Orchard Exuberance

The robin is singing in the backyard, exuberant. Nudging me. Having nothing to do with this post (already titled before the song), the song has finally put my hand to the keyboard, as I was stymied how to begin.

It started when we went to a neighborhood event, and among all the various opportunities, my spouse wanted to volunteer to help with the neighborhood orchard. Sign me up, I said.

I am not particularly fond of getting together with a lot of people I don’t know, especially if all we’re doing is sitting around and chatting. I opted out of an initial planning meeting, but when the opportunity for actual orchard maintenance came up, I was definitely interested. Our first activity: pruning.

We started at noon on Sunday (earlier, if you got the message that coffee and snacks were being provided by the church across the street). And this was one piece of the magic, or exuberance, of the day. When we arrived, there was fruit, breads, cookies, and coffee, spread out on a table in front of the church. Spouse introduced me to people he knew (from the meeting I avoided) and I was stunned.

I was totally comfortable.

It is pretty much completely unheard of for me to be comfortable in a group of strangers. I’m still processing it.

There were about 25 of us (way more than expected), mostly guys (which surprised me). I have never in my life felt comfortable drifting from small group to small group, but unbelievably, I did. I don’t know if it’s the common goal, or that all these people love trees, or if it’s the trees themselves. Perhaps all of the above.

When we moved across the street to the orchard, we stood in a circle and introduced ourselves: neighbors across the street, people in the neighborhood, a bunch of people knowledgeable about fruit trees, a bunch that didn’t know so much, and a whole lot of enthusiasm.

One of the older men in the group suggested that if you really want to get to know trees, here’s your chance. Stop by the orchard at least every two weeks. Not a drive-by visit. A stop and park the car and spend some time with the trees visit. It is not so often you get the opportunity to shape a young orchard, or even to engage in its long-term growth. I plan to visit the orchard frequently. I have a great fondness for trees, and while I find most trees grounding, there’s something about fruit trees (even very young ones) that makes me a little giddy.

We spent a bit of time as a group around a tree, discussing pruning, examples, try it yourself, questions, etc. Again, I felt so comfortable. I asked several questions and was also able to just let go of social stress and think about what would work best for the tree.

Aha, there it is. It is the tree after all. I love trees and I have happened upon a community of tree lovers. It was a lovely contagious afternoon—trees, joy, purpose, camaraderie, and a good bit of fun.

The pruning of these little trees was a bit more challenging than I had expected (learned a lot). We will have a mission regarding blossoms in the later spring, watering through the summer, and mulching in the fall.

I like tending an orchard. This little orchard is an experiment in Minneapolis. If we can make it work, just imagine: neighborhood orchards everywhere. Why not?

A Favorite Poet, an Excellent Book

Joyce Sutphen is one of my favorite poets, and certainly my favorite local poet. I’ve recently finished her book, Modern Love & Other Myths, and I loved it. I discovered Sutphen many years ago, and I always do a happy dance when a new book comes out. Modern Love & Other Myths elicited two happy dances (I emailed Sutphen to tell her how much I loved the book and she responded; I am always amazed when writers respond to email, just like they are regular people).

The first poem I loved, the first time reading the book, was “You.”


You make me think in italics; you bring
exclamations to my lips! (I never
thought in parentheses)—I always dashed
my way through everything! I

want to quote you; I want you to appear
in every footnote. I want you to be my
opening line. Yes—I have a lot of
questions; there seem to be some missing pages…

but I could live in an ellipsis; I
could become a demonstrative pronoun
(if you wanted that) or I could be a
questionnaire and you could fill in the blanks.

And now, although I’d like to say much more,
I must conclude—or what’s a sonnet for?

When I got to the unexpected ending, I laughed out loud. Now, poetry often makes me smile, it occasionally makes me weep, but it almost never makes me laugh out loud. I would have loved Modern Love & Other Myths purely for this one poem (yes, poetry can be like that sometimes), but there were several others that I loved (and thrice as many more that I very much liked but didn’t quite tip into love).

In fact, the next poem that called forth my love was a mere two pages later:

It’s Amazing

Another word for that is astonishing
or astounding, remarkable or marvelous.

It’s also slightly startling, which leads to
shocking and upsetting, perhaps a bit

disquieting, and that is troubling and
distressing—you could say outrageous

and deplorable, which leads to wicked
and more precise equations such as

sinful and immoral or just plain bad
and wrong. It’s amazing, which is just to say

bewildering and unexpected, that
it happened out of the blue, and that we went

all the way from miraculous to absurd,
within the syllables of just one word.

This poem did not make me laugh out loud, but it did make me smile. It also made me think about language and words, and word meanings, and how easily we can hop from one interpretation of a word to another, and another, until you amazingly arrive at the exact opposite or where you started. I love writing, pondering, and playing with words, and this poem has given me new ideas for word games (which can be especially fun on long drives). Can one ask for more from a single poem?

