Monday, October 29, 2007


Blogging here will be irregular for a while as I attempt to get some non-blog writing done.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

On the Birthday of Harold Brodkey

For a few years early in this decade, I worked as a researcher/writer for Garrison Keillor's show The Writers' Almanac. I remember clearly that on the morning of September 11, 2001, I was working on the script for the week of October 22, 2001. I was working on a piece about the writer Harold Brodkey (born October 25, 1930) when Clara called and told me to turn on the television.

GK demanded that Writers' Almanac scripts not sound too much like term papers. The trick was to deliver humorous or pithy anecdotes, not condensed literary criticism. I wasn't always successful at giving the great man exactly what he wanted, and what eventually aired on the radio was always different from what I had actually written. For example, here's my original piece on Harold Brodkey, written before and after the twin towers collapsed:

It’s the birthday of novelist and short story writer Harold Brodkey, born in Alton, Illinois (1930). He began working on his first novel in 1962, and over the next thirty-two years became famous for not publishing it. For years, the novel, The Runaway Soul, appeared in his publisher’s catalogue, only to be withdrawn as he continued to work on it in his cork-lined, Upper West Side apartment. “Publishing would interfere with working on it,” he said. In the meantime, in 1973 he published his most famous story, “Innocence,” with devotes thirty-one pages to the description of a single sexual act. Sections of his first novel appeared in the 1988 collection Stories in an Almost Classical Mode. The novel itself finally came out in 1994, two years before the author’s death from AIDS. Harold Brodkey said: “It’s dangerous to be as good a writer as I am.”

And here is what GK actually said on the air:

It's the birthday of novelist and short story writer Harold Brodkey, born in Alton, Illinois (1930). He began working on his first novel in 1962, and over the next 32 years became famous for not publishing it. For years, the novel, The Runaway Soul, appeared in his publisher's catalogue, only to be withdrawn as he continued to work on it in his cork-lined Upper West Side apartment. "Publishing would interfere with working on it," he said.

Slightly abbreviated, but actually not too bad.

I was thinking about Harold Brodkey in his cork-lined New York apartment when the first plane hit the tower. It was Harold Brodkey's birthday again on October 25, 2002 when Paul Wellstone's plane went down.

"I do not really understand this erasure," Brodkey wrote, as he inched toward his own death.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007


After an acute case of blogorrhea in early October, my blogging has fallen off in recent days. Not a word from me about Dumbledore's sexuality or the fall colors or what William Dean Howells has to say about his characters' noses. Nothing about seeing the Guthrie Theater production of Jane Eyre on Saturday afternoon, or the distracting awfulness of the actors' English accents. Nothing about Sunday's pork tenderloin braised with wild mushrooms and juniper berries. Not one mention of having the first fire of the season in the wood stove and reading a Laurie R. King mystery aloud to Clara while she knit a sweater. And did I mention that Clara's mother is visiting? No, I never mentioned it. For three whole days, not a single link to something brilliant. Not a single word about what the mayor has done. I never blogged about any of these things, and now you will never know about them.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Books & Climate Change

A book from the Bodleian Library, Oxford University, showing extensive water and insect damage. Global warming is responsible for increasing harm to the world's cultural heritage.

It's been a rough year for Blickling Hall, a spectacular Jacobean manor house in Norwich, England, owned by the National Trust. In June, torrential rains and flooding caused serious damage to the property, including water damage to priceless and irreplaceable seventeenth- century plaster ceilings. The increase in severe weather, including hurricanes in the Caribbean and flooding in Britain, has been attributed to global warming, as warmer sea and air temperatures wreak havoc with weather systems around the world. One major threat that Britain faces is the possibility that warmer sea temperatures will disrupt the Gulf Stream, which circulates warm water and air from the Gulf of Mexico toward Britain, creating England's temperate (and wet) climate. (England is further north than Minnesota, yet the climate is more temperate; tropical plants, native to the Canary Islands, thrive year-round in Cornwall.) But at Blickling Hall, there is a smaller, but not insignificant threat posed by warmer global temperatures. Conservators working in the library have discovered a large infestation of bookworms eating their way through the rare books in the library's collection. The worms are the larvae of the deathwatch beetle (Xestobium rufovillosum), and their numbers have quadrupled in 2006-2007 because of warmer temperatures, damper conditions, and the absence of prolonged killing frosts. Deathwatch beetles get their name because the ticking sound they make as they eat was often the only sound heard in homes where watches were being held over the bodies of the dead. Now that ticking is one of the unexpected sounds of the time bomb of global warming.

Link: Local news story about the damage at Blickling Hall.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Autumnal (In Memory of David Kjerland)

Yesterday was a dreary day. I had a headache for most of the day. The Cleveland Indians did not advance to the World Series. Josh Beckett's tight curveball jumped over the Cleveland bats as if they were under some sort of ball-repelling spell. I missed most of the game because I went out to a poetry reading at Monkey See, Monkey Read to celebrate the publication of the Northfield Women Poets' new collection, Penchant. NWP was started in the late 1960s by Riki Kölbl Nelson and Karen Herseth Wee, and both of them were there to read last night, along with Beverly Voldseth, Andrea Een, Karen Sandberg, Susan Thurston Hamerski, and Marie Vogl Gery. Their beautiful book is available at Monkey See for $15.98 (tax included). The audience for the reading was mostly women, with a small handful of men—including Jerry Bilek, who hosted the event, and Scott King, who designed the book and wrote the foreword. I felt we were more united by poetry than we were divided by gender.

I enjoy poetry readings because I always leave them feeling inspired to return to my own poetry. Sometimes I need to hear the words of others to prime my own creative pump. After the reading, Scott and I figured we both average about three new poems a year. But after last night's reading, I was able to sit down and write. This poem is in memory of David Kjerland, who died on Monday. I didn't know him well. We occasionally stopped on the sidewalk along Fifth Street to talk, almost always about writing. But I never knew he had written about his work as a literacy volunteer in Alabama in 1965. I knew he was an artist who created beautiful works of art in stained glass. I knew he was a devoted father. I knew he loved poetry. I feel a deep sense of loss because I have lost the chance to know him better.


The world going golden under a leaded sky—
the dark leading of the branches, the leaves
like panes of colored glass shattering from the trees.
Soon neighbors will draw indoors,
the light of windows banked against the cold.
We will pass less often on the street, then not at all.
The last words will fall from our mouths.
We will start to forget.
What remains will be fragile and luminous.
The world will be glazed with ice, the trees will reach up
with bare arms, like children wanting to be held.

