Hero: Terry Tempest Williams

BeautyI’ve just finished Finding Beauty in a Broken World, by Terry Tempest Williams. Not her most recent book, but one of the few that I hadn’t read. At times I struggled with this book. It covers three distinct (sort of) topics: making mosaics (she actually goes to Italy and learns this ancient art); prairie dogs; and the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

The book itself is a mosaic: Snippets of this and that, observations, occasional quotations, sometimes it flows smoothly and other times it’s bumpy and discrete. I decided early on to write about this book. But then I got bogged down in the prairie dogs and decided not to write, since Rwanda was still coming up and I was looking forward to that a bit less than the prairie dogs.

But like a mosaic, the whole of Finding Beauty in a Broken World is much more than the sum of its parts. When I finished it this morning, I realized it is one of her best books yet. (Although it’s possible I say that about all her books.)

I most love her writing and her love of nature. She spends a couple of weeks in Bryce Canyon observing prairie dogs as part of a research study. We get 110 pages of her observations (this is where I got bogged down a bit), much of it about prairie dogs but also the surrounding environment.

Cloud ships are sailing across the plateau once again. . . . Two pronghorn antelope passing through. Elegance on four legs.

More than merely beautiful, her writing is meaningful at the soul level. Terry Tempest Williams makes my soul cry, because she doesn’t hide from the broken parts of our world. Terry Tempest Williams also makes my soul sing, because she doesn’t ignore it, she takes it on, she raises her voice. At first bored with hours and days of nothing but observing prairie dogs and making notes, “slowly, hour by hour, panic and boredom became awe and wonder. I grew quiet.” She writes,

The degree of our awareness is the degree of our aliveness. . . . Much of our world now is a fabrication, a fiction, a manufactured and manipulated time-lapsed piece of filmmaking where a rose no longer unfolds but bursts. Speed is the buzz, the blur, the drug. Life out of focus becomes our way of seeing. We no longer expect clarity. The lenses of perception and perspective have been replaced by speed, motion. We don’t know how to stop. The information we value is retrieved, rarely internalized.”

And I learned a lot about prairie dogs. They are endangered but poorly protected. They are a keystone species because they have a major effect on biological diversity in prairie ecosystems. They have a significant language, including different calls for different species of predators. They can convey descriptive information about a predator, including size, color, and how fast it’s traveling. Their language includes nouns, modifiers, and the ability to develop new words. Seriously.

I also learned a lot about Rwanda (though I knew a bit more about Rwanda going in than I did about prairie dogs). Like the section on prairie dogs, there was some grisly, difficult reading. But again, she also finds beauty and hope.


Terry Tempest Williams

Should you start with this book if you haven’t read any Williams? I don’t know that I’d recommend it. If you are intrigued, I would start with Refuge, perhaps her most famous book, and then follow it up with When Women Were Birds. Published 21 years apart, both of these books involve Williams’s mother—her death from cancer in the first book, and the journals she leaves behind in the second. Both are extremely powerful and moving.

Terry Tempest Williams is my hero because of her words as well as her actions. She tells it as she sees it, doesn’t hesitate to jump deep into the experience, and then goes to work to see what she can do to help fix it. Finding beauty in a broken world.


forsythiaI saw my first red-winged blackbird on March 29 this year. The forsythia in my front yard was in full bloom on April 8. Every year, I notice the first occurrence of a few key things. Most often they signal the coming of spring.

This tracking of first occurrence is called phenology, and I’ve only just started it this year—the official tracking part, I mean. (I’ve always noticed when the lilacs bloom. I just didn’t think to record it.)

I’m a list maker from years back, and I’m shocked that it’s taken me this long to think of keeping a list of this nature. Everyone’s phenology list will be different, to be sure, depending on what things you notice and care about. I’m building mine, adding things as they occur to me or as I observe them with a click of significance. (Today I added “turned on the outdoor water spigot.”)

To date my list has 16 items. I expect it to grow. Here’s what I have so far:

Rhubarb emerges (This is my KEY indicator that spring is coming. Truth be told, it’s one of the primary reasons I grow rhubarb. So much life and beauty—and significant food—so early.) I missed the date for this, as I started recording far after initial emergence. Next year.

  • First red-winged blackbird: March 29cabbage
  • First great egret: April 1
  • First great blue heron: April 4
  • Forsythia in bloom: April 8
  • Catnip coming up: April 10
  • First butterfly (white cabbage): April 14
  • First bike ride: April 16
  • First bumblebee: April 16
  • Turn outside water on: April 26
  • First dandelion flower in yard: April 26

These are in the yet-to-occur category, but I know I will want to note them:

  • First white-throated sparrow
  • Lilacs bloom
  • First mourning cloak butterfly
  • First 90℉ day

This is a long-term project of course, but it’s already fun in the first year with no comparison data. It occurs to me that in future years I may add a “snow gone” category. But since we got pretty much no snow to speak of this winter, that didn’t occur to me. Pretty sure that oversight will be corrected by nature.