Another favorite:


I would prefer to mention him only
in passing. How lovely to go back and

never to have met him, a connection
missed, a quiet night at home and no trip

to that city across the river where
he was waiting, but not (it turned out) for

me. I would prefer him as a footnote,
in parentheses, one small entry

in the index, the one that will baffle
the scholar who is reading carefully,

who realizes how impossible
it is for me to forget those lost years.

These aren’t necessarily the best poems in the book, they are merely my favorites. And who can say what the “best” poem is anyway? All writing demands that the reader bring something to the table, but I think with poetry that is even more true. In some ways, poetry is an act of cocreation between reader and poet. Perhaps there is no such thing as a best poem, only favorite poems.

There are so many good poems in the book. Poems that I like on the first reading, thoroughly enjoy on the second, and then go oh! on the third. Nearly all poetry rewards rereading. But not all poetry is as fun to reread as Sutphen (and Modern Love & Other Myths in particular).

One more poem, that will perhaps make your next long-distance drive more interesting:

Things to Watch While You Drive

The trees, slipping
across the fields, changing places with
barns and silos,

the hills, rolling over
on command, their bellies
green and leafy,

the sun-tiger, riding
on your rooftop, its shadow racing
up and down the ditches,

a flock of birds,
carrying the sky by the corners,
a giant sheet of blue,

the road, always
twisting towards or away from you—
both, at the same time.

Sigh. I think that’s absolutely beautiful, most especially “a flock of birds/carrying the sky by the corners/a giant sheet of blue”. A poem within a poem.

Joyce Sutphen is the Minnesota poet laureate. She has published six books of poetry, and I think this is my favorite yet. Although truth be told, I went and got all the old ones off my shelf, and I can’t honestly say without reading them all again that Modern Love & Other Myths is my absolute fave. All of a sudden I want to reread Coming Back to the Body, tonight. I love this power of poetry!

And I have to say (because I have the inside skinny), Sutphen has a seventh book of poetry, soon to be released in the U.S. Why it was released in Ireland before it was released in south Minneapolis I cannot say, but it appears there will be yet another happy dance in the near future.

The Backyard Birds of Winter

Bird diversity certainly declines in the winter in Minnesota, but there are still a goodly number of birds out there. Of the 38 different kinds of birds I’ve seen so far this year, 20 have been in (or viewed from) my backyard. Twenty isn’t bad for early March.

A few days ago I glanced out the back window and saw a bird I hadn’t seen for many months: my first mourning dove of the year. The following day I was coming home from grocery shopping and something caught my eye in the woodpecker tree (this is the neighbor’s tree which hangs hugely over our back yard). I quick ran inside for my binoculars, and I’m glad I did because it was a brown creeper. These are fun little birds that climb tree trunks like nuthatches, but they tend to be a bit more elusive. And their coloring  is such that they blend right into the trunk. If the bird hadn’t been moving, I’d never have espied it. Even through binoculars it blended into the tree. The awesome of nature.

I have many of our common birds on my backyard list: house sparrow, American crow, rock dove, European starling, Canada goose. Also the usual Minnesota winter birds that keep me smiling through winter. Topping that list would be the black-capped chickadee along with the northern cardinal. Not far behind are the blue jay and the white-breasted nuthatch (both of which I often hear before I see). And it’s close to impossible to see a junco and not smile.

There are four kinds of woodpeckers on my yard list so far this year, all of them seen in the woodpecker tree: the first to appear was the hairy woodpecker, seen on New Year’s Day. The first downy woodpecker was sighted on January 14. On the 21st, I was thrilled to see a northern flicker (not nearly as common in the backyard as the downy and hairy). And then on February 24, the red-bellied woodpecker showed up.

The woodpecker tree is a huge maple (it would take two or three of me to circle the trunk), and it has one large limb that is hollow (I know this because I can see the sky through the woodpecker holes at certain angles). We get pileated woodpeckers too, but I haven’t seen one yet this year. I keep watching.

Also visiting the back yard this winter: American goldfinches, robins (first seen on January 3, which is not typical), a house finch or two, and a bald eagle (soaring overhead). Not bad for early March.

On a broader note, the spring birds are starting to come back, some of them quite early. Last weekend I saw trumpeter swans, red-winged blackbirds, and pied-billed grebes. Many shorebirds are also being reported.

Time to get out of the back yard and into the field. Spring migration has begun!

