Saturday, May 25, 2013

Spring Gardening

Memorial Day Weekend, gray skies, a high of 61 degrees, or so they predict.

It’s time to take one of those desultory wanders through the garden, to see what’s coming up.
But first we make a dash downtown to the Farmer’s Market—full of life and color, as usual. We picked up a flat of impatiens and a few larger New Guinea impatiens for the deck.  I was sorely tempted by both the smoked trout and the whole fresh duck, but we limited ourselves to some Kalamata olives and two bundles of asparagus—risotto tonight!

Our back yard has a shady, woodland feel, and we like it that way. But it means we depend more on the things that drop in—the volunteers—than on the things we buy. Violets would soon overtake the entire plot, if left to their own devices, and this has been a source of ongoing controversy, year after year.
Hilary says: “I like them all.”
I say: “I like them…but enough is enough. They’re choking out the other plants.”

Right now I can admire the yellow and white-purple blossoms that have appeared amid the purple. Tomorrow? We’ll see.
Jack-in-the-pulpit are also spreading themselves effortlessly across the yard as the years go by. One clump has decided to insinuate itself between some monkshood and Siberian bugloss.
Another dilemma that grows in importance by the year is what to do with the rotting ties that define the edges of the garden. No doubt many industrious gardeners would simply replace them, but I see two additional lines we might pursue. We could remove the logs entirely and create a more natural interface between our mossy lawn and the more “formal” garden space within the enclosure. Or we could simply leave them to rot. They’re probably forty years old by now, and it might be argued that they add a venerable touch to the yard.  
What I really ought to do is crawl under the deck and reattach the drainpipe that’s been spilling sand out across the lawn every time it rains for longer than I’d care to admit.

But no. I hear an oriole chirping in the cold, gray, midday air; I see the Virginia creeper making its slow ascent up the branches of the weedy ash. The sand cherry has been almost entirely defeated by the volunteer pagoda dogwood that blew in a decade ago—I really ought to cut it way back and see if it can reassert itself on a more modest scale. It’s Do or Die at this point.
And behold! The lilac we planted in our woods four years ago has produced its first blossoms ever! Lilies of the valley. Kerengeshoma palmata, already eighteen inches high. Bleeding heart, just coming into its own. And  the hostas are just now unfurling their tightly-wrapped leaves.

I'm in a daze, and perhaps there's nothing better to do than head inside and finish reading The Budding Tree, a set of short stories by Aiko Kitahara set in Edo-period Japan  .
The next two weeks may be the best of the summer for native plants--mostly just green, but full of freshness and variety.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Bicycles and Trout

