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Hepatica: its flowers spring up in March before its new leaves. Quick! Before arching limbs furl their green sails and hijack the wind of sunlight, quickly make your tiny seeds from last year’s photons! New leaves will have all summer and fall to glean what the canopy misses.

When Linda and I discover the first hepatica blooming along Elkin Creek each spring we take heart. The world is not such a grim and wintry place. One morning last April we counted 50 individual plants along a mile of trail. Such bounty! How they thrive! How our hearts do!

A few weeks ago I walked one mile of nature trail at Chimneys picnic area in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. At the end of September hepatica leaves are glossy, taut, ready to overwinter. As I strolled the cove, deep cathedral of old growth hardwoods, I estimated within 5,280 feet I saw 50,000 individual hepatica plants.

Sharp-lobed Hepatica, Hepatica acutiloba, Ranunculaceae, buttercup family

Life wants more of itself. Life wants to fill every niche. How many generations, how many hundred, did it take to create this mountain cove topography? Mossed, leafy, pits and mounds left by an ancient giant fallen. The light gap its falling created. Explosion of variety in the margins. Trunks of all sizes and ages in the understory, massive individuals creating the canopy. I didn’t know a black cherry, a silverbell, ever got this big!

Leave a patch of ground alone long enough and it will grow into what it is meant to be. Mountain flanks and shoulders for protection, rain upon rain, limestone subsoil for minerals – the old growth cove hardwood community shelters biodiversity approaching a tropical rainforest. These few sections in the Smokies that the loggers never reached are still revealing new species. Life wants more.

And to what purpose? What is it good for? I could probably list a few dozen reasons the undisturbed and unmanipulated forest is good for me and good for you. But how about this – the thousands of reasons it is simply good for itself.

Black Cherry, a BIG one, Prunus serotina, Rosaceae, rose family

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Kathryn Stripling Byer (1944-2017) was North Carolina Poet Laureate from 2005-2009 and the first woman to hold that position. She and her family lived in the mountains of western NC (she taught and was poet-in-residence at Western Carolina University); her grace and generosity reached throughout the southeast and beyond. She was teacher and mentor but, even more, she encouraged and celebrated the creative spirit wherever and in whomever it was found. Even me. Thinking of her today brings me joy.

I have gone back to Kay’s first book for these two poems. The Girl in the Midst of the Harvest was her debut collection (Texas Tech Press, 1986) and was re-issued by Press 53 (Winston-Salem, NC) in 2013.

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The Backwoods

Great-grandmother carried the cadence of Genesis.
Girl cousins up late at family reunions,
we made her an Indian, although her forebears
were Irish. Before her lay darkness, the empty fields
barren as desert until she came forward,
the sweat on her high cheekbones gleaming like eyes
we imagined surrounding her, bob-cat and red fox,
the last of the sleek, singing wolves. Every evening
she shouldered her how and walked home
through the tasselling corn. The Good Lord only knows
what bare feet stalked the backwoods in those days,
what waited behind every woodpile! She brought forth
a daughter with black hair that never curled.
Shy as a fieldmouse, that girl fell in love
with a man scything hay in the twilight. They kissed
twice. A moment she stood in her white dress
and smiled back at us, then she grew fat and sighed
in the kitchen. Four daughter she bore,
and the three who survived scarlet fever
wove grass in their brown hair and danced every night
with the fireflies. They galloped on wild horse
bareback until they got married and gave birth
to us, Southern Belles who could sit in a parlor
all evening and never complain. We could faint
in a handsome man’s arms. We could charm a
a stone wall. But we never forgot the back door,
how to disappear into the darkness, our crinolines rustling
like cornstalks between our legs. We told
this story so well, we inherit its black earth
where women hoe all night, inscrutable as Indians.

Pale jewelweed, Impatiens pallida, Balsaminaceae, touch-me-not family

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Frost

“Shake the cold from our hands,” you call, running ahead
of me onto the frozen grass. Look, in the garden
your father wrests vines from a tripod of bamboo stakes.
Okra’s grown weary with mourning another year
gone and just yesterday, Darling,
they wore yellow buds in their hair. Like you

twisting a puny chrysanthemum into your tangles
and galloping off on a broomstick. Down Caney Fork
scarecrows come hobbling like old soldiers
leaving their cornfields. They’ll sit by the river
and talk about what the crows told them: a hard winter
coming. Those windy crows, all they keep saying
is cold, cold, and when I see clouds swept
like ice down the creek, I believe them
too easily. Why must the maple leaves rattle

Remember me, as if someday
I’ll forget there were thousands came
falling the morning I felt for the first time you
shiver inside me, no fish as I thought you would be
but a mouse in its burrow? Now you sit in sand
and make birthday cakes, blowing out candles
that aren’t there. I blow on my hands
like an old woman taking no heed of a child
who believes time can be shaken from her like water.

poems by Kathryn Stripling Byer
from The Girl in the Midst of the Harvest, Press 53, © 2013 Kathryn Stripling Byer
first published by Texas Tech Press, January 15, 1986

 

Mountain bugbane, Cimicifuga americana, Ranunculaceae, buttercup family

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Mountain Cove plant communities occur in sheltered areas with abundant rainfall in mid- to lower-elevation areas of the Southern Appalachians. Especially the Rich Cove Forest subset, with less acidic and more rich mineral soils, is home to a huge diversity of tree species, flowering plants and ferns, insects, reptiles and amphibians. Original (old growth) forests will have massive individual trees hundreds of years old mixed with trees of all ages where a giant has fallen and allowed sunlight to reach the forest floor. There are a number of these areas where loggers never reached in GSMNP, such as Chimneys and near Cades Cove.

