Sunday, June 26, 2016

wild things: frogs, turtles, merganser, maybe, daisy, rose, buttercup, deer, a book report, josie and buck, fireflies

Frogs frogs and more frogs.

Mergansers. Unless they are ruddy ducks. Or, you know, something like that. Josie likes to greet them as soon as he hits water.

Toad. One of several lurking. I have to be careful when mowing.

Daisy and Buttercup. Wild things getting along.

Tortoises. All over the place. Making tracks. I like the idea that this land we live on is really just the back of a tortoise. That we all live atop a turtle’s shell. But on what does the turtle live?

Roses. Bees, something like 37 species. Flies, 800 species of fly. Mosquitoes, a few thousand or million just all that one species: pesky. And butterflies, big and small. Insects, in general. A plethora. The incessant movement of insects. The wild, ecstatic buzzing of insects. Ah, but the roses smell so sweet. I like this passage from Farley Mowat’s People of the Deer:
Yet we were forced to wear sweaters and even caribou skin jackets. The flies did that to us. They rose from the lichens at our feet until they hung like a malevolent mist about us and took on the appearance of a low-lying cloud. Milugia (black flies) and kiktoriak (mosquitoes) came in such numbers that their presence actually gave me a feeling of physical terror. There was simply no evading them. ... At times a kind of insanity would seize us and we would drop everything and run wildly in any direction until we were exhausted.
When I first read People of the Deer several years ago, I was impressed by the Ihalmiut, who ate only meat and indeed without meat could not survive; that without their way of life, they could not survive. And they did not survive. So what happened? In a rudimentary nutshell, it seems someone came along and sold them a bill of goods, told them something like: You can have a better life and I can show you, help you, here, do it my way, it will work, you’ll be happy, you’ll have everything you need and more. And for a minute or two, it seemed to work. It seemed good. It seemed right. But then that joker left for other profit and what he left behind didn’t work. And The Joker didn’t care—no longer his business. And so people starved, searched for food, died. A few survived. Mowat came along and wrote about them. But why did they believe The Joker in the first place? Easy. Don’t you want a better life? And shouldn’t the question be the other way around? Like: Why did The Joker want these people to change?

So what is your circumstance?


I took a video of Josie and the buck that includes me, on the porch, behind camera with dozens of mosquitoes, ergo wildly unsteady hand, and, just for the record, Elliott at my feet.

Wild: heat, wind, rain, cooling off. Wild lightening, thunder, long days. Last night the shooshing of rain over fields covered by a blinking mist of fireflies.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

now entering vagabondia

I took Songs of Dogs, an Anthology Selected and Arranged by Robert Frothingham, a small book from 1920 that I bought several years ago at my favorite bookstore, Bookman’s Alley, in Evanston, Illinois, off the shelf and climbed into bed. As usual, Josie crawled under the covers, settled by my side.

When living seems but little worth
    And all things go awry,
I close the door, we journey forth —
    My dog and I!

For books and pen we leave behind,
    But little careth he;
His one great joy in life is just
    To be with me.

He notes by just one upward glance
    My mental attitude,
As on we go past laughing stream
    And singing wood.

The soft winds have a magic touch
    That brings to care release,
The trees are vocal with delight,
    The rivers sing of peace.

How good it is to be alive!
    Nature, the healer strong,
Has set each pulse with life athrill
    And joy and song.

Discouragement! ’T was but a name,
    And all things that annoy,
Out in the lovely world of June
    Life seemeth only joy!

And ere we reach the busy town,
    Like birds my troubles fly,
We are two comrades glad of heart —
    My dog and I!
Alice J. Cleator
Every morning Josie and I walk to the top of the riverbank where we find three graves. We come first to Queenie’s—I see her jumping and prancing, happy to see me, eagerly saying hello, and I say “Good morning, Missie.” Next is Goldie: he sits like Buddha Cat, still, expressionless, just here, I am, he says, and I say “Good morning, Goldie, here, I am, too.” Then Buster, near the very edge of the bank, just under the low-slung branches of evergreen. Like the Sphinx he looks out over the river, taking it all in, watching; he hears me now, knows I am there, turns his head slightly to give me a look, thumps his tail, then back to watching. “Good morning, Buster,” I say. “I love you, buddy.” Then Josie and I turn back home, follow the trail to the cabin. Sometimes Elliott is on the trail, off to the side, he waits to ambush Josie. They race home. As Elliott passes, he gives Josie a bump.

