time period we're in has the feel, not to mention the look, of an aftermath, golden snow-mashed stubble out this window replaceable in my mind's eye with an essence of all colors blending not the way mixed paint blends into a drab splotch but into something dark yet luminous, winking multi-hued, no tone quite lost, the emblem of a gentle accommodation of all strangeness. She maybe turns a little to and fro, like something hanging, with glints of color as if remembering through the rememberer. This is how she may linger in my memory for as long as I live.

So by now I am at home again in late March, the look of the land comparable with other Marches and Aprils in a soothing continuum that, in the case of so many energetic people, impels them beyond that static-seeming region in impatience and boredom. My mother was a continuum the way emotionally stable people are who have absorbed a lot of cultural history and acquaintance throughout a career followed by retirement. In her last weeks as I took care of her and enjoyed final conversations, I went out on the net or outdoors and brought bits of what I found there to distract and intrigue her however much or little possible. Through the need of movement I walked many circuits via the sidewalks, once taking a neighboring state park's trails, near her building spying a flicker browsing on a staghorn sumac still crowned with berries. The flicker was a tie with the growing season in the Midwest and Canadian border region where I'd be returning when this momentous interlude had run its course. Several evenings, as I explored the allegorical imagery of Angels in America on two DVDs, I absorbed the background for the scene in heaven, an imaginary place seeming to have nothing to do with my mom, peopled with souls that appeared to have lived nowhere near as long as she did. Heaven in the movie had stone ruins and the kind of hush that is common to high vaulted places including California redwood groves, basilicas and, frequently, halls of government. Heaven's people were faded, at complete ease and in no hurry wherever they walked. My mom by now was outspokenly impatient to die.

The sun-soft and misty portrayal of heaven followed me like a comfort down to New York City where I drove a load of inherited furnishings for Lea, my daughter, and back westward through Pennsylvania and the Lower Midwest and up the varying roads northward. The ruins tell of places both missed and yet to be seen, since I've never been to Europe or to the pueblos or like regions of America. Stone ruins affirm that not everything we've either alone or jointly effected in this world goes away but stays, upholding the grace we envisioned for it in our designing, that is itself a part of our character. Cracks, broken edges and tumbling chunks bear evidence of our limits as the world goes on, incorporating all that we were and left of our handiwork. These ruins that I drew and painted were part of what I showed my mother in her last few days, and are everyone's history; the sumac is a tree of troubled, reworked soil and the flicker signifies ever-returning opportunity.

Flicker in a Crumbling Gateway

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Heart Surgery, However it Happens

Since I've been sitting in my mom's terrace-level apartment for longer than two weeks now while she starves her sturdy old body of food and most fluids I figure I should, after all, be unsurprised at how long it takes for her process to run its course. Many, many people by my age have undertaken one or more death-watch, but this is my first.

It is at a few moments horrible; as often as not it's mundane, in the sense that we're all so equally mortal, on a par with rotting tree trunks. Even the beloved. But it's been gratifying, giving me days and days of opportunity interwoven with a long, dwindling goodbye.

We were a small family headed by mature parents, my sister and I their only two children despite their previous marriages and upheavals and re-beginnings. We thrived on our folks' loving gratitude for one another set against their memories of much less harmonious households. From my mom I feel I've received a lifetime of intentional and inadvertent gifts made most valuable by the remarks and adventures that came with and followed from them. Early in our lives we girls in our sheltered, gently disciplined, freedom-filled years must have sensed that we had a degree of family contentment, along with the trips and holidays we could always anticipate, that most of the kids we met through school were all in all lacking. We certainly had affectionate parents, especially our mom, who grew up missing affection from her mom, and so my mother's unique sweetness to this day pervades the mood of this apartment half-buried in Boston-area snow, like a burrow I have largely disappeared into. Today, again, I felt myself stepping out in the sun.