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All photos by Bill Griffin from Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certification Program; Southern Appalachian Ecology, September 2020, Great Smokies Institute at Tremont; instructors Jeremy Lloyd and Elizabeth Davis.

 

 

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Deep shade, red spruce, heavy moss – the trail switches up, cuts back, winds steadily higher. We can smell the transition, conifer tang, slow decomposition. We can feel it on our faces, in our pores, sweat cooling, wraith of mist blown up the ridge to envelope us. And we feel it somewhere deeper.

Something changes, so gradual we sense it before we know it. Daylight creeps through, one tree with toothed sun-colored leaves, then two; smell of spring and sweet flowering even at the end of autumn; witch hobble and pale mountain asters give way to dwarf goldenrod. Look, here are beech drops, flowers faded, seeds set, never green, their skinny bodies and appendages like effigies set among the trees they parasitize. We stop and breathe. Again, deeper. This is beech gap.

Leave a patch of ground alone long enough and it will grow into what it is meant to be. Its personality is in its community. Why does this beech gap persist? Its elders, Fagus grandifolia, stunted and twisted in communion with mountain maple, wood ferns, sedges – why not fir and spruce intruding? Elevation, precipitation, mountain aspect, soil pH? Centuries-old seed repository in the duff? Visitation by warblers, jays, and small mast-seeking mammals? Protection by allelopathic residues? Protection by mountain spirits?

All of these may define but don’t explain. It is the community that becomes itself: shallow spreading roots and pervasive mycelia, leaf and frond, sporangium and ovule, every one essential to the personality of place.

And you and I? We may choose how tall we stand. We choose which way we face, whether we learn from our elders, teach our children. We rest here for a few minutes and commune with this other. The silence of a ridge-crest glade: fragile or resilient? Retreat or restoration? Will we descend from the mountain and bring this peace, this purpose, into our own communities?

Beech drops, Epifagus virginiana, Orobanchaceae (Broomrape family)

 

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These two poems by Debra Kaufman speak to me of reverence and restlessness, of longing for community and the fear of isolation. Are we welcome on this earth and will we welcome others? Will we create more than we destroy?

As described on the cover of her book, God Shattered, Kaufman discovers how personal disillusionment can be a guide to finding the godly within ourselves. These poems lead us to contemplate and understand our place in this fragile world.

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Great White
An angel is nothing but a shark well-governed.
– Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Everyone carries a shadow.
The less it is embodied in the conscious self,
the blacker and denser it is.

Does a savage self always lurk
just below the surface,
on the hunt, no matter

our good intentions? Is our higher
nature ready to do battle against the dark,
harpoon at the ready?

If, as the Buddha says, there is no I,
does awareness reside
between empty spaces?

I understand so little.
But I can see Aleppo is rubble,
its people scattered;

anyone who listens can hear the cries
of girls being shuttled into brothels,
can imagine comforting someone suffering

here or half the world away.
How do we stop what is sacred
from being ravaged,

witness life out of balance yet not despair?
There must be ways
toward doing what is right.

Why else, as Job asked, would
light be given to a man
whose way is hidden?

The great white shark
is nearly extinct. It can sense
a beating heart over a mile a way.

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Welcome

You, one of seven billion born
helpless, nearly hairless,

one more chimp-cousin
in our midst:

Will you be swaddled,
neglected, anointed,

will you breathe air
that smells like rain?

Which foods will sustain you,
upon what ground

will you walk? What storm,
fires, floods will sweep

over you, what languages
will you learn, what

dances, what prayers?
Here is my hope for you,

little stranger: may you feel
beholden to this wondrous planet,

may you take your hungry,
humble place in it,

may you dedicate your life
to making it a world worth

revering, holding, passing on.

poems by Debra Kaufman from God Shattered, Jacar Press, © 2019

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Debra Kaufman grew up in the Midwest but has lived in North Carolina for thirty years. She has published three poetry chapbooks and four full length poetry collections: God Shattered, Delicate Thefts, The Next Moment, and A Certain Light.

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The Beech Gap is a rare subtype of Northern Hardwood Forest, found scattered in small patches surrounded by Fraser Fir and Red Spruce in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and elsewhere at the highest elevations of the Southern Appalachians. The Beech, mixed with small numbers of Buckeye, Birch, and Maple species, are stunted by the cold climate and high winds, with an open understory but relatively rich herb layer. Some patches in the Smokies are fenced to prevent destruction by invasive non-native wild pigs. Why this seemingly stable climax plant community remains stable and is not overtaken by Spruce-Fir remains a mystery.

 

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All photos by Bill Griffin from Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certification Program on Southern Appalachian Ecology, September 2020, Great Smokies Institute at Tremont; instructors Jeremy Lloyd and Elizabeth Davis.

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Poem in the Key of E

Some trees keep their color and shape
even beyond the time that we have ceased
to dream. They tease us into faith.

This one I approach from a distance.
Its leaves, like tiny flags of grace,
beckon to me. It is November, and the rain

has pelted us, sweeping masses
of yellow to the sodden earth.
But these leaves stay, and the tree,

bright orange against the now blue
sky, stands against the growing dark.
Some days I am afraid to come,

fearing that a mean and fickle God
will flip the table, leaving me nothing
but a tangle of dark and dirty branches.

The neighbors think I’m weird.
“For Christ sake,” the plumber says.
“It’s just a fucking tree.” Maybe.

I thought that once myself. But now
if I close my eyes hard in the night,
the color comes and the room

slides away. I float upward in this
orange, this strange treeness.
My body is inside, looking out.