Looking ahead, I’m thinking of ants in the peonies and the first mowing of the lawn. Suggestions for the phenology list are welcome!

Mother Earth

mags2One of the things I’ve paid serious attention to in my reduced financial circumstances is magazine subscriptions. In my times I’ve subscribed to a lot of magazines—as many as 20 at once. Note, I rarely subscribe to weekly magazines (although Time, Newsweek, The Economist, and The Week have all had their moment in the sun). But monthly and quarterly magazines also pile up, and so do the costs.

And the waste. Sooner or later, I get to the point where I realize I either need to get rid of these unread magazines or become a hoarder. I’ve always the best of intentions when I subscribe, but with all the competition (i.e., books), the magazines tend to pile up. But I have always (at least in the past) been a sucker for a really good deal, so I will sign up for a year of The Atlantic or National Geographic for $10. Never mind that I never fully read even one single issue. And I’ve done it more than once.

So I have whittled my subscriptions down to two: Orion and Mother Earth Living. One for the earth, and one to help me step more lightly on the earth. I’ve just finished the March/April issue of Mother Earth Living (a good thing since I just got the May/June issue in the mail). I always learn something new with this magazine, but the March/April issue was particularly rich. To wit:

I learned that room deodorizers often contain formaldehyde (most especially spray and wick deodorizers). Ugh. Who wants to spray the living room (or kitchen!) with formaldehyde? So easy to make your own: water and a few drops of an appealing essential oil—thyme, tea tree, and oregano are suggested in the article. I have found I love a room freshener with several drops of sweet birch essential oil. I also add a bit of vodka because it mediates the oil and water. I didn’t invent it, I found it on the internet. Here’s a good example of a recipe and ideas for DIY natural air fresheners.

Mother Earth Living often suggests various uses for common household products. This time they offered 15 uses for coffee grounds. I produce coffee grounds every single day. They go very nicely on the compost bin, but I found these other surprising uses for them:

  • Refrigerator: A jar of open coffee grounds in the back of the refrigerator works as well as a box of baking soda.
  • Onion hands: When your hands reek of onion (or garlic or any other strong thing), rub them with coffee grounds. This will absorb the odor. I’ve tried this and it works!
  • Clean and de-stink garbage disposal: A teaspoon of coffee grounds and baking soda will clean the blades and clear out lingering smells.
  • Blueberry plants: Coffee grounds are acidic and very happy-making for acid-loving plants such as blueberries, tomatoes, roses, and hydrangeas. (I highlighted blueberries because I just got mine last year and that’s where I’ve been focusing my efforts. My hydrangeas seem to be doing quite well. But maybe I’ll give a few rounds to my poor struggling rose bush.)
  • Seed starter: Really? Yes! Coffee grounds help release nutrients such as nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus into the soil which is great for seedlings. (Keeping this for future use as I’m still abysmal at starting seeds. Oh, wait—chamomile seeds! Yes, I have just done it.)

I learned that you should plant shallots in early spring for a late summer harvest. I have missed that boat. I also learned more about German Chamomile (those would be the seeds I just put the morning’s coffee coffee grounds on), yarrow, and lemon balm.

containerAlso, here are some things you can grow in a one-gallon container: basil, parsley, marigold, chives, lettuce, and nasturtium. If you have five gallons of space you can go for tomatoes, cucumbers, and zucchini. Things that do well in planter boxes: pole beans, peas, Swiss chard, arugula, parsley, chives, kale, lettuce, basil. I am hoping to try at least two new things in each category this year. I’ve never tried growing vegetables in my planter boxes!

A final note. The editorial to this issue discusses intrinsic goals (e.g., personal growth, close relationships, contributing to community) and extrinsic goals (e.g., making a lot of money, possessions, status).

Dozens of studies show that the more people prioritize intrinsic goals relative to extrinsic, the more they feel alive and vital, and the more likely they are to experience pleasant emotions: In essence, they are happier. Those who focus their lives on intrinsic goals are also more likely to be helpful, prosocial and more concerned with ecological sustainability.”

Wow, it’s snowing again.

Garden Update

rhubarbMy rhubarb now has big leaves and is about 8” high. I raked out the herb garden and the catnip is coming in nice and thick, and cat Brody is very happy about that. (He cares not at all for dried catnip but is a fiend for fresh catnip. I think he looks forward to spring even more than I do!)

