Running the River: Art & Literature in the Delta

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This photo from 1900 shows European-Americans boarding rowboats on the banks of the San Joaquin River in California. Using archives records like maps and photographs, scientists are trying to revive the delta. Photo courtesy Bank of Stockton

Given its isolation from major Northern California urban centers, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta has resisted development and remains suspended in time, but not for much longer. It’s a place of wonder—1.1 million square-miles of rivers, creeks, marshes, sloughs, levees, 500,000 acres of farmland, and it is the font of about 7.5 million acre-feet of water that’s distributed to cities and farms throughout California—it’s a playground for recreation, an agricultural hub and there are those who say, without blushing, it’s a paradise fraught with political maneuvering and environmental threats.

Few will say, however, that the largest river delta on the Pacific Ocean side of the Americas is a hotbed of literature and art. But those working to protect and restore the delta say that is wrong. Various groups, including writers, poets, artists, academics and community advocates are busy collecting the cultural artifacts that help mark the delta as a unique place in the world, one with a rich and diverse creative history.

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Because I’m currently working on a novel set in the delta, I attended a discussion this week sponsored by the grassroots organization Restore the Delta about the past, present, and future of Delta Literature. Although literary luminaries from Jack London to Joan Didion have written about life in the delta, and their stories speak to significant topics in American history, scholars say the full range of narratives about this vital region awaits systematic collection, presentation and interpretation. There’s a lot of work to do.

During his overview of Delta Literature, Robert Benedetti, University of the Pacific professor emeritus of political science, commented that the “subtle beauty of the delta and a quiet appreciation by poets is needed,” if the delta’s rich cultural history and natural resources are to be saved from further neglect and degradation.

He also pointed to research into the literature of the delta by Gregg Camfield, professor of literature at the University of California, Merced. Canfield noted in his research that narratives shape human action and “we try to make sense of the past by telling its story; in the process, we shape our present and our future.” His survey of delta literature is online at: http://delta.blogs.ca.gov/files/2016/10/Full_Paper_Camfield.pdf

Paula Sheil, founder and executive director of Tuleburg Press & THE WRITE PLACE in Stockton, as well as a poet and accomplished sailor, read “Out the Gate,” her poem captures the delta breeze blowing gently past farms and levees, picking up speed and spilling out to the bay, meeting the gush of ocean “like big dreams in a torrent.” She refers to the delta as the “anti-San Francisco,” suggesting the delta is the flip side of hip, slick and cool, a counter weight or cultural anchor to the excesses of its famous neighbor.

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is a land of stunning open spaces fed by five major rivers. A maze of creeks and sloughs spreading finger-like through some of California’s most important habitat, especially for Chinook salmon and Greater Sandhill Cranes. It’s a bird watcher’s feast for the eyes and a fisherman’s delight. It’s also home to immigrants and dreamers who prefer the delta’s cloistered backwaters to brash and garish city life.

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Photo Courtesy: Friends of the River

In reality, Sheil said, “It’s the people who make the delta.” Adding that she tells her students that through the delta they’re connected to world, meaning by following the waterway to the ocean they have access to every distant land. But, she said, “Stockton youth don’t have access to the water. Some children who live in Stockton have never seen the delta.”

The City of Stockton is located on the San Joaquin River on the eastern edge of the delta, but freeways, development, train tracks, barriers of all types prevent exploration. “We live on the San Joaquin River and there isn’t even a place to put a kayak in the water.” Sheil said.

Tama Brisbane, Stockton poet laureate and executive director of Stockton’s “With Our Words,” a national movement to combat illiteracy, isolation, alienation, and silence by bringing new voices from the margins to the core of society through literary and performing arts. She noted that young Stockton poets who’ve traveled to poetry and performance art festivals around the country often have trouble explaining where they come from, have a gap in their understanding of place, of the delta that makes the territory from which they come unique.

“Stockton is a city that doesn’t own itself,” Brisbane said. “Stockton needs to hustle to get its identity back.”

Stories matter. They make us who we are. Camfield said in his survey of delta literature that “human beings selectively interpret their lives by way of narrative arcs, by how these narratives shape human action. We try to make sense of the past by telling its story; in the process, we shape our present and our future.”

