Sunday, March 27, 2016


On the day I took this photo, I was using my new smartphone. Taking it on a test run before a big trip coming up. 
As you see, the sun was bright (unlike today, which began with rain and then stopped raining and began to sullenly "gray" at us instead).  

But the screen was so reflective and dark that I couldn't even see the image in it. I just hoped I was framing this sole oak leaf caught in a net of pale grass. 

That's what much of life is like—like those blind photos I was taking, I mean—you can't see ahead of time what the outcome will be. You just line up your shot, click the shutter and hope for the best. 

Look at that moss growing greenly! It does my curmudgeon heart good to consider it today, even at a remove, through such a poor simulacrum of life as a digital image. 

As usual, the spring rode in on the wings of red-winged blackbirds, and is unfolding in the woodlands, where bloodroot and skunk cabbage now grow. I know because I see others' photos and posts in my Facebook stream, tracing their botanical wanderings. 

I, however, have been indoors all week. Struggling with technology, glued to screens following primaries and caucuses, Netflixing, reading The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin (a novel that's especially interesting now, in light of the stark competition for the soul of America playing out in our national campaigns and among Americans overall). 

This is how I'm feeling: Unsettled, fragmented, restless, dull. Discontented, bored, exasperated, excited, intermittently hopeful; ready to surprise myself. 

Magic's happening somewhere. Maybe like those bloodroots, buried deep beneath the soil, only shyly and slowly emerging into this inhospitable grayness. 

Why do I suddenly have the image of a mushroom in my head? 

I feel more a sort of humble fungi than that invisible leaf caught in grasses. 

Sunday, March 20, 2016

So early in the spring

Early in the springtime, my lungs need oceans of air. [an everlasting wash of air.]

A huge expanse of sky, where eagles circle...where human eyes can rest on a vast vault of wind-washed blue softened by cloud.

(Do you see her up there, the glorious winged one? Did she hear me speak to her in praise as I moved below, so small and large-hearted through the wildlands?)

Trammeled by months of dimness, small screens, small rooms, small gaze—so close to warmth of hearth, breathing the small air of home—my mind rests on these broad sweeps of land.

The particular beauty of trees on a rise that I have loved for my whole life without ever tiring of their speaking branches, of their shapes curving against the sky, so individual in their ways, complete in themselves.

Before I am ready, I come up against a boundary. [Then the good minute goes.]

It sends my thoughts racing ahead, worrying against peace's edge. Once the boundary-less becomes bound, my large breath begins to shrink...until the wind rattles the grasses, the red-winged blackbirds chirr, and there I am again, back to where I stand.

If you live in a place where the ground does not freeze, then you miss the pleasure of the thaw—that receptive, bodily feel of the earth under your foot yielding once more to your weight, a sensation you may not have even realized you had lost until it is restored to you. It reminds you that the earth is your beloved.

How fair you are, young birch sisters, I think.

Red-osier dogwood, bright kinnikinnick, you that the native peoples honored, I send you good greetings.

O oak-crowned hill, do you feel the reverence with which I approach you? Maybe the rustle of your leaves as I pass is for me.  

On this day, you feel once again in conversation with this earth, like catching up with a relative you have not spoken with for many months, though you were sometimes lonely.

It is more than walking on. Together you walk, reunited.

[Two in the campagna.]

Monday, February 15, 2016

Prairies like palaces

Long ago, I visited the Amalienburg in Munich, a rococo hunting lodge built for an emperor.

The jewel box Hall of Mirrors there is pale blue like this sky, with branching silver tracery and silver sunlight pouring in through wavy glass, and the trees in the parkland outside grow into infinity in a round of silvered mirrors.

All in a circle, like a glade of silver-white birches in the snow.

 I scatter seed on the ground for sparrows. 

For blue jay, peanuts. 

Suet for woodpecker. 

As dusk falls, rabbit will creep out under the moon and glean whatever is left. Tomorrow I will find her small pellets left in the hollows of my footsteps. 

I gaze out at leaden skies and snowflakes falling down, up, sideways, uncertain as feathers riding freezing breaths of wild air.

But once the clouds make the snow, it must needs land. Finally it will settle, on branch, shingle or ice-slick ground. 

Birds speed past. Cold. Yet this morning I heard a cardinal outside my window, singing his breeding territory song, and now the eagles warm and shelter their clutch of three eggs from harm.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Moving toward Betelgeuse

Everybody has chore goals: clean the house/mow the grass/scoop the litterbox.

And more complex, multi-step goals. Like "plant more native flowers this spring," "get rid of 30 years' worth of accumulated possessions," or "find a new place to live that meets the requirements of two people who want very different things" (to name a few of mine).