When I first raked out the herb garden, I thought I saw new growth on the lemon balm (a new perennial I added last year). But now there is no growth and I was either mistaken or I accidentally raked out all the new growth. I hope I didn’t kill it in a spring gardening frenzy.

The sage, on the other hand, is definitely coming back (the first year I’ve gotten sage to overwinter—possibly because I cut it back in the fall?) and I am really excited about that. I noticed this morning that the feverfew (also new last year) is also making a reappearance.

The currant bush is looking healthy and growing leaves, and one of my two blueberry plants (also new last year) is starting to sprout leaves. (The other has only a hint of one green bud, but I am quite hopeful that’s just the start of something beautiful.) The comfrey and St. John’s Wort are just starting to come in.

cactusThe cactus looks horrible. (A lot of people don’t know we have cactus in Minnesota, but we do!) However, it looked even more horrible last year and it came back and grew huge, so I am hopeful. I am still learning the ins and outs of cactus.

The raspberries are starting to leaf out and the lilacs have small leaves as well. I noticed just this afternoon that the lilacs also have tiny blooms! It will be awhile before we have flowers, and it will be fun to watch them grow. The hydrangeas are just starting to get (leaf) buds. I’ve started to deadhead them but I still have a ways to go. (I like to leave the blooms on over the winter because they provide nice visuals with the snow.) Once hydrangeas get going, they can be quite prolific!

The forsythia is losing its brilliant yellow blooms and leafing out nicely. The green-twig dogwood has leaf buds, while the red-twig dogwoods are lagging behind.

violetThe roses are leafing out, and those beautiful wild little violets that crop up in yards are blooming. No sign yet of sedum, peony, swamp milkweed, butterfly weed, columbine, or speedwell. On the other hand, yarrow is popping up all over the yard.

The chipmunk is back, and I’ve also seen three cabbage butterflies, one big fat bumblebee, and one wasp.

I expect I’ve forgotten a few things, so surprises will likely await me. Happy spring: Every day is an adventure!

Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers

sapsuckerYes, there really is a bird called the Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker. It’s a small woodpecker and they can be fairly common during spring migration. I saw one today from my front stoop. It was across the street. I was sure it was a Downy Woodpecker, but since it was the first thing I had seen that wasn’t a house sparrow, I looked at it through the binoculars anyway.

Not a Downy!

But definitely a woodpecker, and all that yellow! (Yellow not so common in Minnesota woodpeckers.) How did I know it was a woodpecker? Woodpeckers have characteristic behavior patterns on trees. They tend to walk up them, pecking at the wood. There are not a lot of birds that walk on trees (see also nuthatches and creepers), and if the bird you’re watching stops and pecks in a single place for a fairly long time (i.e., 30 seconds or more), there’s a good chance it’s a woodpecker.

And that wasn’t the only one I saw today, which made it a rather amazing day.

Eliot and I went in search of grebes and herons in South Minneapolis this afternoon. Excepting Pied-Billed Grebes, we totally struck out on the grebe front.

bcnh_robinseggBut as for the herons: jackpot! We would never have found them if not for the birder who saw us enter the park and asked if we were there to see the Black-Crowned Night Herons (yes, birders can be like this). He led the way. I assumed he was walking towards the lake. I’ve only ever seen night herons near or in water. Or possibly he was walking towards a marshy area. Nope. He pointed up. Up? There they were, bigger than life (I say that only because for some odd reason they seemed to me to be twice as large in the tree as when I’ve ever—and only—seen them on the ground). There were three of them, but I only saw two. Big, beautiful, and gorgeous.

Black-Crowned Night Herons, high up in a pine tree. I would never, ever, have thought to look for the heron in the tree. And after all that spectacular, we saw three more Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers.

I think I have learned many things today. I need to ponder them.

Spring in Minnesota

I love Minnesota. It’s snowing right now. It’s been raining much of the day (hurrah!), but around 5:00 a bit of snow was added to the mix and now it’s all snow. That big wet gloppy spring snow that won’t accumulate because it’s above freezing and getting into the 50s tomorrow. Still, I sit by the window mesmerized by the snow.

Oh! It’s good I sat when I did because it’s turned back into rain.

When I left the house to do errands this afternoon, it wasn’t raining at all (though we did get a very nice long slow rain overnight). Even though there was a light sprinkle on, I decided to loop around Lake Nokomis to see if any grebes were around. I planned to just drive around the lake, scanning to see if there was any birdish action. Birding by car.

