Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Meme Virgin No More

Things You May or May Not Know About Me
Tagged by Shan

5 Things Found in Your Bag
1. Olympus binoculars
2. small notebook
3. Uni-ball pen
4. Kodak digital camera
5. Field Guide to the Birds of North America

5 Favorite Things in Your Room
1. bookcases full of books
2. iBook G4
3. rocks from the shore of Lake Huron
4. an 1816 copy of the New England Primer
5. a photograph of my Swedish great-grandfather, a blacksmith, pretending to shoe a little boy's hobby horse

5 Things You Have Always Wanted to Do
1. publish a book
2. have a daughter
3. play a bluegrass instrument (preferably the dobro)
4. be happy
5. visit England

5 Things You Are Currently Into
1. 20th century British women novelists (Virago Modern Classics)
2. my family and friends
3. female vocalists
4. the coming of spring
5. walking in the Arb

If you want to participate in this meme, consider yourself tagged.

Stork Forest

From "Arb Notes" for February 28, 2008, in Carleton's Shrinking Footprints blog (written by Carleton student Arb Naturalists):

For many of our wildflowers, we have Professor Harvey Stork to thank. Pivotal in the creation of the arboretum back in the 1920s, Professor Stork, along with Superintendent of Grounds D. Blake Stewart, had the insight to include wildflowers in the first Arb Restoration, that of Stork Forest (on the far side of Bell Field, the location of Buckthorn Menace). At the birth of Stork Forest, restoration ecology was a novel field and Stork and “Stewsie” are considered to have been some of the first in the field. An example of the thoughtfulness of their restoration was their inclusion of all components (not just the native tree species) of the Upland Forest ecosystem. Keep an eye on the floor of Stork Forest this spring for the amazing ground display!

Stork Forest

Trillium leaves opening like an umbrella in Stork Forest

Budding Trillium

Spring Wildflowers in the Arb

The Cannon River passing through the Lower Arboretum, with oak savanna along the right (east) bank.

Of course, once I started walking in the Lower Arboretum, I had no wish to be anywhere else. It was a beautiful afternoon. The river was running high and fast, and the trees were full of yellow-rumped warblers. Hawks circled overhead—what species, I don't know, since my feeble powers of bird identification don't extend to the underside of hawks. Twice I scared up a great blue heron on the bank of the river as I passed. Song sparrows chorused from the reeds around Kettle Hole Marsh. And everywhere, there were wildflowers blooming.

The stonecutter got it wrong: it was Harvey E. Stork.

In some parts of the Lower Arboretum, the wildflowers are growing wild where they must have grown a century and a half ago. In the Upper Arboretum, in the woods behind Bell Field, both the woods and the wildflowers where transplanted there in the 1920s by Prof. Harvey Stork and D. Blake Stewart ("Stewsie"), the legendary college superintendent of grounds. Stork and Stewsie, who established the Arboretum, wanted to create on campus a small area of maple-basswood forest, like the Big Woods that once stretched out on the west side of Northfield. But Carleton stood on prairie. So Stork and Stewsie invented a forest.

Non-native scilla siberica blooming at the entrance to the Lower Arboretum.

In the 1920s, many local farmers were making the transition from wood stoves to coal-burning furnaces. One important consequence of this was that the farmers no longer needed extensive woodlots to provide themselves with heating fuel. Unproductive woodlots could be cut down and converted to productive agricultural land. Getting wind of this development, Stewsie went out in his old truck and asked area farmers if he could dig up the wildflowers in their doomed woodlots and transplant them on the Carleton campus, in the newly-created woods.

Here is a gallery of native spring wildflowers blooming in the Cowling Arboretum on Tuesday, April 29, 2008:

Hepatica americana

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)

Dutchman's Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)

Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense)

Trout lily (Erythronium)

Tuesday, April 29, 2008


Tour de Marze Brie and organic cranberry sauce on a New French Bakery ciabatta roll; an organic Abate Fetel pear. All ingredients from Just Food Co-op.

Jane Monheit singing "I'm Through With Love"

Frustrated with my sustained lack of creativity. I haven't written a poem since October. I haven't written an essay in about two years. Is it because I'm shooting my wad every day on this blog? Or is it time to give up pretending to be a writer and get a real job? Or is this just a prolonged fallow period?

If I Could Be Anywhere in the World Right Now, I'd Be...
In London. Having eaten my brie and cranberry ciabatta and pear on a bench in St. James Park, I would walk to the Queen's Gallery, one of the art museums I failed to visit on my previous visits to London. As I write this, there is heavy rain in London, but in my alternate reality it is a quintessential English day of clouds and sun, with periods of rain to keep me from feeling guilty about spending time inside a museum. After I visit the museum, the weather will be fine enough for me to walk to Marylebone Station without rain falling on my bag of books from the Persephone shop on Lamb's Conduit Street.

Instead, I'm Going To...
Take a walk in the Arboretum.

