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Archive for July, 2012

It’s been a few years since I saw a patient with their fingers stiffened by black gum, so tarry and mean you just absolutely couldn’t get it off.  For years they were regulars, members of several local families, and by late August I’d usually treated two or three of them.  Oh, they didn’t consult me to take care of the black gum.  That was a fact of life.  They’d come in with a sprained back from first priming (bending over to pull the lowest leaves, the first ones to ripen).  Or one of their kids would be vomiting from green tobacco sickness when the morning dew permitted the nicotine to penetrate her clothing and permeate her skin.  (The older ones all smoked or dipped, and a little extra nicotine didn’t phase them.)

To say tobacco farming has changed is like saying calling to your neighbor has changed.  The wood-fired tobacco barn has gone the way of the rotary dial phone.  The government bought back all the allotments, but you can imagine plenty of other reasons why you see so many fewer acres of tobacco in Surry County now (and so many more acres of grapes).  On top of that, those big steel gas-fired curing barns just ain’t as picturesque.  And I guess the kids have all gone off to college, because I don’t see them with that black gold on their fingers during priming any more.

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I moved to Elkin over thirty years ago to join Jonesville Family Medical Center right where rural nirvana blooms, the juncture of Wilkes, Yadkin, and Surry Counties.  Some days over lunch, one of my nurses shared stories of her farming childhood.  When priming was finished and the barn was full the whole family would join in the curing – cousins, uncles, the tribe.  The men had to tend the fire all night long to keep the heat just right.  The women would bring baskets of supper; the kids would play until way after dark; someone would break out a fiddle or a guitar.  There was probably a Mason jar of something potent being passed around in the shadows beyond the firelight, but my nurse wouldn’t want to make any accusations.  She and the other youngsters would bed down in quilts and blankets around midnight, and when the sun came up across the fields, there Mama would be with cold milk and biscuits.

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Who’s going to keep these stories alive for us?  Thank goodness for Shelby Stephenson.  I wonder if Mrs. Stephenson, watching her little boy helping with the priming, could have imagined he would go off to college and come back home a professor.  Could she have imagined him turning the black gum into poetry?  As English Prof at UNC Pembroke, as editor of Pembroke magazine, as author of numerous volumes, and as picker of a mean guitar, Shelby has given the old stories new voice, new breath, new life.

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Tobacco Days

The rows almost ridge themselves, shaping the year again
towards seasons that let the dust of sandlugs
fall into yesterdays lost in failed crops, quick dreams.

*   *   *   *   *

I lay on the warm ground of the Mayo barn at four in the morning
hoping Brother would oversleep.
The flatbed trailer bounded across the ditch,
the Farmall Cub droned.
“Morning, boys.”  I climbed the tierpoles.
Taking the top, I handed down four sticks at a time to Lee to
Paul who packed the trailer.  From my perch I
stirred the sun through airholes uner the eaves.
The barn emptied, we walked through dew to breakfast.
Dreams drifted awkwardly, Brother’s Big Man chew
rolling over in sand-dust.

*   *   *   *   *

The tobacco greens for the farmer who dives into the dirt,
renewed in the smell of warehouses,
golden leaves in the lightholes bringing the legged sunlight in.
Dew in dust, a musk in  mist,
the tobacco tips one more time on the prime,

a sea of blooms
bobbing in ninetyfive degree wisps of heat,
adhesive tape slipping over blisters.

My bare feet burn on the ground and I shuffle
toes into dirt for moisture, inching stalk by stalk
down endless rows in the ten-acre field where short rows
fade into plumbushes and shade.

The mules on the drags relax through the hot, climbing
July days, the frying dust, and you wonder if you’ll ever
get the gum off your hands.

Shelby Stephenson
from Finch’s Mash © 1990 by Shelby Stephenson

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“It is impossible to care for each other more or differently than we care for the earth . . . there is an uncanny resemblance between our behavior toward each other and our behavior toward the earth.”

Wendell Berry

Attention precedes intention.

I know someone (actually, I live with her) who keeps a paper cup and square of cardboard under the downstairs sink.  If a wasp wanders into the house she claps the cup over her, slides the cardboard under her, and sets her free out the front door.  I’m thankful to Linda for this because I am slightly hymenopteraphobic.  I’m also thankful to her for all the crickets, centipedes, “Palmetto bugs,” and occasional skinks that have ridden that cup to freedom.  I can’t exactly express why, but it’s a blessing to be married to someone who doesn’t squash things.

Does Creation rejoice when one wasp is saved?  Maybe not, but you never know – the web of life is complex and chaotic and includes every living organism, not least the trillion bacteria that cohabit my body.  I couldn’t live without them.  Each creature occupies its essential place.

I do know this – Creation rejoices in every moment we take to pay attention.  Attention leads to intention.  Once we notice the life all around us . . . once we notice how all life interacts and how we affect it . . . we become poised to care. And to behave as if we care.