We went to SE Minnesota to catch the migrating warblers, and we met them head on at Hok-Si-La, Frontenac, and Forestville.
But we also met up with some interesting people pursuing entirely different objectives.
On Friday night we checked into a motel in Red Wing to escape the inclement weather, and the next morning we ran into two oddly-dressed gentlemen in the breakfast room. One of them was wearing tweed knickers and yellow-and-black argyle socks. Hilary told me later: “I had the passing thought that they might be going to a clown convention.” 
They were, in fact, from Winnipeg, and they were in town to participate in the Lake Pepin 3-Speed Tour. Here is a bit from the website I dug up just now:
“To gain a better perspective, here is a list of things we leave behind: derailleurs, lycra, target heart rates, SPD, SIS, STI, HRM, XTR, etc. There will be no sprinting, spinning, drafting nor will there be any carbon fibre, drillium, eludium or unobtanium. Please note we are not advocating being a retro-grouch or ridicule those with alloy handlebars but instead we are asking you to strip away all you know modern cycling to be and hop aboard your £5 Thrift Store Raleigh and come with. Leave your lycra and Johnny-Rebel competitive spirit at home and instead, bring your sense of adventure.” 
The elder of the two men had a warm, toothy smile and a silver-gray flattop. At one point he held up a medal that was hanging around his neck on a ribbon. “I still hold the 70-and-over time trial record for Manitoba,” he informed us proudly.
But speed is not the thing for this two-day, eighty-five-mile tour around Lake Pepin. You need to have a vintage bike, and you need to know how to take your time.
“Everyone stops to make tea here and there, and we also pull in at all the cafes…like the Lord Nelson Cheese Shop.”
Yes, there is a cheese shop in Nelson, Wisconsin, though I don’t recall it being knighted.
“I believe Hilary and I could almost qualify to enter,” I said. “Our Raleigh Capris are veritable antiques.”
“Well, those old Raleigh’s will last forever…but to participate your bike must have a three-speed hub.” Tough luck.
We talked for a bit about Winnipeg—the several folk festivals, the new Museum for Human Rights, the historic riches in nearby St. Boniface, and the films of Guy Madden. I told them I once canoed from Lake Superior to Lake Winnipeg; they asked me what my route had been, I mentioned the English and the Wabagoon rivers, and that got them going on the Bloodvein River.
“When I was working for the Crown, we bought out the last remaining lodge on that river,” he said. “The owners told us, ‘Are you sure you want to see us go? We’ve saved a lot of lives over the years. We have the only phone for fifty miles….’ ”
Then we headed off for Frontenac State Park and our rendezvous with the orchard orioles.
It was a good day of birding, the tale of which I’ll leave for another time. Road races entered the story again as we drove from Wykoff toward Forestville and came upon hundreds of bicyclists grinding out a long uphill stretch. There were more of them hanging around the Forestville State Park office, and yet more lounging in the yard in front of the historic barn at the far end of the now-closed bridge across the Root River.
Though most of the cyclists wore colorful lycra suits, many of which had club insignia, it was clear to me that this was not an ordinary race, either. There was lots of good feeling but not much urgency in the air.
We didn’t find out what was going on until the next morning. Rain was imminent and we broke camp early, heading down to the picnic pavilion near the river to brew some coffee. A few minutes later a bedraggled cyclist wandered into the shed. He had a black Manfred Mann beard and insect-wrap goggles. The metal toe-clips on his shoes rang on the concrete as he walked.
“What’s with all the cyclists?” I asked.
“It’s the Almanzo Wilder bike race,” he replied, in slow, measured phrases. “It’s a hundred mile road race, mostly on gravel. It started out small, with maybe 30 cyclists, a few years ago, but it’s grown, and this year I think there were more than 1,300 entries. What makes it different is that it’s free….and there’s really no winner. It’s mostly a personal challenge and a nice day of camaraderie for the people who enter.”
Is Almanzo Wilder some famous cyclist?” I asked. Hilary hastened to inform me that Almanzo was Laura Ingles Wilder’s husband. The Wilders once lived in nearby Spring Valley, where the race starts and finishes.
“But I’m doing something different,” the cyclist said. “I’m riding a 380-mile loop down to Prairie du Chien and back. It sounded like a good adventure.”
“When did you start?” I asked him.
“Friday morning…I’ve got thirty miles to go.”
(That’s 175 miles a day…on gravelly hills. Jesus!)
“Were you in the campground last night? Where did you sleep?” I asked.
“In a ditch. My knee was really bothering me…and I was holding up my friends, so they gave me an extra emergency blanket and went on without me. It’s better this morning.”
“Do you want some coffee?” Hilary asked.
“Are you offering me some coffee? That would be so good,” he replied.
“With milk?” I asked.
So we gave him a cup of piping hot coffee and some banana chips.
Meanwhile, another couple had wandered into the pavilion. He was a trout fisherman—tall, balding, gray mustache. She was heavy-set, with character; she could have won a bit part as a hobbit herbalist in The Lord of the Rings.
We got to talking about trout fishing, and soon he was reciting all the little rivers in Michigan’s U.P. he’d fished. Like us, they come to Forestville every spring.
“I may read Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River” when we get home tonight,” I said.
“But he wasn’t writing about that river,” the man replied. “You can tell from the nearby towns he names.”
"How has the fishing been here?" I asked. "I haven't seen many fishermen around. The water's awfully high...and muddy."
"Not good. Trout feed by sight, and they can't see much right now."
It was obvious that birds didn’t interest him.
“There is one warbler that we always expect to see down here,” I said. “We never see it anywhere else. The blue-winged warbler. It nests in the trees beyond Loop C. I heard one last night the moment we arrived at our campsite. But we haven’t seen him yet.”
I was going to do an imitation of the song—a faint sigh followed by a slobbery exhalation. But I knew it would have been pointless.
While we talked the air lightened. The fisherman’s wife had built a fire in the fireplace the moment they arrived, using the method of building the little fire on top of the big logs, rather than underneath it. The bicyclist had gone over to warm himself in front of it. By this time we’d poured him a second cup of coffee; he was still cradling the plastic cup in his hands.
At one point a bird shot through the open building and landed on a picnic table beyond.
“Did you see that?” the fisherman said.
“Female redstart,” I said.
“He shot right through the pavilion,” he said.
We eventually retrieved our cup, and as we left I said to the cyclist, “Have a safe trip. It’s an impressive feat you’re undertaking. Maybe we’ll see you again out on the road.”
“Thanks,” he said.
Then we went back to the campground to hunt down our blue-winged warbler. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Minnesota Home Birding 2013