 

Anthony S. Abbott, from The Angel Dialogues, Lorimer Press, 2014

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Poetry, on some level, is about saving things. . . . Things die; poetry retrieves them.

Tony Abbott graced my life during the few years I knew and worked with him. He was president of the NC Poetry Society while I served on the Board, he was mentor in the Gilbert-Chappell program for students, and he was an inspiring colleague and friend. I sat in awe: Davidson professor, poet and novelist, literary leader. But Tony didn’t want our awe. He was a seeker for meaning in this tangled, sometimes messy human journey and he simply invited fellow travelers.

Perhaps empathy and humility spring from the same root. If one has suffered deeply, one cares for and feels deeply the suffering of others; if one has experienced the frailties and missteps to which none of us are immune, one sets aside pride and judgement and stoops to lift the burden of one’s fellows. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

Tony, with his vast gifts and achievements, embodied empathy and humility. My life is richer for having shared it with him. Now his voice we carry within ourselves.

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Going Home:
a poem in memory of those North Carolina writers who have gone before us

– Weymouth Center, July, 2009

Late afternoon. I lie in the long grass and wait
for words. The still white clouds mock me. Then,
unexpectedly, the sound of music. I sit up. From
an open window upstairs, the clear sounds
of Dvorak. I know these notes like I
know the timbers of my own soul. Yes.

The English horn sings the theme, and sings it
yet again, with the bass clarinet. And then
the strings enter, like a prayer. Take me home,
Lord, take me home. Now the clarinets,
and the horns like faith answer. Then the strings
whisper softly, yes, and again, yes.

I see Graham Jackson, tears running down his black
cheeks, Graham Jackson, in full dress uniform, playing
“Goin’ Home” for his beloved Franklin Roosevelt, and then
the farmers, young and old, black and white, all
of them poor, who loved the only man they had
ever known as President of the United States, hundreds
standing on the hills of Georgia and the Carolinas
watching the train go by with the body of their lost
leader, watching the train take him home. “Goin’ home”
say the English horns again, and then the clarinet returns.

Here I am, listening, images surfacing – the trim brick walks
of my beloved town, the green hills to the west, rising
and falling like the strings, the waves on the outer
banks crashing like the cymbals, then sliding back
like the clarinets. I see the faces of my friends, I hear
the voices of the poets who have gone before, their words
rising again. Dark skinned and light, old and young, male
and female, children of the valleys and the mountains,
children of the coast and the Piedmont. I am here, they say,
I have made the path for you, and I am still here, my words
as true as the rock face of Cold Mountain.

The music soars and for a moment there is light. The whole
orchestra together in hope. then the English horn alone,
mournful, and the strings so soft, almost a whisper.
The strings carry our love over the hills to the sea,
the horns offer it to the sky, and the strings set it aloft.
It is done. They have gone home, and who and what
they are we carry within ourselves. The evening comes.
I rise from the grass and walk toward the open window.

 

Anthony S. Abbott, from If Words Could Save Us, Lorimer Press, 2011

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Poetry, on some level, is about saving things. Even a poem so simple as “Growing Up” in A Small Thing is about saving the wonder of the child in an adult world that conspires to destroy it. Maxine Kumin uses the term ‘Retrieval System’ in one of her great poems. Poetry is a retrieval system. Things die; poetry retrieves them.
from Anthony S. Abbott – In His Own Words

Tony Abbott’s publications at Lorimer Press

Biography and induction into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame

The scriptural quotation above is I Corinthians 12:26, New Revised Standard Version

Sam Ragan Poetry Festival of the North Carolina Poetry Society — March 22, 2015

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The lesson you need is the one you weren’t looking for.

The lesson you keep is the one you didn’t want.

Our final exercise is to sit. Not in the open air pavilion where we’ve weathered hours of presentations and discussion. And not by any means moving along the trails we’ve hiked for hours encountering a new species every minute. Now at the close of our weekend naturalist course on plants of the Smokies we are instructed to stop, settle, sit. We are to find a green thing we don’t know or one we’ve have ignored and sit for half an hour. Pay attention. Become intimate.

I choose to sketch a bryophyte not much bigger than my thumb. Perhaps I’ll never know its true name – starmoss? sphagnum? – but we could become friends. I won’t even give it a name. Be satisfied sometimes simply to explore, to know first with all my senses, that is what I’m learning. Where does it like to lie and spread? Whom does it choose for neighbors? How does it make its living? Naming can come later.

Moss with Doghobble leaf

Look at us all, scattered like toadstools across this mountain glade quietly noticing. For now the birds and insects get to make all the noise. Eventually our quiet must end and we gather one last time for closing and summarizing and making sense. Now Tonya has a surprise. A worm snake, while she sat, has burrowed, well, wormed into her open sandals and curled around her toe. She untangles it and cradles it for us all to see while it tries to bite her with its mere slit of a mouth, better suited for eating slugs. If we were quiet, if we paid attention, if we sat long enough would we be reclaimed by moss and crawling things and become a haven for all that is small and necessary?

We eat our lunch along the trail, we travel back to Tremont, we pack our cars. At the parking lot I congratulate Tonya upon completing her final course and receiving her Naturalist Certification. I tell her, I’m still only half way through.

Tonya turns to me. She sets down her pack. She is solid, present, her eyes deep and full as a hardwood cove. Help the new ones, she pleads. Share what you know.

And during the five hour drive back to my foothills what image recurs? Not family characteristics that differentiate Brassicaceae, Lamiaceae, Asteraceae; not frond morphology and sorus distribution. No, the image I can’t escape is of the two first-timers in our course turning a leaf over and over in their hands, turning the leaves of a guidebook, excited, figuring things out. And of me a pace or two removed, watching them, adding nothing.