With a delta novel in progress, the discussion about the literary past and future of the region was creatively stimulating and encouraging. But, a newcomer to Stockton, I also saw how quickly the city is transforming, wiping out the connection to the past.

In downtown Stockton old buildings with ornate architectural details are rotting, while next door new structures of steel and glass are under construction. Preserving what’s beautiful and meaningful from the past, while nurturing a proud new generation, is a task delta artists, poets and writers are embracing. It’s an exciting time in the delta and I look forward to contributing to the effort with a few good words of my own.

About these photos – Before the panel discussion, I had time to wander in downtown Stockton for a few photo grabs. I’m planning some mosaic projects and was delighted to stumble on some interesting examples in the lobby of Stockton’s old Elk’s Lodge on Sutter Street.

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Dahlias: Picture Perfect

I got my first “grown-up” camera in 1980 after graduating from journalism school at San Francisco State. Back in the day, cub reporters needed a camera and a car to get a foot in the door at a newspaper. I had a yellow Volkswagen bug, but no camera. To make matters worse, my training focused on writing and I’d never held anything more complicated in my hand than an old Instamatic.

To remedy this gap in my professional training, I took my brand new Konica T4 to Golden Gate Park to learn my way around the equipment and take practice shots, using Kodachrome film in 24-shot rolls. At the time digital was still connected to fingers and complicated math problems, not cameras. Not like today’s sophisticated point-and-shoot cameras.

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San Francisco dahlia expert Erik Juul in the dell outside the Conservatory of Flowers.       Photo by Gerda Juul

My first stop on my test run was the Dahlia Dell at the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park. My beginner’s shots weren’t always in focus or properly lighted, but the experience of looking deeply into the color and bloom structure of dahlias created a love for this wildly beautiful flower and I was hooked.

Native to Mexico and Central America, the flower has been cultivated and bred for ever more showy flowers for more than 200 years in Europe and North America. The flowering ornamental is named for Andreas Dahl, Swedish scientist and environmentalist. They generally flower from May to November, with the heaviest bloom in late summer into fall.

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While history and science are important, I was reminded of my emotional attachment to dahlias the other day when my friend Kasey Kronquist, head of the California Cut Flower Commission, posted some photos from an amazing Field to Vase Dinner at the farm of world-renowned celebrity event designer—turned American flower farmer—David Beahm.

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David Beahm

He owns Thistle Dew Farm in Quakertown Pennsylvania and a major events company in New York City. Think parties for the Oscars, Victoria’s Secret Beauty, Christian Dior, McDonald’s and Louis Vuitton, to name a few. He does weddings and social events all over the world. As to the price tag for these parties, one can only guess.

Beyond high society event planners turned farmers, these dinners are held at premier flower farms around the country. They feature gourmet food, fine wines and elegant settings. Of course, there are flowers.  I mean lots and lots of flowers at the peak of perfection.

The next event will be Oct. 16 at Cornerstone in Sonoma California. Guests will be among the first to experience the new home of Sunset Magazine’s test garden at Cornerstone. Guests will be greeted by Sunset garden editor Johanna Silver, who will host the sneak peak of the test gardens. Usually a sellout, tickets can be purchased online at http://www.americangrownflowers.org/fieldtovase/

Field to Vase dinners are sponsored by the American Grown Flower organization to promote the nation’s floral industry. The events are more romantic than chick flicks, more fun than pulling weeds and more delicious than a mere 5-stars.

And then, when you toss in specialty flower farmers like Michael Genovese, owner of Summer Dreams Farm Oxford, Michigan, well, I’m done here.  I’m just telling you, when I started out with a camera and some vague career dreams, there weren’t any farmers like Michael hanging out at the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park.

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Michael Genovese, owner of Summer Dreams Farm, Oxford, Michigan

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Michael Genovese and friend on the farm.

But, if you’re ready to be seduced, as I was — by the beauty of dahlias — I mean, here’s a list of display gardens throughout the U.S. and Canada:  http://www.dahlias.net/OGtopbox/opengarden.htm

If you want to grow dahlias, here’s a link to the American Dahlia Society: http://www.dahlia.org/ They have chapters around the U.S. where experts and enthusiasts gather to teach and trade the latest dahlia hybrids.