Thursday, October 18, 2007


Note: With apologies to my brother-in-law in New England, I'm hoping the Cleveland Indians (despite their shameful logo) go all the way this year, beginning with a decisive ALCS win against Boston tonight. This has been a year without baseball for me. I missed Twins games and Will's NYBA games over at Sechler Park. In England, the closest I came to seeing baseball was watching the little children at St. Nicholas Primary School learning to play rounders. But as 27 Major League teams are saying at this point in October: "Next year..."

September 10, 2001 was Will’s tenth birthday. His golden birthday. Ten years old on the tenth day of the month. We took him out to Red Lobster (his choice) for crab legs and lobster tails. He told us it was his best birthday ever. He got dozens of baseball cards and the promise of a Twins game at the Metrodome.

I remember the day he was born, a gray day in early September when the 1991 Minnesota Twins, destined for a World Series championship, were rain-delayed in Kansas City. I remember in astonishing detail the look and feel and smell of that day. I remember the exact gray of the sky, the rain on the hospital roof, his grayish-pink head that fit into the palm of my hand.

Now I remember with the same clarity his tenth birthday: Will extracting crab meat from the legs, happily using words like exoskeleton to talk about his food. I keep holding onto September 10: the afternoon sun like melted butter, and everything perfect.

The next day, the day after his birthday, he didn’t want to talk about what had happened. He said that the news had interrupted a good geometry lesson. He said he couldn’t comprehend what had happened. It didn’t seem real. So much death didn’t seem possible. It didn’t make sense that so many people, with names and lives and families, were gone in an instant.

He turned away.

We hid the Newsweek when it arrived, so that he wouldn’t see the pictures of people jumping from the World Trade Center, a hundred floors up from the street.

Usually he likes to know what’s going on in the world. For school that year, he wrote a report on global warming. He came home from school one day with a backpack full of books on ozone depletion, ice cap melting, acid rain. He attacked the problem with all the confidence of a ten-year old kid who’s ready to solve any problem our generation leaves for him.

“Brian’s doing his report on nuclear fission,” he told us. “But I already know all about that.”

A few days after his tenth birthday, Will left a note for us at the breakfast table. It said: “This birthday will be remembered by its events (and the events that followed). Thank you for all your kindness. Throughout this past week I have been receiving endless presents, yet I have been holding in my true love and gratitude to you. I have pushed it into this letter in effort to make you happy with all my ten years of existence.”

A week later, as promised, I took him to the first Twins game after the tragedy of September 11. That night, September 19, Minnesota went on to defeat Detroit, and Twins pitcher Brad Radke took a perfect game into the seventh inning.

“How rare is a perfect game?” Will asked as we drove home. The roar of the Metrodome was still ringing in our ears.

“There’s only been eighteen of them ever,” I said. “And only one in the World Series.”

Walt Whitman said: “I see great things in baseball. It’s our game—the American game. It will repair these losses, and be a blessing to us.” Driving home from the game with my son beside me, under those flightless skies, it was still possible to imagine a perfect world.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Why I Missed Blog Action Day

Yesterday was Blog Action Day, when bloggers everywhere are supposed to unite in posting about a single issue: the environment. I consider this the most important issue facing the world today, but this blog (after a long string of daily posts) was silent. Why? Because we were too busy yesterday having a home energy audit.

The most dramatic part of the energy audit is the "blower door test," which determines how much air is being leaked from the house. The front door is sealed and fitted with an exhaust fan that blows air out of the house, creating a pressure difference of 50 Pascals between the inside and outside of the house. This creates the effect of a 30 mph wind blowing on the house from all directions. A series of pressure gauges determine how much air, in cubic feet per minute, is being leaked from the house. (This is sometimes expressed as ACH—air changes per hour, or how often the entire volume of air in the house is exchanged). A well-sealed house typically loses 1500 CFM @ 50 Pascals. Our house is leaking 3,750 CFM. So, as soon as the energy auditor was gone, we were on the phone to contractors for estimates of what it will cost to have the walls and attic space properly insulated. Proper insulation can decrease our air leakage by 50-60%.

We've already replaced most of our incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents, and at night we lower the thermostat to a nippy 58°-60°. You save 1% per degree on your heating bill if you lower the temperature at night. We also plan to replace our top-loading washing machine with a front loader, which uses less water and energy. And because a front loader spins the clothes faster (150-1600 rpm), they require less drying time.
Xcel Energy charges $35 for the home energy audit. There's more information on the program at Xcel's website.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

"A Good Forehead"

William Dean Howells' novel The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) begins with a journalist sitting down to interview wealthy businessman Silas Lapham. While the subject of the interview settles down to talk, the journalist jots down a quick sketch of Lapham's physical appearance. We learn from this description that Lapham has a "good forehead."

What is a good forehead? The phrase was in common use in the nineteenth century, and its meaning seems to have been generally understood. Even a child knew what a good forehead was. Here's part of a little dialogue between a mother and daughter (Sophia) from The Youth's Companion (1838). The title of the dialogue is "O, How I Wish to Be Pretty."

Mama: Pray, my dear, explain to me what you think essential to beauty?
Sophia: That is easily done. A fair complexion, very bright eyes, soft, dark hair, and perhaps, too, a good forehead.

Two years later, a journalist described newly-elected Senator Augustus S. Porter of Michigan as having "a good forehead [and] regular features." These phrases ("good forehead," "regular features") seem like nineteenth-century journalistic shorthand for something. But what? Another good forehead man, according to his campaign biographer, was Abraham Lincoln. What is it about his forehead that's so good? Later in the century, the human forehead became of prime importance to phrenologists, those pseudo-scientists who thought the shape of a man's head was the key to his character. A good forehead, to a phrenologist, would have a "a general evenness of contour." It was the forehead of the generic distinguished- looking white man, a man of approved intellect and character. There are a lot of assumptions—about beauty, character, intellect, race, success—behind a seemingly insignificant phrase like "a good forehead."

This is my problem. I start to read a novel, and get sidetracked into an investigation of what "a good forehead" means. I begin to imagine I could write an entire essay on the phrase "a good forehead."

