Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Nature's Garden: Is Your Yard a "Certified Wildlife Habitat"? Maybe Not.

         An organization called the National Wildlife Federation, whose aims I suspect I would wholly agree with, if I knew what they were, each year contacts me and no doubt many others with a request that I "certify" my "yard" as a Certified Wildlife Habitat.  
            It does get 'wild' back there at times (generally because I've fallen behind on weeding and trimming), but each year when I consider the criteria required for said certification, I find that my humble little patch of earth fails on almost every single score.
            For instance, this year we unlisted gardeners were offered tips on "a few night loving wildlife to look for in your yard and garden." Fireflies, we are told, "are a sign that summer has arrived."   
            Did somebody forget to send out the newsletter last month?
            Summer has not only arrived -- in fact it arrived more than a month ago according to the solar calendar -- it is already showing signs of passing. And fireflies, at least in their happy flashing-lantern stage, the only phase in which we find it easy to identify them, have long gone dark for next piece of business.
            I did enjoy seeing fireflies this summer. In the first days of July Anne and I walked along a darkening landscape and every handful of steps a new cluster of the flashing beetles would float up from the wild grass and blink on and off. On and off. With the rapidity of beginners playing with a brand-new toy.
            This close encounter with fireflies, that sure token of early summer, took place of course not in our yard/garden or anywhere near it, but along the road to Tanglewood in the Berkshires. No fireflies here this year. We have occasionally seen them in Quincy, but only radiating from the only wild spot nearby, a fenced-in no-entry 'preserve' known as 'the bog.'   
            "Moths," we are then told, are as "beautiful as their daytime cousins, the butterfly, and they help pollinate night blooming plants."
            Moths, we have; check that one off. On occasion one of them bumbles into my screen at night when I am typing words such as these. We are all of us occupying habitat for moths. Leave you outdoor light on after dark and you'll see them. 
            Butterflies, though less evident, have a higher profile because we like their color.
            We have butterflies in our garden because we have flowers. Those I have seen here this year have been cruising at rapid speed, flitting about, then racing off, as if hungry for what we don't have. Other years butterflies have occasionally slowed down and passed some time on a flower, allowing me to photograph them.
            "Listen for frogs and toads calling on summer nights looking for mates," we are told by the garden certifiers. "You can attract them to your garden with a backyard pond."
            Sorry. No pond. I have, very rarely, seen a toad in our yard. One of them camped out for a while on the front walk. Not a safe choice, but I believe he survived an afternoon of sun-bathing there.
            But one of the standard certification criteria for "wildlife habitat" is the presence of a "water feature." How about those little pools that form in the basins I occasionally strew all over the place when I'm trying to find the right-sized basin for a particular pot? I don't these pass muster except as mosquito breeders.
            And then -- in summer? --- "no animal symbolizes nighttime wildlife more than the owl." I have never seen an owl here. Unlike many other birds, owls do not often frequent residential neighborhoods. I did however hear one during a very cold mid-winter night a few years ago. It was loud and chilling; a screech owl. I cannot say that it was in this yard, but it was close.
            In summary, here's the message from the National Wildlife Center: "If you provide the four basic elements—food, water, cover, and a place to raise their young—while using sustainable gardening practices, you will give wildlife the safe haven they need." If you meet these criteria, you can get certified.
            Here's a link to the criteria:|SLLAct           

            I think I'm all right with not being certified.
            Birds feed here and build nests close by. Butterflies flit through, and we always have the little white "cabbage flies." We see hummingbirds occasionally. Bees positively swarm some of the flowering plants, especially in late summer. I have seen skunk, and raccoon here, and hope not to see them again. I also very much hope never to see wild turkeys troop through here, unless it's mid-winter.
            As for plants, bring them on. Whatever wildlife they can sustain is good with me as well.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Garden of Verse: A Praise Song, A Red Dress, a Dream Meeting with a Cherokee ancestor... Verse-Virtual in July