And, it’s not too late to catch the last of the dahlia bloom in Golden Gate Park, but hurry. Bye the way, dahlias have been the City of San Francisco’s official flower since 1926. More info on visiting the park is online at https://goldengatepark.com/dahlia-dell-garden-in-golden-gate-park.html

Can’t get enough dahlias? Here’s a link to free dahlia flower computer wallpaper: http://collectwall.com/topwallpaper/dahlia-flower-hd-wallpaper.html

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The Art of Shaping Nature’s Narrative

The semi cascade bonsai style Han-kengai  mimics nature as found on cliffs and on the banks of rivers and lakes. The trunk grows upright for a small distance and then bends downwards/sidewards.

My semi-cascade juniper in need of training. The Han-kengai bonsai style mimics nature as found on cliffs and on the banks of rivers and lakes. The trunk grows upright for a small distance and then bends downwards/sidewards.

Loving bonsai is about loving your great grandchildren—a love that can, if the art is carefully practiced, endure for generations. In part, it’s this idea of a trans-generational love narrative that attracts me to bonsai and sent me on a quest to find a practicing bonsai master in California.

I found many masters. I realized, after settling in with one to learn the basics of this horticultural art form, that part of the art is about understanding and accepting my own aesthetic values. To start out, I would have to listen and think about my bonsai–for a long time.

While the art of bonsai is often associated with Japan, horticultural historians say it actually originated first in China, and then spread eastward to Korea before reaching Japan. The practice of shaping tiny trees to mimic or stylize nature was spread by Buddhist monks who wanted to bring the “outdoors” inside their temples.

From ancient paintings and manuscripts, Asia scholars found “artistic” container trees were being cultivated by the Chinese around 600 AD, but many scholars think bonsai, or at least potted trees, were being grown in China as far back as 500 to 1,000 BC. Bonsai first appeared in Japan during the 12th century.

This 390-Year-Old white pine tree survived the bombing of Hiroshima. It was donated to the U.S. Arboretum bonsai collection in Washington, D.C. by Yamaki in 1976.  Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/390-year-old-tree-survived-bombing-hiroshima-180956157/#5HDRLezQAtQdMth1.99

This 390-Year-Old white pine tree survived the bombing of Hiroshima. It was donated to the U.S. Arboretum bonsai collection in Washington, D.C., by master Masaru Yamaki in 1976.
Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/390-year-old-tree-survived-bombing-hiroshima-180956157/#5HDRLezQAtQdMth1.99

Holistic health practitioners say benefits of growing bonsai include:

  • Careful pruning, wiring and shaping helps relieve stress.
  • Constantly caring for a plant can help develop mindfulness.
  • Working with nature, including bonsai trees, creates peaceful feelings.
  • Successfully growing and caring for a bonsai tree can create a sense of accomplishment.

Improbably, I appeared at the gates of a bonsai nursery in the San Fernando Valley a couple of years ago prepared to listen and learn about bonsai from a master. I was willing to consider accepting a tree into my care. Killing the plant out of ignorance wasn’t part of my plan so I’d given taking on the responsibility some thought.

That day I learned bonsai literally means “tree in a tray.” The tree and container must form a single entity, work together in a design sense. The most desired containers for the finest Japanese bonsai are often exquisite antiques. I also learned bonsai is not a house plant. The miniature trees, like their full-grown counterparts in nature, are meant to grow outdoors.

The master said he knew immediately when people brought yellow or graying bonsai into the nursery for his advice on how to improve the plant’s heath that it had been growing indoors. He said bonsai are miniature versions of species that grow naturally in nature and should be treated as such.

I also learned would-be bonsai artists should have more than one tree to work on. The reason for multiple trees, my master told me, is so the artist doesn’t overwork just one tree; multiple trees keep the artist engaged in bonsai and help avoid frustration.

He recommended sitting and contemplating the trees, listening for their stories, before taking action to shape those stories with wire and clippers into the narrative the trees want to tell.