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross at the NAG Theater

Last night, Clara and I attended the current production of David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross at the Northfield Arts Guild Theater on Third Street. The theater, which until 1960 was St. Peter's Lutheran Church, has probably never experienced such a range and quantity of profanity. Mamet's play is tough and unflinching, and the language is fired off at a machine-gun pace, and it's a tribute to the cast and crew that they pulled it off with such aplomb. The NAG Theater has been growing more adventurous of late, thanks in part, I suspect, to the influence of Brendon Etter, who doesn't seem averse to taking risks. In recent years, the NAG has taken on Arthur Miller's The Price, Kander and Ebb's Cabaret, Ibsen's The Enemy of the People, and Seamus Heaney's The Burial at Thebes (a version of Sophocles' Antigone). In January, the NAG will stage Brendon's own series of short plays, provocatively titled Sex with Seven Women. Judging from the full house last night, the "adventurous theater fans" of Northfield are responding enthusiastically.

Glengarry Glen Ross, says Minneapolis playwright Jeffrey Hatcher, "is a taut, savage, vibrant, visceral, very funny, very frightening and very moving play about salesmen, money, and what it means to be a man in a brutal business world." It's a play, he says, in which words are always actions. The men are always talking: selling, conning, cutting and thrusting with their words. Mamet's salesmen live or die by their skill with words, their ability to sell a story. In my favorite scene, ace salesman Ricky Roma (charismatically acted by Jeff Ostberg) begins a sales pitch with a long philosophical monologue, delivered to an unsuspecting young man in the next booth at a Chinese restaurant. I found myself trying to understand Roma's philosophy while simultaneously being lulled by the odd poetry of his words. I realized that Roma's philosophy isn't much of a philosophy at all. He uses a lot of words to say almost nothing. Life is what happens to you. That's about what it boils down to. In other words, Roma doesn't have much to sell—an empty philosophy, a worthless piece of land—but he sells it brilliantly. What matters is not the product, but the pitch.

The strong cast is anchored by veteran Charlie Black as Shelley Levene, a salesman whose career is on the skids. It was an excellent evening at the theater. The play is short, but it packs a punch.

There is one more evening performance of Glengarry Glen Ross at the NAG Theater, tonight (October 13) at 7:30. The final performance is tomorrow afternoon (Sunday, October 14) at 2:00.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Secondhand Books

Yesterday, the box of used books that I mailed from England more than two months ago finally arrived. The box contained treasures like Marghanita Laski's The Village, which I bought at the wonderful Staffs Bookshop in Lichfield, not far from Lichfield Cathedral and Samuel Johnson's birthplace. There's also a bookshop on the ground floor of the birthplace itself, occupying the same room from which Dr. Johnson's father sold books at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Unfortunately, bookselling was not the most profitable occupation, even in a cultured cathedral town like Lichfield, and Michael Johnson often had difficulty making ends meet. But what a start in life for a budding lexicographer like young Samuel, growing up in a house full of books!

Michael Johnson wouldn't have it any easier as a bookseller three hundred years later—unless he was willing to go online. According to a recent story in Entrepreneur, used bookstores are prime candidates for extinction within the next ten years—along with record stores, pay phones, and print newspapers. Online merchants like are rapidly driving bricks-and-mortar bookstores out of business. According to an unscientific Northfield News poll, nearly 60% of respondents do all of their shopping for books online (results as of October 12).

There are two used bookstores within a block of each other on Division Street in Northfield. If I'm looking for something to read, as I usually am, I tend to stop in at Jerry Bilek's Monkey See, Monkey Read. I love browsing, scanning the shelves for the familiar green binding of the Virago Modern Classics, or just waiting for something new to catch my attention. The last time I stopped in, I bought a nice little Harper Perennial Classics edition of William Dean Howells' The Rise of Silas Lapham, which is next in the queue after I finish The Awakening. Of course, Jerry can also track down books and place special orders if you don't find what you want.

Northfield isn't exactly Hay-on-Wye, but we're lucky to have a couple of good secondhand bookshops,* as well as the excellent River City Books for new books and CDs. While my friend Penny is encouraging everyone to eat local, I'll chime in and urge everyone to read local, and to support our fine local booksellers.

*One of the affectations I picked up in England that I think I'll keep is calling used books "secondhand books."

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Update: The Armenian Resolution

The resolution on the Armenian genocide cleared a House panel yesterday, bringing it to the full House for an eventual vote. Predictably, the Turkish government protested the action. I can't believe I'm saying this, but I tend to agree with President Bush that this resolution is the wrong response at the wrong time, and only serves to anger an important ally. Or rather, to avoid the creepy feeling of agreeing with Bush, I agree with Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY), who opposed the resolution, saying, "We have failed to do what we're asking other people to do." Meeks, an African-American, is talking about the failure of Congress to address, with similar resolutions, this country's own treatment of indigenous peoples or its history of slavery.

It's been estimated that since Columbus arrived, 515 years ago tomorrow, the indigenous population of the Western Hemisphere has declined by 100 million.* Was this a genocide? Many people, especially Native Americans, say yes; many others, especially the white descendants of European settlers, say no. It's possible to find many Native Americans, for example, who claim that Andrew Jackson's Indian removal measures in the 1830s (including the infamous Trail of Tears) were an act of genocide against the Cherokee people. Yet a prominent white historian like Robert Remini can state unequivocally, "He was not intent on genocide" (The Life of Andrew Jackson, p. 114). While we clearly continue to struggle with our own contested history of genocide, it seems presumptuous of our government to take sides on such a divisive historical issue in another country.

For more background on the Armenian genocide, see my nephew's comment on my last post. I'll be interested in hearing what he learns over the course of his year in Izmir.

*The figure is from David E. Stannard, American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World (Oxford University Press 1993).

Wednesday, October 10, 2007


Izmir, Turkey. Photo by my nephew, Thomas Shaw.

One of the stories in the news today is that President Bush is urging Congress to reject a resolution that would officially recognize the Armenian genocide, the slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians in Turkey during World War I. Bush recognizes that the "mass killings" took place, and that the Armenians suffered tragically, but he's concerned that recognizing the killings as "genocide" will harm U.S.-Turkish relationships. I'm particularly interested in those relationships at the moment because my eighteen-year old nephew is currently an AFS exchange student in the Turkish city of Izmir (known to the Greeks as Smyrna).

The treatment of the Armenians in Turkey is a contentious issue. To get a sense of the history and the passions on both sides, I highly recommend Canadian director Atom Egoyan's brilliant 2002 film Ararat, which in a deeply textured and thought-provoking way explores how our identities and actions are shaped by our partial and often partisan understanding of history. Another place to look for a sense of the heated debate over the Armenian question is among the customer reviews for Marjorie Housepian Dobkins' Smyrna 1922: The Destruction of a City (1998).

