Archive for May, 2007

Some pictures for Jenny of spring in the Pacific NW part of the U.S.

May 28, 2007

But the rest of you might enjoy them, too.

Between the garden, houseguests, and trying to get my manuscript together, I’m in overload and don’t have the concentration to write something creative here. So here are a few pictures instead.

Here are a couple of my friends the hummingbirds. Ralph and I went to town very early this morning for the Sunday papers and I forgot to check their food before I left. Ben went out to have a cigarette (I am now more than three days without one) and said they were dive bombing him, shaking their wings (he couldn’t tell if the middle feather was extended or not), and cursing in hummer talk. They are calmer here, they’ve been fed:


Today I counted 12 at one time, but it’s rather difficult to get a reasonably focused picture when they’re all buzzing around. And the feeder is in the shade most of the time, so you can’t see the irridescence of their feathers.

Here is what spring looks like down by the river:


The bright blue flowers are larkspur, on stems about 3 feet (1 meter) tall. The white flowers that look a little like Queen Anne’s Lace are really something called cow parsnip. The foliage is very different from QAL, as you can see. This combination stretches for about 1/4 mile along the river near us.

The building in this picture is Ben’s workshop. The orange/light yellow flowers are “red hot poker.” The orioles love this plant, which is why I was hoping the strange bird I saw the other day was an oriole. The tall spindly stuff next to the pokers is horseradish. The branch you can see just above the rain gauge (I’m glad I took this picture, I didn’t realize the tree is growing over the rain gauge) is a sumac, just unfolding now, that turns neon orange in the fall.


That’s it for tonight. . .

Think globally, act locally

May 23, 2007

I’m not very good at being retired, I think. When interesting opportunities present themselves, I find myself jumping up and waving my hand saying, “Me! Me! I’ll do it!” when anyone with an ounce of common sense would look the other way or, in Army parlance, take one step backward.

I am getting to that time of life when you look backward and say, “Things were so much simpler then.” But people have been doing that for centuries, no, millenia, and while it may be true, it’s basically irrelevant.

The world changes, and people must change with it.

But some things are, in my opinion, nearly universally true. One of them is this: If we are all to get along, then we have to communicate with each other.

And I’m not sure we’re doing a very good job of that now.

We have more ways to communicate and to communicate more quickly than we have ever had. But it feels to me as if there is less real communication going on than at any time during my lifetime. We are polarized as people, in this camp or that. I’m not just talking about the “red state/ blue state” phenomenon (I think this is largely a media and wonk invention). But we seem to be losing the ability to empathize with others, in our own culture and in other cultures, just as the world is shrinking faster than the ice floes we’re all worried about.

We line up in our positions and take a stand. If someone disagrees with us, we shout at them or call them stupid. But too often, if you quiz someone about a position they’ve taken, they know very little of the real facts behind the problem. They’ve been sold a sound bite or a rallying cry, and they will stick to it without any real understanding of the issues involved.

Communication is inherently two-way. You talk, I listen. I talk, you listen. And we don’t just listen, we hear, we register somewhere deep in our cores the problems you are concerned about, the problems I am concerned about. And we internalize them. I may absolutely disagree with a solution you propose to something that is bothering you, but I understand at a gut level why it concerns you and am willing to help try to find a solution amenable to us both.

My needs and interests may be different than yours, but that doesn’t make them any more important. We are both people.

But none of this happens unless we freely communicate with and listen to each other.

An opportunity has presented itself to perform a little experiment, to see if it’s still possible to bridge some of those ideological gaps and get people actually talking not to, but with, each other.

I’m not going to say a lot more about it at this time. There are some “i”s to be dotted and “t”s to be crossed first. It’s very much a local sort of thing, but it feels like a step forward. And it involves Marianne’s salon going live, face to face. I’ll update things here periodically.

Wish me luck.

The new welfare class

May 23, 2007

That’s what my husband Ben calls the hummingbirds. We have a yard and garden full of blooming things, but I have a dozen or so birds (apparently the contingent that wintered in Mexico has finally worked their way this far north) who squabble consistently over my little 6-flower hummingbird feeder.

