The Cruellest Month

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

(from T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land)

April is also National Poetry Month. I’ve recently finished The Last Uncle, by Linda Pastan. I’ve read several of Pastan’s books of poetry, but this may be my new favorite. I loved many of the poems (and liked almost all of them). Here is one:


Because of the menace
your father opened
like a black umbrella
and held high
over your childhood
blocking the light,
your life now seems

to you exceptional
it its simplicities.
You speak of this,
throwing the window open
on a plain spring day,
after such a winter.

And I’ve just started Girlfriends and Wives, by Robert Wallace. I’ve read and enjoyed a couple of his other collections, and this one also promises not to disappoint. I decided I liked it right off the bat with the first poem:

Melinda Lou

Six, in ringlet curls,
on Normal Street,
your last name the same
as my maternal
grandmother’s maiden name,
you biked, played hide-
and-seek and kick-the-can,
played guns, played nurse
with me and Homer Ice,
gave me the bigger
punch-out Valentine,
and moved to Kansas.

The houses are still there
on Normal Street,
smaller by forty years,
and shabbier—
white bungalow, steep terrace
good for sledding,
where you lived. And you
are, once a decade
when I look, small, sweet
and golden in
the locket of my heart,
dead, or in Kansas.

And back to Linda Pastan. The Last Uncle ends with a longish poem, The Months, comprising a brief poem for each month resulting in an entirely wonderful poem that is greater than the sum of its parts. It seems fitting to end with


In the pastel blur
of the garden,
the cherry
and redbud

shake rain
from their delicate
shoulders, as petals
of pink

wash down the ditches
in dreamlike
rivers of color.

Happy Earth Day: The Loons Are Back!

I couldn’t let Earth Day go by without a little birding, especially when we had such a beautiful and sunny day. I headed over to Lake Nokomis because I had read reports of loons and grebes. Sure enough.


I love loons. The Common Loon (above, all photos from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology) is the Minnesota state bird. It has the most marvelous calls—beautiful and haunting. Listen especially to the wail and the tremolo (the first two). Think if that wouldn’t stand your hair on end the first time you heard it, just as you’re drifting off to sleep in your tent.

horned grebe

Also at Nokomis I saw several Horned Grebes. We pretty much only get them during migration in southern Minnesota, so I’m always excited to see them. Several were quite close to shore and I got some really good views.

After Lake Nokomis, I drove over to Lake Hiawatha, hoping to see some Red-Breasted Mergansers. I didn’t find any, but I saw several more loons along with a few Common Mergansers.

As I was driving around Lake Nokomis, it occurred to me how ironic it was that I was driving so much to celebrate Earth Day. (But I did want to see the loons!) So when I got home, I loaded my bike—which I haven’t ridden for about 10 years and which needs new tires and who knows what else—into my car. I’ve been saying I’m going to bring my bike to the shop for years. And this year—tomorrow—I finally will.

Next time I go to Lake Nokomis, I expect I will be riding my bike. A very happy Earth Day all around.

Sugar Beets, GMOs & Cargill: Are the Winds Shifting?

Winne bookI’ve recently finished Food Rebels, Guerrilla Gardeners, and Smart-Cooking Mamas, by Mark Winne. What most caught my attention in this book was a fight that took place in Boulder, Colorado, several years ago (the book was published in 2010). Not a fistfight; more of a showdown between the industrial food system and the alternative (be it organic, grass raised, free range, humane, or simply slow as opposed to fast). Here’s the deal: Six farmers asked the county for permission to plant genetically modified sugar beets on publicly owned farmland.

They held a public hearing. Of 58 citizens who testified, 47 were adamantly opposed. They were particularly concerned about “seed drift,” where GMO crops contaminate non-GMO crops (they don’t have to be organic to be contaminated by GMOs). A big concern about seed drift is that GMO food is unwelcome in a lot of markets (the European Union and China would be significant examples), and non-GMO crops that get contaminated by seed drift are no longer non-GMO, and cannot be sold in many markets (and to make matters worse, the non-GMO farmer is open to being sued by Monsanto for “growing” their crops).

One of the farmers was already farming 1,300 acres on public land. Of that, 14% was sugar beets (conventional seed), but they accounted for 32% of his income. And the farmer said,

By removing Roundup Ready sugar beets you have essentially delivered the death blow to another independent farmer.

Say what? The citizens didn’t want to deliver a death blow to a farmer. They just didn’t GMO sugar beetwant their public land planted with GMO crops. Public lands in particular shouldn’t contaminate other farmers. So what’s the big deal here? Just plant conventional crop like you have on the public land you’re already farming. That seemed rather obvious and the perfect solution.

Oh, a snag: The sugar beet farmers weren’t able to purchase conventional seed. Two years prior, 60% of the sugar beet seed on the market was GMO. At the time of their GMO sugar beet request, it was 95%.

