Tuesday, May 24, 2005
The photo, with my son Jeroch, was taken a year ago immediately following the final performance of a play I was in...so there's still a touch of stage makeup visible.
The greatest thing in the world is to know how to be oneself.
---Michel De Montaigne
I have full faith that even when you are down you will not sink, you will not falter, you will not crawl because you will be that special child who understands there are moments in life when there are no answers, no rhymes, no reasons but to grow beyond yourself.
You are relaxed and ready. You are prepared for the operation. It is an initiation. You are being initiated. Such initiations have been practiced forever, under other names. You are safe.
That particular thought of Renaissance philosopher Montaigne has been among my favorites for many years. Grange and Indira are 2 personal friends, who emailed me their encouragements a little over a year ago, before the "operation." I printed out their complete messages and have carried them with me in my wallet ever since. I don't usually do that, so I must assume it was only the first of the new behaviors since---initiation.
We guys who've endured one procedure or another for deranged prostate greet each other with the secret handshake of the service club or 12-step group. We say things like, "I'm still at .11" or "I'm holding off for 8.6." These are PSA numbers and refer to where we are on a certain lethal level of understanding. After he's been diagnosed, a man starts thinking this way and talking this way because from now on an aspect of his life will be living from one periodic blood test to the next.
The initiation has to do with how one deals with such a reality. A few months after my operation to remove the offending gland, I learned my body still was in battle against tiny demons and we would proceed to shoot radiation in there after them. On Friday, even though my specializing doctors think it's too soon to tell, I got Dr. Conjeevaram to give me my first numbers since that therapy concluded 6 weeks ago. When I read I'm down to .27 I felt a new kind of relief. Oh, we want that number lower...and hopefully in another 2 months that's where it will go. But in the meantime, it's like my life is on vacation and the vise of anxiety is loosened a couple of turns.
Immediately after my appointment, Dana, Ilona and I piled into the Hybrid and tooled up to Barcelona, New York, on Lake Erie, which is one of our favorite hangouts. From there we visited with my sister---and by golly, did find the stand of trailing arbutus our mother used to look for each Spring, and a couple other rare wildflowers too---and had a wonderful family cookout the next day in Sugar Grove, Pennsylvania, with Dana's aunts and cousins. We especially enjoyed lollygagging our way home yesterday when everyone else was hard at work at school. OK, maybe Ilona didn't so much because she still had that honors English homework to do in the back seat.
It's not part of our family tradition or work ethic to just take off like that. The people we visited kept asking us what urgent business really brought us up there...and we found ourselves saying we just wanted to see them. Who drives 6 hours just to say hello? Should I tell them that maybe I've completed my initiation? Do I have a chance right now to see my life in a new light? A new Light? Is it safe to Lighten up? This may be the first time I've allowed myself to feel I'm on a journey.
My generation may have gotten the idea we're supposed to have drive and ambition. We have to go somewhere. We're Americans and actually can amount to something. Many of us choose not to be too aggressive about all that, but to get those good grades and job evaluations you ought to have some kind of balance with a forward edge to it. Too much friction and you may burn out...but the right stuff can set you on fire, a shooting star, a leader of the people. But you have to do the driving...unless you are one of the lucky ones, and I for one never think about luck.
Now I am feeling more that I am letting things lead me along. I am appreciating a spaciousness in time. I am looking around more, enjoying the scenery, and feeling that's OK. At 65, that should be OK, but the drive to keep going---on into my 70s---is strong these days. But I'm allowing the drive to take me now. I'm on cruise control, and there's some relaxation possible in that. Even surrender. I think I know myself well enough that I'm not just on a Cloud 9 of relief. This is a new side of me to get to know...and of course I need to see how others react. But other people may not have as much influence on what I do as before. There seems to be a new voice calling me, leading me.
I like how men continue a sense of humor about our conditions. Garrison Keillor, who is around my age, seems to understand it...and gave us some real hilarity on Saturday about the prostate and urinary difficulties. How can such matters be funny? Listen for yourself about 9 minutes into the show~~~ http://prairiehome.publicradio.org/programs/2005/05/21/ in Segment 1, under "Nice Script."
I know that women have a similar initiation. Perhaps it comes with a diagnosis involving the miraculous female physical organization. I talked with women in the waiting rooms, and there seemed to be a similar communication together as I have enjoyed with men during our particular therapies. I don't know whether women experience the same possibilities of humor in their situations. I know one who does...or did, because I haven't seen her since her procedure a couple weeks ago. I need to find out.