It was a bizarre and seemingly endless winter, by all accounts, but we’ll soon forget. Remember all the tornados in 201x? Not really. And what about that horribly wet June of 20xx? I can’t recall.

One result of the retarded spring of 2013 has been a very good birding season. The little feathered creatures have been moving through in bunches and they’re easier to spot than usual, due to the delayed leafing out. I’ve already logged 120 species, and our annual Mid-May birding weekend still lies ahead. I’m not counting the mockingbirds, Carolina chickadees, Eastern towhees, and worm-eating warblers we saw in Tennessee. This is Minnesota stuff.

Wood Lake Nature Center, where Hilary and I learned to bird thirty years ago, has been crawling with bright yellow warblers and handsome myrtle warblers, along with a few dazzling examples of more exotic species such as the Cape May and the magnolia.

The orioles are singing like crazy down in the cottonwoods on the north side of Cedar Lake. Flocks of  mergansers dot the surface of Lake Calhoun.

Just yesterday, I looked up from my computer to see two orange-crowned warblers bopping through the honeysuckle bush outside the window. Earlier that morning an ovenbird had been strutting proudly amid the nascent wild geraniums in the back yard. And just this morning, before breakfast, I spotted what I took to be yet another warbler in the elderberry bushes outside the bedroom window. It turned out to be a blue-headed vireo.(See above)

A few minutes later I head the call, “John!” from the other side of the house. I know that awe-filled call, urgent yet cautious; it means there’s something unusual to look at that mustn’t be scared away. I crept out into the dining room, camera in hand. A rose-breasted grosbeak was sitting on the feeder.

A few minutes later we both happened to be looking at the feeder when a monster appeared. “What’s that?” I exclaimed. It looked like a gigantic house sparrow with a black head. The name soon came to me from some deep recess of memory. Harris sparrow.

I remember the last time I saw a Harris sparrow. We were babysitting for some friends and one suddenly appeared on the deck out of nowhere. “Look at that, Abbie; a Harris sparrow,” I said. Abbie may have been eight or ten at the time.

Now a mother of two, Abbie passed her bar exams last summer. 

Tuesday, May 7, 2013


When in Rome, do what the Romans do.

And when in Nashville…you gotta hear some country music.

I’m not a total stranger to the genre (which is actually a congeries of genres). My mom used to listen to Flat and Scruggs, and Webb Pierce. (I was surprised to read in Wikipedia that Pierce had more number one hits during the 1950s than any other country artist.) “Walkin the Streets..Takin Only a Few”  sticks in memory from my childhood years, perhaps because I couldn’t figure out what it meant. (Taking a few what?) My first Zen koan!

