Showing posts from May, 2008

Earthquake Relief

Guest Blogger: Lu Meng Zheng (my sister-in-law)

I suppose that most of us know about the earthquake happened in Sichuan Province, China on 5/12/08. The earthquake is devastating to the people in Sichuan Province, my dear home province. One can obtain enormous amounts of information on the web and from NPR. I would like to share my personal story about this earthquake. There are many pictures posted on MSNBC. Actually, I was in Sichuan province for three weeks and came back to the US on May 10 and just missed the earthquake. My only sister and her family and my mother are still there. Thanks to God, they are safe. However, their lives have been greatly affected. My sister and her family are living in DuJiangYan, which is about 20 kilometers from the earthquake epicenter on May 12, 2008. The city of Chengdu, where my mother lives, is about 100 kilometers away. My sister, who is a teacher for the DuJiangYan City Municipal Administrative School, and my brother-in-law, who is a surgeon…

Youth and Age

I went downtown to the Northfield Arts Guild this afternoon to walk around the Northfield High School senior honors art show. As I was admiring Paloma Garcia's delicate and sensitive watercolor and ink renderings of photographs from the Sunday Times Travel Magazine, the artist herself walked in and gave a little squeal of delight to see the red sticker—meaning Sold—next to one of her pieces. I was so impressed by the exhibit, and I lingered in front of imaginative "doodle" portraits by Claire Johnston, remarkable watercolor and ink landscapes by Ashley Tollefson, and remarkable stylized paintings by Gus DeMann. Once again, as so often, I was blown away by the amount of youthful talent in Northfield. But not all the talent is so youthful. Before I left the arts guild, I stopped in the shop and bought this lovely ceramic mug (sitting on my cluttered desk) created by fellow Northfield blogger Jim Haas, a self-described "somewhat cranky old man." I love the b…

Reading Journal: "Mary Lavelle"

El Greco, The Burial of Count Orgaz

Ten years ago, Hollywood produced a film adaptation of Kate O'Brien's Mary Lavelle with the new title Talk of Angels. The film starred British actress Polly Walker in the title role, and in smaller roles featured Frances McDormand and an unknown actress named Penelope Cruz. As is the way with media marketing, the book was simultaneously reissued under the title Talk of Angels. The new title comes from a scene early in the novel. Mary Lavelle, a beautiful and innocent Irish Catholic girl, has come to Spain to work as a governess for the three daughters of a wealthy Spaniard. At the Café Alemán, Mary meets the other members of a large group of Irish expatriate governesses. Missing from the group is Conlon (they all call each other by their last names), the Frances McDormand character. She is described to Mary, who says, "She sounds queer." To which one of the other governesses replies, "Talk of angels." That is to s…

Oberlin Weekend, Part III: Past & Future

The Underground Railroad monument in Oberlin.

Oberlin was founded by evangelical Christians who were committed to the cause of abolitionism. The college's second president, the fire-and-brimstone lawyer-turned-preacher Charles Grandison Finney, wrote in his memoirs: "I had made up my mind on the question of slavery, and was exceedingly anxious to arouse public attention to the subject. In my prayers and preaching, I so often alluded to slavery, and denounced it, that a considerable excitement came to exist among the people." In Oberlin, that excitement came to a head in 1858, when a group of citizens rescued a fugitive slave from slave catchers in the nearby village of Wellington. The Oberlin-Wellington Rescue helped to galvanize anti-slavery opinion in the North, and moved the United States closer to civil war.

Oberlin was an important station on the Underground Railroad, and had a significant population of free blacks. Three Oberlin residents (one a runaway slave…

Oberlin Weekend, Part II: Family Connections

A needlepoint sampler, showing the women in Clara's family who have graduated from Oberlin (1847-1983). Click to enlarge.

Clara was in the fifth generation of her family to graduate from Oberlin College. Her great-great grandfather, Nathaniel Gerrish (1810-1890) moved to Oberlin shortly after the town was settled in the early 1830s. After his first wife's death, he married Harriet Blanchard (1820-1898), who graduated from Oberlin in the Class of 1847. Among her classmates at Oberlin was the prominent women's rights crusader, Lucy Stone. Harriet Blanchard was Clara's great-great grandmother, and the first member of her family to graduate from Oberlin.

The old municipal waterworks in Oberlin, Ohio.

Nathaniel and Harriet Blanchard Gerrish had a son, William Blanchard Gerrish (1863-1939), who graduated from Oberlin in 1886. He became a civil engineer and worked for the Oberlin municipal engineering department, where he engineered Oberlin's first municipal waterworks…

Oberlin Weekend, Part I

Talcott Hall (college domitory), built in 1887.