Does that scare you? It scares the shit out of me. Farmers going out of business simply because they can’t purchase seeds that aren’t genetically modified? What kind of democracy is this?

Imagine if the entire world food supply was controlled by one or two persons. Or one or two companies. One of these companies would almost certainly be Cargill, practically in my back yard.

Oh, but who cares about farmers, anyway? Let’s talk about Cargill instead.

China has refused shipments of U.S. corn since November of last year because of GMOs (almost all U.S.-grown corn is GMO). This is a huge concern for Cargill, since China is the world’s fastest growing market for corn.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Cargill saw a 28% decline in earnings in the first quarter of the year, due primarily to the rejection of its GMO corn.

It would seem that the United States is pretty much the only country in the world that loves GMOs. Most developed countries have restrictions. (But then again, most developed countries have healthcare systems that cover pretty much everyone. I am thinking these two facts are not completely unrelated.)

However, if we want to trade with the rest of the world, we might want to produce the kind of products that they would like to buy. That makes sense, doesn’t it? If your trade partners don’t want GMOs, and most of your captive audience doesn’t want GMOs (52% think GMOs are unsafe while an additional 13% are unsure, according to an ABC News poll), you’d think that maybe the GMO winds are shifting. And not only because of seed drift.


And while I know little about the World Trade Organization, already I realize that wanting to please the potential customer is naive. There is no goodwill here. This is all about control. And Cargill has a lot of control. Including a lot of control in the World Trade Organization.

I have much to learn.


Spinal Poetry

I love books, I love poetry, and I love art. Sorted Books, by Nina Katchadourian, is all three. When I ran across this book of art, made from the titles of books, that is poetry (or perhaps a book of poetry, made from the titles of books, that is art) I was enchanted. It’s called spine poetry, book spine poetry, or spinal poetry—poems made from the titles of books. Naturally, I had to try it for myself.


Okay, not so very uplifting, but I love the flow. And to be true, I love the essence. On a more upbeat note:


The one I had the most fun with (this can be quite addicting):


And to end on a more tranquil note:


It’s fun to make poetry out of books. I whiled away two hours arranging and rearranging stacks of books. Very relaxing—almost a form of meditation. If you feel inspired to create your own, send me your spine poem and I’ll post it. Email:

Spring Migration

I’ve been too busy birding and just being outside to think about writing much. The springold cedar migration continues. Sunday morning Eliot and I went to Fort Snelling and Old Cedar in the southern part of the Twin Cities. Fort Snelling wasn’t so hot (though last year we saw two Barred Owls there, and it’s great for warblers come May). But at Old Cedar we had some fine luck. A huge overhead V—an extremely long and orderly V—turned out to be Greater White-Fronted Geese, with one errant Snow Goose mixed in.

Sandhill Crane

Sandhill Crane

We saw four Trumpeter Swans, two of them walking on ice. They are not the beautiful graceful birds on ice that they are on water, but it was a lot of fun to see. And we saw two Sandhill Cranes. I never expect to see Sandhill Cranes at Old Cedar (I go to Carlos Avery for my Sandhill Crane fix), but I’ve seen them two years in a row now at Old Cedar (in April).

We also saw Fox Sparrows, a Brown Creeper, Common Mergansers, Hooded Mergansers, and finally a Red-Bellied Woodpecker (which I’ve heard several times this year but this is the first I’ve actually spotted).

But the biggest thrill of the day was a Golden Eagle. Embarrassingly, I first thought it was a Turkey Vulture. I was trying to find the Brown Creeper, and I noted the huge bird which was way too uniformly dark to be a bald eagle (even an immature one), and assumed “Turkey Vulture” in about a nanosecond and went back to my Brown Creeper search. Then Eliot said, “Liz, that’s not a Turkey Vulture” and I looked: beautiful, tawny, Golden Eagle.


The first adult I have ever seen and a high point of my birding year, to be sure.

It is good to know what’s common and not—it’s usually a horse and not a zebra. This is generally a good rule in life and in birding. But don’t get too comfortable and confident.

Because sometimes it is a zebra. Or a Golden Eagle.

Job Vacancy Survey

I keep running across reports saying how education beyond high school is more and more important.

For example, the Governor’s Workforce Development Council put together this report, All Hands On Deck (originally published in 2010 and reissued in 2012) that states that 70% of Minnesota jobs will require education beyond high school by 2018 (p. 4).

So far, the data are not supporting that projection. At least according to the most recent job vacancy survey published by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED).