The very concept of interdependence within the natural world is only about as old as the church I belong to, Community of Christ.  That there is an intimate relationship between creatures and their environment was first developed by Charles Darwin, who is considered the Father not only of my other favorite “E” word but also of Ecology.  The first published instance of the word “ecology” was not until 1879.  One hundred and thirty-three years – not a great deal of time for the Western psyche to incorporate a radically new relationship with Creation: not dominion over all, not even stewardship of all, but coexistence with all.  Perhaps it’s not surprising that there are many people who imagine we can somehow live without Cape Fear shiners, Yellow lampmussels, or Schweinitz’s sunflowers, much less wasps, crickets, and skinks.

I expect a visit to the NC Zoo would start a lot of those people on a journey down a path at whose end they would have fallen in love, not only with a baby giraffe, but with a minnow endemic to just five counties in central North Carolina.  At least that visit would get their attention.  That’s the first responsibility of a naturalist, paying attention.  It’s the first responsibility of being human.

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Two Sundays ago I left the house at 6:30 a.m. to head for a week at the Zoo.  The car was crammed with nature books, poetry books, enough clothes to change two or three times a day anticipating some sweaty 100+ degree weather.  I had enough handouts and resources to lead workshops and present readings.  Enough food for two weeks, probably.  Enough coffee for a month.

I stopped at Bojangles and bought two sausage biscuits because they were on special.  As I headed south on I-77 I ate one, and then I thought – what did it take to make this?  How many thousands of gallons of water to grow the grain to raise the hog?  How much CO2 from tractor exhaust, how much methane from hog lagoon exhaust?   You’ve probably read how the United States creates over 16% of global greenhouse gases with only 5% of the population.  You may have read how raising meat impacts the environment much, much more than raising grain or vegetables, and how in the developing world, especially China, they are shifting their diets to include more meat as standards of living rise.  Well, when I arrived in Asheboro I handed that second biscuit to a friend and decided to give up eating meat.

Will my decision have any greater benefit to Creation than a few more wasps free in the azalea?  Maybe not, but it’s just my intention, growing out of my attention.

No matter how you lift your eyes you can’t actually see beyond the horizon. You can’t be sure of the outcomes of all your actions, but you can pay attention.  Pay attention to the things you experience every day.  To the things you do. Pay attention to what makes you feel within your heart the love your Creator has placed there.

Continue to discover your own place in Creation.Raven crop 02

RAVEN

Listen.
I’m not going to say this twice.
The sum and product of words
is no mark of intelligence.
Case in point – cousin Crow,
not half as smart as all his talk.

So listen,
I know three things:
Sky, that small kiss of warm air
that rises through my primaries;

the Water on its breath, ridgeblown mist
that bathes us all and makes springs
overflow into Inadu Creek;

and Earth, slope and cup of cove,
the steep that gathers with wide black wings
to draw down Sky,
draw Water up,
that sets free all things green
into a world first fledged.

But listen.
I know from twenty circles
of snowdeep and hungry moons
and twenty circles of fresh shoots
that Sky . . . Water . . . Earth . . .
none of them are mine.

And I know none are yours.

from Snake Den Ridge, a bestiary © Bill Griffin and Linda French Griffin, March Street Press, 2008

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“The universe story is the quintessence of reality. We perceive the story. We put it in our language, the birds put it in theirs, and the trees put it in theirs. We can read the story of the universe in the trees. Everything tells the story of the universe. The winds tell the story, literally, not just imaginatively. The story has its imprint everywhere, and that is why it is so important to know the story. If you do not know the story, in a sense you do not know yourself; you do not know anything.”

Thomas Berry,  1914-2009

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I’m going to bet your family is a lot like mine.  Sometimes my parents come to stay a few days over a holiday, with Margaret and her Josh in from Raleigh, Mary Ellen down from Sylva (and all with dogs-squared), and finally Josh, Allison, and Saul all squeezed in.  Then it starts.  First hugs, then catching up and gossip, meanwhile eating, momentary pause in eating, start eating again.  Finally, if we’re all under the same roof for long enough, the stories begin.

Haven’t you heard them?  Stories that start out with, “Oh, I remember when you were six and you . . . .”  “Right, and remember that time we thought no one was looking and we . . . .”  “Sure, and can you remember what Nana would say when we . . . ?”  We’ve heard them all a thousand time, but we can’t help ourselves.  We have to re-tell them.  It’s the stories that bind us together and remind us we’re a family.  Those stories make us a family.

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I was at the Zoo about a year ago when Batir was smaller (though not by any means small).  She still kept pretty close to her mother, Tonga, and they would frequently caress each other with their trunks or even interlace, touching . . . touching.  Today they still spend much of the day near each other; is Batir leaning against her mother’s side?  They’re that close.

Yesterday at the aviary, besides watching the Yellow-rumped Cacique add fronds to a large unruly nest in the very top of a sapodilla, I saw a pair of White-headed Mousebirds that evidently also had nesting on their minds.  They nibbled at each other’s beaks, and then one would preen the neck feathers of the other . . . and they were perched pretty darn close together on that branch.