But looking at the lyrics now, I don’t see that phrase anywhere. The mysteries of childhood! 
I'm walking the streets watching the sun go down
The sun's sinking low leaving me sad and blue
Walking the streets I'm thinking only of you
 Since you went away I'm the loneliest guy in town
I don’t mind admitting that during the 1960s we watched Hee Haw fairly regularly as a family. Roy Clark, Buck Owens. That’s probably where I honed my wonderfully sophisticated sense of humor—having moved on from the joke page in Boy’s Life Magazine. We mustn’t forget The Beverly Hillbillies. (A decade later I was able to polish my comic style watching Sha Na Na.)

But Country was not something I ever paid much attention to as an adult. I own one Bill Monroe LP, one Dwight Yoakum CD, two Lucinda Williams CDs, and anthology collections of Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. I have a four-CD collection of Patsy Cline, mistakenly sent to me by my record club—I’d order a Maria Callas collection. I burned a CD of "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou" for the trip. And that’s about it.

Yet one of the great gifts of travel is to wrench you out of your routines, strip you of your prejudices and predilections, and focus your attention on what’s right in front of you. After all, that’s why you came.

We’d been hiking at Land Between the Lakes, a vast expanse of semi-wild country a hundred miles west of Nashville, for most of the day, and we were plum tuckered out by the time we got to town. But we hadn’t been there more than an hour before we were eating barbeque and drinking beer in Puckett’s Grocery and Restaurant while Meghan Saletta and two of her young male friends sang and strummed a few feet behind our table. 

I’d never heard of her, nor any of the other performers we caught snatches of later, as we walked the streets downtown, past the cowboy boot outlets, the Ernest Tubbs record shop, and ten or twenty of the narrow bars and honky-tonks that line Broadway. Rockabilly, Cajun, and knee-slapping old-time fiddling reached our ears before the sun went down. 

We walked past a gigantic, two-story Hard Rock Café to watch a barge tug moving down the Cumberland River from the terrace above the park. And on our way up the hill toward our hotel we passed the historic Ryman Auditorium.

The next morning we spent four hours in the Country Music Hall of Fame, tracking the history of the genre from the earliest days of films and audio recording. It’s a marvelous presentation, with clips of Jimmy Rodgers singing “He’s in the Jailhouse Now,” Patsy Montana jiving her way through “I Want to be a Cowboy Sweetheart,” Hank Williams doing “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and Elvis shimmying through several hits.

Along the opposite wall were glass cases with a well-balanced array of old instruments, album covers, articles of clothing, and other historic paraphernalia including Carl Perkins’ blue suede shoes. Hundreds of performers were featured, and strange to say, I’d heard of most of them. From Lefty Frizell to Loretta Lynn, from Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies to Maybelle Carter. Patsy Cline had a special exhibit at one end of the hall and there was an exhibit devoted to the Bakersfield Sound at the other.

When we finally reached the end of the hall we realized we hadn’t yet entered the 1960s. That was on the floor below.

 Well, I won’t go into all the details. By the time we’d gotten through it all we knew what we had to do next. Though we’d planned to leave town that day, after a delightful lunch at Jack’s Barbecue  we went out the Grand Ole Opry, a twenty-minute drive from downtown Nashville, to see about getting tickets for the evening performance.

It was 3 p.m. and the only thing available was standing room at $45. We snapped up two tickets, then drove to the nearest McDonald’s, hooked into their WiFi from the parking lot, and scored a room at the Best Western a half-mile down the service road  for $50 through Priceline.  

The Grand Ole Opry occupies a strange location between a freeway and a suburban mall. You park in the mall parking lot and wander haphazardly over to the auditorium, which is obscured behind a bank of trees. We returned to the mall at 6:15—it was a warm, bright evening and people with good seats were sitting on benches in the park. We hurried inside to make sure we got a good position, and spent the next three hours leaning against a wall halfway up the auditorium, listening to bands and artists most of whom I’d never heard of. They were almost uniformly good, though in very different ways.  

