Monday, June 26, 2017

Coltan, The Congo and The Bite in the Apple

In my last blog, The Tree of Life and Knowledge, I wrote about the separation of life and knowledge throughout human history -
how we have overreached since the Paleolithic. The excessive use of our technology lead to the end of one culture, one civilization, after another - and now threatens our very planet.

There is another way we separate life from knowledge, and that is the great divide between all the information we receive through our digital devices, and the lives of those who have mined the materials and manufactured those instruments.
Though all cell phones use the material I’ll be discussing, I am going to focus on Apple, given that fruit as a symbol of knowledge, going back in our history.   Full disclosure: I am neither a technophobe nor techno-refuser, and I own Apple devices, including the one I am typing on.

The need for constant information, constant connection and entertainment, has  been implanted in us over the years and to some degree we might equate it with happiness. So let’s begin on the knowledge side of our great divide, and describe a visit to our local « temple » of information:  
When you enter an Apple store, it is so white and brightly lit, it practically gleams.  

You look at the new iPhones, and the staff  tell you all the things the new one can do that your old one  cannot. 
New features, faster and smarter, plus an updated version of the genie named Siri, who will give you even more information, get you places faster, and play whatever song you ask for, and find your lunch…your Handmaiden? Your new sense of well-being comes in a white box, your phone and cords cradled within as though they were handing you the Holy Babe.   

Is there a cost here, beside what you just paid?  Some of you may have seen the documentary made in the factories in China where your iPhone is made: The racket, the long hours, the lack of any concern for the well-being of the workers, the exhaustion. We all know that the exploitation of a cheap labor force is responsible for most of the products and clothes we have in our homes, though we may be reluctant to acknowledge that.

But there is another misfortune, and that is the condition of the miners in the Congo who provide us with the Bright and Shiny. We’re going to  leave our gleaming white world and enter the dark world we also have created, for isn’t the Congo the stereotypical heart of darkness in the Western mind? And since that post-colonial black jungle of our imagination does not shed light, what could we possibly know of the conditions where an essential ingredient is mined?

Our technologies require minerals and metals. One is coltan, short for Columbite-tantalite, a metallic ore.When coltan is refined it  can hold a high electric charge, and that’s what capacitors need - and capacitors keep all of our devices charged.  80% of all coltan comes from the Congo, and it is the very definition of a conflict mineral - a substance that is mined in a place where the profits finance militias who enact terror.

There have been wars raging in the eastern Congo since 1994. 5.4 million have died, 3 million have been displaced, a million women raped. It is considered the worst conflict since WWII.  (Council on Foreign Relations).

I interviewed Chingwell Mutombu about the conditions in her country. She described an entire generation dislocated or dead, and thousands of children adrift without parents - 8 and 9 year olds now head of families, trying to provide for younger sisters and brothers. It is these children who can be found working for pennies in the rebel-run mines. The maximum wage is about $5 a day. No food is available, nor medical care. The miners have no machinery, no tools beyond their hands and shovels, if they can afford one.  They work 12 hours a day. Coltan is mined with sluice boxes, the same method used by gold miners in 1849. 

The UN has accused Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda of smuggling coltan over borders to be processed into an essential powder in China - or claiming that their companies own the smelters for the process. Coltan is also processed in other countries, like Brazil and Japan, who claim not to use the ore from conflict mines. But how do they know?

In June 2010, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs admitted the depth of the problem in an email sent to a reporter at Wired magazine: “Until someone invents a way to chemically trace minerals from the source mine, it’s a very difficult problem.” (


Apple admits they use coltan mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo to make the smartphones that fuel our 24 hour lifestyle:  "Apple remains committed to driving economic development and creating opportunities to source conflict-free minerals from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and adjoining countries,’ Apple told the United States Securities and Exchange Commission in February 2015. Apple says its suppliers must adhere to its code. » (Newsweek) Apple does attempt to check on the coltan supplied from the DRC, but the problem of determining from which mine a processed powder comes from is still very difficult.

There is much more to this story, including SEC attempts at regulation and UN involvement. There are Multilayer Ceramic Capacitors (MLCCs) that do not need coltan. They are used for MRIs and other devices, and could be modified for cell phones - but their cost would be slightly higher and their use would lower profits. No comment necessary, right?