After a long walk in his small nursery where bonsai starter plants are cultivated, the master determined my artistic leaning was toward the “Han Kengai” form an ancient cascade style symbolizing the “overflowing potential for growth.” The style is characterized by trees grown in the way the tree or shrub’s trunk and branches stretch below the pot. The branches flow down and out, attracting the observer’s attention.

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Han-kengai bonsai at the Lake Merritt Bonsai Garden in Oakland, considered one of the best collections on the West Coast.

I’ve lived with and studied the juniper given to me by the master for more than two years. It put out tiny berries this winter, to my delight. Over time I’ve considered its form and its ability to express my thoughts into the future. I spend a few moments every day contemplating this plant and have decided it’s time to take some creative action.

April 9 to 10, the American Bonsai Association of Sacramento will hold its spring show, which includes demonstrations, classes, exhibits and sales of bonsai supplies. The annual event will take place at Shepard Garden and Arts Center in McKinley Park in Sacramento. I plan to pick up a few more trees and get some supplies.

And I hope to take a workshop from Peter Tea, who has studied with masters Boon Manakitivipart and Junichiro Tanaka at Aichi-en Bonsai Nursery in Nagoya Japan. Tea is in the process of building his own bonsai nursery and studio in Auburn, CA.

Show hours are Saturday, April 9, 10:00 AM till 5:00 PM, and Sunday, April 10, 10:00 AM till 4:00 PM. Demonstrations are Saturday and Sunday at 1:30 PM. Demonstration trees are included in daily raffles. I hope to learn how to better shape my tree’s narrative in the decades to come for those I love.

Here’s a link to my Jan 2014 feature story on the art of bonsai that appeared in California Bountiful magazine http://californiabountiful.com/features/article.aspx?arID=1317

And here’s a link to a story that suggests stressed out high-tech hipsters in San Francisco are turning to bonsai for relaxation: http://www.7×7.com/culture/tiny-trees-deep-roots-history-bonsai-bay-area

 

Laughing Tomatoes

This post was published on the “Word Garden” site in 2011 with the support and permission of Francisco Alarcon. He passed away Jan. 15, 2016, but his generosity and love remain. It’s reposted to honor his spirit and courage.
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I recently bought my grandniece Sofia a copy of Laughing Tomatoes and Other Spring Poems, by California poet Francisco Alarcon. She loves poetry and playing with words. Francisco’s poems delighted her and she couldn’t wait to share them at school in El Cerrito.

Francisco’s beautiful children’s book is written in English and Spanish and illustrated by Maya Christina Gonzalez. (Children’s Book Press, 1997) I heard Francisco read from the collection a few months ago at the Sacramento Poetry Center and was charmed. Sofia’s mother is Mexican-American, and Spanish and English are spoken interchangeably at home. At school it’s English, but with her 4-year-old energy, she giggles and leaps languages and continents with ease. Her joy in language and life is totally international, which brings us to today — International Children’s Day — June 1.

Time to get your silly on! Sofia will, Francisco does. Today’s observance is celebrated throughout the world with speeches on children’s rights and well being, children’s TV programs, parties, various actions involving or dedicated to children, families going out, singing, dancing — doing all the things my Grandniece Sophia loves, including laughing like tomatoes. Here is Francisco’s poem, along with some shots from my friend — Acclaimed Dominican Republic photographer and artist Julian Rodriquez:

Laughing Tomatoes

One year birthday

with flavor

laughing
they change

in our backyard

we plant
tomatoes

the happiest
of all
vegetables

with joy
they grow round

to red

Boy in hat

turning
their wire-framed
bushes

Two kids, New York 1972

into
Christmas trees
in spring

–Francisco Alarcon

What makes International Children’s Day special to me is the hope it spreads for the future of children, the builders of tomorrow, especially those children growing up in the world’s troubled places.

A new study by the United Nations on Violence Against Children is the first comprehensive, global look at all forms of violence against children. The central message of the study is that no violence against children is justifiable. The study reveals that in every region, in stark contradiction to states’ human rights obligations and children’s developmental needs, much violence against children remains legal, state-authorized and socially approved violence continues.

