Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Week 9: Time


Yesterday out on the river’s surface the small body of a grebe surfaced and submerged, surfaced and submerged like a good idea still working to develop itself. His small head and curved neck slid up out of the water when he surfaced, but he flipped over and his head went down first when he submerged. It was early so the ducks were out, a few geese, one egret so impossibly white against all of the morning gray. And the Rutgers crew team slid along the smooth water’s surface in two boats like the feet of a giant water strider bug.

Its not just the movements of the grebe that suggest a good idea—the whole world wakes in the morning, moves from dark to dawn to light in the way any idea slowly moves from the darkness of non-existence and slowly develops. And perhaps it is this reflection of idea-making that makes the morning the proverbial time of good ideas.

Thoreau writes: “The morning, which is the most memorable season of the day, is the awakening hour. Then there is least somnolence in us; and for an hour, at least, some part of us awakes which slumbers all the rest of the day and night.”

Billy Collins writes of morning:
Why do we bother with the rest of the day/the swale of the afternoon,
the sudden dip into evening,…/ This is the best—/throwing off the light covers,
feet on the cold floor,/and buzzing around the house on espresso—
maybe a splash of water on the face,/a palmful of vitamins—/but mostly buzzing around the house on espresso,/dictionary and atlas open on the rug/the typewriter waiting for the key of the head,

(read Collin’s entire poem here

While Thoreau wrote that the only drink for a wise man is water, he and Collins both express here that there is something extra that happens in the morning that produces stronger and better thought. For Thoreau “some part of us awakes” that we can’t access the rest of the day. For Collins the typewriter waits “for the key of the head.” The assumption here is that the typewriter (or recorder of thoughts) is not so receptive after the morning hours.

And it does seem true on mornings when I go down to the river and the water is a mixture of stillness and activity—like a quiet mind developing productive and purposeful ideas.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

WEEK 8-Everything Matters

Flying Geese

Tonight the mild autumn evening coaxed many families to stay longer at the local park’s playground. It was the same scene—the older kids climbed on the roofs of the equipment acting astonished at their own bravery, but the parents who’d seen the stunt 100 times since their own first terrified gasp could not be bothered to even look up. The parents of younger kids also looked down out of necessity as their toddlers struggled to climb the slide’s stairs or their infants in strollers reached their hands out toward the purpling sky. But then an approaching honking gained the collective attention of the park goers and everyone paused and looked up as a formation of geese flew low over the park the slight swish of their wingbeats audible. Parents pointed up, kids thrust their chins skyward and one young boy commented on the formation “look they are making that check mark.”

During the day these geese are an entertaining part of the park experience though they border on menace. Poop covers the bike and walking paths and nearly every stretch of grass, and the geese will resort to hissing if one strides or pedals too close—especially in spring when goslings are present. And the thick body and long neck of a goose on foot is just simply comical. Their commonplace presence strips them of the respect and attention given to other wildlife. Children chase them, even throw rocks at them, but for the most part they are ignored. They’ve become part of the background.

But in this moment at the end of a sunny September day on one of the last truly warm evenings of the year, they’ve caught the attention of the whole playground. And we all raise our heads in wonder as the geese check our expectations and remind us that even here if we stay out long enough the evening sky fills up with wild things.

Friday, September 24, 2010

WEEK 8-Everything Matters

Botany over Baseball

In his book The Botany of Desire Michael Pollan writes of 17th century Holland, “Botany became a national pastime, followed as closely and avidly as we follow sports today.” It was this avid interest in botany that eventually led to the Dutch tulip craze.

What would it look like if Botany was America’s current pastime? There would be a plants section each day in The New York Times. Occasionally the paper’s actual headline might read “Rare Peony cross found in Connecticut: The neighborhood goes wild.” We might grow up knowing the names of famous gardeners. They would get paid millions to endorse products. I only use planthouse spades would be the voice over as we watched the gardener of the year Michael Gorden in slow motion plant a tulip bulb. Kids would be banned from wearing gardener aprons to school because their appearance would start gang fights.

On some autumn Sunday afternoon we’d gather to watch the Rose Bowl—a cut throat competition where the nation’s elite rose growers pitted their top specimens against each other.

And each day after school thousands of high school kids would gather in their schools’ garden arenas to hone intricate skills like orchid crossing or bonsai that they might use to defeat a neighboring team in the next week’s game.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

WEEK 8-Everything Matters


There are moments that seem to stretch out like morning sun inching closer and closer to your campsite at the edge of the meadow after a cold night. The time lengthens and each second becomes heavy with significance until the single moment weighs more in importance than all the rest of your life.

I can think of two such moments—though I’ve had many.