The sleek phones cradled in their white packaging are the end product of terror and tragedy. The mining of coltan is a pernicious activity based on the exploitation of desperate people. It is a very dark example of how we literally enslave people, denying  their autonomy, their dignity, and finally, given the dangers of the work, we may deny them their very lives. It is perhaps the ultimate example of the separation of life and knowledge.


Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Tree of Life and Knowledge


      It began with a print I have of a Sumerian seal - priestesses surround a tree and hold out the branches so we can see the fruit. It’s called The Tree of Life and Knowledge. One tree? But I was raised with two: one of life and one of knowledge in the Garden of Eden.  Even side by side, didn’t life and knowledge long for each other? Has it ever been the same since the two were separated? Is that the human condition, that life and knowledge separate?  
I’ve been reading Richard Wright’s A Short History of Progress, which I recommend to anyone interested in How It Has Been, and what I learned began with The People Who Painted the Caves. How fascinated I have been with paleolithic art - attending workshops, lectures, films, and actually entering one - dispensing my own and others' theories on shamanic naturalism - a realism not snatched from the mythic again until the Renaissance. 
Chauvet Cave, Ardeche, France
Early modern humans became proficient at hunting. Their stone weapons continually improved - sharper, stronger, lighter. Their population rose.   Have you imagined one man, or one troupe tracking a huge animal for hours? I have. But "some of their slaughter sites were almost industrial in size; a thousand mammoths at one; more than 100,000 horses at another. » (P. 38) And then there was nothing to sustain them. 
They had overreached. They did not know how, or weren’t willing, to change course, and they disappeared. So 40,000 years ago, we were doing the same thing - separating life and knowledge - that we do now. 

The Sumerians also overreached. Their brilliant use of irrigation changed villages into towns, and towns into great cities. But civilizations use massive resources, and when the trees were turned into timber, and the great mats of roots and mosses no longer held in the soil, the flash floods began, and later when more powerful floods broke through the dams, vast quantities of water surged - and we get the story of the Flood. Their gods saw humans as dangerous. They had sinned against the earth itself, and the gods set out to destroy them, which is what it must feel like when your dams break. 
Athens? Apparently the Athenians we're worried about deforestation in the sixth century B.C.E! A couple hundred years later Plato, in the Critias, lamented the ecological damage that had been  done: 
What now remains compared with what then existed is like the skeleton of a sick man all the fat and soft earth have washed away…… mountains..had trees not very long ago. The land was enriched by the yearly rains which were not lost to it as is now…… Springs and streams running everywhere. Now only abandon shrines remain to show where the Springs once flowed.

That last line really captured me. I wrote this poem:

  Delphi, denuded

                                  Now only abandoned shrines remain to  
show where the springs once flowed                                                                 Plato  Critias 
Remnants    rubble   crumbled marble 
                           One formerly holy slab at the center  
   Imagine Pythia the Oracle  her long hair tangled 

        in everyone’s fate
           still listening for Gaea 
      No  Pythia    

           someone was blinded looking into the sun
                  and named their assailant Apollo  
               You are no longer speaking for Her
                       now you incant  enchant  intone 
                            for the light of the world   
The spring  

      it always says the shrines were centered at a spring  
          long dried up   after the trees were felled  
             now the site is nearly naked   a few bushes  
                  three standing columns   a bit of lintel 
         just enough to let you know this was the omphalos  the navel

Those blue-black treeless mountains  above  unembarrassed by   

      their bare breasts          
          the mountains are just like us  they have lost their memory  
                we think the mountains were always that way   
                   And I can’t even end with Pythia’s voice
                                still present in the wind 
              because the wind  my friends  is as empty as the shrine

The examples of civilizations that have peaked, overreached continues in our own day. The separation of knowledge and life is a feature of our time. It would take the rest of this page to detail the post-industrial processes feeding the smelter of progress that have leached, leaked and released sickening or deadly chemicals into our lives. 
We will not admit to any limits. Science depends on and demands the freedom to explore without boundaries. What could we do next? Assemble a robotic human? Clone a woman? Who has ever known a human who said, in advance of experimentation, this could lead to disaster, so I’ll stop?

