I met James White when I stayed for a month in an apartment in Loja, Ecuador, where he lives. We shared a courtyard and many conversations about politics, food, wine, and Ecuador. He also shared with me his washing machine, for which I was grateful. A native Texan with a big heart, he describes himself as a “witty and sarcastic left wing socialist,” and that’s a pretty accurate portrait! He spent 35 years in the wine business and knows his wine stuff. Because James is a true dog lover, I thought it would be great for him to read this poem.
I’ve known Susan Medill Barton for thirty years. I met her through her daughter, Jen, my high school pal. Over the years, Susan has taught me lots about what’s lovely in life, from witty conversation to sardines with Tabasco on crackers to champagne before noon. I’ve always admired her taste and elegance, but also her curiosity about the world, her passion for learning both the practical and eclectic (when I was in high school, she took Latin with my peers), and her sense of humor (I asked Susan how she wanted to be described here, and she said, “I’m an old lady who likes figs"). A gardener and loyal supporter of the arts, she always seems game for something creative, so I thought she’d be a great person to read a poem. She chose what I consider the most challenging poem to read aloud in the book, and like so many things she does, she accomplishes it with enviable aplomb. Susan lives in Janesville, Wisconsin with her dashing husband, Larry.
If you’d like to know more about the odd relationship between figs and wasps, you can check out information here. As Susan puts it: “There is a certain satisfaction in crunching a wasp.”
I met Jim and Jeff Hagan when Jeff sent me a note with a picture of the Madison Skyway Drive-In Theater. He’d grown up in Madison, and his brother Jim had passed the poem along via their family listserv. Since Jim and Jeff are two of fourteen siblings, that pretty much doubled my existing readership. I was giving a reading that day at Brews + Prose in Cleveland, and they came. I found out they’re both really smart, funny guys, which makes sense because their father was a comic. (He was also an Ohio politician. You can read more about Robert Hagan here.) I’m so glad to have met them! Quite lucky to have this pair of brothers take part in my project and let me share their voices.
Jim Hagan once won the William Redding Poetry Prize awarded by Larry's Tavern in Columbus Ohio, a long running venue for local poets. He has had poems and essays published in The Plain Dealer, Penguin Review, Ploughshares, and Heartlands: A Magazine of Midwest Art and Writing.
Jeff Hagan is a writer and editor who grew up in Madison, Ohio and, with his next-oldest-sister, inappropriately accompanied an older brother and his date to see Goodbye, Columbus at a very early age at the Madison Skyway. He told me, “When (Jim) sent the Skyway poem to our family listserv it reached me pretty quickly, having traipsed in the same ruins (though I was also looking for something additional—my own memory).”
Laurie Kincer is a librarian at Cuyahoga County Public Library who works on their author events team and coordinates the William N. Skirball Writers' Center at the South Euclid-Lyndhurst Branch. The Writers' Center, which opened in 2015, is a welcoming space for writers in northern Ohio. It offers free writing programs, private writing rooms, books and magazines for writers, laptop computers, and a light-filled area with comfortable furniture and a fireplace. Laurie holds an MLIS from Kent State University and an MA in literature from Case Western Reserve University. She grew up in the small town of Vermilion, Ohio, whose seagulls, playgrounds, and parades were aptly captured in these poems.
I met Laurie this past summer at the South Euclid-Lyndhurst Library when she was recording Cleveland-area poets reading for an archive project designed by poet Dave Lucas, who is serving as the library's inaugural William N. Skirball Writers' Center writer-in-residence. The recording studio was warm and close, but we had fun. She has all the qualities we love in a librarian—smarts, humor, friendliness, enthusiasm, and an open mind.
When I asked Laurie if she’d be interested in recording some poems for People Who Aren’t Me Reading My Poetry, she chose these three and provided this video of gulls in Vermilion, Ohio, which I think captures well what I was trying to get at in the poem.
Her recordings of these poems were made in the recording studio at the library, which patrons can reserve for their use.
Video by Laurie Kincer. Photos by author.
Lisa Martinez is a Washington, D.C. area E-RYT 200 certified yoga instructor and mother of six boys. From 2005-2008, she lived in Mumbai, India with her family, and upon returning to the United States, she earned her credentials and began teaching yoga. You can read more of her moving story about embracing yoga to help her heal after the death of her fourth son here on her website. You can also check out some other amazing videos of Lisa on her Instagram account: strongyogamama, including this one of her and her dog Georgie. I admire her physical and personal strength and the joy and energy she dedicates to her work, family, faith, and fun. Often, when I see Lisa in a post on social media, she’s upside down.
Lisa and I first met when we were cheerleaders for different local schools in the eighth grade. In high school together, we tried out for the squad. Lisa injured herself during the tryouts and didn’t make the cut. I didn’t make the cut either, but because I wasn’t very good (“flaccid roundoffs”). Neither of us tried again, because, as Lisa says, “it was destiny.” When I asked her if she would read this poem, I jokingly suggested she could read it while upside down. As you can see, Lisa likes a challenge.
Photographs by Tyrell Heaton. See more of his work here.