Sometimes I think I have the perfect temperament and skill set to be a moss-covered log slowly digested by fungal mycelia. Ah, the long and placid observations I would make. But that’s not the lesson I need or the lesson I will keep. Instead, this: don’t imagine you know so much. But know that what you do know has value when you share it. Know that its only value is in the sharing. You have joined the circle of seekers. Now open the circle wide.

Rudbeckia lacianata; Cutleaf Coneflower; Asteraceae

Rudbeckia lacianata

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A week ago I shared here two poems by Malaika King Albrecht from her most recent book. I’m not finished with her. Something about this collection of poetry has become very necessary for me as I continue to pile and compile the lessons from my most recent course in the Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certification Program at Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont. The quantity of information itself is just shy of infinite. I’m working through a book titled, Botany in a Day, which would more realistically be In a Couple of Years. Just the new vocabulary reminds me of starting Med school (that was 1974 – what am I doing here?!) or maybe of being smacked with a breaker at Fort Macon beach.

But being overwhelmed with information is the trees, it is not the forest. That is why I need poetry. I will study the taxonomy but poetry will teach me the connections. I will feel like I can never know enough but poetry will teach me to live with and love the mystery. I will work on what to know but poetry will teach me how to know.

Malaika’s collection is just the solace and challenge and promise needed. Her poems can be grounded in the senses but spiral into the imagined and unimagined. I would say her poems make connections but even more they open me to make connections. It can be the difference between burying myself in the Field Guides and opening myself to the field.

Thanks again, Malaika!

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Following the Wind

Everything leaves a mark:
dull grass in the morning where the raccoon
ambled away full of cat food,
antler scratches along the willow oak,
and tracks and scat everywhere.

I know what stirs in this forest:
Deer nosing the horse path,
red fox slitting the tall switch grass,
rabbit bounding, freezing, and hopping again.

At the edge of Loftin Woods, I fall
for the wind, the way it parts the grass,
makes branches speak
and vultures glide their shallow V’s.

If sky holds our dreams,
then earth, our memories,
and wind, only the now
of this moment calling,
calling from everywhere.

Elephantopus carolinianus; Elephant Foot; Asteraceae

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Praise Song for What Is

Praise the frozen rain, the icicles daggering
the trees, the gray snow sludge. Praise
the shiver, the wet wind cutting through clothes,
the frozen water troughs. Blessed be
the hard frost, the frozen pond,
the apple sapling snapped in half.

Praise autumn and spring, the hot then cold
then hot again. Praise the corn mazes,
the haystacks, the reaping what we’ve sown.
Blessed be the fig tree, the honeycomb, the hive.
Praise the kudzu, the poison ivy,
the forsythia shouting yellow at a fence.

Praise the mosquito, the itch,
the scratch. Praise the heat waves,
the asphalt, the stopped
highway traffic. Blessed be
the dusty, the wilted, the dry
husks of corn in summer drought.

Praise the possum lumbering
into the chicken coop,
the fox slinging the wood’s edge.
The owl, the hawk, blessed be
their swift descent to prey.
Praise the failures, the losses. Blessed be
the broken path that brought me here.

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From The Stumble Fields, Malaika King Albrecht. Main Street Rag Publishing Company, Charlotte, North Carolina. © 2020.

Botany in a Day, The Patterns Method of Plan Identification; Thomas J. Elpel; HOPS Press, LLC; © 2018; An Herbal Field Guide to Plant Families of North America

Wildflowers of Tennessee the Ohio Valley and the Southern Appalachians; Dennis Horn and Tavia Hathcart; Partners Publishing © 2018; The Official Field Guide of the Tennessee Native Plant Society

 

 

 

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Charismatic Megafauna is what people hope to see when they visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park. If traffic barely creeps approaching Cades Cove there must be a black bear feeding near a pullout; if traffic stops altogether Mama has cubs. And if cars are pulled over for a mile along the prairie verge leading to Oconaluftee Visitor Center it means elk are grazing the pasture.

From the center lane I saw the big bull with six-foot rack and a harem of twenty and I slowed but I didn’t stop: the gate into Tremont would only be open from 4:00 to 5:00. It takes at least an hour up and over New Found Gap down to Sugarlands and on west into the Park. Fifteen of us will be arriving for a naturalist course on this final weekend in August, hoping to get personal with that other charismatic Kingdom – Plantae.

Lobelia cardinalis; Cardinal Flower; Campanulaceae

Trees, ferns, and flowers certainly draw many to the Smokies, if only for the deep summer shade and restorative air. Some people are even known to kneel. As winter unscrews her frozen vice we hurry to see ephemerals – trailing arbutus, hepatica, bloodroot. Then the princess of spring’s reign is trillium, including uncommon Catesby’s and Vasey’s. As we wind through the seasons we lust for phacelia, fringed orchids, lady’s slippers. But what about now at the tail end of summer?

Summer, the season of yellow: asters, wild sunflowers, goldenrod (19 species in the Park), but driving west on I-40 didn’t every weedy median present us with all these and more Asteraceae? Solid gold at 70 mph. Time to slow down. The hour for Latin and Linnaeus is after vespers with our books and guides. In this moment the growl of Harleys on Little River Road can’t penetrate the glade. The rumble of the river into its Sinks reaches us only as subsonic reassurance through our soles. All light has slipped bent drifted through tuliptree and hemlock to recline with us among shaggy green. We are crouched among the ferns.

Botrychium dissectum; Common Grape Fern; Ophioglossaceae

So many different kinds of ferns. Notice blade and stipe, dimensions and symmetries. We “frondle” them to read the hieroglyphics of their spores. We smell them. We struggle to know their names.

