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Posts Tagged ‘nature poetry’

[with poems by Donald Hall and Charles Martin]

Have you ever imagined, while walking a well-worn woodland trail, simply stepping off into the forest? What if you moved just ten feet, twenty, into the trees? Would you be standing on a spot untouched by human feet for years? Decades? Forever?

I considered this years ago when I led, with my son Josh as co-leader, a little crew of Boy Scouts on a 10-day canoe trek in the Boundary Waters Wilderness of northern Minnesota. We camped each night on the shore of different lake. Some mornings (sunrise 0400) while they still slept I walked away from the water into the trackless forest. Did the last human rest on this lichen crusted boulder more than a hundred years ago, a French voyageur taking a break from trapping? A thousand years ago, a young Anishinaabe scout hunting meat for his village? Ten thousand years ago?

Now Josh spends every day it’s not raining trekking the Blue Ridge & foothills as a surveyor. When did a human foot last jump this creek or climb this unforgiving steepness? This corner marked by a chestnut ten feet in girth – today Josh must discover the remnant of its stump. How long must the earth rest from the tread of human feet before all sign of our passage is erased? How far is it from here to the middle of nowhere?

Last Saturday I joined a trail crew to maintain a little section of the Mountains-to-Sea trail near Elkin. The MST is a work in progress – departing Elkin hiking east, you follow Rte 268 most of the way to Pilot Mountain. Our day’s assignment was an orphan – 1 ½ miles of footpath leading away from the road and on through the woods with no trailhead or connectors. Probably no one had walked this way since it was last maintained in 2020.

Everywhere a little sun penetrates the undergrowth thrives: Goldenrod, Burnweed, Wingstem, Boneset, all manner of grasses native and exotic – summer asters up to eight feet tall, especially through the Duke Energy right-of-way beneath power lines. Add obstructions from grapevine, Smilax, fallen trees and in one single year the trail had become impenetrable, almost disappearing except for the white circular MST blazes on the trees.

In a few more years it might have lead to the middle of nowhere. Which is how you get to the middle of everywhere. Which is the trail I want to walk.

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Surface

The surveyor climbs a stonewall into woods
scribbled with ferns, saplings, and dead oaktrees

where weltering lines trope themselves into stacks
of vegetation. He sees an ash forced around a rock

with roots that clutch on granite like a fist
grasping a paperweight. He stares at hemlocks

rising among three-hundred-year-old sugarmaples
that hoist a green archive of crowns: kingdom

of fecund death and pitiless survival. He observes
how birch knocked down by wind and popple chewed

by beaver twist over and under each other, branches
abrasive when new-fallen, turning mossy and damp

as they erase themselves into humus, becoming
polyseeded earth that loosens with lively pokeholes

of creatures that watch him back: possum, otter,
fox. Here the surveyor tries making his mark:

He slashes a young oak; he constructs a stone
cairn at a conceptual right-angle; he stamps

his name and the day’s date onto metal tacked
to a stake. His text established, he departs

the life-and-death woods, where cellular life keeps
pressing upward from underground offices to read

sun and study slogans of dirt: “Never consider
a surface except as the extension of a volume.”

Donald Hall

from Poems for a Small Planet: Contemporary American Nature Poetry. Edited by Robert Pack & Jay Parini, A Bread Loaf Anthology, © 1993, Middlebury College Press.

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Both of today’s poems are from Poems for a Small Planet, edited by Robert Pack & Jay Parini. This next one by Charles Martin stuck to my soul like beggar lice – I’ve imagined myself stuck in a dry spell for the past several weeks. I can’t resist the epigraph by Randall Jarrell, one of North Carolina’s most luminous poets. While waiting for lightning to strike I’ll learn to endure the rain running off my chin.

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Reflections after a Dry Spell

++++ A good poet is someone who manages, in a
++++ lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be
++++ struck by lightning five or six times.
++++ — Randall Jarrell

And the one that took this literally
Is the one that you still sometimes see
In the park, running from tree to tree

On likely days, out to stand under
The right one this time – until the thunder
Rebukes him for yet another blunder. . . .

But the one who knew it was nothing more
(That flash of lightning) than a metaphor,
And said as much, as he went out the door –

Of that one, if you’re lucky, you just may find
The unzapped verse or two he left behind
On the confusion between World and Mind.

Charles Martin

from Poems for a Small Planet: Contemporary American Nature Poetry. Edited by Robert Pack & Jay Parini, A Bread Loaf Anthology, © 1993, Middlebury College Press.

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[My immense gratitude to the Elkin Valley Trails Association for imaging, creating, maintaining, and improving the Mountains-to-Sea Trail from Stone Mountain State Park to Elkin and onward east through Surry County, North Carolina. And for inviting this lunkhead with a shovel to join in.]

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2016-10-17a Doughton Park Tree

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[with 3 poems by Shelby Stephenson]

While I sit with Dad in the hospital we make a checklist of everything we need to do to close up the house. He had a TIA last night – “a little health problem” is how he’ll describe it to the agent at the News & Observer to explain why he’s canceling his subscription. His scans show no stroke. We wait for the doctor to discharge him, then he’ll take it easy (will he?) for a few days while I do laundry and winterize the cottage in Pine Knoll Shores, avoid the Labor Day traffic for the drive back to Winston.

Check lists. Dad already has a dog-eared collection, each one another page on his yellow pad. I create an updated list on my phone while we wait – first entry, “check Dad’s check lists.” When we finally buckle in on Tuesday and tick off the last item we will have accomplished something.

Or so I want to think. The next five hours in the car generate their own list: find accessible bathrooms, some roadside shade for the lunch we packed. Damn, forgot to give Mom a COVID mask at the rest stop. Unload, unpack, raid the freezer for supper. Make sure we’ve sequestered all the medical records for his appointment with his local doctor.

When I shoot a macro of a flower I want that anther tack sharp, but the blur of stem and leaves hinders identification of the species. Hey, I know all these lists I make are just to keep me hopping from one moment’s task to the next but I see the big picture. I read Dad’s echocardiogram and joke that he’s 94 in the body of an 80-year old. I know there’s a check list whose final box is his final breath.

But then flip the page. Another list. At the top: Remember. Let me tell you all the stuff we talked about on that drive home.

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[TIA – transient ischemic attack: a brief episode of decreased brain perfusion
that may herald an impending stroke]

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The Local Falls

When I come home I walk to Middle Creek
through thirty minutes of springtime bushes
to where the Mouth of Buzzard Branch trickles
with water to bridge the bubbly rushes.

Dangling their legs, a few bank-fishermen
mumble to Chub Robin full moon in May,
cigars and cigarettes in roll-your-owns,
eyes on lead-lines for bottom feeders they

bait with grub-worms dug behind the outhouse.
They fish too with fat swamp-worms freed from mud
near head of Cow Mire’s spring, a pudding-souse
Time works into clumps like huge Angus cuds.