Garrett Sohnly was born in Sylvania, Ohio. He is a sophomore interior design major at Columbus College of Art and Design who switched from fashion and fine arts. He typically fabricates in furniture, sculpture, painting, illustration, and costume; which he would like to move into a more commercially designed scale. He may also be a coffee addict, but still goes to bed at 9.
Garrett and I have actually never met in person, but I heard about him from my friend Josh Butts, who taught Garrett in a writing course at Columbus College of Art and Design, where they read my book. I reached out to Garrett, and he delighted me with this recording and his artwork. I thought these paintings fit well with the mood of the poem. Look for another poem read by Garrett and more of his artwork in a future post.
Howard Fencl is vice president for crisis communications firm Hennes Communications in Cleveland, Ohio, where he can watch peregrine falcons from his Tower City office. Over the last three decades, he’s been everything from assistant news director at WKYC-TV to president of one of the first internet service providers in Northeast Ohio to director of communications for The New Cleveland Campaign to guitarist and songwriter for the band Boho Zen. He has asked Mohammed Ali what it was like to meet the Beatles and interviewed the guy who watched over Ted William’s frozen, decapitated head. Howard always has something up his sleeve (though not doves—yet). He speaks Russian, can whip up an imitation Mounds bar, knows what beer to drink with a steamed bun, and rules his front porch with his wife and high-school sweetheart, Sue. It seems fitting to me that Howard chose to read this particular poem, considering what he does and what he’s done.
Mary Ostergren is a high school sophomore in St. Paul, Minnesota. I’ve known her since the day my sister gave birth to her. When Mary was a little kid, her puppet-crazed auntie (me) gave her a cow puppet. Then Mary gave me a cow puppet. So we have matching cow puppets. Hers is Daisy. Mine is Butterfat. A number of years ago, my former student Jarrad asked me to give him a writing assignment. I told him to write a sonnet, and I would, too. I looked around the house for something to write a sonnet about, and I found Butterfat. I can’t express how proud I am of my niece, who, in addition to having a great voice, is a reader of challenging books, a hiker of trails, a connoisseur of both dresses and ice cream, an incredibly fast runner, a wrestler of complex ideas, and a fun person to have around, among many other things. We recorded her in our kitchen.
Lashanna Lawler is an artist, poet, actress, portrait model and photographer. She received her B.A. in English Literature and Theater Studies with a concentration in Film Studies from Swarthmore College. She has studied painting and drawing at Fleisher Art Memorial in Philadelphia, The Art Students League in New York City and The Cleveland Museum of Art. She is an avid gardener who enjoys practicing her craft in her home studio and on location. She lives and works in Cleveland, OH.
I met Lashanna Lawler when she stopped by my table at Loganberry Books’ Author Alley during the Larchmere Festival in Shaker Heights this summer. She struck me as someone with a powerful creative spirit, and I’m thrilled to have her as the inaugural reader in my People Who Aren’t Me Reading My Poetry Project. Enjoy her interpretation and the image she shared—a detail from her painting "Feathers." My husband, Cris, recorded her reading over the phone.
Read more about "Killing Songbirds the Compassionate Way" in this review of Local Extinctions by Heather Lang in The Volta Blog.
I do my most creative thinking in the shower (though not necessarily my most productive, since many ideas dry up after toweling off). Something about water on my head sets off sparks. Quite a few showers ago, back in May, I had an idea: what if I gathered recordings of other people—people who aren’t me—reading poems from my new book, Local Extinctions? I’m not sure why this particular idea soaked into my brain, but it did.
Sometimes after a reading, people tell me how important they think it is to hear poetry read by the author. It’s nice, that’s true, but as the author, I’m interested in how the work resonates with the audience. I’ve not a big fan of the sound of my own voice. I don’t mean that I don’t like talking; I just don’t love the way my voice clanks along when I hear it on a recording. But the world is blessed with wonderful voices—melodious and nuanced and evocative and full of character. What would it be like to hear those voices read my words?
I’m hoping this project will excite connections between people and poems, or more broadly, people and words. When you read a poem you enjoy, the words shift how you see something. In these days of easy words with tenuous meaning, poetry may remind us that language has power, both good and bad, and builds or breaks our relationships with one another. There is enough breaking out there; I’d rather build.
Thank you to the friends, family, and former strangers (now collaborators) who also thought this project would be fun and who put time and breath into it. I haven’t set out to create professional recordings in a studio (though some may be), so many of these voices will be as you’d hear them over a phone or from a computer mic or in a kitchen, which just adds layers to the experience of listening. There will also be multiple versions of poems, so you can hear what they sound like on different people.
Coming soon—the first readers!
In March of 2015 and 2016, I visited Macheros, a tiny town on the edge of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Mexico, and went up the mountain of Cerro Pelon to see the wintering colonies of monarchs. This year, on March 8, only two days after I visited, a snowstorm hit, damaging many of the trees on the mountains and killing over 6 million butterflies. News reports out this week say that over 7% of the migrating monarch population was lost, hitting hard an already suffering species. The phenomenon of the monarch butterfly migration is in danger, perhaps even peril. I could say I started my summer science project as an antidote to the sadness I felt at this loss, and it has been that. But really, the project came about by accident.