One morning this week I entered the Park early while the alligators were still bellowing at each other (there are two separate ‘gator enclosures so the males can’t get physical with each other).  As I passed one pool, a larger ‘gator was rubbing his jaw up and down the neck of the smaller, and then she (?) would return the gesture.  I’d have a hard time calling it “nuzzling” when your skin is smooth as an old shagbark hickory, but I can only assume they were making friends.

With such a large extended family of baboons, you can’t pass them by without noticing that there is always some grooming going on.  Sometimes it’s a female picking through the thick mane of a large male; sometimes two females; frequently a mother and child, and then they reciprocate.  The younger members of the troop sometimes stop chasing and wrestling to comb each other out with their claws.

Somehow each species communicates that they are a family.  It may be the complex subsonic telegraphy of elephants or the ritual stereotypic breeding displays of birds, but the message is received.  The bond is forged.  The family prevails.

We humans prevail through the stories we tell.  When that gets old, we tell stories about telling stories. As Zoo ambassador, here’s my challenge to you:  tell me a new story.

I am leaving the Zoo after this week-long residency with a headful of stories.  You’ve got some, too.  Discover them.   Tell them.  You don’t have to visit a zoo, or an aquarium, or a botanical garden, or a national park.  You have a backyard, a neighborhood, a schoolyard.  There is something about any one of those places that can remind you what family you belong to.  Do I have to come right out and say it?  It’s the Family of All Life on Earth.

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Maybe you’ll encounter a creature you’ve never paid much attention to before.  You might learn to recognize a bird’s call or look up the name of that big butterfly hanging around your bushes.  Perhaps you’ll gain some new understanding about how creature A depends on creature B, and vice versa.  Could be you’ll discover that something you’re used to doing every day actually harms creature C.  You know you’re going to feel invigorated after you get a big dose of Vitamin N (“Nature”).

And you’re going to have some stories. I can hear you now, each time you get together with your Family and spend some quality time under nature’s vast open roof – “Hey, do you remember when we . . . ?!”

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A Prayer for the Mountains

Let these peaks have happened

The hawk-haunted knobs and hollers,
The blind coves dense as meditation,
The white rock-face, the laurel hells,
The terraced pasture ridge
With its broom sedge combed back by wind:
Let these have taken place, let them be place.

And where Harmon Fork piles unrushing
Against its tabled stones, let the gray trout
Idle below, its dim plectrum a shadow
That marks the stone’s clear shadow.

In the slow glade where sunlight comes through
In circlets and moves from leaf to fallen leaf
Like a tribe of shining bees,
Let the milk-flecked fawn lie unseen, unseeing.

Let me lie there too
And share the sleep
Of the cool ground’s mildest children.

Fred Chappell
from Spring Garden, 8 1995 by Fred Chappell, Lousiana State University Press.

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You don’t have to visit the Zoo, but it couldn’t hurt.  It’s done me a world of good.  Next time you’re there, see if they’ve started displaying poetry around the Park.  (It won’t happen until after all three of us Poets-in-Residence have submitted our suggestions, but if you don’t see any yet it’ll just be the perfect reason to make another trip before too long.)

Meanwhile, I thank profoundly Ellen Greer, Sue Farlow, and Dr. David Jones as well as all those on the steering committee that developed the vision for this Poetry of Conservation project.  And to all the rest of you folks – design staff, animal handlers, Zoo Com, volunteers, interpreters, Sodexo, Schindler House folks – you welcomed me into your NC Zoological Park family, and I am humbled and grateful.  In sheer awesomeness you are equal to any of the other animals in the Park!

Love, BILL

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 . . . We’ve seen
how our breath on a bitter night
fades like a ghost from the window glass.
Kathryn Stripling Byer

 The polar bears aren’t here.  On sabbatical, or “off exhibit” in Park lingo.  We’re assured they will return in time.  In time . . . .

Aquila, born in 1992 at the Louisville, KY Zoo, arrived in NC in 2009 and currently resides at the Detroit Zoo.  Wilhelm, rescued from a Mexican circus, had been here since 2002 and since this winter has really been cooling his heels in Milwaukee.  The Zoo is deep (literally!) into a huge construction project that will expand polar bear habitat and renovate all of Rocky Coast.  When the bears return in 2014 their living space will conform to Canadian standards which will allow for obtaining additional bears from Alberta – as many as six bears on site in all, with facilities for breeding.  The NC Zoo will become a world-class site for preserving the species.

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Conservation and preservation – along with education, these are the Zoo’s mission.  I’m struck as I visit each exhibit how often I see the red-lettered admonition “Endangered” beneath the species name.  The science fiction future is rapidly becoming reality when zoos are the only place on earth to see certain animals.  For me, one of the most wrenching exhibits is a seemingly unobtrusive outdoor sculpture by Roger Halligan titled, “The Stone That Stands in an Empty Sky.”  Just off the trail near the red wolves (how appropriate), a monolith rises twenty feet into the forest.  At its apex is a sculpted opening.  Stand at the proper angle and you see leaves and branches through the empty space, and then you recognize it: the full profile of the Carolina Parakeet.