Thursday, May 12, 2005
Sun rising over
the mountain path---
scent of plums.
Everything is miraculous. It is a miracle that one doesn't melt in one's bath.
I learn every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: PATIENCE is everything.
---Rainer Maria Rilke
Remember when the American Legion or the Daughters of the American Revolution used to sponsor that essay contest for schoolkids? They probably still do, and maybe the prizes are the same---and the best behaved student in the class still cranks out that same essay...and even reads it to us at some compulsory assembly. I never tried to write one because, even as a kid, the topic seemed so huge I just couldn't get my head around it.
Tuesday night, teacher and writer William Rivers Pitt unloaded bigtime at a meeting up in Cambridge. If you get your news online since 9/11, you've heard of Mr. Pitt...no matter if you're liberal or conservative. He used to write for Online Journal and now keeps us hopping once a day, it seems, at Truthout. He's also written a couple of books about Iraq and the great silence of the American people---which void seems to be what America means today.
His topic Tuesday night was supposed to be corporate control of the formerly free press. But what happens if there's also corporate control of the White House and the other branches of our government, and all the media does is spin out their scenarios? I believe that all Americans know this has happened, and that a few generations have come along, since Reagan, who don't know the United States can be any other way than the storybook we're living in now.
Many people I know, including managers and administrators, no longer pay any attention to the "news" or even elections anymore at all. I really don't know by what Hope they live, except whatever patch of ground they can carve out to call their own---and the next memo from a supervisor. I understand the dilemma of a money-manufactured reality (instead of Freedom) and their silence, but I cannot live that way. It's not what America means to me. Here's a taste of what William Rivers Pitt had to say the other night...and the link to the rest of the talk~~~
"For me, that's it in a nutshell. That's what ails us as a nation. The corporate media does not report the news anymore. They create consensus, they manufacture the common fictions under which we are expected to live. With the TV media, this behavior is all the more insidious because TV reaches everyone.
"Television is the most extraordinarily effective tool of mass control that has ever been invented by anyone anywhere.
"If this MSNBC producer (mentioned earlier) is an appropriate example - and I think she is, because she was asking me to basically be yet another Bush administration mouthpiece - the fictions they create do not merely soothe and placate the populace. They kill. They kill in large numbers, and a few people (who coincidentally own large chunks of the corporate news media) get paid handsomely for that killing.
"The print media is not in any way immune to this. Their disinformation does not have the reach of television news, simply because nobody reads anymore, but it is there all the same. My most recent brain cramp actually came up this morning, and has to do with the venerable New York Times. It was the Times that allowed the Bush talking-point about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to be broadbanded across the media spectrum.
" Times reporter Judy Miller hunkered with convicted embezzler and alleged Iranian spy Ahmad Chalabi, and reported on the pages of the Times that Iraq was absolutely covered with weapons of mass destruction. This helped Chalabi, you see, because he had been chosen by the Bush folks to run Iraq after the war. So far, he has only gotten to be the Oil Minister...yes, the embezzler is now the Oil Minister, but that's a whole different mess.
"The point is that like it or lump it, the Times is the flagship of American journalism. If they say it, it must be true, and so when Miller reported that Iraq was covered with weapons, it became axiomatic. Then the TV outlets felt safe in saying it, and we were off to the races.
"Well, my brain cramp today came when I read the Times' response to the fallout from this situation. They were duped by a Bush administration lackey, the published gross fabrications, they empowered the war rhetoric...and in response to criticism, they have decided to move their perspective farther to the right. Yes, you heard me, and welcome to my brain cramp.
"The frustration I feel personally knowing that I and everyone else are being deliberately deceived and misdirected is topped by only one thing: The rage, horror and sorrow I feel when I finally do manage to carve through the crap and get to the truth. Because the truth, friends and neighbors, is so much worse than you can possibly imagine."
Wednesday, May 11, 2005
Photo of Ilona and the author on Easter Sunday.
Today means boundless and inexhaustible eternity. Periods of months and years and of time in general are ideas of men, who calculate by number; but the true name of eternity is Today.
Example moves the world more than doctrine.