It’s far better than the soaps on TV. They each have a personality, and although some of them keep a fairly low profile, others would rather fight than eat. There is one that I call The Guardian (Ben calls her The Bitch) who likes to sit on a nearby branch and monitor the feeding. When she thinks it’s time to do so, she descends like a Valkyrie and wipes the feeder clean with her beak and wings. It stays empty, on the average, for about 10 seconds.

There is another bird who is very nervous. She is a problem, because she hovers and buzzes the entire time she’s eating. Ben says she probably never saw a flower with a footrest before. But her buzzing makes the other birds think The Guardian is about to descend, and they all start flying around and beaking each other and generally behaving like unruly toddlers.

When I said that it was like having a dozen preschool kids, Ben said, “Well, look at the bright side. You don’t have to give them baths, wipe their bottoms, or pick up their toys.” Point taken.

This morning I got up at 6 a.m. because I knew the feeder was low on food. I made some the night before but hadn’t refilled it. My feeder holds about a quart of syrup. I filled it at 6 a.m. By 6 p.m. it was bone dry. I made some more food, but since it takes awhile to cool, I took the feeder down so the birds wouldn’t find it empty and abandon it. Besides, it needed cleaning. For the next half hour three of the rufous birds fought fiercely over who owned the airspace where the feeder used to be, all the while surrounded by colorful flowers.

But a quart in 12 hours–I think I’ve created a monster. Today at any given time (at least while I was home–it’s my writing day in town), there were from 4 to 7 birds on the feeder. Yes, 7–there are times when they share not just the perch but the feeding hole. The little green Calliopes are better at this than the Ruby-throats.

So there’s new food cooling downstairs, the feeder is clean, and I’ll probably be up by 6 tomorrow again.

They are so beautiful.

A few thoughts about writing, poetry, communications

May 21, 2007

One of the sometimes seemingly strange things that poets like to do is get together and read their work to each other to solicit comments. From an outsider’s perspective, this may seem mostly self-serving, an opportunity to solicit praise. In fact, just the opposite is true.

What happens in poetry critique groups is that the other half of the poetry contract, the reader/listener, has a chance to let the poet know how the reader interprets his words. Poetry critiques that are composed largely of “Oh, that’s so wonderful” are mostly useless. In the best of them I get feedback about interpretation, misinterpretation, confusion, and even a little chiding when I’ve taken too long to get started or rambled on too long.

Poetry is largely composed of highly compressed language, so if it’s not done correctly, the results can often be something that wasn’t intended. This is not always a bad thing. I am sometimes amazed to hear someone reading into my piece things I had never thought of and certainly had no intention of putting in there. But what those interpretations mean is that somehow my work has penetrated the reader’s consciousness and created some new connections. This is a good thing, and it highlights an important perspective about nearly all writing, in my opinion.

There are lots of reasons for writing, and what I’m about to say does not apply to most keeping of journals or diaries. But it does apply to poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction, journalism, and even to some degree to things like technical writing or recipe construction.

Writing intended to be shared is essentially a contract. The writer puts it out there. The reader consumes it. Because no two of us have the same life experience and perspectives, because we can’t therefore share a common semantics (this is true even among those who share the same primary language and even more true of those whose native languages differ, a common problem in translation of works), the final product that the reader consumes will be colored by his experience of the world. It may be very different than what the poet intended. But if it creates a connection between the world of the poem and the world of the reader, the work has succeeded in its promary purpose.

One of the problems poets run into is that they know the backstory and so the poem is clear to them in a highly condensed form. But it may muddle, confuse, and disappoint the reader. I think the same thing is true in blogging sometimes.

The comments of a blog are the place where we can get these details sorted out and actually achieve some level of communication. So I am grateful to the readers of my blog who take the time to question things they don’t understand or agree with. I don’t expect to use my blog as a place for proselytizing my position but rather as a place for making my thoughts clear and sharing them.

I like knowing what you’re thinking, both when you agree with me and when you disagree. And I’ve learned from you in both cases.

If blogging has any real purpose, I think it’s mostly about communications. I love the little virtual community I’ve found here. It’s a rare day that goes by that something doesn’t tweak my interest. But don’t worry about challenging ideas you find here, and please don’t be offended when I do the same in your blog space.

