Categories
Environment Writing

Mink on the Trail

American Mink.

On Thursday I saw an animal eating fallen mulberries on the trail. The state park has an abundance of wildlife — every Iowa species is believed to live here. I didn’t recognize it and posted this photo on Twitter.

An abundance of responses identified it as a mink. I looked it up and it resembled a mink pictured on the internet. Most likely it is an American mink with more of them around the lake shore. Mostly minks are carnivores so the mulberry-eating was unexpected. Harrowing tales of chicken murdering ensued as the post got many engagements.

Every day we find something new is positive. When our curiosity wanes or we feel we’ve seen it all… that’s not good.

The newspaper reported another local theater troupe cancelled the rest of the season because of the coronavirus pandemic. Old Creamery Theatre sent termination letters to ten staff members Thursday night. The creative arts are really taking a hit during the pandemic. In addition to Old Creamery, Riverside Theatre had to give up its performing space, and bigger companies like Cirque du Soleil filed for bankruptcy. Live theater and concerts have been shut down with only a few productions testing a re-opening in the COVID-19 time.

Major theme parks like Walt Disney, where our daughter works, continue to furlough employees. As they begin to open up, the question is whether employees will be recalled, if the furloughs will continue, or will the endgame be being laid off. Live entertainment may never be the same if the coronavirus isn’t mitigated. As we know, that’s not going well in Iowa or in the United States.

I worry about independently-owned bookstores. There used to be many places to buy used books. Over the last couple of decades they consolidated, went on line, or went out of business. The selection has gotten worse. The main used bookstore in the county seat is Haunted Bookshop and I’m trying to support them as they continue to operate curbside pickup.

At first I bought a gift certificate to hold until they reopen. When it became clear re-opening was not in the near-term, I devised a poetry buying scheme. On Wednesday I wrote note saying, “Choose and mail me a book of poetry that I don’t already have once a month. Surprise me.”

I had criteria:

  • Short works by living poets. Short = around 100 pages or less. Up to 200 pages okay. About the length to read in a couple of sittings.
  • Less interested in comprehensive collections. For example, Crow by Ted Hughes but not Collected Poems of Ted Hughes.
  • I recently read and enjoyed Mary Oliver, Amy Woolard, Lucia Perillo and W.S. Merwin.
  • I’m looking to expand my reading and open to about anything. No Atticus or Rod McKuen.
  • Iowa connection would be a bonus, but not necessary.
  • Run the title by me before shipping so I can check to make sure I don’t have it.
  • These are not strict rules but guidelines. (Except for the part about Atticus and Rod McKuen).

Last night I received a favorable response. We are going to try the arrangement out. I’d rather make a monthly trip to browse the store. Until they are ready, this will have to do. Hopefully I will discover new poets in the process and they will have another small source of revenue.

I watered the garden shortly after sunrise. Our yard is the only one in the neighborhood where clover is allowed to grow. I do this so rabbits have something to eat besides burrowing under the fencing into the garden, and to attract bees and other pollinators. Last time I mowed, I set the deck high enough so all of the flowers wouldn’t be cut. It’s time to mow again and that’s my plan for the weekend.

Categories
Living in Society Social Commentary Writing

Reading in 2020

French Breakfast Radishes

If daily life took its course without our engagement we would be reading more words and fewer books.

With the rise of social media a lot more words are being published and many readers get “glued to their phones” as they take in all the words and video they can within a circle of friends and followers.

Long form reading in books is an essential part of staying informed. It took a conscious effort to stop my entropic slide to reading no books each year to include long-form reading in daily life. Ironically this began by using the social media tool Goodreads. By setting a low annual goal of 16 books per year in 2018 I surpassed it and have increased my book reading every year since. In the first five months of 2020 I read 26 books.

Reading short pieces, newspaper and magazine articles, and social media posts is an important part of securing new information about our lives in society. At the same time erosion of book reading leaves us the less.