The harshest parts of this age-appropriate dying that I witness in its progress have been the dunks into bereavement coming after little respites ever since before mid-February when I arrived from Minnesota. It's up till now been as if she keeps dying only to reawaken when I come to greet her next hour at her bedside. My mom chose this destiny months, or even years, before turning 90 because the recommended surgical reconstruction of her heart's main valve would have meant an uncertain recovery, possible death in the operating or recovery room, long and likely incomplete rehabilitation with a short future of narrowed scope afterward not to mention major expense to the family. There was too much risk for too little reward. When she told me her decision in the beginning of winter she said, "I've done everything I want to do." She denied that she had been depressed, instead summing up her recent years and months as a period of contentment. Somewhere in the late fall of last year she wrote the following to share with her community of well-educated retirees many of whom continue to enjoy lives of privilege:


Have you ever noticed how often your days are governed by your  decisions?  Simple choices, such as when you will get up to start the day, activities in which you will participate, or whom you will join for evening dinner?  Gone are the days when we were governed by job or family obligations!  Now we organize our time by which day of the week it is, what times we are due for appointments, for participation in club activities to which we are committed, or for time alone to watch favorite television programs or read interesting books.  Or, if we don’t want to do anything at all, just sit and ruminate, we can do that, too.  We are free agents.

We do, however, have one more obligation, should we decide to accept it.  We need to decide how we want to end our days -- a gloomy subject to contemplate, perhaps, but that’s where we are in life.  We’ve fulfilled our family obligations (or not, depending on the circumstances); we’ve made our financial decisions; now we look to an abbreviated future.  And this is when one item rears its insistent head:  how willing are we to die?  Call it what you will -- meeting your end; going the way of all flesh; passing away -- the fact remains that sooner or later all life ends.  Energy flags.  When a life begins, it will one day end.

So, the question remains:  How willing are we for our lives to end?  If the idea is abhorrent, then we will go to all available means to prevent or extend our lives.  No medical treatment is too extreme; no daily routine too fatiguing; no diet too restrictive.  If, however,  whatever is is, then we become more philosophical. We accept our diminished energy; we perform as best we can the duties and/or activities to which we are committed; and we carry on.  No hard feelings; no extreme life-prolonging measures.  Just acceptance.  So be it. 
by Ruth Katherine Beyer

By now she's lingered in her bed several intervals beyond what everyone expected. As I seize my daily chances to hustle outside for an hour or two I rehearse, again, dwelling in the knowledge that my mom is history, only a living presence I carry inside me, not a live person any more whom I can talk to. Unlike many survivors I've been given a chance to rehearse, since the likelihood has till now remained that I would go back into her apartment to share yet another conversation, if brief and repetitive. I walk in a madcap swinging manner in lug sole boots between the walls of snow and remember the character Prior Walter in the epic movie Angels in America which I was last week watching piecemeal each evening to my mom's amusement (she was no longer able to fix her attention on a movie whether she lay in bed or sat up to see the monitor.) Prior had climbed the flaming ladder to a godless heaven in order to confront death and plead for more life even in the face of all the suffering known in the 20th century and during the AIDS epidemic, to which he had fallen victim. He says of life that for him it's never enough; he can only, despite everything, want more of it. So, looking on the death that's most painful of any yet for me to behold, and most ever feared, do I.

This particular day I am watching her leave our realm of awareness; the nurse said the inevitable transition was coming soon.

To switch to another dramatic comparison, she reminds me of Sayward Luckett, the pioneer matriarch in Conrad Richter's novel The Town, unable to die yet even though she is days beyond being able to see or speak or gesture. She is a huge leftover tree from a virgin forest in territory that's been in her lifetime mapped and named Ohio, but is lying down, breathing, taking no sustenance. Her story was set before the American Civil War. My mom's is now, with upset of our climate set in motion. Live roots of her are tugging and snapping loose in my heart, and that's the heart-ache that's set me wandering between doorways of her apartment as my sister and I keep the vigil with our mom's prescribed morphine and Ativan. Where a root pops free of my own live nerve endings, I console myself--having prayed as I'm skeptically not given to doing--a replacement petrified root will fill the empty socket, because there's no way so long as I live but that she will linger in her own established place in my heart. Devout people are correct: praying softens grief. Something nebulous comes to fill a void and then we merge into hugeness, where we find ourselves adrift but easier in ourselves.