All’s quiet: Daddy sets a turtle-hook
and baits it with chicken guts, one motion
as he stabs the stob, slings the cord the brook
settles, waffling under his location.

His hands gather Nature’s complete cunning.
Love allows for fresh food on our table,
His tongue, lips, face, limbs, and actions winning
affection of his wife, my mother, Maytle.

He’s gone; I help turtles cross Sanders Road.
Interstate-40 whizzes loud nearby.
Every waking day’s a different load.
What glory warriors must have wooed with sighs.

Pollution’s out of honor and our shame.
The sunfish’s eyes bloat like old eyes.
They wear bumps like my psoriasis (blame
chemicals on crops – fertilizers).

I bid the owl keep me pitched with tenor
to carry this: run blue-tailed swamp-rabbit?
I hear the beagles yow-yowing: Jake Mills
says those rabbits taste like the swamp run-off.

Shelby Stephenson

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These selections are from more, by Shelby Stephenson; Redhawk Publications, Hickory, North Carolina; © 2020 Shelby Stephenson. Used by permission of publisher.

A new book by Shelby Stephenson in his 82nd year is an anchor to the past and a beacon to the future. His lines settle you down and hold you fast like the mud near Cow’s Mire spring. His lines open your heart to love, death, redemption – to all of life. His lines advocate for the heritage of language and the language of heritage spoken in unflinching truth. There is no sentimentality here. And woven through each poem is the music of his tenor cum baritone – never forget Hank Williams! – and the gentle humor that wraps an arm around your shoulder and lets you know you’re welcome here.

Shelby has been professor, editor, NC Poet Laureate, minstrel, and most of all traveling ambassador of the word. If you’ve met him or heard him, you’ve been encouraged to read more, to write more. During years of submitting to Pembroke Magazine while Shelby was editor, I came to treasure his rejections, hand written on a tiny slip, invariably with a message like “not quite, Bill, but keep trying.”

Shelby Stephenson still lives on his family farm, Paul’s Hill; his family has “owned” it for generations. Shelby always adds those quotation marks. It must be quite a lofty hill because from there Shelby seems to be able to survey and discern all of human nature, as well as animal and earth nature. His poems may nest in the springtime bushes near Middle Creek but they fly over the countryside and lighten all the sky. He reminds me of North Carolina’s second Poet Laureate, James Larkin Pearson (1879-1981), who in his poem Fifty Acres (1937) sees all the world from his home in Boomer, Wilkes County, NC.

I’m just beginning to see a bit myself.

More please, Shelby – more!

 

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Circling Sonnet Number Two

You call it “realistic” that we should stay
where we are, you among your friends for life
and I, here, on Paul’s Hill miles away
from you and the very feel of a knot
sanctimonious ceremonies would
sour tightly sweaty aspersions barren
of Discord and Disdain and just a ton
of regret that we two should let heaven
outstrip all praise for earthly things and fame.
The easy new is not décor but blood
turned jelly in emotions and refrain.
Your reputation may dull those whose load
might turn both sides from love’s scent
if we do not sound out Love’s instrument.

Shelby Stephenson

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For Robert Frost

When you came to Memorial Hall to read,
Your black coat made your white shirt muss your hair,
As if you were standing outside in wind.
In a speech class I presented a “there”
in “Birches,” letting music in your lines
Lead the way of conversation in rhyme.

I did not try to imitate you, as ome would.
That crackle down in your throat, the doting
Tone seeking for you that turn in your woods,
When you paused, said someting about the road
You took that made for you the difference.
You reminded me of Luke the Drifter,

One of my childhood heroes who brought me
To songs and music, along with sermons
That wadded the pulpit at my Rehobeth
Primitive Baptist Church, yes, the come-ons,
A Brother, never a Sister, lining
Off a hymn for me in perfect timing.

I had never been to a poetry
Reading, by the way, would not have been there
Except for Charlie Whitfield who barged in
My dorm room in Lewis, saying, “Shelby,
You want to see a cadaver?” (Charlie
Was studying hard for medical school.)

I was silent; my mind flashed to Rehobeth,
Mortality, death, promises, and grace,
While there beside a long scalpel she lay,
Uncovered, more naked that a fish, scaled.
I said, “Charlie, let’s get out of this place.”
We arrived at The Hall; I sat blank-faced.

A few years later I failed the law; my
Memory never did lose your presence.
I bought easements, rights-of-way, for towers
Around New Hampshire, saw birches bending,
And boulders sunning, plus those rambling walls,
And I could hear you leading me, always.

Shelby Stephenson

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2016-10-17a Doughton Park Tree

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[with 3 poems from ecotone]

Several winters ago I built a trail behind our house down the steep wooded slope to Dutchman Creek at the edge of our property. In the forty years we’ve lived on these four acres the trees have grown to spread interlocking arms into a canopy of deep shade; the impenetrable blackberry thickets have marched along elsewhere; deer have eaten all the poison ivy. Now to reach the creek there is only the steepness to contend with.

There was no obvious tread for me to follow except a deer trail I adopted for one leg of one switchback. It took a month or two of Saturdays to rake, hack, hoe, and level about an eighth of a mile of narrow footpath. Even on cold days I shed layers. Sweat and sore shoulders – gifts for Saul, Amelia, and Bert. They will climb back up the hill from throwing rocks in the creek without the scratches and itches their Dad and Mom endured.

As that winter began to fade I returned to the trail to pace its length and decide where to widen, where to stack more native stone for steps. Just into the woods beyond the powerline right-of-way, just before the first switchback, the litter of last autumn’s leaves was dappled white. I knelt to see. Tiny delicate petals, notched fingertip leaves – rue anemone; about a dozen plants blooming to border my trail and nowhere else down the slope. No, wrong, let me restate that. Not my trail – the grandchildren’s trail. The earth’s trail.

 

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Anemonella thalictroides — Rue Anemone

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ecotone is published by the Department of Creative Writing and The Publishing Laboratory at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. The ecology of the featured poetry, essays, and fiction is described in the journal’s apt defining statement: ecotone (n) – a transition zone between two communities, containing the characteristic species of each; a place of danger or opportunity; a testing ground.

These selections are from ecotone number 29, fall/winter 2020, “The Garden Issue.”

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Invasives

The love we walk around with is a dull
tool – though it hangs from our belts with a rusty grace,
like planets expertly wired in a model of space
that slowly turns when whoever built it pulls

some secret string. The other love, the cold,
sharp one, the one that keeps a quiet place
behind our lungs, is harder to see, its face
(some tools, of course, have faces) unreadable.