Not only have life and knowledge been separated, but knowledge itself has been disdained, discredited.  David A. Baker writes:

The separation of knowledge from life is one of the tragedies of our time.  Immersed in technology, we become addicted to transient knowledge which has little to do with life or the organic structure of our own lives.
Knowledge supports life when an elder teaches a child how to plant; when medications and medical techniques are created for our benefit, not profit; when a composer uses his skills to create a sound world for us, or our leaders stop denying reality and work to create a sustainable world that is sound. Knowledge supports life when the ripe, fragile fruit of life, and the varieties of knowledge, grow together on our family tree.






Tuesday, November 1, 2016

On Men and Aging

        My aging husband falls off a ladder. Bruised, sore - but ever so fortunately, nothing more.  It’s his ego that hurts - no even deeper than that. His physicality is such an important part of who he is.

        This is a man who just a few years ago scampered across scaffolding painting murals and intricate effects on walls. He skipped stone to stone across fast creeks, once carried our wounded 65 lb Samoyed half a mile on a hard trail back to camp. He has always counted on his body.
(And so have I.)

        We have a friend who led treks to the highest mountains, not that old now really, slowly shuffling around the block two strokes later. Don’t suggest books to him, crafts, or afternoons of foreign movies, unless you want the most dismissive look anyone has ever given you. He doesn’t really want to live.  « Who the hell am I now» he asks, « and why bother? »
(It really hurts to hear that. )

The artist Pierre Bonnard  Self Portrait
       And there's our friend who is no longer supposed to drive, who promised he wouldn’t but had a set of keys hidden, his partner was gone for the day and would never know, and the car was just sitting there and why pay for Uber?  

     « Being unable to drive in our culture is a massive blow
to independence. We attach so much attention to self-reliance
and independence as defining characteristics of masculinity, of
maleness and virility that they have deep significance for the lack
of hope and feeling of insignificance in American men as they face
reduced  mobility and independence. Dependence upon charitable
programs, friends, neighbors, or relatives further erodes feelings
of self-capability, confidence and usefulness.»   David A. Baker

     At my age I’m surrounded by these men, and I feel for 
them. I've seen the depression that sets in, that lurks and lingers, and hinders appreciation let alone joy. I have heard men boasting of old exploits to their grandkids so the little ones will know that grandpa was once Really Strong.
(It doesn’t sound like macho to me - just compensation.)

        David A. Baker continues  « Intimate relationships between women where shared feelings are discussed and support is offered freely, is simply absent in relationships between men. «  

       How sad I find that. I have shared feelings about aging with my women friends, acquaintances, even empathic strangers in rest rooms, since the first gray hairs. We grieve that we’re no longer ‹ hot’ and complain of the cold. There are tears, but ribald crone-laughter too, lamenting droops, dryness, double chins.  There must be some guys who have such sharing!

Rembrandt van Rijn  Self Portrait
      « We lose touch, Victor Rangel-Ribeiro says, and we try to establish touch but often when we reach out our hands and find only emptiness. »  from Growing Old on Two Continents
      "Long legs that once carried one with some grace and some speed on the hardwood court or playing field morphed into fragile pipestems ....the body, as Richard Pryor put it, (or was it Ali?) should  sue the legs for non-support."
     "Does that shuffling codger not know his spider’s legs, purple-veined, are pathetic in walking shorts?  In the midst of one’s arrogance and intolerance, a discomforting inisght floods one’s consciousness: these pensioners are one’s peers! » 

                    Gordon Weaver, That Face in the Bathroom Mirror

      I read the draft of this blog to my husband. He hopes
that men will read it and share it with each other. I hope so too.

David A. Baker, private correspondence
The essays Growing Old on Two Continents and That Face in the Bathroom Mirror can be found in 
Duff Brenna & Thomas E. Kennedy, Winter Tales: Men Writing About Aging, Copenhagen and Florham Park, N.J. : Serving House Books, 2011.