First, let me give a little historical background. The story begins more than 3,000 years ago, with the founding of a village on the coast of Asia Minor, in what is now Turkey. The village may have been founded by the Lelegians, a seafaring people who, according to Homer, inhabited the southern coast of the Troad, the region surrounding Troy in northern Anatolia. By the seventh century B.C.E, however, the coastal village of Smyrna had become a prosperous Greek colony, an important outlet to the Mediterranean for trade routes stretching eastward across Anatolia. This position made it a coveted prize for the rulers of the Lydian empire, who controlled the interior of Asia Minor between the Greek coastal cities and the Assyrian Empire to the east. In the early sixth century B.C.E., Smyrna was conquered by the Lydian king Allyates II.

Over the next three hundred years, Smyrna fell into decay and insignificance, until in the third century it was rebuilt by Antigonus I, one of the generals and successors of Alexander the Great. For the next thousand years, it was a Greek city, becoming part of the Greek Orthodox empire of Byzantium which evolved from the eastern half of the Roman Empire. Then, in the fourteenth century, Smyrna was conquered and incorporated into the Ottoman Empire. The population remained a potentially volatile mixture of Greeks, Armenians, and Muslims, each group living in its own district of the city. This is how things stood when World War I hastened the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and left the Paris peace conference with the task of deciding what to do with the former Ottoman territories. (For a fascinating account of the Paris peace conference and its far-reaching consequences, see Margaret MacMillan's Paris 1919.)

At the peace conference, the Italians and the Turks also claimed the coast of Asia Minor, but the leaders of the conference decided in favor of the Greeks, and ratified their decision with the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920. The Greek army moved in to occupy Smyrna. At the same time, the Turks were positioning themselves to reclaim the coastal cities. In September 1922, a Turkish army under Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk) entered Smyrna, sending the Greek army into retreat. At some point during the Turkish reoccupation of Smyrna, fire broke out in the Armenian quarter and quickly spread to other sections of the city. (For a fictional account of the evacuation of Smyrna in 1922, see Jeffrey Eugenides' Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Middlesex.)

In the fall of 2004, I taught a history class for a homeschool cooperative in Edina. On the first day of class, I brought in several eyewitness accounts of the events of September 1922 in Smyrna. I distributed the accounts among the students so that each student had a different account. When they had read their account, I asked them to write down their answer to the question: "Who started the fire that burned Smyrna?" The answers—the Greeks, the Turks, the Armenians—varied depending on which account they had read. Eighty-five years later, competing answers are still being given, and the flames of Smyrna still burn hot in the minds of Turks, Greeks, and Armenians.

Update (6:30 PM): The resolution passed in committee.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

My Distinguished Wife

Clara left for Oberlin, Ohio, this afternoon, where at 4:30 pm tomorrow (Wednesday, October 10) she'll be delivering the Distinguished Alumni Lecture in Classics at Oberlin College.

Reading Journal: The Call of Cthulhu

In August 1986, before I started graduate school at Brown University, I moved into a depressing three-story brick apartment building on Gano Street in Providence, Rhode Island. I was on the third floor. Directly below me, on the first floor, was a history graduate student named Mike who spent his free time listening to The Cure and pondering the Dark Arts. He was convinced that Providence stood at the convergence of powerful ley lines which made the city a focus of paranormal activity. One piece of his evidence was the fact that Providence was the home of H. P. Lovecraft, who was born there in 1890 and who died there in 1937.

Lovecraft was a writer of horror tales whose work originally appeared in pulp magazines like Weird Tales, and who was recently (and somewhat controversially) canonized by inclusion in the Library of America. It was in the Library of America volume of his Tales (2005) that I read what is probably Lovecraft’s most famous story, “The Call of Cthulhu.” The story is presented as an account of the narrator’s efforts to piece together a story partially revealed in the papers of his late grand-uncle, who was a professor at Brown University. It’s a research thriller, like The Da Vinci Code or Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, without much actual thrill. The narrator’s research uncovers the existence of an ancient cult that awaits the resurrection of the alien demon Cthulhu and the other Old Ones from their drowned city somewhere in the Indian Ocean (helpfully pinpointed as 47° 9’ S 126° 43’ W). The narrator learns that there are primal demons lurking in the earth who speak to humans in nightmares and will one day rise to make the world “flame with a holocaust of ecstacy and freedom.”

“Loathsomeness waits and dreams in the deep,” the narrator says, “and decay spreads over the tottering cities of men.” The primal demons in the earth make H. P. Lovecraft’s world a hopeless and lonely place. Men die alone and empty, hollowed out by their terrible knowledge. Everything basically sucks.

I just finished watching the brilliant second season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In the season finale, Buffy’s evil ex-boyfriend attempts to revive an ancient demon with the Lovecraftian name Acathla, who with a single word will suck the entire world into a hell dimension in which all non-demon life will suffer eternal torments. But in the Buffyverse, demons tend to represent inner demons—the demons that plague our human psyches—and can be killed by self-knowledge, Christian humanism, and a well-aimed wooden stake. Buffy reaffirms human values like friendship, compassion, and forgiveness. In Lovecraft’s world, there is no slayer, only the lurking Old Ones and the nihilism of those who become aware of their presence.

But Lovecraft’s demons are no less metaphorical than those of the Buffyverse. He describes the devotees of Cthulhu as “mongrels” and “half-castes” and “degenerate,” and the return of the Old Ones threatens to turn the earth into what looks to Lovecraft like an orgiastic hell dimension of miscegenation. The vision drives a pedigreed white man like the narrator, one Francis Wayland Thurston, to despair. Lovecraft was a racist, and he created an entire twisted mythos out of his loathing of the non-white and his fear of what lurked beneath the thin white skin of Western civilization. “The Call of Cthulhu” was written in 1926, the year Jelly Roll Morton started recording for Victor, but it’s a good bet that H. P. Lovecraft didn’t have “Black Bottom Stomp” spinning on his old victrola. The central section of Lovecraft’s story is, in fact, an account of a police raid of a Cthulhu cult ritual in the swamps near New Orleans. Lovecraft describes the cult members as “hybrid spawn,” and describes the ritual like this: “Animal fury and orgiastic licence here whipped themselves to daemoniac heights by howls and squawking ecstacies that tore through those nighted woods like pestilential tempests from the gulfs of hell.” I’m sure it would be easy to find similar descriptions of jazz clubs in the 1920s by writers of Lovecraft’s background and temperament.