But I know it, in my life, from the way it makes
me see the lovely world as lovely. Rain,
bull thistle, rabbit tracks, a friends’ face, even,

might be its face. Or does it have your face? a lake’s
face? a galaxy’s? Or phlox? the profane
honeysuckle or maybe tree-of-heaven?

Nathaniel Perry

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Pavement

Arlington, Virginia

Asphalt, bituminous, concrete, cement –
the whole place is case-hardened, carapaced.
The air shimmers with heat; tree roots can’t breathe;
no poured libation seeps down to the dead.

When we were children, this was open ground,
farm field once, where we scraped and scrounged, intent
on grubbing up that other world, the past.
Old wounds – the Minié ball, the arrowhead –

spat blood here. Now the grimy runoff seethes
into the storm drain from the parking lot.
This is the way we cloak our own unease,
muzzling what the cracked clay might have said.

The pavement lies tight-lipped, impenitent.
The scabrous memory writhes here, underneath.

Maryann Corbett

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Nectar

Here, late in August, when even the bean fields
are heavy with pods, it is blossoms that I want,
not the fruit of the season, not the acorns

and buckeyes that the squirrels are carrying off.
I want nectar, the death-defying food of the gods,
honeydew, or the distilled winelike sap of apples

and pears, anything intoxicating enough to make
an insect eat in spite of summer storms, three days
of wind and cold, enough to blow us all off course.

Trapped indoors, twelve, fourteen, now sixteen
monarchs cling to the mesh in the far corner
of the cage where the sun last appeared.

I’ve exhausted my garden, already raided
the parks, brought home coneflowers and
daisies, clover and black-eyed Susans.

Pulling on muck boots, I drive to the ditches
looking for goldenrod, and blue-eyed grass –
all the stuff the makes my family sneeze.

I want the best that the earth has to offer,
not the produce, but the promise of immortality,
that these butterflies, through their children

and grandchildren, will live forever, will fly away
and rise again among the Texas bluebells, will mate
and return to us each spring. I crush an orange,

garnish it with flowers, set a butterfly on the sticky
rim of the saucer. I roll out her proboscis
until it touches the sweetness, and she drinks.

Cathryn Essinger

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Photographs by Bill Griffin. Header Art by Linda French Griffin.

 

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2020-09-08b Doughton Park Tree

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[with 2 poems by Robert Pack]

If we keep it we’ll have to kill it. My Daughter-in-law is holding the whelk she’s discovered in the shallows near Lookout Bight off Shackleford Banks. Knobbed whorl, indigo interior of striped nacre, bigger than a baby’s fist – she suddenly drops it back into the water. The shell’s inhabitant has shifted its operculum and startled her as it crawls across her palm.

She picks the shell back up and we lean close as she turns it over and over. Perfect. Beautiful. We can’t keep it or kill it, elegant gastropod, primal sea snail. I remember Nana boiling the big shells she gathered from the sound below her house but I don’t recall ever eating conch chowder, only the procession of pink and tangerine lining her sun porch, mother-of-pearl inside but intensity steadily fading through the years.

What can we keep? What can we take with us? Not life. Maybe just the things life has touched. Sixty years later I still hold Nana’s conch shells in memory. I still see my Mother bending to capture a lettered olive rolling in the surf (while all I spot are shards). Tomorrow I will still hear my Granddaughter’s laughter as she splashes across the sandbar to see what her mother has found, and I will watch them together lower the magical creature back into the brine.

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These two selections are from Robert Pack’s All One Breath (Green Writers Press, Brattleboro, Vermont, © 2019). Many of the poems live intimately with nature, whether wild Montana where Pack lives now or the New England of his memories. Some of the poems are stories peppered with wit, unexpected turns and outcomes, subtle puns. I laugh at loud at some of his poems, tear up at others. The entire book, seems to me, weaves the thread of connection from place to place, from life to life – nearing the end of life, Bob Pack teaches us what we carry, what we can keep, what we might leave for others.

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Bear Grass Interval

++++ At roughly ten year intervals
this globe of minuscule white flowers
clustered on a dense green stalk
appears profusely in the vernal woods
of mountain-range Montana,
so the entranced observer stares
at what appears to be
a galaxy of stars that has now drifted down
and settled softly on the earth.
++++ Ask anybody who has witnessed
this phantasmagorical display,
and they will swear
that they have never seen
a spectacle so tranquil
and serenely beautiful.
++++ Yet I imagine beauty
here on earth does not
originate in the beholder’s eye,
but dwells out there inherent
in the humming universe
as one of Plato’s fundamental forms
beyond the realm of time and space
that still can harmonize discordant thought
and woo the tides of the recumbent air.
++++ You ask how this far-out belief
affects my life; am I
less self-absorbed and less defined
by personal diminishing
to primal and concluding nothingness?
++++ Perhaps if everyone would pause
to gaze upon the Bear Grass flowers
glowing on the mountainside,
and view them as if willfully designed,
a combination of sweet symmetries
and startling randomness,
then they would feel less separate,
less lonely, less irrelevant, content
to play the quiet role of witnesses.
++++ But now, right now, the galaxy
of Bear Grass flowers is not visible
and will not reappear
for an uncertain interval,
assuming earthly time
still measures disappearances,
the emptiness lost love and friendship leave
forever achingly behind.
++++ I do not know if I’ll endure
another interval – a wandering
beholder of the momentary woods –
until Bear Grass returns to grace my sight
and holds there, astounded
and suspended in delight

Robert Pack, from All One Breath, Green Writers Press, Brattleboro, Vermont, © 2019.

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Sandhill Cranes Dancing
++++ ++++ ++++ for Patty

++++ At dawn the Sandhill cranes, their heads
splashed vivid red, initiate
their mating dance, circling each other
on long, narrow legs tanning their huge, gray wings
in slow, dreamlike deliberation.
++++ They throw sticks from their pointed beaks
into the air to flaunt their mating skills.
Their whooping echoes out across
the same dew-sparkled field
where they’ve returned each spring
for twenty years since we, my wife and I,
initially began to keep our watch.
++++ A forest ranger we’d not met before
stops by our house to ask if we have seen
the grizzly bear tracks in the mud
beside our border stream. He tells us that
the constellation Ursa Major will
appear tonight effulgent
right above us in the northen sky
and that he likes to stay awake at night,
with just his telescope for company,
to calculate how long it takes
red-shifted light to reach the earth.
“My favorite is melancholy Saturn,”
he declares and its attendant moons,
each one with its own orbit, hue, and size.
“My hope is that I’ll find a hidden moon
that no one has observed before;
it would preserve my name.”
++++ He says that stars right now are being born
and burning out, collapsing on themselves,
that due to universal entropy
in maybe fifty-billion years
all matter will thin out and dissipate,
so that no memory and no
intelligence – none would survive.
++++ And even I, who own no telescope,
can comprehend terminal emptiness;
it’s no less thinkable than is
next May without our being here to watch
the cranes perform their dance as if
their tossing sticks into the dawn
and catching them might signify
that everything returns again
to re-enact past happiness.
++++ Yet in our bones we know that soon
our bearing witness must conclude,
just as the green field must turn brown,
which it, alas, has been designed to do.
So let us pause again in misty light
to watch those red crests blur and disappear
above the waving trees, and listen hard
as medleyed crane calls float away
and fade into a murmur in the air.