There’s too damned little real communications in our very complicated world these days, and I think that’s a recipe for disaster. So I’m going to keep crying out into cyberspace on a regular a basis as I can.

Sunday morning, and it’s raining

May 20, 2007

I attribute this mainly to two purchases. Yesterday I bought a) more bedding plants that love hot weather, and b) some supplemental garden watering equipment. I may be days before I get to test any of them.

The hummingbird wars are in full swing this morning. We’ve generally had 3 or 4 of them flitting around the feeder, but as if cued this morning, 7 showed up all at once and engaged in about 20 minutes of aerial maneuvers and combat. They made me laugh out loud at times.

Yesterday I went into Newport. I’ve taken on the job of emcee at the Nye Beach Writers’ Series, a once a month series of readings and performances. This is the best job I’ve ever had, no pay, but about once a month I get a new book free.

Last evening I had the pleasure of introducing one of Oregon’s truly fine poets, Vern Rutsala. Vern was one of my workshop leaders at an MFA residency, and I admire him as poet, teacher, and person. So afterward I joined him and his wife Joan at the Shiloh Inn lounge for what was to be a glass of wine and a few minutes of catchup conversation. We ended up spending about two and half hours of gabbing, story telling, and literary critique and made plans for a more extended session here at the farm in the near future.

The turnout at the reading was fabulous, lending weight to my request that we include more poets in our featured readers.

But I didn’t get home until nearly 1 a.m. I’m too old for those sorts of hours any more, and I’m dragging around a bit today.

So this will be a short post. I’ve some friends coming down for a late lunch, and I’m hoping the rain will let up a bit because I plan to barbecue. If it doesn’t, I’ll just move my truck and barbecue in the carport. But I need to do some tidying, prep, and stuff.

Happy Sunday, all.

Bumblebees, Best Foods mayonnaise, and lemon juice

May 19, 2007

Today went pretty much as expected, which means that we are all bone tired. It was a slog sort of day, except that Ben managed to disturb a nest of bumblebees when he was getting me some wood chips, got stung once, and appeared a little white-faced from his adventure when he arrived back at the garden.

We all like bumblebees. Bumblebees are our main pollinators right now with the shortage of honey bees. They are generally friendly, not aggressive, and so clumsy looking that you can’t help but enjoy watching them. An engineer once proved, I’ve heard, that bumblebees cannot possibly fly, so there is also an element of magic in watching them bumbling around from flower to flower.

But as with any animal, if you disturb its nest, it’s “Katie, bar the door.” Ben managed to get back in the RTV and close all the windows before the 200 or so angry little insects could focus on the enemy, so he escaped relatively unscathed and managed to get me woodchips from another pile that wasn’t concealing a bumblebee nest. When you have a wood chipper, wood chips are not generally rare.

But Rabbit commented that my posts make her hungry, so I’m going to shift narratives here. I happen to think that being hungry is a very good thing, with one caveat: If you’re not in a position to fix the problem, hunger is an extremely evil condition.

A sad fact of life in our rather traditional household is that after working outside all day, I have the responsibility most evenings of finding something to put on the table. This is actually OK with me, because Ben makes sure I have firewood to cook it with, that the necessary stoves are going, the generator full, and dozens of related tasks.

But since cooking a four-course meal is not something I want to do when I’ve dragged myself back to the house (nor something Ben wants to wait for), I’ve accumulated a fair number of quick-to-fix meals. I do prefer real food and don’t use a microwave, so if that’s your standard of food preparation, there’s not much here for you.

There are two condiments in my experience that rarely negatively affect anything to which you apply them. These are Best Foods mayonnaise (Hellman’s brand east of the Mississippi) and fresh lemon juice. There’s a great recipe currently on the back of the Best Foods jar for chicken breasts baked in a covering of mayonnaise, Parmesan cheese, and bread crumbs. It is terrific, and the total prep and cooking time is about 30 minutes.

So that’s what we had for dinner tonight, along with some mashed potatoes and a tossed green salad with a light vinaigrette dressing. It was quick, yummy, and relatively healthy.

If you want to try it and can’t find the recipe, let me know and I’ll post it. It makes a perfect spring dinner.

