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Saturday, May 31, 2008

Friday, May 30, 2008

Happening Here and There

Yes, our rain came during the night, as forecast, but no, this was not snow floating through the evening air. Anyone care to take a guess?

It was a lovely evening, and I finally got a few seeds in the ground, along with getting laundry off the line and into the house before the weather changed. This morning the word that came to mind was JUNGLE. C’est un jungle! Or, if you prefer, C’est un jongle! (Either is correct.) Green, growing, wet, dripping, pulsing, and the birds were not at all discouraged from their usual spring morning songs and calls. Having fallen asleep last night over Bromfield’s THE RAINS CAME, I was musing this morning on the difference between the book and the 1955 film, “The Rains of Ranchipur.” Almost all I remember of the movie is the rain, pouring down in sheets, almost drowning those who tried to move about in it. In the book, the rain is mentioned, discussed, described—but then the human characters take center stage, with all their guilty secrets (they think they have secrets; actually, Ranchipur is a lot like Northport, in that nothing is a secret for very long) and schemes and cross purposes, and the reader forgets that all the time the rain is drumming and pounding, which a movie viewer cannot forget, straining to catch dialogue over the realism of weather. Interesting.

A few announcements--

Joe Borri has done it again: the Detroit writer--who came all the way to Northport last summer to read from his first published book, EIGHT DOGS NAMED JACK AND OTHER STORIES--has won the Independent Publisher Book award (Silver) for Regional Fiction Great Lakes. We had a small crowd when Borri was here at Dog Ears Books, but all the folks who didn’t make the scene will be kicking themselves for years to come, and they can’t say they weren’t told, either. Trust your local bookseller!

Tonight at the Old Art Building in Leland the Tuesday morning group of painters is having a reception for their annual weekend show. The reception is from 5-8 p.m. and will have some nice surprises, as always.

Next Friday, June 5, is NORTHPORT GRADUATION! You don’t have to have a relative in the graduating class to attend and enjoy this popular community event.

I’m expecting another shipment of Bob Underhill’s new mystery novel, CATHEAD BAY, today or Monday. Watch the blog for a review of this book, coming soon, by Bruce Balas.

Finally, tickets are available at Dog Ears Books for two exciting events coming soon. The first is a visit from Newbery winner Richard Peck at the Old Art Building in Leland on Tuesday, June 17, 7 p.m. Versatile author of 30 novels and 2001 Newbery Medal winner for A YEAR DOWN UNDER, Peck will entertain families and children 4th-grade age and up, with no limit on the number of children admitted on a family ticket.

We also have tickets for the 15th anniversary concert and gala reception for the Leelanau Children’s Choir and Youth Ensemble. This exciting event will take place on Friday, June 20, at the Northport Community Arts Center, with concert at 7 p.m. and reception following.

It’s hard to believe that the Leelanau Children’s Choir and Youth Ensemble is 15 years old already. But then, it’s hard to believe that Dog Ears Books will be 15 years old on July 4.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Blossom Parade

Cherry blossoms are fading fast, but apple trees are in lovely bloom, and lilacs should be fully open by the end of this coming weekend, thanks to days of sunshine. I look at these branches and speculate: could I climb this tree? How would it feel up there? What would the view be like?

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Question Trails

Frost this morning turned dewy as the sun hit the meadow, making for wet walking. Back to books and three short chapters from the end of THE BOOKWOMAN’S LAST FLING, having raced to this point, I find myself in a familiar quandary: whether to dash to the finish or stretch it out, reading a page or two at a time and putting the book down frequently. Bruce was disappointed that there was so much about horses in the story--he would have preferred a stronger book collecting focus--but that was a draw for me. My only disappointment came early on when I realized that the bookwoman of the title was already dead years before the story began. I would have liked to meet a real bookwoman in the Janeway series. But since she wasn’t going to be present in the action, I was glad the horses were, and I’m reluctant to leave the cozy camaraderie of the shedrow, the sweet-smelling stables. My sympathy for book cop Cliff Janeway has increased monumentally since he avowed his love for Walter Farley books at the beginning of this story. John Dunning’s bookstore website is interesting, too.