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The Study aims to mark a definitive global turning point: an end to the justification of violence against children, whether accepted as ‘tradition’ or disguised as ‘discipline’. Find the study at http://www.unviolencestudy.org/

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Francisco X. Alarcón (born in Los Angeles, in 1954) is the author of eleven volumes of poetry. His most recent book of bilingual poetry for children, Animal Poems of the Iguazú (Children’s Book Press 2008), was selected as a Notable Book for a Global Society by the International Reading Association, and as an Américas Awards Commended Title by the Consortium of Latin American Studies Programs.

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His previous bilingual book titled Poems to Dream Together (Lee & Low Books 2005) was awarded the 2006 Jane Addams Honor Book Award. He has been awarded the Pura Belpré Honor Award by the American Library Association a number of times. He has been a finalist nominated for Poet Laureate of California on two occasions. He teaches at the University of California, Davis.

Born in the Dominican Republic, Julian Rodriguez moved to New York in 1964 where he studied at Germain School of Photography. He worked for many years as a studio photographer and later did architectural and construction photography. He says his subject preference is people, especially children, because they’re the most spontaneous. After spending most of his life in the USA, Julian returned to his island home a few years ago where he continues his photography, as well as woodworking and painting.

Changing the Subject: It’s Art and It’s Arduous

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Reading an advance copy of Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age, by essayist and literary critic Sven Birkerts, who directs the Bennington Writing Seminars and edits the literary journal AGNI. The book from Graywolf is due for release Oct. 6.

It’s offers an erudite meander around the social and cultural implications of the digital age. In the collection’s opening essay, “On or About,” Birkerts suggests that, in a world with too much information and suspect filters, we should safeguard our inner selves from the onslaught by turning from the “full embrace of our networks and reconnect to the one-on-one circuitry of art.” He says, “Art serves the soul not least by demanding and creating attention.”

While the essay winds over some well-worn trails of the obvious or subjective, the essay contained a kernel of insight that’s helpful to me as a novelist. I’ve written one book. It took me four or five years to finish it and self-publish. There are many reasons I chose to focus my creative attention on this one, long narrative project, but, as is probably the case with many writers who finish a first novel, I wanted to prove to myself that I could write a sustained piece of prose, wanted to experience the process and decide if there was any hope I could master the form. I needed to assess if ultimately I could create art in that medium and then continue to produce long-form fiction. My self-answer remains equivocal.

Relating a moment of epiphany, Birkerts put his finger on one of my deepest fears — “Works of art are feats of concentration.” And then a moment later he added the thought, “Imagination is the instrument of concentration.” My fear is about how deeply I have to imagine to concentrate a long story, how disorienting it is to go in and out of the fictive dream to function in daily life. My second novel has been stalled at the half-way point for several years, can’t get it to go, have lost the spark and can’t release into the level of concentration needed to reach completion. On some level, I fear the blurring of my inside/outside life. As a beginning novelist, I’m afraid of  “going down in the diving bell,” as teacher/writer Alan Heathcock, author of the story collection Volt, also from Graywolf, recently described in an online post about the act of immersing fully into his writing.

I recognized my fear of going deep in Birkert’s insightful comment, understand the implications for reader engagement, and that helps me understand this block. I know from reading novelist John Steinbeck’s A Life in Letters that after the fevered writing of Grapes of Wrath, he was sick in bed for weeks and in a letter to his editor Pascal Covici, said “I think I worked myself past the danger point on that book.”

I’m not pretending my freshman efforts equal the concentration of literary masters. But, I do know what it feels like to be fully immersed in the process of creation, to follow the imagination into disturbing places and attempt to capture and shape the experience. For me, there’s this illustration: a difficult, disturbing piece of writing from my novel Adrift in the Sound:

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An after-work crowd, mostly men in dark work clothes, stuffed the Twisted Owl, where a haze of blue smoke hovered above the bar. Lizette looked for Fisher, scanning faces in the bar mirror, hoping she’d find him sitting in tonight with the house band.

She took her time pushing to the bar, consciously breathing through her mouth, guarding her nose against the smell of sweat and wet wool. She knew the longer it took to get a pitcher of beer and find a place to squeeze in, the longer she’d be warm. She wanted to stake out a spot to hear the band, maybe talk to Fisher about the Dogs, get his advice on how to get back into the house, brushing a memory wisp of Rocket aside like a tendril.