Friday, August 5, 2016

In the Goodness of Time: The Poet and "The Great Work"

W.S. Merwin in his garden on Maui        (The Merwin Conservancy)
          Recently, I read an article about Wallace Stevens in the New Yorker. In it Peter Scheldahl declares that for him the best poem of the 20th century is The Idea of Order in Key West.

          I re-read the poem after many years, and yes it is beautifully crafted and mythic, about a She and the Sea and it has the power and repetition of waves - but it is a poem written from a metaphysical sky. There is a line in the poem that tells us « She was the single artificer of the world/In which she sang », and I thought the word ‹ he › could be substituted for ‹ she › and it would describe the poet.

         Perhaps I responded this way because I’m reading W.S. Merwin’s Moon Before Morning and the ease and truth and quietness speak to me so sweetly. When he writes of the earth, he is of the earth, and when he writes of the past it is present for him, and when he writes of the Ark you think you can smell the animals.  
Merwin's House
         The Idea of Order in Key West is a peony of a poem, perhaps and entire  peony bush - no it has to be larger - the tree of huge red flowers in front of a temple in Laos that I can’t identify by name. A tree that blooms year round and holds its canopy up proud as a god.

        Merwin has been planting Pritichardia palm trees, native to Hawaii, on his property in Maui for 40 years. His poems are palms, either quietly climbing toward starlight, or they rustle seductively when the wind blows. Or the poems are the small startling flowers of the tropics like the low growing butterfly pea flower - not the brilliant blue variety, but the candid white.  I am enamored of the poems particularly because they present the sense of timelessness and presence that one wants age to enable:

                    Dew Light
Now in the blessed days of more and less
when the news about time is that each day
there is less of it I know none of that
as I walk out through the early garden
only the day and I are here with no
before or after and the dew looks up
without a number or a present age

The Merwin Conservancy

         Those 19 acres, 2740 palms, are the work of reclamation the world so badly needs to do - as Thomas Berry describes it in The Great Work. The palms, along with bananas and mangos and papaya were planted on land that was damaged first by logging, then pineapple rows were planted vertically so most of the soil washed away.  What was left of the soil grew grasses so bitter that an experiment in grazing failed when the cows’ lips curled in disgust.

         The work of reclamation is what there is when the age of conquering the world is over. Or let us say that reclamation and renewal are the new adventure.  What if our own or the world’s losses connect us rather than embitter or force us to turn us aside?

        Merwin has been aware of what has been happening to our planet for a long time. His great poem For A Coming Extinction was published in The Lice in 1967, which makes me feel like a Jenny-come-lately to environmental concerns. In 1967 many of us were working and writing against the Vietnam War,  and so was he - but he was able to step out of the headlines and into the world to come, which he knew was already there. For A Coming Extinction laments:  

“Gray whale/ Now that we are sending you to The End/ That great god/ Tell him/ That we who follow you invented forgiveness/ And forgive nothing.”

The Merwin Conservancy
In an interview with Joel Whitney, Merwin talked about the story of Noah:
« I loved that story so much. And I had this fantasy of building an ark in the back yard, because when the rains came, I said, you know, nobody believed Noah. Nobody will believe us either. We can build this boat, but [smirking] where are we going to get the animals? »

         Merwin has alternated originality, translation and reclamations since his 30s. I was aware of his long poetic narrative on the history of the Hawaiians, The Folding Cliffs, but I did not know that he had once translated the poetry of the Native American Crow people. In an interview with Edward Hirsch in 1986 Merwin said:
« And I had very much the feeling about the Crow, along with American Indian poetry in general, and many other non-literate poetries, too— that even as we talked about it, it was disappearing. And I think of it as of comparable importance to, say, the burning of the library at Alexandria. »

          That comparison. A lessening of scale, a tale of equivalence. Not a diminishing of what we have achieved, but the recognition that others have done as well, and their work is just as significant. This too is the great work.