The gifts borne to me via the energy currents of my mom have kept coming through life and through the approach of death. Conrad Richter's trilogy in paperback, The Trees, The Fields, The Town itself was a physical gift that lives on a shelf in Minnesota--I don't recall the year she gave it to me. Since I've come to Massachusetts to see her along I've reveled in the gift of time, to expand a website and set up a marketing newsletter in email, to learn to use this Apple computer for my various purposes that are beyond the uses she had for it. I've sat here by the big window that by comic accident lost its curtain rod and drapes, exposing sky and treetops and neighboring rooftops to my mom's wandering eyes in a way that was quickly a blessing for her, and begun on my third miniature watercolor in just two weeks.

Sometimes now I am for a few seconds afraid that I'll never get over this sorrow, it's so deep and chaptered back into childhood, but after all I'm still sitting here with Ruth, my mother, who hasn't died yet. She has that matriarchal body, with a hardihood that I'm sure she's passed to me. Out these walls I know of infinite unfolding stories that would shrink our particulars all to drops of water. This newest miniature watercolor she saw and enjoyed in the developing; it was a natural piece of work given what the wide window shows of Massachusetts snowpack and what the bed shows of a woman's body shrinking ever deeper into slumber. The birds are a reminder of what has kept making people want to come back.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Riding Eastward to Peer through Death's Door

This is the event that I feared since little girlhood, and this is the train that's taking me there to help, I guess, to see it through. My mother aged ninety years has given up eating; all of us old and younger girls are trading shifts in her apartment where she clings to her intention of 'letting nature take its course.'

A drama of hearts has been roiling, quieting and welling up again all these past two weeks or longer. The train is retracing the courses of so many historical passages, certainly my own, and inevitably more and more whose evidence keeps receding into the ground with ever more accruing human occupation. Everywhere are ruins or defunct things drawing my eyes to them, such as the ornately chiseled end of a stone bridge like something from centuries ago in Italy, tipped on the rim of a ravine. The territory reaching ever eastward could be the surface of a brain bringing back to mind where we have been on one occasion or another. The wheels on the track make a pulse beat; the conductor's horn far ahead is now and again muted unto likeness with a cello, or split into a medley of horns, symphonic, a rudimentary musical theme for the day's travel. We are trailing that undertone, like a far-carrying orchestral tuning-up, across the spreading breadth of the upper Mississippi River Valley.


Sunday, February 8, 2015

Not Weeds, but a Whole Neighborhood

Even along the remote highways edging Sax Zim Bog this low-snow February, even yesterday traveling Hwy. 61 toward Grand Marais on a professional errand I've been seeing mowing in process or strips of mowed stubble. Workers are taking out tree seedlings with anything else standing. There's no snow to impede mowers or obscure the temptation to get out, rev up those idle motors and do some good with them, tidy up those overgrown ditches. It's not all meant for keeping a clear passageway below power lines since so many of the swaths don't follow those lines. Nor do they necessarily trace along the shoulder of the road. Where the country is wide open, why not have a screen of saplings along the ditch to stop snow drifting over the road? I suspect this is a local or county-level version of busy work if it's not just private landowners following their preoccupations. It seems especially likely given the urge of so many, many small or large homeowners to keep a neatly mowed yard, people of every description driving a little tractor or taking their exercise behind a push mower. People who work in the realm of road maintenance, much like house cleaning, are trained to impose neatness on whatever shows a ragged edge, certainly on a wild plant community. In another observer's words on this subject, the ancestors of so many Americans were conditioned by the adage that cleanliness (order) is next to godliness, which accounts for the insistence on trimmed lawns even at the expense of so much fuel, air pollution and expensive machinery.

