Monday, October 31, 2011

jack o'lanterns glow

jack o'lanterns glow --
costumed kids walk door to door 
for trick-or-treat

I like this little girl's lady bug costume because it looks homemade and I like the real, not plastic, pumpkins for sale, and I like the Jack O'Lanterns made from real pumpkins. When I grew up, in the 1950s in St. Louis, Missouri, Halloween was very much a homemade affair, from Jack O'Lanterns to costumes to treats.
          The day began with our father carving the pumpkin. He used a long, sharp knife to cut off the top of the pumpkin, which looked like a little orange cap with a green tassel. Then he put us to work digging out the seeds and pulp. Next, he carved a grimacing face with pointed teeth. Then he melted the bottom end of a candle and stuck it inside the pumpkin. That evening, he set the Jack O'Lantern on the front porch, lit the candle and placed the cap on top. The flickering candle made the hideous face glow in a delightfully scary way. This carved pumpkin was not thrown away after Halloween. Instead, my mother toasted the seeds for snacks and made a pie from the orange flesh.
          Meanwhile, my older sister and I put on our costumes. I liked dressing up as a witch with a black hat made from construction paper. We took our brown paper bags and walked from lighted door to door, passing groups of kids disguised as ghosts in white sheets, goblins with brown paper bag masks, skeletons with white bones painted on a black sweater and pants, princesses in flowery nightgowns with tinfoil crowns, gypsies with red bandanas on their heads, and hobos in ragged blue jeans. It was exciting, being out at night by ourselves. In those days this was quite safe as long as you stayed in your own neighborhood. At each house we rang the doorbell and an adult would appear. "Trick or treat!" we cried. The neighbor: "Well, what's your trick?" Then we had to recite a riddle or make a pun or tell some joke before we could get our treats. 
          One year I dressed as a teapot, stuffing a white sweater with newspaper and wearing a white cap knit by Grandma. When asked for my "trick," I placed my hands on my hips, arms crooked, and sang: "I'm a little teapot, short and stout. Here is my handle . . . " I glanced down at my left arm. "Here is my spout . . . " I looked with surprise at my right arm, crooked like the left arm, and said, "Oh, darn, I'm a sugar bowl!" 
          The treats were often homemade (and hand-wrapped) cookies, popcorn balls or candied apples. Or we might be given a handful of peanuts, jelly beans, candied corn or bubble gum. Rarely, we might receive a "mini-bar" Baby Ruth, Butterfinger, Hershey, Heath or Milky Way. When we got home, we counted our treats and ate the ones that wouldn't keep, then hoarded the rest, nibbling them one by one all the way to Thanksgiving.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

the setting sun paints

the setting sun paints
the gray canvas of clouds pink
blue orange purple gold

It all happens so quickly. The sun sinking toward the horizon casts oblique beams onto the gray cloud streamers, lighting up the pixels of water droplets in a magnificent display of flaming colors. In a few minutes the burning orb dips below the line of vision, the curtain of darkness drops and the show is over.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

waves beating on sand

waves beating on sand,
leaves fluttering in wind, sunlight
shimmering on water

A group of musicians are walking up the main street of Nyuh Kuning, carrying all of their gamelan instruments and playing the ones that can be played while moving. The music is repetitive and droning. Pak Win says this processional style is called beleganjur. The music gets faster the closer they get to their destination.
          At the odalan for a new house at the north end of town, the musicians arrange their instruments in front of the area for a dance performance. This is a kebyar band with sixteen musicians. Two men play bamboo flutes, two beat large kendang drums, another pair pluck string instruments. The rest of the musicians are playing percussion instruments: small bronze reong pots, ceng-ceng cymbals with big bells, a rack of gong chimes and a long metallophone with bamboo resonating tubes. Like a family, each group of instruments lives together in the central village bale and they are tuned to each other in such a way that the instruments cannot be interchanged from one gamelan to another. Since Nyuh Kuning is a woodcarver’s village, this refined craft is reflected in the intricately carved and gilded wooden frames of the instruments. All of the designs as well as the tuning form a matching set.
           As I listen to the music, it seems both exotic and familiar. Pak Win tells me that the scales, called pelong, are based on five tones per octave, with intervals that vary from approximately half steps to whole steps to major thirds. The effect is complex and vibrant. The tunes are particular to each gamelan and to each type of performance. The gender wayang pieces we heard earlier at the wayang kulit shadow play were slow and serene, whereas this dance music is fast and lively. Pak Win explains that the themes are divided into several interlocking parts, which allows for a fast tempo. Players trade pitches to create a musical line, a technique known as kotek. Pairs of instruments are played in an interlocking movement, with one instrument tuned to the true scale and the other slightly flat to produce a tremolo. He points out particular moments in the dance movement when there is a break in the repeating musical line and at other times there is a dramatic outburst. Like ballet or opera, the dance and the music form two aspects of a single artistic expression.
          After we have listened for awhile, Pak Win draws my attention to the three-fold hierarchy of the music: the basic form carried in the low pitches, the melody in the middle range and the variations in the upper register. So much of Balinese culture is expressed in hierarchical triads: the mountains where the gods reside, the rice fields where humans live, and the ocean, the realm of the demons. 
          The overall effect of the music feels like waves beating on sand, leaves fluttering in the wind and sunlight shimmering on water. And now I realize why it seems familiar. It sounds like an outward manifestation of the sounds I hear inside when I meditate -- a low hum, pulsing mid-tones and high, shimmering bell-like tones. With that realization, I close my eyes and sink down into the music.