The Merwin Conservatory

 Insurance Man
The Life and Art of Wallace Stevens

The New Yorker
May 2, 2016

Joel Whitney interviews W.S. Merwin
February 15, 2011

The Lice, Atheneum, 1967










Wednesday, July 22, 2015

NAMI: "You Are NOT alone"

from the blog "How to Juggle Glass"
       On Livernois, the old "Avenue of Fashion" in Detroit, she was known as Robbie. A short, vibrant dumpling of a woman who managed Belle Jacobs, an upscale boutique. There she was, narrating a fashion show fundraiser, and there she was, marching before her troop of saleswomen like a general before the invasion, preparing them for the line waiting outside the door on Sale Day. (Where the hell did she find the four star general’s hat smartly cocked on her dark hair?)

        To her husband, she was Pearle, a slightly outrageous woman prone to the unexpected. There he was, exclaiming at the line of Miss America contestants parading across the TV screen, and there she was, slinking into the den in a silk nightgown, exclaiming, « Take me! »

        To friends and relatives suffering from anything from depression to lost charge cards, or the friends of her kids with ‹ parents-who-don’t understand-me ›, she was a warm, available listener.

        For my brother and me, she was Mom.

        And to her psychiatrist she was a woman with a deep inexplicable wound, given to weeping. When she remembered the terrible beating she received as a child our saga began.
by Kevin Caffrey  Alexandra College, Dublin, Ireland
    In the 1950s, a Weeping Woman was thrown in the hospital and given insulin and electroconvulsive shock treatments, which terrified her, made little difference, and insured that she would neither forget nor heal. She was stuck fast in trauma like an insect in amber. Later treatments in later hospitals involved massive dosages of Stelazine and Thorazine, still experimental, which resulted in premature dementia. 

        I was 16 when it all began, my brother 10.   The psychiatrist gave my father all the information he could. Some members of our extended family tried to give support. My father left a 10 hour work day to visit her every night during the 90 day hospitalizations Blue Cross allowed. Later, I would leave Wayne State University after my classes and take a bus to a hospital, or Lafayette Clinic, or wherever she had been taken, and hear her pleas to come home.

        Her need and her pain were not containable. When she was home the knives were hidden in my sweater drawer, the key to the upstairs back porch next to them so she wouldn’t harm herself.  Our Pearle became she-who-lost-herself, and we - we were alone, trying to maintain each other.

from the website "How to Juggle Glass"
          Support groups? Unavailable. (Did they even exist?) Education classes for families? Unknown. We were powerless and overwhelmed, and what I find so moving is that now so much is available for families. (And don’t kid yourself - mental illness can happen to anyone.)

        My husband & I  know people with family members who suffer from mental illness. We empathize and grieve with them. What is it like to live with someone who is suddenly exhibiting incomprehensible and/or frightening behaviors? Imagine all the phone calls, internet sessions, and the trips from one professional to another, trying to find out what’s wrong. Imagine the helplessness and worry, the struggle, and families possibly divided over the right course of action.
Arizona Capitol Times
The fortunate ones find NAMI, the National Alliance for Mental Illness, which has offices everywhere. The support our friends have received is inestimable.  Call an office and you will immediately be given resources.  There are classes -  NAMI Basics, for parents with children or adolescents exhibiting symptoms. NAMI Family-to-Family is a class for families, partners and friends of individuals with mental illness.  

        There are courses on growth, healing and recovery for the individual with mental problems, and courses for the families of the psychically stricken veterans of our current wars - and I’ve only mentioned a small part of NAMI’s services. For families, the ability to share stories with others in the same situation, to compare symptoms, treatments, fears -  share what is still considered dark and shameful by many in our society.

        NAMI handles national problems as well. The fight for better coverage for mental health, and the disparity between funding for physical and mental health is one that NAMI is actively involved in on the Congressional level. 

        If you know someone who has suffered alone with mental health problems, or a struggling family, you only need suggest their local NAMI office. You can find that info at

        And if you are looking for a worthwhile charity, a great place to put your dollars, where money is not eaten up by Administration, I recommend NAMI.  Bill & I enjoy the marches and fundraisers for the wholehearted energy of all who participate - and I find it so healing to know that no one today has to go through the isolated misery my family experienced.
Thank you NAMI.

"My art, my mental illness" Johnny Beaver



Tuesday, May 12, 2015

As Butch Cassidy said, "Who Are Those Guys"?