My husband and I were working on a back-breaking project involving a sledgehammer, crowbars, and a slab of concrete that was once the foundation for what was probably a milking parlor on the barn. It had been an unsightly patch of weeds and saplings growing through broken cement, looking like an abandoned parking lot. With just some hard work, one chunk at a time, we would be rid of it. As I pried up a slab to haul to the truck for carrying away, I noticed a monarch drifting over the yard. I dropped my crowbar and chased it down. A female, and in the overgrown lawn she was landing on little starts of milkweed I hadn’t even known were there. The summer before, I’d raised two caterpillars I’d found and released them as butterflies. But I hadn’t found any caterpillars this year—had barely seen any butterflies at all.
Looking carefully at the underside of one the young milkweed leaves, I noticed a pale yellow dot. An egg! I hadn’t known exactly what they looked like before, since they’re smaller than a pin head and my eyes aren’t so good, rendering anything that small into a vague blur. But having just seen the female touch her abdomen to the leaf, I was certain this is what it was. Soon I’d found another, and another, and another. I collected all I discovered and put them in an old fish tank with a screen on top. The next day, another monarch came around, and I picked more leaves with eggs. I bought a big plastic tub to put the second batch in.
About four days later, they started hatching into what my eyes saw as slightly larger blurs. I purchased some close-up filters for my camera so I could take pictures and zoom in to see the little guys. As they grew and grew, nibbling on milkweed and making it into piles of caterpillar poop (which is called frass, for some reason), I realized things were getting complicated, with hungry caterpillars converting milkweed into stripped stems and frass I needed to clean up. The fish tank and plastic tub seemed perhaps a bit inadequate for the growing bunch. I invested in a couple of mesh butterfly enclosures. Now, about two weeks and many stalks of milkweed later, I have very visible caterpillars who are transforming, gracefully, into chrysalises. In total, if I’m lucky, I may have around fifty by the time this science project completes itself.
Caterpillars raised by hand have a significantly better chance of surviving to butterfly-hood than those fighting it out in the wild. I’m hoping most of mine will be healthy and find their way to Mexico. But I’ll have no way of knowing their destiny or what dent they’ll put in repairing March’s damage.
An egg is a small thing. Had I not seen the monarch visit the young milkweed plants, I would’ve mowed that stretch of grass without knowing what waited in it; I would've destroyed the eggs. A phenomenon is a big thing made up of small things that demand notice but are difficult to see. I can’t help but wonder what I am missing.
(If you are interested in reading more about milkweed and monarchs, see my blog entry from a few years ago, "Traveling Seeds.")
The lilacs are in bloom, all one-hundred-or-so feet of them—two hedges on either side of the barn. It’s raining, so I can’t park my chair beneath them, as I’ve been doing for days, basking in their fragrance as I read or write or stare out across the yard. Every spring I try to soak in the lilacs as much as possible before their inevitable browning and fading. When we visited the Farmette in 2002, searching for houses, the hedges were in bloom, and I thought of how rich I’d be to pick as many lilacs as I could want. The lilacs may be why we bought the place. The hedge is old, perhaps about as old as our 109-year-old house, and holds many varieties—blue, pink, lavender, white, deep purple, singles and doubles. Their branches twist and crack, sinewy, resisting straight lines. Young lilacs sprout up from the ground beneath them or appear in other parts of the yard. I snip them by the armfuls, pounding the base of their woody stems to make them last longer in my vases; cut lilacs tend to wilt after a day or so, and I replenish the spent bouquets. The house is spicy with lilac.
When I was a girl, my Grandma Quade gave me a copy of a book she’d had for quite a while—tattered antique cover held together with tape—titled The Lilac Lady. Sitting under the lilacs, I try to remember what the book was about, but can only conjure up a story of friendship between a little girl and a mysterious woman next door, who has lost the use of her legs and spends her time resting by her lilacs. I’m not sure what happened to that copy of the book, but the text is still out in the world, easy to find. The author is a woman named Ruth Alberta Brown, and I can discover virtually nothing about her, except the titles of her books, which all seem to be for young girls. The Lilac Lady was published in 1914.
In the novel, a young girl named Peace goes to stay with a friendly couple, Elizabeth and her minister husband John, for spring break, but then must remain for weeks, because her sisters back home get scarlet fever and are quarantined. The beginning of the book is background—six orphans, including Peace, adopted by a kindly and very wealthy “grandfather,” and some religious stuff about charity—but the story really begins when Peace wanders over to visit her friends’ neighbor’s lilacs.
“Peace paused at Elizabeth's side in the open doorway to drink in the rich fragrance of the lilacs, whose purple plumes nodded so temptingly from the hedge across the way. For days it had been part of her morning program to rush out of doors as soon as she was dressed to sniff hungrily at the lilac-laden air, but never before had they smelled so sweet nor looked so beautiful and feathery as they did this morning, for now they had reached the height of their perfection. Tomorrow some of their beauty would be gone; they would be growing old.
