Saturday, February 28, 2015

73 Photographs Later

Call them drafts. Call them attempts. Call them failures.

I still didn't get what I saw: not the focus, not the color, not the flatness I wanted, not the light.


I love the looking, and the trying, and the remembering.

Scarlett O'Hara said it best: "Tomorrow is another day."

Friday, February 27, 2015

The Limits of My Language

A friend shared a beautiful, revelatory essay with me today from The Guardian. Robert Macfarlane's "The Word-hoard: Robert Macfarlane on Rewilding Our Language of Landscape" stirred so such deep response in me that it has surfaced again and again throughout the day, not least on my walk through Abbo's Alley.

I photographed snow-drops pushing up through icy snow and thought, What is the word for this hardiness?

I photographed moss sporophytes climbing up toward the sun and thought, What is the word for this tender searching?

I photographed icicles clinging to a moss- and lichen-licked rock face and thought, What is the word for icy magnification that both blurs and sharpens?

Nothing matches what Macfarlane has gathered from his research.

Read it yourself: you will not be sorry.

Làirig – ‘a pass in the mountains’ (Gaelic). Photograph: Rosamund Macfarlane

The Word-hoard: Robert Macfarlane on Rewilding Our Language of Landscape
by Robert Macfarlane
Friday 27 February 201506.30 EST
Last modified on Friday 27 February 201506.52 EST – The Guardian

Eight years ago, in the coastal township of Shawbost on the Outer Hebridean island of Lewis, I was given an extraordinary document. It was entitled “Some Lewis Moorland Terms: A Peat Glossary”, and it listed Gaelic words and phrases for aspects of the tawny moorland that fills Lewis’s interior. Reading the glossary, I was amazed by the compressive elegance of its lexis, and its capacity for fine discrimination: a caochan, for instance, is “a slender moor-stream obscured by vegetation such that it is virtually hidden from sight”, while afeadan is “a small stream running from a moorland loch”, and a fèith is “a fine vein-like watercourse running through peat, often dry in the summer”. Other terms were striking for their visual poetry: rionnach maoim means “the shadows cast on the moorland by clouds moving across the sky on a bright and windy day”; èit refers to “the practice of placing quartz stones in streams so that they sparkle in moonlight and thereby attract salmon to them in the late summer and autumn”, and teine biorach is “the flame or will-o’-the-wisp that runs on top of heather when the moor burns during the summer”.

The “Peat Glossary” set my head a-whirr with wonder-words. It ran to several pages and more than 120 terms – and as that modest “Some” in its title acknowledged, it was incomplete. “There’s so much language to be added to it,” one of its compilers, Anne Campbell, told me. “It represents only three villages’ worth of words. I have a friend from South Uist who said her grandmother would add dozens to it. Every village in the upper islands would have its different phrases to contribute.” I thought of Norman MacCaig’s great Hebridean poem “By the Graveyard, Luskentyre”, where he imagines creating a dictionary out of the language of Donnie, a lobster fisherman from the Isle of Harris. It would be an impossible book, MacCaig concluded:

A volume thick as the height of the Clisham,

A volume big as the whole of Harris,

A volume beyond the wit of scholars.

The same summer I was on Lewis, a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionarywas published. A sharp-eyed reader noticed that there had been a culling of words concerning nature. Under pressure, Oxford University Press revealed a list of the entries it no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood. The deletions included acornadderashbeechbluebellbuttercupcatkinconkercowslip,cygnetdandelionfernhazelheatherheronivykingfisherlarkmistletoe,nectarnewtotterpasture and willow. The words taking their places in the new edition included attachmentblock-graphblogbroadbandbullet-pointcelebrity,chatroomcommitteecut-and-pasteMP3 player and voice-mail. As I had been entranced by the language preserved in the prose‑poem of the “Peat Glossary”, so I was dismayed by the language that had fallen (been pushed) from the dictionary. For blackberry, read Blackberry.

 Cladach stony beach

I have long been fascinated by the relations of language and landscape – by the power of strong style and single words to shape our senses of place. And it has become a habit, while travelling in Britain and Ireland, to note down place words as I encounter them: terms for particular aspects of terrain, elements, light and creaturely life, or resonant place names. I’ve scribbled these words in the backs of notebooks, or jotted them down on scraps of paper. Usually, I’ve gleaned them singly from conversations, maps or books. Now and then I’ve hit buried treasure in the form of vernacular word-lists or remarkable people – troves that have held gleaming handfuls of coinages, like the Lewisian “Peat Glossary”.