University of Leeds, Dept. of Cultural and Media Studies

        Not only am I hopelessly out of date in cultural studies, but I don’t even remember the date. However, this is not one of those dirges by an old-lady-who-once-was-cool-looking-back nostalgically-at-her-radical-past-saying-in-my-day-we-did-it-better. I don’t use the phrase « in my day », because I’m still here. I am often very still, but I am here. And please remember that the linguistic root of radical is root.

I’m reading Maggie Nelson’s brilliant The Argonaut, and I fell in love with this phrase: »if prose is but the gravestone marking the forsaking of wildness...". I will come back to this later, I promise. But meanwhile I have been absorbed in Nelson’s world of contemporary cultural studies and gender preoccupations.

I taught Women’s Studies beginning in 1974. The door of rediscovered female accomplishment in the arts opened for me at the same time as my students: We learned of Artemisia Gentileschi, first woman admitted to the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence. We were outraged that all of the artist Judith Leyster’s work had been attributed to Frans Hals, and it turned out that the unfamiliar artist and sculptor Rosa Bonheur had been famous in the nineteenth century. None of these artists had appeared in the art history books I’d been assigned in college. Our new knowledge was the result of exciting research by J. J. Wilson and Karen Petersen.  
Judith Leyster, Self-portrait, c. 1630
      If I were still teaching, would it be Cultural Studies? I would need to learn a new language. For example, I would have to admit that my life with a husband and a house and a garden was heteronormative. Could I create a sentence with the word performativity in it? Could I avoid telling my students that performativity is not post-poststructuralist, but the work of J. L. Austin in the 50s, a white male who looked like a woodpecker and told us that words perform acts? 
As a teenager I consumed 50's French cool. The flavors of choice were Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir, so we said that life was absurde, wore berets, and argued over whether Sartre’s turn toward Communism was a defection from Camus’ early indifference. What was more profound than « Mother died yesterday »? That this period in our lives was a transition between the conformity of high school and the courage of individuation was not even known, let alone expressed.  
(photo from Progressive Thinking)
Sartre & de Beauvoir, The Guardian

Full disclosure - I miss my students. But teach now? Cultural Studies?  Jacques Rancière, Alain Badiou, Peter Sloterdijk: Who are those guys? I only got as far as Irigeray, Kristova and Deleuze before my attention turned elsewhere.

      So back to »if prose is but the gravestone marking the forsaking of wildness... » Ah, the dangers of maenads and Orphic hymns, and wild sex and the seance of their calling! 
      But this is where that phrase led me: When the wild song that wilderness sings ceased to repeat in our brains like the lyrics of pop songs, did we turn to prose? Is the deep green and root-ridden forest the natural home of poetry - along with the riverbank and the wave-struck beach and the red dunes, and, and….all of it? When I heard the trees in the last patch of old forest in Chiapas call on me to speak for them, could I have written essays instead of poems? Published an anthology of prose rather than poetry?
from PBS website

Ficus Andronicus
The Queen of Trees. Walking Palm. Hoatzin bird. Bowerbird. Desert Paintbrush.  Not my only, but my new vocabulary, married to rhythm, and rhyme and alliteration and imagery. I could teach that biopoetic language. But then there would be syllabi to create, and media presentations, and papers to grade, and grades to give, and……..
I wouldn’t be free anymore, and I’d have to remember the date.



Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Talking to the Leaves of Nasturtium

        I have never written prose about my garden. It seemed to me too slight - too Better Homes and Gardens. How silly, I realized, (with the help of my friend Dan). Time to honor both my garden and the season after spending the morning planting.

      Two things laced me to the cycle of the seasons: The first was the ceremonial calendar of my childhood, that begins with the High Holy days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur in the fall. The second cycle belonged to nature, and the intense seasonal changes of the Midwest.

     With the exception of the harvest holiday called Sukkot in autumn, and an egg, lamb bone and greens on the Passover ritual seder plate to commemorate Spring, the two cycles, one of the Earth Mother, the other of the Sky Father, seemed unconnected. It is in the myths of the Pueblo peoples of the Southwest that Earth Mother and Sky Father connect and work together, and those myths had a profound effect on me.  The two cycles also come together in the rituals I have practiced with women over the years - and now in fact, spirit and nature are inseparable to me, in the wilderness, but especially, in the garden - and in the photo.