The fields are strewn with the colors of early summer: buttercup, daisy, field pussytoes, goat’s beard, orange hawkweed, trefoil, stitchwort. But—Bookman’s Alley: dimly lit, cavernous, a labyrinth of rooms of books old, used, sometimes rare; threadbare rugs; chairs and stools covered with Native American blankets; a saddle; sheet music, tables, low-watt lamps, artwork; the quiet of a library along with the whispering cacophony of stuff and books; books on shelves, stacked on stools, stacked in brown paper bags; just stacked and stacked; and Billie Holiday perhaps it was, sometimes, softly in the background, “Gloomy Sunday,” “God Bless the Child”; nobody telling you go here, go there, read this, buy that, what’s new, what’s the latest; and no 10% off, just offerings.

I spent many lunch hours in Bookman’s Alley, when working at Northwestern. It was just a block or so from campus and its subtlety lured me in. The proprietor sat near the door behind a desk stacked with books. Perhaps as I entered he looked up, greeted me with a nod, and of course I could ask him questions, engage in conversation, pass the time, but I wanted to be on my own so into the depths I would go, perhaps emerging my half hour or 45 minutes later with another Sigurd Olson, or Beautiful Joe by Marshall Saunders (1894), People of the Deer by Farley Mowat with drawings by Samuel Bryant (1952), and my favorite, such a find!, Lucky The Famous Foundling, with photographs by Nina Leen, text by Ray Mackland (1951). Lucky was “ … a mongrel dog who, by purest chance, was saved from certain death on the Texas plains. ...”

Page 43, Nina Leen and Lucky, a self-portrait.

From Songs of Dogs:

He was sitting on a doortstep as I went strolling by;
A lonely little beggar with a wistful, homesick eye —
And he was n’t what you’d borrow
And he was n’t what you’d steal —
But I guessed his heart was breaking,
So I whistled him to heel.

They had stoned him through the city streets and
          naught the city cared,
But I was heading outward and the roads are
          sweeter shared,
So I took him for a comrade and I whistled him
          away —
On the road to Vagabondia that lies across the day.

Yellow dog he was; but, bless you — he was just
          the chap for me!
For I’d rather have an inch of dog than miles of
So we stole away together on the road that has no
With a new-coined day to fling away and all the
          stars to spend!

Oh, to walk the road at morning, when the wind is
          blowing clean,
And the yellow daisies fling their gold across a
          world of green —
For the wind it heals the heartaches and the sun it
          dries the scars,
On the road to Vagabondia that lies beneath the

’T was the wonder of the going cast a spell about
          our feet —
We walked because the world was young, because
          the way was sweet;
And we slept in wild-rose meadows by the little
          wayside farms,
Till the Dawn came up the highroad with the dead
          moon in her arms.

Oh, the Dawn it went before us through a shining
          lane of skies,
And the Dream was at our heartstrings and the
          light was in our eyes,
And we made no boast of glory and we made no
          boast of birth,
On the road to Vagabondia that lies across the
Dana Burnet
An online search turned up Poems by Dana Burnet, a 1915 book that you can download from Google Books, which I did, thinking it was kind of a find, but boy, wouldn’t it have been more of a find if found by chance on a dusty shelf at Bookman’s Alley? I searched specifically for “Dana Burnet” and for “The Road to Vagabondia” and found the poem, as originally written, in dialect, no “h”s, as in ’E was sittin’ on a doorstep … not only in the book of Burnet’s poems but also in a 1915 edition of the Los Angeles Evening Herald, and I am glad of it. Does it matter that the book is digital, stored somewhere now on my computer, untouchable, never to sit on a shelf, to gather dust? Does it matter that it is not a century-old solid thing once owned and read by another, perhaps many others? That there is no inscription inside the front cover? Merry Christmas 1933, from Father. Does it matter that the book is not an object with a story of its own?