In the middle of last week I attended the monthly meeting of the Arrowhead Chapter of Wild Ones,  whose mission is "To educate and to share information on the benefits of preserving and landscaping with native plants in order to promote biodiversity, environmentally sound practices, and a sense of place..." per their web page. These are people who, bit by bit or all in one swoop, have lost that notion that what's outdoors is invariably, more or less, a threat unless properly and traditionally managed. I wonder what it would take for them to become a majority among suburbanites.

The presentation was a DVD of a lecture by Douglas W. Tallamy on the unsung value of sowing  any acreage at all that's taken up by lawn instead with trees, shrubs and soft-stemmed plants native to that region of our continent. Dr. Tallamy is Professor and Chair of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware in Newark, Delaware. His manner as a presenter was warm and witty; in his thinking he accommodates the basic drive in people to spread themselves out over a landscape. Early in his lecture he demonstrated the vital usefulness of 'corridors' connecting our specks of remaining pristine wild land--and specks they are if you consider the breadth of wilderness that once took up our common space. The corridors are best seen not as belts for winged and legged movement from grove to grove, with the groves necessarily the hubs of all feeding and breeding, but as narrower inter-joining stretches of habitat in their own right.

In his article titled 'Gardening for Life', published in volume 22 of the Wild Ones Journal, Doug Tallamy reminds us that population in the United States is closing in on 306 million, which would be a doubling within my own lifetime (I'm in my mid-fifties) and that the U.S. population keeps growing by 8,046 per day. As a consequence we have four million miles of roads and an estimated forty million acres planted with lawn, which is monoculture, a surface cultivated merely as a porous outdoor flooring for ourselves and a few pet warm-blooded animals. Our human growth as yet has no end in sight, and probably won't till physical limits bump into us in ways that we would rather not examine.

What woods and prairie patches we have left in the eastern and central sections of the country are to a huge extent overrun with trees and flowers that got there via horticulture, the plant nurseries and the public they serve. Examples he gives of alien trees, shrubs or vines, especially familiar to me, include multiflora rose, autumn olive and Japanese honeysuckle. In our suburban expansion we have favored exotic trees and flowers at the expense of what grew here all along. In transforming the landscape to serve ourselves we've--per Dr. Tallamy--"taken ninety-five percent of nature and made it unnatural."

He runs through an accounting of glorious native birds, cherished by a growing sector of our population that pursues birds for enjoyment or maintains feeders. The birds of forest and pasture are declining at rates that suggest room for despair on the part of folk who remember their relative abundance from as recently as the 1960s and '70s. Besides that we harvest whole forest sectors, oil fields and grasslands leaving pavement or rubble behind, we've been taking away a broad range of food from these birds as we select exotic trees or bushes for our outdoor perimeters, if we even bother to plant trees and bushes for ornamentation on the wastelands that are our lawns, by contrast with supportive habitat.

Here is where the quietly exuberant mission of Wild Ones, the various Audubon societies and local native plant societies and bird clubs fits into the picture. For survival's sake we have to remember that we need biodiversity, the diversity of living species, as our own life support not to mention that of our fellow-creatures. We need oxygen that the plants transpire. We need the clean water that their roots filter and their decayed living matter harbors in the form of river and lake beds. We also need topsoil borne of more of that decayed matter, and we need pollination, all services of nature--we need the intricacy of the whole life-support system we have been taking apart on this American continent. And so those of us with a will to help put it back together may as well change our clothes as befits the moment; we have a lot we can be doing to make our surroundings increasingly lively again. For all the variety we will be re-creating in our spaces, it has to fit the region in terms of local climate and soils. Help is out there in the form of native plant nurseries somewhere in your area. And, says Dr. Tallamy, if you replace the native shrubs, trees, grasses and herbs, the insect species that service them and the birds that devour those insects and larva will--as long as we haven't yet driven them to extinction--come back pretty quickly, as if to a banquet.

