5/3/2016 LAGNIAPPE #8: CYGNUS BUCCINATOR
Lagniappe—something extra, something beyond what
was labored for, or paid for. A gift. A blessing. Two native swans
returning, day after day, to our glacial kettlepond.
A return to poetry and the land after a solid year of politics.
The trumpeter swans paddling around our
pond are part of a narrative of healing. Trumpeters, the largest species of
waterfowl native to North America, nearly went extinct in the early half of
the twentieth century. Fewer than 70 were known to exist in the wild in
1933, and even these were dwindling. When several thousand were found near
the Copper River in Alaska, wildlife organizations reintroduced them to the
parts of North America where they were native. Here's the good news: we can
do this. We can heal what we have broken. The population of trumpeter swans
is now nearly 50,000.
It's been a year minus a day since I
posted in this blog. For that year, I worked more than full time--first as
a volunteer, and then as a staffer--on Bernie Sanders' presidential
campaign. I am still volunteering for the campaign, and thinking forward,
to what comes next: whoever is elected to the presidency, we must--as a
species, a country, a state, a county, a community--continue the most
important work of our generation: not merely halting climate change and the
mass extinction event we're already living through, but healing the earth
and ourselves and our fractured institutions as we do so.
And the two swans who chose our pond as
their home? Six years ago, it wouldn't have happened. The pond that must
have existed here for centuries had been cultivated away. The basin had
some standing water in spring that drained away by early May. The land was
tilled and sprayed with glyphosate. Corn, wheat
or soy were planted year after year.
We made that basin the center of our
native prairie. And after six years of no tillage, no spraying, no
mechanized equipment, and no seeding (except of native plants), plant
debris is building up in the bottom of the pond basin, deeper each year.
The soil is settling. The pond fills to a higher level and remains wet
longer each year. There's plenty of submerged, decaying plant materials and
amphibians for swans and ducks to feast on.
We humans need to eat too. Farmland is
good thing when stewarded well. I'm finding ways to wed my work on the land
and on poetry with the political work I feel I must continue. Too much is
But our souls and spirits also need
poetry. And the swans.
5/4/2015 LAGNIAPPE #7: MUSKRAT DEN
Lagniappe—something extra, something beyond what
was labored for, or paid for. A gift. A blessing. A muskrat den where
no muskrats have lived for over a hundred years.
The concert of
frogs—peepers and chorus alike—is raucous in the pond this
year. I walk slowly down the slope, hoping not to interrupt them. And there
it is: the muskrat den, hidden in the still-strong stalks of last
summer’s blue vervain and rose milkweed.
Our pond is an ephemeral kettlepond. Ephemeral
is fancy shorthand for saying that the pond dries up—or, more
accurately, drains into and refreshes the aquifer deep below—most
summers. Kettlepond means the pond is a glacial
sometimes wished the pond were more permanent—the water is lovely,
the waterbirds love it. But I’ve been told
that an ephemeral kettlepond is a unique and
somewhat rare little habitat, and I’ve come to love the purple-blue
and rosy pink and yellow native flowers blazing at its bottom in late
had a muskrat den before. I sit by the pond as dusk comes on, and sometimes
hear splashes I feel quite certain are not frogs. So far, the pond has had
a good amount of water. But I keep checking the forecast, hoping for rain.
Coyotes might be able to get to the muskrats if the level drops.
But mostly, the sight of the den is a
joy. A sign of the land returning to health. Perhaps long ago, the
ancestors of these muskrats lived here, too.
3/09/2015 SNOW CRUST MOON
were among the several Native American nations once peopling the lands of
the Great Lakes—named the full moon of March the Naabidin giizis, or Snow Crust Moon.
Whether in the Ojibwe’s now endangered language (Anishinaabemowin) or in English translation, the moon’s March name is
beautiful—and the farm beneath the Snow Crust Moon is a beautiful
sight. In the warming almost-spring air, the surface of the snow melts by
day, then freezes by night. And so ice lies smooth and glossy—a cold fabric of
translucence—over still-thick snow. A clear full-moon night lights
the iced land and the ice-filled tracks of deer to incandescence.
