July 2005

Meditating frog

In case you don’t believe me when I say that frogs are natural Zen practitioners, here’s a shot of a green Master meditating in the pond behind the Providence Zen Center. This weekend the Kwan Um School of Zen is holding its annual Sangha weekend in commemoration of the late Zen Master Seung Sahn’s birthday. After this morning’s Zen ceremonies, I spooked a handful of frogs from the pond out back…but this massive bullfrog didn’t budge, letting me take a zoom-free Extreme Closeup. (Click on the image for a larger version.)

And in case you think only amphibians showed up this weekend’s festivities, here’s the requisite group photo taken after today’s precepts ceremony. (Thanks to JW for taking this picture…and for eventually returning my camera afterward.) The folks holding up certificates took various sorts of Buddhist precepts, thereby declaring their intention to find their True Self and save all beings…bullfrogs included. (If you want to search for my face in this sea of Zen Mamas and Papas, click on the image for a larger version.)

Post-precepts ceremony

Today’s Photo Friday theme is Somber. Although it was clear and sunny when I visited the National World War II Memorial in Washington, DC in June, there’s something intrinsically somber about a memorial commemorating some 16 million U.S. troops who served and some 400,000 American souls who perished.

As if to bespeak to the solemnity of this memorial, the older gentleman walking toward the Washington Memorial in the following picture–himself old enough to be a member of the Greatest Generation–had tears in his eyes as he walked past.

In case members of the Youngest Generation, lured by the sight of a cool fountain on a hot day, were tempted to engage in merriment not becoming a somber war memorial, signs stood sentry by way of reminder.

And to their credit, the handful of tired tourists who sat near the cooling breeze of the memorial fountain took care not to dip even one wading toe.

Goose Pond, Keene, NH

Early last night, after days of steamy weather, the sky opened and the rain fell in sheets. Within 20 minutes, the temperature dropped from low 90s to low 70s. And in the wee hours of this morning, I woke just long enough to reach for a blanket to fend off an almost autumnal chill.

If you’re perfectly still, you can almost hear the inhabitants of southern New Hampshire joined in one collective sigh: ahhhhh!

When in Rome, do as the Romans do, and when hiding in pine duff, try to look like a dead pine needle.

When I owned a home (and mowed my own grass) in Hillsborough, NH, I’d regularly see slender leopard frogs (Rana pipiens) zipping between the grass (and mower) blades. Lightning fast, these little frogs (and the ones in my yard were always little) seemed perfectly suited for life in a lawn. It was no surprise to me, then, to learn that leopard frogs are also called Meadow or Grass Frogs: spotted like leopards, their green and brown markings make them surprisingly difficult to find in grass.

Before there were lawns, though, leopard frogs lived in the forest…and some of them still do. I spotted this little guy next to a fallen pine tree along the shore at Goose Pond, where Reggie and I walked early yesterday morning in an attempt to beat the heat. (We also found a lost wallet on our way back to the car, but that’s a story for another day.) Although I’d seen leopard frogs in the usual places–lawns, deciduous forests, ponds–I’d never seen one covered in dead pine needles. As Rach commented on a post last week, shouldn’t frogs stick to lily pads, where we’re accustomed to imagining them?

Beginning a Diane Ackerman book is like sinking into a hot bubble bath: warm, soothing, and sensuous. After having adored Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses, I’ve made a point to collect a copy of every Ackerman title I can find used: a rewarding task given how prolific a writer she is.

The Rarest of the Rare is a slim (by Ackerman’s standards) volume in which Ackerman lives up to her reputation of being “a hard-core adventuress” by traveling around the world to observe endangered monk seals, short-tailed albatrosses, and golden lion tamarinds as well as the threatened habitats of the Amazonian rainforest and the Florida scrublands. As with all of her books, The Rarest of the Rare is a descriptive delight, bombarding readers with sensory details of Ackerman’s adventures as she swims with monk seals and slogs up the Amazon. Although extinction has always been a natural part of the evolutionary process, the current rate of human-influenced environmental change threatens both biodiversity and the very sanctity of natural life. A rare bird herself, Ackerman captures the beauty of endangered creatures and ignites in her readers a desire to save them.

Now that summer is ready to surge into the grand finale that is August, goldenrod, Queen Anne’s lace, and other field flowers are sprouting from every available inch: nature’s last herbaceous hoorah before the quiet riot that is fall.