This year is the 175th anniversary of the founding of Oberlin College, the 150th anniversary of the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue, and Clara's 25th college reunion. We arrived in Oberlin on Friday, and Clara reported to 25th reunion headquarters at Talcott Hall, which was her freshman dorm. Talcott belongs to what Oberlin architectural historian Geoffrey Blodgett calls Oberlin's Stone Age—a period from about 1885 until about 1910 when the college's erected massive gray stone buildings in the Richardsonian style. Like most of the campus, Talcott is full of memories, some of which are second-hand and predate my own time at Oberlin. After serving in World War II, my father-in-law returned as a student to Oberlin (where his father was the dean of the Conservatory of Music) and met my mother-in-law, who was living in Talcott. After an evening date, he drove her back to Talcott in his jeep. Having promised to deliver her to the doo…

Memorial Day Weekend Hiatus

I'll be away from the blog for a few days over the long Memorial Day weekend while Clara and I travel to Oberlin, Ohio, for reunion and commencement at the best college east of the Mississippi.

Oberlin recently hired a marketing consultant to come up with a slogan to sell the college to prospective students. Above, you see the results: we are oberlin. fearless Despite the ridicule it has provoked, the new slogan has at least garnered some media attention, such as this May 1 story on NPR's "All Things Considered."

I'm skeptical of the need to hire marketing consultants and create expensive and ridicule-provoking media campaigns. Another northern Ohio-based institution, the United Church of Christ, did it a few years ago, creating the God is Still Speaking Campaign, complete with television ads and merchandise. None of it drew as much media attention to the UCC as did the recent controversy surrounding Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

The best publicity for any institution c…

Iron Bridge Update

In November, I blogged about the Iron Bridge (also known as the Waterford Bridge): the "most deficient" bridge in the state, and high on the list of bridges to be replaced in the wake of the 35W bridge collapse. The good news is that the bridge will be replaced, but the old bridge will be preserved as a pedestrian bridge. The plans, developed through several years of talks between Carleton College and Dakota County, also call for the construction of a boat launch on the Cannon River near the old bridge. Here are some informative links:

The Waterford Bridge Update on Carleton's Cowling Arboretum website.
A May 19 story on plans for the bridge from Carleton's news service.
A May 21 story from the Northfield News.
A May 21 story from the Minneapolis StarTribune.
A May 21 post from Locally Grown.

Wordless Wednesday: Flowering

Editor's Note: My Blog Friend Forever, Chris, has fallen down on the job, leaving me this week without one of her beautiful "Wordless Wednesday" photographs. To pick up some of the slack, here's a beautiful flowering tree near the corner of First and College Streets.

Rough Draft: "Memo Mori"

Last week's poetic rough draft included the line "as if we needed another poem about mortality." Perhaps we don't, but that's what we have this week. It was inspired, oddly enough, by going through another batch of photographs from our year in England. Each month this year, I'm ordering prints of pictures I took in the corresponding month a year ago. Hence, yesterday's mail brought photographs from May 2007, including this photograph of rapeseed, or rape, blooming in the gentle hills south of the Hatton Locks on the Grand Union Canal. The yellow field in the middle of the photograph is rapeseed. One of the footpaths that Clara and I walked regularly (because it led to one of our favorite pubs) crossed such a field. When the flowers were in bloom, the yellow pollen was so thick and sticky that it clung to us and turned us yellow.

Comments on the poem—in the form of either criticism or praise—are greatly appreciated.

Memo Mori

A year ago we walked th…


Yesterday was the annual Carleton College Classics Department picnic, lamb roast, and marathon reading on Mai Fête Island. While the lamb roasted, students read aloud Robert Fagles' translation of Vergil's Aeneid. The reading started at about 1:30 and went until after 11:00 p.m. I contributed by reading the second half of Book 2, in which Aeneas rescues his son and father from the ruins of Troy, but accidentally leaves his wife behind. The Aeneid may be the only work of non-English literature (other than Le Petit Prince) that I've read in its entirety in the original language, and I found that as the English translation was read, some of the familiar Latin words echoed in my head. Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit...

Rob reading Vergil while students attend to the lamb.

As I was starting to read, Jane Hamilton (author of The Book of Ruth, A Map of the World, etc.) showed up, but decided the party wasn't worth crashing yet. Meanwhile, red-winged blackbirds dance…

Nesting, Part II

A Baltimore oriole's nest on Mai Fête Island on the campus of Carleton College. I've spotted one oriole, and heard another, in the vicinity of the island.