1. I was standing on a roadside in the desert, red rock canyon walls rising up into a sky so blue it coaxed my soul out of my body and I would have let it float there and be lost but two ravens angled into my view and my soul settled back down and that is when time slowed. Those shiny black bodies looped around and clung to each other. Plummeted then recovered. Rose and fell in a dangerous dance. I mistook them first for enemies before it became apparent they were lovers.

2. I was lying next to my two year old. He was sleeping and the world rose and fell each time he breathed. His absurdly long eye lashes fluttering just a bit with each breath like dragonfly wings stretched out in the sun.

What else is beauty for if not to knock you over, and as you crawl your way back to your life to make you see each perfect second?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

WEEK 8-Everything Matters

All that Light

Today out in the meadow the sun lit up the blonding autumn stalks of grass and the whole view looked like a Van Gough presented under fluorescents. The few flowers still in bloom glowed out from the bright field like fireflies behind a line drying sheet. Any birds I saw flitted in the tree shade just out of the painting’s frame worried, perhaps, that they too might wash out under all the light in the meadow.

I would like to be a mystic, a prophet, some kind of pagan priestess who spends her life seeing God in all that light. This morning it seemed that the dark corners of the world should be visible, but I actually saw less, not more, in all that brightness.

I walked the meadow’s edge a quarter mile to a small pond to look for turtles but the water was all dried up. And still a Harrier’s Hawk and a Great Blue Heron stood like sentinels looking down into the small bowl of earth that now stood empty as though any moment a fish might make an appearance.

Monday, September 20, 2010

WEEK 8-Everything Matters

Week 8- Everything Matters.

What a Storm can do

A few days ago the sky went black with storm: five o’clock looked like eight o’clock and when the rain came it fell out of the sky in a cascade like waterfalls falling over a cliff. Cars had to pull over, trees shook. I was soaked though in the dash from my car to my door a distance of about 20 feet. I had to strip down and wring out my clothes. A muddy river took over the street and for the fifteen minutes it lasted, it felt like we were somewhere else. We were no longer living our urban existence with a Barnes and Noble down the road. We were in a world where water crashed down on our heads and rivers blocked our passage. It was beautiful and dangerous and I couldn’t leave the window and I felt a strange responsibility toward that storm—like I should leave my house and stop hiding behind the glass.

I stayed indoors of course—we all usually do. The protection of the glass actually allows all that chaos to be beautiful. If filters out the wet and the cold and the mud and the struggle, and leaves just the strangeness of tossed branches and a street river. Yet it also filters out tangible, tactile experience. In the dash from the car, a stream of water pushed dirt into my shoes and water ran down my neck and I held my groceries and my two-year old like all our lives depended on it. At the window, I just couldn’t take the storm that seriously.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Week 7--Everyday Things


Henry David Thoreau did not like everyday things, at least not ones that might cause clutter. He had three pieces of stone on his desk but was “terrified” that he might need to dust them so he threw them out the window. He feared that dusting objects would keep him from the more important job of “dusting the furniture of [his] mind.”

Thoreau and I have that in common—a dislike of dusting. And I can agree with this theory that many of us could be improving our lives in some way with the time we spend dusting the objects that clutter our spaces. Or perhaps an ordered house is a sign of an ordered mind and dusting (and scrubbing and sweeping) makes manifest the ways we are cleaning up the mind. I know for me if my house is out of order it is because I fee disinclined to engage with my everyday surroundings. I’m usually low on energy or motivation—feeling bad personally or physically. Yet, when I begin to feel better I have to order my house before I can do anything else. It’s the first sign that I’m ready to set things right—and yet what great things could I accomplish if I had less of a house to clean? Less books to dust? Less clothes to wash?

And yet here are a few of my favorite things. A vase of sticks I collected with my son. A bottle of stones from the Oregon coast. An urn of red desert sand. They are a bit dusty, but each time I look at them something blossoms in my mind and a sweet wind dusts the furniture there—an Adirondack chair, I think, sitting empty under a pink pink cherry tree. I think if the dust on these things gets me to open the window, its done its job well. There is no need to actually to toss the items out.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Week 7--Everyday Things


It was a warm afternoon and four chickens stalked around the backyard looking so ridiculous as chickens do and yet so ancient and full of self importance—the intelligent but silly aunt of the Pterodactyl. The ancient Romans used chickens as an Oracle so perhaps there is a kind of wisdom in their quick, odd pecking and their two-footed gallop. Or perhaps the Romans simply appreciated their wise-woman appearance and had a little faith that the speed of their eating or the direction of their “flight” path held meaning. Don’t we all look for signs?

On this afternoon, our host (and owner of the chickens) knew the sign of an egg-laying chicken and ushered everyone over to the coop for the big event. I missed it, but later ate an egg sunny-side up with a yolk as rich as butter and the color of sunflower petals.