In Buddhism there is no place to apply effort. Everything in it is normal---
you put on clothes to keep warm and eat food to stop hunger---
A year and a week ago I underwent major surgery for removal of a prostate gland that had been determined to be a bit cancerous. I wrote about it and talked openly. Cancer is as terrifying to people of our civilization as just about anything we think of. I learned in the waiting rooms, however, that it makes brothers and sisters of us in treatment, as men and women struggle with their own varieties. The silence in those rooms is broken with great relief when we start talking together. I thought writing and letting people know what happens to me might serve some purpose---at least for research because so much effort is going into finding a cure...or even a cause.
But lately I guess I've gotten silent too, and occasionally I'm reminded of that, when a faraway friend or relative writes, "What the heck is going on with your health?" I haven't meant to be secretive, but there are some contributing factors. For one thing, I was raised not to talk about ailments. My parents didn't tell us much about theirs, and when they felt it was time to cash in their chips and go, that's what they did. As a kid, I got the impression that what chiefly marked the elderly was they always were talking about hospitals and stuff being taken out of them...and the long convalescence. LBJ showed us his scar. So despite my resolve to let you know, I may have slipped back into my more natural reserve about some things.
Furthermore, I sense there is a bit of a stigma about getting sick this way. People do NOT want always to ask me how I am...with that sympathetic tone. But if they don't ask me, then they might worry I'll think they don't care. So sometimes I feel they avoid me altogether. Easier. And I may sense their sensitivity and try to help them out by avoiding them too. Then I think maybe I've changed into someone more resentful and bitter...and that's why people don't smile in my direction so much. That's a dangerous downward spiral always available. Perhaps I slip into it sometimes.
And then have come intervening personal matters that really don't have anything to do with cancer...although, once you've got it, as terminal or survivor, everything seems to have to do with it. There was the Presidential Election, and I believe it was the second stolen one in a row. Obviously I went ballistic with my conviction, and wrote about it as long as I could hear so much as a peep of protest in the media or on the Internet. More recently our daughter suffered an injury in gym class that required reconstructive surgery. It's cost Ilona a lot of time from school, her grades have gone down---although in the old days a kid would have been extended extra help and time to catch up---and we have needed to care for her. (Her last visit to the surgeon and physical therapist will be today...so her life is returning to normal.)
But mostly I think I have been experiencing a shifting of my life's gears. Having never had a serious illness before or been in a hospital for anything, I'm new to this kind of dropout. I remember kids used to get something, like rheumatic fever or a touch of polio, and just sort of disappear for a year or two. The rest of us would operate like the herd animals we were, and move on without giving our ailing comrades a second thought. Only a few were curious about the kind of change in life and time the situation requires. Time changes remarkably when you're always waiting for the next test result.
Three months after my operation, very slight prostate cell activity still was located in my bloodstream. We held a vague hope it might be residue from the surgery. Nope, a couple months later it still was there...but it was about the same amount. It was so small that even the latest microscopic technology wouldn't be able to find it. Two more months, however, and there was a bit more going on. Something had been left behind, and we needed to try to eradicate it. Radiation was selected as the therapy. We... Well, since stuff is left up to the patient to decide now (to avoid those lawsuits) I have to say "we." THEY consulted the statistics and told me that most often, when this occurs, the bladder is the next place the cancer goes. More tests and another bone scan ruled out activity elsewhere...so a section of the bladder is where the radiation was aimed.
I got 37 radiation treatments, every weekday. Those treatments concluded a month ago. Mostly I had no side effects. Others report burning and pain, particularly toward the conclusion of the series, as tissue become increasingly sensitive. The amount and location of the radiation remains the same...I think, or at least in my case. Everyone is different, and because of that and the incredible technology and staff required, it is very expensive. It cost more than the surgery. People who work in this kind of radiology have a very special challenge in their career, but I found we really seemed to like each other...and I think that must have helped in my process.
But now, we wait again. I'm going to see my regular doctor next week, just for the couple-times-a-year checkup, but I asked her to write an order for a PSA in the blood test because I want to know what's going on. My radiologist cautions it's too soon for an accurate readout, and he's not seeing me again until October! My urologist and surgeon has ordered a blood test and appointment in July. We're looking for 0% activity 3 or 4 blood tests in a row. If that happens, I'm out of the woods...for now anyway...or for that type...or something.