A "Dunlap Broadside" copy of the Declaration of Independence.

Minnesota became the 32nd state of the Union on May 11, 1858—150 years ago this past Sunday. It wasn't until today, though, that I had a chance to celebrate my state's birthday with a trip to St. Paul to visit the Minnesota History Center and the State Capitol. The special draw at the history center was a rare original copy of the Declaration of Independence—one of only 25 in existence, and the only one to tour the country. The copy is one of the "Dunlap Broadsides"—printed copies produced in Philadelphia on the evening of July 4, 1776 to be distributed throughout the colonies. It was especially exciting for me to see it after having seen an original copy of the Magna Carta in Salibury, England, last summer. It's a reminder of how potent and world-changing the written word can be. Although the copy we saw in St. Paul had none of the signatures that are on the "engrossed" copy …

Small Change

James P. Lenfestey, A Cartload of Scrolls: 100 Poems n the Manner of T'ang Dynasty Poet Han-Shan (Holy Cow! Press 2007). $15.95. Available at the Carleton Bookstore.

This morning I stuffed a handful of coins and a couple of dollar bills into my pocket and went out looking for a window seat in a coffee shop. A few months ago, I was paying for my $1.65 cup of coffee with a twenty fresh from the ATM when the woman in line behind me commented to the woman behind the counter, "Have you noticed that women are more likely to carry exact change?" Not wanting to become just another gender stereotype, I now make sure to stuff my pocket with coins from the jar on my desk before I go out for coffee. This morning, I had to forgo my usual perch in the south window of the Hideaway (small Hideaway blend, blueberry scone) and the always-crowded window of Goodbye Blue Monday, and seek the ample window space of Bittersweet (small regular coffee, popover with almond-honey butter).

In a…


The other day I found the discarded shell of a robin's egg on the sidewalk, exactly the color of the sky at 7:30 this morning. Now the birds are doing more than migrating and singing and resisting my efforts to identify them. They're nesting.

While I was sitting in T&R's Beauty Bar yesterday, waiting for Teresa to finish cutting my older son's hair, I picked up a recent issue of Minnesota Monthly and glanced at an article claiming Louise Erdrich as Minnesota's greatest writer. The only one of Louise Erdrich's books that I've read is her first nonfiction book, The Blue Jay's Dance, a journal of a year of pregnancy, birth, young motherhood, and an eventual return to writing. It's a lovely, quiet, lyrical, earnest book, made additionally poignant and painful by the fact that, two years after the book was published, Erdrich's estranged husband, novelist Michael Dorris, committed suicide. It's a book full of birds, and women, and recipes,…

Two Poems

Two Poems About My Failure to Write More Poems About England

I. Kenilworth

Though I pass it daily on my walk,
it still feels strange
to put Kenilworth Castle into a poem,
like an affectation,
an empty gesture, a boast.
And now that it’s here, in this poem,
I don’t know what to do with it,
its ruined walls and towers
standing out above the poem’s
otherwise modest claims,
too bulky to be shaped into simile—
though the clichés circle
like rooks above the ruined keep,
cawing sic transit gloria mundi,
as if we needed another poem about mortality.

Written in Kenilworth, Warwickshire (Spring 2007)

II. Thinking of England in the Spring

England should have given me castles and cathedrals,
hedgerows and weather to write about,
and ruined abbeys, and sheep, and pots of Yorkshire tea.
I should have come home with new similes
like stamps in my passport to show where I had been.
But all I can think of now is how these tiny buds
must be like the Tardis to contain so much leaf.

Written in Northfield, Minnesota (Spring 2008)

The Eighth Grade Clock

Yesterday, Peter brought home the clock that Northfield eighth graders have been making in IT (i.e., shop) class since the beginning of time itself. I doubt there is a home in Northfield where an eighth grader has lived that doesn't have its clock. We have two of them. The clock is a rite—or a token—of passage, another reminder (at least to parents) that childhood is slipping away.

Reading Journal: "The Land of Spices"

PRAYER the Churches banquet, Angels age,
Gods breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth ;

Engine against th’ Almightie, sinner's towre,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six daies world-transposing in an houre,
A kinde of tune, which all things heare and fear ;

Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse,
Exalted Manna, gladnesse of the best,
Heaven in ordinarie, man well drest,
The milkie way, the bird of Paradise,

Church-bels beyond the stars heard, the souls bloud,
The land of spices, something understood.

—George Herbert

Kate O'Brien, The Land of Spices (Virago Modern Classics)

The Land of Spices is set in an Irish convent school in the years before World War I. Reverend Mother, the head of the school, is an English woman raised in Brussels, where her Order has its mother house. Her Irish pupils and many of her fellow nuns p…

My New Musical Crush: Tift Merritt


From Another Country (Concord Records 2008).