Negative space.  To see, really see, when you first realize what you’re not seeing.  Almost eight million dollars for six bears.  Worth it?  It has my vote.

. . . whatever
won’t stop taking shape even though the whole
crazy quilt’s falling to pieces.

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Mountain Time

News travels slowly up here
in the mountains, our narrow
roads twisting for days, maybe years,
till we get where we’re going,
if we ever do. Even if some lonesome message
should make it through Deep Gap
or the fastness of Thunderhead, we’re not obliged
to believe it’s true, are we? Consider
the famous poet, minding her post
at the Library of Congress, who
shrugged off the question of what we’d be
reading at century’s end: By the year 2000
nobody will be reading poems. Thus she
prophesied. End of that
interview! End of the world
as we know it. Yet, how can I fault
her despair, doing time as she was
in a crumbling Capitol, sirens
and gunfire the nights long, the Pentagon’s
stockpile of weapons stacked higher
and higher? No wonder the books
stacked around her began to seem relics.
No wonder she dreamed her own bones
dug up years later, tagged in a museum somewhere
in the Midwest: American Poet — Extinct Species.

Up here in the mountains
we know what extinct means. We’ve seen
how our breath on a bitter night
fades like a ghost from the window glass.
We know the wolf’s gone.
The panther. We’ve heard the old stories
run down, stutter out
into silence. Who knows where we’re heading?
All roads seem to lead
to Millennium, dark roads with drop-offs
we can’t plumb. It’s time to be brought up short
now with the tale-tellers’ Listen: There once lived
a woman named Delphia
who walked through these hills teaching children
to read. She was known as a quilter
whose hand never wearied, a mother
who raised up two daughters to pass on
her words like a strong chain of stitches.
Imagine her sitting among us,
her quick thimble moving along these lines
as if to hear every word striking true
as the stab of her needle through calico.
While prophets discourse about endings,
don’t you think she’d tell us the world as we know it
keeps calling us back to beginnings?
This labor to make our words matter
is what any good quilter teaches.
A stitch in time, let’s say.
A blind stitch
that clings to the edges
of what’s left, the ripped
scraps and remnants, whatever
won’t stop taking shape even though the whole
crazy quilt’s falling to pieces.

Kathryn Stripling Byer
North Carolina Poet Laureate 2005-2009

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Wilderness is essential in the lives of children. I mean essential,
like edible food, drinkable water, breathable air. I cannot imagine
a decent, sane and healthy life without it.
Edward Abbey

When our grandson Saul was born we bought a framed poster for his nursery: mother and child giraffe, very similar to the photos we’re seeing from the NC Zoo of Juma (born July 6).  We actually thought it might be a little scary for a small child, the huge animal bending to lick the head of the youngster, and we were actually a little surprised that Allison and Josh hung it directly over Saul’s crib.  It’s still there.

Last week I was playing with Saul, now four, in the living room while Linda prepared to go to the grocery store.  She had her hand on the front door when she looked back over her shoulder and called to us to come QUICK!  A four-foot long black rat snake was undulating across the dining room (Pantherophis obsoletus, I think – I didn’t really handle it to examine the finer details).  It froze when it sensed her.  Until Saul and I came running in, that is, when it tried to escape back down the basement stairs.

I should have come to the Zoo two weeks ago, because there’s a poster at the Streamside installation that diagrams how to get a snake out of your house.  I cornered it with a broom while Linda brought me a plastic bucket.  The snake actually seemed quite relieved to be in a dark, enclosed space with a bucket over it.  I scooped bucket and all into the end of a cardboard box, and then we made a little expedition down the block to the edge of the woods.

Saul stood right beside me while I slowly lifted the bucket.  The snake climbed the side of the box easily, its body extending a full foot or more before it cascaded down into the grass.  Saul remarked at how the tall grass moved from side to side as Mr. Snake slithered out of sight into the woods.  A four-year old naturalist.

When Allison came to pick Saul up that evening we weren’t really intending to inform her about the adventure (would she ever accept an invitation to dinner again?), but Saul is Mr. Story-teller. Once the truth was out his Mom asked him, “Were you afraid?”

“No!  My favorite animals are giraffes, kitties, and snakes!”

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Augury

Tonight my father cupped his hands and blew
into their hollow sphere and brought to life
the long wild resonant cry
of country boyhood, owl-haunted evenings
and the dark modulations of distant hounds,
fluttered his fingers throbbing into memory
those sobbing whistles hunting down the rails
my childhood dreaming in the restless city.