She bought a pitcher, the barkeep tossing her a “what’s up” nod, and pulled out of the body press. She staked out a table, setting two glasses next to the pitcher as bait. It wasn’t long before a barrel-chested young guy sat down, probably a dock worker on his way home. Marvin Gaye blasted “Let’s Get It On” from the juke box, but loud laughter and pool clatter made it hard to hear him. She poured a glass of beer, handed it to him as he lounged in the spindly wooden chair. She tried to follow what he was saying, smile at the right times, but felt out of sync.

She undid a button on her flannel shirt and bent over to dig in her bag, knowing the man’s gaze would follow down her chest. She sat up, leaned back, grinned. He touched her thigh, signed her to dance. He clutched her to him, smelling of axel grease and BO. She gagged and warbled softly against his shoulder, feeling his hands slipping below her waistband. She moved in closer, wrapping her thin frame onto his body. She started sweating from the contact, feeling sure she’d have a warm place to sleep tonight. Peeking over his shoulder, she saw a man watching them. It took a second but she placed him. The counter clerk at the Pequod who shooed her for panhandling. He caught her eye and smiled, pushed toward her in the crowd.

Then a tall, bearded man cut in, easing the chubby guy out. He squeezed her roughly to him, making it hard for her to breathe. Pressed against his chest, she couldn’t read his face, but didn’t like the feel of him, rough and hard edged. She was suffocating, his big hand on her ass, ramming her pelvis against his groin. She could feel the lump of his cock and tried to pull away, but he held her around the waist and jammed her head harder against his shoulder, almost lifting her from the floor. Lizette struggled, but the man had her arms pinned in a wrestler’s hug. She started screaming and a big commotion broke out by the tavern’s front door. Her voice got mixed into the anxious sounds and drowned out by the jukebox.

She heard snatches of angry yelling, Shot! Fucker’s are shot! The crowd rushed the door. The man turned her loose and moved with the crowd. She slipped to the side wall and threaded her way to the window, angling a spot that looked onto the street. A man was lying on the ground, his legs twisted, blood from his gut running thin across the rain wet sidewalk. Another man staggered to the window, leaning against the glass where she stood and laid his hand on the pane, blood leaking through his fingers, smearing the window. Lizette turned and pushed back to her table, got her bag and headed for the rear door, pausing for an instant to catch her breath. The knob turned. The door swung out. She looked over her shoulder and up and down the alley to make sure it was clear. She stepped outside, deciding on the long way to the next street to avoid the crowd on the corner. She heard sirens in the distance. The buildings felt close and slimy, boarded up windows and doors looking blindly into the darkness. She moved toward the streetlight at the end, rain sprinkling in the glow.

He shoved her into a doorway from behind, black overcoat, humped like a whale, breathing the smell of hot fish guts onto the back of her neck. He ripped her loose jeans down. She screamed Help! He pulled her sideways and hit her open-handed, full force on the side of her face. Stunned, she shook it off and put her arms up. A bone crack, then a jab to her side took her breath away. Flattened against a metal door, hips pulled out, an unholy fire exploded inside her. Sirens coming closer. Then cold and greasy moss on the pavement against her cheek. She puked scrambled eggs and hash browns. Before she blacked out, she saw a dog lapping vomit and then felt it licking her bare thighs, its tongue warm and comforting.

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Planting Palms and Poetry – W.S. Merwin Forest Honors

Merwin and Palms PBS

In reverence, poet W.S. Merwin began planting trees nearly 40 years ago on land surrounding his home in Maui. He created and cultivated an 18-acre palm tree botanical garden, that has become one of the largest and most important collections of palms in the world.

The collection includes more than 2,740 individual palm trees, representing more than 480 taxonomic species and more than 125 unique genera, and featuring nearly 900 different horticultural varieties, the Merwin Palms and the land on which they live have been called Hawaii’s Walden Pond.

The plantation has become The Merwin Conservancy, which preserves the palm collection and the land from future development. The conservancy allows for scientific and botanical study of the palm species.