Not long after returning from Lewis, and spurred on by the Oxford deletions, I resolved to put my word-collecting on a more active footing, and to build up my own glossaries of place words. It seemed to me then that although we have fabulous compendia of flora, fauna and insects (Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannicaand Mark Cocker’s Birds Britannica chief among them), we lack a Terra Britannica, as it were: a gathering of terms for the land and its weathers – terms used by crofters, fishermen, farmers, sailors, scientists, miners, climbers, soldiers, shepherds, poets, walkers and unrecorded others for whom particularised ways of describing place have been vital to everyday practice and perception. It seemed, too, that it might be worth assembling some of this terrifically fine-grained vocabulary – and releasing it back into imaginative circulation, as a way to rewild our language. I wanted to answer Norman MacCaig’s entreaty in his Luskentyre poem: “Scholars, I plead with you, / Where are your dictionaries of the wind … ?”

Ammil – a Devon term for the thin film of ice that lacquers all leaves, twigs and grass blades when a freeze follows a partial thaw. Photograph: John Macfarlane

In the seven years after first reading the “Peat Glossary”, I sought out the users, keepers and makers of place words. In the Norfolk Fens – introduced by the photographer Justin Partyka – I met Eric Wortley, a 98-year-old farmer who had worked his family farm throughout his long life, who had been twice to the East Anglian coast, once to Norwich and never to London, and whose speech was thick with Fenland dialect terms. I came to know the cartographer, artist and writer Tim Robinson, who has spent 40 years documenting the terrain of the west of Ireland: a region where, as he puts it, “the landscape … speaks Irish”. Robinson’s belief in the importance of “the language we breathe” as part of “our frontage onto the natural world” has been inspiring to me, as has his commitment to recording subtleties of usage and history in Irish place names, before they are lost forever: Scrios Buaile na bhFeadog, “the open tract of the pasture of the lapwings”; Eiscir, “a ridge of glacial deposits marking the course of a river that flowed under the ice of the last glaciation”.

I turned also to the archive, seeking place words as they were preserved in glossaries and dictionaries, gathered on the web, or embedded in the literature of earlier decades and centuries. WS Graham wrote in a 1977 poem of “Floating across the frozen tundra / of the lexicon and the dictionary”, but I find lexicons to be more tropical jungle than tundra, gloriously ornate in their tendrilled outgrowths and complex root systems. I met, too, with great generosity from correspondents around the UK, who were ready to share “their” place words. Over the years, and especially over the last two years, thousands of place terms reached me. They came by letter, email and telephone, scribbled on postcards or yellowed prewar foolscap, transcribed from cassette recordings of Suffolk longshoremen made half a century ago, or taken from hand-sketched maps of Highland hill country and island coastlines. I began to comprehend something of the awesome range and vigour of place words as they have existed in the numerous languages and dialects of these islands.

Some of the terms I collected mingle oddness and familiarity in the manner that Freud calls uncanny: peculiar in their particularity, but recognisable in that they name something conceivable, if not instantly locatable. Ammil is a Devon term for the thin film of ice that lacquers all leaves, twigs and grass blades when a freeze follows a partial thaw, and that in sunlight can cause a whole landscape to glitter. It is thought to derive from the Old English ammel, meaning “enamel”, and is an exquisitely exact word for a fugitive phenomenon I have several times seen, but never before named. Shetlandic has a word, pirr, meaning “a light breath of wind, such as will make a cat’s paw on the water”. On Exmoor, zwer is the onomatopoeic term for “the sound made by a covey of partridges taking flight”. Smeuse is an English dialect noun for “the gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal”; now I know the word smeuse, I notice these signs of creaturely commute more often.