 Striking Matches—a young, hip, and talented duo; Jimmy C. Newman (who first appeared at the Opry in 1956) doing a Cajun set; The Del McCoury Band—blistering hot bluegrass; and on to
Hall-of-Fame country crooner Connie Smith, son-of-an-outlaw Shooter Jennings, and super-group Alabama, among others. Great acoustics, a palpable reverence for both the tradition and the venue. Schmaltzy sentiments but powerful voices, expert musicianship, and heartfelt emotion. Plus, a radio announcer, advertisements, and a Minnie Pearl impersonator to warm up the audience before the show.

Hilary remarked, and I had to agree: "It's as gripping as an opera."

The couple sitting directly in front of us was from Austria. (I’d chatted with them briefly before the show.) They got especially excited when Jimmy Newman did “Jambalaya,” but also seemed to be enthusiastically familiar with all three of the songs Alabama performed to wrap up the show.

Country. I guess its appeal is widespread, if not universal. After 36 hours in Nashville, I’m ready to go back for more.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Poetry Reading

National Poetry Month slipped by largely unnoticed—at least by me. Maybe the dearth of spring-like blossoms and gurgling freshets had something to do with it.

I was intrigued by a post about poetry readings that appeared on Facebook recently.

The title was I Don’t Get Poetry Readings. (You can read the article here.)

In the course of the piece, the author made it clear that indeed, she doesn’t “get” what poetry readings are about, or what poetry itself is about. No doubt many readers find themselves in the same position, which is based less on a critical insight than a cognitive deficiency.

The piece is lackadaisically written, as if there were a kind of honesty in not trying too hard. It shifts back and forth in focus from poetry readings to poetry itself at random, mixing casual observations and clever quotes which, more carefully examined, would clarify the situation in an instant.  

For example, early on in the piece the author cites a remark from a recent film:
“Poetry is a very stupid thing to be good at. Poems are basically like dreams–something that everybody likes to tell other people but nobody actually cares about when it’s not their own. Which is why poetry is a failure of the intellectual community.”
There is a sliver of truth to this remark, though we should note the inclusion of the word “basically.” Yes, poems are basically like dreams—though often they’re better. Those who are good at writing them hold our attention and make us want to hear the dream again. Perhaps we don’t “get” poems, but we like them, care about them, feel the need to make them a part of our lives, and rely on them, even, for strength or comfort or insight. It’s as simple as that.

The question remains, Why go to a poetry reading? On the one hand, such events sustain poetry as a cult of initiates and novices, renowned writers loaded with grants and youthful wannabees with crumpled envelopes in their pockets covered with verse. Yet poetry is part of the world, and the women and men who write it have bodies, voices, personalities that come across no less strongly in person than on the printed page. Sometimes more so.

I heard Andrei Codrescu read his poetry at the downtown Minneapolis library recently. I had always considered him a talented and stimulating writer but also a crass and often superficial social critic. Hearing him read added elements of pathos, bitterness, humor, and self-mockery to the picture, making him a more humane and interesting figure.

And such is often the case.

Besides, readings are usually free, and there’s cake or wine. You see old friends sometimes, and joy is in the air. It's a public display of craziness, music, and that higher thing we all catch inklings of from time to time. All of this is quite different from reading a book.

 My personal gripe against readings is that they’re too long. After all, a single poem can resonate in memory for half an hour. Three or four in a row threaten to deaden our appreciation. Hence, the patter between poems is always welcome. Reading a poem twice can also be a good idea—though risky.   

Sunday, May 5, 2013


The lure of the Smoky Mountains is obvious. Yet for years it had been an annual ritual of ours to check some guide books about the region out of the library during the winter months, do some reading, look at pictures…and then decide to go somewhere else.

Why? Because the Smoky Mountains don’t have peaks, I guess. They look like hills.

We observed the same ritual this winter while adding an important new  twist. We went.