But here’s another fern-like frond, toothed and divided but with a tell-tale: a spike of yellow flowers like sequins in the wildwood. Lean closer. Five-petaled, many threads of stamens, Rose family. Agrimonia, harvestlice, swamp agrimony, but let us name it rose-among-the-ferns. Let us name ourselves sit-and-notice. Call us one-more-among-all-small-things. Look closely. Kneel. The least among the most is what we have come here to discover.

Agrimonia parviflora; Harvestlice Agrimony; Rosaceae

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Before, during, and after my summer visit to Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont I have been reading Malaika King Albrecht’s newest book of poetry, The Stumble Fields. If a work of art could be a facial expression her book would be a quiet, welcoming smile – the kind that lets you know she is about to share a great confidence. Her poems are revealing in the way sitting patiently in a quiet glade will gradually begin to reveal its true life.

And the spirit that often winds among her lines is, to me, that same spirit that leads us to desire to live truly in this world. Not to skip along its edges but to draw fully and be drawn deeply into it, discovering our selves as we discover the truths of our co-travelers. It is the naturalist urge – to find our connections at every stratum and station.

I am thankful to be connected to Malaika through her words.

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Lactuca floridana; Florida Blue Lettuce; Asteraceae

Loftin Woods

I’ve wanted to be a single story,
so I could tell you a happy ending
but every breath’s different.
In these woods I’m lost enough
to notice but not lost enough to care.
I find my body when the barred owl
startles the air. I find
my body where white trillium
catches light. I find my body
in the music of cantering horses
singing to sky. Today I could fall
right through this fabric of grass.

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Prunella vulgaris; Heall All; Lamiaceae

Silver Tangle of Brambles at Midnight

Late night you remember God’s first language
is silence. The space between heart beats,

the pause before someone says, Yes,
a brief moment before ebb becomes flow.

So you say, Fine. Don’t talk to me
like God’s a stubborn ghost.

You say, I’ll hear messages
whether you speak or not.

Every closed-door signals detour,
and each broken heart demands

sitting quietly for a time.

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From The Stumble Fields, Malaika King Albrecht. Main Street Rag Publishing Company, Charlotte, North Carolina. © 2020.

Vernonia flaccidifolia; Tennessee Iron Weed; Asteraceae

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Young Isaac is strolling through the orchard, another undifferentiated non-linear autumn afternoon of this perplexing equation we call life. Some of the fruit has detached itself and translocated several meters closer to the center of the earth. It has begun, with the help of fermenting microorganisms, to succumb to entropy. Isaac steps in it. He slips.

Isaac’s 70 kilograms, density of water, accelerate at 9.8 meters per second per second. Suddenly prone, the gravity of the situation strikes him. There, 10 centimeters from the tip of his nose, lies a perfect red spheroid. Glossy. Fragrant. The tiny lenticels on its taut unblemished skin are arranged with the symmetry of stars distributed across the heavenly sphere. “What an apple!” young Isaac exclaims, “Artios!” (his years of Greek instruction now finally relevant): That which is perfectly suited to its nature. The essence of appleness.

And how will Isaac’s own essence be transformed by this epiphany? How will yours and mine? No longer undifferentiated, will he discover his many gifts and their ideal trajectory? Will we ours? For are we not each of us an essence, our process of formation either distracted and garbled by the noisy physics of our history and our surroundings or alternatively able to grasp that trajectory perfectly suited to our unique nature? Besides mass and density and the ability to struggle upright against gravity, don’t we human animals also possess the agency of choice and change and discovery?

Isaac sits up and regards the apple. You know where this is headed. It will be 218 years before young Albert slips and falls and realizes that what Isaac experienced is actually the curvature of space. Meanwhile why don’t we all, each of us, sit up and regard our nature. Artios! To become that which is the perfect expression of our nature. It’s about time.

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I have been a DAVID MANNING fan since I first sat up and discovered poetry. Whether he does it with a compassion that draws me deeper into the circle of human family or with a wry and pointed barb that makes me snort, he regards human nature and tells its truths. I will be the first person in line when his NEW AND SELECTED is released from PRESS 53 later this year.

And I have been favored to preview the manuscript. Wandering these wonderful poems spanning decades I enter an inner landscape and pass from reader to personal companion. There is a deep imagination at work; there is joy and no lack of laughter and sometimes a little weirdness; there are bright moments of insight and connection.

Most of all there is WONDER. No aspect of our human situation or our confounding universe goes unnoticed. David’s artistry gathers a desert landscape, a snatch of opera, a funky conversation and weaves from them with perfect sense and sensitivity an affirmation. When I reach the final page I say, “YES, that is the way it is.”

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Sailing with Anne

Santa Monica, California, 1950

After her sailing class we cast off
into the ruffled Pacific blue, tide
incoming, echoes of great breakers
lapping the dock. She-the sailor,
the tiller, mine.

As we headed west, tacking
into a strong breeze I remember
marveling at who she was
to do these things. I imagined her
at the helm become Anne Bonny,
running a four-master down,
the setting sun turning red lights
in her hair.

I hope we left something there-
if only a boat paint-scrape
or salt spray from her hair.
Maybe something from that day
was never lost, but joined
the Pacific’s history, some trace
still riding the blue circuit
between the poles, with the sea-grape
and tiny life that make the coral.

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Star Journey

Sometimes at night I return

to the Griffith Park planetarium

where stars from the surrounding hills

come out to music.

North of Los Feliz

I step from city lights into the night

sky of Patagonia with its wind-swept shores

under the warm lights of Fornax,

Fomalhaut, Alpha Crucis, a bright canopy

of southern stars, to music-Gymnopedie,

Satie’s barefoot dance.