No, I’m not a fan of H. P. Lovecraft, his racist and nihilist mythos, or his overwrought prose. But his influence is undeniable. Here’s a small example. Lovecraft describes Cthulhu as “a monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers.” At left is the head of Dalek Sek, the human-dalek hybrid from the most recent series of Dr. Who on the BBC. Lovecraft recoiled from “hybrids” and “mongrels,” and it seems significant that this human-alien hybrid seems to allude to the appearance of Cthulhu. But the ethos of most mainstream science fiction (especially Star Trek, Dr. Who, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer) is humanistic, and in Dalek Sek the dalek extermination machine is humanized and made to feel compassion and the desire for reconciliation.

At about the same time that I was hearing about ley lines from my neighbor Mike, Neil Gaiman was writing the Lovecraft parody, “I Cthulhu” (1986), a hilarious hybrid (the appropriate word) of Lovecraft’s peculiarly portentous style and the off-handed casualness of a celebrity interview. Here’s a small sample. Cthulhu is telling his interviewer about the rest of his demonic family:

To tell the truth I wasn’t all that fond of my cousins, and due to some particularly eldritch distortion of the planes I’ve always had a great deal of trouble seeing them clearly. They tend to get fuzzy around the edges, and some of them – Sabaoth is a case in point – have a great many edges.

I love how Gaiman works in the Lovecraftian adjective eldritch, meaning “weird, uncanny, otherworldly.”

Thanks to John Mutford for his Short Story Monday review of Neil Gaiman's "I Cthulhu."

Monday, October 8, 2007

Columbus Day

Take away this Columbus Day
No more bones on display
Blackhawk never had a say
Just taken out of the picture.
—"Out of the Picture," from the Son Volt album

Martin Waldseemüller's 1507 "globe gores" map of the world, the first map to include the name "America" (on the far right of the map). In the James Ford Bell Library, University of Minnesota.

Today is Columbus Day, which thanks to a 1971 law is observed on the second Monday of October rather than on October 12, the original date of the holiday. (In Canada, today is Thanksgiving Day.) The first official proclamation of a national Columbus Day was made by President Benjamin Harrison in 1892, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus's "discovery" of America. There are, of course, all kinds of problems with celebrating Columbus's "discovery" of a continent which was already inhabited by millions of people who, in subsequent centuries, became the victims of genocide. When Columbus landed on the island of San Salvador in the Bahamas in October 1492, his first thought seems to have been of enslaving the native Arawak (Taino) people. He wrote in his journal: "It appears to me, that the people are ingenious, and would be good servants and I am of opinion that they would very readily become Christians, as they appear to have no religion." In the decades after Columbus's arrival, the Arawaks were completely annihilated by smallpox carried to the New World by the Spaniards.

It wasn't until five years after Columbus, on June 24, 1497, that a European explorer set foot in North America, when John Cabot landed in Canada, probably on the coast of Labrador. Cabot, born Giovanni Caboto in Italy, received funding from the merchants of Bristol, England, who were, like everyone else, looking for a western trade route to Asia. One of the major backers of Cabot's voyage was a Welsh-born merchant named Richard Ameryk, who was the Sheriff of Bristol in 1497. A theory popular in Bristol is that America is named after Ameryk. But the more widely accepted theory is that America takes its name from the Italian traveler Amerigo Vespucci, whose accounts of a voyage to the New World were published in the early 1500s.

In 1507, Vespucci's accounts were included in a book called Cosmographiae Introductio, by the German mapmaker Martin Waldseemüller. The book was accompanied by the first map to include the name America. Waldseemüller's large wall map of the world was purchased by the Library of Congress in 2001. Four smaller Waldseemüller maps also exist, one of which is currently on display (through December 31) at the James Ford Bell Library at the University of Minnesota. The small (10"x15") map is called a "globe gore," because it was intended to be cut out and affixed to a small globe. The globe gore at the Bell Library is the only one in an American collection.

Here's a poem for Columbus Day by one of my favorite poets, the Caribbean Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott, originally from the island of St. Lucia.

New World

Then after Eden,
was there one surprise?
O yes, the awe of Adam
at the first bead of sweat.

Thenceforth, all flesh
had to be sown with salt,
to feel the edge of seasons,
fear and harvest,
joy that was difficult,
but was, at least, his own.

The snake? It would not rust
on its forked tree.
The snake admired labour,
it would not leave him alone.

And both would watch the leaves
silver the alder,
oaks yellowing October,
everything turning money.

So when Adam was exiled
to our New Eden, in the ark's gut,
the coined snake coiled there for good
fellowship also; that was willed.

Adam had an idea.
He and the snake would share
the loss of Eden for a profit.
So both made the New World. And it looked good.

From Collected Poems 1948-1984 © 1986 by Derek Walcott. Published by The Noonday Press/Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

A Romantic Just Food Dinner

On her Penelopedia blog, Penny recently issued an appeal to her readers to become owner-members of Northfield's community co-op, Just Food. (I was one of the first 200 members, before the store opened.) Penny points out that, with its wealth of produce from local suppliers, Just Food helps to promote a "sense of place in the food system." I like that about Just Food, but I also like the fact that it's as close as I can come in Northfield to the Thursday market in downtown Kenilworth, which we visited nearly every week last year. The market featured a large produce tent, artisan cheeses and breads, and (best of all), a fishmonger. Britain is, of course, an island surrounded by the sea, so the fish and seafood we were able to get in Kenilworth was fantastically fresh and varied. My favorite "local" items were the famous mussels from Conwy in Wales, a firm white fish called John Dory from England's south coast, an amazing sea vegetable called samphire (also known as sea asparagus), and the remarkable European sea scallops known in French as coquilles st. jacques.

Just Food brings in fresh seafood on Fridays—not as fresh or as local as the seafood available in England, but still a treat. Yesterday, I bought half a dozen scallops and was able to reproduce one of the best meals I made in England with ingredients from the Thursday market: scallops with fettucini and roasted red pepper cream sauce. It was simple: I made the sauce according to the recipe, heated it up, and tossed it with the cooked linguine; I pan-seared the scallops with a little olive oil and white wine, then placed them on top of the fettucini and poured the pan drippings on top. All of the ingredients came from Just Food (except for the white wine, of course). A simple green salad with a homemade dijon vinaigrette, a glass of prosecco, and candlelight made the meal complete—perfect for a quiet romantic evening.*

I made a full recipe of the sauce, which was too much for just Clara and me, so I reserved half of the sauce and today I added it to a cup of vegetable broth to create a delicious cream of roasted red pepper soup. It would have been a perfect lunch on a cooler autumn day, with some crusty bread or rolls.