‘Oh, Elspeth, ain't they lovely?’ she sighed. "Don't they make you feel like heaven? Wouldn't you like a great, big bunch of them under your nose always? I wonder why the folks who live there don't give them away. I should if they b'longed to me. Think how many people would be glad to get them. May I go over in the field to play? I won't break one of Saint John's plants or touch a single lilac, truly, if I can just play where I can smell their smell as it comes fresh from the bush. We only get the wee, ragged edges of it over here.’”
Inspired by the lilacs, she sings a little tune: “‘Oh, you pretty lilacs, growing by the wall! How I'd like to have you for my very own. I would pick your blossoms, lavender and white, and give them all to sick folks, shut in from the light.—Why, that rhymed all of its own self!"
She paused abruptly beside the lilac bushes, her arms still uplifted and fingers outstretched as if beckoning to the plumy sprays above her Head. "Isn't it queer how such things will happen when if I'd been trying to make poetry in my dairy I couldn't have thought of those words for an hour? I guess it was the lilacs that did it. Oh, you are so beautiful! You'd make anything rhyme, wouldn't you? What is it that gives you your sweetness? I wish you could tell me the secret. Oh, you lovely lilacs, growing up so high; swinging in the sunshine—’”
I like Brown’s prose, her description of the flowers, the voice of Peace, who can wonderfully characterize the faint scent of lilacs as “wee, ragged edges” and then, in her previously-an-orphan way, mix up words like diary and dairy.
Behind the hedge, Peace finds a twenty-four-year-old recluse, confined to a chair, whom she calls the Lilac Lady; the novel refers to her as “the lame girl.” There’s a fountain, a stone mansion, a horse accident that has broken the dreams of the young woman, a gardener who brings Peace a mound of lilac blossoms—all stuff for a young reader to inhale, heady with romance. They become friends. Peace draws the Lilac Lady out of her shell. It turns out the Lilac Lady and Peace’s friend Elizabeth were college “chums” who lost touch. The Lilac Lady decides to turn her mansion into a home for orphans. The novel ends with Peace going to visit the Lilac Lady at her mansion-turned-orphan-home and finding her asleep, which is to say, dead, though Peace doesn’t realize it. It’s a bit creepy, with the adults of the story smiling over at Peace and the dead lame girl, who has been artfully arranged for such a reunion.
“The door of the invalid's chamber stood open, and beside the window, shaded by the great oak, still hung with autumn colors, lay the beloved form of the Lilac Lady among her silken cushions. She was clad in simple white, with the heavy bronze braids trailing across her shoulders, and the waxen fingers twined in a familiar pose upon her breast. A soft smile wreathed the colorless lips, but the beautiful blue eyes were closed in slumber, and she looked as if she were resting after a hard-fought battle. So lovely a picture did she present that Peace paused on the threshold, and the gay words of greeting bubbling up to her lips died away in a deep breath of awe.”
When Peace exclaims, “She got tired of watching and fell asleep waiting for me!” no one really corrects her impression, except to suggest that God has indeed put her to sleep.
There are lessons to be learned, of course, in the story of Peace and the Lilac Lady—about giving, about being oneself, about embracing beauty. But the wee, ragged edge I’d remembered is maybe what is more important—the image of the lilac hedge, the girl entranced by their fragrance, and the mysterious woman in the chair beneath the blooms.
On Cinco de Mayo, I'm remembering other Latin American fiestas. I spent December and January in Ecuador and found myself in the middle of some celebrations. It seems that all of the indulgence we put into Christmas in the United States—the candy, advertisements, onslaught of carols, ho-ho-ing Santas, ugly sweaters, boxes collecting in landslides under trees, bells and crystal—is concentrated, in Ecuador, into miniature nativity scenes and garland, ubiquitously draped and glittery, especially in the market, where it dangles over the food stalls, suggesting tasty festivity.
In Quito, where I was in the days before Christmas, stands along the road sold the necessary elements for a proper nativity: the principal players (obviously), manger, beasts of the barn, Magi, stars, houses for Bethlehem. They also sold tiny trees for landscaping, wells, clay ovens, paddocks for animals.
Every place had its own nativity scene, depicting the birthplace of Christ in dimensions appropriate for a toy army soldier or baby mouse, varying in size from a few square feet to the stretch of a ping-pong table. Some were quite ornate, the town spreading far beyond the manger. Some were watched over by a larger baby Jesus, wearing a fancy gown, looming above his earthly parents.
And then I noticed the tigers and lions, the moose, the alpacas, and started to wonder. When I saw the little man standing next to his matchbook-sized grill, I knew that though I wasn’t sure what it all meant, I wanted part of this tradition. I bought myself a chicken in a coop the size of a bar of guest soap and a two-inch tall pine tree, as well as a four-foot length of green and white garland that looked like fir covered in snow, and placed them on the desk in the room where I was staying.
New Year’s Eve in Ecuador involves paper masks attached to effigies, sometimes made of children’s clothes or papier-mâché, stuffed with newspaper or sawdust. Some masks depict professions, including nuns. Some, cartoon characters, such as Minnie Mouse or Spiderman. Some are just faces, ominously scowling or smiling or weeping. At midnight, everyone goes into the street or the parks and lights them on fire. Then, while the mask-adorned bodies burn, they jump over them.