Reading Journal: "Ordinary Families"

This was one of those books that it was difficult to read entirely to myself. There were passages so delightful that I wanted to read them out loud. The book is full of marvelously comic set pieces. Uproarious sailing adventures along the east coast of England and encounters with eccentric neighbors alternate with beautifully lyrical descriptions of nature and reflective observations about the lives and characters of the people who surround the novel's remarkable narrator, Lalage ("Lallie") Rush. I fell completely in love with this observant, passionate, humorous young woman who wants to be honest and kind in a boisterous family and a social world that demands small daily acts of dishonesty and unkindness. Her family is loving and high-spirited, but Lallie realizes that, in order to live together, even good people betray their true selves. Lallie, for example, hides her love of birds and bird-watching from her family because she knows they will make a joke out of it and spoil the joy it brings her. Her family isn't cruel or horrible at all, they just like to tease each other. Like all close families, they have ways of interacting with each other, and certain expectations of each other, that often prevent the more sensitive members of the family—like Lallie—from being true to themselves. The novel is about how difficult it is to know and get close to another person, and how our need for other people often makes us compromise with ourselves. It sounds like a ponderous theme, but it's handled deftly and lightly. I read the book slowly, savoring both the humor and the lyricism. I have to admit that the very end of the novel was a bit of a disappointment, but only because I had fallen so in love with Lallie that it was hard to leave her as I had to do.

Remarkably, for a novel published in 1933, Lallie talks about having her period, and the physical and emotional effects it has on her—this, perhaps, for the first time in popular English literature (E. Arnot Robertson was a bestselling novelist in the 1930s). The novel is unflinchingly honest and observant, and wonderfully funny. I would place Lallie Rush with Cassandra Mortmain (the narrator of Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle) at the top of my list of favorite young female narrators.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Humphrey Lyttelton (1921-2008)

One of the great things about England is BBC Radio 4. Clara still listens to podcasts of the Sunday news programme Broadcasting House, as well as several of the comedy and quiz programmes that run in rotation on Radio 4, such as The News Quiz (with Clara's favourite presenter, Sandy Toksvig), The Now Show, Just a Minute, and I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue. This last programme was chaired by the one-of-a-kind Humphrey Lyttelton, who died on Friday, two days after his 87th birthday. He was a great voice on the radio, and he told the raunchiest jokes in the most charming way, but he was first of all a jazz trumpeter. For the one or two jazz fans who read this blog, here he is introducing and playing the "Tin Roof Blues" with the Harlem Ramblers (who are from Z├╝rich, in case you're wondering). Recorded in 1978. This is my favourite kind of jazz.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

If God Were a Sixteen-Year Old English Girl

Navvies at work, in a painting by Ford Maddox Brown.

During our year in England, I spent many happy hours walking along the Grand Union Canal between Hatton and Warwick, or along the Stratford Canal between Wilmcote and Stratford. In the nineteenth century, when these canals were being built to connect the major flashpoints of the Industrial Revolution, they were sometimes called "navigations," and the laborers who built them—with pick, shovel, and wheelbarrow—were referred to as "navvies." In E. Arnot Robertson's novel Ordinary Families, the narrator is remembering herself as a sixteen-year old—at a time when she had lost a belief in God and gained an appreciation of the physical appearance of the opposite sex. These two things come together in a wonderful scene in which she watches navvies walking down the road after a hard day's work: "They stacked their picks and came swinging down the road past us; lovely men, bare-armed and earthy. Fancy anyone believing in a God Who made ordinary things so unnecessarily beautiful and then remained coy with proofs of His existence! If I had produced anything as stupendous as a navvy, I thought, waving back to one I knew, I would have finished off the job by seeing that everyone gave Me due credit."

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Pussy Willows

The pussy willows are bursting forth around Sibley Marsh, like little half-popped kernels of popcorn on a stick. For a better photograph than I could show you, check out Canadian Chris's weekly Wordless post. And for a journey back to my freshman year of college (1982), here's a classic video of Jethro Tull's "Pussy Willow" (with Phil Collins on drums). Should I grow out my beard like Ian Anderson's?

Monday, April 21, 2008

Festival of Pasques

Pasqueflowers, with a small pollinator, in McKnight Prairie.

The pasqueflowers (anemone patens) are throwing a party on the ridges of McKnight Prairie. According to tradition, pasques bloom during the week before Easter, and in my experience this has often been the case. This year, Easter was early and spring was slow to arrive, but I'm happy to report that the pasqueflowers are blooming in time for Greek Orthodox Easter this coming Sunday. Pasques always seem festive to me. In his Journal of a Prairie Year (1985), the late Paul Gruchow wrote: "Pasqueflowers bloom at an inhospitable time in a quirky season. They carry the impression of wit and grace. If a pasqueflower were a person, one would want to have it come to dinner at the first opportunity. Surely, that would be the occasion for much laughter and bright conversation." In A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold had a different impression of the personality of pasqueflowers; he wrote that they "endure snows, sleets, and bitter winds for the privilege of blooming alone." They are the first flowers to bloom on the high, exposed ridges of the prairie, but the clusters of pastel flowers are bright and cheerful. It always fills me with hope and gratitude to see them blooming among the brown grasses, year after year.

Pasqueflowers in McKnight Prairie

Prairie smoke (Geum triflorum), pictured above, was also preparing to bloom at McKnight, and as I was walking back to the car, I startled one of our state mammals, the thirteen-lined ground squirrel (better known as the "golden gopher"), from the middle of the path.

