My Last Summer Here

Maybe some big cities are better at tending to the plants and planted areas in their care. In St. Louis, things often seem to run to ruin. When I run several mornings a week, I follow the River des Peres Greenway, a landscaped, paved path for runners, walkers, and bicyclists. I run about a mile and turn around in a section of the path I call Cypress Hollow, because it is a quiet, recessed area lined with several cypress trees. The cypress has been my favorite tree for a while, probably since there was one in the front yard when I lived in the country. I had been unfamiliar with the species, and found it fascinating that there was a deciduous pine tree. I understand that some of the landscaping along the Greenway is ‘prairie reclamation,’ meant to seem like wild nature taking over. But that shouldn’t be an excuse for letting vines and weeds grow thickly through these beautiful cypress trees, strangling their growth.

In the town where I work, which is only a stone’s throw from here, there is a lively discussion going on in the local paper about whether kudzu or bush honeysuckle is the more invasive weed. That paper’s letters to the editor section is always a forum for know-it-alls, and now someone has written to suggest two more alternatives—­raccoon grape and wintercreeper. I am not sure what vine it is choking the cypresses down in the Hollow; I only know that no effort is made to clear it out. I worry that these trees will eventually die, swallowed whole by kudzu, wintercreeper, or whatever.

It has gotten worse since I came to live in my flophouse apartment in late winter, 2016. I have been through three springs here, and am now in the death throes of my third summer. It will be my last summer here. For three summers have I watched the prairie grasses and wildflowers along the Greenway grow and bloom and attract bees and butterflies, goldfinches and cardinals. This spring I began to notice an unusual number of bunnies hopping in and out of the tall grass, which is heartening: but I also notice more hawks about. I also see that the invasive vines are creeping ever higher and thicker in the cypress trees. Now my personal affairs are getting back in order, and I am looking for a new place to live. Barring some misfortune, I am living my last lease at the flophouse.

There are things I will miss. One of them is having a running path practically in my front yard. I will miss watching the artificial prairie grow, and especially my cypress trees. As I pass them in the cool mornings of late summer I think that wherever I move, I will come back sometime to see them, see how they’re faring. But you know what? I won’t. That’s not what Americans do. We move on, we move ahead. The seasons are cyclical, autumn follows summer, winter follows autumn, but we are restless, always moving on, always imagining that we are moving ahead: we do not like for the new season to find us exactly where we were last season.

Am I comfortable where I live? Mostly. But there is something about the flophouse that does not represent who or what I am as an American man, and now that I am able to move on, I will move on, because that’s what we do. And I may say that I can always come back and see my stand of cypress trees, see if the ducks still gather in the pools of the Hollow in spring, see if anyone has taken steps to protect this area from invasive weeds; but I know I won’t. As I leave the Hollow on my way back home, I cross the bridge over Watson Road—which is, by the way, the local name for old Route 66. I already feel it like a countdown, the number of times left that I will cross this bridge, until at last I cross and never look back, leaving cypresses, bunnies, and the recent past to be swallowed whole.

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The Indignities of Travel

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I am finally home after a long vacation, 4,500 miles through the Great American West. I’ve been on the road, sleeping in hotels so long that I keep checking under my door in the morning for a receipt and checkout time, wondering why the bed is not made up when I come home in the afternoon. Some things are taken care of for you when you travel, you pay for that, probably too much. That’s what credit cards are for, and vacations, like Christmas, are periods of rationalizing debt. I am happy to spend money to do the things I did on vacation: but I’ll bet I could be just as happy on half the expense. Though travel can take you to places that are wonderful and unique, it is rarely an unalloyed pleasure.

I grow tired of eating in restaurants. It’s always a crap shoot, especially for someone who is carefully attentive to his own home-cooked meals. Only in the best of restaurants do I experience meals better than my own home cooking, and reading menu prices for foods I know will be indifferently prepared from frozen ingredients makes me shiver. Everything, from a nice chicken entree to almost any sandwich, comes with melted cheese on it. Everything comes with fries, from a cheeseburger to a gyro sandwich. That lack of culinary imagination, of effort, is emblematic of eating in most restaurants.