Taking a break to stretch out the story's ending, I got to poking around online for helpful information to combat the autumn olive scourge (this picture is NOT my meadow, which will never look like this as long as I have breath!) and came upon interesting herbicide news. First you have to realize that Roundup and its sister herbicide Brush-Be-Gone (active ingredient glyphosate) has long been the American agriculture herbicide of choice, not only for farming but for lawns and gardens. A systemic, when sprayed on living, growing plants (weeds or otherwise), it is carried through the plant’s system to the roots, causing death by inhibiting the enzyme necessary for growth. Sounds like just the thing to use on autumn olive, doesn’t it? And a friend of mine swears by it, brushing it full-strength on the trunks he cuts. We might want to rethink reliance on glyphosate, however, for a couple of reasons. One is that its widespread use has challenged some weeds to develop immunity. The "fittest" are learning to survive despite it. Monsanto, the manufacturer of Roundup, says resistance to glyphosate is not a significant problem, and so far it isn’t; if resistance were to increase significantly, however, farmers would be hard pressed to find a quick replacement, since Roundup has come to have a virtual monopoly on the herbicide market. See full article: New York Times, May 28, 2008 (too long an address for me to get the link successfully inserted here).

Another concern is that because Monsanto has also developed, besides the popular herbicide, genetically engineered plants (“Roundup-ready”) immune to it (so that herbicide can be sprayed directly on the crops themselves without killing them), some say there is an increased level of herbicide now in the food chain. The fear has been bruited about in the law courts but so far decided in Monsanto’s favor. The idea of a systemic is that it goes through the system of the living weed to kill it and that any residue in the soil quickly disappears. What is supposed to happen when the systemic is sprayed on a field of soybeans immune to it? Is it, as the manufacturer claims, as “safe as table salt”? Has all trace of poison vanished before the soybeans are harvested?

Whenever we make ourselves dependent on one crop (e.g., potatoes) or one product (e.g., Roundup) to the exclusion of others, we make ourselves vulnerable. This observation is a long way from answering the autumn olive question (how to rid ourselves of it), but since all things in nature are connected, it’s impossible to say where any “simple” question will lead. This is how it was with THE BOOKWOMAN’S LAST FLING, too. An initial simple question, “What is the value of this private library?” led to questions about missing books and finally to questions of murder. Given the unpredictability of any path of questioning, one might be tempted sometimes to heed the advice of Ogden Nash and “if called by a panther, don’t anther.”

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Small Changes Can Mean Big Differences

We’d talked for quite a while about putting a shelf on the wall above the new book section. It was David’s idea originally, and yesterday he and Bruce got to work, got the shelf up, and all I had to do to add the finishing touch was to arrange books, face out. It looks great and really catches the eye,. Besides letting some of the beautiful front covers and dust jacket illustrations show.

In the afternoon I made great headway in the Tallamy book (BRINGING NATURE HOME), and reading it inspired me to renew the battle against autumn olive after dinner. Here’s what I did and why: I went after the pesky invasives in our meadow with pruning shears and loppers, depending on size of trunks. (I’ll have to take a saw to a couple of them. Autumn olive--my nemesis!) Since I’m not following up with poison at the base, the shrubs will return next year, but at least these guys won’t be setting fruit and producing seeds, so I feel I’m holding them in check and not letting them take over the meadow and crowd out everything else the way they have that corner north of the Happy Hour or the roadside above Peterson Park. It’s a temporary measure, at best, but if I’d had to mix herbicide the job might not have gotten done (it took two evenings, as it was), and I didn’t want rambunctious Sarah chewing on any poisoned trunks. The other option with the larger shrubs, pulling them out with a truck and heavy chain, is good in theory but seems wildly unlikely. We may get the big one by the driveway that way, but I wasn’t about to wait on the others.

Besides a native grass mixture and perennial wildflowers I established in the meadow a few years back, there are now seedling trees and shrubs making their way out into the open. Popples and cottonwoods I’d like to keep at bay to the north, but I haven’t made up my mind about the others. We’ve talked about having a neighbor turn the meadow back into a hayfield, and I like that idea for a while, and then I walk out through the returning coneflowers and the new, young red-twig dogwood and have second thoughts. One of Tallamy’s admonitions, besides planting and encouraging the native flora that will support native fauna, is that a complex plant environment will support more species and be more immune to depredation than a simple environment, such as a lawn or monoculture. The complexity of the meadow has been increasing every year since it was taken out of field production.