            Many beautiful lines, words of wonder, and penetrating thoughts blossom in the poems in the July edition of Verse-Virtual. 
            Here are a few that caught my eye or ear or imagination.  John Morgan begins his poem "In Spider Country" with a quotation: "Aversion is attachment in reverse." In that case, I am 'attached' to spiders, which is startling news because I have never wished them near me -- rather quite the opposite. Still, as Morgan's poem shows, they are creatures of wonder.
In a breeze the web expands and sways, its guys
thread to the porch post and a bench where no one’s
sat for days. The golden speckled spider’s tiny
for this grand elaboration of trap. 

            Who said "traps are only made by me"? These silken traps are all around us and this poem reminds us that they are made by creatures with a knack for elaborate architecture marvelous to contemplate. 

            I'm a sucker for a dream vision, or a dream poem, almost as much as I am for a distinctly remembered dream of my own. Dreams seem to me the unevadable proof  that we are living in more worlds than one. Penny Harter's "Dream Meeting" evokes a meeting an "old woman" [who] "on a narrow bench
of pelts rose up on one elbow"
            The poem has the uncanny conviction of the real thing. I want to quote it whole, but I'll restrain myself. Still, the economy of detail, "her eyes demanding mine as I
stood silent on the dirt, lost in crickets..." is exactly right.  

            The particular gift that David Graham offers us in his two poems "Movie Scenes We Won't Be Viewing" and "Where I Want My Ashes Buried" is their matter of fact courage in asking us to face difficult realities. We wish to say, 'Can't we talk about something more pleasant?'
            What we will never see in the flicks, Graham's poem tell us, is gun play such as:

Rogue C.I.A. agent shot in the back
while eating a danish at the diner.
Unfortunately, the spray of gunfire also hits
the waitress, who twitches and gurgles

for five minutes before dying.

            No, we won't see that. The gunplay we see in pretty much every movie and Neflix drama we do tune into is comparatively clean, unreal, and involves no serious suffering to characters we care about except when the plot really needs it. What we really need is the corrective of poems like this. 
            Perhaps even less attractive is the notion of contemplating our ashes -- "
gray and flaky, with little chunks
of charred bone and minerals..."

            Stay with this poem, friends, for an answer to this unwelcome question that's both realistic and satisfying. 
            A "Paean," the title of Glenn Freeman's poem, is a song of praise, and the praise song is a traditional device in American worship services. Maybe that's why this poem has a spiritual resonance in addition to how beautifully its language flows.

Praise the broken, the ruptured, the disconnected; 
praise the grass overgrown, the dandelion 
seeds drifting over every beautiful lawn.
Praise the sad, the worried, the infected 
among us, the words we might use to heal, 
the syntax of sorrow and grief inverted 
into music. Praise the music. 

I love the inclusion of overgrown grass and the drifting dandelion seeds mixed in between "the broken, the ruptured" on one side and the "the worried, the infected among us" on the other. The poem suggests these failings, emotional and material, may be turned into music. Yes, many songs attempt just this alchemy. But look how fluently these words are woven together: "the syntax of sorrow and grief inverted/ into music. Praise the music."
          Some poems sing. This is one of them.

              A famous poem ("The Oven Bird") by Robert Frost depicts a birdsong posing the question, "What to make of a diminished thing."  Margaret Hasse's poem "Not Letting Go" appears to provide an answer: Don't accept the diminution. We may not be as young as we used to be, and the symbol of those yesterdays, a dress hanging in an attic closet

"....brief and bright,
pert, a ruby coronation,
a red hot damn of a dress."

may not serve the ends it once did. But Hasse's poem makes a case for choosing not to settle for a little piece of vision, a memory fragment, a diminished thing, and in the process invents a new interpretation of the metaphor of 'cloth.'

           To stretch this cloth a little further, these images and the poems of which they are part are all pieces of a bursting wardrobe, uncanny as a gateway into another world, that constitutes Verse-Virtual July 2017.