On the way home, I drove along 42 and 79 and into Northfield on Wall Street Rd. Along the way, I passed this monstrosity going up in the "Rosewood" development. There was a Sold sign up in front of this monstrosity. Is this a private, single-family home? Someone with this much money can probably afford to feed a small African nation—or invite a small African nation over to spend the night. After spending a pleasant half hour with the inexpressibly beautiful and unpretentious pasqueflowers—so perfectly adapted to their environment—the sight of this made me sick.

If you go out to McKnight Prairie, keep to the path, walk gently, don't pick anything or leave anything behind, and be grateful that a few such places still exist beyond the conspicuous excesses of modern sprawl.

In other news, my poem "Jane Austen's Toes" has been nominated by the editor of the Apple Valley Review for inclusion in Best New Poets 2008. A nomination doesn't guarantee inclusion in the book, but it is a much-appreciated honor.

Sunday, April 20, 2008


200th post

We should probably buy some carbon offsets for this past weekend. We did a lot of driving this weekend in pursuit of musical experiences. Last night it was Ben Folds, an hour away in St. Peter, and this afternoon it was the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra at the Ted Mann Concert Hall on the West Bank campus of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. This afternoon's concert featured one of my favorite 20th century works, the Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings by Benjamin Britten, beautifully performed by tenor James Taylor and the orchestra's new principal horn, Bernhard Scully (formerly of the Canadian Brass). The Ted Mann is beautifully situated on a bluff above the Mississippi River, with a great view of Frank Gerhry's odd but compelling Weisman Art Museum across the river. Of course, because we would be inside at a concert all afternoon, the day turned beautiful and spring-like after a cool, damp morning.

The day started with a misty walk along the bluffs above the Cannon River in the Rice County Wilderness Area. The spring wildflowers are just starting to bloom. We saw bloodroot, hepatica, and these lone pasqueflowers. We also heard the loud percussion of a pileated woodpecker somewhere in the woods. Other than the woodpecker, a loud cardinal, and a pair of honking Canada geese, the woods were peaceful and still.

The Rice County Wilderness Area, overlooking the Cannon River

"Awesomeness in Geek Form"

The piano in our living room (click to enlarge and catch a glimpse of the music Will is teaching himself to play).

A little boy, six or seven years old, starts playing piano. After a couple of years, his practicing slacks off considerably, and he tells his parents he wants to stop taking piano lessons. His parents say, "When you're older, you'll wish we'd made you keep taking lessons." But what does a ten-year old care about when you're older? Fast forward six years, and the little boy has become a teenager. He spends hours every day trying to teach himself to play the piano like Ben Folds. He says to his parents, "Why didn't you make me keep taking piano lessons?" Last night, after months of anticipation, Will came face to face with the reason he wishes he'd kept taking piano lessons. We drove over to St. Peter and joined 3,100 other fans in Lund Arena for Ben Folds in concert. For ninety minutes, Will was in a state of piano-rock-induced bliss.

One of the great aspects of our year in England was the opportunity Will had to take GCSE Music. He spent a good part of each day in the music room, learning music theory and teaching himself piano. Now, when he listens to a Ben Folds song, he pauses to analyze its harmonics or its shifting rhythmic patterns. The other day he was trying to explain to me how one Ben Folds song made use of the pentatonic scale. He is so much smarter than I am.

Last night's concert was the first rock concert I've been to since I was in college in the mid-1980s, when I heard three of the giants of 1970s British art rock: Genesis, Jethro Tull, and Yes. Each of those three bands was approaching middle age at the time, and flirting with the noxious synth-pop of the 1980s. Tull had just made its worst album ever, Under Wraps, and Genesis had been fatally infected with the obnoxious Phil Collins pop virus that killed off the lingering influence of Peter Gabriel. From the heights of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, they had descended to Abacab. Sad, sad times.

Ben Folds.

Ben Folds was great. As one fan described him, he was "awesomeness in geek form." Ben Folds (born in 1966) and Joss Whedon (born in 1964) definitely top my list of the most awesome geeks of my generation. Last night, Folds played nearly non-stop for an hour and a half, segueing seamlessly from one song to the next, working the keyboard relentlessly, and undoubtedly burning off at least ten pounds in the process. I have to admit that I got a big kick out of 3,000 Minnesota Swedish Lutheran college students enthusiastically singing along to "B*tches Ain't Sh*t." The concert ended with a performance of "Philosophy," from the 1995 debut album, that Will described as "epic." I was surprised the piano didn't collapse under the strain.

Will is already hatching plans to catch the Ben Folds show in Nottingham, when he's in England this summer. Meanwhile, he's working on "Philosophy," and still wishing we'd forced him to keep taking piano lessons.

Saturday, April 19, 2008


Ce n'est pas une pipe, c'est une trompe de Fallope.