Caveat: For anyone who still thinks autumn olive makes a good landscape planting because it “feeds the birds,” read Doug Tallamy or ask Kay Charter, whose message is that, since nothing feeds on the leaves of this imported alien, and since birds do eat the fruit and spread the seeds, autumn olive is poised to take over the North as kudzu has taken over the South, smothering every native species in its path. Moreover, when a field is taken over by autumn olive, no open land remains for ground-nesting birds. Instead of providing for bird habitat, therefore, you actually reduce the number of native bird species the land will support by encouraging this invasive alien.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Remembering, Racing, Reading

Skies are somber for Memorial Day, as perhaps is fitting. Expected to clear by midday—well, partially clear, anyway, going from “cloudy” to “partly cloudy,” which is the meteorologist’s way of saying the glass will be half-empty, I guess. My Memorial Day thoughts this year are not only of veterans (my father and uncles) but also of many dear, departed friends. Specifically, forget-me-nots are blooming in the popple grove this morning, and every year they remind me of Don and Suzanne Wilson, since it was Don who encouraged me, back in 1992, to dig up a few of the many from behind Lake Street Studios in Glen Arbor and transplant them here to the farm. Don died a few years back, but the beautiful china-blue flowers have kept him in my memory. More recently we lost artist Suzanne, too, she of amazing positive energy, who painted up to the day before her death. I’d had a visit with her a few weeks before she died, and we spoke of friends and books, art and business, life and death. The conversation did not avoid the most serious of topics, and yet we laughed a lot. “For someone who lives on her couch, I have a very active social life!” she observed. She had cancer, but cancer didn’t have her, and that’s how it always was with Suzanne: never superficial, always life-affirming. Now the myosotis (French uses the Latin name) is in bloom again, and memories of Don and Suzanne are with me today.

Yesterday’s weather for the dedication of the high school art “Doors” project was anything but somber. Sunny and gorgeous! That being the case, here are some more pictures:

It was also an ideal day for the Tour de Leelanau, and we had a ringside seat in downtown Northport:

Life is very busy, so I’m making my way through THE BOOKWOMAN’S LAST FLING in short sprints (remember, racehorses are involved, along with books), and yesterday I made a great start into BRINGING NATURE HOME, the Doug Tallamy book about how we all can encourage native wildlife by planting native species of plants. The plants feed the insects, the insects support the birds.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Cars, Doors, and Much, Much More

It is the absolutely, no-holds-barred perfect morning for Cars in the Park! There is so much going on in Northport these days, though, that quoting from Norma Neve’s latest e-mail seems the most efficient way to get the word out. Here’s the scoop:

Saturday, May 24, 2008 – 9:00 am to 4:00 pm
Cars in the Park – Haserot Park
Come and see the many different cars – antiques, hot rods, sports, etc. Vote for your favorite car by 1:00 pm – show awards at 3:30 pm. There will be games, prizes, food and music.
Proceeds benefit the Northport-Omena Firefighters Association.
Free to spectators – held rain or shine. For more info call 386-5234.
Sunday, May 25, 2008
Tour de Leelanau
This race features $20,000 in prize money and all kinds of climbs and sprints set against the beautiful Leelanau landscape and it goes through Northport. The men’s race is 109.5 miles and starts in Leland at 11:00 am. The women’s race is 69.5 miles and starts in Glen Arbor at 12:40 pm. The finish is at 3:30 pm at Peshawbestown. The estimated time arrival in Northport for the men is 2:57 pm and 3:13 pm for the women.
Sunday, May 25, 2008 – 1:00 pm to 3:00 pm
Community Door Project – Haserot Park
This is the ribbon cutting ceremony of the Community Door Project. It is a potluck so bring a dish to pass. There will also be yard games. Sponsored by Y.A.C.apalooza.
Sunday, May 25, 2008 at 7:00 pm
Hymn-sing at Bethany Lutheran Church
Come, choose and sing your favorite hymns. Refreshments following. Everyone welcome.
Monday, May 26, 2008
Memorial Day Service
The annual Memorial Day Service will be held at the Leelanau Township Cemetery in Northport with music at 10:15 am and the ceremony beginning at 10:30 am. Bring your own lawn chair.
Thursday, May 29, 2008 at 2:00 pm and 7:00 pm
School Programs
The Middle School Drama presents The Magic Finger at 2:00 pm. Come and see the 6th thru 8th graders’ production of this Dahl classic that is full of surprises and witty reversals.
At 7:00 pm is the Spring Music & Drama Program featuring music from the 2nd and 3rd graders and the High School Music Appreciation Class, excerpts from the play Story Theatre by the 4th and 5th graders, and song and dance by Northport’s Musical Theatre Class. Guaranteed to put some Spring in your step.
Presented in the Northport Community Arts Center. Public welcome.
Thursday, May 29, 2008 at 7:00 pm
Future By Design – Steering Committee Meeting
Formerly STDI, now called Future By Design – this meeting is a project planning workshop. The group will break into small discussion groups to focus around specific project areas.
Meeting held in the Fellowship Hall at Trinity Church. Public invited.
Sunday, June 1, 2008 at 7:00 pm
Pastor Karen will give the address at this year’s service, which will be held at the Bethany Lutheran Church. Classes of 2008 and 1958 will be introduced. Members of local church choirs are invited to participate.
Community is invited – refreshments will be served following the service.
Friday, June 6, 2008 at 7:00 pm
Northport Public School Graduation