The great human forces of money, machine
and power that wrested the Ojibwe’s land
from them are now utterly ruining the surface—the crust—of this
beautiful world. Still, when I wonder what difference our small native
prairie (however cherished), or our few hundred native trees (however
carefully tended), can make against those forces, I also remind myself to
be grateful for what remains and for what has been: to be thankful for the
moon, the ice, and the land, and for those who stewarded the land and
dwelled here before me—for the First Nations, whose path crossed the
land that is now “my” farm, for the fox and the crane, the
rabbit and vole. For the trees. The grasses. And the natural forces of ice,
snow, rain and glacier that shaped the land. And yes, for the
European-American farmers who cleared forests and fields but also left (and
planted) hedgerows to break the winds that carry away fertility, and to
provide a place for the wild creatures to dwell, unlike the factory farmers
of our times.
One Ojibwe prayer of thanks says, in part: My
Creator...We say thank you to all those animals, wild and domestic, the
birds and the fish. Everyone that gave up his or her life here upon the
earth, so that we can live...Thank you my creator thank you.
And then there’s W.S. Merwin’s poem, “Thanks”:
...with the animals dying around us
taking our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you...
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is
Read Merwin’s entire poem at the Poetry Foundation.
The full text of the Ojibwe prayer, and a reading
of it in Anishinaabemowin, is available at a
website created by the Little
River Band of Ottawa Indians.
3/3/2015 FREEZING RAIN
view from my window, glazed and crystalled by
2/23/2015 LAGNIAPPE #6: CANIS LATRANS (Coyote)
Lagniappe—something extra, something beyond what
was labored for, or paid for. Today’s lagniappe: Canis Latrans—coyote. Coyote sign (prints, scat, the
scattered feathers and fur of prey) is common on the farm, and we
frequently hear their wonderful yips and howls in the night—but have
seen one here only once before. Today: a beautiful, thick-ruffed
animal hunted the native prairie for nearly an hour. There’s an icy
crust over a foot of soft snow, and the coyote, luckless in its search for
lunch, kept breaking through as it stalked prey.
Coyote are native to North America, and I
love that the root word, coyotl, is from the Nahuatl
language, spoken by the Aztecs (other English words rooted in Nahuatl include avocado, chocolate, and tomato). Mid-January
through March is the best season to see coyote in Michigan, as it’s their
breeding period; I’ll be watching, and hoping, for more.
2/14/2015 VALENTINE TO
In December and January, I am in love
with snow and ice and the near-monochrome view that I’m looking at
now, as I write. Like a grisaille painting (think Picasso’s Guernica , or del Sarto’s magnificent frescoes of John
the Baptist), our farm’s winter landscape is painted from a
limited palette—white, black, brown, and shades of blue.
In winter, what I notice is the
terrain’s lines, its dimensionality. And at first, it’s
distinctly pleasurable to do so after fall’s flamboyance. It reminds
me of the delight—even a certain restfulness— I recently felt,
reading Bashō after a week immersed in
Still, by February, I need to work harder
at staying in love with winter.
Days of small wind, I go out, as I did five days ago, over my knees
in snow as I walked around the native prairie.
I wasn’t the only one out and
about, that sunny day. Voles and mice left their delicate signatures on the
snow surface. Deer left their rounded snow beds: hollow ovals where they
lie, chewing their cud and resting, somewhat protected against wind.
And the birds! Cardinals and Stellar jays
flitted about the hedgerows. A crew of crows gathered in the treetops,
eating freeze-dried apples we neglected to harvest. Perhaps best of all:
the native grasses we’ve planted were
lit to pale rosy gold by the setting sun.
But today, it’s 9°F as I write,
and falling. The wind is gusting to 35 miles per hour. For southeast Michigan, this is very
cold. (Editor’s Note: In fact, we broke a 110 year low temperature
record on February 15th). Days like these, I’m happiest at
my desk, sipping lemongrass tea, binoculars at hand.
Out the window: wind whips up snow,
creating a shining crystalline mist. I can see at most twenty feet. The
wind slows, and to my amazement and joy, three very forlorn-looking
bluebirds land (or, perhaps, are blown here?) on the deck railing. A few
hops, a gust, and they’re off, soon swallowed up by the snow-fog. I
wish them well, this cold, cold day, with night coming on.