So, yeah, Clara and I finally saw Juno last night. We were, like, the last people in the whole frickin' state to see it, but it was worth the wait. Most definitely. I was totally cool with its portrayal of teen pregnancy and stuff because, like, it was a frickin' movie. It was supposed to be entertaining, which it so totally was. The only part I didn't like was when Juno called Katrina De Voort "Soupy Sales," because, like, what sixteen-year old girl knows who Soupy Sales is? Other than that, I was cool with the whole thing. Because, okay, first of all, Ellen Page was brilliant. Of course, she's Canadian, right? Like Anna Paquin, who was also totally precocious Oscar bait, plus also being in the X-Men series. But this is weird. In X-2, Kitty Pryde was played by a different Canadian actress (Katie Stuart). What's up with that? But, anyway, Ellen Page so deserved an Oscar nomination. And the newspaper dude from Spiderman? I was like, why couldn't my Dad have been so awesome? Okay, so maybe I thought Michael Cera's character could have been developed a little more, so we understood just a smidge better what Juno saw in him. He was a bit sketchy, kind of a device. Tic Tacs went in one end and sperm came out the other. And, like, what's with the pipe? Symbolism much? Whatever. It was a cool movie.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Great Minds

Christopher Tassava recently created a new photoblog with a friend from Chicago, Urb/Exurb, featuring excellent photos of urban and exurban life. Christopher's most recent contribution is a photograph of the Northfield water tower in the southeastern part of town. Coincidentally, I took a picture of the same water tower this past Saturday.

Springsteen Endorses Obama

You better listen to me baby:
Talk about a dream; try to make it real.
—Bruce Springsteen, "Badlands" (from Darkness on the Edge of Town, 1978)

For sanity's sake, I'm trying to steer clear of political news. I'm getting sick and tired of long-time Washington insiders like McCain and Clinton, with their personal millions and their Keating and Whitewater pasts, accusing Obama of being an elitist. I'm tired of pundits and spin doctors telling us we should be outraged over the word "bitter" when, in fact, the last eight years have made me pretty damn bitter. I'm ready to tune it all out until November, when I hope my little vote will help to put Barack Obama into the White House. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to put on Born to Run and celebrate Bruce Springsteen's endorsement of Obama.

In other Obama news: in the May 1 issue of the New York Review of Books, Gary Wills compares Obama's great speech on race to Abraham Lincoln's great Cooper Union speech, which I blogged about at the end of August.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Great Moments in Reading, Part I

Summer 1992: The "Little Walter" Scene from Jane Austen's Persuasion

I remember that summer before Willie turned one as a season of idyllic days and long, hellish nights. During the day, I could set Willie down on the floor of the three-season porch to entertain himself with a paper cup. Willie would push the paper cup on its side and it would roll parabolically across the floor, and Willie would scoot after it on his belly. This seemed to fascinate him. Meanwhile, I could sit and read the novels of Jane Austen.

Persuasion had been assigned for a British Romanticism class that I took in college, but it was a novel that, at eighteen or nineteen, I was unprepared to appreciate. I had found the whole thing rather cool and dry compared with the heated effusions of Keats and Wordsworth that filled me with a dizzy recognition of adolescent longing. Returning to Persuasion nearly a decade later, I found it entirely transformed. One scene in particular seemed especially luminous in the light of my more mature experience.

Anne Elliot is in the drawing room, kneeling beside the sofa and attending to her injured nephew Charles. First, Captain Wentworth enters—the man she still loves, although several years earlier she was constrained by circumstances to reject his proposal of marriage. Captain Wentworth goes to stand at the window, and a moment later, another man enters and sits down with a newspaper. This man, Charles Hayter, regards Wentworth as a rival for the affections of one of the Musgrove sisters, and his presence increases the awkward tension in the room. Finally, the entrance of another of Anne’s nephews, two-year old Walter, completes the scene:

There being nothing to eat, he could only have some play; and as his aunt would not let him teaze his sick brother, he began to fasten himself upon her, as she knelt, in such a way that, busy as she was about Charles, she could not shake him off. She spoke to him—ordered, entreated, and insisted in vain. Once she did contrive to push him away, but the boy had the greater pleasure in getting upon her back again directly.

“Walter,” said she, “get down this moment. You are extremely troublesome. I am very angry with you.”

“Walter,” cried Charles Hayter, “why do you not do as you are bid? Do not you hear your aunt speak? Come to me, Walter, come to cousin Charles.”

Not a bit did Walter stir.

In another moment, however, she found herself in the state of being released from him; some one was taking him from her, though he had bent down her head so much, that his little sturdy hands were unfastened from around her neck, and he was resolutely borne away, before she knew that Captain Wentworth had done it.

The brilliance of this passage—the tension between Captain Wentworth and Anne; the tension between Charles Hayter and his imagined rival; the nuisance of little Walter; the surprising intervention of Captain Wentworth—all of the brilliance that was lost to me at eighteen, filled me with profound admiration at twenty-eight.

The scene is constructed like a scene on the stage, with its well-timed entrances and dramatic lines of tension drawn between the characters. Jane Austen makes the reader see the scene in the drawing room, but she does more than that. In a letter to a friend, the novelist Maria Edgeworth wrote: “Don’t you see Captain Wentworth, or rather don’t you in her place feel him, taking the boisterous child off her back as she kneels by the sick boy on the sofa?” Don’t you in her place feel him? In the end, the scene is not so much observed as felt; experienced not as a scene on the stage, but from the inside. Jane Austen writes the reader into Anne Elliot’s place. Notice, for example, how beautifully constructed that last short paragraph is. Most of the sentence is constructed around a series of four passive verbs—being released, was taking, were unfastened, was borne—before shifting at last into the active voice: Captain Wentworth had done it. The sentence, with its weight on the passive voice, feels syntactically bent over. The final stress is not so much on Captain Wentworth’s action as on Anne’s realization of it.

I felt a shock of recognition as I read this passage, or perhaps a shock of premonition. Soon I would know too well that feeling of trying to take care of one child with another child on my back.