Atlanta Botanical Garden

Every year my garden delivers its spring offering: the flowering plum and pear and apple, rhododendron, tall pale yellow iris, and 20 rose bushes, and every year it is one of the best gifts life offers me - the gift of petals.

       In Elizabeth Alexander’s heartbreaking memoir, The Light of the World, she describes a peony that her husband planted for her. It bloomed for her birthday every year on May 30th. Never mind that the peony’s season of blooming corresponds to that date. Never mind that the opening of those buds at that time is a normal event. For Alexander, it was a magical, deliberate gift - the gift of petals

My garden
      My husband fondly remembers the food of his childhood, and recreates the meals for us that his mother made. Those dinners were his first imprint of flavor, as my mother’s and grandmother’s gardens were my first imprint of petals. Peonies, lily of the valley & lilac, zinnias & phlox, the rose they called American Beauty, and tulips. 

      It is not cold enough in California for tulips to repeat in my garden. I treat them as annuals, spend an extravagant round number every fall to dig bulbs into the cold, (and now no longer wet), soil of December, assuring bloom as though without my labors Spring would not happen.  I'm planting hope as the year darkens.

Pike Street Market, Seattle, April 2015
     And peonies? I once so craved those luxurious blooms that I hauled bags of ice out to the yard in January, and dumped cubes on a faltering plant, knowing they needed winter's freeze. The plant couldn't be fooled, and the treatment didn’t work. Once a year I treat myself to a bouquet of peonies, remembering that my mother never cut her abundance of peonies, or any other flower, to bring into the house. I’ve mentally gone through all the cupboards in my parent’s house and I can’t find a single vase. Why? Self-denial? Another one of her mysteries I will never solve, and a practice I  don't follow.

     My roses have begun blooming and there are arrangements of roses in every room. Each morning my first act is to bring all the vases into the kitchen, recut the stems and replace the water - even before my essential mug of coffee. I suppose this action falls between care, habit, and ritual - the obsessions of ceremony:

 The Key to the Pay Tree Ark

The high priest was always rushed
The holy ones were due any minute
The altar flowers in alternate rows
 of blue
    and white
must be picked immediately
in virginal bud
the bones must be scraped
of flesh before blood dries
table and sun set precisely
Since we could not see the face
of the clock that timed him

we assumed it was God's.
When we think of him now
that we've aged
and our language has changed
we try out words like compulsion

We wonders if the seeds
would have sprouted without him.

The gift of petals on the dining room table

 I didn’t begin that garden with confidence. I didn’t know when to expect flowering. I went around to each plant and spoke to it, and I begin my real service to the Muse with this poem:

Speaking To The Leaves of Nasturtium

"Flower" I hear myself say to the plant.
Flower. Sounding each syllable.
Speaking as you would speak to a mute.
Not a demand. Not teaching the flower to speak.
I am not the man in the tale who would teach
a stone to talk.  To break its stony silence
with a word, perhaps bird, b-i-r-r-r-d
so the word would emerge from the rock
like a fledgling pecking out its shell.

Nor would I teach a dolphin language,
not to discover why eons ago
it returned to the water,
not to pry into its secret signals,
not even to ask why it loves us.
Could the dolphin accept our word
for how it knows and know
to tell us how it guides?
could it state the impossible
demands of grammar:
Turn right at the next corner,
Don't forget...
Hold me.
The dolphin has its own purpose,
it is our fate to talk to ourselves.

As for the plants
I have no questions that watching could not answer.

At Findhorn they called on spirits
to learn the needs of the green ones.
They said that the spirits were pleased
to answer.  More water.  More sun.
A little more to the left.

I hear myself speaking to the leaves of nasturtium.
Clearly, sounding each syllable.  Flow-er.
As though the green cells could hear
and respond in buds. As though I could cause flowers
by teaching the word. As though I could cause
by teaching.  Flower.  Flow-er. Repeated to the leaves
whose learning only flows from the roots upward.
I cannot stop speaking but the silence
of leaves is training me to see.                                                         

Photo by Bill Fulton