Uncertainty steps in where always there has been a complacency taken for granted. Well, I'm 65...and most of my life development has been right on schedule---although usually I'm the last to know just what is happening. I suppose that could be a disastrous history, if enough hadn't worked out pretty well and I weren't so content (despite the grousing around that I do) and I didn't find life's progress so wonderfully amusing. So I guess I haven't kept up with writing about the cancer because everything has gotten so gradual...and all we seem to do is wait. When would be a good time for essays about this to conclude? Hmmm, I may have started a series here with only one inevitable ending. At this point, the uncertainty and anxiety are tough, and I admit it. I sincerely hope I'm not too much trouble for other folks to be around. I think that fear may be what really causes age to kick in. Thanks for reading.
Sunday, May 08, 2005
Many a time I have wanted to stop talking and find out what I really believed.
Regardless of long you sit, the Buddha Dharma never appears because it is already here! Reveal it! Do not cover it up!
If on earth there be
a Paradise of Bliss,
It is this,
It is this,
It is this.
In 1975 Gary Snyder won the Pulitzer Prize For Poetry with a book entitled Turtle Island. My favorite poem in the whole world is in there, and last evening at dusk and by lanternlight I had the opportunity to read it aloud to friends and family down by our creek. This morning I found it online and have reproduced it here---with a link so you can buy the book. I hope Gary wouldn't mind.
He's 75 today. Two years ago I wrote about him, included a few poems, and sent it to him. I was thrilled when he replied. http://www.upsaid.com/jazzolog/index.php?action=viewcom&id=42 Maybe I'll see if I can find him again today.
WHAT HAPPENED HERE BEFORE
by Gary Snyder
First a sea: soft sands, muds, and marls
— loading, compressing, heating, crumpling,
crushing, recrystallizing, infiltrating,
several times lifted and submerged,
intruding molten granite magma
deep-cooled and speckling,
gold quartz fills the cracks—
sea-bed strata raised and folded,
granite far below.
warm quiet centuries of rains
(make dark red tropic soils)
wear down two miles of surface,
lay bare the veins and tumble heavy gold
slate and schist rock-riffles catch it –
volcanic ash floats down and dams the streams,
piles up the gold and gravel—
flowing north, two rivers joined,
to make a wide long lake.
and then it tilted and rivers fell apart
all running west
to cut the gorges of the Feather
Bear, and Yuba.
Ponderosa pine, manzanita, black oak, mountain yew,
deer, coyote, bluejay, gray squirrel,
ground squirrel, fox, blacktail hare,
ringtail, bobcat, bear,
all came to live here.
And human people came with basket hats and nets
winter-houses and underground
yew bows painted green,
feasts and dances for the boys and girls
songs and stories in the smoky dark.
Then came the white man: tossed up trees and
boulders with big hoses,
going after that old gravel and gold.
horses, apple-orchards, card-games,
pistol-shooting, churches, county jail.
We asked, who the land belongs to.
and where one pays tax.
(two gents who never used it twenty years,
and before them the widow
of the son of the manwho got him a patented deed
on a worked-out mining claim,)
laid hasty on the land that was deer and acorn
grounds of the Nisenan?
Branch of the Maidu?
(they never had a chance to speak, even,
(and who remembers the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.)
the land belongs to itself.
“no self in self: no self in things”
Turtle Island swims
in the ocean-sky swirl-void
biting its tail while the worlds go
& Mr. Tobiassen, a Cousin Jack,
assesses the county tax.
(the tax is our body-mind, guest at the banquet
Memorial and Annual, in honor
of sunlight grown heavy and tasty
while moving up food-chains
in search of a body with eyes and a fairly large
to look back at itself
we sit here near the diggings
in the forest, by our fire, and watch
the moon and planets and the shooting stars—
my sons ask, who are we?
drying apples picked from homestead trees
drying berries, curing meat,
shooting arrows at bales of straw.
military jets head northeast, roaring, every dawn.
my sons ask, who are they?
WE SHALL SEE
HOW TO BE
Bluejay screeches from a pine.
Turtle Island is a poetry book that belongs in every home...and especially would be in my pocket if I had no home. Hopefully it still is available in every book store. Otherwise http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0811205460/qid=1115548934/sr=8-1/ref=pd_csp_1/002-3305821-3916868?v=glance&s=books&n=507846
Wednesday, May 04, 2005
Giotto's Ascension, 1310
When we understand,
we are at the center of the circle,
and there we sit
while Yes and No chase each other around the circumference.