I became fascinated by those scalpel-sharp words that are untranslatable without remainder. The need for precise discrimination of this kind has occurred most often where landscape is the venue of work. The Icelandic novelist Jón Kalman Stefánsson writes of fishermen speaking “coddish” far out into the North Atlantic; the miners working the Great Northern Coalfield in England’s north-east developed a sub-dialect known as “Pitmatical” or “yakka”, so dense it proved incomprehensible to Victorian parliamentary commissioners seeking to improve conditions in the mines in the 1840s. The name “Pitmatical” was originally chosen to echo “mathematical”, and thereby emphasise the skill and precision of the colliers. Such super-specific argots are born of hard, long labour on land and at sea. The terms they contain allow us glimpses through other eyes, permit brief access to distant lifeworlds and habits of perception. In another of his Hebridean poems, MacCaig commended the “seagull voice” of his Gaelic Aunt Julia, so rooted in the terrain of Harris that she came to think with and speak in its birds and climate.

I also relished synonyms – especially those that bring new energy to familiar entities. The variant English terms for icicle – aquabob (Kent), clinkerbell anddaggler (Hampshire), cancervell (Exmoor), ickle (Yorkshire), tankle (Durham) andshuckle (Cumbria) – form a tinkling poem of their own. In Northamptonshire and East Anglia “to thaw” is to ungive. The beauty of this variant surely has to do with the paradox of thaw figured as restraint or retention, and the wintry notion that cold, frost and snow might themselves be a form of gift – an addition to the landscape that will in time be subtracted by warmth.

Shreep - ‘mist that is slowly clearing’. Photograph: John Macfarlane

Many of the glossary words are, like ungive, memorably vivid. They function as topograms – tiny landscape poems, folded up inside verbs and nouns. I think of the Northamptonshire dialect verb to crizzle, for instance, a verb for the freezing of water that evokes the sound of a natural activity too slow for human hearing to detect (“And the white frost ’gins crizzle pond and brook”, wrote John Clare in 1821). When Gerard Manley Hopkins didn’t have a word for a natural phenomenon, he would simply – wonderfully – make one up: shivelight, for “the lances of sunshine that pierce the canopy of a wood”, or goldfoil for a sky lit by lightning in “zigzag dints and creasings”. Hopkins, like Clare, sought to forge a language that could register the participatory dramas of our relations with nature and landscape.

Not all place words are poetic or innocent, of course. Our familiar wordforest designates not only a wooded region, but also an area of land set aside for hunting – as those who have walked through the treeless “forests” of Fisherfield and Corrour in Scotland will know. Forest – like many wood-words – is complicatedly tangled up in political histories of access and landownership. We inhabit a post-pastoral terrain, full of modification and compromise, and for this reason my glossaries began to fill up with “unnatural” language: terms from coastal sea defences (pillboxbulwarkrock-armour), or soft estate, the Highways Agency term for those natural habitats that have developed along the verges of motorways and trunk roads.

Some of the words I collected are ripely rude. These islands, I now know, have scores of terms for animal dung, most of which double up nicely as insults, fromcrottle (a foresters’ term for “hare excrement”) to doofers (Scots for “horse shit”), to the expressive ujller (Shetlandic for the “unctuous filth that runs from a dunghill”) and turdstool (West Country for “a very substantial cowpat”). A dialect name for the kestrel – alongside such felicities as windhover and bell-hawk – iswind-fucker. Once learned, never forgotten; it is hard now not to see in the pose of the hovering kestrel a certain lustful quiver. I’ve often been reminded of Douglas Adams and John Lloyd’s genius catalogue of nonce words, The Meaning of Liff(1983), in which British place names are used as nouns for the “hundreds of common experiences, feelings, situations and even objects which we all know and recognise, but for which no words exist”. Thus “Kimmeridge (n): The light breeze which blows through your armpit hair when you are stretched out sunbathing”; or “Glassel (n): A seaside pebble which was shiny and interesting when wet, and which is now a lump of rock, but which children nevertheless insist on filling their suitcases with after a holiday”. When I mentioned to my young son that there was no word for the shining hump of water that rises above a submerged boulder in a stream, he suggested currentbum. Well, yes.

I organised my growing word-hoard into nine glossaries, divided according to terrain-type: Flatlands, Uplands, Waterlands, Coastlands, Underlands, Northlands, Edgelands, Earthlands and Woodlands. The words came from dozens of languages, dialects, sub-dialects and specialist vocabularies: from Unst to the Lizard, from Pembrokeshire to Norfolk; from Norn and Old English, Anglo-Romani, Cornish, Welsh, Irish, Gaelic, Orcadian, Shetlandic and Doric, and numerous regional versions of English, through to Jérriais, the dialect of Norman still spoken on the island of Jersey.