Merwin’s home on the property has been preserved as a place where art and nature intersect.  Many of the most famous poems and literary works authored by Merwin were written there. The Poet’s Home is now offered to poets, artists and authors as a retreat center.

Appointed United States Poet Laureate by the Library of Congress in 2010, William Stanley Merwin has a career that has spanned six decades. A poet, translator, gardener and environmental activist, he is one of the most widely read and honored poets in America.

Awards include the Pulitzer Prize (twice), the Bollingen Prize, the Tanning Prize, the Lilly Prize and the Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award. His Migration: New and Selected Poems won the 2005 National Book Award for Poetry and Present Company, which closely followed it, earned him the Bobbitt Prize from the Library of Congress.

Now, in recognition of his botanical accomplishments, Merwin will be among 13 distinguished honorees at the 2015 Arbor Day Award ceremony on April 25 in Lincoln Nebraska.

Arbor Day is an annual observance that celebrates the role of trees in our lives and promotes tree planting and care. As a formal holiday, it was first observed in 1872, but tree planting festivals are as old as civilization.

Merwin will receive the Good Steward Award recognizing the value of the botanical garden he created. The Arbor Day Foundation said the impact of Merwin’s work reflects the values of wilderness, the stillness of nature, and our personal connection to the natural world.

Merwin Rain in Trees Cover

 From: “THE RAIN IN THE TREES”

W.S. Merwin, 1993

PLACE

On the last day of the world

I would want to plant a tree

what for

not for the fruit

the tree that bears the fruit

is not the one that was planted

I want the tree that stands

in the earth for the first time

with the sun already

going down

and the water

touching its roots

in the earth full of the dead

and the clouds passing

one by one

over its leaves

Merwin Conservancy

Text © 1988 by W.S. Merwin. Reproduced by permission of Georges Borchardt Inc. for the author. All rights reserved.

Information on the Arbor Day awards are online at https://www.arborday.org/celebrate/.

The work of the Merwin Conservancy is online at www.merwinconservancy.org.

Talking Japanese With Cats

black cat copyPlastic grocery bags, coupons offering two-for-one, old shoes dumped in the alley behind the house, broke-down stoves with oven doors hanging loose like panting dogs. All free stuff. Well, the stove was free, but hefting it onto the rotting back porch of the apartment my sister Ronnie was renting at the time, the one with the Murphy bed that wouldn’t stay politely closeted, cost me a bottle of pain reliever due to back issues.

She’d decided to snag the stove after studying its abandoned hulk out her kitchen window, which charmingly looks out on garbage bins and incorrigible weeds, for a week and chatting with a guy she’d been eyeing at the coffee shop. He suggested by way of flirting (her words) that it might be fixable, offered to take a look, which involved three hours of hair styling and make up for Ronnie before he showed up in basketball shorts and a crummy “Huskers” T-shirt.

I was there when he arrived for moral support or to call 911 in case the guy went rogue, but I spent most of his quick visit staring at his poorly fitting false teeth. My sister’s about as hot as crust on an oven rack so I went along with it in hopes something yeasty would arise with Mr. Fix-it, and truthfully, he had a full head of lustrous, better than George Clooney, salt and pepper hair.

But me—I’m not too enthusiastic about junk. I figure, if it’s free, there’s a reason. My sister looks at life as one grand dumpster dive and can’t help herself, which is how I got Tiger, my orange and white cat, and she got three dates with a University of Nebraska college football fan.

The “garden” apartment where I was living at the time didn’t permit animals and Ronnie called after work to let me know she was stopping by the “studio,” as she called my cozy three-room apartment in an upscale complex. I’ve never been a cat lover, don’t enjoy the hair on the furniture and resent their insolent lounging about.

“Why the heck did you bring the thing here? I can’t keep him.” I huffed and opened the box. The thing jumped out and ran under the couch.

“See?” She looked at me like I’m both blind and dumb. “He likes it here already. Made himself right at home.”

I felt impatient, tired after a long day. This was not my sister’s first free fiasco. We’ve been dysfunctional co-dependents since before it was cool. I’ve been through the foisting of second-hand desires before and I was sure he had mange. It would only be a matter of time until its fur was gone and his teeth fell out. I’m allergic to flea bites, for god’s sake.