We say that someone has the wondrous ability to play the zither or the lute, but if we ask where that art resides, not even the wisest man can answer....This art, produced by something we cannot fully know, is like the innate nature of the mind that operates in all our daily activities.
who will buy this hat,
glazed with snow?
Tomorrow is a day of considerable spiritual significance. It is Yom Hashoah, a solemn day of remembrance of the Holocaust. It is Cinco De Mayo, another celebration of the dead that can jar the outsider with its often festive atmosphere. In Mexico it also marks the defeat of French forces there in 1862. And it is Ascension Day throughout most of Christendom. For many Christians the picture of an actual and tangible living body of Christ rising up into the air to be with the Father in Heaven overhead is a bit of a reach...but perhaps it always has been so.
I find myself thinking of these things as I reread the latest folio of poems to arrive the other day from my teacher and mentor, John Tagliabue. Approaching 82, Tagliabue, once so quick and light, now is slow...but still and always light. He is not allowing himself to be slow enough yet, for he says that again he has fallen...this time breaking his left arm and elbow. But he writes on in longhand, and must have to peck out the poems on his typewriter with extra difficulty. He must do it everyday, it is his instinct, his nature. He still refuses to use a computer to write or send out poems to friends---just as he always refused to learn to drive a car. He gets others to do these things for him...and I'm a guy he's glad shares his work out into the world, like apple blossoms showering upon us.
As usual his letter begins with concerns about why I don't write to him more, and commiserations about our health situations. Inevitably there is a booklist of amazing titles I ought to read...probably instead of buying all those DVDs that I do and sit and watch. Watching is so different from reading. And yet perhaps the best thing to do with one of John's poems is just to watch it. Anyway, he goes on to mention how he tires more easily these days...and then he begins to write rather differently than he normally does. His letters tell of news and accomplishments and other friends, mutual or otherwise, and he reserves great wisdom for the poems. But now comes a section of pondering the great realities~~~
"The universes & we have the lives of flowers. We blossom, wilt, change. Sure we pray, sing, doubt, etc etc as we change. And beyond the change of seasons, the various stages of our game, our more or less vitality, what do we know? For me my poems give some of the answers. Are they answers or songs. Kiss a doubt or joy as it flies---& live in eternity; sunrise. Sensible sensational wise dramatic Shakespeare stayed within certain limits. But can a physicist or philosopher define a limit? I wouldn't try to do that though especially in old age I sure know I have my limitations. Natural---as a flower or bee. To buzz or not to buzz. I buzz while I can. Now back to my stimulating reading; I seek stimulation as a youth seeks a bride, as a poem seeks a poet; and here I am seeking to stimulate a response from you."
With the subtle breeze as prompter
Good looking nameless
almost naked young people doing their exercises,
bending over, in much breeze, in light and shadows
as the sound
of many young leaves on nearly trees are like whistling
pansies wink yellow and purple at my feet, as bicyclists
A black sweating rehearsing athlete walks by talking in
his cell phone.
I believe that Krishna with one finger has lifted the world up.
"I had written other notes and poems praising Mark Van Doren after I heard his lectures about Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Yeats and others while a student at Columbia (1941-45) and later when Grace and I met him in NYC and a few months before his death in Connecticut. What follows was written just a few weeks ago (2005). Then I started reading the 1973 issue of VOYAGES published the year after Mark's death; it includes writings about him by Archibald MacLeish, Allen Tate, Allen Ginsberg, Mortimer Adler, Donald Keene and others. And it includes my journal responses to Mark's THAT SHINING PLACE. I like what Keene reminds us: 'Mark remarked once in class, in connection with some passage in Saint Augustine that no action was more specifically human than to praise.'"
Brightening active continuing Influence (a note for
artist grandson Adam Van Doren)
I think of your remarkable
well contained purposeful grandfather Mark
going from Greenwich Village down into the subway
with a few books that continued to enlighten him and
riding in the rattling noisy train sometimes crowded with
a motley democratic crowd of all sizes and shapes from all
castes, many countries, Mark developing his thoughts related
to his Shakespeare or Dante or Yeats lectures of the day, those
poets' images, thoughts free and active like bees in a bright
field in his respectful mind; then at 116th Street he
ascends continuing his thoughts and I am one of the
thousands who eventually hear what he's discovered
in the dark and in the enlightening dramatic poems;
I listen and write poems, and years
later go on to lecture with those
four poets more or less
brightening in my mind.