In “The Darkling Thrush,”
Thomas Hardy writes of birdsong in winter—the poem is lovely and
beautifully observed (worth reading just for his description of the
plume”—wow). There are days, reading the news, when the wintry
gloom without becomes the gloom within me too—Hardy reminds me to
keep singing, like the thrush, “full-hearted...of joy.”
Here’s my Valentine to you, Winter.
I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day....
[A] voice arose among
bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom....
Hardy, The Darkling Thrush
(Read the entire poem at
the Poetry Foundation).
11/03/2014 FIRST QUINCE
The fragrance of
quince is intoxicating. In this first year that our young tree has borne
fruit, I understand why the Romans used quince to create perfume. No wonder
Plutarch recommended brides eat quince before entering the marriage bed,
where “the delight of lips and speech should be harmonious and
pleasurable from the beginning.” (Personally, I think the grooms
should have given it a go as well).
The fragrance, the flowers, the
rounded-out pear shape—perhaps for all these reasons, quince were
associated with fertility and the erotic in antiquity. The Greeks believed
that where Aphrodite stepped, quince trees sprang up, and some Jewish
traditions teach that the fruit of Genesis was actually a quince.
Raw quince is quite astringent unless a
special ripening process (unfortunately called “bletting”)
is carried out. But cooked, the flesh turns delicate pink, then a gorgeous
color somewhere between papaya and magenta. The flavor is unique, reminding
me of rose and pear and paradise. In my kitchen, the quince are destined
for crisps, jelly, and, if time allows, pâte
de coing (dulce de membrillo in Spanish)—a translucent quince
preserve that’s delicious and usually eaten with a hard, strong
cheese such as Manchego, though it’s also
lovely with a soft goat cheese like crottin.
9/20/2014 LAGNIAPPE #5: ELYMUS
HYSTRIX (BOTTLEBRUSH GRASS)
extra, something beyond what was labored for, or paid for. The thirteenth pastry in a
Baker’s Dozen. An unlooked-for turtle in a vernal pool. A gift. A
blessing. This harvest season, I’m continuing last fall’s series of posts about the
lagniappes of the land.
morning in early July, I wasn’t looking for native grasses. Bending a
little as I made my way, step by slow step, through the woods, I was intent
on finding summer-blooming native wildflowers. In fact, I only noticed the
Bottlebrush Grass because the cloud cover broke open, and sun poured
through a break in the tree canopy, illuminating the little stand of grass
brushing my knees—its charming, starry inflorescences, its delicate
To notice something is the first step
toward learning to be with
it—and, I think, toward loving it. In 1786, Goethe—already
celebrated as the author of The Sorrows of Young Werther—suddenly
left the comforts of Germany and a duke’s patronage to embark on a
long yearned-for trip to Italy, where he encountered the unfamiliar work of
unfamiliar artists. Some of the paintings puzzled him—others he
outright disliked. Nevertheless, he kept going to art galleries, to
churches: he kept looking, at paintings by artists whose work he already
admired (Raphael, especially), but at those he didn’t like or
because he kept looking, Goethe’s puzzlement and dislike gave way at
least once to something else altogether. Two months into his journey, he
writes: “I was much impressed by a Circumcision of Guercino’s, because I now know his work fairly
well and love it....And so it is with me, as it was with Balaam, the
confused prophet who blessed when he had come to curse. If I were to stay
longer, this would happen more.”
To stay longer. To look again. To journey
to the woods at the edge of your farm or yard or street, along the walking
path in the park, or Italy. And once there, to learn to look and to love.
How is it I never noticed Bottlebrush
Grass before that morning in July? I’ve learned that it’s one
of several native wild rye grasses common in Michigan, and that it thrives
in damp, shady spots— like the little woods where I found it. This
week, I began harvesting its seeds to sow elsewhere on the farm.
7/19/2014 WRITING, WANDERING, THE PRAIRIE IN
love to write outside in deep summer. There’s a lush, meditative
quality to the landscape, and I often become so wholly immersed in the
writing experience that I’m nearly unaware of time’s passage.