Robert Pack, from All One Breath, Green Writers Press, Brattleboro, Vermont, © 2019.

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[Note: When I was growing up my family used the word conch to refer to every big spiral gastropod on the North Carolina shores and sounds. What we were actually finding, usually just pieces of their shell in the ocean surf but the living, crawling creatures in Bogue Sound, were whelks. The big ones, true whelks, are in the family Buccinidae, but whelk is also a common name applied to various unrelated varieties of sea snail. The true conch, family Strombidae, lives in Florida and farther south; again, many unrelated species of sea snail in different families are also colloquially referred to as conch. Whatever you call them, discovering a complete unbroken abandoned shell on the beach is worth a big whoop and holler.]

Photos by Bill Griffin. Header art by Linda French Griffin.

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2020-11-03a Doughton Park Tree

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[with two poems by Robert Pack]

We almost didn’t walk that extra trail. It was noon when my grandson and I finished the 3.3 mile Elliot Coues loop at Fort Macon State Park. Across the salt marsh we’d watched egrets glide and settle; crouched for fiddler crabs and ducked for banana spiders in the maritime forest; climbed the highest dunes on Bogue Banks for a view of Beaufort Inlet. Now we were sweaty, parched, almost back to the car when we came to the little afterthought of a side trail.

We almost didn’t walk down to the sound and around the tannic pond. Almost passed without noticing the sleek ratsnake where it eyed us motionless from the bank before it glided back into the sedges. Almost didn’t turn up the short spur to discover the ibis ignoring us, nonchalant, preening.

Almost didn’t but we did. Maybe my grandson will remember saying, “Come on, Pappy, that’s enough pictures,” or maybe he will remember the glistening head, jewel eye, periscope neck while we waited a full minute for the snake to flick its tongue a second time.

Rat Snake, Elaphe [Pantherophis] obsoleta

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For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth the beasts; as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they all have one breath. +++++++++Ecclesiastes, Three

My introduction to Robert Pack was as co-editor with Jay Parini of Poems for a Small Planet: Contemporary American Nature Poetry (1993). This year I bought his most recent book, All One Breath (Green Writers Press, 2019). Bob Pack has been called one of America’s best “nature poets” but the “nature” of his poems opens its arms wide to embrace every human experience. Perhaps that’s the final task of poetry: to acknowledge and explore every thing we have in common with each other and with every creature, particle, planet.

These two poems speak to me as old guy who wants to show my grandkids all I see. And as young guy still with everything to learn.

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Crossing the Bridge

++++++++++++For Stanley Bates

++++When old age shall this generation waste,
++++Thou shalt remain in midst of other woe
++++Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou sayest:
++++Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty,
++++That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need
++++to know.
++++ ++++from “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” John Keats

And now it is my generation
that has gone to waste.
I have outlasted my best friends;
no one is left but me
and this elusive, talking urn.
So I will play along with this
engaging fantasy as if
the late philosopher Stan Bates
and his exploratory mind were here
to tease me with the concept of
statically engraved eternity
and help me to distract myself
from the engulfing sense of emptiness
by thinking about thinking while
assuming thought is able to
protect us from the thoughts we think:
discoursing with a meditative urn,
conversing with you when you are not here.
I will interrogate the urn
by asking what it means by its
notorious and enigmatic claim
that Truth and Beauty are identical,
and I’ll conjecture that the far side
of the urn, the side I cannot see,
shows a tableau of a familiar scene
in early spring of a carousing stream
still edged with a fine filigree of ice
and highlighted with puffs of mist
like miniature ghosts. Across the stream
a tree has fallen like a walkway
for a spirit, should he need a passage
to the undepicted shrubbery
beyond the sleek stones on the other bank.
The spirit is, of course, invisible,
as you are now, but I can hear
his wafted flute notes as he passes by
in lilting harmony with the swirled stream’s
incantatory whispering –
as Keats could hear soft sweetness in
the silence of those “unheard melodies”
and I can hear you praising the audacity
of Keats’s baffling paradox.
I’m guessing that you would agree that this
impressionistic woodland scene
is beautiful and I’d be pleased to have
the urn give it artistic permanence,
but since all permanence is an
illusion, the urn’s vain assertion
in undoubting certainty
cannot be true, yet knowing that
it is not true – nothing is true
that does not change and disappear –
surely is true, despite our wish that we
might be less permanently sorrowful,
and sorrow no more than a shadow
on fresh snow, the murmuring of wind
amid the drying meadow grass.
But I cannot delude myself or long
be unaware of the surrounding emptiness,
pretending that you’re here and we
are entertained by speculating what
the urn might understand about
our need for solace in its offering
of friendship to its onlookers.
Stan Bates, philosopher, is gone – he is
not here on earth to quip he is not here.
Consummate connoisseur of classical
conundrums, maestro of mimetic mirth,
steadfast, devoted, generous – it’s true,
as well, he was a realist of woe
for whom grief was the bond for all of us.
And I think that it is beautiful.
There is a slender, sloping bridge
of wooden planks and wooden rails that I
have crossed a thousand times on my way home
and paused to watch the white-tailed deer
come out to drink, arpeggios
of water sliding silver from their lips,
and I can recollect those seasons when
determined beavers made a dam
and built a hutch, a perfect dome
Euclid himself might have designed,
and once at dusk, but only once,
I saw a pygmy owl swoop down
on soundless, outstretched wings
to snatch a vole beneath the snow,
his golden eyes like harvest moons
whose radiance delineates the dark.
I’d need a million, eulogizing urns
to keep such earthly memories alive,
even for just a fleeting interval –
as if, dear Stan, they could be kept for you.

Robert Pack, from All One Breath, Green Writers Press, Brattleboro, Vermont, © 2019.