Graduation will be held in the small gymnasium. Everyone welcome.

My reading, as usual, is all over the map, as are the associations called up by the reading. This association, for instance: Once there was a woman opposed to the development of nuclear weapons. She gained a public following but could not gain access to higher levels of government or decision-makers in the nuclear industry. “It’s because I don’t speak their language,” she thought. Believing in her cause and determined to move it forward, she set about to learn how to talk to her opposition. She attended industry conferences, participated in “game” exercises, and gradually she became linguistically adept and could talk to the big boys and be listened to. Unfortunately, however, she discovered that she could not frame her objections to nuclear weapons within the specialized terminology. I wish I could remember the woman’s name. I’ve never forgotten her story, read years ago in an Environmental Philosophy class at Western Michigan University, and I thought of her when beginning THE ALCHEMY OF RACE AND RIGHTS: DIARY OF A LAW PROFESSOR, by Patricia J. Williams (Harvard University Press, 1991). Teaching a course entitled “Women and Notions of Property,” Williams had students in her class complaining to the dean of the college of law that they were “not learning real law.” Within contract law, as within the larger social contract theory, consent is consent. If a judge offers a defendant a “choice” between prison and castration, her students believe he should be allowed to “choose” castration. Williams writes, “I have some difficulty in getting my students to understand why this might not be good private contract…. It is true that the transaction was structured as a contract. The power of that structure, however, transforms the discourse from one of public obligation and consensus into one of privatized economy.” When a defendant begs to be dominated by the state, Williams argues, the state does not thereby become submissive: what has happened is that freedom has become commodified, something to be bought and sold on the market. The general notion I’m formulating that takes in both of these stories is how specialized languages restrict what can be said in them so effectively that objections to basic assumptions cannot be articulated. Thus to learn the second language is to lose one’s original voice.

Well, I was deep into the Williams book on Thursday morning, but Friday bookstore chores and conversations intervened on Friday morning, and then I forgot to bring Williams home with me again at the end of the day, so between dinner and another successful morel hunt (and setting aside Louis Bromfield for the nonce), I read the first couple chapters of THE BOOKWOMAN’S LAST FLING, one of John Dunning’s Cliff Janeway mysteries. Bruce was disappointed in this one, because bookman Janeway is drawn from the world of books into the world of horses, but as my friends and readers know, this is my notion of a perfect combination! The book is over 500 pages long, but I’m betting I’ll race through it.

Evening light is heart-stoppingly beautiful this time of year, and the new, young, reddish leaves of the old silver maple glow as the sun drops in the west. On the cooling ground, worms from compost burrow down into the garden soil. The worms are as much an addition to the garden as is the compost. Sixteen years ago this ground was almost impenetrable clay. Earthworms are the best silent partners a gardener can have. They are my little buddies.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Outdoors, Indoors

Last night in the woods (my cathedral) a few morels called my name. Miraculous appearance! As a rule, I look and look without finding morels. Fungi in hand, two sides of my nature warred with each other, Pollyanna and Doubting Thomasina. Le vrai ou le faux? Investigative research calmed my worries. This morning at the bookstore I was given two rules to mushroom by: (1) “If it’s not hollow, don’t swallow.” [The NOT is crucial. Don’t forget it!] (2) “If it’s red, you’re dead.”

It was good to be in the woods after two evenings indoors. It was good to come back home and spread good, black, worm-rich compost on the garden. Altogether a satisfying evening.