Other times, the writing goes slower because of minutes watching fledgling
swallows scooping up mosquitoes from the air, or half-hours of wandering
the paths through woods and field instead of sitting at my table—but
I am the richer for that time—I store up riches of texture, color,
sound and smell that I bring with me into the long, solid days of
What seduces me
from writing? The fragrant pool of native rose milkweed and blue vervain, buzzing and fluttering with insect life, which
fills the bottom of our ephemeral kettlepond; it more than doubled in size this year, to
well over an eighth of an acre. These are plants that return, and spread:
they have become good old friends, along with the thimble flowers and the
sand coreopsis, bergamot, blanketflower and butterflyweed, and the enormous, expanding splashes of
gold-orange that are thousands of Black-eyed Susans.
Wild garlic, with
its gorgeous little top-setting bulbils, is growing on the prairie for the
first time, as is Prairie Dogbane, with its coral red stem and bell-shaped
flowers. (Prairie Dogbane is a milkweed relative also called Indian Hemp,
as some First Nations tribes made twine from the fibers in its stem).
And during a
long, dallying walk along the prairie’s eastern edge, among the
hundred or so young native trees and shrubs we’ve placed there, I
came upon an elderberry bush we planted four years ago and had nearly
forgotten. It was blooming for the first time.
6/15/2014 THE BIG POETRY BOOK GIVEAWAY 2014
forty people entered my random drawing for the Fifth Annual Big Poetry
Giveaway. To celebrate the unexpectedly large number of participants,
I’m giving away some extra books! (And please accept my apologies for
the lateness of this announcement—I’ve had trouble getting in
touch with one of the winners and have been out of town a great deal).
– Kim Addonizio’s Lucifer at the Starlite
P. – Cecilia
M. – Natasha Trethewey’s
Native Guard with a CD of Trethewey reading the poems
Cyrus Cassells’ The Crossed-Out Swastika
W. – D. Nurkse’s Night in Brooklyn
R. – Please contact me ( firstname.lastname@example.org
) with your mailing address: my emails to you are bouncing, and I’d
love to send along your book (Trethewey’s Native Guard).
5/19/2014 BURNING THE KETTLEPOND NATIVE
The burn crew arrived
in late afternoon, already dressed in yellow hazmat suits, and surveyed the
site. This was the third burn of our prairie, but each burn is a little different. This time, the stands of grasses were
thicker than previously, and a slow steady wind blew from the southeast.
Even before we
planted the prairie, we planned for the burns. A four-foot wide grass path circles
the prairie on three sides, and doubles as a firebreak. On the fourth side,
to the north, we till a six-foot wide firebreak
before each burn.
The burn crew lit
small backfires on the inside of the firebreaks, spraying diesel mixed with
gasoline along the west and north edges of the prairie, and igniting the
area. Then we lit the prairie's east edge.
A translucent wave of
orange, gold and scarlet moved west, gathering height as it swept down the
slope, around the pond at the bottom, and up the northwest rise. An ocean
sound filled our ears, generated by the transformation of dry
grasses and wildflowers into heat, vapor, and soot. And the smell of smoke,
tinged with the aroma of baking bread—native rye seeds, I think,
roasting and burning. The air above the flames shimmered and shook like
thin foil. Flames fell, rose, reached protean arms through the smoke. And
A native prairie burn
is a beautiful thing, a necessary thing, and—many worry—a
dangerous thing. We're very fortunate in the man who manages our prairie
burns. Dave Borneman is careful and smart, and he
not only manages burns for cities and townships across Michigan, but also
founded and serves on the board of The Stewardship Network, a
conservation organization working
to protect and restore natural lands. He understands the prairie's flora
and fauna, and plans the burn so the little creatures can scamper from
holes and hiding places to out of harm's way. And Dave has never had a fire jump out of
The fire was over. We
walked around, looking for smoldering embers, spraying them with water. And
the crew went on to the next burn.