He attributes the trend within the past couple or more generations to landscape using exotic plants as a measure to starve insects that people had lumped together in their minds as a menace. The imported Eurasian trees, shrubs and flowers have been largely free of insect infestation because they did not evolve here to host the various insects that our own plants do. And if we do not have to sit by the window or on the deck or patio and look at insects or at the leaves they've been damaging then we are somehow...more comfortable? Everything seems more under our own control, our living room extended to the outside of our homes. And of course, many of us have said, the farmers are safer from the insect pests that we would otherwise be helping breed if we just 'let things go.'

His article hastens to explain the relationship between insects and plants in terms of specifics: eons of coexistence between whole families of plants and neighboring insects has allowed those insects the benefit of being able to eat and digest those plants, and only those plants. When the plant hosts are in their prime, so are the insects that eat and lay their eggs on them, right before our fretful eyes. But the native plants supporting the native insects will in turn invite a stream of native insect predators, many of them our diminishing American birds. Quoting from the article: "one bluebird pair brings up to three hundred caterpillars back to their nest every day. You will be hard pressed to find any caterpillars in your yard if you create habitat for breeding birds." It seems we had forgotten about the web of nature; the phrasing just somehow turned into a nerdy cliche, maybe left over from science class or an organized nature hike, for lack of living examples out the windows of too many of our homes.

When I lived in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area I gardened with native prairie plants with great enthusiasm since I still missed the countryside of my secure childhood and of week-ends and holidays. At one point in the suburb of Blaine, which has a lot of light sandy soil, we had three long and billowing plantations, each on one side of our double-wide manufactured home. Even though we were surrounded by Interstate 35W, a state highway and huge parching or mud-slick barrens of trailer park lawn with a ball field, a few planted acacia trees (exotics) and native silver maples, we began attracting migrant birds to the yard that would otherwise have flown over: I remember blackpoll, Nashville, yellow-rumped and Tennessee warblers and a singing Lincoln's sparrow in spring or fall as these functional gardens came into their own. When we moved out I moved with me as many of my favorite prairie plants' rootstocks as I could dig up and transfer in plastic bags. But I never saw them flourish again wherever I was able to relocate them in the city. Could any of them survive to this day, I sometimes wonder, but it's doubtful.

Now I'm blessed to live in this depopulated farming area well to the north, with its high water table assuring plenty of swamp habitat where nobody ever yet did much commercial agriculture. We still have forestland of native firs and spruce, cedar, tamarack and birch, maple, ash, chokecherry, juneberry, poplar and some oak and basswood. We have lesser-known native trees like the nannyberry, and native shrubs like the alder buckthorn and chokeberry. We have a reduced breeding population of warblers, vireos and sparrows in the nesting season. But even among these vestiges of the old wilderness bygone land-holders have introduced herbs from their own far-flung flower beds: common valerian, for example, from roadsides to secluded forest openings and, to my surprise last summer, a sunflower cultivar called Garden Golden Glow, fat and decoratively showy as a rubber flower on a swimmer's bathing cap, over where some Euro-American ancestor or other appeared to have started an apple orchard now gone to weeds. (I call weeds anything growing in once-disturbed soil by accident or happen-so.) Along one forest-lined wild river I should not have been surprised when I discovered the invasive glossy buckthorn above a fishing spot.

For nearly twenty years I've kept painting native plants and landscapes, sometimes with a naturalized alien brought in because it seemed it had developed a profile of its own if only in my sight.

Note Card 4 1/4 x 5 1/2" "Startlement: Harris' Sparrow on an October Shore" features red pine, aspen, birch and a ground cover called Hudsonia--beach heather--found on sparse soils all the way north to the tundra.

               "Bluestems in the Autumn" original watercolor includes big bluestem, Indian grass and bush clover at season's end - card or print available by inquiry

As we fill up and commoditize ever more of our common land, the wildscapes of interdependent plants, insects, birds, reptiles and mammals of North America deserve all the promoting they can get, in art form, in seed stock and as places to go home to. They can be revived right out our windows, even in an inner-ring suburb or downtown where the pavement breaks off.