Meanwhile, in Northport: two weeks ago today we had a completely spontaneous meeting of the Dog Ears Philosophy Club here at the bookstore. Never organized, never scheduled, the group coalesced around the low table piled high with books, two “members” in the red leather chairs, the third and I in less sybaritic but adequately comfortable seating. The topic was epistemology. The focus, thanks to Big Steve, was Schopenhauer. No one grandstanded. Everyone listened to others. Conversation took a naturally evolving, somewhat meandering road but stayed within ground sketched out by the initial questions. We had a wonderful time.

“When is your next meeting?” asked someone who stopped in briefly and couldn’t stay. The admission had to be made: we didn’t know! The next meeting will occur as did the last, at some unexpected time when interested people converge and compelling questions emerge. We don’t know when that may happen. We do, however, know that we don’t know.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Staff Book Review: A GRAVE IN GAZA

Here he is again, Omena's own Bruce Balas!!!

A GRAVE IN GAZA, by Matt Beynon Rees. Fiction. Soho Press, 2008

If you enjoy a mystery story that is both informative and topical, as well as good suspense, this is an excellent candidate. You’ll recall that last month former president Jimmy Carter returned from a trip to the Middle East, where he tried to broker a ceasefire between the Palestinian group “Hammas” and the Israelis. In spite of his Nobel Prize-winning stature, he was unsuccessful, and he isn’t the first U.S. president to tackle the problem of peace in Palestine and come out with a bruised ego. What is it about the situation in Palestine that makes it so difficult to resolve?

This novel may help you understand some of the problems, as it is written by a man who lives in Jerusalem and has worked there as a reporter for TIME magazine. His insider’s view will go a long way toward helping Americans understand the workings of Hammas, Fatah, and many other of these factions and why they don’t get along with each other, let alone with the Israelis. The best news, though, is that he writes it the way a mystery story should be written and not like a textbook of Middle East history, so as you are carried along with the mystery, you are learning about the region and its inhabitants at the same time.

The main character is Omar Yussef, a teacher at the U.N. school near Bethlehem. You mlght not expect a teacher to have an exciting adventure full of bombs and guns, but evidently life in Palestine is like that. In this story, Yussef has been sent to inspect the U.N. school in Gaza. On the way there, he barely escapes with his life from a roadside bombing, and soon it becomes evident that he has inadvertently gotten embroiled in a fierce battle between two factions fighting over control of a new type of rocket to be used on the Israelis. It’s an exciting adventure ahead for our mild-mannered schoolteacher! And watch for the neat clue in the title.

In addition to the education I received from this book, I particularly enjoyed the way the author countered the gloomy situation in the Middle East by injecting humorous banter into the dialogue between the various characters of the story, so that even though there are a lot of shootings, bombings and blood, there’s also lots to chuckle at. It was a very enjoyable reading experience, and as soon as I finish this review, I’m heading right down to Dog Ears Books to order the first book of the series, “The Collaborator of Bethlehem,” by the same author.

- Bruce Balas

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Spring Takes a Turn Toward Winter

Yesterday afternoon the temperature dropped like a stone, and by night a gentle rain was falling. Sarah was disappointed, but it was not an evening I wanted to spend exploring the woods. Instead I tucked under the covers early with Louis Bromfield’s THE RAINS CAME, substituting (in imagination) monsoon in India for sedate and chilly Michigan drizzle.

It's supposed to warm up again by Sunday.

I’m thinking about a comment made recently on this blog, to the effect that the way to protect and preserve nature is to exclude humans from land set aside for nature. National wildlife refuges, as distinct from national parks, do not absolutely exclude human beings but limit access and exclude most human activities: the refuges are for the animals, not for human recreation. But if we say that THE way (implying the ONLY way) to preserve nature is to exclude ourselves from it, haven’t we simply bought into and carried to its terrible logical conclusion the mistaken idea that we are something separate from nature, set apart, “unnatural”? When Richard Louv, author of THE LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS: SAVING OUR CHILDREN FROM NATURE-DEFICIT DISORDER, says that human beings as a species and children in particular need connections and interaction with the natural world, he isn’t saying (by a long shot!) that wildlife refuges should be invaded by dirt bikes, and I don’t see a contradiction between wildlife refuges for wildlife and treehouses in the backyard for kids. Louv’s concern is less with wildlife refuges than it is with municipal ordinances and restrictive covenants that don’t leave room for kids to play outdoors in any other way than as narrowly prescribed by organized sports and supervised games. And while Michael J. Vandeman argues that we don’t have to have contact with something to value it, I do think that seeing ourselves as separate from nature is what led to our viewing it as something to use, to dominate, and I don’t see an absolutizing of that separation as the cure for the disease.