But sometimes progressing toward some ideal is not exactly a goal. Not in the sense of analysis, problem-solving, list-making, or even about taking least, not in a linear sort of way.

 Can we talk about that?

You encounter moments when you overlap your past with your present, and see the differential. Somehow you've managed to expand your view of the world or yourself. Not because you've cleverly delineated a goal and a plan to reach it; but because you grew toward it all unknowing, like it was the sun.

Over many days or years, you chose to embrace an idea: a way of thinking or experiencing the world that moved you, imprinted itself on your impressionable heart. And you don't realize until your Current Self unexpectedly collides with your Past Self that these selves are no longer the same.

How does this happen?

It's like you're traveling along a spiral, where you come around to some version of yourself every so often and give a nod to the person you were the last time you traveled this path. Maybe you're a star on this cosmic spiral I'm envisioning, and you notice that the luminosity you're emitting has leveled up. Maybe you had been as bright as red Antares, the heart of the Scorpion...and now you're even brighter, moving toward Betelgeuse.

But you realize this only when you juxtapose where you began with where you are now.

The idea that made me think about these encounters with oneself in the first place is the way that some indigenous peoples define "persons," and how that is broadening my circle of compassion and relatives.

All humans are persons, but not all persons are human. All living things are considered persons; and the definition of "living" is wide and deep, encompassing mountains, mosses, waterfalls, lakes, winds, clouds, the animate Earth itself. All our relations.

I am still thinking about ancestors, the land and their relationship to one another, you see.

How much wonder does such a personed world hold, how much sacredness and magic? This way of seeing wanted me to claim it. I know this because encountered it many times, was on its trail in books, poems, articles, interviews, art, the leaves along the pathway stirring in its wake.

I've thought of animals as persons for a very long time—but not mountains.

I've thought of birds as persons for a long time—but only more recently bees.

What I'm saying is that if I can't see a fish as a kind of person, then I am the one lacking, not the fish.

So good news for people like me who are not planful. Who don't have words for what they're seeking until it shows up like a gift. Some part of you may be mysteriously working away at finding that thing and making you a better person, through an underground process that neatly bypasses your tendency to get stuck in your head.

Well played, Evolving Self.

Monday, January 4, 2016

The great grandmothers

My great grandmother Zuzanna Kryvoš came to America in 1920 at age 49 from Važec, Liptovský Mikuláš, Slovakia.

My great grandmother Mary Coils emigrated to America in 1906 at age 8 from Houghton le Spring, County Durham, England. 

My great-great grandmother Christina Mathilda Andersdotter came to America around 1885 from 
Vasketorp, Frodinge socken, Smaland, Sweden. I was given her name.

My fourth great-grandmother—my father's grandmother—is unknown to me. She lived in Slovakia when it was still part of the Kingdom of Hungary, before World War I. Her son, my grandfather, came to America and volunteered to fight in that war, maybe for the opportunity to become a naturalized U.S. citizen, which he later did.

I wonder, did she ever hear from him again? Did he tell his children about his mother? If he did, my father did not tell me. Nor did I ask.

Many things were not spoken of.

But now I want to know.

They all came here, but the one. And in due time they died.

The children the grandmothers left behind, and then their children, moved away.

I am the only one of all my family who still lives in this city they came to, this northern city on a great river. 

I come across their ghosts. Their traces linger in the digitized records I find online. I find their names listed in city directories and censuses, marriage and death records. Their gravestones stand in the military cemetery.

From these bare facts, I piece together fragments of their lives. 

The many houses where they lived, so close to where I live today.

The many children they bore, some who died while heartbreakingly young. 

What sorrows, I think. What difficult and full lives they must have led! All shaped by that brave and bold adventure: leaving behind their homelands and families to roll the dice on America. A different country, a new language, and a young flour milling city by the river. 

I met just one of my great grandmothers, and when I was still too young and shy to ask her proper questions, like: Why did your family decide to cross the ocean? How did they choose Minnesota? Did you ever go back? Do you know your great-grandmother's name?

I am rolling this thought around in my mind: Maybe all the places our families have lived are like our ancestors, part of our DNA. Prairies in our eyelashes, rivers in our bloodstreams, oceans in our heartbeats, oaks in our bones.