Then, under the soft night sky,

I take off my shoes

and find my way into the stars.

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David Manning’s NEW AND SELECTED POEMS is anticipated later this year from Press 53.

Star Journey first appeared in KaKalaK 2017 – Anthology of Carolina Poets
Sailing with Anne first appeared in Pinesong: The North Carolina Poetry Society

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Last February I began announcing to my patients that I would be retiring in August. A few weeks later, March 2020, the regional health network of which my rural family practice is a small cog decided to curtail face-to-face visits to protect all of us, patients and providers, from exposure to SARS-CoV-2. Today I’m saying goodbye to my patients of 39 years via telehealth.

For several years now, especially after my older partner retired but no doubt because they also noticed my own grey temples, my patients have been asking me, “Are you next?” Or demanded, “Don’t you retire, too!” Or more than one: “You can’t quit practicing until I die!” So I’ve had plenty of time to ponder how I would say my goodbyes. Give fair warning: “But I’ll still be here to see you back for your next 3-month follow up.” Add a bit of boilerplate in the After Visit Summary including my younger colleagues’ names and the assurance, “You’ll be in good hands.” The obligatory form letter to my entire panel, its wording vetted by the compliance office.

The actual farewells, though, have been more intense than I anticipated. I predicted pretty well which grey-haired women (my age!) would ask for a final hug but I never expected the man whose chronic pain I had barely held at bay through the years to tear up and clasp me like a brother. Now it’s May and many more adieu’s yet to come. Currently I’m saying goodbye on the phone or via video link. Patients are asking, “Will I ever see you again in person?”

Will they? Well, it’s a small town. We might raise a hand passing at Food Lion, separated by six feet, although masked we might not recognize each other. What they really mean is will we ever again share together that sacred space, the exam room. Sacred, from Latin sacrare, to set apart: when the door closes the chamber becomes a place for telling and hearing secrets. It is the domain of eye contact and subtle body language. For the healer who can resist the impulse to leap into every hesitation it may become a realm of powerful silences. I am proud of my skills at juggling meds, managing a dozen co-morbidities, recognizing the occasional obscure syndrome, but my highest aspiration has been to master that quarter hour in the presence of one fellow human creature.

My patients are missing a final personal encounter. I am missing hundreds; just one more pale hue in the infinite spectrum of pain this coronavirus is causing. By the time I walk away will we have re-opened our doors? Will our state ever have adequate community-wide testing and surveillance or universal contact tracing? I am in the demographic that is one errant sneeze away from the ICU and a ventilator. Would I be willing to sit down tomorrow twenty-four inches from my next patient and peer at them from behind an ear-loop mask? One sneeze. I am afraid.

I don’t really care that the pandemic has robbed me of going out with the bang of vigorous full daily schedules and stuck me with a whimper. I’m already over the fact that my last few paychecks will be perceptibly slimmer. My deeper sense of loss is like arriving at the dock to wave at the ship that has already cast off its moorings. Can I call it back to harbor? Four decades as a small town family doc teaches a very peculiar sort of generosity – the ability to conceal from your patients your level of personal woe. But this is not the annoyance of another interrupted family meal nor the aggravation of a few hours of lost sleep. This month or the next we will begin to lift some physical distancing restrictions. Will I be generous enough to expand my schedule, to risk my patient’s virus so that we can experience face to face the completion of our long journey together? For whom would I be willing to make that sacrifice? For my patients? Or for me?

 

 

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Care

She opens the jeweled box of care
and unfolds first one
then another – fragile,
painful, frayed.

She falters then lets me touch them:
melancholy scent of longing,
golden afternoon interrupted forever
by thunder,
stained silk of loss;

this shared hour sighs away
past recapture
but the air about her flickers
with some rare new color –
she repacks her box to leave,
each wisp grown a shade lighter

and I carry a pastel weight.

 


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The Geriatrician Ages

They don’t fly up at him, all these names,
no confusion of pigeons’ wings
in the parking lot; they don’t lock arms
to block him entering
the next exam room;
maybe they awaken him near dawn
but not by shaking. More like
the powdery flutter
of a moth disturbed in daylight,
the mute gray snowfall
of ash from burning newsprint.

Many he can’t recall, but all of them
he recognizes when dry lips
whisper their presence
from the other side –
not accusations (their ease of passing
one more benediction
of his calling), not really thanks
though most are grateful,
mostly just an airy I . . . I
in his cluttered bag of memories.

So many, so often now, more and more.
Each murmur a spirit body bowed
into a wheelchair, curled mantis-like
in bed, pushing against a walker,
each of them pushing, pushing
against what held them here
and what let them go.
Some days he can’t remember
if he last saw them on evening rounds
or in a dream, and any moment
he expects the office door to open:
one will enter, speak
his name, one he had thought
was gone.

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Care was first published in Mobius, Vol. 2, Nr. 20, Fall-Winter, 2006
The Geriatrician Ages originally appeared in Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 304, No. 16, October 27, 2010, and is also featured in my March 17, 2012 post
Both of these poems are collected in Crossing the River, Main Street Rag Publishing, © 2017

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Jonesville Family Medical Center — Yadkin County, NC — 2008

 

The JFMC Christmas Party of 2010

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This evening at suppertime she peers into the beef and carrots simmering on the right burner; I snip pea pods and spinach into the black bean broth on the left burner. Pretty soon both pots are smelling darn good. It’s usually something like this, the scene in our kitchen all the years since I decided to stop eating meat and she didn’t. Separate skillets, or sequential nuking, then sit down together.