I asked Kay Charter, of Saving Birds Through Habitat, what her take is on preserving species, and here’s her response:

“If we really want to help the remaining wildlife on
our planet, the greatest single challenge is to rid
our environments (both in wild areas and in our own
landscapes) of non-native plants. The hard fact is
that setting places aside and making them off limits
to humans will not help when alien plants (animals,
insects, etc.) take over and degrade what might
otherwise be prime habitat. Moreover, there is
precious little space left which can be set aside.

“As well, many birds, frogs, and other types of
wildlife can live very well with humans, so long as
they can find the things they need for survival. And
for many of those creatures, especially birds and
amphibians, what they need is insect biomass. That
biomass is supported by native plants. If you want to
read a great book about the subject, order Douglas
Tallamy's BRINGING NATURE HOME. He argues (and I
think rightly so) that because there is so little land
left for wildlife we must make our yards more
accessible to them. And we can only do that by
incorporating native plants into those yards.

“An aside: we are learning that many birds we formerly
thought required large territories (eagles and Sandhill
Cranes come first to mind) will nest in very close proximity
to humans...IF they are provided with what they need.”

- Kay Charter

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Here, Now

Boring "technical difficulties” have plagued me lately, hence the long stretches between postings. All else goes forward, however.

Read Robert Underhill’s new mystery, CATHEAD BAY since last post. It's sure to be one of the season’s top-selling Leelanau novels, bringing back characters from STRAWBERRY MOON as well a New York City cast and finale in sunny Italy.

The first asparagus is in, along with the elusive and secretive morels. (I manage to find Jack-in-the-pulpit and rely on friends to bring me edibles from the plant world.)

Downtown Northport streets are PAVED, following sewer construction! No more Wild West dust storms!

Spring has been lovely. The colors of the new leaves are so varied, from yellowish poplar to chartreuse willow through all manner of russet and rust and bronze, autumn tones prefigured in the first appearance of foliage, the end in the beginning. The book I finished last night was LIVING AT THE END OF TIME, by John Hanson Mitchell. It's good, while reading such books, to stop for my own walks through orchard, meadow and forest. To be here, now.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Real Spring

Thursday was a perfect outdoor and people day. Despite bookstore visitors, I made a little headway in the Louv book, but it was not a big reading day or evening. After closing the bookstore and making time for an interlude in woods and orchard with Sarah (woods musical with birdsong, cherry trees and dandelions between the rows abuzz with bees, sky blue, sunshine streaming), David and I took his oldest daughter and her husband to the Happy Hour for diinner. They are visiting Up North from Kalamazoo as they recreate, for a wedding anniversary trip, their honeymoon of 25 years ago. So that was fun. The National Honor Society from Northport School was having dinner in the back room, and it was good to peek at those handsome kids, too, remembering when they were little.

This morning I read the third and fourth chapters of LIVING AT THE END OF TIME and grew pensive over Chapter Four’s stories of the Old Guard residents. We’ll have dinner tonight with descendants of the Old Guard, however, and no one will be pensive, I’m sure, in that lively crowd.

The first asparagus is coming in, along with the elusive and secretive morels. I manage to find Jack-in-the-pulpit and rely on friends to bring me edibles from the plant world.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Musings on Beginning a New Book

As a child, I had my own tropical island, with magical blossoms that kept death, illness and sorrow away. At times fairies visited, leaving bits of evidence behind. I also had a spaceship, its array of complicated controls occasionally shared with my good pal and official first boyfriend, Jimmy Robert Powers. (Where is he now, I wonder, and do his friends still call him by all three of his names?) The same apple tree (standard size, obviously) that served as island and spaceship could also be an entire jungle as I became a jaguar and slithered among branches that in more prosaic hours served as furniture for hours of reading. Book in one hand, apple in the other, I was lost to chores. The apple tree was, in other words, an entire world, offered by nature to my imagination.

There were other nearby worlds, visible yet invisible to passersby. One was a rectangular piece of ground, small to adult eyes (I realized later), containing a few small trees, some mossy rocks, and a small spring. This secret place was across the road from my house and surrounded by, in alternate years, a field of corn or soybeans. No one else seemed to value it at all, but finding the “world of the infinite in the small” (to borrow the title of that fabulous book about insects by Joanne Lauck) became my specialty early in childhood. This was because I didn’t live in wide-open spaces but in a suburb on the edge of town. The only wide-open spaces were those fields to the west, and beyond them, in my imagination, nothing but the setting sun (which I could see) and the open plains. The truth was that beyond them was a highway and then an orphanage and a shopping center, and later there were more shopping centers and more suburbs, but my secret place was undisturbed until years later, long after I’d gone away. The old farm across the road lasted just long enough for me.