One Hundred Years from Now

This year is the 40th anniversary of the classic album by The Byrds, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, which was recorded between March 9 and May 27, 1968. The album, which featured Gram Parsons on guitar and a pair of excellent vocals, is the great-granddaddy of alt-country. The official release date was August 30, 1968—the day the tumultuous Democratic convention ended in Chicago. Click here for the album's classic track, Gram Parsons' "Hickory Wind."

A Visit to the Source

The land west of Northfield has a much different character from the land east of the Cannon. Instead of former prairie dissected into fields for corn and soybeans, the land is former forest: it was once Big Woods that stretched from the Cannon River in the east to the Minnesota River in the west. The rivers formed two large firebrakes which prevented prairie fires from spreading into the woods in between. The land west of the Cannon River was also more recently glaciated, and hence more poorly drained. All but one of Rice County's lakes are in the western half of the county.

The largest of these lakes is General Shields Lake. The most direct route to the lake is probably on Minnesota Hwy 21, west from Faribault about twelve miles. The village of Shieldsville stands at one corner of the lake, and a little further down the highway is the public boat access and McCollough Park, where I stopped to take this photograph of a large flock of coots on the lake (click to enlarge for a …

Something to Carp About

The Lower Arboretum was filled with the usual cast of characters this morning: house wrens, song sparrows, tree swallows, Canada geese, a coot (in the retention pond), a hawk, various warblers, a cowbird, a spotted sandpiper. I also spotted a green-backed heron and the loveliest of ducks, an adult male wood duck. He looked like he had flown out of a medieval illuminated manuscript. I also saw, for the first time this spring, spiny softshell turtles (Apalone spinifera) sunning themselves on the far bank of the river, looking a little like discarded hubcaps. Oh, for a real telephoto lens!

As I approached Turtle Pond, across the river from the city sewage treatment plant, I smelled a disgusting smell. It wasn't an ordinary sewage smell; it was the smell of my brother-in-law's dog when she rolls in something dead. It was the smell of dead carp. Yesterday's rain raised the water level enough to fill a small side channel of the river near Turtle Pond. There was enough wat…


I don't indulge in much frivolous shopping. Except for books and an occasional CD, I spend little on myself. According to a recent study, people are more likely to spend money on themselves when they're in a bad mood. Shopping is a kind of self-medication for people who are sad and self-focused. Oh, well. Blame it on the barometric pressure and the ionization of the atmosphere, but when I passed Grezzo Gallery this morning, I couldn't resist this antique (circa 1920s) portrait of a little girl (click to enlarge for detail). The portrait came with no provenance, so I have no idea who she is, but for now I'm calling her "Anna," which is the name of the six-year old girl in the novel I'm currently reading, Kate O'Brien's The Land of Spices. Now I will enter a long binge of self-denial to compensate for impulsively spending so much on something so frivolous. But at the moment, I'm experiencing a little glow of self-indulgent happiness.

A Girly Thing

There's a thunderstorm brewing somewhere, but I don't need to check the weather forecast to know that something's up. My mood is a fairly accurate barometer. When a low pressure system is forming, when positive ions are clustering in the atmosphere, my mood dips. Back in the late 1990s, when Clara was keeping a line-a-day diary, she tracked this phenomenon, and with uncanny certainty I would become depressed sometime in the 24 hours before a change in the weather. The skies are still fair, but something's coming. Fortuitously, my Canadian blog friend Chris sent me some love today to cheer me up.

It's interesting to follow the trail of these blog awards backwards and find that you're a link in a long chain of bloggers that stretches around the world. Chris received the award from Trish, who received it from Melody, who received it from Alice (in Kuala Lumpur, Indonesia), who received it from Rachel (in the Philippines)... The award originated here in Fe…

1995, Take 3: Steve Earle

To recap:

1995 was the year that two of my favorite albums of the 1990s were released: Son Volt's Trace and Dar Williams' The Honesty Room. It was the year of Jonatha Brooke's best album, Plumb, and Del Amitri's deceptively good pop tune, "Roll to Me." What I forgot—shame on me—was the brilliant comeback album by Steve Earle, Train a Comin'. In 1995, Earle was fresh out of prison. He'd kicked the drug habit that stalled his career, and come out of prison with his creativity recharged and his political conscience activated. He became an anti-death penalty crusader and, over the last eight bleak years, an outspoken critic of the Bush administration and the war in Iraq. His songs are often politically-charged, often angry, and sometimes controversial—as in the case of "John Walker's Blues," in which he sings in the persona of John Walker Lindh, "the American Taliban."