Friday, July 14, 2017

The Garden of History: In Shakespeare's Own Hand, the "Mountainish Inhumanity" of Denying Refuge to "Strangers"

          Imagine  that you see the wretched strangers,

           Their babies at their backs, with their poor luggage,

           Plodding to th' ports and coast. -- William Shakespeare

           Published in 2008, a work of scholarship called "The Lodger Shakespeare," by Charles Nicholl, tells us what can be drawn from official records pertaining to Shakespeare's life as a 'lodger,' that is one who lives in the household of the house's owner, in London during the early years of the 17th century.
           The house on Silver Street in which Shakespeare lodged, beginning 1602 or 1603, for a few years (exact dates unknown)
is the playwright's only London residence for which we have any record at all. What that record tells us is teased out at length in Nicholl's remarkable book. We know the name of the family he lodged with, Mountjoy, because he was later called on to give testimony in a financial dispute between his former landlord, Christopher Mountjoy, and the man (Stephen Belott) who married Montjoy's daughter and who contended that his father-in-law reneged on a promised dowry. As this family name suggests, the Mountjoys who lived on Silver Street in the Cripplegate district of London, were French.
             What caught my eye in this fascinating glimpse of Jacobean history is the author's shrewd speculations on the effect living in a household owned by French immigrants might have had on Shakespeare's work. French characters, Nicholl points out, show up in a few of his plays. The most 'French' of his plays, the early romantic comedy "Love's Labors Lost," centers on four aristocratic young men who 'retreat' from the world to devote themselves to study, but are somehow distracted by the arrival of four noble French women. 
             Here's the telling part. The author states:

            "One of the enigmatic jokes which litter 'Love's Labors Lost' refers to a 'French brawl,' and given the probable date of the play it has been suggested that this alludes to London's anti-immigrant riots of April-May 1593... [when] gangs of apprentices marched the streets chanting murderous anti-French slogans

            Weele curt your throates in your temples praying

                  Not Paris massacre so much blood did spill.

Against this topical background, the author suggests, the French milieu imagined in Shakespeare's play (philosophical nobleman, elaborate courtesies, elegant picnics) stands as "a kind of riposte to current anti-French hysteria."

            Even more interesting to me is learning something I do not remember ever reading before, namely that Shakespeare had a hand -- literally -- in a little known, possibly unproduced Elizabethan play titled the "Booke of Sir Thomas More." Based on expert historical handwriting analysis, one of this play's six authors is William Shakespeare. Even more remarkably, this little known work is the only surviving manuscript -- that is literary writing, rather than say an official document such as a will or other legal filing -- in which Shakespeare's handwriting has been detected. And in the entire six-handed play, only one scene is written by Shakespeare. 
          And that that scene happens to one in which More, the hero of a 20th century play "A Man of All Seasons," is depicted shaming anti-French rioters in a 1517 event known as the "Ill May Day" riots. Those disturbances, Nicholl tells us, "are parallel with the riots of 1593," the period during which Shakespeare contributed a scene to a play about Thomas More. (Collaboratively written plays, by the way, were very common in both the Elizabethan and Jacobean theaters.)

            Shakespeare's scene pictures an aggrieved mob leader blaming rising prices for foodstuffs on the presence of the 'strangers' -- French refugees from the troubled continent across the English Channel. Besides, the anti-immigrant spokesman complains, the French eat strange vegetables, which are bad for the locals, such as vegetables grown in "dung." Nicholl terms these complaints "the invented grievances of racism."

            Shakespeare is particularly eloquent in his invention of a speech in which More asks the rioters to confront the actuality of 'deporting' the French immigrants:

           Imagine  that you see the wretched strangers,

           Their babies at their backs, with their poor luggage,

           Plodding to th' ports and coast.

