Once, as my brother told his story of a summer camp summer hiking trip many years ago, an old man came wandering up to our campfire in the woods. He sat down and told us stories, played his guitar and sang songs with us.
He left as quietly as he came.
He was Carl Sandburg whose Flat Rock farm, Connemara, was famous for him and for his wife's goats.
My brother's daughter and family visited the farm the day after Thanksgiving, where the children made friends with the chickens, goats, and cat.
I don't think they even noticed the bluebirds.
I couldn't help feeling nostalgic for a place I myself knew many years ago from many camp summers nearby, for singing around a campfire, and for a meeting with a man I knew only through his words and voice.
I live with sister cats whose looks are deceiving. Yes, Doodlebug is all sweet and adorable when wakened from her nap, cuddled into her little bed.
But. That is not the whole story. Now imagine her jumping from the floor onto my back and holding on with her claws. Yes, this is another Doodle, the flip-side of cuddly, even though she makes that leap to purr and climb up onto my shoulders. Those claws can do damage. Yes, B(ad)a(ss)c(at) [pronounced Bassy] looks all sweet and adorable when wakened from her nap, comfortably lodged on her window chair.
But. That is not the whole story. Now imagine her ripping my expensive terrycloth robe from the hanger on the back of my bedroom door, closing said door, and spending much of the evening shredding it into pieces just for the sake of sensory pleasure, purring all the while. Those claws can do damage. Beware: these cats are not as innocent as they look.
When my kitchen became infested with ants this summer, as it does every year, I put out ant traps, which, in another annual rite, did exactly nothing. So I did what I always end up doing — inefficiently smushing the ants one by one. Sometimes I’ll massacre dozens at a time in a fit of pique after catching them glutting themselves in my sugar bowl, but then, seeing a single ant moping around on the counter looking sort of forlorn and hangdog, I’ll hesitate. He looks like maybe he’s not having such a great day already. Getting smushed is the last thing this guy needs.
Dispensing death and clemency capriciously — killing on petulant impulse, granting pardons at whim — gives me an Olympian view of how men must live and die in battle or disasters: one just unlucky, in the wrong place at the wrong moment, while the guy next to him is miraculously spared for no reason at all. As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods.
Ants, as individuals, do not seem like very complicated animals to me (I’m sure E. O. Wilson would correct me), but every time I smush one I am aware I am extinguishing for all eternity one being’s single chance to be alive. It’s hard to believe Descartes convinced even himself that animals were automata; watching an ant scramble frantically to escape my annihilating thumb, he certainly looks every bit as conscious of his own mortality as I am.Dispensing death and clemency capriciously — killing on petulant impulse, granting pardons at whim — gives me an Olympian view of how men must live and die in battle or disasters: one just unlucky, in the wrong place at the wrong moment, while the guy next to him is miraculously spared for no reason at all. As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods.
Living in a cabin in the country in the summer, I end up having to kill a lot of things. In this, as in so much else, my 16-year-old self would be disappointed in me. At that age I thought maybe Jainism was the religion for me. All I really knew about the Jains was that they carried little brooms with them everywhere to sweep insects out of their paths, lest they accidentally step on a single bug. As a kid who used to spend most of his time at pools rescuing flailing beetles from drowning, this appealed to me.
I note that Jainism originated in India, a country to which stinkbugs are not indigenous. The stinkbug, an invasive species, has taken over the Mid-Atlantic region, including my house, in the last few years as swiftly as the Martians conquered England. It was from stinkbugs that I learned that any animal in sufficient numbers, no matter how harmless, can be horrific. An effective stinkbug trap can be constructed out of a two-liter soda bottle and an L.E.D., but I find it more thorough and meditative to eradicate them through piecework, using the nozzle attachment of my vacuum cleaner. They make a very satisfying thhhhhP! sound when you suck them up. They then get to live out the rest of their lives in the oubliette of the vacuum bag. So my compassion is not quite Buddha-like in its embrace.
Mice are a stickier moral problem. Mice are mammals, and, it has to be admitted when you look at them in the light of day, cute — little bright-eyed wriggly creatures. You can see why they make such endearing cartoon characters. In an ideal world I would be content to coexist with mice. But my Gandhi-esque live-and-let-live attitude hardens into a more Fleming-McCartneyesque one when I go to enjoy my first cup of coffee of the day and find a tiny, hardened black turd in my mug. It is then that I set about carefully daubing the trigger of a mousetrap with peanut butter. So begins a wearisome cycle of vengeance and remorse.