Friday, October 28, 2011

last rose of autumn

last rose of autumn --
tiny white crab spider guards
one red rose petal

The day before yesterday, the rose bush in the sheltered southeast side of the house still holds one rosebud and one unfolding rose blossom. In the warmth of the sun yesterday, it unfurls completely. With just a few large petals, it looks more like an Oriental poppy than a rose. This is not its usual appearance, as can be seen from last year's image of a many-petaled rose. Perhaps the drought forced the rosebush to conserve the number of petals on each blossom. Anyway, the poppy-like rose looks like a Georgia O'Keeffe painting. Intent on capturing the beauty of the blossom, I don't notice something sticking out from one petal, like a white thorn. When I move around for a different angle, I spot a tiny white crab spider perched on the edge of the petal, sitting in ambush, waiting to grab an unwary insect. Its two pairs of front legs stick straight out, appearing quite menacing despite its diminutive size. It holds that pose for a long time while I get up close and focus on taking its portrait. Then, perhaps weary of my scrutiny, it scuttles sideways behind the red curtain, ending the photo session. Last night, the temperature dropped to freezing. The soft green leaves of the dahlias are crumpled and their petals hang limp, like a crowd of women with long dripping wet hair. But the red rosebud has shed its protective overcoat and the full blossom still sits royally on its pedestal. No sign of the crab spider.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

a girl squats to light

a girl squats to light
dipas on a rangoli
shaped like a lotus

Diwali, the festival of lights, is being celebrated by Hindus around the world today. According to the lunar vedic calendar, the festival takes place during the new moon night between mid-October and mid-November, and this year it falls on 26 October. In India it marks the end of harvest, and farmers give thanks for this year's bounty and pray for a good harvest next year. Diwali derives from the Sanskrit word Dipavali, which means a row of lamps. People light dipas, small clay lamps filled with ghee, to signify the victory of light over darkness. The lamps are kept burning all night to welcome Mahalakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity. In preparation for the festival, people clean and decorate their homes with rangoli, patterns made from colored powder on the floor, kandil, colorful paper lanterns, and malas, garlands of marigolds. On the day of the festival, they wear new clothes, give gifts of sweets to family and friends, and recite prayers to Ganesh, the god of auspicious beginnings, and Mahalaksmi, the benevolent granter of desires.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

among goldenrod

among goldenrod,
little black horse, two brown calves
rest in the warm sun

I first saw the miniature black horse a couple of winters ago, in a little pasture just on the edge of town, between the Little League Field and the veterinarian. She (or so she seems to me) and her companion, a Holstein bull, stood out stark black against the deep white snow. The bull stood knee deep while the little horse stood belly deep, looking like she was floating on the snow. It was a cold winter with lots of snow and ice, so there was no way they could get down to the grass. The owner deposited a big round bale of hay next to the fence and this became both their dining room and bedroom. They pulled mouthfuls of hay from the bale and some of it fell on the ground, providing them with bedding, while the tall bale acted as a thick insulating wall protecting them from the icy north wind. They stood side by side, heads down. There is a little red barn on the far side of the pasture, but the two companions stayed outside the whole winter.
          In the spring, the black bull disappeared. I don't like to dwell on where beef cattle go. So the little black horse was left all alone. She grazed in the pasture all summer, in grass taller than her head. But then in the autumn, she, too, disappeared. My friend who raises Icelandic horses said these miniature horses have a lot of physical problems and the owner probably sold her. I missed her, as you miss a friend you see every day, even just in passing. I hoped she had been sold to a family with a little girl or boy who would love and take care of her.
          But then I kept catching a glimpse of her as I drove to and from town. Sometimes I was sure it was the little black horse, but other times I thought it was just a dark bush or a shadow or my imagination, sparked by my desire to see her again. Another hard winter with a lot of snow. No big round bale of hay in the pasture, so I was sure she was gone for good.
          Wet spring, dry summer, fleeting horse shadows. Hot autumn, leaves burning red and yellow, goldenrod waving in the wind. Suddenly, there she is, clearly not a shadow or a bush, but a little black horse wearing a blue bridle, standing near a pair of brown Jersey or Guernsey calves. I make a quick turn and get out of the truck by the pasture. The calves are lying back to back in the grass, eyes closed, chewing on their cud. The horse has her head down in the low green grass. She looks up when I approach the fence, watches me for awhile, walks past the calves, stops and surveys me again, then disappears behind a low hill. But now I'm sure she's really here again and I'm glad that she has friends once more for the coming winter.

Monday, October 24, 2011

a young opossum

a young opossum
playing possum, curled up, mouth
open, feigning dead

I am surprised to see a young opossum is sitting on the grass in our front yard because 'possums are usually nocturnal. It's between me and the car, so I walk slowly towards it. The 'possum's face looks a little beat up and I wonder if it was attacked by something. When I get a little closer, it hisses quietly and bares its 50 sharp teeth. This is just a bluff because 'possums are not good at actively defending themselves. When frightened, they usually run, or if cornered, they employ a passive defense method. As I get even closer, the 'possum flops down on its side, saliva foaming from its open mouth, eyes closed, and a foul smell coming from under its tail, "playing 'possum" to make me think it's dead. The young 'possum has plenty of room to flee, so it's odd that it faints. But this involuntary defense behavior has served the species well, because opossums have been around since the age of the dinosaurs, at least 70 million years. 
          The Virginia opossum is North America's only marsupial mammal. After a short gestation period of 13 days, the female gives birth to a litter of about 5-8 babies. The babies have to find their way into the mother's pouch (marsupium), where they attach to a teat and nurse until they are about two to three months old. Then the mother carries them on her back another month or two whenever they are away from the den. The babies cling tightly to her soft fur even when she is running or climbing. Opossums have thumbs on their hind feet and prehensile tails which they use as a brace and fifth hand when they climb trees. 
          Opossums have very good immune systems, being almost immune to snake venom and rabies. They can live just about anywhere and will eat just about anything: cockroaches, frogs, birds, slugs, snails, earthworms, over-ripe fruit, rats, mice, human garbage, pet food and carrion. Unfortunately, many of them are killed by vehicles while they are scavenging roadkill. Very few survive to adulthood and even then they don't live long, only two to four years. Opossums have a gentle, placid nature, as seen in the photo of the old man with a pet 'possum on his shoulder.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

a pair of window

a pair of window
shade pulls -- wrapped, knotted, looped -- cast
shadows on the wall

It's Friday and I'm waiting in the Sunset Room at Morningstar Studio for our weekly English country dance session to begin. The walls are covered with paintings and drawings of nudes, but I've looked at them many times. Instead, my eyes are drawn to a pair of window shade pulls. Someone tied the cords together, accidentally creating an artistic effect, especially with the overhead spotlights casting multiple shadows on the graceful curves. The texture of the twined cords contrasts with the smooth plastic of the grips, and the texture of the stucco on the wall contrasts with the smooth wood of the wainscot. English country dance is like that, a play of opposites. At the beginning of the dance, two lines of dancers face each other, like the straight pair of window shade pulls. When the music starts, the dancers begin to move around each other: up a double, arm right, siding, set and turn single, circle to the right, star left, gypsy right, back to back, double figure eight. The movements are visible but the patterns are like shadows cast on the dance floor, ephemeral, yet real. If you hover above the dancers, you will see the forms flowing, looping, curving back.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

on the red alley

on the red alley
wall, white face painted over
Virginia Creeper vines

I can imagine this piece of alley graffiti hanging in a museum, as some sort of social or political statement entitled "Making a Face." Graffiti is often found in alleyways or other out-of-the-way places because graffiti is generally considered vandalism and the street artist usually prefers a place that is out of sight to lessen the risk of getting caught. The word graffiti comes from the Greek graphikos, "belonging to painting or drawing," and the urge to paint or draw on a blank surface is as old as mankind. From prehistoric cave paintings and pictographs, to ancient carvings on Roman and Egyptian monuments, to modern spray paint graffiti on boxcars and in New York subways, humans express themselves, with many styles and messages.

On a boarded up window in the same alley,this spray-painted graffiti appears to be an example of a "tag," a stylized artist's signature, the ultimate self-expression that proclaims, "I've been here and left my mark."

And here's an iconic, Picasso-esque happy face in gold paint that simply makes me smile.

Friday, October 21, 2011

banded woolly bear

banded woolly bear
searching for a place to hole
up for the winter

My father is raking leaves and my sister and I are jumping into the fragrant piles. In the dry grass I find a woolly bear, steadily making its way across the yard. I pick it up and it curls into a black and orange ball, its fur prickling my palm. When I show it to my father, he tells me the caterpillar is looking for a place to hibernate for the winter, maybe under a log or a rock. He says you can tell how long and cold the winter is going to be by the orange banc on the caterpillar, the thicker the band, the milder the winter. This one has a narrow copper band. "Does that mean we'll have a lot of snow?" I ask hopefully. Then I start to worry that the woolly bear, even with a thick coat, will freeze. My father, a chemist, explains that the caterpillar produces a kind of antifreeze, like the ethylene glycol we put in our car or the propylene glycol they put in ice cream to keep it from forming ice crystals. "Maybe it's dimethyl sulfoxide," he mutters. I know that stuff. That's the liquid he puts on my skin when I get a bruise, claiming it will make it heal faster, but it still takes a long time to turn from purple to yellow. 
          We do have a lot of snow that winter, but it has nothing to do with the width of the woolly bear's band. My father's mixture of fact and fiction was misleading. He was right about the caterpillar producing a cryoprotectant. But perhaps because he wasn't a biologist, he didn't know that hatchlings from the same clutch of eggs, like kittens from the same cat, vary a lot in color, and that the copper band gets wider with age. The banded woolly bear is the larva of the Isabella tiger moth. In the spring the caterpillar emerges from hibernation, devours herbs and forbs, pupates and turns into a lovely golden moth with a furry head. The moth lives through the summer, mates, and the female lays eggs which hatch in the autumn.

          It's October and the woolly bears are migrating. I see them by the dozens, marching slowly but steadily across the highway. They always go straight across, but in both directions. I drive slowly, my eyes straining to see the tiny black caterpillars against the dark pavement. When I spot one, I swerve to miss it, making sure there's no one behind me who might wonder what's wrong with me. Today, when I stop at the mail box, I see one crossing the concrete apron before the bridge and I run back to take its picture. Before I can reach down to pick up the woolly bear and deposit it in the grass, a big truck comes down the hill, so I jump back to the shoulder. After it passes, I walk back out to rescue the caterpillar, but alas, it has been smashed flat by the wheels of the truck, its green blood spewed across the concrete.

          I feel terrible because I took its picture instead of rescuing it first. I try to console myself by recalling the story about the saint and the dead cat. A mischievous man decides to test the reputed equanimity of the saint. He invites the saint to his house for a meal, then leads him by the most unpleasant path. They come upon a cat that has been overtaken by a bus. The mischievous man says, "Oh, how horrible!" But the saint says, "See, what pearly white teeth."

Thursday, October 20, 2011

eyes closed, nothing stirs

eyes closed, nothing stirs,
a well of silence fills the dome,
cameras forgotten

We're not allowed to take photos inside the Golden Dome, but during our evening program there are plenty of cameras, blue and gold lights and sound booms, filming Oprah Winfrey meditating with 478 ladies. It's October 2011 and we haven't had such a happening in 30 years, when Doug Henning and Debbie Douillard got married in December 1981 in the Bagambhrini Dome, which was still under construction. Oprah, along with 250 of her staff, learned Transcendental Meditation two months ago, and right away she decided to visit Fairfield and Vedic City, a community of several thousand TM meditators. This past week her staff came to town to prepare for her visit. Rumors had leaked the name of our special guest, so we spent the week beautifying our 25,000 square foot (round) meditation hall and entrance.
          On the first day of their visit, the group flies in from Chicago on her private jet, the largest airplane ever to land in our small airport. When Oprah visits the Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment, she says, "The age of enlightenment is what I have been wanting all my life." She is also invited to visit the campus of the Maharishi Vedic Pandits, where over 900 pandits from India practice TM and the TM-Sidhis program and perform their traditional yagyas. She listens to them chant and afterwards some of the pandits tell her how happy they are to be here, creating peace for the world.
          The day of Oprah's visit to the Ladies' Dome, we are told to wear makeup and there is a big sign in the entrance announcing that if we enter the building we agree to allow our photo to be used for publicity. No problem, since many ladies are eager to sit in the vicinity of the famous media mogul and be interviewed outside the dome. 
          Oprah and the video crew come early to see the dome empty. She loves the framed quotes on the walls, especially the one by Maharishi: "The search for total knowledge starts from the Self and finds fulfillment in coming back to the Self, finding that everything is the expression of the Self -- everything is the extension of my own Self." She stops in front of one by Marcus Aurelius: "Nowhere can a man withdraw to a more untroubled quietude than in his own soul. Grant yourself this withdrawal continually, and refresh yourself." Oprah turns to her video crew and says, "Do you get that? That's what TM is all about."
          The Golden Dome is restricted to ladies who practice TM and the TM-Sidhis, and you have to have a valid badge to enter, but that is waived for our celebrity. Oprah pauses at the entrance to the meditation area, surprised by the number of ladies streaming in or already seated on the foam that covers the floor. "Are they coming from work or home?" she asks. Candace, her hostess, replies, "From everywhere. At work they stop their project and leave for the dome. At home, they put dinner on the stove and come to the dome. Doing group program together twice a day is their top priority." 
          Oprah meditates for about half and hour before leaving us to continue the siddhis portion of the program. The presence of the cameras and lights and a famous guest do not disturb the profound silence of 478 women meditating together. Nothing stirs. As Oprah is leaving, Candace says, "You get it." Oprah throws her arms around Candace. "I get it!" Then she turns to her video crew, "That is amazing." She takes a few more steps, turns back, looks directly at the camera and says, "That is truly amazing."

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

purple petunias

purple petunias
growing in the gap between
Walker and walkers

Late October and a purple petunia plant is still blooming profusely in a crevice between a granite wall and a concrete sidewalk, literally stuck between a rock and a hard place. But I don't hear it complaining. Somehow, in spite of its accidental sprouting in such a restricted space, the fragile, fragrant blossoms are flourishing, tucked up against the Walker wall, safe from passing feet.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

behind the white string

behind the white string
of a wayang kulit, the dalang 
brings the puppets to life

The odalan in Nyuh Kuning has been going on around the clock for days. Lots of offerings, blessings, prayers and chanting, and also lots of entertainment. One of the most popular is the shadow puppet theater, wayang kulit. Pak Win, my cultural interpreter, tells me that wayang means shadow and kulit means skin, in this case the perforated water buffalo hide used for the puppets. Wayang kulit is religious, instructive and entertaining all at the same time. 
          There are two types of performances, daytime and nighttime. Wayang peteng usually goes on all night and is primarily entertaining, combining religious mythology with historical facts, current events, local stories and humor. Wayang lemah is a religious rite. Lemah means daylight and this shadow puppet theater is performed only during the day. The two types of performance also differ in the presentation. In wayang peteng, the flat cut-out figures are silhouetted behind the kelir, a translucent screen lit by a damar, a hanging coconut-husk lamp which creates animation with shadow and light. In wayang lemah, like the one I'm watching, there is no screen, only a string separating the dalang, or puppet master, from the audience. Pak Win points out the white string hanging in a graceful curve above the stage. He says that the daytime wayang kulit is actually performed for the gods and is considered an offering. 
          The dalang sits cross-legged on the stage behind a gedebong, a bamboo trunk in which the puppets are placed, heroic figures on the right, evil figures on the left. His two assistants, tutulan, hand him the puppets. The dalang manipulates the puppets with rods made of carved buffalo horn. 
          He is accompanied by a gender wayang, a small gamelan orchestra, which he signals by tapping his foot on the wooden puppet box by his left side. Gender means an instrument with bars suspended over bamboo resonating tubes. This gender wayang consists of two metallophones with ten bars each. Pairs of musicians sit on both sides of the instrument and strike the bars with two disc-headed wooden mallets and then mute them with the heals of their hands.
          There are three types of religious stories that are performed in wayang kulit, Pak Win explains: Wayang Parwa, about the many heroes in the Mahabharata, Wayang Ramana, stories about Rama, the hero of the Ramanyana, and Wayang Colon Arang, stories about the witch Rangda. All of these epic stories climax with the triumph of good over evil.
          Pak Win says that the dalang is really a one-man show: actor, storyteller, historian, educator, comedian and holy man, all rolled into one. He and his puppets are highly revered in the community. The puppet master, usually a male, is consecrated in a ceremony similar to that of a priest. Like a priest, he is able to make holy water and he recites prayers before the performance to bring the puppets to life. He is able to recite long passages from memory and play all the parts, varying his voice to match each character. With his many skills, the dalang plays an important role in passing on traditional culture from one generation to the next.      

Monday, October 17, 2011

split cicada husk

split cicada husk
clinging to box elder bark --
nymph body long gone

It was my father who first showed me one of the strange brown husks clinging by the thousands all over the bark of our big apple tree. It looked like a dead insect with creepy claws and bulging eyes. He pointed out the slit down the back and claimed that another insect, twice as big, had emerged from inside and after its wings dried it had flown away. My father told a lot of tall tales, like the one about flying catfish, so I didn't really believe the part about a giant bug coming out of that little empty shell. "Listen," he said, and I tuned in to the deafening "wee-ah, wee-ah" permeating the humid summer evening. "That's a chorus of boy locusts singing a love song to their girlfriends." What a strange song, I thought, eerie and hypnotic. Then my father did a scary thing. He plucked the papery corpse off the bark and placed it right on my shirt, where it's little claws clung to the soft fabric. I flinched, but the bug didn't bite or pinch or crawl up my neck, so I got used to walking around with a dead bug on my shirt, like a brown paper pin. After awhile I started collecting them and even wearing them in my hair.
          What my father called 17-year locusts are periodical cicadas that live underground for either 13 or 17 years. The nymphs remain attached to the roots of plants and feed on the sap. During this time they go through five molts. In the late spring of their last juvenile year, they dig tunnels and then emerge in a huge, mass migration, crawling up the plant to molt into winged adults. In the short space of about a month, the males congregate by the thousands, often in one tree, to sing their mating call, the loudest known insect call at up to 100 db. Females fly to the "chorus tree" where they mate and lay eggs. Then they both die. One time I was lucky to witness a red-eyed cicada slowly emerge from its nymph shell. Then it crawled higher up in the pine tree to rest for a few days, waiting for its pale exoskeleton and transparent wings to harden completely and turn dark green.

          Why do periodical cicadas emerge in prime numbered years? Scientists believe this represents an adaptation to the colder soil temperatures during Pleistocene glacial periods. How do they know when to come out from the dark ground after such a long time? Scientists think they take cues from the seasonal signals of the trees as to how many years have passed. Last year, 2010, a weird aberration in their 17-year cycle happened here in southeast Iowa, when a small number of the insects emerged four years ahead of schedule. According to Donald Lewis, professor of entomology at Iowa State University, they appeared in 1963, 1980 and 1997, and they should not have appeared again until 2014. No one knows why. "What has changed so much in our lifetime," Lewis asks, "that the cicadas would change a fundamental part of their lifecycle and make this mistake? Climate change is one possibility."

Sunday, October 16, 2011

long green blades of wild

long green blades of wild
water iris crisscross
above a small round pond

I found these wild water iris growing in the water along the shore of a lake in Wisconsin and brought a few rhizomes home to plant in and around the edge of our small round pond. The "yellow flags" with their pinwheel beacons bloom in late spring. The shape of the blossom of the original European native water iris, pseudacorus, was the model for the French fleur-de-lis. After the flowers die, the tall leaf blades create an attractive display all summer. In autumn the leaves begin to turn yellow and fall across the pond, interlinking like a Scottish rapper sword dance. 

          Unbeknownst to me, the iris carried with them some tiny hitchhikers, called duckweed. These aquatic plants are the world’s smallest and simplest flowering plants, having neither leaves nor stems but only a flat frond that floats on the surface of the water with a single root dangling underneath. Common duckweed, lemna, reproduces by budding. They multiplied so quickly on our small pond that they soon covered the entire surface, blocking sunlight and possibly upsetting the pond's oxygen balance. Fish eat duckweed, which helps control its spread, and fish farmers use it for feeding fish. However, it can become a nuisance and various methods are used to control it it. Mechanical skimmers usually don't completely eradicate it, whereas herbicides do, but chemicals in a water source can be dangerous. We don't have fish but we do have frogs, and both the tadpoles and the adult frogs love the cover that duckweed provides. The dense shade prevents algae from growing in the pond, which is a major problem in our neighbor's big pond. Duckweed also removes nitrates, so environmentalists use it as a biological water purifier. Not surprisingly, ducks love to eat duckweed, and it is also a popular food for humans living in Southeast Asia. Higher in protein than soybeans, it is an inexpensive food source for fish, fowl and humans. It just goes to show that one person's pest is another person's protein.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

wasp galls on fallen

wasp galls on fallen
oak leaves floating on duckweed,
slowing sinking

I am always amazed at the endless variety of creatures that inhabit our planet. Insects outnumber us larger creatures many times over, yet most of us know very little about their lives. With the falling of leaves from our oak trees, I've been noticing more different kinds of oak galls, most of them caused by wasps or midges. There are over 700 different kinds of oak galls, which may be found on every part of the tree, from leaves to twigs, stems to branches, even on the roots. They come in an astonishing range of sizes, shapes, colors and textures, from apples to Hershey kisses, bullets to brains, sea urchins to oysters, hedgehogs to woolly bears. 
          Some species of wasps have a complex life cycle. Alternating generations look different and produce different galls. In the spring, female wasps emerge from woody galls on twigs and lay their eggs on the underside midribs of leaves. When the eggs hatch, the larvae cause galls to form and they live inside until they pupate and emerge as adult wasps. The second generation deposits eggs in oak twigs but the woody galls will not appear until the next spring.
          All of our oak trees are covered with gouty oak galls that look like blistered balls wrapped around the twigs. These unsightly growths remain on the trees for years, long after the wasp has emerged. Fortunately, none of the galls really damage the tree.

          One rather interesting type of gall is the jumping bullet gall, which looks like little brown bullets hanging from the underside of oak leaves. A single larva lives inside each gall and when detached and placed on the ground, the gall hops around like a Mexican jumping bean. Great entertainment for children of all ages.

as nights grow colder

as nights grow colder,
a butterfly with tattered wings
basks in warm sunshine

A tattered, yellowed page falls out of a folder on my desk, unfolding on the floor to a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson: "The days come and go like muffled and veiled figures sent from a distant friendly party, but they say nothing, and if we do not use the gifts they bring, they carry them as silently away." 
          The warm but shorter days are silently carrying away the gifts of summer. Leaves cascade in torrents from the trees. Tall prairie grasses turn copper, casting their seeds to the wind. Squirrels busily attempt to bury hickory nuts and acorns in the rock-hard ground. Fuzzy black and brown caterpillars scurry as fast as their many legs can carry them in search of a protected place to curl up for the winter. Honey bees forage on wild white and purple asters for the last drops of nectar. Hummingbirds and many others have migrated south, while the ones overwintering, like the Goldfinch, have molted from sunflower yellow to dull olive. Monarch butterflies and many others have also migrated south, while other butterflies and moths are already holed up in hollows or cracks in the bark of trees. 
          I follow a butterfly with tattered swallowtail wings around the yard, a straggler, late to either migrate or hibernate. It flutters from brown leaf to brown leaf until it lands on one yellow leaf, where it spreads its wings, soaking up the warmth from the afternoon sun. I squat down among the crisp, aromatic leaves, spread my bare arms and turn my face to the sun.

Friday, October 14, 2011

grasshopper clinging

grasshopper clinging
to the green wall of a shop --
no blade of grass in sight

I have a particularly keen eye for small anomalies, like four-leaf clovers and typos in sentences, so I immediately notice a grasshopper clinging to the green paint near the foot of the wall at the entrance to Natural Selections. Seems an appropriate place to hang out if you've hopped into town. Grasshoppers prefer grass, leaves and crops such as corn and soybeans, but maybe this grasshopper would be willing to try some of the natural fiber clothes in the shop, such as cotton, hemp or bamboo. In Aesop's famous fable, the grasshopper plays all summer while the ant works hard to build a shelter and store food for the winter, so the grasshopper ends up starving to death. Of course, the female has already laid eggs in the soil, which will lie dormant until the following summer, so the death of the adult grasshopper is not the end of the story. But the fable has given rise to a number of associations besides improvidence, including unfaithfulness (hopping from one partner to another), being scatterbrained (hopping quickly from one subject to another), or naivete (having a lot to learn). Among certain yogis who practice yogic flying, hopping is the beginning stage, followed by hovering and then flying in space. Now that's a blade of grass to chew on!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Moon and Jupiter

Moon and Jupiter
side by side with the stars and stripes
waving in the wind

I've just come out of ICON gallery after watching the BBC documentary on Ai WeiWei, the renowned Chinese activist artist. After the Cultural Revolution, WeiWei moved to the US to experience freedom -- political, social, economic and artistic. After Tiananmen Square, he went back to China. I am walking along the north side of Fairfield Square, reflecting on  freedom, and there, like an artist's statement, the Moon and Jupiter float like a pair of bright white eyes on either side of the American flag. Yesterday the two celestial bodies did not appear side-by-side and tomorrow they will move apart as they continue their revolutions for millions of years, while the stars and stripes wave for who knows how long.

scanning with her white

scanning with her white
cane, touching walls with finger
tips, the blind lady
finds her way through the darkness
surrounded by light

She can feel the warmth of the autumn sun on her face but her eyes cannot see what the light illuminates. The blind lady inches her way along, guided by feedback from the tip of her long, white cane and the tips of her fingers. Sometimes a friendly arm helps her cross a street before the light changes. As she gropes her way along the buildings, a man who rides around town with an American flag on his bike pulls up behind her and leans his bike against the brick wall. While she navigates the open space of the entrance to the Bargain Box, he stops to warn her that there is another bike parked ahead of her. Even though she can't see him, she turns to face him, focusing on his voice. 
          Perhaps she is like Jacques Lusseyran, the blind World War II French resistance leader. In his autobiography, And There Was Light, he says, "Blindness heightens certain sensations, giving sudden and often disturbing sharpness to the senses of hearing and touch. But, most of all, like a drug, it develops inner as against outer experience, and sometimes to excess." Lusseyran had an uncanny ability to sense a person's character and even to perceive the outer world in great detail. Most remarkably, Lusseyran reports that his inner experience is not one of darkness but light, all light.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

harvest moon rising

harvest moon rising
through long spiral seedpods of
a honey locust

Full moon last night, looking huge among the branches of a honey locust, then appearing to shrink as it rose above the tangle of pods. The "honey" part of the tree's common name comes from the sweet pulp of the unripe pods, which Native Americans used for food. The pulp contains large seeds in slots, like beans in a bean pod. As the locust pods ripen, the beans turn shiny dark brown and the surrounding skin turns from bright green to dark maroon. Deer and other herbivores such as  horses and cattle love to eat the succulent pulp. The hard seed coat breaks down during digestion, so when the seeds are secreted they germinate more easily. 
          The trunk and limbs of the honey locust are covered with dense clusters of long thorns, which start out soft and green, then turn hard and red, and finally brittle and gray. The hard thorns have been used as nails and the rot-resistant wood as posts and rails. It is thought that the tree evolved these thorns as a defense against browsing Pleistocene megafauna. Imagine chomping into those thorns! About the only thing that threatens these hardy trees is the mimosa webworm. Colonies of these caterpillars form large web "tents" and proceed to defoliate the tree. This year we had to clear an area with a lot of honey locusts in order to erect a wind generator and solar panels. Chopping down a honey locust doesn't kill it, as it just send up new shoots from the stump or roots. The trunk must be double ringed and left until the tree dies before it can be felled. Then the wicked thorns have to be carefully clipped off and burned before we can use the tree for firewood. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

wild asparagus

wild asparagus
ferns glow bright copper
against dried up corn

The verge between field and highway brims full of native forbs, woody plants and a sprinkling of domestic plants that have escaped back into the wild, like this asparagus. The ferny leaves that grow out of the naked green stalks have turned bright copper in autumn, giving the plant the appearance of a burning bush about to consume the dessicated corn stalks. Unfortunately, the threat of fire in the drought-dry fields is quite real. Recently, there have been several field fires in southeast Iowa, mostly in the more flammable soybean fields. A truck with a hot muffler going into a field can ignite the parched plants, and a recent spate of windy days accelerates the spread of fire. Farm equipment has to be careful driving over the wide cracks in the dry ground, which can cause a broken axle. Yesterday a sprinkling of rain gave rise to low-lying fog this morning, spreading a welcome layer of moisture, but by late morning the sun-baked fields are arid again.