Roarie-bummlers – ‘fast-moving storm-clouds’ (Scots). Photograph: John Macfarlane

I quickly realised that they couldn’t and shouldn’t aspire to completion. They contained only a debatable fraction of an impossible whole. There is no single mountain language, but a range of mountain languages; no one coastal language, but a fractal of coastal languages; no lone tree language, but a forest of tree languages. So I decided to imagine them not as archives but as wunderkammers, celebrating the visions these words opened in the mind, and their tastes on the tongue.

I am wary of the dangers of fetishising dialect and archaism – all that mollockingand sukebinding Stella Gibbons spoofed so brilliantly in Cold Comfort Farm (1932). Wary, too, of advocating a tyranny of the nominal – a taxonomic need to point and name, with the intent of citing and owning – when in fact I perceive no opposition between precision and mystery, or between naming and not knowing. There are experiences of landscape that will always resist articulation, and of which words offer only a distant echo. Nature will not name itself. Granite doesn’t self-identify as igneous. Light has no grammar. Language is always late for its subject. When I see a moon-bow or a sundog, I usually just say “Wow!” or “Hey!” Sometimes on a mountain, I look out across scree and corriesrón and lairig – and say nothing at all. But we are and always have been name-callers, christeners. Words are grained into our landscapes, and landscapes grained into our words.

Yet it is clear that we increasingly make do with an impoverished language for landscape. A place literacy is leaving us. A language in common, a language of the commons, is declining. Nuance is evaporating from everyday usage, burned off by capital and apathy. The substitutions made in the Oxford Junior Dictionary – the outdoor and the natural being displaced by the indoor and the virtual – are a small but significant symptom of the simulated screen life many of us live. The terrain beyond the city fringe is chiefly understood in terms of large generic units (“field”, “hill”, “valley”, “wood”). It has become a blandscape. We are blasé, in the sense that Georg Simmel used that word in 1903, meaning “indifferent to the distinction between things”.

This impoverishment has occurred even in languages that have historically paid close attention to place, such as Irish or Gaelic. Even the landscape lexis of the Outer Hebrides is currently being lost. Gaelic itself is slowly withering: the number of native speakers in the Scottish Gàidhealtachd is now around 58,000. Of those who do still speak Gaelic, many are understandably less interested in the intricacies of toponymy. In Ireland, a similar situation exists: Tim Robinson notes how with each generation, more “of the place names are forgotten or becoming incomprehensible”.

Sun-scald – ‘the eye-scorching gleam of sunlight as it falls on river, lake or sea’ (Sussex)

Why should this loss matter? You can’t even use crizzle as a Scrabble word: there aren’t two “z”s in the bag (unless, of course, you use a blank). It matters because language deficit leads to attention deficit. As we deplete our ability to denote and figure particular aspects of our places, so our competence for understanding and imagining possible relationships with non-human nature is correspondingly depleted. To quote the American farmer and essayist Wendell Berry – a man who in my experience speaks the crash-tested truth – “people exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love, and to defend what we love we need a particularising language, for we love what we particularly know.” Or as Cocker punchily puts it, “If acorn goes from the lexicon, the game is up for nature in England.”

There is, suddenly, a surging sense of the importance of preserving and plenishing a diverse language for landscape. In January, a campaign for OUP to reinstate the culled “nature words” was launched, drawing support from Margaret Atwood and Michael Morpurgo: OUP has responded positively and thoughtfully. Robinson has written recently of the need for what he calls “geophany”, meaning a language “fit for the secular celebration of place”. This spring the photographer Dominick Tyler is publishingUncommon Ground, which pairs 100 place words with 100 photographs of the phenomena to which the words refer, from arête (“a sharp-edged mountain ridge, often between two glacier-carved corries”) to zawn (a Cornish term for a “wave-smashed chasm in a cliff”). Mabey’s forthcoming The Cabaret of Plantsargues for “a new language” with which to accommodate the “selfhood” of plants: “metaphor and analogy may be the best we can do, but they will have to be toughened by an acceptance that the plant world is a parallel life system to our own, intimately connected with it, but still existentially different”. George Monbiot is launching a project seeking new framings for the protection of the nature, “prompted by the miserable, uninspiring state of the language of conservation” and policy-making: “‘Environment’ is a term that creates no pictures in the mind, which is why I have begun to use ‘natural world’ or ‘living planet’ instead.”