A traditional mousetrap is designed to function like a guillotine, killing instantly and painlessly, but human technology is imperfect. Having to dispose of the limp corpse of a mouse first thing in the morning is a depressing chore with which to begin the day, but God forbid you should find the mouse alive, bleeding, maimed and crying on your kitchen counter. Now what? Mercy-smush the mouse with a rock? Put it outside and hope it’ll recover? It will die of sepsis under your porch. Whatever you do, you are going to feel like John Wayne Gacy for days. These days I use clever balance-activated traps that harmlessly capture the mouse. Whenever I catch one I carry the trap out to the car, place it on the passenger seat, and drive the mouse up the road to let it out near the house of my neighbor Gene, who likes animals.
I feel guilty about this killing to varying degrees, ranging from not one bit (mosquitoes, horseflies) to sorta (ants, stinkbugs) to gut-clenching remorse (the mice, the mice). The cartoonist Ruben Bolling once drew a handy chart explaining the ethical hierarchy of living things, from close relatives to plants, rating each in categories from Should You Help It? to Can You Eat It?. Some of these biases are based on help versus harm — cats and dogs are our pals and protectors, snakes and mosquitoes can kill us — but some are irrational prejudice. It is my official policy never to kill spiders, even though occasionally a large hairy one drops out of the rafters right onto the back of my hand and I must walk swiftly to the door holding my hand as far away from me as it will get mentally reciting Fear is the mind-killer, fear is the mind-killer. My rationale is: Spiders eat insects, and the enemy of my enemy is my friend. It’s a little like arming the mujahedeen, but as far as I’m concerned mosquitoes and stinkbugs are the Soviet Union, and there’s a war on. Also, anyone who’s read “Huck Finn” knows that killing spiders is bad luck.
It’s impossible even to live and move through this world without killing something. Not long ago I stepped out in my lawn and felt something squish under my heel. Inside my slipper I found the body of a daddy longlegs, an animal of which I am rather fond, its attached legs still twitching. Just driving the 10 minutes to the library and back, I wince as I smush butterflies when I fail to brake in time to whip them into the slipstream, or, worse, the occasional lightning bug, whose splattered magical guts leave a fluorescing greenish-gold smear of stars across my windshield that I then have to watch go heartbreakingly dark. Once I struck an indigo bunting who’d been sitting in the road — I didn’t see him in time and he couldn’t fly out of the way of my grille. I stopped and got out and stood watching him dying in the grass, slowly spreading his wings, iridescent under the sun. I helplessly kill dozens, if not hundreds, of animals daily with my big, dumb, blundering existence.I feel guilty about this killing to varying degrees, ranging from not one bit (mosquitoes, horseflies) to sorta (ants, stinkbugs) to gut-clenching remorse (the mice, the mice). The cartoonist Ruben Bolling once drew a handy chart explaining the ethical hierarchy of living things, from close relatives to plants, rating each in categories from Should You Help It? to Can You Eat It?. Some of these biases are based on help versus harm — cats and dogs are our pals and protectors, snakes and mosquitoes can kill us — but some are irrational prejudice. It is my official policy never to kill spiders, even though occasionally a large hairy one drops out of the rafters right onto the back of my hand and I must walk swiftly to the door holding my hand as far away from me as it will get mentally reciting Fear is the mind-killer, fear is the mind-killer. My rationale is: Spiders eat insects, and the enemy of my enemy is my friend. It’s a little like arming the mujahedeen, but as far as I’m concerned mosquitoes and stinkbugs are the Soviet Union, and there’s a war on. Also, anyone who’s read “Huck Finn” knows that killing spiders is bad luck.
It’s fastidious and silly in this culture, kind of sissyish, to confess to feeling bad about smushing bugs. As far as most of us are concerned, bugs are household dirt that moves. I recently read an article about the survivors of an earthquake in the Tibetan city of Yushu that killed 3,000 people saving thousands of near-microscopic crustaceans from the mud, as an act of devotion. This may seem to Westerners like a trivial ritual, a waste of time, but it is, at least, more real than posting condolences on Facebook or applying a custom R.I.P. decal to your car’s rear window. A bug may be a small, unimportant thing, but maybe killing or saving one isn’t. Every time I smush a bug I can feel myself smushing something else, too — an impulse toward mercy, a little throb of remorse. Maybe it would feel better to decide that killing even a bug matters. Does devaluing tiny insignificant lives have some effect whereby we become more callous about larger, more important ones, like a karmic broken-window theory? People running for cover on the ground must look antlike from a bomber or a drone. As flies to wanton boys.
This summer I drove a bag of garbage that was attracting fruit flies (kill en masse without qualm) down to the Dumpster at the end of my dirt road. I went to lift up the heavy lid of the Dumpster, and what did I find in there but two miserable-looking raccoons huddled together in the corner, hiding their faces from the light. They couldn’t have been in there for too long, or they would’ve roasted to death in the summer heat wave. At least they weren’t going hungry — the floor of the Dumpster was covered in denuded corncobs, squashed watermelon rinds and other amuse-bouches of filth. Still, they must’ve had a bad night of it in there; they looked scrawny and matted and sad.