I’ve always admired the tenacity of wallflowers: weeds so determined to sprout any- and everywhere, they grow right through mortar, finding and exploiting even the tiniest cracks and crevices. Why shouldn’t the tender rootlets of goldenrod set up house in the crumbling facade of a red brick building? The Law of the Weed declares squatters’ rights to whoever can germinate, grow, and flourish: there are no boundaries here. To hell with property rights and No Trespassing signs: weeds are nature’s true anarchists, settling their seeds under dark of night and sprouting unaware, a terror risk from time immemorial.

Downtown, another sort of wallflower has recently appeared, sprouting in the space left vacant by a months-defunct photo shop. Even before its imminent opening, Kali’s Sports Pub has created a minor uproar here in Keene by promising (or threatening) to serve alcohol two doors down from downtown’s most popular ice cream stand. Dare we allow alcohol and ice cream to co-mingle so closely? What will transpire if sweet-smeared kiddies and their parents sitting at sidewalk picnic tables see wobble-legged drunks exiting a neighboring business after a Big Game? Yes, with the blossoming of this wallflower, it seems Trouble has come to River City. Only months after this weedy lot and the decrepit building next to it were transformed into a pool hall (alas!), another brewpub is threatening (or promising) to open its doors just in time for late August’s batch of returning college students.

As for me, I take no sides. Last night I sat and read a book at one of those sidewalk picnic tables after enjoying a scoop of ice cream, I’ve been in that pool hall a handful of times, and I’m sure I’ll stop by Kali’s Sports Pub once it opens for business. I’m no wallflower, but I’m just like a weed, creeping in to exploit any and every space available to me.

For those of you craving more current events commentary, here’s a news flash: Indian Pipe is blooming in the woods of southern New Hampshire.

Also known as Corpse Plant, Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora) is one of my favorite late summer flowers. Although it’s not bright and colorful to look at, I’m always charmed by its ghostly appearance: small clusters of waxy white stalks stationed under trees or in the shelter of stone walls. More common than ghosts, Indian Pipe is just as difficult to photograph. Over the last week alone, I’ve taken a half dozen pictures of Indian Pipe–some at Goose Pond (above), and others at Pisgah State Park (right)–and the photo at right is the only one that does the plant justice. Because it flowers in late summer well after the forest canopy has closed, Indian Pipe lives in perpetual shadow. If you photograph a cluster of Indian Pipe with a flash, they look unnaturally wan against an overlit backdrop; if you forego the flash, you capture only unrecognizable blurs. The photo at right “works” because this average-sized cluster of Indian Pipe was sprouting by a spot of light which naturally illuminates its leaf-litter surroundings.

Since Indian Pipe lacks the green pigment chlorophyll, it cannot produce its own food from sunlight the way that other plants do. Most flower guides label Indian Pipe a saprophyte–a plant that lives off dead matter–but the reality is a bit more complicated. Indian Pipe not only lacks chlorophyll, it also lacks the enzymes and digestive “juices” that allow fungi to break down and digest dead wood. As a result, Indian Pipe relies upon certain species of fungus (in particular, those which produce Russula and Lactarius mushrooms), which in turn rely upon certain species of trees. In other words, Indian Pipe grows at the end of a parasitic chain, tapping its roots into the underground mycelial network of fungi that themselves tap into tree roots. The fungus takes nutrients from the tree, and the Indian Pipe takes nutrients from the fungus.

Because of this complicated way of getting a meal, Indian Pipe doesn’t grow just anywhere. It’s common at Goose Pond here in Keene and in the woods around Kilburn Pond in Pisgah State Park, but I haven’t (yet) seen it growing in the woods along the Ashuelot River. (Curiously, the Pickerelweed that is so abundant along the Ashuelot is all but entirely absent from both Goose and Kilburn Ponds.) Like springtime Lady’s Slippers, late summer Indian Pipe is choosy about where it plants its heels: here and now you’ll see it; then and there you won’t. Just like a ghost, Indian Pipe comes and goes of its own accord, almost invariably carrying an element of surprise within its ghostly white stems.

Anyone care to propose, in a thousand words or less, a plausible story to explain this picture of an errant beach ball resting right next to a beaver-gnawed tree? (Picture taken yesterday during a hike on the Kilburn Pond Loop at Pisgah State Park.)