And as my children wondered cupping their hands
to capture that primeval mimicry
of all that haunts and heightens our precarious sense
of living rooted in immemorial time,
I saw my father new, and shared his knowing
the secret of our give and take of breath:
live long enough to know that we are dying,
hand on with tenderness and dignity
our resonant art
the long learned call
of trumpeter man.

 Ann Deagon

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In a few minutes I’m heading down to the soon to be completely renovated KidZone in the Zoo.  I’m presenting a lunch time poetry workshop for the staff – we’re going to each write a “persona poem,” in first person in the voice of an animal we love or identify with.  An imagination stretcher.  It’s the same workshop I’ll be doing with children tomorrow.  Who will be most convincing at assuming the persona of an animal?  On the other hand, who hasn’t taken the voice of the Three Bears or the Big Bad Wolf or other Wild Things when reading to son, daughter, niece, nephew?  What’s the opposite of “anthropomorphize?”  Here’s an opportunity not only to be a spectator to wildness but to express the wildness within ourselves.  I cannot imagine a decent, sane, and healthy life without it.

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In her bio in the anthology Word and Witness, Ann Deagon remarked that she didn’t begin writing until she was forty, “when that three-headed dog love death and poetry took me in its teeth and shook me.”  She subsequently published six collections of poetry and has written fiction and plays.  She taught Classics at Guilford College and has been the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Literary Fellowship.

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 Keep a green tree in your heart and perhaps a songbird will come.
Chinese Proverb

It’s five o’clock.  The waterbuck and Thomson’s gazelle single-file it to their nighttime holding. Moms with strollers and jostling teenagers single-file it for Akiba exit.  I lean against the railing at Rhino as the breeze freshens and a suggestion of thunder growls to the south.  The last guest in the Park ignores his cell and joins me.

The great horned beasts are standing now, three of them in the distance across the browning field, the vast male turned profile to us.  First time I’ve actually seen them move – today’s rain popped July’s hot bubble and the rhinos now seem willing to forsake their shade.  The man eyes my camera.  “Bet you can really zoom in on them with that lens.”

“No, it’s not really much of a telephoto.  I got a good look with these, though.”  I fish my binoculars out of my pack and hand them to him.

He thanks me and sighs.  “I love the rhinos.  I came just to see them.  Oh, I love all the animals, but I really wanted to get a good look at the rhinos.”

Now all three are moving across our field of vision, a slow parade for the man who loves them.  He watches them out of sight.  At last he returns the binocs, thanks me again, and hustles toward the exit.  Tomorrow he and his family are on to Wilmington, but today he’s had his moment.

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It was raining this morning, but I couldn’t go back to sleep.  I called Zoo Com and got permission to enter the Park early.  By 7:30 I had walked past bellowing alligators in the cypress swamp and crept to the edge of marsh (just below North America Plaza).  It was still sprinkling.  A yellowthroat sang.  Barn swallows perched at the tips of tall reeds in between their insect forays. Then in the world of muted green and gray something larger moved.

A green heron was perched on the lowest branch of a dead bush at marsh’s edge.  No, two green herons!  The lower one assumed hunting posture while the second, perched higher, preened.  My camera doesn’t have much of a telephoto; I would just have to watch them.  It was all I could do.  Bullfrogs and leopard frogs played a counterpoint duet.  The yellowthroat sang and sang from low in the water grasses.  Swallows flashed their ruddy chins and forked tails.  And the two herons acted as if their rapier bills, their fencer’s stance, and their plumage, hunter green and bronze, were just the most natural things imaginable.

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Pine Lake at Twilight

Whispering Pines, NC 1975

In the afterglow of February sundown
I hear the honking of two migrating ducks
over-flying our home –
fore-flyers of the flocks to come.

They swoop down over the pine-rimmed lake,
land on water, join the wintering mallards,
the pintails and widgeons feeding here
on the corn we spread at water’s edge.

The air tonight is soft as the lapping water,
sweet with songs of indefinable
pre-spring waking, quiet as the maples
lining the inlet to the pine-rimmed lake,

their branches reddening, swelling to liven
with starbursts of strange red-brown
tree flowers.  Something of last year’s
dying is in the air, swelling to ripen anew.

Even as we do.  We go from one year,
one love, one life, to another,
knowing spring will unfold us, summer
fly us, autumn flay us, till our veins

burst with longing to understand,
and we drop down – to lie with mosses
and fungi – under layers of leaves,
flexing our muscles on stone.

Mary Belle Campbell

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Mary Belle Campbell was a devoted supporter of poetry in North Carolina, influencing a generation with her teaching, her encouragement, and her support of the NC Poetry Society and its endeavors.  She endowed the NCPS Brockman-Campbell Award, which has been bestowed upon such notable poets as A.R.Ammons, Charles Edward Eaton, James Applewhite, Fred Chappell, and many others.  When Peg, as she is known, was in her nineties she made a donation to become a lifetime member of the NC Poetry Society.  Our memories of her thrive.