Now in old age can you figure out the name of the
station and figure out its "meaning"?
and the train of thought
are going to stop sometime, I guess.
Now late in life I guess I don't know much -
after all lusts, day dreams, forms of silliness,
after the unpredictable procedure is punctuated by
physical pains, staggering thoughts, disappointments,
what not; you console yourself with Brahms
that you hope will be a little balmy;
more or less goes on and then as has
before time must have a stop.
Tagliabue, in many ways a realized being, nevertheless remains attached to being remembered...unlike the apple blossom or even the tree. He always mentions he hopes some friend will read a poem and especially one of his...and even buy a book. So dutifully and with much gratitude I pass along, for the international reader this time, a link to John's wonderful collection~~~
Sunday, May 01, 2005
The old photos are of my country grandmother in her garden, and of little Dickie learning about the flowers from Mom.
Stand in awe, and sin not;
commune with your own heart,
and in your chamber, and be still.
To sit without emotion, hope, or aim,
In the loved presence of my cottage-fire,
And listen to the flapping of the flame,
Or kettle whispering its faint undersong.
The fact that astronomies change while the stars abide is a true analogy of every realm of human life and thought, religion not least of all. No existent theology can be a final formulation of a spiritual truth.
---Harry Emerson Fosdick
Whenever I attempt an essay about my early days in Western New York, I usually can expect an email of corrections from my sister, Ann. She seems to remember the facts of what, where, and when better than I do, burdened as I was of course with being such a visionary. And also she's a few years younger than I am. (Correction #1 may come regarding the word "few".) But last evening she wrote me a note requesting some things out of my memory. Here it is~~~
"Here's a subject for an essay for you. One of the girls at work recently moved to a house on the Fluvanna Townline Road. She and her husband have a fairly large lot and she has been exploring the property. She came to work one day last week and said she had found some wildflowers and didn't know what they were. She described them as little yellow bells with funny spotted leaves. I said right away that they must be Adder's Tongues. She then asked me how it was that I happened to know this stuff, because the week before someone else had said they noticed a patch of woods on the way to Warren that was filled with white flowers. I've noticed the same patch for years and said they were Trillium. I was amazed that so few of the people at work knew what a Trillium was. Anyway, it got me to thinking about the family springtime walks in the woods in Frewsburg. Do you remember where we used to go? All I remember is that we used to drive out Frew Run Road or Bone Run Road or somewhere in that vicinity. We'd park by the side of the road, walk uphill through a field and into the woods. And there we would find Adder's Tongues, Hepatica, Spring Beauties, Trillium, and May Apples. If we were lucky, we'd find a Jack-in-the-Pulpit, but the rarest of them all was Trailing Arbutus. Do you remember any of this, and do you have any idea where it was?
"By the way, I looked up Adder's Tongue in my Audubon Wildflower book, and there it's called either Trout Lily or Dogtooth Violet. It says that the Adder's Tongue is a pink variety found only in Minnesota. Now why do you suppose Mom called the yellow ones we have here Adder's Tongues?
"P.S. I'm still wondering how your radiation treatments went. What's the next step?"
(On the radiation thing, I have to wait now for results of a blood test to be taken around the middle of the month. Then we'll know if the rays hit anything we'd like to be rid of in there. Waiting, waiting...)
Ann and I often are struck by the value of having had parents who maintained at least some connection with roots stretching back into the 19th century. We wish they had preserved even more, but the pressure of middle class membership in the 1950s was powerfully involved in being 100% average American. They really went for that, but fortunately had enough quirks of individuality to give both of us a different understanding of the world around us than the radio and TV told us to have. Many of our colleagues at work throughout our careers do not have parents like ours, and therefore fit in better and look at us weirdly when we bring up something like Adder's Tongues...the younger ones, who like to mow everything in sight, especially.
Our father, J. Ralph, came from city Swedes, involved in commerce, politics and law. Our mother was a country girl. Her name was Rhea, and where her mother Dora Johnson came up with that classical mythology name we'll never know. She was raised on a working farm outside Frewsburg, New York, run by Dora, her husband Edward Johnson, and the other daughters Lucille and Leora. That life for Mom came crashing to an end when Edward died suddenly of cancer on her 13th birthday. Dora had to sell the farm and move into the "'Burg," where Lucille got a job teaching in a one-room schoolhouse somewhere out in the hills. Lucille's sacrifice contributed to her remaining a single schoolteacher all her life, but Leora was able to marry into the Anderson and Long farm family and Rhea went to nursing school. (Ann may have corrections for all this.)