*The boys were out all evening at the Ben Kweller concert at St. Olaf.

Saturday, October 6, 2007


Last night, I had said that I would show up for the open mike night at Tiny's to read a poem or two, but then I found out about a free concert at St. Olaf by the Renaissance band Piffaro, featuring music by Flemish masters Josquin des Prez, Nicholas Gombert, and others. The allure of shawms, sackbuts, bagpipes, and krumhorns was too strong. I thoroughly enjoyed the concert (especially the bagpipes), despite the sweltering atmosphere inside Boe Memorial Chapel. But I did feel guilty about missing the poetry night. So, here's the poem I would have read. It's, as the blog says, a rough draft. Your comments are always welcome.


In Boy Scouts, I was the boy
who cooked the meals.
I loved my father’s old mess kit
and his pocket knife
that seemed to give birth to itself
in the unfolding of its compact blades.
I still remember with pride
my first powdered-egg omelet,
cooked over a campfire in the Adirondacks,
the reflector oven cornbread,
the cast-iron cauldrons of chili,
the foil-wrapped potatoes
unburied like treasure from the coals.
On one winter camping trip,
while the other boys built forts
and stockpiled snowballs,
I built an entire snow kitchen,
with snow countertops
and a snow refrigerator for storing food.
I was never good at anything else.
There was no merit badge for domesticity.
What got me through
those long homosocial weekends
was the thought of coming home
to a bubble bath, scented candles,
washing the woodsmoke from my hair.
I can understand the tent mate
who wanted to share my sleeping bag.
If only one of us had been a girl.

One of my favorite songs (on the list that includes "Urge for Going") is Dar Williams' "When I Was a Boy," about her nostalgia for her shirtless, tree-climbing, prepubescent tomboy days. In the last verse, she meets a man who feels the same nostalgia for "when he was a girl." The man says, "When I was a girl, me and Mom we always talked, and I picked flowers everywhere that I walked." I was that boy. I filled vases with lilacs and put them in my room. I had long talks with my Mom. I understand the nostalgia in Dar Williams' song: a nostalgia for an innocent fluidity of gender identity, or gender roles, that had nothing to do with sexual orientation.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Po'Girl (Bonus Post)

Po'Girl: Diona Davies, Trish Klein, Awna Teixiera, and Allison Russell.

Not counting the year in Kenilworth (52° 20' N), I’ve lived my entire life in the frosty latitudes between 41° 17' N (Oberlin, Ohio) and 44° 27' N (Northfield, Minnesota)—the latitudes of maple and oak, apple orchards, glacial landforms, and accents flattening out toward Canada. Because of my narrow geographical experience, my imagination has always been drawn northwards and southwards, to the imaginary geography of Canada and the South. Some of my favorite music these days comes out of Vancouver, British Columbia, and the interconnected group of women who make up The Be Good Tanyas and Po'Girl. It’s music that looks south for many of its influences—blues, country, and bluegrass—but it’s more authentic and heartfelt than almost anything coming out of Nashville. If you have iTunes, go to the music store now and drop 99¢ to download the song “Take the Long Way,” from Po’ Girl’s 2004 CD Vagabond Lullabies. The song has everything that makes Po’ Girl so extraordinary: the beautiful, soulful voice of Allison Russell; gorgeous melodies; traditional folk instruments like guitar and fiddle; and unexpected elements like Russell’s clarinet and the hip-hop poetry and beat boxing of C.R. Avery. All the elements come together to create a beautiful and satisfyingly original whole.

Po’Girl’s latest CD is Home to You, released in February 2007 on Nettwerk Records.

The Urge for Going

Yesterday, I was distracted by the seasonally-confused day. It felt like summer and looked like fall. In an autumnal mood, I walked through the upper arboretum, listening to Joni Mitchell's "Urge for Going" on my iPod, trying to summon back the cool autumn weather:

I awoke today and found the frost perched on the town
It hovered in a frozen sky, then it gobbled summer down
When the sun turns traitor cold
and all the trees are shivering in a naked row
I get the urge for going but I never seem to go

I get the urge for going
When the meadow grass is turning brown
Summertime is falling down and winter is closing in

One of my favorite songs of all time. I love the line about "the geese in chevron flight." The Canada geese tend to winter here in Rice County, and what looks like the chevron flight of migration is just shuttling back and forth in search of food and open water. But there are other signs that the fall migration is underway, despite the unseasonably warm weather. Yesterday evening, as I was preparing a seasonally-confused dinner of grilled Cornell chicken and winter squash, I saw several yellow-rumped warblers (Dendroica coronata) in the tree overhead. For those of you with an old Peterson field guide, he calls them Myrtle warblers.

Until the summer before we left for England (2006), our family usually spent four to six weeks each summer living on a cedar-covered island in Lake Huron. There's no electricity on the island, except for a solar-powered water pump and a small gas generator that powers the washing machine. After dark, we light kerosene mantle lamps. For most of the summer, yellow-rumped warblers are the most common bird on the island. According to my island journal, I was alone on the island on Monday, July 19, 2004, when the berries of the red-berried elder (Sambucus pubens) were finally ripe. I sat on the porch and watched the birds—mostly yellow-rumped warblers and cedar waxwings—strip the tree bare. When they were done, not a single red berry remained.

That spring, down in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, there was a bumper crop of strawberries, and swarms of migrating cedar waxwings descended on the fields, intent on picking them clean. The local WalMart sold out of birdshot as farmers took to the fields to protect their berries. The birds, overstuffed and sometimes drunk on fermenting strawberries, were barely able to hoist themselves into the sky. Humans share a greedy reptilian brain with the birds. That brain is adapted to natural cycles of surplus and scarcity; it tells the bird to feed while it can. Our problem here in America seems to be that we live in a situation of artificial abundance. We've lost sight of the possibility—indeed, the inevitability—of scarcity. Thought for the future is a more highly-evolved trait; it's our bird-brains that tell us to consume resources like there's no tomorrow.

The warblers will continue south soon, and will pass through again in April on their way back north. According to Orwin Rustad's excellent phenological journal A Journal of Natural Events in Southeastern Minnesota (River Bend Nature Center 1997), the earliest spring arrival time for the warblers between 1933 and 1996 was April 1, 1974. But since Rustad's observations were made, the acceleration of global climate change has been having a negative impact on migratory species.