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“I love all the animals.”  I believe you, rhinocerous-loving man.  I do, too.  But the birds I can just watch and watch.  There are Eastern Bluebirds nesting beneath the eaves just outside my window at Schindler Learning Center.  I hear the cheeping each time they bring an insect to the nestlings (like every five minutes); sometimes one parent will perch on the Handicapped Parking sign with a beakful while waiting for the other to finish at the nest.

This drizzly morning at Dragonfly Pointe I heard a familiar gravelly rattle across the water and spotted a Belted Kingfisher ascending to his surveillance vantage in a dead snag.  In just a minute or two he swooped down and caught a small fish; he carried it to the far shore of the lake to eat while swallows accompanied him.  Harassing?  Fighter escort?  They gave up when he reached his perch.

Yesterday at Oak Hill (a picnic area above Hippo Beach) I heard a Red-Shouldered Hawk with a somewhat tentative call.  Hmmm . . . suspicious.  Sure enough, soon enough two Blue Jays flew out of the huge white oak, one of them assuredly the mimic.

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For an hour or so this evening after all the visitors had vacated the Park I sat and wrote these comments.  It was after 6:00 when I left – as I passed Forest’s Edge, a raccoon was hunkered down in the giraffe’s high-mount feeding trough.  He looked quite sheepish when he realized I’d spotted him.

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This afternoon Ellen and Christa showed me a secret or two about how the magic is done.  Master welder, painter, and fabricator, Christa is one of seven sculptors who work in the design section at the NC Zoo.  We had just been looking at models of the new polar bear exhibit that will open in stages over the next two years.  I noticed a lichen-encrusted slab on the work table.  I picked it up.  It was a light sheet of some composite material painted in layers – I’ll still swear it was lichen.

Christa said, “When the visitors don’t even notice that the stones are hand-made, then we’ve done our job.”

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Does that mean that the Zoo’s mission is to create illusion?  No, the mission is to transcend and transport:  to transcend illusion and transport the visitor into a larger reality.  It is no accident that the sections have titles like “forest edge,” “African plains,” “rocky coast.”  In one day’s stroll you can enter all these  habitats and, for however briefly, become part of that which makes each place unique and notable.  And you get to see wild animals.

It’s called education.  The mission of the Zoo is to teach.  In five hundred acres or five hundred thousand acres the Zoo can’t conserve the world, but if we who come here to share the lives of these creatures gain even a glimmer of understanding and compassion, then we may become engaged in conserving the world for all creatures.  And for ourselves.

So why poetry at the Zoo?  The displays and installations are already various and superb.  They employ photographs, diagrams, puns (“just lion around” indeed).  You can walk right into a bush-copter hanger, a chimpanzee research station, a jungle, a desert.  Why do you need poetry?

Poetry can teach in a way that exposition and rhetoric cannot.  You are shaken by an unexpected metaphor.  You are halted in your tracks by an arresting image.  Poetry has slipped through the bars of your logical, calculating mind and has begun to teach directly to your heart.  Maybe, just maybe, you are transported into a larger reality.

You don’t even notice you’re being taught.  Poetry has done its job.

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Advice for Long Life

Keep simple, as simple as you can.
Like the heron who stands one leg on the sand.
Like the maple who stands one leg on the land.
Like the robin who, thirsty, gargles the worm.

The spider is simple if the web is not.
The tern is simple in a watery spot.
To be flexible, fluid, adored as a druid,
cryptic, mystic, blessed, lurid,
love simple as you can.

Plural by purpose, design, and make,
the effort to give is the urge to take.
Keep a hambone of joy at your right side.
Live broad, long, deep, wide,
but ride simple as you can.

Imitate wind and creep of dark –
as much as you can, the natural stark,
sun-driven crops and gradual shoat,
a frog spilling basso from a plum-blue throat
at river’s edge.  Be simple if you can.

 Anna Wooten-Hawkins

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Anna Wooten-Hawkins grew up in Kinston, North Carolina and received her MFA in creative writing from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She was a poet and professor of English at Gardner-Webb University, and later at Campbell University, St. Mary’s College, North Carolina State University, Peace College, and Meredith College. Her accomplishments include being the faculty editor of The Lyricist at Campbell University and coordinating the annual Muse Literary Festival at St. Mary’s College. Before her untimely death in 2000, Anna won many honors for her poetry. Her collection “Satan Speaks of Eve in 7 Voices After the Fall” won the 1986 North Carolina Writers’ Network Chapbook competition in 1986. In 1985 she received the City of Raleigh Arts Commission Award for her excellence in writing and service to the arts. Some of her works have appeared in The Green River Anthology, The Lowlands Review, The Lyricist, The Greensboro Review, and Pembroke Magazine.

(from http://www.uncg.edu/aas/ccwa/AnnaWHawkins.html)

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Today my friends and fellow poets Guy and Carolyn York stopped by to see me at the Zoo.  If you’re intrigued by the Hippo Beach sculptures, that’s where we’re holding our adult workshop on Saturday, 7/14, at 10 a.m.  As Robert Frost would say, “You come too!”