Then More asks the rioters to imagine what would it feel like "to be rejected by a nation of such barbarous temper... that would not afford you an abode on earth."
           What would you think
           To be thus used? This the strangers' case
           And this your mountainish inhumanity.
So, as it happens, this one scene, the only piece of manuscript identified as written by Shakespeare's hand, deals with his nation's  treatment of immigrants. The author states: "The only surviving literary manuscript by Shakespeare contains a passionate speech on behalf of London's immigrants." Nicholl's book suggests the possibility of a connection between the words and Shakespeare's experience of living in the home of an immigrant family in London. 
         All this leaves me with a question: Where is the Shakespeare who can show us to ourselves and confront the anti-immigrant racists of our own day -- those "of such barbarous temper" who wish to close the door on Syrians, for instance, among other Muslim-majority nations, even while our leader's Russian friends bomb their cities and hospitals?
          Our leader, that is, who wishes to build a wall to 'defend our borders' -- against 'strangers' such as Central American teenagers fleeing murderous criminal gangs in their own unhappy nations.
           Where is the poet who can show us to our 'barbarous,' un-Christian selves when we set tiny quotas for refugees from war in the Middle East and drug violence in Central America, scared to death that some foreign-born 'terrorist' will infiltrate among them and do us harm? And yet entirely careless of the danger of handing semi-automatic weapons to good old native-born domestic abusers? 
            Are we so lacking in eloquent voices? Or is it simply that we've become a people lacking in both compassion and shame? 

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Garden of the Seasons: July on the Rise

If the month of July is not the time to wait for a full moon to rise over the water, when is? The full moon was July 8 and Anne and I did in fact head over to Wollaston Beach that evening, but that Saturday night in Quincy dark clouds rolled in from the north. After the first shower ended, we sat outdoors at Tony's, the popular fried clam and other seafood place on Shoreline Drive, ordered food (the Mediterranean style chick kebab is actually the best dish on the menu) ignoring the dampness on the chairs and table until the clouds opened up a second time and sent us scurrying. 
            The next night we tried again. Since the moon rises a good bit later every day, we had time to have dinner at home before joining a crowded Sunday night scene at the beach. Not too many of us were there for the moonrise. But when a big round moon did begin to emerge over the Nantasket shoreline, right on time (astronomical events are good that way), we noticed some other folks taking photos as well. 
            The color was magical. The apparent size of the moon just above the horizon makes everything else in the word seem smaller. The reflection it paints on the surface of the water suggests a veritable stairway to the stars. 
            I found a poem I had written about this phenomenon last September, yet another good month for watching a moonrise. Here it is.

Moon Trick

Arriving just in time to pull the moon, that peach-faced joker, 
out of the sea with a string, funny face, magician, trickster,
master of the game. Warm September, so far rainless,
poison flower vines attack the A/C capacitor,
the crickets slow-voiced and humorous,
sounding as if they think they have all the time in the world
to find what they are looking for
(my complacent colleagues, seasonal labor,
always time for another drink),
no hurry till the mercury drops.
I will remember these days, when days are short,
when all the time the world thought it had
turns to dust in trickster's hand.

            Lots of other good things happen in July. The previous week we spent the July Fourth weekend in the Berkshires, enjoying long days of clear, dry weather. The second photo from the top shows one of the flower boxes Anne put together for the deck on her parents' summer place.
    We walked along the shore of the lake called Stockbridge Bowl with some good friends on July 4th, on a path we've taken many times before, but last year began to call 'the Bear Path,' after our surprising encounter with a black bear. No heavy breathing this time. The third photo from the top shows some of us engrossed in a picture-taking session by the lake.    
The three flower photos are from the home garden in Quincy, showing a violet echinacea, and two views of daylilies in the happy days of July when the sun is shining.   
          For the last photo we go back to the Berkshires to the quiet -- I mean, seriously, not a car drove past for half an hour -- country road in the little town of Alford, where they seem to pack in a lot of summer scenery and very little human activity. It was the day before the Fourth of July, and someone had their flag out.