Gardening and the right to life

May 18, 2007

Lord, I am tired. Spring here is that time of year when everything has to be done at once for the rest of the year to happen as it should. This is complicated by the fact that for the last 7 years or so I’ve worked in town and was here an average of about 40 hours a week, including sleeping time. For the last 4 years, I was also going to school and burning up my vacation time with residencies and my weekend time with studies and papers, so frankly, everything was a mess. So I’m playing catchup.

I’m in triage mode. My daily activities are to some extent determined by what will cause the most damage if it’s put off another day.

The garden is very high priority at the moment. We have a short growing season, and if I want to grow hot weather things like tomatoes, I have to monitor every available opportunity to do soil prep and so forth and plan it in such a way that I’m not having an impact on the ability to do some things like tilling with power equipment at a later date. It’s been nuts.

But I am determined to grow a ripe watermelon at least once in my life.

I know things will settle down in a couple of weeks when most things are planted and it becomes mostly an issue of keeping water on. In this regard I have created a monster for myself this year, resurrecting four separate flower beds and a full garden, not to mention the hanging baskets and herb benches and all of that stuff. Plus I have about 24 baby trees in pots to nurture.

I’m a lousy gardener. I don’t have the strength to cull out the weak or extra plants. I want them all to grow, so tomorrow instead of thinning things like the spinach starts I’ll be carefully transplanting them and applying extra water to help ensure that they all survive. It’s stupid, but to just yank out surplus plants seems so wasteful.

If you haven’t already figured this out, I love growing things. I love the changing of the seasons, the way things struggle to make their way on the earth, and I really enjoy helping them out a bit.

Today Brenda and I visited a couple of neighbors up the valley who grow plant starts, and tomorrow is going to be one of those days that makes my body hurt. I was much saner than usual about my purchases, because in the forefront of my thoughts was this refrain: “If you buy it, you have to get it in the ground.”

But I’ve still got about 30 pickling cucumber plants to go in and God-knows-how-many Bodacious corn starts, and green and purple basil, Sugar Baby watermelons, and three kinds of onions. I have my home grown starts–four kinds of squash and long seedless cucumbers. I also have a bunch of herb seeds (special nightmare those-if the weather holds they’ll have to be watered at least three times a day). The herbs are critical for making the squash a gourmet treat and the little cucumbers into crispy pickles and the tomatoes and jalapenos into wonderful fresh salsa.

The cauliflower, broccoli, and an exorbitant amount of cabbage are growing leaps and bounds. The beans are up and thriving, the raspberries in full bloom with their early crop, the blueberries setting fruit, the little plum tree and Royal Anne cherry loaded with fruit.

Plus we have to get the new blueberry harem netting up, which means finishing the weeding in the last third of the bed and laying down the rest of the wood chip mulch. I was tired when I started this. Now I’m exhausted.

“We have nothing to fear but fear itself”–FDR

May 15, 2007

One of my great pleasures each week is reading the Sunday NY Times Magazine from front to back. Actually, it’s usually back to front, because I always start with the puzzles on the next to last page.

It offers many of the hallmarks of a well-edited publication, including this one: The articles included are often synergistic. When you have read the whole magazine, you realize that the individual pieces complement each other in such a way that the sum adds up to more than the individual pieces. This week’s magazine was no exception.

I haven’t even read the premier feature article this week. It is about the exodus from Iraq of many of the people who could help rebuild the nation. But after reading the other stories, I think I already know what it’s going to say. Here’s why.

The critical essay, the one that tells you what most of the rest of the issue is about, is by Israeli novelist David Grossman, a piece called “Writing in the Dark.” He begins by talking about Kafka’s fabled mouse, who is caught in a trap with a cat lurking nearby. The mouse says, “Alas. . .the world is growing narrower each day.”

Grossman builds on this to talk about the ways in which we use language to deceive ourselves. My friend Whig has written elsewhere that he never deceives himself with language. I hope that is true, but I doubt it. To fail to deceive ourselves in times of terrible pain might become unbearable.

Grossman writes: “Fear makes us shut down our sensibilities.” He is careful to note that he is not just writing about current conflicts in the middle East, although these obviously weigh heavy on his mind. But what he is obviously concerned about is the weigh we jigger language to reduce our pain or our sense of inevitable disaster. He writes: “The language with which the citizens of a sustained conflict describe their predicament becomes progressively shallower the longer the conflict endures.”