Yes, I still use the word ‘restaurant,’ even though it appears to be passé. Today, a place where one buys prepared meals is likely to be called A Dining Establishment, or An Eating Company, or, most pestiferous to me, An Eatery. A what? Who coined that awkward bit of pompousness? It is used a lot, and given Americans’ penchant for gorging, I wonder if we will soon see An All You Can Eatery?

 Servers struggle with the language. Some are perfectly charming and helpful, but they almost universally share the inability to accept that English ‘you’ is both singular and plural. A table with more than one person seated must be referred to as ‘y’all,’ ‘youse,’ or ‘you guys’—it depends on the latitude—when ‘you’ would be perfectly grammatically acceptable. In St. Louis we fret over the misuse of the word ‘working,’ as in, ‘Are you still working on your dinner, or should I remove your plate?’ I have had some cuts of meat that took work to cut, but usually I do not work at my meals. Even more pernicious though, is the habit of grabbing things. I say, ‘May I have a straw with my soft drink?’ and the server says, ‘Sure, I’ll grab you one.’ ‘Is there any horseradish?’ ‘Yeah, I’ll grab that.’ ‘May I have the check?’ ‘Let me grab it.’ Everyone’s grabbing everything. When I ask the busboy if he has seen my waitress, he promises to grab her. Youse better not.

I tend to be a stickler for correct language and spelling, what is referred to these days as being a ‘grammar Nazi,’ usually by the same people who blamed their teachers when they did poorly in school. As one gets ever deeper into tourism territory, the misspellings increase, even on otherwise professional-looking signs. That’s where my tolerance breaks down; I accept that everyone does not have impeccable spelling ability, but if you paint signs for a living, that’s kind of your job. Buy a dictionary, for Pete’s sake.

Finally, there are the places that are not all they’re cracked up to be. I visited Deadwood, South Dakota, the town where Wild Bill Hickok was sheriff, and had his famous liaison with Calamity Jane, and was finally shot to death. The town was running downhill until several years ago when they approved limited stakes gambling. It is now a seedy little Las Vegas, with gaming in every hotel and restaurant, and busloads of doddering seniors shoving their walkers towards slot machines. I paid for a tour of the town’s historic sites, and sat on a bus while the guide told us that Wild Bill Hickok was never sheriff, only spent a few weeks here, and never had anything to do with Calamity Jane, a drunken, crude woman who looked nothing like Doris Day; Hickok’s murder was the only true part of the story. The guide beamed as he told us all this, though he played at being distraught at having to break it to us. When the bus stopped in the cemetery, giving us all a chance to photograph their graves, I remained in my seat.

The high-point of my trip was Yellowstone National Park. Let me say first that Yellowstone is a marvel, with natural and geographical wonders to be found nowhere else. But . . . it is huge. The park is larger than several states, with parts of in three states. I arrived at the east entrance to the park, from Cody, Wyoming, and got to the west Entrance in Montana days later. We had to eat the dogs on the way. Seriously, ninety-nine percent of what you do in Yellowstone is drive. Old Faithful is fifty miles from the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Yellowstone Lake is fifty miles from Artist Point. Gibbon Falls is fifty miles from the Roosevelt Arch. These are the kind of drives that make standing in line at Disney World sound fun. Add in another five percent of your time spent seeking a parking place, and that leaves only a few minutes every few hours to look at one of the dozens of attractions. And another thing—do not be fooled by the legends of bison, elk, and bears picturesquely wandering about. You will see little wildlife, if any, and that mostly ravens, which are a kind of obese crow whose diet consists wholly of smoking roadkill. I know, someone reading this will cry out, ‘I saw lots of wildlife!’ It’s not that it never happens; but heading to Yellowstone with the expectation of seeing bears is just setting yourself up for heartbreak.

I do not regret visiting Yellowstone, any more than I regret the whole trip, which set me back financially for the next several months, and left me bone tired and ready to get back to work for some richly deserved relaxation. The aforementioned natural wonders are things that will stay with me for life, as will the legendary streets of Deadwood and other things I saw. I have been home for several days, back to work most of a week, and I’m starting to think about my next trip.