 

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Giving Thanks

Two ponderosa pines define
the entryway that leads –
this clear and midday afternoon –
down to the shore of Holland Lake.
My son helps lift my outworn body
over the smooth gunnel of our fishing boat,
and off we go in the direction of
the gliding loons who dip and disappear,
leaving behind the lilting echoes
of their melancholy calls.
Framed by a could, and eagle
streaks toward its enormous nest
above the forest maze
and misty labyrinth.
++++ The mountain on the lake’s far side
offers meadow of gold Balsamroot;
a pregnant doe lifts up her head,
pausing at the water’s boundary.
About four boat lengths past
the swirl where the resounding waterfall
foams out and merges with the lake,
a cove reveals a beaver’s hutch
remarkably symmetrical –
each branch and twig packing into place –
suggesting some unchangeable design
has been revealed to me.
Simply to look, to hold in memory,
was all that my senses needed to achieve,
and all wished-for contentment could embrace.
But not quite so – such satisfaction
left still more to be desired:
++++ I needed to express
imagined gratitude
for pulsing light reflected from
round purple stones that murmured
with the undulating tide.
I needed to bestow high praise,
as if such praise could be received
and sheltered safely in the forest haze;
I needed to give thanks for symmetry,
and all its variants
in the unfolding Aspen leaves,
in the emerging needles
nearly shining row by row
on the awakened Tamaracks.
I needed to commend
the shaded slopes and crevices
for their fine tints and multimarked hues;
I was uplifted and impelled
to offer unrequited praise
for the melodic interlude
of disappearing loons –
as if such mournful singing was
and unanticipated gift beyond.

 

Robert Pack, from All One Breath, Green Writers Press, Brattleboro, Vermont, © 2019.

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Needham’s Skimmer, Libellula needhami

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Photos by Bill Griffin. Header art by Linda French Griffin.

 

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2020-11-03b Doughton Park Tree

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[with poems by Dana Gioia, Eric Tretheway, Raymond Carver]

Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.
++++++++++++ — Wendell Berry

Upstream a hemlock is dying. Riparian giant, it drops needles, roots loosen, and during a thunderstorm it crashes. No more cloak of deep shade for the musical first order stream. Warming water can’t carry oxygen. At the next rainfall the current clouds with silt.

Stonefly and mayfly nymphs smother. Every gilled thing diminishes. Shiners depart their riffles or starve. Brookies follow.

We are all downstream. Maybe the hemlock was maimed by acid rain, sulfur oxides from a power plant 500 miles north. Maybe it couldn’t withstand the attack of invaders (adelgids) from 5,000 miles east. Maybe cycles of heat and drought had robbed its resilience.

All connected. Not a metaphor – a gut truth. That first order stream feeds the Chattahoochee and Atlanta’s millions drink. This morning I made my coffee from a cloud stalled over the Blue Ridge. We are all downstream. Watchful, listening, thirsty.

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Stonefly nymph, shed skin after emergence of adult

 

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Becoming a Redwood
++++ Dana Gioia

Stand in a field long enough, and the sounds
start up again. The crickets, the invisible
toad who claims that change is possible,

And all the other life too small to name.
First one, then another, until innumerable
they merge into the single voice of a summer hill.

Yes, it’s hard to stand still, hour after hour,
fixed as a fencepost, hearing the steers
snort in the dark pasture, smelling the manure.

And paralyzed by the mystery of how a stone
can bear to be a stone, the pain
the grass endures breaking through the earth’s crust.

Unimaginable the redwoods on the far hill,
rooted for centuries, the living wood grown tall
and thickened with a hundred thousand days of light.

The old windmill creaks in perfect time
to the wind shaking the miles of pasture grass,
and the last farmhouse light goes off.

Something moves nearby. Coyotes hunt
these hills and packs of feral dogs.
But standing here at night accepts all that.

You are your own pale shadow in the quarter moon,
moving more slowly than the crippled stars,
part of the moonlight as the moonlight falls,

Part of the grass that answers the wind,
part of the midnight’s watchfulness that knows
there is no silence but when danger comes.

from The Gods of Winter. Copyright © 1991 by Dana Gioia. Graywolf Press, St. Paul, Minnesota, http://www.graywolfpress.org. Reprinted in Poems for a Small Planet: Contemporary American Nature Poetry. Edited by Robert Pack & Jay Parini, A Bread Loaf Anthology, © 1993, Middlebury College Press.

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Resurrection at West Lake
++++ Eric Tretheway (1943-2014)

Ringed by dark palisades
of spruce and this cold, black
bowl of water, I understand again
about words, how folded wings

can open, lift into flight:
love, when it batters us,
or death, when we sense its swoop,
a wendigo stirring in shadows.

This one-crow sky leans on my bowels.
My eyes are admonished
by witch fingers of naked poplars
forming their mute adjurations.

And social voices fall silent too:
crows, chickadees, whiskeyjacks
contain their clatter, squirrels
grow mute as pinecones.

Up on the ridge behind me
thin, bone-white remnants
of the deepest snowdrifts glow,
skeletal under the hackmatacks.

Out of these enigmatic evergreens,
around imponderable granite mounds,
beneath one flapping black rag
of crow, spring’s surge begins again.

from Poems for a Small Planet: Contemporary American Nature Poetry, edited by Robert Pack & Jay Parini, A Bread Loaf Anthology, © 1993, Middlebury College Press.

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Whitetail Shiner, Cyprinella galactura

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Three days is about the longest I could live without water. You too. Aquatic ecology – it’s all about us. For our final class exercise, Erin gives us twelve factors and has us draw lines to depict how each impacts the other. Swirls and waves and cycles. I used green ink to show beneficial effects and red for detrimental:

 

 

Add your own lines and circles!

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The River
++++ Raymond Carver (1938-1988)

I waded, deepening, into the dark water.
Evening, and the push
and swirl of the river as it closed
around my legs and held on.
Young grisle broke water.
Parr darted one way, smolt another.
Gravel turned under my boots as I edged out.
Watched by the furious eyes of king salmon.
Their immense heads turned slowly,
eyes burning with fury, as they hung
in the deep current.
They were there. I felt them there,
and my skin prickled. But
there was something else.
I braced with the wind on my neck.
Felt the hair rise
as something touched my boot.
Grew afraid at what I couldn’t see.
Then of everything that filled my eyes –
that other shore hung with heavy branches,
the dark mountain range behind.
And this river that had suddenly
grown black and swift.
I drew breath and cast anyway.
Prayed nothing would strike.

from POETRY, June, 1986. The Poetry Foundation.

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Measuring Turbidity — Little River

 

Measuring dissolved oxygen

 

Measuring pH

 

 

The Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certification Program is an adult education opportunity created and administered by Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Their mission – connecting people with nature. SANCP certification requires completing eight weekend-long courses; I took my first course, Birds of the Smokies, in May, 2017, and finished my final course, Aquatic Ecology, on July 25, 2021.

Many thanks to the ecology superpowers of Erin Canter, Manager of Science Literacy and Research and master of making connections; to John DiDiego, GSMIT Education Director; and to Jeremy Lloyd, Manager of Field and College Programs.

Field diagram by Bill Griffin. All photographs by Bill Griffin. Header art by Linda French Griffin.