But then every once in a while it’s all her show. She steams the broccoli while I sit near the lamp and read. I start on a little dry white wine (she’ll accept two ounces for herself later – Pastor Jan, pretend you didn’t read this) while she simmers the pasta. She serves two blue patterned Japanese bowls we’ve owned since year one. Then we sit down together.

When I die, sorry to say, I have no faith that there will be an angel in heaven who can make broccoli Alfredo this good.

 

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Getting home from the office early these days, I’m revisiting the overflowing stacks beside my desk. Poetry, philosophy, poetry, nature, poetry — I’ve rediscovered that all of Terri Kirby Erickson’s poems are home.

Lots of poetry is about home – you get a peak through the curtains and maybe you can imagine life on the other side of the pane. Terri’s poems are home. Welcome in. Don’t mind the mess. Maybe you didn’t understand this is your home but for twenty or thirty lines you will be part of the family. So many families. So many homes longed for, left behind, returned to. Soft light, hard edges. Sweet and harsh and all shades between. Come on in. Let’s sit down together.

 

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from In the Palms of Angels, Terri Kirby Erickson, Press 53 © 2011

 

Wayfarer

He seems like a man
you’d see walking down a long
stretch of road, the kind
with dust

rising

in a red haze beneath the wheels
of pickup trucks, cutting
through fields of golden

wheat. Scudding clouds cast
shadows
across the ground like whales

swimming through clear
water, and the air carries the scent
of grain and loam.

Every few miles, the glint of a silo
(startling against the lonesome

sky)

signals a farm house
where peach pies sit cooling
on window sills, and patterned
carpets are worn-out from parents

pacing to and fro with fretful babies
in their arms.

He’s traveling toward the horizon
with the steady gait of someone
with a place to go, whose tender

gaze

will soon find home, that place
more sacred than communion wafers
nestled in the palms
of angels.

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Rosary

Down by the creek,
we sit on dry
stones,

our shoes and socks
jumbled in a pile.
The sun

warms our toes
and casts its
net of light

from bank to bank,
where willows
trail their

fingers in the water,
and snakes look
like branches

floating by
them. Mosquitoes
lay their eggs

in stagnant pools,
far from leaves
and grasses snagged

by rocks, twisting
in the current.
Tadpoles swim

in tight formation,
wiggling their tails
in tandem,

as salamanders
scuttle by, searching
for places to nap.

Dragonflies hover,
then hurry
away,

their wings
thrumming a one-note
song – while we,

silent as nuns in prayer,
count the beads
of summer.

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[Rosary first appeared in Basilica Review; other collections by Terri Kirby Erickson from Press 53 include: Telling Tales of Dusk; A Lake of Light and Clouds; Becoming the Blue Heron.]

Author Page, Terri Kirby Erickson, Press 53, Winston-Salem, NC.

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Let’s meet at Grandview above the New River Gorge while the sun is still working its way through the pine and bare hickory. The hardcore birders left from Shelter #4 hours ago but we will follow the same course down the abandoned mining road to the River. We will follow the wild flowers. We will walk into Spring.

We don’t see a lot blooming up here at the end of April, elevation 2,500 feet in the West Virginia Appalachians. Beneath the trees and in the sunny patches the landscape is still mostly brown, but that doesn’t hold for long. Trailing arbutus and trout lily greet us in the first quarter mile, wake robin and four more species of trillium pop up along the course of the trail, wild iris and asters appear by the time we’ve descended 1,000 feet to river’s edge – all of Spring blooming in one morning.

And just in case we miss something we have a guide: my wife’s sister Jodi French-Burr, National Park Service ranger, naturalist, and interpreter. She’ll be kneeling in the duff gently parting the leaves so we can see the wild ginger blossoms. She’ll have at the tip of her tongue the name of every growing thing we discover. She’ll tell us the history of this winding trail and point out relics and landmarks along the way. And she will usually laugh at my jokes.

Come and convince yourself that the earth is filled with beauty.

Bring water and a snack. RESERVATIONS requested by April 21, 2020: 304-465-2632 or jodi_french-burr@nps.gov.

[UPDATE 3/23/2020 — due to the COVID-19 Pandemic many NPS and New River Gorge activities may have to be canceled or rescheduled. Be sure the check this site for the latest info:

https://www.nps.gov/neri/planyourvisit/wildflower-weekend.htm

BUT . . . outdoor activities with family and small groups (maintaining your social distancing) are just what THIS doctor orders! Get out into nature! Viruses hate sunlight! . . . . . . . . Bill G  ]

 

Erythronium americana — Trout Lily (Dog-tooth Violet, yellow adder’s tongue, fawn lily)

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Deborah H. Doolittle has created a unique botanical and poetic experience with her collection Floribunda, a true garden of verse. The focal point of each poem is a particular flower, from Cowslip to Gardenia, but the speaker or the style of each poem is a giant of literature, from William Blake and Lewis Carroll to Sylvia Plath and Wallace Stevens. To wander the garden path of Deborah’s poetry is to smell the fragrance and delight in the colors but also to abide in the company of great writers, Deborah H. Doolittle not the least of them. Open to any page and converse.

[all selections are from Floribunda, © Deborah H. Doolittle, Main Street Rag Publishing Company, 2017]

Hepatica americana — Round-lobed Hepatica

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Emily Dickinson’s Wild Flowers

The way she dressed a flower was
just that extravagant.
The haute couture of wild flowers!
wild flowers! her element.

To that pale cheek she called petal,
she pressed both stem and leaf –
the lupine, like crinoline; sweet
clover, tight Damascus weave.

She had played the part of Botanist,
a child’s specialty.
Swamp candles shed no brighter light
in Latin for the bee.