The current book on my night stand is Save the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir by Ruth Reichl who spent ten years as editor in chief of Gourmet magazine. An intellectual masterwork? No. I found Reichl’s reference to William Carlos Williams annoying, yet the pace is quick, the chapters short, and the language a straightforward narrative. It’s how a person with a specific experience wrote autobiography. The more experiences of writing styles we have, the better writers we can be. If you forced me to put this book in a category, it is summer reading and a part of a broader universe of reading material.

We seek in reading, in any format, an understanding of the person behind the writing. When I review my social media feeds, some people I know personally and have done things with. Others I know by their writing. There’s a reason it’s called “social media.” There are people behind the posts or at least that’s what we hope.

That is less true of book reading where the author may be present in every page yet strive to minimize their personality or presence in the words. Can a book stand separately from it’s creator as a work of art? I don’t see how it’s possible to separate the work from the author’s social context. In that regard, historians are the worst. There is an ideology of history writing and to attempt to hide or diminish it is a disservice to the reader (Oscar Handlin). There is a politics and poetry of writing history. There are books on those subjects. It is possible, and I’d argue necessary, to both adore historians (Robert Caro) and despise them (Doris Kearns Goodwin) that has nothing to do with the information presented on a book’s pages.

I look at reading the way I view being a food consumer: I seek to know the face of the farmer and in the case of reading, the face of the author. That’s true of any reading I do. I am more likely to trust, read and comment on something an acquaintance posts because we physically met and I’ve followed them in social media long enough to understand something about their social context. The same is true for writers in mass media. I want to know who they are and what their history is rather than read a single sensational story. As a reader and human, I’m in it for the broader picture.

The rise of artificial intelligence is producing computer generated writing. I think we need to inoculate ourselves against this fake writing by spending time learning about authors and reading their published work. As the noted philosopher Taylor Swift wrote, “the fakers gonna fake, fake, fake, fake, fake.” We need to be able to shake them off. That requires us to be informed readers.

If we are going to read more at least some part of our lives should be engaging the authors of those words. Obviously it’s less possible for dead writers. Yet we are living now and should be spending part of our time reading full-length books both as a supplement to short form reading and as escape from it. Entropic decline in long form reading is something we must address in our lives. That is, unless we accept the mutation of humans will eventually include genes for mobile phone adaption.

Categories
Living in Society Social Commentary Writing

Poetry for a Life

Service Flags

Best wishes on Memorial Day from this veteran who made it home. As Mary Chapin Carpenter says on her series of songs from home, “Stay well, be peaceful, be mighty.”

I’ve written what I will about Memorial Day. Some of those words can be read here, here and here. I’ve soured on the American celebration of the spring holiday yet one thing I’ve learned is the death of our soldiers in combat is no abstraction. May they rest in peace.

Iowa is one of 24 U.S. states with uncontrolled coronavirus spread. That alone is reason to stay home, read, write, cook, clean and weed the garden. At some point we’ll get caught up with those homebody tasks and venture out of this pandemic pattern, but not yet.

For vegetable gardeners Memorial Day marks the end of spring planting. At the farm we are taking next week off from starting new seeds. The following week we’ll start the fall crop. In between rain showers I hope to get the cucumbers in — the last of my vegetable plots — and weed, weed, weed.

During a rainstorm I reviewed the books on the Reading List tab of this blog. I’m not reading enough poetry as poems comprise only 7.1 percent of listed books.

7.1 percent! I can’t get over that. I want to do better so I asked twitter: “I want to read more poetry. Which author would you recommend?”

The recommendations were pretty good.

When I received a payroll bonus from my part time job in high school I went downtown and bought two books of poetry at the M.L. Parker Department Store: The Complete Poems of Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg’s Complete Poems. I didn’t really understand poetry and still have my failings, but it felt important to mark the beginning of my nascent home library with something other than young adult books.

Over the years I’ve developed other favorite poets. Of those well-known, my favorites are William Carlos Williams and Vachel Lindsay. I also favor Charles Bukowski, Wisława Szymborska, Lucia Perillo, Adrienne Rich, Gary Snyder. Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Seamus Heaney. Of the classics I enjoy Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare but could never get myself to read Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen, although feeling like I should have.