I spent New Year’s in Loja, where I would live for the next month. Up and down the street of our neighborhood, paper corpses flared as fireworks lit the sky. There is also a tradition of buying yellow underwear for New Year’s, and at the central market in Loja, I stumbled on some stands of bright bras and panties mobbed by people, police standing nearby looking stern, in case, I guess, things got spicy. I asked my new friends in Loja about the yellow underwear, but it felt to me like their explanation was circular, or maybe I just wasn’t able to translate: “Yellow underwear because of the New Year, and you need yellow underwear to start the New Year.” So they seemed to be saying. And then there were the men with strap-on breasts asking for money in the streets. This was so much better than beer and chips in someone’s basement, watching a faraway shiny ball descend, which, come to think of it, I don’t understand, either.
There were some other small fiestas in my time there. A parade in Cuenca of children in fancy costumes riding horses draped in candy, fruit, and splayed, roasted suckling pigs, followed by elderly men and women dressed as stern angels, followed by Christ himself. Another parade in Loja where patron saint San Sebastian traveled first from his own church to the city’s cathedral, and then, after sleeping over one night, returning, again by parade, back home, where a festival of candy and sweets celebrated his short adventure.
A few days before I was leaving, broken eggs appeared on the sidewalk of downtown Loja. At first I thought someone had dropped a few dozen eggs, but they were everywhere. I asked a city worker sweeping up the shells about los huevos, and he responded simply, “Carnival.” Which would make sense, except that carnival was weeks away. No harm getting an early start throwing eggs at one another, I suppose. I was sad I’d missed the melee, though I wasn’t sure what it meant. What I do understand is that having an egg crack against one’s head means celebration, and celebrations mean that there’s something to celebrate, which is reason to celebrate, in itself.
Brown embodies barns. Or maybe it’s the other way around. When I find myself in one of the two barns on the Farmette, I smell the distinct odor of brown. One barn was once the carriage house, where hay was stored upstairs and horses downstairs. The other is a pole barn covered in galvanized metal, supported by large creosote-colored poles.
Since we acquired it, the carriage house barn has been in a steady state of repair, bringing it back from the brink. Straightened, given a new foundation, re-sided, it seems almost respectable from the outside. We've hauled away many loads of crap to the dump, such as the metal cooler lined with old newspapers from the barn’s dairy farming era; an entire interior wall on the first floor added at some point in its history; and walls forming a little room upstairs where the hired hand once lived.
But some things escape the dump, somehow. Upstairs, two glass jugs sit near an upstairs window; they haven’t moved in a dozen years. The paper label on one reads, faintly, “POISON.” There’s still a brown (of course) liquid inside. The door that once opened to the hired hand’s room leans against a wall, black doorknob like the eye of an enormous beetle. In the rafters, a set of pocket doors removed from our house. A stack of wooden fruit crates.
On the first floor, a clawfoot tub a neighbor gave us that we’ll never use, piled with all the license plates our cars and truck have had, going back twenty years. A sign for AKC Walker pups, a type of coonhound someone must’ve raised here at some point. A metal tin which held papers about the cows on the dairy farm, including one named Clearland Butterfat Charity. Last year, when Cris was tearing out the boards that encased the ceiling, inside one straw-filled nest, likely belonging to a raccoon, he found a lacy cotton slip.
The pole barn, on the other hand, falls apart. The two sets of doors, which were partially attached when we moved here, have mostly fallen to pieces, blown off in the wind, so that weather and creatures can pass through or stay awhile—snow or blowing rain or skunks or carpenter bees. The whole place has a sort of cozy "eau de railroad ties" scent. In one corner, an old goat pen made from wooden pallets and the frame of an ancient screen door. Inside the pen, my neighbor’s tractor, kept like a pet.
The dog likes to poke around in there, looking for the feral cats who lurk from time to time, knocking the house sparrow nests off the rafters. Sometimes I find on the sandy floor a few desiccated nestlings. In another corner, a pile of wood and the chopping block, where I tock away at logs, making kindling, a few times a week during the cold months.
At the other end, a second tractor, tires flat, and a pile of wire from various garden projects, coiled and beribboned in dead vines. Several cages we’ve used to raise bobwhite quail, wait, uninhabited. In the sandy floor, the little craters of ant lions anticipate ants wandering along.
Barns are built to shelter things—animals, machinery, straw and wood. Because of this, I don’t think of the barns as creepy, despite their dark corners, their spiders and mice, their axe and their wire. They seem as though a person could move in, if one needed to, like the hired hand who lived upstairs with the hay. From inside a barn, the world outside feels raw and bright, like colored glass, a bit brittle against the sky, unbound from warm brown.
It was just four seeds. Really. I didn’t even know if they’d grow, because I was leaving the country in a few days and wouldn’t be there to baby them. But they did, and now I have twenty-foot vines sprawling over the garden and nineteen pumpkins. One vine has even climbed over the wire fence and a portentous pumpkin dangles several feet off the ground. If I were very small and my husband couldn’t keep me, he would have his choice of shells in which to put me. I have no idea what that nursery rhyme means. It apparently has a second verse, too: Peter, Peter pumpkin eater, had another and didn’t love her; Peter learned to read and spell, and then he loved her very well. I find the pumpkin, even uncarved, both cheerful and a little ominous.