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2020-09-08b Doughton Park Tree

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Warpaint Shiner – Luxilus coccogenis

[with poems by Robert Wrigley and Kenneth Rexroth]

Rheophilic. Current loving. The shiners and darters face upstream while the swift clear river fetches them good things to eat. Nymphs of dragonfly, stonefly, alderfly have hooks on their feet to creep after prey across the slick stones. Salamander larvae protected in the cobbles breathe oxygen washed over their gills by the flow.

And the most unexpected, the strangest, the most fully adapted to current: the water penny – one with the rock, clinger and creeper, beetle larva, flexible carapace completely shielding it from the torrent. One among multitudes in the punch and spray, swirl and eddy, immersed in the flash and grasp of water from which all make their living.

All things flow. The first ancestors of all mayflies clung or crept or climbed or burrowed and now there are 600 species of mayfly. Symbols and images spin an unbroken thread which if I think about it I call thinking. Words whirl into new meanings. Today we dunk our faces in the Middle Prong to share its life. Tonight the current will fetch us good things to dream. Tomorrow will be a whole new river.

[* 600 species of Mayfly in the United States, 3,000 species worldwide.]

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Anything the River Gives
++++Robert Wrigley

Basalt, granite, tourmaline, the male wash
of off-white seed from an elderberry,
the fly’s-eye, pincushion nubbins yellow
balsamroot extrudes from hot spring soil,
confetti of eggshell on a shelf of stone.
Here’s a flotilla of beaver-peeled branches,
a cottonwood mile the shade of your skin.
Every day I bring some small offering
from my morning walk along the river:
something steel, blackened amber with rust,
an odd pin or bushing shed by the train
or torqued loose from the track, a mashed penny,
the muddy bulge of snowmelt current.
I lie headlong on a bed of rocks,
dip my cheek in the shallows,
and see the water mid-channel three feet
above my eyes. Overhead the swallows
loop for hornets, stinkbugs, black flies and bees,
gone grass shows a snakeskin shed last summer.
The year’s first flowers are always yellow,
dogtooth violet dangling downcast and small.
Here is fennel, witches’ broom, and bunchgrass,
an ancient horseshoe nailed to a cottonwood
and halfway swallowed in its punky flesh.
Here is an agate polished over years,
a few bones picked clean and gnawed by mice.
Here is every beautiful rock I’ve seen
in my life, here is my breath still singing
from a reedy flute, here the river
telling my blood your name without end.
Take the sky and wear it, take the moon’s skid
over waves, that monthly jewel.
If there are wounds in this world no love heals,
then the tings I haul up – feather and bone,
tonnage of stone and pale green trumpets
of stump lichens – are ounce by ounce
a weight to counterbalance your doubts.
In another month there won’t be room left
on the windowsills and cluttered shelves,
and still you’ll see me, standing before you,
presenting some husk or rusty souvenir,
anything the river gives, and I believe
you will love.

from Earthly Meditations: New and Selected Poems by Robert Wrigley, © 2006, Penguin. Reprinted in The Ecopoetry Anthology, edited by Ann Fisher-Wirth and Laura-Gray Street, © 2013, Trinity University Press, San Antonio, Texas.

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Common Snapping Turtle – Chelydra serpentina

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Lyell’s Hypothesis Again
++++ Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982)

An Attempt to Explain the Former
Changes of the Earth’s Surface by
Causes Now in Operation — subtitle of Lyell: Principles of Geology

The mountain road ends here,
Broken away in the chasm where
The bridge washed out years ago.
The first scarlet larkspur glitters
In the first patch of April
Morning sunlight. The engorged creek
Roars and rustles like a military
Ball. Here by the waterfall,
Insuperable life, flushed
With the equinox, sentient
And sentimental, falls away
To the sea and death. The tissue
Of sympathy and agony
That binds the flesh in its Nessus’ shirt;
The clotted cobweb of unself
And self; sheds itself and flecks
The sun’s bed with darts of blossom
Like flagellant blood above
The water bursting in the vibrant
Air. This ego, bound by personal
Tragedy and the vast
Impersonal vindictiveness
Of the ruined and ruining world,
Pauses in this immortality,
As passionate, as apathetic,
As the lava flow that burned here once;
And stopped here; and said, ‘This far
And no further.’ And spoke thereafter
In the simple diction of stone.

Naked in the warm April air,
We lie under the redwoods,
In the sunny lee of a cliff.
As you kneel above me I see
Tiny red marks on your flanks
Like bites, where the redwood cones
Have pressed into your flesh.
You can find just the same marks
In the lignite in the cliff
Over our heads. Sequoia
Langsdorfii before the ice,
And sempervirens afterwards,
There is little difference,
Except for all those years.

Here in the sweet, moribund
Fetor of spring flowers, washed,
Flotsam and jetsam together,
Cool and naked together,
Under this tree for a moment,
We have escaped the bitterness
Of love, and love lost, and love
Betrayed. And what might have been,
And what might be, fall equally
Away with what is, and leave
Only these ideograms
Printed on the immortal
Hydrocarbons of flesh and stone.

from The Collected Shorter Poems. Copyright © 1966 by Kenneth Rexroth. New Directions Publishing Corporation, http://www.wwnorton.com/nd/welcome.htm. Reprinted in The Ecopoetry Anthology, edited by Ann Fisher-Wirth and Laura-Gray Street, © 2013, Trinity University Press, San Antonio, Texas.

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Stargazing Minnows grazing — Phenacobius uranops

Greenside Darter – Etheostoma blennioides

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The Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certification Program is an adult education opportunity created and administered by Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Their mission – connecting people with nature. SANCP certification requires completing eight weekend-long courses; I took my first course, Birds of the Smokies, in May, 2017, and finished my final course, Aquatic Ecology, on July 25, 2021.

Many thanks to the ecology superpowers of Erin Canter, Manager of Science Literacy and Research and master of making connections; to John DiDiego, GSMIT Education Director; to Jeremy Lloyd, Manager of Field and College Programs; and to all the educators and staff at Tremont.

Psephenidae field sketch by Bill Griffin. All photographs by Bill Griffin.

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Mayfly nymph – Order Ephemeroptera

Water Penny – family Psephenidae

 

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2020-11-03a Doughton Park Tree

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[with poems by Wendy Battin and A.R.Ammons]

We can hear them from the trailhead. By the time we reach the little pond they are so loud our ears are pounding. A slough, a seep, scarcely more water than you could spit across, but it holds maybe a hundred Cope’s Gray Treefrogs in full raw raucousness, along with the occasional plunk of a Green Frog or wheep of a peeper.

We can spot them in the beams of our headlamps – all males. They cling to reed and vine and branch, air sacs bulging and throbbing, true masters of circular breathing (that incredible noise erupts as the sac inflates, not deflates). Calling all lady gray treefrogs – this is a great pond, great guys here, come on in and we’ll make a great number of tadpoles. Did I mention LOUD!?