 

 

The Sacred and the Profane

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The Medicine Wheel in Wyoming is not much to see, if one is expecting spectacle, a monument, a marvel of human ingenuity. You must prepare yourself to understand it for what it is, an ancient site of spirituality, a sacred place, one that is still actively used by Native Americans. It is maintained by the U.S. Park Service, and a ranger greets you before you start the mile-and-a-half trek up to the monument (uphill both ways, I heard someone joke), to advise you that the walk is not easy, that you should not hurry, you should hydrate and rest when you have to, and most of all, that this is still a site of religious observance—accord it the same quiet respect as you would any place of worship you visit. Photos are permitted, but not of worshipers.

High in the mountains and deep inside the Big Horn National Forest, the drive to the site is long, though beautiful enough to make it worth the time. There are clear coursing streams, vistas into forest passes and wooded hillsides that quite literally take your breath away—if you have any breath left at this altitude (about 9,500 feet). The day I visited was cloudy, but after a half hour’s drive you are high enough in the mountains to stand above the clouds, an irresistible photo op.

There were no worshipers when I was there, but it was nice that the half dozen visitors that morning maintained a respectful quiet. The Wheel consists of a circular rim of loaf-sized stones, divided by 28 spokes, which are usually seen as the days in a lunar month. There are seven stone cairns within, and these were the focus of prayer activity. They were adorned with many small objects, such as beads, feathers, colored strips of cloth, and animal skulls and teeth, some deeply weathered, but some clearly of recent placement.

Questions swirl in the mind about why this spot, why this particular mountain peak among hundreds in the vicinity. The monument was old before Columbus set foot in the New World, and nobody knows who built it. It is much used by the local Blackfeet Indians, but they will readily insist that their ancestors did not build the Wheel.

Two days before visiting Medicine Wheel, I was at Mount Rushmore, which embodied all the spectacle not present in the older site. It is a little surprising, seeing it for the first time. The sculpted heads are much higher than they appear in most photos, and hard to take good pictures of without professional equipment. Also maintained by the National Park Service, there were hundreds of visitors present both times I went in. I assume they were mostly Americans, but I heard many accents and languages spoken, many mothers calling after scrambling children in words I did not know. While one need not prepare oneself, as with Medicine Wheel, to understand Mt. Rushmore as a sacred place, I think it is best understood that way.

Each evening, people gather in an amphitheater facing the monument. A video plays on a large screen which describes the building of the monument, and details why each president who is represented has his place there. From George Washington’s leadership in the Revolutionary War and his creation of the presidency as we know it, to Thomas Jefferson’s stirring formulation that all men are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; from Abraham Lincoln’s stewardship of the Union through the Civil War, and his appeal to the ‘better angels of our nature,’ to Teddy Roosevelt’s vision of the American Century, and his creation of a National Park System, we have been often blessed by those we chose as leaders.

And yet I was a little heartsick as I watched the program. A little while before, in the park’s gift shop, I saw a young man wearing a Make America Great Again hat. It was the first time I had actually seen anyone wearing one. He didn’t look very intelligent, but perhaps that’s just my view of anyone who would wear such a thing. Maybe he is a brilliant student, studying for his PhD. I doubt it, but it’s possible. As I sat in the bleachers listening to the stories—perhaps more mythical than historical—of our greatest presidents, I found myself hoping that this young man was taking it in, that he was hearing how great presidents talk, what great presidents do, and how, regardless of political differences, they strive to unite us as a nation, rather than create further division and enmity. Mt. Rushmore is also a sacred place, dedicated to those American ideals which have made us a great nation, and the presidents who have embodied those ideals: not only will some presidents never earn a place among them, there are those whose names ought not to be uttered in their presence.

Precision

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Running this morning, as I was turning around at my terminus in Cedar Hollow, it seemed to me I was making good time. It also seemed that my run was taking too long; I had other things I need to do this morning. It was a fairly cool and yet humid morning, not unusual for August. We have been taunted in the past few weeks by cooler days here and there, though there’s of course plenty of summer left. Already I am hearing people talk about the fall and its many pleasures. I have a sense that I’d like the summer to be over, as well as a sense that I have not enjoyed the summer enough—have not fished, or camped, or walked in parkland and forest enough. Where has the summer gone? Why won’t the summer go?