One enormous willow tree, of a size and age young people are tempted to call “ancient,” grew between the houses of two friends in the neighborhood. The boys built a treehouse in its center, but the multiple long, almost horizontal branches were the playground of all the children on the block, and we clambered back and forth on those long boughs and swung from smaller branches like a troupe of monkeys.

The apple tree was not ornamental, the secret place not planned, the sprawling willow untamed by landscapers. We still had plenty of vacant lots when I was a child, too. In the fall we discovered pithy centers in the stalks of dry weeds and considered uses for it. We dared the ice over the “slough” in winter (though we were all forbidden to play in the “slough”), and in spring there were birds’ nests to spy on and sudden floods to swell our geography and turn us into explorers as we followed streams and rivulets that would only exist for a day of two.

This is the kind of outdoor experience that Richard Louv thinks is lost to so many children today. In its place, he says, they have an abstract, mediated, distant relationship with nature. “Increasingly, nature is something to watch, to consume, to wear—to ignore,” he writes in his introduction. “A recent ad depicts a four-wheel-drive SUV racing along a breathtakingly beautiful mountain stream—while in the backseat two children watch a movie on a flip-down video screen, oblivious to the landscape and water beyond the windows.” In retrospect, I can be grateful for an inherited tendency to motion sickness that prevented me from reading in the car, which I otherwise most assuredly would have done (and sometimes tried to do, with disastrous results). Denied that outlet in the pre-seatbelt age, instead I would ride with my head out the window like a dog, my body in the car but my mind roaming whatever natural landscape presented itself.

These days I wear a seatbelt in the car, but I still imagine exploring on foot that wooded ridge, that fast-flowing river, and here at home my explorations are reality. Last night, on the way out the door with puppy Sarah, I tapped the cover of Louv’s book and said to David, “That’s me. Last child in the woods!”

I’ll be in the bookstore for hours today and hope to fine time to explore the pages of LAST CHILD and discover the author’s suggestions for getting more of today’s children away from LED screens and back out into the woods,

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Bright Spring Yellows

Several days without postings. There was the trip, first, and then a computer hardware problem--home now and solved, respectively. Here then are some seasonal images to make up for the long silence.

When I left Leelanau County for Kalamazoo, forsythia was in full swing Up North, and I found it still going strong on my return. The marsh marigolds (cowslips) had just begun and are now in their glory. What can I say of the poor little goldfinch in the trowel? It flew into one of our porch windows, nevermore to fly, but even in death it was stunning in its perfection. Dandelions are also bright yellow and abundant: David said they quite surprised Sarah the first morning she saw them. The first dandelions of her life!

As for books, I finished both CLARA CALLAN, by Richard B. Wright, and Wole Soyinka’s AKE and have begun LIVING AT THE END OF TIME, by John Hansen Mitchell; THE LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS: SAVING OUR CHILDREN FROM NATURE-DEFICIT DISORDER (which starts off in such a promising tone that I can only guess it was the publisher who came up with the lame subtitle), by Richard Louv; and—for a little fiction--THE RAINS CAME, by Louis Bromfield. Generally speaking, I love Bromfield’s books on farming but not his novels. This novel, however, was the basis of one of my favorite old movies, “The Rains of Ranchipur,” and that makes it irresistible. Travel? Try Ontario, Nigeria, Massachusetts, my own backyard, and faraway India.

Coming soon: another Bruce Balas staff book review. It’s okay to “touch that dial,” but don’t forget to bookmark first.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008


There are some lovely sights in southwest Michigan this time of year. Dogwood is indeed blooming (as I'd hoped it would be), along with redbud and many wonderful wildflowers in the woods. My friend Laurie's backyard had May apples and Virginia bluebells, two flowers we don't have in Leelanau County, and the dogwood tree in her front yard was in bloom, along with many back in the woods. Barbara and I had a lovely walk through the woods across from their home, with more flowering dogwood, to the shore of a perfect small lake.

When people at home heard I was planning a trip downstate, they would ask “Why?” It was simple curiosity, not a request for justification. Now I see that my reasons were threefold: to spend time with family and friends; to participate in the book club event at the Portage Public Library; and to see dogwood in bloom.