His 1995 album is all-acoustic, and features a stellar lin…

Sunday on the Prairie

McKnight Prairie is greener now than it was when I visited two or three weeks ago. The pasqueflowers are now past their prime, but the prairie smoke is more plentiful, and I found a small patch of a tiny white flower that I think must be flowering spurge. Along the path, I ran into Carol, a librarian at Carleton who seven or eight years ago helped me mount a display in the library about ornithology in Rice County. The display included taxidermy from the Carleton biology department's collection, books and artwork, and archival material about Northfield's most famous ornithologist, Olin Pettingill (1907-2001), who taught at Carleton from 1936 to 1953. Out on the prairie, I asked Carol if she could identify the bird that was singing so exuberantly from somewhere nearby. She guessed, from its song, that it was a dickcissel. After a little more research, I'm pretty sure it was a sedge wren (the link includes an audio file of the song). Carol came impressively close on th…

Reading Journal: "The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë"

Daphne du Maurier, The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë (Virago Modern Classics).

Patrick Branwell Brontë was the only son of Rev. Patrick Brontë. When he was a small boy, his mother died, followed by his older sisters Elizabeth and Maria, leaving him with his father and his three sisters—his older sister Charlotte and his two younger sisters, Emily and Anne. Together, the four surviving Brontë children, with Branwell as their leader, created a private fictional world that Branwell called Angria. The two eldest, Charlotte and Branwell, filled hundreds of pages with minute handwriting, telling stories of the often lawless and larger-than-life inhabitants of Angria. Branwell's father and sisters adored him, thought he was the most brilliant and creative member of the family, and expected great things of him. Alas, poor Branwell. He failed as an artist, failed as a poet, failed as a tutor, failed as a railway clerk, failed as a lover. And, as Daphne uu Maurier tells the story,…


Yesterday evening, Clara and I were walking in the Upper Arboretum, near the area marked on the arboretum map as the Old Faculty Picnic Grounds. I was enumerating the birds I had seen in the arboretum over the previous two days.

"I've seen a great blue heron, blue-winged teal, a brown thrasher, yellow-rumped warblers, house wrens, song sparrows, and a veery—but what I haven't seen yet is..."

Magically, as if I had wished it into being before I could say the words, a bluebird appeared in the branches of one of the small bur oaks nearby.

On the way home, we saw an even stranger sight: a pair of blue-winged teal, male and female, flew over Central Park and came to a landing in the branches of a large maple in the southwest corner of the park. I couldn't remember ever having seen a duck roosting high in a tree before. There are perching ducks, but blue-winged teal are not among them. What could account for such eccentric duck behavior?

Speaking of eccentric behavior,…

Two Mornings in the Arb

The Arboretum Trail Head and Bur Oak

Hillside Prairie after Tuesday's burn.

Wednesday, April 30. Each morning has a character of its own. The woods this morning are full of yellow-rumped warblers. On the far side of the river, a large fish keeps leaping out of the water, exposing a pale yellow underside. Further along, a coot rests in the grass at the water's edge. A great blue heron unfolds its wings and flies upriver with surprising grace, so large that its shadow swims in the river beneath it. Near Turtle Pond, half a dozen blue jays complain of my approach. The birds are so blue—80 proof distillation of sky. A garter snake is sunning itself on the path. On Turtle Pond itself, eight blue-winged teal. Hillside Prairie, burned on Tuesday afternoon, is black.

Trout Lilies blooming in the woods.

Thursday, May 1. A cooler, cloudier morning than yesterday. Along the river, I catch a few fleeting glimpses of the elusive brown thrasher, a flash of distinctive cinnamon brown.…

May Preview

Television. For lovers of middlebrow costume drama, May brings the event of the season in the form of Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford on Masterpiece Theater, beginning this Sunday, May 4, at 8:00 pm on channel 2. Cranford chronicles the daily lives of women in a small English village in the nineteenth century—not much happens except marvelous writing, small incidents, and great acting by the likes of Judi Dench and Imelda Staunton. By all accounts, this is how television period drama should be done. Between 8:00 and 10:00 pm on May 4, 11, and 18, I'll be glued to the tube.

Books. Two very different book catalogues arrived in the mail this week. The first was the ISI Books catalogue. ISI is a conservative publishing company. One of their missions seems to be to publish books critical of American public education and the "liberal bias" in higher education. Hence titles like Bonfire of the Humanities: Rescuing the Classics in an Impoverished Age (co-authored by Vic…