Landmarks, the book that has arisen from my own years of word work, is a celebration and defence of land language. Its fascination is with the mutual relations of place, word and spirit: how we landmark, and how we are landmarked in turn. Each of the nine glossaries is matched with a chapter exploring the work of those writers who have used words exactly and exactingly when describing specific places. “The hardest thing of all to see is what is really there,” observed JA Baker in The Peregrine (1967), a book that brilliantly shows how such seeing might occur in language, written as it is in prose that has “the quivering intensity of an arrow thudding into a tree”. The terrain about which Baker wrote with such committing force was the coastal Essex of saltings, spinneys, sea walls and mudflats. Compelled by the high gold horizons of this old countryside, even as it was undergoing the assault of big-field farming in the 1950s and 1960s, Baker developed a new style with which to evoke its odd magnificence. His sentences are full of neologisms: the adjectives he torqued into verbs (“The north wind brittled icily in the pleached lattice of the hedgerows”), and the verbs he incites to misbehaviour (“Four short-eared owls soothed out of the gorse”).

I have long been drawn to the work of writers who – in Emerson’s phrase – seek to “pierce rotten diction and fasten words again to visible things”. Baker is one such writer, Robinson another, Nan Shepherd a third. Shepherd was a word-hoarder, and her slim masterpiece The Living Mountain carries a long glossary of Scots terms, which abounds with walking words (spangin’, for “walking vigorously”) and weather words: smoored, for “smothered in snow”, and the unforgettableroarie bummlers, meaning “fast-moving storm clouds”. Roger Deakin, while writing his modern classics Waterlog and Wildwood, gathered wood words and water words. John Muir relished the technical language of botany (bractbole,pistillate) but also delighted in his own coinages.

Wurr – ‘hoar-frost’ (Herefordshire). Photograph: Rosamund Macfarlane

For all of these writers, to use language well is to use it particularly: precision of utterance as both a form of lyricism and a species of attention. “I want my writing to bring people not just to think of ‘trees’ as they mostly do now,” wrote Deakin in a notebook, “but of each individual tree, and each kind of tree”. Muir, spending his first summer working as a shepherd among the pines of the Sierra Nevada in California, reflected in his journal that “Every tree calls for special admiration. I have been making many sketches and regret that I cannot draw every needle.”

Strange events occurred in the course of the years and journeys I spent writingLandmarks – convergences that pressed at the limits of coincidence, and tended to the eerie. They included the discovery of a “tunnel of swords and axes” in Cumbria, guided by a Finnish folk tale; an encounter with a peregrine in south Cambridge on the day I went to look through Baker’s telescopes and binoculars; the experience of walking into the pages of Shepherd’s The Living Mountain in the Cairngorms; and the widening ripples of a forgotten place word, found in a folder in Suffolk, left behind by a man who had died. Strangest of all these strangenesses, though, was the revelation in the week I finished the book, that its originating dream of a glossary of landscape-language so vast it might encompass the world had, almost, come true.

That revelation came as a letter sent by a scholar of languages living in Qatar, and reading the letter made me feel as if I had stepped into a story by Borges or Calvino. For the last 15 years, he explained, he had been working on a global glossary of landscape terms. His name was Abdal Hamid Fitzwilliam-Hall, he had been born in Cyrenaica, now eastern Libya, had grown up among the kopjes and veldt of what was then Southern Rhodesia, and it was while studying Arabic, and walking the black lava fields (harrah) and granite domes (hadbah) of the Hejaz mountains in western Saudia Arabia, that he decided to begin gathering place words from the Arabic dialects, before they were swept away forever. But his task soon began to grip him with the force of an obsession, and he moved into neighbouring Semitic and African-Eurasian languages, then to the Romance, Celtic, Germanic, Nordic and Slavic language families, and then backwards in time to the first Sumerian cuneiform records of c3100 BCE.

The entries for individual words grew, some to several pages in length, as a meshwork of cross-reference thrived between languages and usages. Topographically, he ranged from mountain tops to city forms. Linguistically, he worked through more than 140 languages, from Afrikaans to Zande. His hope, he said, was to show “that the land is layered in language as surely as the rocks are layered beneath its surface”. The work had become, he told me, so complex in its structures and so infinitely extendable in its concerns that he did not envisage completing it, only bringing it to a point of abandonment that might also be a point of publication. “The project has,” he said almost embarrassedly, “something of the fabulous about it.”