I've been reading CLARA CALLAN, by Richard B. Wright, and Woye Soyinka's autobiography, AKE. A spring getaway! Living, as usual, in the present moment, memories from the past, and in the pages of books.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

And Another Begins

This Sunday is Pack Day for the Graths. Sarah and I were up and outdoors with the birds. Sunday breakfast was next. Then we all lay around together in a heap, watching part of a TV special on Harry Houdini (which brought to my mind THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER AND CLAY, by Michael Chabon, one of my very favorite books, so special that just thinking about it as we watched escapist Houdini brought tears to my eyes). Now it’s Dog-and-Dad time while I do laundry, and then the pack will launch into the day’s adventures.

The sky is blue, the sun is shining, the birds are singing their little hearts out. I need to order more copies of the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC FIELD GUIDE TO BIRDS OF NORTH AMERICA (highly recommended by Kay Charter of “Saving Birds Through Habitat”) so I can have them before next weekend. It’s that time of year.

Postscript: I wrote the foregoing before leaving the house this morning. Later, in the Big Outside World (bow-wow!), we picked up a Record-Eagle, and there, in an article on pileated woodpeckers, Kay Charter had mentioned me and my bookstore by name! Thanks, Kay! What a coincidence that she should mention me in her article the same day I mentioned her in my blog. And I’m especially pleased to learn that I can go back to my original pronunciation of ‘pilliated’ for that bird’s name. The newer way of saying it was driving me nuts!

I'm adding a permanent link for Saving Birds Through Habitat. Look to the list at right.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Day's End

Between rains, the sun appeared dramatically as it dropped toward the horizon on Friday evening, May 2. To the side is what remains of the young black locust grove that shaded and, in season, perfumed this hill before the orchard expansion. Farm workers had just finished mulching the new trees before the sun made its brief appearance. We’re getting the rain we need.

Friday, May 2, 2008

After the Bee Is Over

It’s all over for another year. That’s the Senior Spelling Bee at Twin Lakes Park outside Traverse City. Our team from Dog Ears Books in Northport consisted of Trudy Carpenter, Marilyn Zimmerman et moi. Marilyn and I were a team of two last year, and she planned to cede her place this time around to Susan Cordes, but Susan couldn’t get away from the Leelanau Conservation District office at this busy time of year.

There were eleven teams altogether, some of them all women, some mixed (men and women), and two all men (Rotary and Kiwanis). Entering as teams rather than as individuals is a big stress reducer. Besides that, after coming in second place last year, I told my fellow team members today not to worry, even if we went down on the first round (Marilyn told me afterward that that comment had dispelled her anxiety), because we were in it for the fun—the spring drive, the lovely Twin Lakes setting, the challenge and pleasure of competition, and the camaraderie.

The bee went nine rounds. All teams spelled their words correctly on the first round this year. One man in the audience held up a little sign from time to time: “Rah!” In successive rounds, he held up larger and larger signs.

When it was down to the last two teams, the Kiwanis team misspelled ‘lackadaisical,’ which then came to us. We spelled it correctly and validated our win with ‘catafalque.’ Dog Ears Books came in first!

So much of a spelling bee is the luck of the draw. One team went down on ‘contumacious,’ which we would have missed, too, had it come to us. (We’d have put an ‘e’ in place of the ‘I,’ which is correct.) We also would have gone down on ‘abscess,’ missing (if you can believe it) the ‘s’ in the middle. It’s funny how a person’s mind can go completely blank, which is where having three people on a team and being able to write the word down and compare spellings can be a life-saver. As the bee-master reminded us all at the beginning of the event, there are no losers at a spelling bee. Thanks to all the champion competitors, good sports all.

Many thanks also to the Traverse City Senior Center, to bee-master Michael Sheehan, and to Comfort Keepers, sponsor of the annual event.

Finally, best wishes to 11-year-old Chris Rice, this year’s regional spelling champion, off to Washington, DC, for the national competition. Go get ‘em, Chris!

A soft rain is falling. What smells sweeter than a pine tree in the spring rain?

Thursday, May 1, 2008

May Day: Flowers for Friendship

On my first visit to Paris, France, I awoke on May first to find a small pot of lilies-of-the-valley on the table next to my bed, gift from my landlady, Hélène Pillet, who became a wonderful friend over the years. In her memory, I offer these May Day flowers to all my friends.