In a culture whose summer begins on a day called ‘midsummer’ and whose winter begins at ‘midwinter,’ I’m not sure my feelings are all that unusual. There is always in imprecision in how we define seasons, and in how we feel about them.

The universe is not precise. Despite theories about God as omnipotent watchmaker, the watch does not keep good time, and our timekeeping is a precise system laid over a frustratingly imprecise cosmos. Summer may run from June 21 to September 21, but summer weather runs for as long as it runs: some years, especially lately, it’s been up until mid-October. We gauge the beginnings of the seasons by the sun’s behavior—solstices and equinoxes—but it takes the sun a while to render the terrestrial changes that make for a new season. Given the panoply of other factors, such as wind and rain, that make our weather variable, our wishes for sudden changes in the season are not without foundation.

It’s going to be a hot one today, temperatures in the mid-90s and humid. I’m used to it, the problem is staying used to it, like a lingering backache or a headache that won’t go away. I am going on vacation next week, kind of the high point of my summer, and I am anticipating it with delight. Oh, how I wish the summer would end!

Epiphany

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I hope that people reading the title of this post, expecting me to reveal some striking new realization, won’t be disappointed to learn that I am about to discuss my suspicion of the phenomenon of ‘epiphany.’ Culture, history, and literature are full of supposed cases of someone having a sudden epiphany and hot its heels beginning a new direction in life or in their work. I doubt most of them.

Of course the most doubtful one is Saul of Tarsus, who is said to have fallen off his horse (or been stricken by the Holy Spirit) on the road to Damascus. It was in that moment that Saul, a persecutor of Christians, realized that Jesus was lord—was the Christ—and became the most fervent proselytizer of the new faith in Rome, for some reason changing his name to Paul into the bargain. If there was ever a case of a preformed intention going in search of a motivating rationale, this is it.

The one most students of literature are exposed to is the scene, early on in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, when he dips a madeleine, a delicate cookie, into his tea, and upon tasting it he is filled with such a rush of memories that he must set about writing a seven-volume novel. That seems to me a lot to put on a cookie. Of course Proust was already an aspiring novelist, and was probably always in search of a theme. The madeleine scene is very well written, as is most of In Search of Lost Time–I just regard it as fiction.

In researching my own book, I came across an interesting case of epiphany that gives me doubts. The seasons on our planet are governed by its movements around the sun. These are in turn affected by variations in its orbit, which lead to cycles of warm and cold, the ice ages and the warmer periods in between. These variations were first mapped and described definitively by Milutin Milankovic (1879-1958) a Serbian mathematician. The story is often told that one evening he and a friend were celebrating the publication of that friend’s volume of poetry. As the evening wore on and they grew increasingly intoxicated, both of them swore to do something momentous with their lives. This is the moment when Milankovic decided to spend the next decade in tedious mathematical calculations to define the variations in earth’s orbit. Does that sound likely to you? It doesn’t to me, especially since, in his own memoirs, Milankovic describes the epiphany he had while calmly surveying the sky on a summer’s evening at his family home in the countryside. Did he create this more sober version of events to make his backstory more salubrious? Could be, but it lends a tinge of doubt to both versions.

Then there is the story that Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) tells, of the time when he was working for the U.S. Forest Service in New Mexico, when game management mostly meant shooting wolves. Out on a shoot one day, he watched a female wolf expire, and saw ‘a fierce green fire dying in her eyes.’ It was in that moment that he realized that we could not kill our way to conservation, that mankind needed a more ethical path, a partnership with the land and the wild things upon it. Leopold went on to create the discipline of game management, and became one of the 20th century’s foremost ecologists. His story of seeing a wolf die is beautifully and tragically told. I just doubt that Leopold, who had grown up exploring the woods, bluffs, and rivers of Iowa, and studied forestry at Yale, did not already have a growing sense of what was right and wrong when it came to nature.

Epiphanies make for good storytelling, and those stories are told again and again, whether they are true or not. Maybe I am too cynical; maybe people do have intense personal epiphanies, but the word epiphany, with its Greek root indicating the appearance or manifestation of a ‘spirit’ puts me off. Or maybe I am only jealous that in my life, epiphanies have been slow to come.