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One more postscript:  on July 6 the Zoo was blessed with a new arrival.  Juma (means born on Friday) weighs 150 pounds and is 72 inches long.

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Saturday I was talking to a friend who lives in the woods.  I mean really in the woods.  From his kitchen window he can watch the pristine little creek twenty yards down the hill. Every so often a blue heron wades past.  Where an old tree has blown down a gray fox crosses the creek.  Pretty wild.  And yet as we were talking he noted his regret that he never sees whippoorwills any more.  Hasn’t heard one in ten or fifteen years.

Yesterday morning I left Elkin at 6:30 to get to the Zoo plenty early.  They’ve just finished a year-long project widening a stretch of 421 through Winston-Salem, and you know how a fresh roadway cut looks: planed-off angle of clay sown with chemicals and sprouting grass monoculture.  Just before the new exit ramp, at 7:15 in the morning as the city revved up, a female wild turkey strolled blithely along finding the odd beetle or something worth bending over for.

Pretty wild.

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Today I was privileged to meet with Dr. David Jones, Director of the NC Zoological Park.  Before assuming the post here in Asheboro he was director of the London Zoo.  He has worked with animals in more countries than I know the names of.  His photographs of Africa appear in many of the interpretive displays around the Park.  And the curators and staff he has assembled are equally impressive.

This evening Dr. Jones presided over the dedication of a new outdoor sculpture (installed along the trail up to Sonora Desert).  Piedmont Totem is a pottery tower created by students and instructors at Montgomery Community College, a series of nineteen cylinders stacked into a column.  Each piece intertwines native piedmont creatures and plants, beginning at the bottom with tadpole, fish, roots and culminating at the top with eagle and owl.  As Dr. Jones pointed out, when viewed as a whole the work embodies the interconnected web of life.  And as he emphasized, the primary mission of the Zoological Park is to have visitors discover those interconnections, and to feel themselves connected as a part of the web as well.

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I blame people’s cats for the loss of whippoorwills, ground-nesters who depend entirely on camouflage for survival.  Then again, maybe the raccoons are eating the whippoorwills’ eggs because the raccoons’ predators have been extirpated as varmints (may we hope that the coyotes that have moved into the countryside will eat the raccoons?!).  Or maybe it’s all the skunks’ fault, since  the only thing that will eat a skunk is a great horned owl, and I haven’t been hearing nearly as many owls lately, either.

Or maybe this whole interwoven web is so complex that every thread we disturb leads to three more unravelings.  Who’s to say we can do without any of them?

But I still wish you’d keep your cats indoors, damn it.

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The Clouded Leopards of Cambodia and Viet Nam

They are gone, almost, into the music of their name.
The few that are left
wait high and hesitant as mist
in the tallest trees where dawn breaks first.

Their color of mourning kindles
to patterns of stark white, random
and sudden as hope or daydream.
Moving, they could be mirrors of the sky,
that play of masks
behind which the ancient burning continues
to dwindle and flee.

Thousands of years in their bones
leap blameless as lightning toward us.
To come close to what they know
would feel like thunder and its silent afterword.
We would turn slowly on our shadows, look up
again to tame the shapes of the world:
monkey, temple, rat, rice bowl, god,
images echoed in the smoke of village cookfires,
in the drift of memory on the faces of elders.
We would stand in the clean footprints of animals,
holding like an offering our hope
for the lives of a handful of people,
a rain that is only rain.

Betty Adcock

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Asked in an interview what she hoped for in her poetry, Betty Adcock replied “to tell the truth and find that it is music.” Living all her writing life in North Carolina, she as won many literary awards including the Brockman-Campbell Award of the NC Poetry Society, the Roanoke-Chowan Award, the Sam Ragan Fine Arts Award, the Raleigh Fine Arts Award, a Fellowship in Poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a North Carolina Individual Artist’s Fellowship.  Her most recent volume is Slantwise (LSU Press, 2008).

http://bettyadcock.com/links.html

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Brave families at the NC Zoological Park today: heat index topping 100, no respite cloud, scant breeze, water fountains running low.  Even the rhinos and bongo (antelope) had sense enough to find a patch of shade and not budge from it.  But Zoos are made for families, and a good chunk of mine showed up to join me on my first afternoon as Poet-in-Residence.

My kids are 30+; Margaret said she couldn’t remember ever going to the zoo,  Josh said his last trip was in seventh grade, Allison has fond memories but they’re getting pretty fuzzy.  Jimmy and Dana (Allison’s parents, Josh’s in-laws) and I reminisced about the zoos of our youth and how much things have changed.  But four-year-old Saul didn’t need to philosophize – he kept us laughing repeatedly with his hoots of amazement at every new wonder.  The park was closing as we literally dragged him away from the underwater viewing of the harbor seals, and even rides on the tramand the bus had his eyes popping.  And I honestly don’t recall any complaints about the heat.