It was a chilly, rainy morning. I was sitting on the floor in the loft with my laptop on my lap, putting off the day’s work, stealing a little time in pursuit of dogged happenstance. Sitting on the floor in the loft because Elliott and Josie were in pursuit of something they had seen earlier scurrying about outside and both wanted to be out on the upper deck, sticking their heads through the slats of the railing, peering below, surveying the yard and the trees, whining a bit—Josie whining, Elliott not—and I have no idea what it was all about. But I sat by the door to the upper deck so I could let them in when they were ready, so Elliott would not put more holes in the screen that I imagine those pesky mosquitoes squeeze through, and while sitting there I googled “Alice J. Cleator” (a prolific writer of hymns) and I googled “Nina Leen” (fascinating! a Life Magazine photographer—there’s a short bio and many images here or just go straight to the squirrel named Tommy dressed in frocks) and I googled “Dana Burnet,” found his book of poetry, downloaded it, brought it home, as it were, and by the time Josie and Elliott came in from the deck the morning felt so sweetly lost, given over to the drip of rain, strains of poetry, the lure of images, a critter outside—like a trip to Vagabondia!, and we stayed there on that road for pretty much the whole of the day, and that night I crawled into bed with Farley Mowat, the slightly browned pages of People of the Deer (first blowing away the dust), and so then I traveled even further, and Josie, as always, was at my side, and Elliott was off somewhere, and there we were, just a story or two, tucked under a dim light.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

“Said hey old man how can you stand / To think that way” (BR Hornsby)

On the night that transpired between June 6 and 7, I had the following dream preceded by a series of dimly lit scenes involving groups of people mostly from school days, grade school to high school, and in every scene it was my (uncelebrated) birthday. The scenes took place in a bar, outside an office building, a lobby, the streets of Chicago, and in the library of the university I attended, in which there was now a zoo. Every scene left me feeling very much alone, as if I were an outsider. In the bar scene, the woman sitting on my right told me I was “bitchy” and the woman on my left did not speak to me. Then, I had this dream:
I am driving through a hard rain. All I see is the road and the rain bouncing off the road. A car in front of me fishtails, spins, stops. I slow down, pass it on the right, continue driving slowly keeping my eyes on the road. In the back of my mind I am thinking I should look up from the road now and then because if I don’t I might miss something. But I do not look up, and the road disappears. Below me, surrounding me, all white. I think: “Damn, I missed a curve.” I recognize the white as sky and realize that at some point I am going to drop out of the sky. I think: “I am just west of Negaunee.” Then I drop out of the sky, just me, no car, falling through the sky, and as I fall I see everything below clearly. My mind processes the information. Yes, west of Negaunee. Yes, a sprawl of businesses and winding streets, open space, now a building here, a car there, a tree to my right, open space below, thunk. I land on a lawn, in the middle of neatly placed stuff, like a yard sale. It is a sunny summer day. I believe there is a woman standing nearby, a customer, and she stares at me. I begin crawling toward two women sitting in white plastic Adirondack chairs. Their backs are to me; they are facing the street. I crawl until I am behind them. I can barely speak, but say, “I need the police. I need a doctor.” They stand up, turn, stare at me. I realize they must be suspicious of me. I have just fallen out of the sky. Maybe I said, “I just fell out of the sky.” I did say, again: “I need the police. I need a doctor.” The police were necessary because I knew my plane would be falling out of the sky, too, and it did, a little old-fashioned plane, red with a silver propeller on its nose, kind of like a toy. It fell out of the sky nose first, hit the ground, thunk. How did I get over to the plane? Maybe I ran. I was panicky, thinking about Josie, was he OK? I looked through an open door into the plane. Josie crawled out of a partially squashed crate. He crawled into my arms. I sat down in a chair, more like a bench, and then there was a policeman and he asked if I needed anything. I did not speak, just held on tight to Josie.

But for Elliott, this post might have ended here, with the end of the dream and the original studio version of “The Way It Is.” You see, the morning after the dream, I wrote it down and read it over many times, rewriting a bit here and there, trying to get it right, trying to capture it. Each time I read it, it made me feel sad. I was thinking, though, that it might be this blog post, so it had a title, “when dreams are the way it is.” By the end of the day the title had shrunk to “the way it is,” which is a song written by Bruce Hornsby, so I watched and listened to the video on YouTube (see above). I thought I might pull the album out, listen to it before bed, but then I got caught up in the Cubs game.

The next day I woke up relieved—the only dream I remembered was about sorting coupons, about thirty seconds worth of sorting big, fancifully drawn, sepia-toned coupons. I went about my morning, feeding Josie and Elliott, having tea, that sort of thing, and then I noticed an album pulled halfway out of the record case. It was Bruce Hornsby and The Range, “The Way It Is.” A small hole had been chewed through the edge of the cover.