Aguas de Marco

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Yesterday I was driving home in the rain, and on the radio I heard Susannah McCorkle’s recording of ‘The Waters of March.’ For months I have been working on the chapter of my book that deals with seasonal art, including seasonal songs, and I can’t believe that I almost overlooked this shining gem.

The song was composed by Antonio Carlos Jobim, who wrote both the music and lyrics, including Brazilian and English versions. If there was ever a song with music more perfectly wedded to words, I can’t think of it. The song is about the rainiest month in southern Brazil, when floods carry things along in their stream, and the impressionistic lyrics flow just as the music flows. Almost every line of the song begins with the word ‘ė,’ which means ‘it is.’

It’s the stick, it’s the rock, it’s the end of the road . . .

All these things flow by, and life moves on towards its end. But there is a hint of hope, as the only repeated refrain is:

It’s the waters of March closing summer

It’s the promise of life in your heart

Jobim is likely Brazil’s greatest songwriter. Most Americans know his work from the song ‘Girl from Ipanema,’ maybe Sinatra’s recording of ‘Dindi.’ But ‘Aguas de Marco’—‘The Waters of March’—is his greatest composition. It was once voted the best Brazilian song of all time by a panel of critics and journalists.

It has been recorded many times, in many languages. Baby Boomers may be familiar with a recording by Art Garfunkel on his 1975 solo album Breakaway, a sadly lame version that fails to capture the essential rhythm of the song. (Sorry Art, it’s just not your best work.) Brazilian critics believe the definitive version is the duet between Jobim himself and Brazilian singer Elis Regina, which is lovely.

But for me, the best recording is by the beautiful, fated Elis herself, done with minimal accompaniment of gently chorded piano, bass, and brushed snare drum. The simple instrumentation keeps the vocals front and center, with all those tantalizing Brazilian sibilants flowing across the listener’s senses, whether or not one understands the language. There is a video of this recording here: check it out if you want a real treat.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of ‘Aguas de Marco,’ from a seasonal point of view, is in the fact that Antonio Carlos Jobim wrote two sets of lyrics. In the Brazilian version, March is the rainiest month, the end of summer in southern Brazil, where Rio de Janeiro is located. This is the reversed seasonal pattern of the antipodes, as in Australia and New Zealand. Thus the lyrics about March closing summer and such.

In the English version, all this is changed. March is still rainy, but it is not ending summer, but bringing spring. Lines were added about ‘the promise of spring’ and more to indicate the opposite seasonal pattern. To my knowledge, this is one of the only instances in art—popular or otherwise—that takes this change into account. I mean, Irving Berlin didn’t write an alternate version of ‘White Christmas’ with the words ‘I’m dreaming of a sunny Christmas,’ nor did Sammy Cahn write ‘Let it Shine! Let it Shine! Let it Shine!’ so people in Australia could have songs appropriate to their summertime holiday. So let’s give credit to Jobim, who knew that his songs would be played in the U.S. and other parts of the Northern Hemisphere, for making sure that the lyrics would be about something meaningful.

Dental Surgery

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I have a new dentist, a lovely twelve-year-old girl. Her dental assistant, Denise, is about the same age, give or take a year. When Denise was on vacation recently, she got her hair cut; she was tired of always putting it up because it’s so hot out so she just decided to whack it all off. My dentist thinks it’s super cute, really. This conversation took place between them while they were giving me a root canal and crown. It’s one thing that they get you in the chair, give you a shot to numb you, and then present you with a sheet full of disclaimers and cautions, asking you to sign it, approving the procedure you’re already in the middle of. But when they carry on this girlish chatter while the drill is digging ever deeper into your gums, it’s disconcerting to say the least.

Last night I was reading the novel Submission, by Michel Houellebecq. The story’s protagonist is a young man just finishing college who notes that ‘maturing is to some degree learning to lose our disdain for the generation we’ve been called upon to replace.’ I can see that. Reminds me of the old Mark Twain quote, ‘When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to 21 I was astonished at how much the the old man had learned in seven years.’ When I was young I was as bad a smart-aleck as has ever inhabited the planet. Later I saw how much my elders could have told me—tried to tell me—if I had only listened.