And then they stop. All at once every one of them just quits singing. All of our headlighting and capturing and inspecting over the past hour didn’t phase them. Why stop now? We turn back up the trail but within a few minutes one frog starts, then two more, and within seconds they’re all revved up and back in chorus.

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Frog. Little Eden.
Wendy Battin (1953-2015)

Amphibious, at home
on the surface

tension, in
over my head, not
out of my depth, not deep
deep deep,

not in far. Not
high and dry, not
even in treetops,
where I sing water
into the root-hairs.

It seeks me, will not
forsake me.
Hand over hand it climbs.
It breaks
the first law of water,

all for my song.
Into the trunk and up, it greens
the leaves that the leaves may be
-emerald me.
The leaves breathe it out and I drink,

then sing

lest the water forget to rise
and the world be kindling.

Wendy Battin, “Frog. Little Eden.” from Wendy Battin: On the Life & Work of an American Master. © 2020 by Wendy Battin.

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Cope’s Gray Treefrog, Hyla chrysoscelis

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Midnight in Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park – what could be more mysterious & magical? Just sixteen humans in all those pitch dark square miles in the company of charismatic megafauna (bears, y’all) and the millions of smaller creatures we’ve come here to notice. Get right down in the face of that American Toad: what a pout of grumpy sagacity. Grab that little Brownsnake, but gently: in its mind it’s three feet long. And while you’re noticing, don’t forget all the eyes in the shadows noticing you.

The lesson of Cades Cove is set it aside and let it be. Other than backcountry hikers, most of the Park’s 12 million annual visitors never venture more than a few yards from their cars. And none of them except us are in Cades Cove tonight. The little frog pond near the old church, or Gum Swamp, or the many other unique and remote habitats, they are all full of creatures free to be themselves, to slither by day or sing by night. We might glimpse a little of what gives their lives meaning. We might learn a little of our own.

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Gravelly Run
A. R. Ammons (1926-2001)

I don’t know somehow it seems sufficient
to see and hear whatever coming and going is,
losing the self to the victory
+++of stones and trees,
of bending sandpit lakes, crescent
round groves of dwarf pine:

for it is not so much to know the self
as to know it as it is known
+++by galaxy and cedar cone,
as if birth had never found it
and death could never end it:

the swamp’s slow water comes
down Gravelly Run fanning the long
+++stone-held algal
hair and narrowing roils between
the shoulders of the highway bridge:

holly grows on the banks in the woods there,
and the cedars’ gothic-clustered
+++spires could make
green religion in winter bones:

so I look and reflect, but the air’s glass
jail seals each thing in its entity:

no use to make any philosophies here:
+++I see no
god in the holly, hear no song from
the snowbroken weeds: Hegel is not the winter
yellow in the pines: the sunlight has never
heard of trees: surrendered self among
+++unwelcoming forms: stranger,
hoist your burdens, get on down the road.

A. R. Ammons, “Gravelly Run” from The Selected Poems, Expanded Edition. Copyright © 1988 by A. R. Ammons. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Reprinted in The Ecopoetry Anthology, edited by Ann Fisher-Wirth and Laura-Gray Street, © 2013, Trinity University Press, San Antonio, Texas.

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American Toad, Anaxyrus americanus

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The Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certification Program is an adult education endeavor of Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Their mission of connecting people with nature continues even during pandemics! The science-based instructional programs have evolved with science-based precautions and modifications to allow small communities to form for a weekend at a time.

Many thanks to John DiDiego, GSMIT Education Director, and to the awe-inspiring instructors for the July, 2021 SANCP Reptiles and Amphibians course, Dr. John Charles Maerz from University of Georgia, and his intrepid research assistant, Jade Samples. We crammed a semester’s worth of herpetology into 36 hours out of doors in the Smokies. (Did I sleep? Maybe a little.)

All photographs by Bill Griffin. Header art by Linda Griffin.

Dekay’s Brownsnake, Storeria dekayi

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2016-10-17a Doughton Park Tree

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[including poems by Mary Oliver and Bill Griffin]

Because they are themselves and we have begun to see that they are,
++++because we are not humble but have been humbled,
++++because we can’t begin to love ourselves until we love them,
++++because we can’t love them unless we know them,
++++because in a world that scoffs at the word “sacred” we have
++++++++ accepted a sacred calling,
for all these reasons and more we protect them from us.

We are going to count the salamanders in Dorsey Creek. Before we leave Tremont and hike to their watershed we spray our boots with weak bleach (to kill the Ranavirus). We wear gloves so that we don’t smear them with our own flora (they have a rich commensal surface bacterial that keeps them healthy). We touch them only briefly and hold them in water in bags, not in our hands (a scant few grams of flesh, thin and magical skin, even the heat of our palms would stress them). Just a few minutes to check for gills if they’re still larvae, to count their spots and markings, look for cheek chevrons, flip and inspect the tint of their bellies, then we take them back to the leaf litter or flashing stream where we found them. Perhaps each one may be counted again, perhaps dozens of times over a ripe salamander lifespan of 20 years.

And perhaps, rising from our knees with new names in our mouths (Desmognathus monticola, quadramaculatus, conanti) and something sacred in our hearts, perhaps we will see the world as if for the second time, the way it really is.

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Alligator Poem
++++ Mary Oliver (1935-2019)

I knelt down
at the edge of the water,
and if the white birds standing
in the tops of the trees whistled any warning
I didn’t understand,
I drank up to the very moment it came
crashing toward me,
its tail flailing
like a bundle of swords,
slashing the grass,
and the inside of its cradle-shaped mouth
gaping,
and rimmed with teeth –
and that’s how I almost died
of foolishness
in beautiful Florida.
But I didn’t.
I leaped aside, and fell,
and it streamed past me, crushing everything in its path
as it swept down to the water
and threw itself in,
and, in the end,
this isn’t a poem about foolishness
but about how I rose from the ground
and saw the world as if for the second time,
the way it really is.
The water, that circle of shattered glass,
healed itself with a slow whisper
and lay back
with the back-lit light of polished steel,
and the birds, in the endless waterfalls of the trees,
shook open the snowy pleats of their wings, and drifted away,
while, for a keepsake, and to steady myself,
I reached out,
I picked the wild flowers from the grass around me –
blue stars
and blood-red trumpets
on long green stems –
for hours in my trembling hands they glittered
like fire.

from New and Selected Poems, © 1992 by Mary Oliver, Beacon Press, Boston. Reprinted in The Ecopoetry Anthology, edited by Ann Fisher-Wirth and Laura-Gray Street, © 2013, Trinity University Press, San Antonio, Texas.