More Signs of Spring

This morning, I hung laundry out on the line to dry for the first time since last October. In today's strong wind, the clothes are drying fast. Meanwhile, the woods of the Upper Arboretum are beginning to get a little spring color. When in full bloom, these little flowers (Scilla siberica) are the closest we come in Northfield to the spectacular display of bluebells in the English woods.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Tree Swallows

We walked through the muddy Lower Arboretum on this lovely spring afternoon. The tree swallows, who routinely commandeer the bluebird nesting boxes in the prairies, danced around our heads like birds in a Disney cartoon. Here's one of them, sitting on his roof. A little further along, we passed Kettle Hole Marsh, which was filled with the amazing racket of spring peepers.

A Virago Anniversary

My shelf of Virago Modern Classics in both their black and green incarnations.

, the magazine of Britain's Sunday Telegraph, this morning features an article by novelist (and blogger) Justine Picardie about the thirtieth anniversary of the Virago Modern Classics. It's a lovely tribute to Virago founder Carmen Callil and to an independent publishing venture that rescued so many wonderful women novelists from oblivion. On Friday, Clara attended the weekly convocation at Carleton. The speaker was novelist (and Carleton alumna) Jane Hamilton. She spoke, in part, about the decline in readership for literary novels. Clara happened to be sitting next to the author of Getting Your Book Published for Dummies, who told her that of approximately 60,000 books published each year in the United States, only 1,800 are novels. And according to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll published last summer, 25% of Americans read no books at all in the preceding year. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the poll revealed that women and liberals were more likely to read novels. A feminist press like Virago clearly has the right niche.

On our walk yesterday, Clara and I had an interesting discussion about our reading habits as we tried to decide which book I should read aloud to her while she does her knitting. We chose A Tale of Two Cities, which is on my rereading list and is a good choice for knitting. At the moment, Clara is reading Caleb Carr's historical thriller The Angel of Darkness and I'm reading E. Arnot Robertson's Ordinary Families, a Virago Modern Classic. Clara prefers plot-driven novels, and grows bored with lengthy descriptions; I prefer character-driven novels, and love long descriptive passages. This came up because we considered Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native as a read aloud novel. Except for the relatively sunny Far from the Madding Crowd, I don't like Thomas Hardy's novels, but I have read the first chapter of The Return of the Native half a dozen times simply for his gorgeous description of Egdon Heath, all in evocative grays and browns. As night comes on, the heath "embrowns itself moment by moment." I've always loved that word, embrowned. I respond to Hardy the poet, the observer and word-painter; Clara responds to the plots. I love the more contemplative Virago Modern Classics, character-driven not plot-driven novels like Mollie Panter-Downes' One Fine Day in which, to quote the novelist Elizabeth Taylor, "practically nothing ever happens." I do enjoy a good thriller every now and then, but most of the time I prefer books with the fine texture of a life really lived and closely observed.

Here's a little touch of character-revealing description, from Ordinary Families, that makes me gasp in admiration, both at its perceptiveness and its humor: "Stella smiled indulgently at him, leaving her mouth open for a few seconds when the smile was over, which gave it a fatuously lingering end. Expressions took just too long to wear off her face, which made every member of the Rush family, save mother, long to shout at her, in the hope of startling another look into its place."

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Puddles of Memory

Clara and I finally walked down to the pond near Superior Drive this afternoon and took turns looking through my binoculars at mated pairs of red-breasted mergansers, blue-winged teal, and buffleheads. No photographs, I'm afraid, but we talked about the Olympus E-410 as a twentieth anniversary present to each other next June.

The narrator of the novel I'm currently reading, E. Arnot Robertson's Ordinary Families, is an avid birdwatcher who loves to watch the birds, both on shore and at sea, along the stretch of the Suffolk coast where her family lives. Her name is Lalage, which is Greek for "chatterbox": an ironic name, since Lallie prefers to keep her thoughts to herself; she says little and observes much. When the novel opens, she's remembering the events that took place when she was ten years old, and she describes beautifully the peculiar awkwardness and grace of a heron, and the precision water landing of a trio of shelducks. Looking back, she feels exactly what I was attempting to describe in my post earlier this week when I spoke of "puddles of memory." She writes:

Those three shelducks, with the heron that had drifted delicately from one clump of trees to another on the edge of the marsh the year before, still fly through my memory of those days, with the troubling graciousness of a child's sense of some new quality in familiar things—still cut, in a grey and in a cloudless sky, wider than any skies seem nowadays, the lovely lines along which I hold them transfixed in movement—still may be recalled in clearer detail than the people or the circumstances in which, at the time, I was really more engrossed.

Reading Journal: Travel Light

I'll let you read about the life of author Naomi Mitchison on Wikipedia. One salient fact that I will mention is that she was a friend of J.R.R. Tolkien and one of the proofreaders of The Lord of the Rings. Her own short novel Travel Light (1952) is a fantasy, straddling the magical world of Norse mythology and the corrupt and fallen world of Christian Byzantium. The heroine, Halla, is a princess, but she is raised first by a female bear and then by a male dragon, and brought up with a healthy dragonish distaste for meddlesome heroes. Along the way, she is befriended by a Valkyrie named Steinvor, as well as by various horses and rats; she, in turn, befriends three men on a mission to seek justice for their troubled homeland from the Purple-born, the Byzantine Emperor. It would be easy to pass it off as Tolkien for feminists, but it's more than that. For one thing, Mitchison has a sense of humor. Steinvor the Valkyrie is almost Whedonesque in her flippant humor and the matter-of-factness with which she goes about her job of shuttling dead heroes to Valhalla.