I'll ply the fire with kindling now, I'll pull the blankets up to my chin
I'll lock the vagrant winter out and bolt my wandering in
I'd like to call back summertime and have her stay for just another month or so
But she's got the urge for going and I guess she'll have to go

As the climate heats up, summer seems to be overstaying its welcome.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

The Pleasure of Ruins

Archibald Mill ruins, on the Cannon River, Dundas, Minnesota.

Traveling up the Ohio River to Cincinnati in the late 1820s, English traveler Fanny Trollope found the scenery beautiful, but a trifle monotonous. “Were there occasionally a ruined abbey, or feudal castle, to mix the romance of real life with that of nature,” Mrs. Trollope wrote, “the Ohio would be perfect.” A few years later, American writer James Fenimore Cooper began a long sojourn in Europe with his family, and his daughter Susan was impressed by how full Europe was of monuments of past ages, from the crumbling temples of Greece and Rome to the castles and cathedrals of the middle ages. She, like many American travelers since, was impressed by how old everything was, and how durable. Returning to America, she was disappointed in the fugitive nature of American civilization: it seemed temporary, disposable. Looking back at the antiquities of Europe, Cooper wrote: "How different from all this is the aspect of our own country! It is true that our fathers, with amazing rapidity, have changed a forest wilderness into a civilized and populous land. But the fresh civilization of America is wholly different in aspect from that of the old world; there is no blending of the old and the new in this country; there is nothing old among us. If we were endowed with ruins we should not preserve them; they would be pulled down to make way for some novelty."

Susan Fenimore Cooper was a remarkably farsighted woman. In the 1850s, she was calling for historic preservation and environmental conservation, years ahead of her fellow countrymen and women. Her classic Rural Hours (1850) is the first book of nature writing by an American woman, and was published two years before Thoreau's Walden. It's a remarkable journal of her observations of the natural world, the seasons, and the human changes made to the landscape of her home in Cooperstown, New York. Her writing is lovely and perceptive. Here's an excerpt from her journal entry for Wednesday, October 4, 1848:

Sky soft, but cloudy. How rapid are the changes in the foliage at this season! One can almost see the colors growing brighter. The yellows are more decided, the scarlet and crimson spreading farther, with a pink flush on many trees where yellow prevails, especially among the maples. Still there is a clear vein of green perceptible; not the verdure of the pine and hemlock, but the lighter greens of aspens and beeches, with some oaks and chestnuts not yet touched. Indeed, the woods are very beautiful today...

She could be writing about this very morning.

The ruins of Kenilworth Castle, Kenilworth, Warwickshire, England (December 2006).

America is, as Cooper and Trollope observed, singularly lacking in ruins. As Cooper said, we tend to tear things down and build new things, never allowing ruins to accumulate and give a sense of antiquity to the landscape. In England, I walked nearly every day around Kenilworth Castle, one of the most famous ruins in the country. It was begun in the eleventh century and not fully abandoned until the nineteenth. The longest seige in English history took place here in the mid-thirteenth century, and in the seventeenth century the forces of Oliver Cromwell toppled one of the walls of the Norman keep.

Coventry Cathedral, Coventry, England.

In the 1940s, the English novelist Rose Macaulay wrote a large book called The Pleasure of Ruins, in which she discusses the historical, aesthetic, moral, and emotional value of ruins. She had just lived through World War II. Her own home was ruined in the Blitz, and the ruins of London lay all around her. Ruins inspired her with sadness, anger, and hope. It's difficult to visit the ruins of Coventry Cathedral—firebombed during World War II–without feeling all of these things.

On Good Friday, I wandered around the fire-blackened ruins of the old cathedral as dusk fell, then went into the new cathedral, built in the early 1960s, to hear my wife's choir sing Herbert Howells' motet, "Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing," written after the death of John F. Kennedy to honor the fallen President:

Take him, earth, for cherishing,
To thy tender breast receive him.
Body of a man I bring thee,
Noble even in its ruin.

How moving it was to hear to those words at that time and in that place—on Good Friday, in Coventry Cathedral, standing resurrected among the ruins of the past.

If Mrs. Trollope were traveling down the Cannon River today, she would have the pleasure of passing the ruins of the Archibald Mill in Dundas. The ruins of mill, one of Minnesota's most important flouring mills in the nineteenth century, are for sale. I hope someone will buy them and continue to preserve them so that future generations can experience the pleasure of ruins.

Update: The Archibald Mill is one of Rice County's listed properties on the National Register of Historic Place.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Bur Oak Guy

Yesterday, my friend Margit sent me this photograph she had taken of the bur oak that stands on the knoll southwest of the Carleton Recreation Center. She reminded me that ten years ago, in April 1997, I stood up at a packed meeting in Skinner Chapel and pleaded for this oak tree to be spared from the chainsaw. Carleton had recently unveiled its plans for the rec center, which originally sited the massive building further to the southwest, adjacent to Goodhue Hall. The architect, ignorant of local landscape history, had gone out of his way to to preserve "a fine stand of pines" near the site, but his plans spelled doom for that old bur oak. At the meeting, I pointed out that the oak, not the stand of pines, was native, and had probably stood on that land long before Carleton College existed. I said, with the intact idealism of a father of a preschooler and a kindergartner: "I'm trying to teach my boys that they belong to a larger biotic community, and I'm encouraging them to develop an ethical system based on an understanding of community that's bioinclusive rather than anthropocentric. I want them to belong to this place, and to develop a sense of meaningful and sustained relationships that arises from true belonging. This is why the bur oaks and trout lilies are important—because they belong to this place, because they are part of the biological and historical context that makes this place, instead of any other, home."

My little speech received a standing ovation from the Carleton crowd; but more importantly, the plans were changed, the siting was moved, and the oak tree was spared. For several years, Carleton students who were at that meeting greeted me with, "Aren't you that townie...?" Margit started calling me Bur Oak Guy.

A more important issue that emerged during the rec center discussion was the impact the rec center would have on the biological corridor connecting the Upper and Lower Arboretums. The corridor discussion introduced me to David Quammen's brilliant book, The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions, which discusses in grippingly readable prose the related problems of habitat fragmentation and extinction.

In the end, of course, the recreation center was built. In the intervening years, Carleton has become much more concerned about becoming a green campus. There's been a greater use of native species in campus landscaping, and efforts are being made to incorporate green elements in the design of new campus buildings. Coincidentally, on the same day that Margit reminded me of my oak tree campaign, I picked up The Carletonian (the student newspaper) and read that the college is considering the west side of Lyman Lakes, next to Goodhue, as a possible site for a new dormitory. I'll be watching this development with interest. I'm still prepared to chain myself to that bur oak tree.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

To the Woman Ahead of Me in the Checkout Line, Buying Lottery Tickets

Lady, this is already your lucky day.

