Sunday, June 24, 2012

Bugs with brains

Morning is outdoor-time for me. If the temperature is at least 20° above zero, and it isn’t raining or snowing, Teddy and I will usually hike up the ridge behind the house, or around the fields below. I walk, Teddy, being a dog, chases and digs, but never comes up with anything he wants. After breakfast, when it is not raining and the temperature is at least above freezing, I workout on the small deck off our bedroom. The sun hits it about nine o’clock, and I look forward to the half-hour or so I spend both for the exercises and the exposure to the natural world.

The woods come up close to the house, and now and then, if I’m out at the right time, I will see one of the flocks of wild turkeys making their way down the slope, headed for the fields and the river beyond. Occasionally deer will wander past, maybe a hundred feet away, headed for their morning browse and drink. Always there are hawks to watch, finches to hear, and chipmunks to amuse as they move like wind-up toys across the open space between house and wood. And there are insects. Bugs. Flies and moths and butterflies and bees and hornets, out in their endless search for food. There are always lessons to be learned.

In the late spring we put the cushions on the few pieces of furniture on the bedroom deck: a chair, a glider and a chaise longue. The upholstery is a now-faded pattern of realistically depicted leaves and vines and flowers. The last few days, standing there stretching or bending or lifting (and repeating), I have become aware of a behavior pattern I’ve not noticed before: small bees and even some flies land on the parts of the cushions most in the sun. Not just anywhere, but right on the blossoms depicted on the fabric. I think that even though the colors have faded over the years, the eye-brain pathway of the fly or bee must recognize the shape and perhaps even the color of flowers. I’m not very knowledgeable about flower names, but I recognize the ones depicted because they are very realistically done, and I suspect the same is true for the insect: it looks real enough to warrant exploration. Of course, when there is no nectar, no tactile sensation of a leaf or flower, the wings move and the bodies lift and off the visitors go. But they keep coming back, hoping I guess, that things will change, and happiness will replace disappointment if they just return often enough. They are seeing what they want to see, hoping for the best without doing anything positive to make it happen.
Rather like some people, don’t you think?

Make a better world, don’t just expect it.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Shmoo you

It’s almost mid-summer, and I find myself still working up the wood we had put aside for the winter past. I usually try to keep a month or so ahead, but this past heating season (for us it begins in late August and ends sometimes as late a last week) has been kinder than expected, and I still have a month or two of wood left. I have yet to finish splitting and moving it from the woodpile to the stacks beside the outdoor furnace. Fortunately I enjoy working with wood, but I have to admit that, as I grow older, I like it in shorter episodes. Still, the idea of cool dry summers and heating with our own wood in the winter is part of what drew us here to the mountains.

I’m not much of a gardener. I know the difference between trees and plants and grass, and can even identify some of the trees by their leaves or bark or needles. I’m getting better at knowing which short green things are weeds and which are edible fruit and vegetable producers, so I no longer cut the good stuff and leave the bad when I mow or trim around the house. We do have a vegetable garden, where we grow tomatoes and lettuce and that sort of thing, and because they are well-marked, I know what is what and where it is. All of this has been acquired over many years of cutting or digging things that I should have left to grow, while leaving weeds (they have pretty flowers, sometimes) that should have been cut and removed.

I’m not alone, it turns out, in not knowing what to leave and what to take away. I read just this morning about a new insect (new to our shores) that eats kudzu. Kudzu, you may recall, was imported with the expectation that it would provide food and fiber for Southern farmers to replace crops that were depleting the soil and a way of life. Kudzu has, if you haven’t noticed, taken over any abandoned (and sometimes occupied) land in its way. But now there is a new import that could keep it under control. The problem is, it also eats soy plants, and so depending on where you live, you might encourage or try to eradicate the little import. It is difficult to know, sometimes, what the consequences of an act might be, isn’t it? Kudzu was considered a sort of Shmoo. Don’t know about Shmoos? A figment of a cartoonist’s imagination, it was a bowling pin-shaped character capable of providing everything needed to live well, reproduced without help, and lived to serve, as it were. Al Capp, who drew Li’l Abner, Daisy Mae and the rest of the Dogpatch gang, created the Shmoo. It was, I think, a jab at the post-WW II mind set that technology would answer every human need, every empty promise of every politician, everything, in short, we would want in the new world we were entering. It didn’t happen. We haven’t gotten what we expected, and we haven’t gotten what we feared. On balance, I would say, we have learned that what we wanted might have been what we should have feared.