Travel Light
is a fable, a fairy tale, a morality play about suffering and forgiveness, about obligations to others and the freedom to be oneself. It's not just a children's book. It's not simply your mother's Tamora Pierce or Gail Carson Levine.* But in its sympathy for dragons and antipathy for conventional heroes, it does look forward to John Gardner's great 1971 novel Grendel. In fact, the Grendel family make a cameo appearance in Mitchison's novel:

Once they [the dragons] were visited by the Grendel family, curious-shaped and rather watery folk who looked askance at Halla because she reminded them of the awful fate that had befallen their grandmother and their elder uncle, at the hands of the man Beowulf, who had actually followed the poor lady right into her house at the bottom of Terrible Mere and cut off her arm. And all because they had punctually taken their tribute—and no more—from the hall of the King of Denmark. It made you wonder what the world was coming to. It made you suspect anyone of humanity. But soon they realized that Halla was not that kind of human, and when they said good-bye, leaving wet marks on the stones of Dragon Mountain, where they had been sitting, they had been so delighted with Halla's sympathy and anger that they suggested she should be called Halla Heroesbane. They were sure that she would be the means of avenging dragons and Grendels and such on the race of heroes, and a proud girl was Halla that night, curling up to sleep in her nest of moss and pearls, half-bearish and half-dragonish.

But forgiveness and reconciliation, not revenge, become the theme of the book and the meaning of Halla's quest. Halla is such a beautiful heroine—strong, gentle, loyal, independent, fierce, and affectionate. When I came to the end of Travel Light, I was ready to start reading it again right away. I was reluctant to leave its world or Halla's company. I wanted to go back with her to a dragonish cave and curl up with my treasure.

Many thanks to my LibraryThing friend Paola for sharing her treasure and sending me her spare copy of Travel Light to add to my small dragon hoard of Virago Modern Classics.

*In 1927, Naomi Mitchison published a fantasy novel called The Fairy Who Couldn't Tell a Lie, the premise of which seems similar to Gail Carson Levine's wonderful Ella Enchanted.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Touch 'Em All, Tom Swift

Griff has posted a few photographs from Tom Swift's reading last night at Monkey See, Monkey Read. If you click the first photo, you'll see the back of my curly red head, sitting next to local poet Karen Herseth Wee. Tom's been getting in a few innings lately, promoting his book at venues ranging from the local bookstores to the concourse of the Metrodome. His presentation last night—part reading, part informal lecture, part Q&A—was very well done. He read interesting and illustrative short excerpts from the book, and talked engagingly about the life of Charles Bender in a way that whetted the audience's appetite to read the book. And there were excellent bars to eat. It sounds like the book will appeal not only to baseball fans, but also to general readers who want a great story about a remarkable man who achieved greatness despite the constant burden of racial prejudice. It sounds like a great American story. The review in Booklist says: "In Swift’s hands, Bender’s life unfolds gradually, as though he were a character in a novel, and the prejudice he experienced, though never justified, is set within the context of the times." The reviewer calls the book "carefully researched — and documented — as well as stylishly written..."

After the reading, Tom graciously signed a copy of the book for me. Tom's a great guy, and I think I managed to hide my professional jealousy of his success. A few years ago, he and I were in a short-lived nonfiction writing group together. We met a few times for coffee and good discussion about our current writing projects—including Chief Bender's Burden. Since then, I've published three or four essays in literary journals—but here was Tom with a full-length hardcover book published by the University of Nebraska Press! The big leagues! His example—the work ethic that turned his talent as a writer into success as a published author—is almost enough to make me cancel my afternoon nap.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Reader's Block

Every year at this time, my mother quoted Robert Frost.

It's strange how certain insignificant puddles of memory are left behind after the flood of experience has passed. It was with an almost physical shock of recognition that, on my walk this morning, I slid into the memory of an early spring drive with my mother along Route 89 from Ithaca to Trumansburg, New York—the scenic route above the western shore of Cayuga Lake. I remember my mother looking out at the woods above the lake and saying, "Nature's first green is gold." I thought of that this morning as I walked through the Lower Arboretum and saw the little ash trees all golden among the iron grays of winter.

Unfortunately, the ducks who have been so plentiful lately seem to have heard the weather forecast and gone for cover. I heard only the creaky bedspring call of a heron, and saw only the wintery black-and-white tail feathers of juncos, like an old television test pattern. Penelopedia has a good series of posts on spring waterfowl sighted in the Northfield area over the past week. If anyone is looking for an expensive gift to give Penny for an upcoming special occasion, might I suggest a new digital camera with a powerful zoom? I've been craving the Olympus E-410 ever since I started seeing the beautiful photographs it takes for my blogfriend Chris in the Canadian Maritimes. Since we're on the subject of ducks, check out Chris's beautiful photograph of a pair of mallards from her weekly "Wordless Wednesday" back in February.