Now I have plenty of pumpkins to carve. Or I could make pie, but I loathe pumpkin pie. It’s a slimy abomination that even whipped cream can’t fix. Pumpkins grow well around here, it seems. Lately, several times a day, tractors pulling trains of long trailers drive down our road carrying giant, playhouse-sized cardboard totes of pumpkins—a pumpkin parade. Hundreds and hundreds of pumpkins passing by, awaiting porches and knives. If you live anywhere near me, there’s some chance that the pumpkin you purchase for Halloween has ridden past my house.
I do like carving jack-o-lanterns, but not in any truly artistic way. Each year, we get two pumpkins and spend about twenty minutes hacking away in the kitchen. Cris’ style runs towards the pointy and slit-like. Mine leans more on howling circles. Then we put candles in them and stick them on the stone wall of the porch. The Farmette looks a bit haunted, and we’ve never had a single trick-or-treater in the twelve years we’ve been here; we face the lanterns towards our window and watch them flicker.
When we were kids, my sister and I always took our time, drawing our designs on the orange skin with ball-point pens, our pumpkins resting on newspaper on the kitchen table. I wonder how many kids get their first real experience with sharp knives carving pumpkins, along with a good lesson in choices one can’t undo. With pumpkin carving, you have to accept what the blade removes. We lived in Wisconsin, and the pumpkins sat outdoors, and sometimes they were icy cold when we stuck our hands in to pull out the seed and fiber guts.
Our jack-o-lanterns usually linger around until they rot, their expressions growing more and more pained, their mouths curling inward, black mold filling their skulls. Cris has to remove them from the porch with a shovel and toss them on the compost pile. The generations of empty heads blend together, in my mind, in the soil. And there I keep them, very well.
Traveling in Burma and Cambodia this July, I became aware of my feet. In these mostly-Buddhist countries, there is complicated etiquette surrounding feet, which are considered dirty or profane. And indeed, my feet spent some time being dirty, as I walked through dusty streets, into monsoon-storm puddles, over open sewers covered in broken concrete slabs, and across betel- spit-stained sidewalks. The prepositions attached to my feet’s journeys are many. After earning some blisters with my sandals on a long, rain-soaked morning when I first arrived in Yangon, I had to switch to old running shoes for a few days, and found lots of people staring at my feet. I stood out pretty well already, but sandal-less, I was a glaring, green-and-white-Asics-shod anomaly. When the streets filled with water after a downpour, I remembered the open sewers, the spit, the rotting remains of fruit I’d spotted on the previously dry ground. And also I remembered the sores inside my socks inside my shoes, now jumping over stretches of runoff, often unsuccessfully.
At the temples, one removes one’s shoes before entering, and the sound of footsteps is only the swish of bare feet along the concrete or marble or tile. Buddha’s feet and footprints, unlike mine, are sacred. With so many naked or almost naked feet around, I noticed myself foot-watching. These are some pictures where feet expressed perhaps as much as faces, just as my running shoes spoke for me—coddled outsider untrained in my own soles.
I’m stalking eggs. The daily ritual of poking my head into nests, bothering brooding birds. The bluebirds’ first nest earlier this spring was raided by the house sparrows—bright broken shells, yolk smeared, on the grass in front of the nesting box. They’ve got a second nest now, with five eggs, and I have a wishful thought that if I check on the eggs obsessively, they’ll make it to birdhood. As I approach the box, male bluebird sings a warning to female bluebird, who waits inside until I tap the wood before she bursts out, a blur of blue-grey. Their nest is a tidy coil of fine dried grass.
Their neighbor, in the box next door, is one of four house wren nests around the property. House wrens are bossy birds, scoldy and bold. Sometimes the wren pokes her head out of the box to watch me, then flies at me as I get close. Sometimes she nestles down, waits for me to open the door to peek in, then whacks me with her wings as she explodes out of the house. As I near the nests, I anticipate this blast of bird, but it still always unnerves me. I wonder if Hitchcock should’ve chosen house wrens instead. House wrens don’t always get along well with bluebirds, sometimes raiding their nests like house sparrows (is it something about the word house?), but I’m hoping these parties will stay peaceful. House wrens males are slutty birds, known to keep more than one female in nests, but they can’t always feed all the young when the eggs hatch. And there are a lot of eggs—seven or eight in each nest. I didn’t mean to allow all these house wrens to nest in the boxes. I usually clean out most attempts before they really get going. But once the egg cup is in place, no dumping nests. Their nests consist of a pile of twigs—usually bits of dried wild grape vine—topped with a cup of finer material, like pine needles and feathers, not always the wren’s. The nests often have silky white clumps of spider eggs incorporated into them, which some scientists think provide an antidote to the mites that prey on the tiny hatchlings; the spiders hatch with the birds and consume the mites. My house wren nests also contain black plastic twine and, ironically, strips of worn Mylar “bird scare” tape.
