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An Occasional Word

This is my Meadow

This is my meadow. It's only a beginning meadow. At first glance you might think it looks kind of ratty. But my front yard grows an astonishing number of plants. Dandelion of course, and clover, but also yarrow, plantain, sedum, hawkweed, fleabane, evening primrose, and yellow wood sorrel. Those are only the plants whose names I've learned over the last few years of observation. There are countless mosses and plants I don't yet know. All of these are deemed by gardening websites as weeds worthy only of chemical destruction. But the bees forage happily in their flowers, and I'm fascinated by their variety.


When I bought this house in 2010, the front yard was moss and spindly grass. In the back yard were two oak trees and a handful of hostas arranged in straight lines around the deck, tucked in with that godawful red-dyed wood chip mulch. Grass didn't grow well in the shade from the oaks and the neighbor's house. It was alternately blistering hot or mildewed. It conformed to common notions of what a yard should look like, but the overall effect was of impoverishment.


Over the years I've observed and experimented. I pulled out the hostas and banished red mulch. I unsuccessfully tried to grow vegetables—too shady. I've learned to plant understory trees and shade-loving perennials. I've gotten interested in native species and building habitat for insects and birds. And little by little the plant life and insect and bird life in my yard has grown.


I didn't realize how much until a few years ago, when I had occasion to rent out my little house and live for the school year in housing provided by a teaching gig. My temporary quarters were in a grand old Victorian house, owned by summer people, and cared for all year by a dude who didn't give a rat's ass. He lived upstairs and in winter ringed the house with cigarette butts he tossed out of the upstairs windows. He mowed the yard and raked the leaves and sometimes shoveled snow. But nothing else was planted or tended. The yard was large and grassy but felt sterile. Then I moved back home. I opened the back door to the yard and a bug hit me smack in the face. Pure joy. I was back among the neighbors I love best: other living things.


The more I learn, the more I see yards differently.


Check this out: Doug Tallamy, an entomologist at the University of Delaware and author of Bringing Nature Home (a cool book), studies the relationship between native plants and native wildlife. In one study of suburban homes (https://www1.udel.edu/udaily/2011/oct/native-plants-lawns100410.html ) he found that most homeowners devote 92 percent of their landscapeable area to grass lawn. About 78 percent of plants in yards are alien species—which means that native insects and wildlife cannot feed on them. He says: "The typical yard is a barren landscape that isn't part of the food web…Native plants are necessary to provide food and habitats for local wildlife."


Habitat loss is the biggest factor behind species loss, and we are dead in the middle of the Earth's sixth mass species extinction (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jul/10/earths-sixth-mass-extinction-event-already-underway-scientists-warn). The loss of pollinators is particularly worrisome—that has a direct impact on plants and food. Many people are familiar with the plight of the Monarch butterfly—its numbers down a staggering 96.5 percent as of 2014 (https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/extinction-countdown/monarch-butterflies-could-gain-endangered-species-protection/ ) , largely due to the loss of its food source: the milkweed. The Monarch is beautiful and easy to recognize and love; what about the unknown millions of other pollinators?


Put these two ideas together: 1) we are losing species and 2) our yards don't feed local wildlife and suddenly the typical yard or church lot looks scalped and barren to me. Isn't it kind of funny that we think a mowed yard looks cared for?


This spring was unusually rainy and cold. There wasn't much for pollinators to feed on for a long, long time. In May a local beekeeper told me his bees were not increasing in numbers, as they usually do in preparation for a season of flowers. I found a few dead bumblebees in my garden—maybe just old, but maybe exhausted or starved. It seemed the perfect year to let the wildflowers bloom unmolested in my yard for a while.


I confess I felt a bit insecure at first. The yard looks shaggy. But one of the benefits of living in a modest neighborhood is that there's a greater range of aesthetics than in an upscale subdivision. I like my neighbors but my need for neighborly approval is only episodic—and if they mind they aren't telling me to my face. So I'm letting it all hang out. I'm gradually learning more about the plants in my meadow. It's a mix of native and alien species. The clover is likely European. So is the plantain, but it's been here so long it could be considered naturalized and the bees do visit it. Hawkweed is complicated—there are both native and non-native species and I have to figure out what I have. There's more than one kind of fleabane, too. Thinking I'd like to introduce more native flowers into the mix, I realize my meadow is here to stay.


The word "meadow" conjures up beauty for me. A place of abundant grasses. Where people picnic in the flowers. Where creatures of all kinds conduct their courtships. Where Clara drags herself out of her wheelchair and walks on Heidi's mountain. A place of magic and love. My little meadow isn't a prize-winner but it has its charms. I don't have to mow. When it rains the moss glows a vibrant green. The plants go through their life cycles: leaves to flowers to seeds. The tiny native bees and bumblebees are busy at their work. All I have to do is walk outside. It's a kind of paradise, watching small animals forge their lives.

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Cardboard Boat


Yesterday I wrote without writing. I did actually start to draft a poem. But then I went across town for an appointment. I came back home and planted a few flowers, for spots of color in the yard. I printed out a draft essay and taped it on the wall and looked at it. It needs something. What questions wasn't I asking myself? I painted my front door while listening to Krista Tippett (On Being podcast) interview the poet Jericho Brown. They reminded me of the importance of giving one's entire being to one's work. I listened twice.