I have no children. My mother is gone. My family is not here. I am reaching back to these grandmothers, discovering relations I never knew who cannot be called strangers. Here, I walk in the footsteps of generations who never dreamt of me.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

A human-shaped life

This is Fort Zachary Taylor State Park in Key West, our March getaway.
I should just write about that: The butterflies, pelicans and gypsy roosters. The soft clacking of palm fronds outside our open bedroom window at night, which kept fooling us into thinking it was raining. The charismatic otherness of Key West—its roguish uncle, dirt-under-the-fingernails, bootlegger brand of romance. It was lovely.
I can't, though. When I tried to, my brain formed a perfect logjam. 
Not writer's block. Writer's block is not why I've been away. It's more: I feel increasingly uncomfortable with the amount of time I spend in front of screens, and I haven't figured out what to do about it vis-a-vis blogging.
(Yes, there's an immense irony to writing online bewailing how spending hours staring at screens keeps us from getting out and experiencing the world with our senses.)
These words I read yesterday hit me like a truck:
"The present is going by and we are not in it. Maybe when the present is past, we will enjoy sitting in dark rooms and looking at pictures of it, even as the present keeps arriving in our absence." —Wendell Berry

Right there, one of my deepest aging-person fears: That writing, blogging, photography, reading, television, social media have already taken the place of living the majority of my life, and that I have no time left to waste on a single one of them. 
And by living my life, I mean directly experiencing, engaging, smelling, touching and feeling it, instead of living through another's experience. 
Will I feel comforted to know when I have grown too old to walk under the trees that I have 80 Pinterest boards where I've collected pictures of somebody else's present? 
No. (Though they are really nice boards.)
My Rational Side recognizes this is not an all-or-nothing proposition. I have loved engaging with many of these activities. They have enriched my life and experience, and given me a way to contribute my own voice to the Great Conversation of the living. I may be missing the point by contemplating heaving them overboard.
But my Fear Side says: Every minute you stare at a screen (a page, a monitor, a viewfinder) you are frittering away another precious moment of your time on Earth, human. 
"Yet our organic attunement to the local earth is thwarted by our ever-increasing intercourse with our own signs. Transfixed by our technologies, we short-circuit the sensorial reciprocity between our breathing bodies and the bodily terrain. Human awareness folds in upon itself, and the senses—once the crucial site of our engagement with the wild and animate earth—become mere adjuncts of an isolate and abstract mind bent on overcoming an organic reality that now seems disturbingly aloof and arbitrary."—David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous

I am not alone in these questions. A certain restless contingent of web-loggers are squirming like wild salmon swimming for home against a raging river current, trying to find to a place that feels more home, more authentic, more wild and human-shaped. 
So where do I stand? Does writing make my or others' experience richer, clearer, more meaningful? Or does it keep my awareness "folded in upon myself" and distract me from living in closer connection with physical reality?

Maybe the real question is: What will give me peace right now? 
So I needed to post this. And that seems to answer at least one of my many questions. 

And what the hey, here's another photo from Key West, where such fraught questions take sail on turquoise seas, never again to trouble the horizon.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Acts of man

A couple of days ago, a friend posted a photo of a rhinoceros on Facebook. There was a bloody stump where its horn had been and it was sinking to its knees, dying from an unspeakable act of cruelty.

My friend wrote a poem to express his rage toward the poachers who killed the rhino for its horn. Punched in the gut with grief and sickened by a glimpse of this horror, I voiced my sadness on the thread of comments. 

Later that day, a wildlife rehab organization posted a photo of a bald eagle in Alaska caught in a leg hold trap. A woman found and tried to rescue the eagle. She was charged with interfering with legal trapping. 

The magnificent wildling, who had broken both of its wings trying to escape, was beyond healing and was put down.  

Two days earlier, I’d finished a book with several excruciating scenes of animal cruelty that seemed to be a commentary on how much damage that deadened humans wreak on all around them.

Sadness sticks to sadness. It accreted into a mass that day. A heaviness, an injury no one could see. Probably everyone who saw those photos felt injured by them. What did they do with that injury, I wondered? How do we carry such sights, such knowledge? 

Sometimes we are afraid that we can’t. We look away. Not many look away with indifference…we look away in sorrow. 

We look away, with a grief so keen we are afraid to give ourselves over to it, lest we sink into it whole, never to rise again. 

We feel rage, like my friend, or are nearly crippled by the pity of it, how helpless we feel, how appalled and shamed by our species’ atrocities.

The only way out is through, though. 

Maybe our compassion, even an ocean and a continent away, helps heal the wounds suffered by that rhinoceros, that eagle, our planet. It certainly helps our own humanity. If we look away too much, we are only pretending evil doesn’t exist, and help no one at all. It is right to feel pain. But it is still hard. 

I begin to think that the fall of man really did happen, and keeps happening. Not with God and the serpent, but when humanity chose this path that views the earth and everything on it as a “resource,” i.e. a commodity, with no spirit, sentience or intrinsic worth beyond the money for which it can be sold.

That evening, I sat down with my Native Gardener’s Companion

I began to plan the new gardens I am going to plant come spring, and all the caterpillars, bees, butterflies and birds they will feed, and my heavy heart began to ease. Helping, the only cure I know. 

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