Coming up soon: The Kettlepond
Prairie in Spring
5/13/2014 POLITICS, POETRY AND PROTEST
Poetry. Protest. I’ve tended to keep the overtly political out of my
blog, and at this time of year, when ephemeral spring wildlflowers
are blooming in the hedgerows, I’d love to continue to do so. But
poetry and politics are integrally woven together in the life of a
farmer-poet. And never have I been so strongly reminded of that as right
now, when the government of Michigan has chosen to implement policies that
threaten the rights of thousands of small farms in urban, suburban and
rural areas to raise livestock, while relaxing regulations on large factory
Organic heritage apples on a
small rural farm. Rare flowers on a native prairie. Hens in a backyard coop
in Detroit. All ways of reclaiming the power to nourish ourselves, heart
and soul and mind.
protest government policies, lobbied for by agribusiness through their
allies such as the Farm Bureau, that stand for the destruction of essential
liberties to raise one’s own food, on one’s own land, and to
start small-scale farms that feed local communities.
May 6th, the Michigan Department of Agriculture published FAQs about the
Right to Farm changes. The MDARD document is very misleading and—in
parts—so inaccurate it
seems purposeful. I have written both a short and a long response/rebuttal
to the MDARD FAQs. A concise rebuttal of MDARD’s FAQ is here,
while a more detailed Rebuttal of MDARD’s FAQ is here
as a pdf. Both are available from the Michigan
Small Farm Rights Information page at my website.
5/5/2014 THE MICHIGAN AGRICULTURE COMMISSION
AND SMALL FARM RIGHTS
The Michigan Agriculture Commissions' 4:1 vote on April 28th
enacted regulations that strip thousands of small Michigan farms of Right
to Farm protection for raising livestock, while simultaneously relaxing
government oversight over some of the largest livestock factories.
Small, local farms--from backyard beehives to 100-acre organic
dairy farms--are about as American as it gets. They allow all of us to grow
our own food healthfully and inexpensively, while our backs and our minds
grow strong on exercise and clean water and sunlight. They give all of
us--farmers and neighbors of farmers--access to fresher, more nutritious
food, and allow transparency into how that food is created. I believe they
hold out actual hope for the environment and for our souls.
For nearly two years, many of us have worked against the changes
just enacted in Michigan. That work is even more important now. If you'd like to learn more, or
would like to help, please click here.
4/24/2014 BEFORE BURNING: THE KETTLEPOND
PRAIRIE IN EARLY SPRING
Four years ago, our native prairie
experiment began in
earnest when, after years of planning and site prep, we planted our
five acres of ephemeral kettlepond and the
surrounding slopes with seeds of native grasses and wildflowers.
Since then, we've controlled non-native plants (and one invasive
native, the dreaded Giant Ragweed) through weeding, mowing, deadheading,
and spraying with strong vinegar. Some non-natives, though, are best
controlled by burning. And many native
plants—cattails, sedges and grasses in particular—are
invigorated by occasional burns, having evolved to thrive on fire because
for several thousand years, the First Nations peoples purposefully burned
Burns are usually done three years after the initial planting; we'd
waited four. Still, something in me ached at the idea. In early spring, the
landscape seems fragile, the colors muted (softening snow and bleached
grasses), the reflections of things more vivid than the things themselves,
the pond's surface a darker blue than the watery sky it mirrors.
Many of the birds are transitory, on their way to prairies and
lakes further north, like the redheads that settled briefly on our pond.
Sifts of snow lie in shaded hollows. Winter and the underworld still touch
the landscape and the imagination.
Knowing what was to come, I felt more than my usual tenderness toward
the wakening earth. A burn is
beautiful and beneficial in its own ways, but it is, nevertheless, a
Next week: Burning the Kettlepond Prairie
4/3/2014 THE BIG POETRY GIVEAWAY
flashes of blue are winging back and forth to our nesting boxes: bluebirds,
which arrived simultaneously with the beginning of April and the beginning
of National Poetry Month.
this wonderful confection of birds, spring and poetry, I'm participating in
Annual Big Poetry Giveaway, hosted by poet Kelli Russell Agodon. I'll be giving away two books of poetry that
I've fallen in love with recently. Email email@example.com
(put your name and email address in the email so I can contact you if you
win) by April 30th to enter. Winners will be notified by email, by May 7th.
Trethewey's Native Guard
This book includes a CD of Trethewey
reading the poems—poems such as "Myth," with its amazing
structure that enacts the poem's exploration of the aching, sometimes
tortuous, relationship and bonding between the living and the dead.