Then a man came to look at all of the white oak seedlings that are sprouting in my yard. Last year was a mast year for my white oak. She is about my age and lives in my back yard. There are other white oaks all around—next door, and one in my front yard, too. But the one in the back yard really makes successful acorns. The ground is truly carpeted in new seedlings. I had read in Peter Wohlleben's The Hidden Life of Trees that a mother tree will participate in the "upbringing" of its seedlings, and I was curious to see which seedlings would thrive. I wanted to just watch and see what happened. (He also writes that "it is usually the particularly battered individuals that burst into bloom." The arborist tells me this white oak is fine, but I'm keeping an eye on her.) But the sheer numbers of the seedlings requires some other response.


I started to ask around: does anyone need white oak seedlings? Why yes, said a grower at the farmer's market; white oak is hard to find. Yesterday he came by to take a look. Crazy, he said. You probably have two or three thousand, he said. And he can plant them.


So in the evening I began to dig up seedlings. I dug them out of a flower bed, about 3 feet by 2 feet, in which they were bumping elbows with a bunch of other plants. And then I tackled the border area of another bed, about one foot wide for a curving four feet. I wrapped the baby trees in wet newspaper in bundles of ten. Over 140 seedlings are packed up in buckets, waiting for their new lives in another place. And I have barely begun.


But here's the thing. It takes some doing, to carefully loosen the soil and go deep enough to free the seedlings without damaging their long roots. Each one is unique; each has a different shape, a different set of angles and long reaches. The tip of the root might be an impossibly slender tip, or it might be a small cloud of tiny capillary-like fingers. Many still are attached to the knob of nutrients that is the meat of the acorn. Most have three or four leaves. Some have two stems rising up into the light. Some stems have jutted sideways out of the acorn, then turned 45 degrees to grow up. Lifting each young tree out of its soil, I saw how it found its own route, its individual shape as it sprouted and reached out for light and for water. Each one was miraculous. 


When I finally went to bed, tired, deeply affected, I closed my eyes and saw seedlings. It felt strange to be closed up in a house when outside, a few yards away, there was so much surging, so much life beginning. The house seemed like a little cardboard boat riding on the surface of an earth that is fully alive. What other miracles are out there, just waiting for me to take a closer look?



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When Other Means Fail...

I know many of you, like me, have been following the unfolding of the Flint, Michigan water debacle with a growing sense of horror. How could the public trust be so flagrantly and continuously betrayed? And the news keeps coming.

It's hard to feel that we citizens have any power at all. But we have our voices. And at times like this, poetry helps me to distill my thoughts.

I was struck by the story of people confronting Michigan Governor Rick Snyder in an Ann Arbor restaurant by shouting, "How's your water? Is it clean?" I was equally struck by the reported silence of others in the restaurant. That silence, it seems to me, is not an emptiness, but something very, very full. There are also the dismissive phrases written by state government staffers: “Apparently it’s going to be a thing now,” and the label "anti-everything."

So here is my poem.


how’s your water governor
is it clean does it clear

your clouded mind we see
you’re a little shy of the questions

and the cameras and Congress
and the city of Flint and

we’re wondering if you’re
okay maybe someone’s told you

if you close your eyes it’s only
a game there’s nobody there but

friends or fellow beneficiaries
or you think you’re the one

who’s invisible drawing a magic
cloak over yourself and ballots

and budget bills and pipelines
and lab samples hide-and-seek

from subpoenas maybe that’s
the game but this isn’t just

a matter of solving a problem
with the pipes governor no it runs

deeper we wonder what you’ve been
drinking to acquire this special

blindness all the people and kids
the brown water the tufts of hair

this noise all the anti-everything
is just us governor who drink water

trying to get your attention
governor trying to shake you

out of this bad bad dream
and another thing this silence

is not nothing that’s people too
listening you’ve got our

attention and yes apparently
this is going to be a thing

governor until you open
your eyes and see us

clear as water

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Wonder and Association

In May, I went to visit my mother for Mothers’ Day. My mom is a pistol. Thank God. When I stumble downstairs in the morning, she’s sitting at the kitchen table, all coffee-ed up, hard at work on the crossword puzzle.

“She’s out in the garage,” she says.
“The cat. Sleep OK?” she asks.  Read More 
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Tension, Release. Ahhh. Good Poem

Tension has a bad rap. We have multiple strategies for dissipating tension in our lives. But in art—and maybe in everything else—tension makes things interesting. Who wants to watch a movie with a predictable ending? Tension keeps us awake, involved.  Read More 
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Let a Line Love You

I say if a line in a poem wants to love you, let it. Let it reach out and grab ya’, as Steve Miller might say. Let it soak in and let tears from nowhere seep out. It doesn’t matter if you don’t “get” the rest of the poem.

Maybe someday you will.  Read More 
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Introduction: Finding and Reading Contemporary Poetry

We need a blog, says my dear friend Martha, about how to find good contemporary poetry. If you like poetry, as she does, how do you find out about new poets? How do you find poetry you will enjoy? Read More 
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