In response to my Twitter query our daughter recommended atticus so I signed up for the newsletter and followed him on Twitter. I’ll be looking for an opportunity to read The Truth about Magic: Poems.

Recommended by a follower in the UNESCO City of Literature are Amy Woolard and Jeremy Paden. Their books Neck of the Woods (Woolard) and Broken Tulips (Paden) are available so I’ll start with them when I can get my hands on a copy.

Another I’d not read is Mary Oliver, recommended by an Iowa farmer. I studied Oliver in response to the tweet and will obtain a copy of American Primitive for which she won the Pulitzer Prize. It is curious Oliver worked at the Edna St. Vincent Millay home for Millay’s sister. Millay was another recommended poet whose Collected Poems was already on my shelf. I’m building a pile of poetry on the dresser in the bedroom.

Emily Dickinson and Ted Hughes were recommended by a follower and fellow gardener in Canada. I pulled down copies of Poetry Is and Crow by Hughes and The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson. Punctuation editing is an issue with works by Dickinson as we know. Hopefully Johnson’s edition will serve.

A local friend who lives part of the year in Italy recommended W.S. Merwin’s Garden Time. I will locate a copy and start reading Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment which was already on my shelves.

Richard Eberhart of Austin, Minn. was recommended by another Midwesterner. On my shelves, rescued from a Goodwill Store in 1994, was a copy of the New Directions Paperbook edition of Selected Poems 1930-1965, which I am reading now. The iconography of these poems is very familiar.

If Memorial Day is the unofficial beginning of summer, 2020 will be the summer of poetry in a pandemic.

Categories
Kitchen Garden Writing

Clearing the Garden

First Brush Pile Fire of 2020 Gardening Season

It took five and a half hours to plant two apple trees on Saturday.

I need to move the support stakes as I put them too close to the trunk. Hopefully they will be easy to remove as they have been in the ground less than 24 hours.

I planted bare root trees that arrived Friday from Cummins Nursery, Ithaca, New York:

Zestar! on G.210 root stock.
Crimson Crisp (Co-op 39) on G.202 root stock.

Here’s hoping for apples in a couple of years.

I burned the first brush pile on the to be planted kale plot. It was a clean burn. After sunrise I will spade and till the plot. I also want to plant potatoes in containers and sow peas, beets, carrots, radishes and turnips. If there is time, transplant the first batch of spinach seedlings. There is a lot on the gardening agenda as spring has arrived.

How should I use the time after waking until sunrise, not just today, but going forward? I’m not sure. Other than to continue doing what I am, it is difficult to envision changes from routine as much as they may be needed. I’m too unsettled to contemplate change.

People say it is normal to experience anxiety during the coronavirus pandemic. Knowing I’m normal is not reassuring and has made for restless nights.

The remedy will be to get lost in the work of putting in the garden. If I work longer shifts, maybe I’ll be tired enough at day’s end to sleep through the night. I’m a little sore from yesterday’s work as my spring conditioning regime in the garden begins. Engagement in a project has worked to relieve tension in the past.

It doesn’t help that I’m reading Anne Case and Angus Deaton’s new book exploring why capitalism is proving fatal for the working class with an uptick in mortality rates among white middle-aged Americans from what the authors call “deaths of despair.” There have been enough alcohol, opiod and suicide deaths in this group to reverse the 20th century trend of longer life expectancy. Other wealthy countries continue to see an increase in life expectancy in the new century. Americans do not. I’m looking forward to reading Case and Deaton’s analysis.

All this is not to say I find despair in daily life, I don’t. However, change is on the horizon. Unlike with the sunrise coming in an hour, it’s hard to know what to expect. I affirm today will be a gardener’s day with everything that means. That should be enough to move past the coronavirus engendered anxiety into something more meaningful.

I’m doing the best I can.