“Where’d you get the damn thing?” I got down on my knees, rear in the air, peering under the couch, expecting claws and teeth, some kind of Wild Kingdom reenactment.

“You’ve got lint on your butt, she said to my backside. “He was free and you know how much I love free.”

“That’s not what I asked.” I stood up stiff, tottered.

“His name is really Tora. Means Tiger in Japanese.”

“Japanese? What? He escaped from a trade delegation?”

“No. I was having lunch with friends. Ardith was paying. You know how much  . . .

“I know you love free!” I stepped mincingly around the box, glared, kicked at it.

“That’s not what I was going to say.” She sounded hurt and made pouty lips. “I was going to say I love inari and this place downtown has the best, plus shrimp tempura, teriyaki chicken, steamed broccoli, white rice. Great lunch in a bento box. You ever have a bento lunch?”

“Give me a break. Are you telling me that what’s under my couch is an escaped entrée?”

“It’s not like that. Listen. My friend Ardith goes to pay and I’m getting ready to go out to my car. I found a place to park almost in front of the restaurant and there was still time left on the meter. My lucky day! Free. But, .. . .” She paused for effect, fluttered her false lashes. “I could see through the restaurant window the meter had expired and I didn’t want to get a ticket. That’s when I saw the sign ‘free cat’ with a cute picture. So, I asked the woman really fast about the cat and got Ardith to go out and put a quarter in the meter.

“You got your friend to buy you lunch . . . and pay for parking?”

“Not just lunch. There’s enough left over for dinner. I got two meals out of it, actually,. They put the leftovers in take-out containers. Do you want some? Free dinner.”

“Veronica,” I said, trying to be reasonable. “Why would anyone give away a perfectly good cat? What’s wrong with him? I mean besides the fact he’s under my couch.”

“The woman at the cash register didn’t speak much English. The owner’s mother, I think. She was really old and wore those white socks with the toe split.” She glances down at her wedgie sandles and wiggles her toes to show off her purple polish and tiny daisy decals. “We used hand gestures. She said they already have a cat. But this one, Tora, means tiger in Japanese.

“You told me that,” I’m stood, hands on hips, looking with one eye at the gap under my couch and thought about the day that will live in infamy.

“He fights,” my sister said, all bright and cheerful like the cat also cames with a free samurai sword. “They tried for two years to get him to like their other cat, but the vet bills got to be too much. Since Tiger was the newest one, and they liked the older one better, they decided to get rid of him.”

“And you think I need a vicious tom cat?”

“It’s not like that. He just doesn’t like other cats in his territory, that’s all. You don’t have a cat so he won’t have anyone to fight with. Besides, you’re lonely. You need a pet. I worry about you. I really do. Bye the way, do you have an extra roll of toilet paper? I don’t get paid until next week and it would get me through.”

I stomped into the bathroom and fished out a fresh roll from under the sink, twirled it on my index finger before tossing it to her.

“What about my furniture? Does he shred things, too, I mean just to stay in shape for wrestling season?”

“Stop! The woman didn’t say anything about that. She said he’s a good cat. It’s just that he likes to fight. That’s all I know. I’m sure he’ll be fine. But, I gotta go. He was free and I just couldn’t pass it up.”

We’ve been together now, Tiger and me, for more than ten years. He has gotten a lot fatter and refuses to use a cat box. I bought a little house, which Ronnie calls the “asylum.” But, Tiger knows my ways and waits on the front walk for me every evening and greets me when I come home from work. OK, the truth is he meows until I top off his kibble bowl and set down fresh water and then ignores me.

Ronnie and I don’t talk about his assaults on other cats in the neighborhood or the birds he kills and leaves in front of the patio door, or the time he scratched the mailman. The Postal Service sent a note about mauling, but I didn’t respond. He sleeps on my bed and purrs beside me when we go to sleep. I’ve gotten a bigger bed, but don’t invite overnight guests, or encourage visits by people with small children.

Ronnie is pleased with our relationship, takes full responsibility for what she calls my “bliss.” I remind her he’s just a cat when she comes over to borrow things, which is to say often, and she never fails to mention he is . . . well, quite a bargain.

Cat SF Asian Art Collection