The record albums are in the loft, pretty much at floor level, as are several of the bookshelves and cubbyholes up there, and every so often Elliott gets into pulling things out of these shelves and cubbyholes, but he’s always left the albums alone. But I had not touched the record, let alone chewed a hole in the cover, and Josie claimed innocence, so what other explanation but the cat?

I played the album—I know it well. Particularly the song “The Way It Is.” But suddenly a line from it popped out and got me thinking that maybe it could help me through what I am finding to be a trying time. We might call this time “Current Events.” That is what we called it in grade school, when we had to read the newspaper or watch the TV news and prepare a report and stand in front of class, deliver the report. What’s the news today? Well, just recently I have stopped paying attention, and, believe me, that has helped, but I needed more, and now I have this song to play, “The Way It Is,” and a line from it that I would like to put on a button.
Said hey old man how can you stand / To think that way
In other news, by Wednesday it was bye-bye birdies. I updated the bird nest slideshow, from egg to gone.

And I began to indulge in “The Way It Is,” discovered marvelous live versions on YouTube. One is from Woodstock 99 with a jammin’ full band (9:49); another is a 2015 performance at the PACE Center in Parker, Colorado, just Bruce, a Steinway, and eleven minutes of, well, it might be a shame to try to reduce it to words, but it’s kind of like falling out of the sky on a beautiful riff going places familiar and not and landing, thunk, safely, life intact.

Here is Bruce Hornsby’s latest, with Mavis Staples.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

bird brains: how do they do it?

Umbrellas walk by
with people hanging on

What could be better.

All week I’ve been keeping an eye on a bird nest down by the river. It is well hidden, small and tidy, on the ground, a deep bowl of woven dry grass tucked into dry grass. Green leaves and a feathery branch of evergreen hang over it. I would never have known it was there but for a bird flying out of that area of brush every day as I approached. She flies so swiftly straight out and away that I cannot get a good look at her, do not know what kind of bird she is. She seems small, dark, but not too dark, maybe with some white on the tail feathers: an impression of long tail feathers flashing white, disappearing across the river. Her action made me curious, so I investigated and found the nest on the leading edge of a piece of ground that used to be at the top of the riverbank. It slid down one spring during the annual rights of erosion. The nest is just up the bank from the trail I walk, about waist high and an arm’s length away. Once I found it, I hurried away, not wanting to disturb, but the next day, or maybe the day after, I leaned in, drew back the canopy of leaves, took a peek inside. I saw blue eggs with brown spots.

It then became my habit to take a quick peek every time I passed by. Soon the eggs were gone, replaced with spent quids of tobacco with beaks. I don’t mean to be cruel; that is the impression received. The eggs are beautiful, then they crack.

Last year, the bird’s nest that caught my eye was tucked into a rafter of the upper deck on the north side of the cabin. It was a robin’s nest, and you may remember that I became somewhat attached to the hatchlings, Grubbs, Stubbs, William, and Fredericka. After all, they were born practically in my house. I worried a bit the day the young birds left the nest—barely able to fly it seemed to me—but I had not worried before then. They seemed safe and snug in their nest under the rafters with mama and papa bird coming and going, as I could well see, with all kinds of whatever to spit up into their little birds’ throats. This year, that nest is vacant, but now, this nest on the ground with these little quids of tobacco. It’s not like I am the only leadfoot traipsing about. There’s Josie and deer and coyotes. Skunk, porcupine, fishers. I’m pretty sure a wolf. My neighbor has seen bears. That the nest might get stepped on? That something higher up the bank get knocked loose and fall on it? Or maybe even the river rising? And overhead—eagles, hawks, turkey vultures. I understand, of course, that there are bird nests everywhere, in the most likely and unlikely of places, and the birds know what they are doing, certainly, and then there’s the law of the wild and all that, but when you see some very ugly baby birds and realize their brains must be no bigger than a speck of dust and there they are, just there on the ground, some kind of weird emotion kicks in.

On Friday, the mother bird did not fly off the nest as I approached; she was not there, and her absence, at that moment, causing such a break in routine, worried me.

On Saturday, I was out at the farmers market most of the day and anyway it rained all day and by evening the mosquitoes were thick. There would be no walk along the river. And last night more rain, more mosquitoes, and the riverbank will be slick with red mud. A walk I do not want to take. But, anyway, and of course, anyway, I need not worry, right? Plenty of birdly ancestors have survived doing much the same thing as this little group by the riveside, only now I’ve seen them, so now I’m interested, and maybe just a bit ridiculously worried. But only a bit.