Categories
Writing

2019-2020 Winter Reading List

2019-2020 Winter Reading List

Ten books queued on my bedside table for winter reading:

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick.

What I Stand For is What I Stand On: The Collected Essays of Wendell Berry 1969 – 2017.

The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World by Charles C. Mann.

A Life on the Middle West’s Never-ending Frontier by Willard L. ‘Sandy’ Boyd.

The Mosquito: A Human History of our Deadliest Predator by Timothy C. Winegard.

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond.

Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis by Jared Diamond.

Energy: A Human History by Richard Rhodes.

Presidents of War by Michael Beschloss.

Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974 by Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Selizer.

I will add some fiction, cooking, and gardening books as winter progresses. Feel free to share what you are reading this winter in the comments.

Categories
Living in Society Work Life

Third Month of Apple Season

Apple Crisp, Oct. 4, 2019

I picked low-hanging fruit from the Red Delicious apple tree last week. All that’s left is dangling red orbs high above the reach of my 20-foot ladder plus 10-foot picker.

Most of those apples will fall to the ground for deer and wildlife food.

I blame the nursery person who grafted this supposed “semi-dwarf” cultivar on the root stock. Either something was wrong from the git-go or the cultivar grew around the root stock and made it’s own roots in its 24 years since planting. The tree has produced in abundance — an investment that repaid itself many times over. I’m happy with the hundreds of pounds of apples I was able to harvest this year, even if I couldn’t reach every one of them.

It rained all day Saturday so I stayed home from the orchard. When touching base with my supervisor mid-morning, more staff than customers were in the sales barn. I used the day for house work, cleaning the kitchen, doing laundry, organizing recycling, processing the last batch of tomato sauce, cooking reading and writing. I also took a nap.

The rain is suppressing my orchard paycheck with take home pay down 30 percent compared to last year. Nonetheless, with good health, Social Security, and my spouse’s small pension we are doing alright financially. I can spend some of the apple money on books and political work.

Friday a copy of What I Stand On: The Collected Essays of Wendell Berry 1969-2017 arrived via letter carrier. It will make excellent winter reading.

This week I purchased some items for our political organizing office in the county seat: paper towels, trash bags, paper cups and the like. I baked a large apple crisp which was used at yesterday’s volunteer training. I also contributed to Brad Kunkel’s campaign. He’s running for Johnson County Sheriff in a contested primary next June and is purchasing his “cowboy cards” this week. These are reasons we work an extra job even if the weather keeps the amount down.

A neighbor is hosting 2020 presidential candidate Rep. Tulsi Gabbard next week, so I offered baked goods with apples for the event. I noticed one of the school board candidates will be in attendance. I support Elizabeth Warren, but I’m going because that’s what neighboring means.

With cooler overnight temperatures, the season is turning to fall in earnest. Soon I’ll glean the garden and prepare a bed for garlic planting. If it ever dries out I’ll collect grass clippings for mulch next year. I see a brush fire in the works to return the dead fuel of plants and trees to minerals for next year’s garden.

October is looking to be busy so I have to be organized, which is no hill for a climber. If only I could climb up and get those last dangling apples. The third month of apple season is another part of sustaining a life in a turbulent world.

Categories
Reviews

Summer Reading 2019

Lake Macbride

For the next five weeks I’ll be covering weekdays for our editor Trish Nelson who is on summer break. This is my seventh year to provide summer posts, and more than ten years since I began posting at Blog for Iowa.

Regular readers know my topics: politics, foreign affairs, the climate crisis, the Iowa legislature and nuclear abolition. I’ll contribute those types of posts and more as I compete to gain your interest in a busy media landscape.

While Iowa lakes struggle to maintain safe water quality for summer activities like boating, low impact water sports, and swimming, Lake Macbride experienced its first-ever public health warnings about microcystins produced by blue-green algae. Department of Natural Resources staff recommended people not swim in the lake because of high levels of toxins in the water. While the swimming ban was lifted, there is another traditional summer activity for those skeptical about the water’s suitability: reading a book. Following is a list of books readers might consider for summer reading.