Cecilia Woloch's Narcissus
by Marie Howe as winner of the Tupelo Press Snowbound Chapbook Award, this
book offers gorgeous poems with a concision and beauty of language and
image that sings. Every single one of these poems is stunning (in a good way!),
with the ancient Greek story of Narcissus and Echo playing through the book
in subtle, revelatory ways.
If there are more than twenty
entrants, I'll also give away a copy of Copper
Nickel 17, which has terrific poetry by writers like Jazzy Danziger and CJ Evans (and also my story, “The
Second Coming of the STASSIS Goat,” an apocalyptic vision of
humanity’s future set in an East African country devastated by plagues
and climate change).
Thundersnow today: a rare thunderstorm letting fall not
but luminous, large wet snowflakes that velvet the dirt road
leading to our home.
2/12/2014 OF MILKWEED AND TEAZEL
through the cold fields recently, I came on a stand of young milkweed. Hidden
by rye, aster and goldenrod during summer and fall, the milkweed now stands
above the taller but more fragile plants' snow-bent and broken stems. I'd
have jumped for happiness if I weren't over my knees in snowdrift and
weighed down by several layers of long underwear, flannel and wool.
writes of milkweed, "For drab it is its fondest must admit." But
I don't admit it at all. (See my July, 2013
post). And if Frost found milkweed so "drab," why did he write
a Milkweed Pod," print the poem in a small chapbook with
a gorgeous and specially commissioned Thomas Nason
chiaroscuro engraving of an opened milkweed pod on the cover, and send it
to his friends for Christmas in 1954?
It's not just
Frost who's fascinated by milkweed.
Philip Levine ("Milkweed"), David
Landing and Flying") and James Wright ("Milkweed")
also wrote poems that take milkweed
as their central image. The plant is intriguing—its milky, latex-like
sap, its status as sole food of monarch butterfly caterpillars. But the
fascination is mostly, I think, with the milkweed pod, which indeed has the
look and feel of something elegantly and thoughtfully ( if improbably)
designed: a miniature Neimeyer, perhaps. In fall and winter, the harp-shaped
pods split open, revealing the carefully, efficiently stowed seeds, little
voyagers tethered to delicate flossy parachutes; it's lovely to hold a pod up to
gusts that take seed after seed, winging them on their way.
the milkweed, in a small depression, I found fifty-some heads of teazel rocketing toward the sky. Teazel
(also teasel and teazle) is a handsome plant even
in winter—the honeycombed ovoid head cupped by scimitar-shaped
sepals—so handsome it's used in dried floral arrangements.
Goldfinches love the seeds, and in summer, rings of tiny blossoms (lavender
on our farm; other cultivars are white or dark purple) open sequentially
from the bottom to the top of the inflorescence.
If teazel is beautiful (in my eyes, at least), it is also
beastly. An Old World native
brought over the Atlantic—probably for both its decorative features
and its use, dried, as a brush to raise the nap on felt and wool—teazel quickly takes over roadsides and field. Along
with the non-native rush phragmites, teazel dominates many roadsides and wetlands here in
Michigan, and it's a beast to get rid of, with barbs that penetrate leather
work gloves and roots that even fire fails to destroy.
The only poem
I've found that centers on teazel is by a fairly
obscure Victorian-era Irish poet, Owen Blayney
Cole, who in "Teasel
Tall," rather endearingly exoticizes teazel by comparing it to a pineapple and then declares
it useful enough to redeem it from its supposed ugliness:
from the loom, the Teasel smooths the fleece...
So many virtues if this plant possess,
To beauty be preferr'd its ugliness!"
If you know of
any other good poems about either milkweed or teazel,
please email me a link and I'll post them: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Sites for Poetry
Writers and Readers
book of kells
A lively, engaging blog about "writing and living creatively" by
poet Kelli Russell Agodon, Co-Editor of Crab
Creek Review and Two Sylvias Press.
Online anthology of poems with interesting structure/turns, paired with
thoughtful analyses. Edited by poets Kim Addonizio
and Michael Theune.
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Poet and essayist Michael Theune's blog about