It’s not just the old cliché about seeing the world through the eyes of a child. It is something deeper, something that is ingrained in our heredity, essential to our lineage.  Something without which we wouldn’t have survived as a species.  Shall I call it the desire to give our children joy?  It is certainly a self-reinforcing phenomenon, a positive feedback loop:  when I see the awe on Saul’s face as he places his hand against the hand of the baby chimpanzee on the other side of the glass, I just want to keep offering him more of those experiences.  More and more.

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This poem by Peter Makuck captures for me the yin and yang of this sort of desire for our progeny.  We want to protect them from suffering – they will nevertheless experience sorrow.  We want to convey to them whatever meaning we’ve discovered – they will have to discover it for themselves.  My grandson is the apple, all potentiality and sweetness.  I am the stiffening branch.  I can only hope the ground I leave him, when he falls, is fertile.

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 My Son Draws an Apple Tree

I watch it grow
at the end of his dimpled hand
rooted in white paper.

The strokes are fast
and careless, as if the hand
had little time.

Quick black trunk,
a green crown and in the white
air all by itself

a red splotch,
an apple face with a frown
that is his

he gravely says
looking up at me — the stiffening
branch he falls from.

Peter Makuck
from Long Lens, New & Selected Poems, © 2010 by Peter Makuck, Boa Editions, Ltd.
American Poets Continuum Series, No. 121

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Peter Makuck lives on Bogue Banks, one of North Carolina’s barrier islands.  He was the first Distinguished Professor of English at East Carolina University, where he taught for thirty years until retiring in 2006.  While at ECU he founded and edited the nationally-respected journal Tar River Poetry.  He has influenced a generation of North Carolina poets and writers.

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Sometimes when the latest Audubon arrives in the post I dread reading it.  Unsustainable logging in old growth forests in Oregon threatens the marbled murrelet.  Ground water depletion by development in the San Pedro watershed (the major undammed river corridor in the entire intermountain West) may destroy twenty years of conservation gains.  American eel populations have declined ninety percent in the past four decades because of obstructing dams in Eastern rivers.

Does it ever seem to you that we humans just can’t get along with the other species on this planet?  The neighbors cats have eaten most of “my” house finches.  Just one careless chicken farmer upstream on the Big Elkin Creek is enough to silt up what could have been a decent trout stream.  Last week we had to replace about forty yards of sewer line on the steep ridge behind our house, plowing under at least a tenth of an acre of prime wild red raspberries.

I walked along the scraped red clay and exposed roots under the power lines down to the manhole where our sewer ties into the city.  Given the previously impenetrable briars, it was a new perspective on our little four-acre plot in the woods.  I hadn’t realized how massive that sentinel white oak had become in the thirty years we’ve lived here.  It has a Virginia Creeper hanging from it as thick as my arm.  And since the backhoe has knocked down a dozen or so gangly box elders, there’s enough sunlight seeping into our backyard that I’ve sown a pound of wildflower seed . . . after my daughter Margaret and I had picked about a pint of raspberries from canes we’d never been able to reach before.

In New England, a naturalist named Chris Bowser has set up a citizen stewardship program using net-filled PVC pipe to lift eels above the dams and enable them to complete their migration.  My friend Bill Blackley and a local crew are building hiking trails and restoring Big Elkin Creek to make it trout-worthy.  Virginia letter-carrier Rita Shultz has installed a hundred and ten bluebird houses along her route (in her time off) to prevent the birds from nesting in newspaper boxes, and prevent people from tossing out the nests, eggs, chicks and all.  And since February loggerhead turtles, piping plovers, least terns – and dozens of other nesting species – have a safer home on Hatteras Island: the National Park Service issued a new rule that allows off-road vehicles on 28 miles of shoreline, preserving the other 39 miles for wildness.

We might just get to go on living next door to critters.  We might just be able to pump from our hearts enough compassion for critters to make a place for them to go on living next door to us.

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Bubble

The heat hunkers trenchant, loud.
Lilies are budding on the lake.
Calf-high grass quivers.

He has wanted this moment to exist:
the insect flares blue on a sticky branch,
opening and closing, the size of his hands.

He heart pumps a bubble over the world:
it holds.

Mark Smith-Soto
© 1990 by Trans Verse Press.

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Mark Smith-Soto is professor of Spanish at UNC Greensboro and has been chairman of the Department of Romance Languages.  His poems appear frequently in the monthly magazine Sun.  He has served as editor or associate-editor of International Poetry Review since 1992.  His first full-length book of poetry, Our Lives Are Rivers , was published by Florida University Press in the summer of 2003.  Born in Washington, D.C., Mark grew up in his mother’s native Costa Rica.

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The photo of Jordan’s red-cheeked salamander (Plethodon jordani) was taken near Clingman’s Dome along the Appalachian Trail in 2003.  The cute little Appalachian cottontail (Sylvilagus obscurus) eating jewelweed beneath the stand of bee balm was at Cosby Knob Shelter on the AT (also GSMNP)  in 2007.

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