Grasses of Parnassus, skullcap
of the tiny laces,
she pressed herself soft as a moth
treading through her pages.

Antennaria solitaria — Solitary Pussytoes

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Henry David Thoreau and the Sunflower

Who among us has not followed the sun
and hated the clouds that hid its shining face?
Who else but us can claim that we have traced
across the sky the very path it runs?

We’ve traveled much through Concord, you and I.
The widest fields are fenced and most contain
cattle or corn or the stock of kitchen
gardens. The farmers never wonder why

your seeds proliferate upon their grounds.
I know how the wind blows the smallest crumb
and how the bees and birds know where to come.
The two of us, like them, know no such bounds.

The hedgerows and stonewalls can’t grow taller.
The sun is but a star and you’re its flower.

Sanguinaria canadensis — Bloodroot

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Sylvia Plath and the Impatiens

Unlike my empty hands,
it does not just lie there
with its flowers opening

upon white bed linen.
All its seeds jettisoned,
its future guaranteed

for at least another
season, this jewel-weed,
asks for nothing that I

cannot give it. It basks
in my sunlight, breathes in
my exhalations as fast

as I can breathe them out,
again. Still, we are both
waiting for the nurses

to make their rounds, the sun
to rise up, then subside,
for the moon and the stars

to appear and disappear,
for winter’s frost to turn
us into limp black rags.

Asarum virginicum – Heart-leaf Ginger (Little Brown Jugs)

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The other way to walk into Spring, although it takes a month or two, is to stroll along the same trail every day. Linda and I walk the Elkin Valley Trail Association Nature Trail along Big Elkin Creek at least three days a week. First appears trout lily, hepatica close behind, then every day or two there’s a new species in sequence: pussy-toes, wild ginger, bloodroot, rue anemone, star chickweed. In a month there will be foamflower, bellwort, jewel-weed, jack-in-the-pulpit. The photos in this post were all blooming on the same day, March 16, 2020.

Anemonella thalictroides — Rue Anemone

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Deborah H. Doolittle moved from her birthplace in Hartford, Connecticutt through many different landscapes and gardens before settling in Jacksonville, North Carolina. She has an MA in Women’s Studies and and MFA in Creative Writing and teaches at Coastal Carolina Community College. She serves on the Board of the North Carolina Poetry Society and she loves flowers.

Stellaria pubera – Star Chickweed

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Heavenly body, we circle, approach, broad ellipse, eye each other across the expanse, still closer, with proximity our velocity increases. Will we join, mutual revolution, orbit, or will we sling each other into outer darkness?

Am I speaking to you, lines of verse? Or are you speaking to me? From a distance you attract but how finely do I perceive your true nature? Like the person I have loved for so many years: at the moment I say, “I know the real You,” at that precise moment you surprise me, swift and sudden, slap or caress, and I must humble myself or be humbled by the universe of you.

Heavenly body, I continue. Your placid visage resolves, light that blinds, deepest shadow. We move each other, we move before each other, we move but never cross the same path twice, we flow and bud and the moments we create are like no other moments. There is more to you than can be known.

. .  lunar eclipse January 21, 2019; photo by Bill Griffin . .

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I knew Bruce Lader from a distance. We greeted each other at poetry gatherings, shared the occasional comment about the program or a reader. He was solid and planed as an oak table; he met my eye and I had no fear of being shaken; he invited me into his calm.

And then I read two of his books of poetry. The lines compel you to be shaken. He taught for years in New York City, rough and troubled teenagers, and those characters populate many of his poems. Scary at times. And he writes of relationships and longing, about culture and human frailty in images bright and dark but always hand-hewn and polished from the rock of reality. Joanna Catherine Scott wrote of his book Landscapes of Longing: It does not hold back. Open it with care.

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Gravity

Fugitives from each other,
they skulk along dark corridors
of denial, kidnap shadows
cast by a slivered moon
of eclipsed emotions.

Wordlessness betrays them
at the apogee of centrifugal flight,
as they ransom the desperate
anodyne of sex.

. . . Without a fingerprint
the tides of bodily language
have shifted elliptic;
will a touch burn or freeze?
mend or violate?
The quark of midnight:
inexorable undertow,

they treadmill between grief
and fault, looking for a vague
similitude of conjunction
nothing can rescue.

Bruce Lader, from Landscapes of Longing, Main Street Rag Publishing, 2009
[first appearance in Poetry Salzburg Review]

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Siege

All night, freezing rain – the lights
won’t make up their mind;
then everything’s dark. Trees are walking dead.

In the tar pit of time, a transformer
groans like a dinosaur, becomes extinct.
The turncoat furnace sleeps.

Daybreak we are hostages of the ice storm,
light candles, stove, put a bucket
under the leak by the sliding doors,
resuscitate the fireplace, check for damage.

Storm – odd word for weather
so calm where ice builds by degrees,
immures us inside a cold hurricane’s eye.

The neighborhood is a breath
of blown glass. Crack, crash – trees discard
sodden branches. A dove is still
on a telephone wire of silver stalactites.

Debris is strewn over the battlefield
of tree bones. Broken limbs have toppled
the fence, could crush the roof.
We need a generator, radio batteries.
Is there enough food?

Wounded are throwing shivers
helter-skelter against the windows.
A transparent antler points
as a ghost staggers to shelter.

The phone’s gone dead.
In a million offices, packs of wolves
circle, move closer, with fiery silver eyes.

Bruce Lader, from Discovering Mortality, March Street Press, 2005
[first appearance in The Potomac Review]

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Bruce also published Fugitive Hope in 2014, ISBN-13: 978-0991009183.

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