Later, he emailed me as an attachment the section of the glossary covering those words beginning with the letter “b”. “I hope the file size can be accommodated,” he wrote. I double-clicked it. The document opened in Word, and I watched the page count tick up as my computer ascertained the extent of the text. The count hit 100 pages, then 200, then 300 … it settled at last on 343 pages. All those pages in 11-point font, just for “b”. Then I read the note preceding the first entry (“(Akkadian, jungbabylonisch lex.): water”): “This glossary is a work in progress. At the present time … it is some 3,500 pages long and contains around 50,000 separate terms or headwords.” I sat back in my seat, amazed and haunted by this extraordinary scholar, out there in the desert, gathering and patterning a work of words that might keep us from slipping off into abstract space.

So Landmarks began with the “Peat Glossary”, and it ended with Abdal’s world-spanning magnum opus. In between, I have realised that although place words are being lost, they are also being created. As I travelled I met new terms as well as salvaging old ones: a painter in the Western Isles who used landskein to refer to the braid of blue horizon lines on a hazy day; a five-year-old girl who concoctedhoneyfur to describe the soft seeds of grasses pinched between fingertips. We have forgotten 10,000 words for our landscapes, but we will make 10,000 more, given time and inclination. This is why Landmarks moves over its course from the peat-deep word-hoard of Hebridean Gaelic, through to the fresh-minted terms and stories of young children at play on the outskirts of a Cambridgeshire town. And this is why I decided to leave blank the final glossary of the book – there to hold the place-words that have yet to be coined.

Landmarks is published by Hamish Hamilton on 5 March.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Daily Rituals

A fresh morning pot of black tea.

A favorite mug, dolloped with milk first before tea.

Checking in (throughout the day): email, Facebook (and posting -- as a former student said, "You're still teaching," but I think of it as a kind of "book" club in which everyone shares), The New York Times, Feedly.

Reading and commenting on compositions.


Taking pictures.

Looking at, deleting, working on pictures.


A little something before dinner.

Dinner (and sometimes work).


Litter box duties.



Of these, six are for me for the necessary actions of my creative life, something of which I was reminded today when my friend Jane posted to FB an article from The Washington Post about Mason Currey's book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work.

His ideas aren't new, and I'm no artist.

But this much is true: "crafting . . . routine[s has] minimize[d] the distractions in [my] life and maximize[d my] ability to think creatively."

Especially the bold ones.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

All's Well

wet flakes
plop & plash
filling the woods,
bells ring 5:00;
all's well yet
I think on
the yellow stray,
long-time resident
of Kentucky Avenue,
& hope she
worms herself
into a warm spot.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Nothing Is Wasted

in the woods
(except what people discard, 
but that's another story):
fallen limbs, branches, trees
house small animals; 
their stumps provide perches
or pecking places; 
on decaying wood
mosses, lichens, fungi 
sprout forth, burning
like little suns on dark days;
and sometimes people
build a fire or construct 
an artful shelter
for no reason
other than joy.

Monday, February 23, 2015

When the Fog Lifts

Lake Cheston reveals its treasures.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

They Came and Surely They Saw

Each year, the Seminary welcomes visitors in February for a special program, described this way on the website:
If you're in the discernment process as a postulant or exploring your faith and ministry as a lay leader, a visit to The School of Theology at the University of the South is your best way to experience Episcopal seminary education in Sewanee, Tenn. Student-organized and student-led, Come & See 2015 will introduce you to community life and theological formation in one of the most beautiful settings in the nation. Once on the Mountain for Come & See, your expenses -- food and campus lodging -- are covered by The School of Theology.
The signs went up and the weather began an exciting performance of its own: road-closing snow and ice with extreme low temperatures, followed by rain and fog so dense a mystery novel fan would feel she had walked into a scene with Sherlock Holmes himself. 

If any of the visitors decide to matriculate here, they will already have met the other great experience of Sewanee's community life: winter's capriciousness.

Saturday, February 21, 2015


My grand-niece A radiates the pure energy of life writ large. 

When she wakes, she does so with the embrace of a new day that makes me envious: she knows each day a miracle and she makes it miraculous for those who love her. Charmed and charming, like the bubbles in a glass, she spreads cheer and love wherever she is, and for her I am grateful.