So I get to the lake and immediately see a couple of waterbirds fairly close to shore (they are so often in the middle of the lake or—more my luck—on the other side of the lake no matter which side of the lake I’m on!). I hop out of the car and of course they start swimming out as soon as they spot me spotting them. It was raining harder and they were difficult to see and of course they kept diving. I am still not sure what they were. merganser

I stopped again not so very much later, seeing another pair of birds rather close to the shoreline. These were readily identified—Red-Breasted Mergansers—a pair of them. Mergansers are beautiful diving ducks. There are also Common Mergansers and Hooded Mergansers and I’m happy to have seen all three this spring.

I ended up stopping several times and running out trying to identify birds close to shore. But not quite close enough with the rain.

common_loon_jmkosciwAs I was nearing my turnoff from the full circle of the lake, I noticed a parking lot and decided to pull in for one last look. As I drove through the lot I saw a bird fairly close to shore. I parked. Nothing. Waited. Nothing. So I drove further down the lot and parked at the other end. Ahhh. There you are. Diving down. Gone. No, not gone, just much further out. (They can swim so far underwater!) I focused, it turned, and there we were. The Common Loon, Minnesota’s state bird and my first sighting of the year. I used to think I had to go up north to see a loon, but I’ve since realized they’re quite prevalent in the Twin Cities during migration. I was happy to see a pair of them today. Loons are beautiful and I am always happy to see them. But only rarely do I hear them (and that usually IS up north). They have the most haunting and beautiful call. If you aren’t familiar with it, take a minute out of your day to listen to it. The wail, in particular, would pretty much capture 100% of your attention if you heard it in real life.

Even better than an owl.


ToeI mentioned in my March Reprise that I had read three particularly good poetry books last month, including one book (Eleventh Toe) that included one of the best sestinas I’ve read in years.

A sestina is a poetic form comprising six stanzas of six lines each, followed by a three-line stanza.

Here’s the sestina I loved in Eleventh Toe. See if you can spot the pattern.

      May Day

We stopped at a restaurant for a drink.
The first of May, and we simply felt lucky
to be alive on that auspicious evening,
caressed by the hypnotically warm
air. In conspiracy, the handsome waiter
seated us at a table beside the open window.

The table linen was pristine. The window
faced the busy street where we could drink
in the cosmopolitan sights until the waiter
returned with wine and his lucky
green eyes. He drawled in seductive warm
tones, “You’re in for a perfect evening.”

An aria floated out through the evening
din, harmonic, until a man approached the window
spouting gravelly throat sounds and a cloying warm
smell. He’d clearly had too much to drink.
He slurred, “Ladies, yer gonna get lucky
tonight,” and glanced around for the waiter.

He fumbled in his pockets before the waiter
returned, producing a perfume labeled Evening
Stars. He sprayed an acrid poof. “For you lucky
ladies, five bucks.” He stumbled against the window.
The bump jostled the table and toppled my drink.
Red wine on my white skirt, bloody and warm.

“Shorry,” he leaned so close, I felt his warm
stinking breath on my face. Our waiter
snagged him roughly by the collar. “Drink
this!” the waiter spat and, heedless of the evening
traffic, shoved the man away from that window
which separated us, the safe and the lucky,

from the stunned, limping man who was only lucky
to be alive. The waiter with his green eyes and warm
smile shooed the shocked onlookers from the window,
people staring at me, as if I had coaxed the waiter
on. The man staggered away through the evening
crowd, looking for his next drink.

We felt a little less lucky to be sitting in the window
where the warm air set the red stain on our evening,
and the handsome waiter returned with a fresh drink.

—Julie Roorda

If the pattern didn’t leap out at you (I don’t know how many sestinas I read before I realized I was reading a rather complex form), look specifically at the end words. Compare the end words for each line through the poem. See the repetition? In a sestina as well-written as this one, which keeps pulling you forward, the pattern is easy to miss.

From the Academy of American Poets: the sestina follows a strict pattern of the repetition of the initial six end-words of the first stanza through the remaining five six-line stanzas, culminating in a three-line stanza called an envoi (or tornada). The lines may be of any length, though in its initial incarnation, the sestina followed a syllabic restriction. The form is as follows, where each numeral indicates the stanza position and the letters represent end-words:

7. (envoi) ECA or ACE

I have tried to write sestinas and have not met with an iota of success. Yet. I figure if I keep reading poetry and writing and living, maybe one day will be my day for the sestina. If you are interested in this form, here are a few more notable examples:

Sestina, by Elizabeth Bishop

Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape, by John Ashbery

Operation Memory, by David Lehman

Sestina: Like, by A. E. Stallings