That farm, out on Oak Hill Road, was the focus of many a Sunday drive for us kids...and I still go out there whenever I return home, taking my children with me. There's not much left of the buildings now...and the orchard is in total ruin. My mother used to weep whenever she saw the apple trees untended even 50 years ago. Our mother's tears were frequent and plentiful...and understandably many of them were in eternal mourning for her father, whether she knew it or not. But somehow they also were connected with the passage of time, the seasons, and a love of Nature so strong and pure that we kids simply took it in like air and water. Father lovingly took us on tours of her old rambling pathways at least a few times a year. The Spring search for the Trailing Arbutus was an annual affair.
Frewsburg is about 5 miles southeast of Jamestown, in the Town of Carroll, which is the most southeast township in Chautauqua County. I understand the word "Chautauqua" is the language of the Seneca inhabitants of the land, and means "sack tied in the middle," referring to the shape of the prominent lake that dominates the life of the county. The Town of Carroll is bordered on the east by Cattaraugus County, which must be another Seneca name, and the State of Pennsylvania to the south. When we took our drives we went around through there. Oak Hill Road runs east into Cattaraugus County, and generally that's the way we went, turning north at the end of it and onto the road where, a couple miles further, the Trailing Arbutus grew...and probably still does. I'd need my Cattaraugus map to identify that road, but it's out in the garage somewhere---and we don't want to think about the mess the garage is in just now. If Ann drives out there today, she may find it from ancient memory...but I still know where it is, and we'll see it when I come up there this summer, though it won't be blooming then.
I'm not as good with the names of flowers and trees as I am with birds and insects. I don't know why. Boy stuff and chasing around maybe. And some of it may have to do, as Ann notices, that a flower in one part of the world can be named something else somewhere else, and that makes it all confusing. Flowers also have heavy connotations about them sometimes...and maybe I leave it to women to know all those romantic and emotional images. There's a fascinating book called "The Meaning Of Flowers," by Claire Powell, that was published in London in 1977, and over here almost immediately by Shambhala(!). In it we learn that during times like the Victorian, when women might faint at the mention of a word like "flesh," flowers were sent in letters to convey different messages of emotion and intent. What a particular flower might mean, should you receive it pressed in a book or letter, is defined and the flowers shown in brilliant woodcuts. Apparently the language of flowers is even more pronounced in Oriental tradition.
Ann mentions the Trout Lily. Why would that flower be called that? We think it's because the pattern of coloration on the leaves looks a bit like that on a trout. The Dog's Tooth name comes from the shape of the root. I don't know about the Adder's Tongue, but maybe it's what Swedes called it since that's the name in Minnesota, although there aren't any adders in Sweden. I remember being confused when I moved to New England, and had to learn Trout Lily instead of what Mom called them. I was thinking just yesterday, as I walked through our woods, where did the Rattlesnake Orchid get its name? Everybody says it's because of the pattern on the leaves, but did somebody name it that when they became afraid they were stepping on a rattler out there?
There seem to be more impenetrable mysteries in the names of flowers than in those of---say---butterflies, at least for me. Maybe that's another reason why I don't know them so well. Perhaps you all know the one about the Forget-Me-Not. Mrs. Powell is most thorough in her book. She says that Victorian English used to travel all the way to Luxembourg to see this symbol of true love in full flower. It was most abundant on the banks of a small stream there at locations called the Fairies' Bath and the Cascade of the Enchanted Oak. Can you imagine such places? She says girls used to dance on a carpet of blue flowers, and make wreaths to wear from the blossoms. Tennyson wrote of "The sweet forget-me-nots, That grow for happy lovers."
But the origin of the name is fraught with disaster. "The story began in Austria. Two lovers, on the eve of their marriage, were walking on the banks of the Danube. A flower, blue as the deepest sky, swung upon the waves, which seemed ready to bear it away. The young lady admired its beautiful colour and sighed that the flower was to be swept away. Her sweetheart leapt into the river to retrieve it, but the fast waters overcame him. With a desperate effort he threw the flower on the bank, and then sank back, crying with his last breath, 'Love me. Forget me not!'" (p. 73) Over on this side of the pond, always-hungry Americans found the thing didn't taste good...and we named it that so you'll remember not to eat it. Enjoy the Springtime!