What I had here was a Situation. I put down my bag of garbage and turned off the car. I trotted off to a shed where I found just what was needed — a piece of lumber about six feet long. Raccoons may not grasp the concept of favors or gratitude but they instantly grasped the concept of the ramp — I hadn’t even lowered it to the Dumpster’s floor before one of them reached up and grabbed it with his paws. (They’re extremely clever, dexterous animals — I do not doubt they will be the next species to set paw on the moon if we successfully exterminate ourselves.) I set the board down and backed off fast. They both clambered up it, crawled across the Dumpster’s rim, plopped to the ground and slunk off into the woods whence they’d come — to rehydrate, debrief or generally recollect their dignity.See?I thought.I am a good person. I am helping.This summer I drove a bag of garbage that was attracting fruit flies (kill en masse without qualm) down to the Dumpster at the end of my dirt road. I went to lift up the heavy lid of the Dumpster, and what did I find in there but two miserable-looking raccoons huddled together in the corner, hiding their faces from the light. They couldn’t have been in there for too long, or they would’ve roasted to death in the summer heat wave. At least they weren’t going hungry — the floor of the Dumpster was covered in denuded corncobs, squashed watermelon rinds and other amuse-bouches of filth. Still, they must’ve had a bad night of it in there; they looked scrawny and matted and sad.
When I told this story to my neighbor Gene, who puts bowls of meat out for the local vultures, he told me he lets those same raccoons out of the Dumpster once a week or so. So O.K., maybe they’re not all that smart after all. And maybe I am not a hero in the raccoon community. But whenever I think of all the harm I’ve done in this world, through cruelty or carelessness, or just by the unavoidable crime of being in it, I try to remember how I felt standing there, watching them go.
"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy." (William Shakespeare's Hamlet) Indeed. Space sings. Who knew? Not I. And on a gray cold wet day, listening provides heavenly comfort.
Thank you so much for sharing "How 'Hygge' Can Help You Get Through Winter" by Russell McLendon. For the second time this month, I have realized I should be Scandinavian. The first time had to do with the place of religion in society and one's life.
I must be Nordic at heart (I am certainly Nordic in DNA-origin as doctor once told me, based on my complexion and hair and eye color and tendency toward diseases due to those traits).
I want you to know that I just hygged: I lay in the tub with an adult beverage in hand, filled and re-filled the tub twice with hot water; the bathroom lit only by a dim nightlight; both cats in attendance and curious.
I thought of you and our friendship, your pounding on my windows to raise me before a hurricane (and our long tedious journey to Hope, AK, where we found a Munger machine in an old cotton mill), your husband's good beer, your generous birthday gift of an unexpected stay in the Everglades when I visited the family in Miami. I hygged then through friendship.
Now I hygge more often than not by myself, happily ensconced with Netflix or a book, a cat on my lap and one squinched between back and pillow; or hunched over bug or leaf, camera in hand; or captured by a vista, building, or work of art; or writing on the computer.
I think my ancient Viking blood is showing, and for that I am grateful
Empty on a Friday afternoon (except for me), the University Archives and Special Collections gallery features a small selection of paintings from The Johnson Collection of over a thousand works owned by a Sewanee alum and his wife. While I might have wished to see more of the collection, I left satisfied with one: Will Henry Stevens' Smoky Mountain Landscape. Some years ago, when I saw a larger exhibit of his work in Asheville, I felt swept away by the planes and colors, reminding me of childhood in the mountains, looming large still in memory.
On the coldest day of autumn, I warmed to the work and my reminiscence.
Sometimes a thing can be so close that I won't notice it. My cat Bassy is the same way: point the laser beam a foot away from her and she pounces; place it on her paw and she'll never see it. Most of what I encounter every day is like this: at my paw, as it were, wonders lie unnoticed. (I'd be crazy, by the way, if I attended to everything without filter, and so would you.) But sometimes, the best things literally happen right at my feet -- like this joined pair of Great Spreadwings, leafed in full sun. Surely this is their last hurrah.
Everything today -- air, water, leaves, trees, minutes, hours -- flew, flapping and slapping, slipping me back to what I miss most about childhood: time's endlessness that promised miracles each day I awoke and ended with a father's bedtime story.