Nothing is as domestic as a chicken. These birds so easily fall prey to hawks, raccoons, and even weasels (an animal I’m sure that weighs 1/3 of a chicken). And yet the domestic chicken descends from the Red Junglefowl a type of pheasant that still stalks around the jungle today presumable able to take care of itself. The two animals are genetically related enough to still be categorized as the same species.

I think domestic chickens are wilder than I’ve ever given them credit for. A friend of mine relates that her chickens will go crazy over a big caterpillar and she’s seen her small flock of four kill a mouse. I’ve read on line that given the chance a chicken will take down a small lizard, and I’ve heard many people relate their terror when as children they were chased down by a rooster. I think this is what I want to see in the chicken. That something can be comfortable and taken care of and even have the appearance of some addled Victorian spinster, and still have strength and a bit of useful unpredictability that reveals true character.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Week 7--Everyday Things

On the Apple:

The trees hang heavy with the harvest moon fruit, the immigrant from Kazakhstan, the obsession of a man with a pot-hat. The fall air carries their smell but adds a bit of cold to cut the sweetness. They are sunset-red, baby-cheek pink, and there is that one outlier the color of spring’s first shoots. They make sauce perfect for babies and cider perfect for cold nights or broken hearts. Applejack is 66 proof. Every elementary-aged kid has had one packed with a peanut butter sandwich in a paper bag. You can cover them with caramel or candy or you can toss them in water, put your hands behind your back and “bob” for them as I did at every one of my birthday parties until I turned 12. They are easy to steal from trees, from carts, from bowls and from grocery story bins. Even my two-year old can steal an apple. Whether you’ve obtained them honestly or not, you can crisp, pie, cider, or sauce them. You can roast them over a campfire or in the oven. You can press them, cider them, and juice them. And they taste good any time of day.

The apple is common—like babies, like love, like full-mooned nights. Like blue birds and wild geese and irises. They belong on the list of best things—the things that make us get up in the morning.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Week 7: Everyday Things


Imagine Baking Bread. You mix the ground up seeds of a grass plant with a pinch of fungus then add water. After rolling this mixture around in your hands for a while then adding heat, you've made the favorite food of much of the world.

I read once that in some ancient cultures, baking and the icon of the mother/goddess were closely linked. Pregnant looking goddess statues were often found near or on ancient oven sites. A baker, a mother, and the divine were all aligned as creators.

Many creation myths begin with God creating humankind out of dirt (or dust or clay). And what is bread making really but creating--perhaps not life but a life-giving substance out of material that very much resembles dust. Whole wheat flour looks and feels just like fine gritty sand. If you make what we now call "artisan" bread, or sourdough bread sometimes you don 't even add the yeast. The substance that gives the bread "life" simply falls into the flour--like God breathing life into the dust.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Week 6-My Neighborhood

Feral Ground

Across from my apartment complex an old dump site is in the slow process of re-wilding. While concrete slabs still jut though the soil complete with rusting bones of rebar, thick undergrowth and a forest of young trees cover most of the site. The area is thick with bird life and also shelters a small herd of deer. This spring my 2-year old and I found a fawn hiding there in the grass.
Each day some of my neighbors trek into this little patch of urban wildness. I think some forage for usable plants I’m not familiar with—though of course some just walk. I went their recently to gather branches that had grown into spirals as they pushed their way around the straight growth of other branches or trees. I brought them home and arranged them in little sculptures for my house. Judging by the empty beer cans, the site seems also a favorite for the local teenagers. The one homeless man I seem regularly spends his days on a bench just on the border of these woods.

There is a little mystery a little unpredictability that surrounds this patch of trees that makes it the antithesis of the strip malls that lie just on the other side of the river. Here people gather what they need (they don’t buy) or simply spend their days living outside (or at the edge) of the economic system. Here dogs run off-leash, kids break the law, and undomesticated animals make a home between neighborhood streets and a major thoroughfare.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

WEEK 6-- My Neighborhood

Cockroach Watching

My apartment is home to three humans and an uncountable number of cockroaches. I know the number is over 100 at any given time. In my apartment I’ve spotted at least 2 different species of roach—the German cockroach and the Brown-banded. I think the American cockroach lives here too, though because the cockroaches look different in the nymph stage than they do in the adult stage (and I don’t get to look at them very long), they are hard to identify.