And now I am on the other side of the equation, the older person who sees everyone as too young for the roles they inhabit, too inexperienced to understand things fully. My young dentist, vendors who call on me at work looking like they just left the playground, insurance agents, financial advisors, everybody is so young! I am called upon to learn trust, to know that these people, while young, are educated, tested, ready to provide the services they advertise. I must lose my disdain for the generation that’s replacing me.

In art, the seasons are often used as a metaphor for human life, from the springtime of youth through the aging and death of autumn and winter. We move through them one stage at a time, always looking towards what comes next. But what you don’t realize until you get to an advanced age is how much you also look back. This is what separates the seasons from human life—looking back as much as looking forward. The Romans must have understood this when they created their god Janus, god of beginnings, whose name is inscribed in the month January. He was a two-faced deity, always looking forward and backward, because nothing ever happens—nothing meaningful, anyway—without both.

I purposely selected a woman dentist. I just don’t like a guy with his big hairy knuckles digging around in my mouth. I was, I am still surprised by how young she looks, how young everyone in her office looks. But my tooth feels fine now, she and her assistant did an excellent job, despite over-sharing about Denise’s hairstyle choices. Like most people, I dislike dental surgery, and it was a big step for me going in to get some things taken care of. It was also a big step, moving closer to trusting the younger generation.

Spaceship Orion

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I was learning how to play a new song this week, ‘Spaceship Orion’ by the Ozark Mountain Daredevils. It’s an old tune I’ve always liked. To me it’s a companion piece to another song I have long known, Neil Young’s classic ‘After the Gold Rush.’ Both songs are about humanity flying to some distant planet, seeking a new home, once earth has been met with ecological disaster. Neil Young’s song is perhaps more optimistic about that future, ending with the lines ‘Flying Mother Nature’s silver seed to a new home in the Sun,’ while the Daredevils end their song with the repeated lines ‘It can’t be like home, it can’t feel like home to you there.’

Of course not. For one thing, it’s imaginary. How many books and stories and movies have there been about humanity setting up new colonies on distant planets? How often we’ve been run through the whole speculative drill about families in suspended animation, whole populations enduring multi-year flights to the ends of the galaxy, waking up to a planet with sufficient atmosphere, water, and acceptable gravity, waiting there for us? The fact that to this point no planet has been found that even remotely fills the bill does not deter the science fiction writers. It’s just not going to happen, I think anybody with their head on straight can see that.

This has always been my problem with the ‘space program,’ with ‘exploring space’—as if exploring something infinite has any practical meaning. What a huge waste of money. Sure, putting satellites into orbit has had some practical value; but manned space flight? It is as much science fiction as science, and always has been. Boys playing with rockets. And now, I fear that it feeds into some dangerous political fantasies. Our current White House regime holds to three interesting ideas, which considered together, make for a scary scenario.

First is protection of the wealthiest in America. The recently passed tax ‘reform’ bill does just that, while offering weak and temporary sops to working Americans. Wages remain stagnant despite what is touted as a red-hot economy, while inflation is ticking up, led by gas prices. To the top economic tier, a great economy means they are making more money, while to the rest of us, it means less value for our income. An extremely rich upper class trailed by a weakening middle class and increasingly desperate lower class is becoming institutionally cemented into our society. Anyone who would mention this or opine that it should be otherwise is, of course, a socialist.

Second is denial of climate change—or at least of man’s role in it. David Brooks wrote a piece years ago (when he still had some cred in conservative circles) about the things conservatives actually believe that they won’t admit. Climate science was one of those things. Most conservative politicians are educated people, they understand basic science and can see the signs all around them. But they can’t admit it, either out of deference to their energy company sponsors or to jolly along the average benighted southern voter. When the occupant of the White House takes America out of the Paris Climate Agreement and works to weaken any environmental laws we do have, the applause from his side of the aisle in congress is deafening.

Third is a fixation on space things. New policy directives call for a return to the moon and eventually flights to Mars, for renting space to rich guys who love rockets. In several of his recent disjointed ramblings, the Dissembler in Chief has mentioned how rich guys love rockets; this left many wondering where he was headed, what he meant—as if he ever really means anything. Where this comes from is anybody’s guess: so here’s mine.