The job vacancy survey is a goldmine of information (published twice a year) and the most recent report (for 4th quarter 2013) shows the Minnesota economy continuing to improve. The 4th quarter saw 2.1 unemployed people for each job vacancy. This is down from 2.6 one year ago, and a huge improvement from 4th quarter 2009, when there were 8.2 unemployed persons for every available job. The median wage offered for these jobs is $13/hour. (The median is the midpoint, meaning that half of the jobs pay less than $13/hour.) A full-time job at $13/hour pays an annual wage of $27,040. But nearly 4 out of 10 (39%) of the available jobs are part time and 14% are temporary or seasonal.

job vacancies

But one of the most interesting facts is that only 38% of the jobs require education beyond high school. Hmmm. Let’s dig a little deeper. Perhaps that’s not surprising, when one looks at the occupations with the largest number of job vacancies:

  • Food prep and serving-related (median $8.01/hour; 73% part time)
  • Sales and related occupations (median $9.53/hour; 49% part time)
  • Office and admin support (median $10.96/hour; 41% part time)
  • Transportation and material moving (median $14.65/hour; 38% part time)

These four occupations account for more than one-third (36%) of Minnesota’s job vacancies. The educational requirements for all four occupations are low. They are highest for the office/admin jobs, but even there only 15% require education beyond a high school diploma or GED.

One of the great things about the job vacancy survey data site is that you can slice and dice the data, and get historical data as well. So I can get trend data on educational requirements. What I find is that for the last 12 years, the proportion of jobs requiring more than a GED or high school diploma has ranged from 38% to 45%. That is not a huge range. So here we are in 2014 (albeit with 2013 data), and just over one-third of jobs (38%) require any education beyond high school—the very same percentage that required higher education in 2002.

I’m having a really hard time seeing how that 38% is going to increase to 70% in four years after such remarkable stability over the last 12 years. Statistically speaking, it seems quite improbable.

Where in the world would such a misleading statistic come from? Oh. The report was sponsored by higher education.

March Reprise

Books. I read 19 books in March. Fewer than either January or February, which I take as an indication of fewer subzero days. Again, a lot of poetry (8), and just a tad more nonfiction (6) than fiction (5). There were no two-star books this month. (I have a rating system: Most books get nothing, meaning they were okay. Books that I like a lot get one star, and books that I love get two stars. Once in awhile—maybe two or three times a year—I read a book that I love so much it gets three stars.)

Literary labyrinthOut of the starred batch, the one I still think of most often is Walking a Literary Labyrinth, by Nancy M. Malone. She articulates the value of literature, and fiction in particular, so much better than I have done when put on the spot about reading fiction: “In fiction I come to know and understand people I may not have met otherwise. And thus I am persuaded to a more compassionate, generous, and loving response in my life beyond books.”

Cooking. March was a pretty good cooking month. New dishes:

  • Spaghetti sauce (this was really good on whole wheat spaghetti)
  • Italian herb mix (not a dish, but how convenient to have this great mix on hand of equal parts basil, marjoram, thyme, rosemary, sage, and oregano)
  • Pomegranate-clementine salad
  • Ginger jam
  • Beef barley skillet
  • Chili sauce (for use in barley skillet)
  • Raspberry corn muffins
  • Chili (I know I made it last month but it didn’t work—it didn’t taste like chili—but this time it did, which makes it a different dish completely)

The greatest success by far was the beef barley skillet (my first foray into barley, which I discovered I love, and happily my spouse does too). In addition to hamburger and barley there were parsnips, carrots, celery, and onion. The barley has a most excellent consistency—the best way I can think to say is “It holds its own.” I will be experimenting more with barley. A serious grain. The raspberry corn muffins were also very good.

I had no flaming failures this month, which I guess is a good thing. But I kind of like the failures. They make for good stories to tell, and you often learn more from the failures than the successes.

Herbs. I didn’t do much hands-on herb work this month. I studied quite a bit and added to the list of things I want to make, which got me to thinking of what I want to add to my garden this year.



I have never grown chamomile but I’ve become very fond of it in my herbal work (very gentle and soothing and yet powerful in so many ways), so I’m going to try that. And calendula (also known as pot marigold because it resembles the marigold plant) is completely new to me but it’s good for sunburn (dreaming here) and dry skin (oh yes), and it’s supposed to be easy to grow. So when I saw some seeds I decided to try them. I’ve planted the chamomile and calendula seeds in egg cartons and they are sprouting! It’s nice to have something green growing, even if it is less than an inch tall.

Other. The haiku challenge continues (fifth month) and I wrote nine blog posts (only one of them about haiku). We were invited to two dinner parties (more than we are invited to in an average year). Both were great fun with good conversation (which to me means books, politics, and religion).

We have started a bit of a Hitchcock movie binge, and I’ve particularly enjoyed Notorious and The Trouble With Harry (both of which were new to me). The library is a gold mine when it comes to movies.



Finally, the spring bird migration has started! Ice is out on the Mississippi River and Minnehaha Creek, and ducks are migrating. I’ve made a couple of trips to the lock and dam and spotted common mergansers, double-crested cormorants, greater scaups, redheads, and also a couple of turkey vultures. A couple of days ago two great blue herons flew overhead as I was chatting with my neighbors. Spring has sprung.