You go about living your life till one moment your curiosity is piqued, ending your long habit of blithely going about your days and nights in blissful ignorance, and that very thing that captured your interest (that thing about which you previously knew nothing) now takes precedence in your mind, so much so that whatever you do and wherever you are, you run smack dab into it. Like today, for instance. On my way home from shoe shopping in Tullahoma, I drove through Arnold Air Force Base and decided to have a look at Woods Reservoir. I parked by the water, opened the door, stepped out, and ran smack dab into this damselfly.
Likely you have smiled many times at whirligigs as you drove past them in someone's yard -- without knowing you were admiring a 10,000-year-old folk-art form.
Hitch weather vanes to windmills and you get whirligigs - an ancient device whose only purpose is to delight onlookers.
Though once widely popular, whirligigs have declined in popularity except for those young in heart. A few local fans keep the historic devices alive.
Every civilization dependent on the weather for farming or seafaring invented the simple pointer that indicates wind direction. Representations are found in Samaria, Egypt and China. We still rely on them.
Windmills - canted blades attached to a hub - turn wheels that grind grain, pump water or generate electricity - are almost as old as weather vanes. The genius that melded weather vanes and windmills is long forgotten, but not his/her legacy.
Medieval European tapestries show children playing with small whirligigs of a hobbyhorse on one end of a stick and 4-bladed propellers at the other end.
This was a time of chivalry and knights on horses wielding lances and swords to rescue maidens in distress. The 1440 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary defined "whyrlegyge" as "any spinning toy."
In the late 1700s of colonial America, human figures waving their arms -- holding swords, shovels, pitchforks and other implements - were popular.
When George Washington rode home to Mt. Vernon after the Revolutionary War he brought in his saddlebags "whilagigs" for Martha's grandchildren.
Washington Irving in his 1820 "Legend of Sleepy Hollow" wrote of "a little wooden warrior who, armed with a sword in each hand, was most valiantly fighting the wind on the pinnacle of the barn."
In the late 1800s, popular whirligigs portrayed Indians paddling canoes, birds with flailing wings, men sawing wood and women scrubbing clothes in a washtub.
First settlers on the south shore of the Peace River roadstead of Charlotte Harbor was Fred and Anna Howard in 1875. The following year they were joined by Fred's brother Jarvis and his family.
Jarvis kept a diary and related their first Christmas together in 1876. Among the gifts exchanged was a "whirligig" from Fred and Anna to the Jarvis family. Size and design of the contraption was not stated.
Whirligigs experienced a renaissance during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Men out or work could make whirligigs with scrap lumber and sell them from their front yards for one dollar. This would feed a family of four for a day. (I know.)
Interestingly, whirligigs sold well. They were relatively inexpensive and boosted spirits when times were grim.
A favorite toy during the depression was the pin-wheel -- basic whirligig. Dime stores sold them for ten cents, of course. They were constructed of a square of colorful celluloid - the first plastic - the points of which were split, bent together and nailed to a stick. You created wind to spin the whirligig by running or holding it out a car window.
A beautiful, triple-tier pin-wheel whirligig --with multi-colored, counter-rotating vanes -- grace a yard across the street from the Punta Gorda Isles Yacht Club.
The most spectacular whirligig in southwest Florida is about ten feet tall in Punta Gorda. It spins merrily at the western end of Olympia Avenue near the Visual Arts Center and Fishermen's Village.
Its vertical and horizontal blades of polished and crimson stainless steel was created -- and is maintained -- by Stephen Schwarz, a member of the Visual Arts Center. He has several more such works of art at his home.
Traditional whirligigs are crafted by hobbyists like Gerry Philbrick of Punta Gorda Isles. He fancies traditional designs such as flying cardinals and little men sawing wood energetically in a breeze.
Many history and art museums feature whirligig collections. Private craftsmen create whirligig "gardens" for fun and profit. Roadside craft vendors offer a wide variety of whirligigs for sale.
The best vendor in these parts is Chris "Kringle" Williams the "Toy Maker" at Fort Ogden on S.R. 17 between Punta Gorda and Arcadia. His "Santa's workshop" is set back from the highway but easily visible. He and his wife Delores preside over a salesroom of thousands of handcrafted novelties in a historic general-store building.
Craftsmen - or craftswomen - will find a book by Anders Lunde interesting and instructive. "Whirligigs Design & Construction" (Chilton Book Company, Radnor, Pa.) can be ordered from any bookstore.
Lunde is credited with reviving the whirligig a quarter-century ago. A well-known painter and wood sculptor, Lunde won First Prize in a sculpture at the1981 Durham (North Carolina) Art Guild Juried Exhibition. He received two awards for his whirligigs at the 1983 Juried Exhibition of North Carolina Crafts.
His book contains easy-to-follow instructions and patterns for constructing whirligigs - from pinwheels to elaborate groupings of several animated figures.
CAUTION: exposure to whirligigs could entrance you.