A scenario of many of the science fiction stories about inhabiting the moon, Mars, and beyond posits a happy future on extra-terrestrial colonies—for a lucky few. Those lucky few are, of course, the wealthiest. This seems like outlandish speculation, except the idea of all our official resources being focused on the happiness of a tiny percentage of rich people is rapidly becoming reality. Further, we can officially deny the effects of climate change, but in private, keep a weather eye out for those changes. If our toadying to the energy companies and their campaign donations leads to increasing environmental straits, we ought to have a plan. And so that plan, being promulgated even as we speak, is to intensify our efforts in space, particularly manned exploration of other planets. We must prepare to set up those colonies for rich people if/when everything goes south. Yes, the whole idea is still as much science fiction as science, but I’d bet anything that our administration in Washington is more informed by movies like The Martian and Interstellar than actual science.

Let’s face it. Earth is the only planet where humans will ever live. Let’s work to save it, and stop with these science fiction scenarios in which only the blessed few may thrive on a distant orb. I like the song ‘Spaceship Orion,’ but I realize it’s only a song.

As for my theory about where the Occupant in Chief is headed with his space talk, you may think it’s a little far-fetched. Maybe I’m being paranoid and getting carried away. After all, setting up colonies for rich people, while denying the opportunity to the vast run of humanity, would require having some kind of enforcement in place, some kind of Space Force, and I haven’t heard anybody suggesting that we start a Space Force. Have you?

Edna Gets Around

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Sometimes I think we fall into using certain locutions, because they express our innate desire to be seen as sympathetic, or right-thinking. Sometimes, if we press further into the facts of the matter, those locutions turn out to be simply nonsensical. Here is my current example.

I have been reading American poetry that deals with the seasons: Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Most poetry collections include an introduction that offers biographical and critical material, and puts the writer’s work into cultural or historical context. These same themes are also reworked when I visit Wikipedia or Britannica Online for further information. Of Edna St. Vincent Millay, one thing is said repeatedly—I believe I read it in three sources, if not four. ‘Millay won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1923, only the third woman to win the prize.’ Impressive, no? It is sad, I think, that we continue to count women’s accomplishments by which number each woman who achieves something can claim. Good for Edna to haul in one of those coveted Pulitzers, and only the third woman to do so!

Then I got curious. She won her Pulitzer in 1923. The Pulitzer Prizes were established in 1917. The prize for poetry is not given every year. By the time Millay got hers, there had been five winners: Sara Teasdale, Carl Sandburg, Margaret Widdemer, Edward Arlington Robinson, and Millay. Yes, she was ‘only the third woman to win,’ but at that point, women had dominated the award. Women would go on to do very well, with Amy Lowell, Leonora Speyer, Audrey Wurdemann, Marya Zaturenska, Gwendolyn Brooks, Marianne Moore, and many others winning. Over the years, men have won more, but it would be a challenge to come up with a female poet who has deserved a Pulitzer and not won.

I think it would serve as better history, and indeed give credit to women poets, if the sources on Edna St. Vincent Millay said, ‘Millay won a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1923, the third woman to do so in a field dominated up to that point by women.’

Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) was notoriously promiscuous, taking many lovers, a practice that persisted unabated after her marriage. She wrote the famous verse:

My candle burns at both ends,

It will not last the night.

But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—

It gives a lovely light.

The idea of a candle burning at both ends is often interpreted to mean that her lovers were both male and female. She had no children, and her biographers note that in her life she had two abortions—in a time when such procedures were terribly dangerous.

She wrote of all seasons, but in a life as unconventional as hers, she was never going to mimic the traditional themes of seasonal literature. In the poem ‘Spring’ she asks, ‘To what purpose, April, do you return again?’ She is unimpressed by the resurrection of life, and the thought that death is never final, because:

Life in itself

Is nothing,

An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs,

It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,

April

Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.

More stirring to her is the death of beauty, as exemplified by autumn. In ‘The Death of Autumn’ she writes that when the reeds die and grasses are fetched off by the wind, she feels the weight of the year in her heart.

I know that beauty must ail and die,

And will be born again,–but ah, to see

Beauty stiffened, staring up at the sky!

Oh Autumn! Autumn!—What is the Spring to me?

As with most poets, Millay concentrates on spring and autumn, but summer also seems to hold special meaning for her. In her poignant ‘Sonnet XXVII’ she writes:

I know I am but summer to your heart,

And not the full four seasons of the year . . .