I know the 720-page Mueller Report published by The Washington Post sounds like a lot and maybe a straight through reading isn’t for everyone. However, read ten pages per day and it can be finished in 2.4 months.

Willard “Sandy” Boyd, the fifteenth president of the University of Iowa, published a memoir this year, A Life on the Middle West’s Never-ending Frontier. He was university president when I was an undergraduate and graduate student. Boyd remains active as Rawlings/Miller professor of Law at the university and is president emeritus. The memoir offers his views of the role of a public university and how it evolved since he first worked at the University of Iowa in 1954. I picked it for my personal connection to Boyd, but there is a lot more to the memoir, especially if your interest is in higher education.

If folks haven’t read a history of the great migration of black citizens fleeing the south in the 20th Century in search of a better life, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson offers an option. After fifteen years of research and writing, Wilkerson published the book in 2010. It “examines the three geographic routes that were commonly used by African Americans leaving the southern states between 1915 and the 1970s, illustrated through the personal stories of people who took those routes,” according to her Wikipedia page. Knowing the history of the Great migration is essential to maintaining progressive values.

What is a single book to better understand the climate crisis? I found an answer in The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells. Fair warning: there is not much good news within these 310 pages. What the book does do is present a broad array of the effects of the climate crisis and how they impact us now and near term. Wallace-Wells seeks to address denial that climate change poses immediate consequences that are both ever-changing and happening in front of us. Required reading for anyone advocating a sustainable life on Earth. That should include almost everyone.

Democrats expecting a fair fight in the 2020 election aren’t playing by the same rules as Republicans. When we consider how progressive values might again gain dominance in American culture it is important to learn how we arrived at this Trump moment. Two books highlight how we got here and are worth reading: Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right (2016) by Jane Mayer, and Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America (2017) by Nancy MacLean. When people talk about getting money out of politics they are just flapping their gums if they don’t understand how it got in. These two books provide that insight and are essential progressive reading.

It seems like yesterday I was having a cup of coffee with Kurt Michael Friese in Iowa City. It’s hard to believe he’s gone. In A Cook’s Journey: Slow Food in the Heartland Friese offers a guided tour of the slow food movement in the Midwest around 2008. While a little dated, the book is worth reading for the landscape of Midwestern local food it presents and people in the local food movement. It’s also a way to remember his work as a chef.

That’s what’s on my summer reading list. Feel free to share what’s on yours in the comments.

~ Written for Blog for Iowa

Categories
Writing

2019 Summer Reading

Summer Reading

The myth of relaxing on a towel at a beach, sunglasses and sunscreen on, reading a book may not exist for most of us in Iowa. The beach nearest us has been closed in recent seasons because of the risk of exposure to microcystin and E. coli bacteria, both harmful to human health.

Nevertheless, reading is an important part of summer activities, and essential for people engaged in society. Our home owners association has a monthly meeting at the public library where staff politely boots us out in June and July because it falls on the same night as the summer reading program. Summer reading is one of the most important programs at a public library.

When I write “reading,” I mean books. A lot of our time is spent reading news articles which, while important, does not involve the kind of commitment as reading a book cover-to-cover. I started the Goodreads Reading Challenge last year and it helped me stay focused on reading. I’ve read 16 books this year and you can see which ones on my Reading List page.

Here, in no particular order, is a list of ten books on my bedside table for reading this summer:

Where the Light Enters: Building a Family, Discovering Myself by Jill Biden.

The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction by Cindy Crosby.

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore.

The Overstory by Richard Powers.

Pacific by Simon Winchester.

Milkman by Anna Burns.

The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World by Charles C. Mann.

The Uninhabitable Earth: Life after Warming by David Wallace-Wells.

Janesville: An American Story by Amy Goldstein.

Energy: A Human Story by Richard Rhodes.

While beaches may be closed due to environmental pollution, I plan to find a shady spot on our property or a comfortable chair inside to crack open a book from time to time this summer. Please do leave a comment with what you are reading this summer below.