There are also a mess of robin nests, mud-packed with eclectic material—a string from a bag of dog food, a bit of clematis vine, dried hosta leaves and iris fronds, clear plastic film. Sometimes in the past, I’ve put out scraps of fabric and string in the spring for colorful nest building. Robins aren’t subtle about where their nests lie. They bombard passersby, cheeping. Soft grasses line their sturdy nests, kept pristine even after the eggs hatch. Baby robins emerge all mouth, and eventually grow into their beaks. When I was a little girl, we raised two orphaned baby robins, and I remember pulling apart worms for their always-begging throats.
I’m sure there are other nests in the yard right now—catbird, blue jay, cardinal, yellow-shafted flicker, goldfinch, perhaps even an orchard or Baltimore oriole or a hummingbird—but they’ve missed my inspection. I search for the hanging baskets of the orioles or the brilliant tree sparrow nest, lined with the bird’s iridescent feathers, trying to conjure them with my desire.
We think of a nest as a cozy place, and I suppose it is, but a bird barely occupies it, only for a month or so, and while the babies grow just enough. Then it’s abandoned or recycled. Last year, the cedar waxwing built a nest in the ginkgo tree. For their second nest of the season, they dismantled the original and moved it to another branch in the tree.
The reason for the nest is the final event of leaving the nest. The fledgling exits never to return—or doesn’t exit. In old nests, I’ve found tiny skeletons of birds that didn’t make it out, or a single blue egg that never hatched, still nestled—that verb, soft as assurance—in careful grass.
I nurture things so I can behead them. Which is to say, I grow flowers, and while I enjoy them out there in the garden beds, I love picking them even more. The desire to pluck a blossom is fundamental to human nature, and yet, for the most part, we resist. There’s a rumor on the college campus where I teach that students who pick the flowers will be fined. I’ve never seen this rule printed anywhere, but my students have insisted it’s true. I suppose it makes sense. If everyone snatched a daffodil, there would be none left for anyone to sniff. But if everyone snatched a daffodil, then everyone would have a daffodil, if only for a day or three, to put on their desk or windowsill and study.
One of my vases, an antique-looking brown glass bottle, was given to me by a boyfriend my first year in college. I believe he stole it from the science department where he worked, just as he’d stolen the flowers he stuck in it—a lilac branch from a bush on campus. Though he was a great guy, he did not, however, steal my heart. The lilacs drooped. I kept the vase. I'm sure there's a lesson here. Behind the Writing House where I teach my classes, I’d like to plant a patch of daffodils with a sign that reads, “Please pick.”
Because I pick flowers and need a place to put them, I have an entourage of vases, many of which were never meant to hold flowers. A round glass globe with fluted edge that my late father-in-law used to store cotton balls. A milk bottle found in the barn. A Hoosier Glass canister. Blue mason jars. That stolen brown bottle. Then, the assortment of vases, many from various florist’s bouquets, usefully bland. A white porcelain vase with a scene of blue ducks, a Valentine’s Day present from my husband back before we were married. A tiny clay vase not much bigger than my thumb, glazed with spots, from my sister. And the obscene vases, huge and unwieldy, (and male, I always think, for some reason) good only for branches lopped off the crabapples or rhododendrons or for entire stems of yellow iris from a patch I grow on the edge of the property next to the road so that I can cut them and not feel bad about de-flowering my beds.
Not that I do feel bad. If I planted you, you’re fair game for snipping. Smelling nice increases your chances, but really, just looking interesting draws me in with my clippers. I’ve planted daffodils all over the property, so I never have to hesitate to snap off a stem when they’re in bloom. I use pruning as an excuse to pull inside handfuls of sugary daphne blossoms. On rainy days, I collect iris from around the garden, saving their tissue petals from the crush of showers. Despite the fact that they keep poorly and wilt in a day or so, when the lilacs are flowering, I trim bouquets every day. The two expansive hedges of lilacs were covered in fragrant clusters when we first saw the farmette, and certainly helped sell the place; I can pick as many as I want. In late-May, I load spirea branches into a large vase to bring to the cool indoors, and they snow all over the dining room table. I rescue the rose buds from the Japanese beetles. I relieve the oriental lilies of a few trumpets and fog the bedroom with their perfume.
Sometimes, I just walk around the gardens, picking things so that I can arrange them in a vase—that simple creation—imagining, in my foolishness, that I’ve made something beautiful. And when the bouquets fade, inevitable, I dump them on the compost, move on, and pick some more. It turns out there are enough.
If ever there were a winter to study snow, this one is it. Right now outside my window, I have whimsical snow globe snow, tiny flakes floating down, but also up, as though the world has been shaken and will take a few moments to settle—and maybe that’s what’s happened. Yesterday it was fat clusters falling hard, the kind that blind me when they smack the lens of my glasses. We’ve been hit with stealth snow, quietly piling up in the night, and walls of snow, sliding from dark clouds across the horizon. We’ve had snow that came down heavily and then seemed to just blow away without accumulating, perhaps ending up somewhere in Pennsylvania.