I recently finished a review copy of Louise Erdrich’s soon-to-be-released new novel, The Painted Drum. After having heard that part of Erdrich’s book is set here in New Hampshire, I was curious to see her writerly depiction of my adopted state.

The Painted Drum does indeed open in New Hampshire, in the fictional village of Stiles and Stokes. Faye Travers and her half-Ojibwe mother are antique dealers who make their living appraising local estates, so it is with eager curiosity that Faye inspects the belongings of John Jewett Tatro, a local man rumored to have an impressive collection of antiquities from his days as an agent on North Dakota’s Ojibwe reservation.

As readers of novels such as Love Medicine, Tracks, or The Beet Queen well know, Erdrich is an anthologist’s dream, writing novels whose chapters serve as self-contained short stories. “Revival Road,” the opening chapter of The Painted Drum, is as intricate as a well-crafted brooch, containing within it like jewels the themes of the narrative which is to follow. While giving requisite nods to New Hampshire local flavor–frost heaved roads, springtime blackflies, and seemingly ubiquitous Subarus–Erdrich brings into sharp focus a community that sees more than its share of sorrow but has yet to learn how to deal with tragedy.

Like many New Hampshire towns, Stiles and Stokes is divided between locals and transplants: families who have lived in the area for generations and the typically well-heeled outsiders who are drawn to the state by its colleges and tax-free status. Although she herself is a local, Faye Travers has much in common with cosmopolitan newcomers, including Kurt Krahe, a German stone artisan who is Travers’ neighbor and would-be suitor.

It is from Krahe that Travers learns a German term that proves significant throughout the entire novel: the notion of Zwischenraum, the space between things. Travers herself is a creature of this in-between realm, arbitrating between locals and newcomers in both her professional and personal life. Like a white car wedged between birch trees–an early image that presages later tragedy–Faye is caught between worlds: the New Hampshire world where Native antiquities are to be bought and sold no differently than any other forgotten mementos and the Ojibwe traditions of her mother’s ancestry, which insist that a painted drum she finds among Tatro’s belongings is both magical and deserving of special treatment.

This painted drum of the novel’s title exists in a Zwischenraum all its own. Discovered near the novel’s beginning, the drum’s true history is revealed in the novel’s middle portion, when Ojibwe storyteller Bernard Shaawano recounts how the drum came to be built and how it came to leave North Dakota. Although central to an understanding of the drum’s mystical powers, Shaawano’s story lacks the sharp focus of the novel’s opening. Whereas Faye Travers’ story is rooted in and perpetually returns to the actual world, Shaawano’s mundane life as an orderly at North Dakota hospital fades in the face of the family history he retells. Shaawano himself seems only a minor character, merely a mouthpiece for the traditional tale embodied in the drum. Framed by the mundane lives of Faye in New Hampshire and a North Dakota mother named Ira, Shaawano’s tale is a Zwischenraum fable shrouded in myth and mystery.

In the end, it is Ira and her three children who bring Shaawano’s mythic tale back to the realities of modern-day reservation life. Pinned by poverty, Ira makes some bad decisions as she struggles to raise three children on whatever resources she can scrounge or scam. For the drum to be truly magical, it needs to speak to the present-day realities of Ojibwe such as Ira: instead of remaining in a timeless Zwischenraum, the drum has to shape the future as well as the past. In the end, readers aren’t sure exactly where Travers, Shaawano, Ira and her children are headed, but the promise of the painted drum suggests that there is hope in the future and that long-dead ghosts can eventually be laid to rest.

    If you are interested in reading and reviewing soon-to-be-released books, check out HarperCollins’ First Look program. Sign-up is free, and you get to keep the books you review!

I recently began reading Jonathan Raban’s Waxwings, a novel set in Seattle at the height of the dotcom craze. The pulse of Seattle’s boom-or-bust culture is embodied in the three characters around which the novel revolves: Tom Janeway, a creative writing professor in charge of managing a literary endowment from a weathy online entrepeneur; Janeway’s wife Beth, a copywriter for a thriving dotcom startup whose options have recently vested; and Chink, an illegal Chinese immigrant struggling to survive in a city where the Haves are richer than ever. Seattle is a place I’ve always wanted to visit, so I look forward to seeing how Raban interweaves these three characters’ stories against the backdrop of a city that surged on the crest of online success.

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