And in the poem ‘Song,’ she writes of summer:

Gone, gone again is Summer the lovely,

Gone again on every side,

Lost again like a shining fish from the hand

Into the shadowy tide.

Biographers have theorized that Millay’s sense of loss at the passing of another summer is a reference to her own childlessness, another fertile season spent without fecundity. But as far as I can see, there is nothing in her life to indicate she ever longed to have children, and the evidence indicates she was fully capable.

Millay is another example of the fact that the seasons will always be seen as similes for the progress of human life, both its cyclicity and its impermanence. And when that life is unconventional, so is the poetry it produces.

 

 

Uncut Pages in Burroughs

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Last night I was reading Winter Sunshine by John Burroughs. Recent editions of Burroughs’s original books are hard to come by: today we have mostly anthologies and collections of his hundreds of nature essays. This was a 1908 edition of Winter Sunshine, and in the midst of the essay ‘Autumn Tides’ I was much surprised to find two uncut pages.

Let me tell you, if you don’t know, about uncut pages. Books are printed and bound using large sheets called octavos, meaning that there are eight pages to a sheet. The sheet is printed and folded into a unit called a signature. The signatures are assembled into their proper order, then run through a finisher that cuts the edges so the pages are all separate. Sometimes, the cutter misses a few pages. Sometimes it misses many. In the old days, this was common, and one could encounter uncut pages with some regularity. A person who could read and write was likely to carry, or have handy a penknife, with which it was an easy operation to smoothly slice open the uncut pages. I have read entries in old journals about the pleasures of finding uncut pages, like unwrapping a gift, or opening a door into a new world.

I used my Swiss Army knife. I was being careful, since this was a library copy, borrowed through interlibrary loan from the Abbey Library in Conception, Missouri. As I continued through Burroughs’s wonderful musings about the changing seasons, I was struck by the fact that I was the first person reading this essay in this volume. Almost exactly one-hundred years, and never had anyone opened these pages. This is a loss: people should always be reading John Burroughs.

I have been reading and writing about the seasons on earth for more than fifteen years. In my ever-expanding book, I have written chapters about the science of the seasons, the measuring of the seasons with calendars, the mythology of the seasons, and the holidays based on the seasons. Now I am working on the chapter about music and literature of the seasons. This has led me to many of the great nature writers—Emerson, Thoreau, Dickinson, Millay, Muir, Teale, Borland, Beston, Dillard, and of course, Burroughs. Of these, I find Burroughs the very best.

His essay ‘A Sharp Lookout,’ from the book Signs and Seasons (which I am reading in an 1886 first edition, borrowed from Grinnell College Library) begins by noting that one need not travel the globe to see unique and interesting climatic features: if one will only be still and patient, and keep a sharp lookout, no matter where one lives, all the seasons will pass by in pageant, like new and strange countries. Burroughs’s writing is beautiful and deep, but the depth comes from close observation, not mystical thought. He is spiritual, but not superstitious. In ‘A Sharp Lookout’ he cautions against things like ascribing innate intelligence to trees, or the ability of animals to predict weather. He writes of finding a frog in hibernation in November, having made its hibernaculum beneath the thinnest layer of leaves, surely an indication of a mild winter ahead. But the sharp lookout must persist, and he found the ensuing winter to be long and unusually cold. He sought out his frog in spring and found it no worse for a bad choice of winter domicile.

In the essay ‘Phases of Farm Life,’ he relates the chores on a farm more closely to the seasons than any other writer, save perhaps Laura Ingalls Wilder. By midsummer hay-mowing time, ‘The men are in the meadows by half-past four, or five, and work an hour or two before breakfast.’ Sugar making comes during ‘. . . the equipoise of the season: the heat of the day fully balances the frost of the night.’ Interesting to note that when he writes of farm life, he uses the old, Biblical terms ‘seedtime and harvest’ instead of spring and autumn.

Reading Burroughs is like entering a wonderful world we are all too rapidly leaving behind. I am as moved by his paragraphs as I am by the sense that it is a lost world. The very thought that I can still cut pages and enter that world is as close to a spiritual experience as I am likely to have in this life.