I grew up in Wisconsin, and spent winters digging caves in snowdrifts and sculpting snow-things and sledding, sledding, sledding. No roller coaster can beat racing down an icy hill on an inner tube, hitting a snow ramp and catching air. I had an aluminum saucer sled with rope handles. My dad coated the bottom with cross-country ski wax to make it extra slippery (he also taught us to ride down hot metal slides in the summer sitting on waxed paper—same effect). After school it was dark when we were sledding. The hill, next door, dropped from behind our neighbor’s house, and they generously allowed the neighborhood kids to cling around their backyard, waiting for a chance to slip screaming away. On the saucer, I spun and spun, hurtling, disoriented, into the cold.
I’m not generous with my snow. When I was a kid, my mom discouraged us from sledding the tiny hill in our front yard that dipped to living room picture window; she wanted to look out over the untouched smooth white clean. Even now, when she’s gone too long without a good dusting back in Wisconsin, she tells me she needs some new snow to cover up the old snow, tarnished by road sludge. I, too, relish my snow unblemished, marked only by the tracks of the dog and squirrels and rabbits, lightly quilted with the vees of bird feet. I curse the snowmobiles trespassing along my front yard; does everything have to be a road to somewhere?
Wind shapes the snow into bowls and waves across our property, collecting mounds around trees, sweeping the ground almost bare in stretches. But this year the wind formed something I’d never seen before in all my studies of snow. In the fields along the road I take to work, strong gusts had grabbed bits of snow and rolled them along, forming donuts of snow called snow rollers. The conditions for snow rollers are precise—snow covered in a layer of ice covered in wet snow blown by strong winds. In the morning sun, the cylinders of snow curling across the land caught the light, casting long shadows. Though I had my camera, the roads weren’t well-plowed, so I couldn’t pull over. Built of layers, like pastry, they only lasted a day or so before collapsing or eroding away in more wind.
A thaw moves in this week, and the snow will shrink down, revealing the green tips of iris reticulata and daffodils, a glimpse of bright noise beneath quiet. I often find surprises in the thaw, a rabbit half-eaten, a bird stunned underneath a window, a forgotten bouquet on the compost pile, some carrots waiting in their patch, or simply just a trowel left out on a fall day, mid-dig, sturdy and indifferent.
The young couple in front of us on the plane from Cleveland to D.C. wore matching Cabela’s “Realtree XTRA” camouflage sweatshirts. He was a bigger guy with shaggy hair, and she a towhead with a bun, or at least that’s about all I could make of them from behind, until it was time to get off. Then he stood up and took off his sweatshirt, revealing a t-shirt underneath that read, “If it shits, shoot it. If it’s green, cut it down.” I’m not sure how all those fit-for-shooting shitting things would persist if the green were cut down, nor how much good the Realtree XTRA would do sans forest.
The first national treasure we visit in D.C. is the United States Botanic Garden, which rests just southwest of the Capital Building, caddy-corner from the Rayburn House Office Building. According to the garden’s website, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison wanted a national garden to promote the importance of plants. Congress established the garden in 1820, and the current conservatory—enormous and domed—was built in 1934. I’m sure there are members of today’s Congress that would find this investment a complete waste, unable to make any connection between their own well-being and that of, say, an orchid. But maybe they haven’t wandered across the street to see the orchids, blooming sensually, siren-like, their scent drifting in the humidity.
We arrive at opening, 10 a.m., and there’s a line of tots waiting to get into a special exhibit of model trains. Bypassing tiny trains and whiny tots, we enter into the conservatory’s garden court, lined with fruit trees and marked by miniature versions of the Capitol’s famous buildings made out of plant matter. That’s cool, but I’m here for things lush, like the orchid garden. Maybe certain congresspeople could actually be offended by the orchids themselves, recognizing a kind of plant pornography when they see it. There’s not much subtle about the orchids, tinted like ladies' underpants, wishing for hummingbirds. One of my favorite paintings is Martin Johnson Heade’s Cattleya Orchid and Three Hummingbirds (1871), which the National Gallery of Art acquired in 1982, though it’s not currently on view. I acquired a print at the National Gallery in 1990, and it’s currently on view above our bathtub, where sometimes I admire it while drinking a glass of white wine.
The jungle display inside the conservatory’s dome feels like a heaven of houseplants. I recognize a few types from home, but these specimens are vigorous and huge, spilling and drooping and carpeting and generally looking not at all like houseplants. Shades of green overlap and glow, and I wonder what type of camo Cabela’s might develop to hide in here. Palms reach for the glass, and they must sometimes need to be whacked shorter or else they’d pop through the panes. I brush past a plant bearing structures that remind me both of phalluses and of condoms; it’s a pitcher plant called Nepenthes, named for the mythical drug of forgetfulness, also known as (ahem) monkey cups.
As we pass into the desert display, the first load of tots is released from the trains, stampeding into the cacti with their handlers, impatient about things not on tracks. All around them, needle-y lobes. I wait for them to dissipate, through the orchids and jungle and out to the sidewalks, heading down the Mall for the Air and Space Museum or maybe just air and maybe just space.