Happy summer reading!

Categories
Home Life Writing

Used Book Sale and Other Necessities

Sign for the Book Sale at the Solon Public library

Yesterday was the annual used book sale at our library.

In addition to clearing the stacks of unpopular or outdated books, the community donates books, media and labor to manage the sale.

Each item is reasonably priced and this year’s proceeds were about $800. That’s a lot of $0.50 and $1.00 books.

I spent ten bucks on ten past issues of the Wapsipinicon Almanac, three large format picture books about Yellowstone National Park, the Vietnam War, and the Marx Brothers, one fiction book, Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, and a book of poetry, Songs of a Sourdough by Robert W. Service. I spent part of the afternoon reading Service’s poetry about the Yukon. First published in 1907, the copy I got is more than 100 years old. Thoughts of surviving bitter cold, wolves, pine trees, bonfires to stay warm, dog sleds, and the gibbous moon roamed my consciousness for the rest of the day.

It is doubtful I needed more books. The measure of a person’s library is less about reading or having read every book in it. A personal library is more a reminder of what we don’t know. I don’t feel guilty having more books than time to read them. I’m lucky to have a stable home life and the space to fit in a few more books after a used book sale in town. The house hasn’t exploded… yet.

I’ve been buying clothing this year. In 2018 I spent $281, and this year I already spent $150. T-shirts, jeans, socks and underwear, along with a few sweatshirts and woven shirts make up my wardrobe. For funerals and weddings I keep one pair of dress slacks, a good shirt, some neckties, two pair of shined shoes from when I worked in the Chicago Loop in 1991, and a blue blazer. Judging from what people wear to funerals and memorial services, I could get by with a decent pair of jeans, a woven shirt and a newer pair of sneakers.

There was a gift of four t-shirts and a sweatshirt from my spouse. The t-shirts are for the shepherdess to imprint next time she silk screens an image from the farm. I missed out last year because most of my shirts already had something printed on them.

The big 2018 expense was a pair of steel-toed boots to wear on my shifts at the home, farm and auto supply store. Last week, after my shift, I bought a new overcoat using my employee discount.

Me: I need a new coat.
Cashier: You really do.
Me: I know… big grease stains, broken snaps and zipper… it’s disreputable.
Cashier: Oh my!
Me: It will be my first Carhartt… this is Walls. Well I do have a pair of Carhartt bib overalls.
Cashier: Every man has those.

When I worked in the Loop I quickly wore out the pants in my suits. I picked styles where I could get multiple pairs of matching slacks. I don’t need fancy work clothes at the home, farm and auto supply store where the main issue is the quality of Wrangler jeans purchased on discount for less than $20. The denim must be of an inferior quality because holes show up in unexpected places after washing. Too, the radio and box cutter wear a hole just below my belt line on the left side. I asked the Wrangler sales representative about this at a recent trade show. He didn’t have any good answers except to buy more expensive jeans. I didn’t mention my low wages.

Food, shelter and clothing are traditional basic needs. Add potable water, clean air and sanitation and that’s still really basic. A good night’s sleep? Needed, but optional. Without these things, the need for survival dominates our daily lives. Education, healthcare, transportation and internet access are basic needs according to Wikipedia, but seriously, while important, those are extra when it comes to survival.

A lot of people would have us return to life as basic survival. For our family, years of hard work made us financially stable and built a foundation so we don’t often worry about survival. As long as there are used book sales and employee discounts at the home, farm and auto supply store we’ll be alright. Knowing a bunch of farmers and a good auto mechanic helps.

Wolves are mentioned in the history of Lincoln County, Minnesota where my grandmother was born. Wolves can be an issue, but mostly one read about in books about the Yukon… or Iowa and Minnesota at the time of settlement. As we live our modern lives it is important to remember there were once wolves, even if their meaning is lost for want of an education. Education is a salve for our worries. That’s part of why library used book sales remain important.