May her day be as joyful she has made mine, thinking on her.

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Limitations of Language

Google the names for blue and you will find these, among many others:

Air Force blue
Baby blue
Cambridge blue
Carolina blue
Cobalt blue
Columbia blue
Cornflower blue
Light blue
Midnight blue
Navy blue
Palatine blue
Persian blue
Phthalo blue
Powder blue
Prussian blue
Royal blue
Sky blue
Tiffany blue
True blue

My own family's paint business used to produce a fan deck, about which I have previously written, and in it there are pages and pages of blues.

But here's the thing: none of them, and I mean none of them, come close to what I witnessed this evening in Sewanee: no name can capture the beauty of night's slow descent.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Two Views of Winter Sun

Through icicle blades turning gutters and eaves into hilts.

On Adirondack chairs begging for sitters.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Snow Day

Not a bad day to stay in and enjoy the view.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

All It Takes

is just
one moment
of sun
& blue sky

Monday, February 16, 2015

Secret Life

by Marianne Boruch

My drawing teacher said: Lookthinkmake a mark.
Look, I told myself.
And waited to be marked.

Clouds are white but they darken
with rain. Even a child blurs them back
to little woolies on a hillside, little
bundles without legs. Look, my teacher
would surely tell me, they’re nothing

like that. Like that: the lie. Like that: the poem.
She said: Respond to the heaviest part
of the figure first. Density is
form. That I keep hearing destiny

is not a mark of character. Like pilgrimage
once morphed to mirage in a noisy room, someone
so earnest at my ear. Then marriage slid.
Mir-aageMir-aage, I heard the famous poet let loose
awry into her microphone, triumphant.

The figure to be drawn —
not even half my age. She’s completely
emptied her face for this job of standing still an hour.
Look. Okay. But the little

dream in there, inside the think
that comes next. A pencil in my hand, its secret life
is charcoal, the wood already burnt,
a sacrifice.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

A Bit of Cheer on a Sunless Afternoon

The high-pitched scream-like whistle makes me look up, and there among the berries, cedar waxwings scramble along with more melodious robins like mad shoppers at Filene's basement, pulling and swallowing fruit as fast as it can be snatched. They do not fight, however, unlike the nun who grabbed brightly patterned panties out of my hands all those years ago in Boston. These birds seem to understand that sharing is a good idea, especially when the temperature is 27 degrees and dropped. By nightfall, tree will be bare, and they will move on.

I would like to be there when they arrive. 

Saturday, February 14, 2015

What Lasts

The Lost Cause.
(If you're from the South, you know what "The Lost Cause" is. If you're not, you'll have to ask a Southerner, but . . . be careful when you do so. Ask someone who's not flying a Confederate battle flag or wearing one.)
February 13, 2014

Sewanee's Devotion to Rebel's Rest.
(If you're an alum, you know what I mean. If you're not, you'll have to ask, but be careful: avoid controversy when you find out who the "rebel" is and what the name of the University is. Tread lightly.)
February 14, 2015

("Wisteria is an extremely hardy plant that is considered an invasive species in many parts of the U.S., especially the Southeast, due to its ability to overtake and choke out other native plant species." Wikipedia.

The Infinite Pleasures of Irony.
(No explanation necessary.)

Friday, February 13, 2015

Kitty Karma, Part II

Kitty Karma, Part I may be found here.

"And the Cat Came Back" may be found here.

Finally, the "vent kitty," still unnamed by her new mama Emily, is settled in Nebraska with her new best friend.

My friend Jere may be gone, but his loving spirit lives on in the kitty who poked up through his kitchen floor: witness the foundling, rescued by Jere's family and shepherded to those who will love and cherish her.

Life is ever good.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

A Plea to the One in Charge

Dear Madam or Sir:

For an all-too-brief moment today, I thought Sewanee might enjoy an accumulation of snow. The wind blustered the butterfly sculpture in front of Locals, whirling and swirling it, and flakes hurled themselves down University Avenue with the kind of enthusiastic abandon I've seen in The Nutcracker.

But then it stopped. And the sun came out. And we are left with cold. Bitter dregs of a winter wonderland that I am still awaiting.

Please. Can't you do something?

With great hope, I am, respectfully yours,
A Fan.