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Sorceress’ lizard, bellows breath, fire worm, winged dog – O, little salamander, how you inspire us with your magic! Pliny the Elder recognized that you are not a lizard but ancient Greeks still rumored that you quench fire with the chill of your body. The Talmud explains you are a product of fire and immune to its harm. Perhaps during the long winters of the Middle Ages you emerged miraculously from the log thrown onto the hearth to substantiate your reputation. Marco Polo believed your true nature to be an “incombustible substance found in the earth.” And let’s not forget the fearful excretions of your skin, poisonous enough to kill the entire village if you fall into the well, fundamental ingredient of witches’ brews, irresistible aphrodisiac.

Little wriggling Caudata, the reality of your nature is more wondrous than myth. You eat small things that would starve larger creatures and yet you thrive; your biomass exceeds that of all the mammals in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Your skin breathes – most of you don’t even have lungs! – and brews up a constellation of compounds that confound the biochemist. Some of you live 4 years with gills in the swift chill stream before becoming adults, others metamorphose within your eggs beneath forest duff and emerge fully formed, but all of you with your efficient ectothermic life plan grow and grow, make eggs, survive perhaps for decades. And Great Smokies holds more of your diversity than any other place in the world.

We are amazed! We students of SANCP Reptiles and Amphibians Course of 2021 are just astonished and awestruck. You are the coolest of the cool (ectotherms, that is)! We thank your Chief Sorcerer of Knowledge, Professor John Maerz, and Acolyte of Hands-On, Graduate Research Assistant Jade Samples, for sharing their lore, showing us how to find you, leading us to love you.

Salamanders – you rule!

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Salamander
++++ Bill Griffin

This is my gift –
++++++++ to change.
From Inadu Creek I leave behind
my frilly gills and climb
the spire of blue-eyed grass.
Having become a creature of air bathing
myself in dew, am I not still
a creature of water?

I invite you to discover
in each of my family our variations,
discern that every runnel, every spring,
every palm-sized cup of moisture
holds its lithe expectation, for this
is my gift to you –
++++++++ to notice changes.

I will let you lightly touch
the welcome of my smoothness
while I drink a little warmth
from your hand. Now count
the dapples down my length,
measure the blush of my cheek,

then find when you descend
the eastern face of Snake Den Ridge
those subtle alterations my cousins
are accumulating until finally
they acquire a new name.

And when you have returned me
to my bed of blue-bead lily, then touch
a smooth place within yourself
and carry with you into the world
++++++++ your own changes.

 

from Snake Den Ridge: a bestiary, © 2008 by Bill Griffin, March Street Press, Greensboro, NC. Illustrations and historical preface by Linda French Griffin.

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The Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certification Program is an adult education endeavor of Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Their mission of connecting people with nature continues even during pandemics! The science-based educational programs have evolved with science-based precautions and modifications to allow small communities to form for a weekend at a time.

Many thanks to John DiDiego, GSMIT Education Director, and to the awe-inspiring instructors for the July, 2021 SANCP Reptiles and Amphibians course, Dr. John Charles Maerz from University of Georgia, and his intrepid research assistant, Jade Samples. We crammed a semester’s worth of herpetology into 36 hours out of doors in the Smokies. (Did I sleep? Maybe a little.)

All photographs by Bill Griffin. Plethodon jordani on blue-eyed grass by Linda French Griffin. Header art also by Linda Griffin.

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2014-06-30a Doughton Park Tree

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Think of the wren / and how little flesh is needed to make a song.

[poem by Galway Kinnell]

The storm of the commonplace, does it grumble louder these days? The daily downstream of task and grind and conciliation, when did it become all fierce foam, rapids, never a moment to look up from paddling and glimpse a tree swallow’s emerald benediction? When did everything get so damn hard?

This morning there is too much inner clangor for me to pick up a pen, much less face a blank page. No, nothing “worthy” of recording: Who would care to read the quotidian health bulletins of my nonagenarian parents; to join me in ticking off one hundred and one conditions that need to be met before we can gather in person at church this Sunday; to listen to my inner dialogue with vaccine refusers and wonder if Linda and I will ever again feel safe singing with our regional chorus? Why worry about a little heat exhaustion working on the Elkin Creek trail tomorrow when the whole west coast is desiccating and blowing away?

Meanwhile outside dank vapors of rumination, mud of gray matter, rigid constricting cranium; meanwhile outside in the press of North Carolina foothills summer afternoon, starting to sweat just thinking about it; meanwhile outside no matter how hot, how thorny, how dispiriting . . . in the neighbor’s yard a wren is singing.

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Why Regret?
Galway Kinnell – 1927-2014

Didn’t you like the way the ants help
the peony globes open by eating the glue off?
Weren’t you cheered to see the ironworkers
sitting on an I-beam dangling from a cable,
in a row, like starlings, eating lunch, maybe
baloney on white with fluorescent mustard?
Wasn’t it a revelation to waggle
from the estuary all the way up the river,
the kill, the pirle, the run, the rent, the beck,
the sike barely trickling, to the shock of a spring?
Didn’t you almost shiver, hearing book lice
clicking their sexual dissonance inside an old
Webster’s New International, perhaps having just
eaten out of it izle, xyster, and thalassacon?
What did you imagine lies in wait anyway
at the end of a world whose sub-substance
is glaim, gleet, birdlime, slime, mucus, muck?
Forget about becoming emaciated. Think of the wren
and how little flesh is needed to make a song.
Didn’t it seem somehow familiar when the nymph
split open and the mayfly struggled free
and flew and perched and then its own back
broke open and the imago, the true adult,
somersaulted out and took flight, seeking
the swarm, mouth-parts vestigial,
alimentary canal come to a stop,
a day or hour left to find the desired one?
Or when Casanova took up the platter
of linguine in squid’s ink and slid the stuff
out the window, telling his startled companion,
“The perfected lover does not eat.”
As a child, didn’t you find it calming to imagine
pinworms as some kind of tiny batons
giving cadence to the squeezes and releases
around the downward march of debris?
Didn’t you glimpse in the monarchs
what seemed your own inner blazonry
flapping and gliding, in desire, in the middle air?
Weren’t you reassured to think these flimsy
hinged beings, and then their offspring,
and then their offspring’s offspring, could
navigate, working in shifts, all the way to Mexico,
to the exact plot, perhaps the very tree,
by tracing the flair of the bodies of ancestors
who fell in this same migration a year ago?
Doesn’t it outdo the pleasures of the brilliant concert
to wake in the night and find ourselves
holding hands in our sleep?

Why Regret? is from Strong Is Your Hold. Copyright © 2006 by Tom Galway Kinnell. Houghton Mifflin Company.

Galway Kinnell — Poetry Foundation

Galway Kinnell — Poets.org

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2014-07-13 Doughton Park Tree

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