One of the birds that Penny spotted this week was a double-crested cormorant. On Lake Huron, where we usually spend a few weeks each summer, these cormorants have been blamed for the drastic reduction in populations of yellow perch over the past two decades. The birds nest on a barren, rocky, poop-covered island called Goose Island, not far from the island where we stay. Often we'll see long black lines of cormorants sweeping low over Wilderness Bay, hundreds and hundreds of them, so many that it takes several minutes for the entire flock to pass over the bay. Will, when he was younger, said quite accurately it was like waiting at a railroad crossing. For several years now, there have been cormorant control efforts in the Les Cheneaux Islands: volunteers head out to Goose Island and pour oil on the cormorant eggs to prevent them from hatching. The birds are undoubtedly a nuisance, and a threat to fish populations. I do, however, enjoy their habit of displaying themselves as if they're posing for a coat-of-arms.

Anyway, the topic for today was supposed to be "reader's block." I haven't read a book from cover to cover for over a month now. Thanks to my LibraryThing friend Paola, who sent me her extra copy of Naomi Mitchison's Travel Light, I may be snapping out of it. Travel Light is a luminous fantasy that magically combines Norse mythology, medieval Byzantine Christianity, and light dashes of the author's socialism and feminism. It's impossible to do it justice in a brief description. I adore the heroine, Halla, a princess who's been raised by dragons to have a healthy dragon-like hatred for meddlesome heroes. Highly recommended.

Meanwhile, the pile of books to be read is growing. It includes Oliver Sacks' Musicophilia, which has to be read for a book group meeting on May 3, and Tom Swift's Chief Bender's Burden. I'll be at Tom's reading and book signing tonight at 7:00 at Monkey See, Monkey Read in downtown Northfield. The book's on sale there for 20% off. Buy it.

Monday, April 7, 2008

1995, Part II: Roll to Me

Editor's note: I'm in a melancholy mood this evening, so to avoid wallowing, I will post this light-weight footnote to my earlier post on the music of 1995.

David Soul, "Don't Give Up On Us" (1976). I think I actually bought this one.

I remember, as a teenager, going to the record store at Pyramid Mall outside of Ithaca, New York, and buying singles. I would bring them home, set the record player to 45 rpm, and set the needle on the smooth vinyl edge of the latest hit single. I remember buying Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop" as a single and nearly wearing it out. Ditto the Eagles' "Hotel California" and the Manfred Mann's Earth Band version of Springsteen's "Blinded by the Light" (even stranger, the B-side was a Manfred Mann version of Stravinsky's The Firebird). In the late 1970s, if you heard a song on the radio that you liked, you could almost certainly find the single at the record store. But in 1995, 45 rpm singles—and the equipment to play them on—were a thing of the past. So when I heard Del Amitri's "Roll to Me" on the radio in 1995, I rushed down to Northfield's record store of that era, Red Pets, and bought the CD. Except for "Roll to Me," I hated the CD. (There's a video of "Roll to Me" on YouTube; just close your eyes and listen to the great song and ignore the awful video.) Now, of course, I could download "Roll to Me" as a single song for 99¢ from iTunes. Maybe I'll just do that. Because I hated the rest of the CD so much that I quickly got rid of it. So, faithful commenters, have you ever bought a CD on the strength of a single song on the radio, only to find that you couldn't stand the rest of the album?

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Partisan Cake

The stolen election of 2000 was only the latest in a series of controversial Presidential elections in American history. In 1800, the Presidency shifted from one political party to the other for the first time in American history, from the Federalists to the Democratic-Republicans. The vain and irascible incumbent, John Adams, came in behind Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, who were tied in the electoral vote. The election was thrown to the House of Representatives, and Jefferson emerged from the smoke-filled rooms victorious. Burr, meanwhile, blamed Alexander Hamilton for his defeat, and went on to kill him in a duel. (We often hear that today's politicians are pygmies compared with the Founders, but keep in mind that Al Gore went on to win an Oscar and a Nobel Prize, when he could have followed Burr's precedent and murdered Sandra Day O'Connor.) The election of 1800 is the subject of a fascinating book by historian John Ferling, Adams Vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800 (Oxford University Press 2004).

In 1824, John Adams' genius son, John Quincy Adams, came in second in both the popular and electoral votes, but none of the four candidates in the race (JQA, Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, and William H. Crawford) received a majority of the votes—so the election was once again thrown to the House. The Speaker of the House happened to be Henry Clay, who engineered the infamous "corrupt bargain" that made Adams President and Clay himself the Secretary of State—the presumptive "heir apparent" to the Presidency in those days. Unfortunately for Clay, the "corrupt bargain" killed his chances at ever being elected President, and he joined Aaron Burr's victim, Alexander Hamilton, on the list of greatest politicians never to become President.

The election of 1912 was also the subject of a fascinating book, James Chace's 1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft & Debs—The Election That Changed the Country (Simon & Schuster 2004). In 1912, as Chace's endless subtitle indicates, there were four major candidates for President: Republican incumbent William Howard Taft, Democrat Woodrow Wilson, Bull Moose ex-Republican former President Teddy Roosevelt, and Socialist Eugene V. Debs (whose first campaign stop was in Fergus Falls, Minnesota). Roosevelt Nadered the GOP vote and handed the Presidency to Wilson.

Bachelor Samuel Tilden confessed on his deathbed that he had never slept with a woman.