The problem with cockroaches is that they are interesting and a little pretty. The German Cockroach is long, thin, and nearly a translucent brown, a cappuccino-colored cousin to the preying mantis. The Brown-banded cockroach’s distinctively striped oval body makes it seem to carry a Victorian miniature painting on its back—maybe a desertscape or a close up of a zebra. And then there is just the magic of their hiding. During a day I might see 2 or 3 cockroaches. But if I step into the kitchen at night and switch on the light 20 or so might be visible at once. I look for them during the day—inside drawers, under cupboards, in the cracks between the oven and the fridge. Sometimes I spook up one or two, but even that is rare.
Perhaps they have invisibility powers during daylight hours.

Dirt according to Mary Douglass is “matter-out-of place.” She must mean that dirt in a garden or a forest is soil, on a hillside its clay, in a bin its compost. Only when you track it across your kitchen tiles or find it under your fingernails do you call it dirt. Pests of course are simply beings out of place. A mouse in a meadow or a bug in the back yard is not a pest. Of the thousands of cockroach species world wide there are only around 10 or so that are considered pests—these are the ones that enjoy human company. Or at least the company of our discarded ,dropped, or unsealed food (food out of place it seems is cockroach dinner).

I can only indulge in the natural history of the cockroach momentarily until the shoe, the newspaper, or even my bare hand squashes one more out of existence. In my apartment the population density requires extermination to win out over fascination.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

WEEK 6-- My Neighborhood

Languages I heard Today.

1. Hindi—the hair salon I use plays Bollywood videos.
2. Gujarati—One woman in the salon today was from Gujarat.
3. Russian—my neighbors on both sides and kiddy corner are all Russian. The most common
language spoken in my parking lot is Russian.
4. Yiddish—I stopped at my local Jewish bakery for the first time
5. Spanish—I passed two landscaping crews today speaking Spanish.
6. Marathi—my partner is from Maharashtra so he speaks Marathi to our son.
7. English

Other days I often hear German and Hungarian as I have two friends who speak these languages with their children.

The town I live in—while surrounded my development—is technically a small town (15-20,000 people). And yet each day I hear this array of languages. I can chose to eat Jewish, Greek, Middle Eastern, Peruvian, Japanese, Chinese, Italian, cuisine. All in a town that covers only two square miles.

I don’t always love New Jersey. I can’t let my son wade in our local river (18th most polluted in the country). The highways, strip malls, parking lots, oil refineries, and industrial parks, cover so much area that used to be forest, grassland, wetland. Even the garden state’s farmland is usually bordered by busy highways and strip malls. And yet what this place lacks in biodiversity it makes up for in its diversity of human culture.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

WEEK 6-- My Neighborhood

High Five

My neighborhood is a gritty, messy mix of apartment dwellers. The upstairs neighbors are Russian immigrants probably in their mid-50's who crowd into a 2-bedroom apartment with 2 or 3 of their adult children. The neighbors across the parking lot have nearly the same story. They used to live in a large house but they lost their business then lost their house. So the couple now live in a 3-bedroom apartment with one adult son in a wheelchair and 2 other sons. Every morning the fathers/husbands of these households greet me with enthusiasm. They high five my 2-year old and call him "boss." I have numerous reasons to think the lives of both of these men are difficult and perhaps disappointing. And yet each morning they teach my son that the world greets you with a smile, a joke, and an open hand.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Week 5: Place


I currently reside in a state that professes to be a garden, and yet its state soil is called “Downer Soil.” As in “what a downer we keep polluting all of our amazingly productive soil.” My friend and I built raised garden beds this summer in her backyard because her soil sample report came back from the lab stating “do not grow edibles in this soil.” It was contaminated with lead.
The profile of “Downer” doesn’t speak to its assumed agriculture productivity. Sand is mentioned 5 times in four lines. Brown loamy sand. Grayish brown sandy loam. Gravelly sandy loam. Yellowish brown sand and course sand. Yet with irrigation this soil is known to yield “high-value vegetable and fruit crops.”

I am in love with the idea that each state has a designated state soil. Here are the state soils of states I’ve lived in. Hazeleton, Jory, Mivida. I love how they each sound like the name of a knight that used to tromp around with King Arthur. I dub thee sir Hazeleton, sir Jory, and Sir Mivida. May you go forth and do battle with poorly drained landscapes. Poor Downer doesn’t quite fit with the pack though. He must have been the knight that never knew the cool music to listen to and always smelled slightly of old ketchup. And smiled sadly but politely when the other knights said things like “I’d love to hang out with you on Friday Downer, but seriously I’m infested with pin worm. My tomatoes are dying like nobody’s business.”

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Week 5: Place

Apartments like Canyons

It’s fall. And while the 90 degree day in central New Jersey doesn’t seem to know that its time for crisp mornings and cold evenings, the light knows what time of year it is. It spread out like golden bird wings all across the brick walls of the apartment buildings that border my parking lot and lit them up like red rock canyons. Even my 2-year old pointed and said “light!”