Lucky for you that, when I was a boy,
my mother took forever in the grocery store,
stopping to chat with someone in every aisle,
and in the eternities while my mother talked
I learned to live another life inside my head.

Lucky for you that my friend and I recently had
a conversation about all the impulses
we successfully resist—the sudden, irrational urge
to swerve off the side of the road, or to fold
our bulletins into paper airplanes and launch them
at the minister, or to beat the woman
buying lottery tickets over the head with a 16-oz.
can of diced tomatoes. Why don’t we
do more damage—or more good? Our worst
and our best impulses are like the Powerball—
we keep buying the tickets, but we never hit the jackpot.

Lucky for you that, even this late in the year,
I’ve kept my New Year’s resolution
to be more patient in the checkout line.
Sometimes, in fact, I deliberately choose
the slowest line. I stand behind the old woman
who smells of cigarettes, whose shaking hand
will take forever to write out a check, because patience
is something I need to learn—especially
with two sons who are always late for the bus
because there’s something they can’t find,
or who send me back to the store
because there’s always something I’ve forgotten.

Monday, October 1, 2007


Note: In response to a discussion about invasive species going on over on Jim's blog, here's a little piece I wrote on the concept of coevolution. If there are any real scientists out there in the audience, I'd be thrilled to have your feedback (including, of course, your corrections of any errors I've made). I know that the issues are more complex than I've presented them here.

Have you ever seen the metallic shimmer of a hummingbird dipping its beak into the scarlet flower of a trumpet vine or coral honeysuckle? If you could freeze time for a moment and step up to take a closer look, you would see that the long, slender tongue of the hummingbird is perfectly adapted for extracting nectar from the flower’s deep corolla. Bird and flower seem to be made for each other. In a sense, they are—their perfect fit for each other is the result of a long process known as “coevolution.” Coevolution is said to occur when, in the words of biologist Paul Ehrlich, two or more organisms “influence each other’s evolution.”

What exactly does this mean? How can organisms influence each other’s evolution? To see the entire picture, we have to unfreeze time and watch the hummingbird dart to another red trumpet vine flower. As the hummingbird flits from flower to flower, it collects food for itself in the form of nectar. At the same time, it distributes pollen from the flowers, enabling them to create seeds and reproduce. Both the hummingbird and the flower gain some advantage from the relationship. In other words, their relationship is an example of “mutualism,” in which two organisms gain a mutual benefit from their relationship.

This mutual relationship did not come about by accident. Both hummingbird and flower adapted to each other over the course of evolutionary time. Evolution selected for hummingbirds with long, slender tongues and for flowers that stash their nectar in deep corollas. Hummingbirds with short tongues and trumpet vine flowers with shallow corollas couldn’t compete in a system that favored long tongues and deep corollas.

And there’s more to the story. If you could see with the eyes of a hummingbird, you would find yourself attracted to the color red. It’s no coincidence that in Europe, where there are no native hummingbird species, there are also fewer species of red flowers than there are in the Americas. Red flowers with deep corollas and hummingbirds go together like interlocking pieces in the complex puzzle of coevolution.

An interesting footnote to this story was added recently when a German scientist discovered the fossil remains of an ancient hummingbird near a small town in Germany. This suggests, of course, that hummingbirds did live in Eurasia at one time. For a long time, scientists had recognized that there were a few plants native to Asia and Africa that seemed to adapted to pollination by hummingbirds—plants with red, trumpet-like flowers. How, the scientists wondered, did these flowers evolve in the absence of hummingbirds? Now the missing piece of the coevolutionary puzzle has been found. These flowers probably evolved in a relationship with Eurasian hummingbirds, like the fossilized species found in Germany, and managed to survive even after the hummingbirds themselves had, for whatever reason, become extinct.

Not every example of of a mutual relationship in nature is as stunning as the relationship between hummingbirds and red tubular flowers. My favorite example is hidden underground, among the roots of trees in the forest. The roots of most forest trees are entangled with tiny fungi called mycorrhizal fungi, which help the tree extract nutrients from the soil and protect the tree from diseases. The tree, in turn, provides the fungi with water and nutrients from the atmosphere. This intimate relationship between tree and fungus has evolved over time—like a long courtship that has resulted in a marriage that supports and sustains both partners.

Sometimes a single flower can eloquently tell the story of the intimate and necessary interrelationships in nature. Consider the bloodroot, which still grows in abundance in the hardwood forests of Minnesota. The bloodroot’s intimate relationships with its ecological neighbors—with the roots of trees and with the insects of the forest—suggest a complex evolutionary story in which numerous organisms have adapted to live harmoniously together.

In early April, bloodroot begins to bloom on the wooded bluffs above the Cannon River. The single varicose leaf is still scrolled loosely around the stem as the white petals unfold to reveal a small cluster of stamens, gilded with pollen. It’s the bloodroot’s fleshy rhizome, loaded with stored nutrients, that allows the flower to bloom so early in the season. It’s also this rhizome, with its bright crimson juice, that gives the plant its name: bloodroot, sanguinaria. Native Americans used the red juice from its root for war paint.

In the evening, as the temperature drops, the petals close and appear to glow like a steady white flame at the end of their pale wick, conserving their warmth. Flies, along with some early bees, pollinate the flowers. On the third day, if no pollinators have appeared because of cold weather, the stamens collapse onto the pistil and self-pollinate the flower.

Bloodroot blooms for two days, four at most, before the flowers burn themselves out. The petals fall away, the leaf spreads open, and the ovary begins to swell. In late spring, the mature ovary produces up to seventy seeds, each one with an oil-rich crest called an elaiosome that attracts the attention of ants. The ants carry away the seeds (seed dispersal by ants is called myrmecochory), consume the elaiosome, and leave the seed to germinate. The removal of the elaiosome by the ants facilitates germination; the eliaosome in turn contains a steroid-like chemical that promotes favorable sex ratios in ant populations—it insures that there are enough males and females to go around.

Such intimate relationships abound in nature—between flowers and pollinators, between predators and prey, between plants and seed-dispersing birds and insects, between fungi and angiosperms (that is, flowering plants). These delicate relationships, developed over time through the slow process of evolution, remind us of the fragile interconnections that sustain all life on earth. They remind us that, in the larger scheme of things, we cannot harm the smallest flower without harming ourselves.

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .