Monday, December 30, 2013

blooming at Christmas

blooming at Christmas
green pads shoot off red rockets
for northern New Year's

My son's Christmas cactus started blooming at Thanksgiving, kept up a barrage of blossoms at Christmas and is still shooting off red rockets for the New Year. Here in North America we call this plant "Christmas cactus" because it conveniently blooms around the holiday season and sports bright colors of green and red in vivid contrast to the snowy world outside. Schlumbergera is actually an immigrant from South America, where it is called "Flor de Maio" because it blooms in May. 
          This thornless, leafless plant with flat truncated stems doesn't look anything like our usual image of desert cactus. That's because its home is the moist coastal mountains of southeastern Brazil, where it grows on mossy tree limbs or in the humus-filled pockets of rocks. There, the nectar-filled, tubular red flowers attract hummingbirds, which pollinate the flowers. The fertilized flowers produce fleshy fruits that are eaten by birds, which then distribute the seeds.
          So here sits our pot-bound transplant in a south-facing windowsill, blooming its heart out in the middle of a Midwestern winter, no hummingbirds in sight. It may live for years and years, perhaps being passed down to another family member, without ever reproducing. But still, it gives great joy to all who behold its magical transformation from a rather homely plant into a fabulous fountain of flashy blossoms.

Friday, December 20, 2013

reflection of used books

reflection of used books
cast onto a stone wall --
petrified paper

We are sitting around an old round oak table by the front window of Revelations, a used bookstore and restaurant just north of the town square. The combination of inexpensive reading material and good food makes it a popular hangout. Right now the place is packed with Christmas shoppers and people socializing during the holidays. I'm doing both, still on the lookout for a few last-minute gifts among the packed book shelves while having lunch with friends.
          The walls are lined with used books waiting to be adopted. You can almost hear them begging, "Take me!" Popular, timeless volumes pass through many hands, whereas outdated technical editions sit forlornly gathering no more attention than the penetrating aroma of wood fired pizza.
          But who still reads printed books? We are, perhaps, the last generation. One of my sons, who does still read paper books but spends a lot of time on planes, told me, "If you're going to get me a book, make it a Kindle version." 
          There are no ebooks at Revelations. Nothing's virtual here, except perhaps the eerie reflection of paper books projected by the soft light of a lamp through plate glass onto the stone wall of the entrance. Ghost books hovering just outside a bookstore, very close to being something without actually being it. Petrified fossils from an ancient age. People coming and going pass quickly through the virtual images without absorbing a single word.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

sleepy snow eyes

sleepy snow eyes
opening on a world turned 
white overnight

On Friday the 13th, freezing rain, followed by snow. In the morning I go out to clear the windshield, laughing to see the half-lidded "eyes" on the pickup truck cover. 

Snow lies crumpled on the slanted windows where it slid down the slick panes. 

In town, a lone sycamore leaf lies beside a water runoff grate, the last leaf of fall on the first snow of winter.      

Thursday, December 5, 2013

casting cloud shadows

casting cloud shadows 
contrails back lit at sunset
crisscross the cobalt sky

Blazing sunsets lately, as if to make up for less daylight and more cold as the sun heads south for the winter. In response to increasing darkness, we multiply our lights, inside and out. Driving home, I pass houses, lamp posts, bushes and trees decorated with blinking strands of white, red, green and blue. At home I prefer the radiance of real fire to cold electric lights. I stoke up the wood burning stove, light a few candles and sit to enjoy the mesmerizing dance of yellow flames on logs and the summery scent of beeswax. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

red and all red

red and all red
stairs not going anywhere
only the people

Behind a white door, a red staircase connects lower and upper floors in an old building on the town square. The staircase stays put, not going anywhere, but hundreds of feet over the years have gone up and down, down and up, wearing the risers swayback. 

This must have been a dark passageway when it was Gobbles Clothiers, a men's clothing store owned by fourth generation Iowan, Lee Gobble, for 50 years. You can still see the old bricks peeking from behind the thick plaster.

Now the building houses ICON Art Gallery, and in the hands of artist Bill Teeple the dark stairway has been transformed into a study in color, light and texture.

A place of magic where the way up is also the way down, or neither up nor down, but a place halfway to everywhere and everywhen. It's easy to get there. Just lie upside down on the crenelated steps, stare at the stairs and dream red and all red dreams.

Monday, November 11, 2013

first snow, fat flakes

first snow, fat wet flakes
falling on the square through flags
honoring veterans

Always, it's moving to see hundreds of American flags standing at attention in rows all around the town square. They appear like magic on national holidays -- Veteran's Day and Independence Day. This year on the 11th day of November the flags really are moving, blown about by a wind bringing the first snow of winter. Two young women and a toddler, sensibly dressed in parkas, are strolling along the flag-bordered walks. They are greeted with wide arms by a man not so sensibly dressed -- shorts, no socks, no hat -- but their effusive group hug is enough to warm everyone.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

rain wet window holds

rain wet window holds
red maple leaves, reflection
of a bare black tree

Cold autumn rain, the kind that makes you hurry to get home. As I rush along the rain-slick street, a mile-long coal train trundling east blocks my way. Without slowing down, I detour to the railroad underpass, then turn back on a different street. What does stop me is a white van, festooned with orange and yellow maple leaves. It's not blocking my way, but I pull over anyway, to stare at the spectacle of the fallen leaves, arrested in their descent by the same rain that blew them down. From the dark side window, the reflection of a "boo tree" stares back at me, its bare black limbs reaching out as if to recapture its bright treasures.
          Without the coal train I would not have taken a different route home. Without the rain the autumn leaves would have simply fallen to the ground. And without a sense of wonder I would not have stopped to marvel at the beauty of dead leaves and be surprised by a dark reflection.

Friday, November 1, 2013

on the night of the dead

on the night of the dead
a red-eyed ghoul with gaping mouth
on a white pumpkin

At the end of September, suddenly the supermarkets are full of pumpkins lined up in rows outside. I search the stands for the most unusual pumpkins, passing up the traditional orange pumpkins, varying only in size and girth, as well as the green ones and those covered with warts. Finally, I choose a a small white one with a lovely curved stem and a black ghoulish face on one side where it lay on the ground, a blemish with character. And also a low, wide red pumpkin with a yellow and green cape on the top.
          These two will not become Jack-o-lanterns, destined to rot and be thrown into the garbage after Halloween. Instead, after serving as table decor for a month, I carve them into slices for drying, to be added to soups and stews all winter long. The big one goes first. Sliced in half and resting upside down, it looks like the face of an owl with two big eyes and a beak. I scoop out the pulp and extract the seeds, saving a few for planting and roasting the rest for snacks. Then I slice up the thick orange flesh and arrange the pieces on a bamboo tray for drying. When the slices are dry, this gigantic pumpkin fits inside a quart jar, where another face with a long nose gazes back at me.
          We who have faces see faces everywhere. The first thing human babies focus their eyes on is their mother's face, with obvious survival benefits. But why we see faces in clouds, tree bark, stones, buildings with windows and doors, car hoods, clocks, and pumpkins is amusing, isn't it?

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

woolly bear -- black hair

woolly bear -- black hair
curled in a ball under a log
waiting for winter

Isabella usually goes with the black and orange look for Halloween, but this year she dyed her spiky hair all black. I found her curled up under a log, taking a nap.
          Isabella is a woolly bear caterpillar, and she's not the only one to change her costume. Every single one of the woolly bears I've seen crossing the highway in search of a hidey-hole for the winter have all-black bristles. In all my years of watching woolly bears, I've never seen anything like it. What does it mean? 
          The woolly bear, which is neither a bear nor woolly, is the bristly larva of the Isabella tiger moth. The caterpillar has 13 segments, normally orange-brown in the middle and black on both ends. According to legend, the wider the brown band, the milder the coming winter, so no brown at all would predict a really hard winter. But is it true?
          According to Mike Peters, an entomologist at the University of Massachusetts, the number of brown hairs indicates the age of the caterpillar, reflecting how late it emerged in the spring. A heavy winter or an early spring the previous year would result in a wider brown band. If that's true, then we should have had a harsh winter last year, but actually it was fairly warm with little snow, unlike most winters in Iowa. 
          So who knows, maybe the woolly bears just wanted a new look this year.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

eye of the buck


eye of the buck
opening slowly from inside
its prickly pod

When I was growing up, we lived for some years in Ohio, the Buckeye State. The lawn behind our house sloped down to a woods that bordered old railroad tracks. A short walk down the tracks was the "bum's house," an abandoned concrete shell with empty windows, the walls covered with graffiti, and on the floor a blackened spot from cooking fires.
          We had our own fire pit in our little parcel of the woods, surrounded by logs for sitting around the fire at night, watching the orange sparks fly up from the flames to join the stars peaking through the tree canopy, roasting marshmallows for s'mores and telling tall tales. Sometimes we threw buckeyes in the fire, daring each other to eat the roasted nuts. We saw squirrels eating the raw nuts, but they knew how to chew through the pink outer layer, which is very bitter, to the white inner heart. Once, I tried doing what I heard that the Native Americans did, roasting, mashing and grinding the seeds into a meal which for porridge, but it was not very satisfying.
          During the afternoons and on weekends we ran around in our woods playing games. One of our favorites involved buckeyes. The equipment was simple, but took some time to construct. In early autumn, when the buckeye trees dropped their seed pods, the greenish-gold, leathery husks would split open, revealing one or sometimes two glossy, chestnut brown seeds with a pale circular "eye" that looks like the eye of a buck. Everyone carried a favorite buckeye for good luck, and just for the marvelous feel of the smooth orb. But for this game you searched for the biggest buckeye you could find, through which you drilled a hole and tied one end of a long string through the hole.
          The game consisted of two kids bashing their buckeyes together with the goal of breaking the other buckeye. If you did, you got to add that "coup" to your buckeye. If you broke a buckeye that already had a total coup of seven, then you got to add seven strikes to your buckeye. It took a good deal of mind-body coordination to get two flying objects to connect, and we learned from experience about momentum, velocity, vectors and what happens when two bodies collide. Sometimes the collision involved the other person's arm or hand, but that strike didn't count and could result in your friend holding a strike against you, which was another kind of lesson.
          I still like to collect buckeyes in the fall, but now I leave them in their shells and put them in a bowl on the dining table so I can watch the spiny husks slowly open like eyelids, revealing shiny dark brown eyes.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

no longer hidden

no longer hidden
by leaves, spiny buckeye pods,
a paper wasp nest

On my way home from the mailbox at the highway, I stop to pick up some buckeye pods fallen on the gravel road. Only a scattering of russet five-fingered leaves and spiny pods remain on the nearly naked tree. Looking up, I spot a large gray object the size and shape of a head, hanging from a lower branch. It's a paper hornet nest. Just as I'm wondering if it's abandoned, I see hornets streaming in and out of a hole near the bottom of the nest. Through my zoom lens I can see the white face and the three white stripes on the tail that identifies them as bald-faced hornets, also called white-faced or white-tailed hornets. These are very aggressive insects, which will sting repeatedly if their nest is disturbed. A little scary, realizing how I've been traipsing for months past this nest, hidden by leaves not so very far above my head. I've already suffered an incredibly painful sting on the sole of my foot when I inadvertently stepped on a hornet this summer. Good thing I didn't try shaking the tree to knock down the buckeyes.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

before falling

before falling
locust pods transform, half light,
half curvaceous dark 

While everyone else rushes to lunch, I stand transfixed under the honey locust. It's not the feathery green leaves that capture my attention, although they are quite lovely. Rather it is the long, flat seed pods, curving and curling around each other in clusters. The long legumes are beginning to turn from gold to dark brown, creating fabulous patterns akin to the spots on wild animals. Brown lobes swelling up along the edge of the pod look like fingers or teeth. The thick pods encapsulate shiny brown seeds, the bearers of potential new life. And how marvelous, in the process of dying, the pods produce such graceful curves, this beautiful contrast of dark and light.
          This particular tree, growing in town, is a thornless honey locust, Gleditsia triacanthos inermis. Out where we live in the countryside, the woods are full of the more common thorny variety. Bees are attracted to the clusters of sweet creamy blossoms, but the name of the tree actually derives from the sweet inner pulp of the unripe pods, which Native Americans used for food. Our white-tailed deer love to forage on the sweet pods, passing on and thus dispersing the undigested seeds. On the other hand, I have seen squirrels chew open the leathery brown pods and with their hard teeth consume the hard seeds.

Friday, September 20, 2013

yellow jackets gorging

yellow jackets gorging
on king solomon's seal fruit
for their last supper

I can tell when the peaches, pears and apples are ripe from the craters left by yellow jackets gorging on the sugary fruit. At the end of summer, I discover a swarm of the yellow and black striped wasps gouging holes in the small black berries of King Solomon's Seal. Why this sudden appetite for anything sweet, from fruit to sugar water in hummingbird feeders to soda pop at a picnic?
          Therein lies a strange story. Like honeybees, yellow jackets are social insects that live in colonies with a queen, female workers and males. The queen is the only one who overwinters. When she emerges in the spring, she builds a small paper nest and lays eggs which hatch and mature into adult workers. The workers expand the nest, defend the nest entrance, forage for food, and feed the queen and larvae. At the peak of population expansion, the queen produces new queens and males, which leave the nest to mate in flight. The fertilized queens seek a protected place to spend the winter while the old queen and the males who mated die. With colder weather, the rest of the colony also begins to die.
          So what causes the end of life sugar feeding frenzy? Most of the summer the adults seek out sources of protein from insects and fish, which they chew up and feed to the larvae. In a win-win exchange known as trophallaxis, the larvae secrete a sugary substance that the adults crave. But in late summer and fall, sources of food become scarce and the yellow jackets scavenge for anything they can find, often attracted to human food sources. Instead of being benevolent destroyers of insect pests in the garden, they become people pests as they are drawn to picnics, outdoor restaurants and garbage cans. They will also rob honey from bee hives, which can weaken the honey bee colony. And to people who are allergic, their sting can be fatal. Some people have swallowed live yellow jackets from an open soda, resulting in a life-threatening sting.
          The best defense is prevention -- keeping food and garbage cans tightly covered. Insecticide sprays may be used on the nest, with caution, as well as non-toxic traps. And a hard freeze will kill all the yellow jackets except the new queens. 
          Fortunately, I was not near the nest entrance of the yellow jackets I photographed as they fed on King Solomon's Seal berries. In their eagerness for sugar, they hardly seemed to notice my presence. But I have learned not to eat fruit while I'm harvesting, so I don't get kissed by a yellow jacket.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

full moon blurred by clouds

full moon blurred by clouds --
pilgrims bearing little lights
up Fuji-san's dark slopes

Awake at 2:30, perhaps the effect of the full moon floating like a blurry pearl between clouds. Fuji-san's dark cone, framed by the shoji frame, is draped with a string of lights winking on and off like fireflies. In Japan, fireflies are traditionally believed to be the souls of the dead. However, the source of these lights is very much alive -- hundreds of mountain climbers with headlamps, hiking the Yoshida Trail at night to reach the summit in time to see the sun rise. 
          At 4:30 I wake again, perhaps the effect of the sudden enlivenment of light as the sun peeks above the ocean horizon. Sensei's house sits on the sunset side of a small mountain above the village of Oshino, west of Fuji-san. The mountain at our backs blocks the sun until it is well up, but the lucky pilgrims who reached the top of Fuji-san will see the sun make its dramatic appearance as a red ball perching briefly in the magical gap between water and air.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

on the deeply furrowed

on the deeply furrowed
bark of a sassafras tree
a face stares back at me

          The day after Labor Day, we're making our annual pilgrimage to the Missouri Ozarks, a pilgrimage that sends me back in time as well as placing me intensely in the present. 
          Crossing the footbridge to our campsite at Pulltite Campgrounds, I find the fallen leaves of sassafras scattered on the bare ground. If you didn't know, you might think these leaves came from different trees. Some are pointed ovals, others have three "fingers" or lobes, and some look like mittens, both right- and left-handed, with one lobe for the thumb. Why they grow this way on one tree is one of the marvelous mysteries of nature.
          In their autumn raiment each leaf is an abstract painting in splashes of green, gold, red and brown, interspersed with dark gray concentric circles like the growth rings of trees. I look around for the source of all these cast offs and find a tall tree, still bearing some green leaves, growing along the little creek that runs under the bridge and into the Current River.
          Picking up a red mitten, I press it to my nose. Ah, that sweet scent takes me back to my childhood. My grandmother used sassafras oil as a fragrance for homemade soap. And every year my grandfather dug up roots from trees on their Southern Illinois farm to make sassafras tea. He said the reddish-brown concoction was good for anything that ails you. Even after I went off to college, he would send me a package of the curled bark of the dried roots so I could steep my own tea. And of course, real root beer was always flavored with safrole, the essential oil from steam distilled sassafras roots. (Yes, I know, safrole oil is no longer legal in the US.)
          My older sister, when she lived in Louisiana, introduced us to gumbo filé, gumbo made with a powder of dried sassafras leaves, a spicy herb that made its way into Creole cuisine from Native American tribes. In addition to the culinary use of sassafras, Native Americans also used sassafras medicinally, as the oil in all parts of the tree has antiseptic and analgesic properties. 
          The oil also makes a good insect repellent, and since we're besieged by mosquitoes this close to the river I rub some of the redolent leaves on my bare skin. Then I gather a handful of the leaves, which will make excellent fire starters.