It was a road trip, and we covered 3,200 miles before we were through, visiting the urban areas of Davenport, St. Louis, Nashville, Asheville, and Louisville and countless small towns along the way. We stopped by the graves of William Boroughs and Carl Sandburg (neither of whom I’ve read) and the oldest church west of the Allegheny Mountains, which happens to be a French-Canadian structure in SE Illinois built in 1799.

We arrived there on a Sunday morning just as the service was letting out, and a member of the congregation explained to us a little about the Latin Mass still in use there. By in large the congregation was elderly, and the women had pieces of lace draped over their heads.

On another day we spent a few hours in the largest labyrinth of caves the earth has to offer, tracked down Gethsemanie Abbey in rural Kentucky, where Thomas Merton wrote most of his books (I have read a few of those), spotted a summer tanager in a tree above Abe Lincoln’s boyhood home (see photo above), and ate dinner at the Old Talbot Tavern in Bardstown, where Lincoln, Andrew Jackson, John James Audubon, George Rogers Clark, and General Patton once dined—though not at the same time.

To this distinguished list of guests we ought to add Louis-Philippe I, who became the last King of France after the restoration of the monarchy in 1830. During the revolutionary years he spent some time in exile touring the United States, and on October 17, 1797, he booked a suite of rooms there.

We stayed that night in a dismal mom-and-pop motel across the street from the estate where Stephen Foster wrote “My Old Kentucky Home.” The next morning we went over to wander the grounds. We met up with the site manager by chance and she filled us in on all the doin’s in nearby Louisville associated with the soon-to-be-run Kentucky Derby. The steamboat race was over, but the Pegasus Parade and other wild events were set to take place before the races the next day.

“All the Louisville basketball players will be in the parade.”

“They didn’t do too badly this year,” I said.

“Yeah,” she replied, “but I’m a Kentucky fan.”

“Well, we’re from Minnesota,” I said. “We’ve been milking the skills of your cast-off, Tubby Smith, for quite some time, without much luck. He was let go just recently.”

“Yeah, I feel so sorry for y’all,” she cracked a mischievous smile.

I told her we’d eaten at the Talbot Tavern and she said, “You know, Jesse James ate there.”

I said, “I didn’t know that. They sure have a lot of bourbons on the menu—“

“Well, Bardstown is the Bourbon capital of the world.”

“But I was looking for the bourbon my parents used to drink and couldn’t find it. It’s probably too cheap. Old Crow.”

She laughed. “My daddy used to drink that too.”

She recommended that we drive out to the Heaven Hill distillery on the edge of town, which has a visitor center. It wasn’t open yet, but we did get a chance to see the Baudoinia compniacensis, a black fungus that grows at the base of the warehouse buildings as a natural result of the maturing process.

An hour later we were walking the streets of downtown Louisville. I was impressed by the vast expanse of the Ohio River, the multi-colored façade of the Muhammad Ali Center, and the post-modern gleam of the Humana Tower across the street. We headed for the warehouse row a few blocks down and came upon an Arts and Crafts museum. With less than an hour in the meter and 375 miles still to drive, we skipped the museum and took a look around the gift shop, where the friendly clerk filled us in on the exhibits. One was devoted to ceramic bourbon containers—designed to make it easier to sneak drinks into the Derby infield, I guess.

More interesting, perhaps, was a display of woodcuts by Harlan Hubbard. I noticed that the accompanying book had a foreword by Wendell Berry.

“Isn’t he wonderful,” the clerk purred.

“And what about these hats?” I asked. “It’s a Derby thing, right? Do people really buy them.”

“We’ve sold a few.”

“We have just the most superficial notions about all this Derby business…” I said.

“It is superficial,” she replied. “Very superficial.”

We told her we’d been to Mammoth Cave and Gethsemanie Abbey, and she said, “I’ve spent my entire life in Kentucky. I live in the house I was born in. But I’ve never been to those places. My world is my zipcode.”