Perhaps we need to give more thought to promises about satisfying our every need, and realize we  must still depend on ourselves.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Whadda ya know?

I like old things, which is good, since I am one (an old thing) and since I have to be around me all the time, I find it helpful to like me. I also like the me I could have been, or should have been, or hope to be (I’m still trying to decide what I want to be when I grow up). Of course most of us, maybe all of us, have this in common: we aren’t the person we think we are or wish we were or hope to be. I think that is what motivates fiction writers: we want to create the world as we wish it to be.

When we create characters, and then put them in places and situations where they display themselves, we are making them do and be what our dreams and nightmares tell us we might have been or could be (at least in our imaginations). None of this is strikingly original thinking, I know, nor is it satisfying writing. It is simply my own view of why I write, I suppose. "Write what you know," we are told early on, and it is very true: we can create a world, or a scene or a situation, but the characters don’t come alive unless we have some model, some image to follow. So we look into ourselves.

To develop as a writer it’s important to be able to see "in the round;" see beyond the comfortable known responses to different situations. That comes with time (and age) and growth, but requires one essential characteristic: empathy. If you cannot put yourself in another’s place, cannot see another’s point of view, you cannot write a rounded, fully dimensioned character. Stories will be flat, people and events contrived.

It is easy to write the same story over and over, just changing locales or shading events. It is called "formula writing," and if the formula is a good one, the writer achieves a degree of success. Readers often stay with a writer because they know what will happen, they know and like the characters, they even begin to believe the characters are real. They keep coming back like children coming home. They don’t even have to ask where the cookies are or for permission to raid the icebox. For the writer, though, a formula is restrictive and unrewarding. Every new story, for me, is a journey of exploration and discovery. It is what keeps me looking forward.

It is more than writing what I know.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Nature of Things

I often turn to the natural world for inspiration. Today I didn’t have to look far. It came right to me, to the part of the deck where the bird feeders are. It came in the form of a black bear. A young one. One small enough to climb the ten or so feet from the ground to the deck. I finally caught a glimpse of him about ten o’clock last night when the dogs alerted us to his return. It wasn’t his first visit to the deck. Two days earlier we discovered the flag pole bent double, a feeder lying on its side on the deck railing, the bottom ring on the ground below. A large metal can full of sunflower seed lay on its side, open, but still nearly full. Something had scared him off then, just as Teddy’s warning bark had this time.

We had been sitting at dinner earlier when Teddy, the big guy who spends most of his time in the studio under a desk, began to voice his concern about what turned out to be another visit by our evening caller. I went to investigate and, sure enough, one of the bird-feeders was lying on the deck, badly damaged this time, and sun flower seeds were everywhere. I picked up the broken feeder and moved it and its twin, plus the metal container of seed into the studio.

Perhaps half-an-hour later we were sitting reading in the library, when both dogs, Teddy and a little white poodle sort of guy named Lucky, attracted our attention. From inside the studio, through the big glass door, I could see our visitor still on the ground. A juvenile, about 75 to 90 pounds, round and soft looking, the cub looked up when I slid the door open, turned and ambled away into the brush and trees beyond the deck. Just walked away. I tried to wait him out so I could make a really loud noise and, hopefully, scare him away. He must have known that, because he didn’t return. Until about four-thirty in the morning. Then Lucky alerted us, standing at the open door to the small deck off our bedroom. I closed the door and we went back to sleep. Later, when Teddy and I had taken our early morning walk in the fields, I checked the deck and saw that the bear had indeed come back and very nicely, like a good guest, cleaned up all the seeds he had scattered the night before. On the ground, from the flattened grass and weeds, I could easily follow his path away from the house and into the trees.

He will pay a return visit tonight, I’m sure. Only this time he won’t find anything. We will now be rigorous in bringing in the feeders and seed at dusk, until he decides there is nothing here for him. He managed, earlier in the week, to overturn and open our compost barrel, but he hasn’t yet discovered the container where we keep the garbage cans (or maybe he has and the ammonia I pour on a pad turns him away). So we have something to look forward to, I guess.

Life in the country is full of things to write about.