March Reading Theme: Literary Forms

Sounds boring, doesn’t it? Literary forms. Not so! There are a ton of literary forms, if you cast a broad net (and I do). Remember, it’s all about the title (and about literary forms in name only). Here’s what I’ve already started so far:

  • Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance
  • The Lexicon of Real American Food, Jane & Michael Stern
  • The Poetry Home Repair Manual, Ted Kooser
  • White Papers, Martha Collins
  • The Autobiography of Foudini M. Cat, Susan Fromberg Schaeffer

The first three are nonfiction (loving Hillbilly Elegy), White Papers is poetry, and Foudini’s autobiography is fiction. Again I must say, one of my favorite things about these reading themes is that it is getting me reading some books that I’ve had around for ages. And while two of the books in progress have been in hand for less than a year (Hillbilly Elegy and The Lexicon of Real American Food), Kooser’s Repair Manual has been on the shelf for 6 years and Marcia Collins for 4. The Autobiography of Foudini M. Cat has been around for 16 years, and who knows why I waited so long? I am finding it silly and fun. Sometimes, a book from the cat’s perspective is just the thing.

I’ve already picked my next poetry book, Fieldnotes, by Mark Weiss (patiently waiting for 14 years). I don’t know what I’m going to read next in nonfiction. Titles rising to the top are Field Guide to the Global Economy (it seems timely), Monsoon Diary (particularly appealing because it has a subtitle: A Memoir with Recipes), Notes from the Shore, and Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.

Fiction is more iffy. I’m still not in much of a fiction place, so who knows? One for sure is The Tale of Despereaux, by Kate DiCamillo (YA Newbery winner, and a local author), because I’m reading that for our March book group (of two).

If you still think you can’t find a book with a literary form in the title, leave no stone unturned. I also found the following literary forms lurking in titles on my bookshelves: ballad, book, story, report, novel, anagram, gospel, footnotes, journal, poem, notebook, narrative, riddle, haiku, question, record, and myth. Probably I missed some. And I’m sure there are lots more that aren’t on my shelf, but might be on yours.

Give it a shot. Why not? One book in March that has a literary form in the title. Maybe it will get you out of a rut. Maybe it will get you into a rut. Maybe you will discover one of the best books you’ve ever read.

Let me know what you come up with.

If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name

9781565125247I finished my favorite book of February on the penultimate day of the month. If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name: News from Small-Town Alaska, by Heather Lende, is a lovely blend of nature, musing, philosophy, spirituality, and small-town pragmatism.

It’s a good primer on small-town living, and it’s also a decent introduction to Alaska (though I am admittedly much more of an expert on the former than the latter, having grown up in a small town and visited Alaska only once, and on a cruise at that).

A blurb on the front cover calls Lende’s book part Annie Dillard and part Anne Lamott (I found that quite appealing as I like Lamott and love Dillard). By the time I got to the end of the book, I certainly understood the references to Dillard and Lamott, but Lende also brings her own chemistry into the mix.

The passage that first grabbed my heart was her conversation (did I mention the book feels like a conversation?) about furnishing their house in Alaska. Both she and her husband “like to be surrounded by old things that wouldn’t pass as antiques and aren’t valuable to anyone except us.” She mentions her grandfather’s rolltop desk, a worn Oriental rug from her mother-in law’s house, a crystal pitcher that came from Norway with the first Lendes.

I put the book down and looked around me, and the sentiment resounded: I was sitting at the small blue table that held my chemistry set when I was 12. Behind me is my aunt’s copy of The Joy of Cooking. Our everyday dishes include three of my grandmother’s everyday dishes (there were four but I recently broke one) and several plates that somehow made it through my entire childhood. I have my grandmother’s cedar chest, and a beautiful blond buffet that belonged to my dad’s sister. (I call it beautiful possibly because it’s so functional, with three good-sized drawers and a little side door with shelves.) I have a fine old library desk left in my care by a dear friend more than 25 years ago (along with a good wooden plant stand, which holds a fern of my mother’s, in a pot that I think she might have found when she moved into the house I grew up in). And I have hardly started. I walk through my house and feel surrounded by love.

Much of what I enjoyed so much about If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name is that the author and I share some common values and interests, as noted above, and also with nature. At one point in the book, she is at a funeral, and during the talking she looked through the open door at

two eagles circling in the warm breeze high above the water. Although I’ve seen thousands, the sight of an eagle in flight still moves me in a way I can’t explain. It’s like a prayer.”

I know exactly what she means. I see eagles often, and while I haven’t seen thousands, I’ve seen hundreds (close to the Mississippi, after all), but they never get boring. Always I pause, and watch. In reverence or awe, I’m not sure. As the funeral continues, Lende, pondering eagles and spirits and mountains, wonders,

Do we feel God’s presence because we are looking for him, or do we feel it because he is looking for us?”

You see, this is the thing. She leads us down some roads. I went down a road of gratitude, and I went down a road of awe, and I went down a road of resolve. I resolve to appreciate what I have just a little bit more, and I resolve to try harder to see and understand the other person’s point of view.

There were many things I loved in this book, but these rose to the top. I expect other people will take away different things. But one thing I’m pretty certain of: There is something in this book for just about everyone.