Grossman’s main point seems to be this: By writing, and by writing as truthfully as we know how, we can prevent that shrinkage of the world. Writing opens our eyes and our hearts, It makes our world bigger.

This has also been my experience.

When the truth is unbearable, whether it’s international conflict, interpersonal relationships, or any other circumstance that’s weighs heavily on our sensibilities, we find ways to describe it that mitigate or deaden the effect. We become somewhat less than fully human in our efforts to avoid pain.

Also in this issue is an interview with Pulitzer-prize-winning poet Natasha Trethewey. In it she (as did Grossman) talks about the conflict between imagination and memory. Her prize-winning book is, in many ways, about her mother, who was murdered.

She makes this interesting observation: ” For the sake of sanity, there is a lot of necessary forgetting. But the trick is to balance forgetting with necessary remembering, to avoid historical amnesia.”

At any rate, there’s a terrific amount of meat in this week’s magazine. If you’d like to read some of it, you can find it here.

Begonias, birds, extreme prejudice and ahi tuna

May 14, 2007

OK, this morning the sun was shining a bit and I found an angle to take shots of my begonia baskets that doesn’t show my Ma Kettle mess.

 Here is the red one:


Here is the pink one (although “pink” doesn’t really do it justice and neither does my camera):


These are a great solace to someone who gets tired of green, green, green. . .

My friend Ellin came to dinner last night for barbecued ribs and assorted other stuff. Being Ellin, a nurserywoman, she brought me a bunch of annuals and a loaf of fabulous homemade bread as her contribution. So once again, I’ve been planting today, and surprise, I’m still not done. But I have to go take out some more blackberries and nettles from my recovering flower bed before I can plant the marguerites, African daisies, and assorted creeping, flowering groundcovers that she brought me.

I saw a bird yesterday that I’ve never seen here before. I just got a fairly quick look at it, but I’m 99% convinced it was one of the orioles. I used to see them occasionally in town. My friend who knew all of these things (now dead) told me that if I planted red hot pokers and there was an oriole within two miles, it would find them. My red hot pokers are just blossoming out. I hope it was an oriole. They are very lovely.

The Western tanagers have been hanging out much closer to the house than usual, actually acting very friendly. This is fine with me, as I think them one of the most beautiful birds to ever have inhabited the earth. They seem to have no fear, which is smart. I would never harm a tanager.

I just heard the blast of the shotgun, which says there were pigeons in the orchard again. When Ben left to go down and scare them off, I said, “Give the pigeons my regards.” He answered, “I will, with extreme prejudice.”

After he was gone, I thought about how weird it was that I actually understood this. I think I’ve been hanging out with special forces guys for too much of my life. ;^}

Now I’m going to go shut things down for awhile. It’s Mother’s Day, so I get to pick the menu. I found some lovely ahi tuna steaks that are going on the barbecue and will be served with a salad blessed with local fresh bay shrimp and avocado.

Ben will probably grouse–there will be no meat or potatoes. I don’t care. This meal is better for him, and it’s spring, and everything is growing. There is so much to be happy about.

Birding update

May 12, 2007

I see I forgot a couple of things in my last post.

Also ubiquitous are the Stellar’s jays. As I think I’ve noted before, they are particularly bright and beautiful this year. They are also particularly friendly, and they hang out around the house in ways they have not done in the past.

I’m not a great fan of jays. They raid other birds’ nests, make a lot of noise, and are generally obnoxious. But for some reason, I’m enjoying ours this year.

But more than that, in my last post I dealt entirely with the visual.

I forgot to mention the pileated woodpecker that is driving us all nuts. He seems to stay across the river. But he’s been laughing at some particularly raucous joke almost non-stop for two days. He moves up and down the terrain, but he keeps laughing.  Remember Woody Woodpecker? He sounds just like that. It’s amusing at 3 p.m., not so great at 6 a.m.

While I’m talking about sound, I forgot to mention the baby red-tailed hawks. They’re flying, and you can’t help but notice. They fly along with this sound that is either “help me, help me” or “look at me, see what I’ve learned to do.” Either way, it’s interesting.