In 1876, Democrat Samuel Tilden won both the electoral and the popular vote, but Republicans (grrr!!) contested the election and persuaded Congress to appoint a special electoral commission, which put Republican Rutherford B. Hayes into the White House. It was during that heated 1876 election that the folks at Buckeye Publishing Company of Minneapolis were putting together a new cookbook called Buckeye Cookery and Practical Housekeeping. The cookbook, published in 1877, has been reprinted by Applewood Books, and is available at the museum shop at the Minnesota Historical Society, where I bought a copy to add to my small collection of nineteenth-century cookbooks and housekeeping books. (The only other book in the collection so far is The American Woman's Home [1869], by Catharine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe.)

Rutherford B. Hayes, distinguished alumnus of Kenyon College. Henry Adams called him "a third-rate nonentity," and his teetotaling wife Lucy was derided as "Lemonade Lucy" for banning liquor from the White House.

Buckeye Cookery
contains several dozen recipes for cakes, including a recipe for a "Tilden Cake" and a recipe for a "Hayes Cake." This has fascinated me ever since I came across the cookbook a decade ago. Although women didn't have the vote until the ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920, nineteenth-century women evidently demonstrated their support for a candidate with cakes. Not only that, nineteenth-century cakes reflected women's grasp of important campaign issues, such as bimetallism, as is evidenced by the inclusion in the cookbook of a "Hard Money Cake" and a "Silver Cake." Period cakes also reflected regional loyalties: Buckeye Cookery includes a "Phil Sheridan Cake," named after Union general Philip Sheridan, and Southern cookbooks of the period often contained recipes for "Robert E. Lee Cake."

The tradition of "election cakes" seems to go back to eighteenth century New England. Numerous nineteenth-century cookbooks include recipes for "Election Cake," or "Hartford Election Cake," a kind of fruitcake traditionally served on Election Day. It was speculated by some people that the tradition arose from a conflation of Election Day with Guy Fawkes Day, also in early November, which was often celebrated with cake. I was able to find a reference to "election cake" in the Lowell Offering in 1842, but nothing earlier so far; Buckeye Cookery claims that its recipe for election cake is a hundred years old.

What would "McCain Cake" be like? Or "Clinton Cake"? Or "Obama Cake"? Unfortunately, the tradition of partisan cake has died. As a step toward reviving it, here are the recipes for both Hayes Cake and Tilden Cake, from Buckeye Cookery and Practical Housekeeping. Both were lemon cakes; the difference is mostly in the milk.

One cup sugar, half cup butter, three eggs beaten well together, level tea-spoon soda stirred in half cup sour milk, two small cups flour; flavor with lemon, pour in small dripping-pan, bake half an hour, and cut in squares.

One cup butter, two of pulverized sugar, one of sweet milk, three of flour, half cup corn starch, four eggs, two tea-spoons baking powder, two of lemon extract.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The First of April

After I got home from delivering Meals on Wheels this afternoon, I pulled on my English wellies and went out for a walk in the Upper Arboretum. The sun was making short work of the four inches or so of fresh snow we received on Monday. The sun was blinding on the white snow, and I was glad to have my wellies for wading through the slush at the curbs on the way to the Arb.

In the arboretum, there was a steady crack and patter of ice breaking off of the trees and falling to the ground. On the Hill of Three Oaks, the bur oaks were beautiful against the white snow and blue sky. There were fresh ski tracks laid down along the trail, but they were already in places melted down to the pavement beneath. On Evans Hill, several young children taking advantage of what I hope will be the last day of sledding for the season. There was a two-hour late start for the schools this morning; this afternoon it again feels like spring.

Another sign of spring was this bucket collecting sap from a maple tree near the corner of Second and Nevada. The sap is running.

The best place in the area to see trees being tapped for maple syrup is down at River Bend Nature Center in Faribault. Later this month (on Sunday, April 20), the nature center will be having a "Maple Syrup Run." The top male, female, and child runners in the 5K "fun run" will receive a bottle of maple syrup from the trees at RBNC. And from 10:00 am to 1:00 pm that same day, there will be a pancake brunch at the nature center (click the link for details from the RBNC website).

Here's a poem I wrote about River Bend Nature Center back in the late 1990s. It first appeared in the newsletter of the Cannon River Watershed Partnership, and was reprinted in my chapbook, The Collecting Jar. My friend Molly Woehrlin, who was the editor of the CRWP newsletter at the time this poem was published, recently attended a choral festival at Westminster Presbyterian in Minneapolis. She brought me back the program, which included a reading of this poem.

River Bend

These places, like Old Testament miracles,
have ceased to exist, waiting for us
to recreate them. Like a prayer
the snow falls, my footsteps
scatter sparrows from the grass,
the ducks mumble over their pond. The prairie
cups itself to my ear, closes out the empty
stomach-rumble of the highway, and I hear
the grass voiced like an organ
with wind and birdsong, tongues of milkweed pod,
winter poised above me like a dark chord.

I come here with a heart in waiting,
to learn the patience of seeds sleeping
winterlong above the frozen earth, the patience
of Sarai waiting to be renamed into flower.
This prairie is a covenant renewed
in the earth, a promise delivered
in the voice of fire, just as Moses heard
the voice of God in the wilderness. Here
I listen to the requiem of snow, the earth
awaiting the resurrection of its dead,
the whisper of wings making angels in the air.

Copyright © 2005 by Rob Hardy

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

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