Saints and Trees is on Break

I’m taking a break from blogging for the rest of the summer as I continue to revise my young adult/middle grade book about a 13-year-old witch. I’m planning to return to weekly blogging in September, and also plan to feature some interviews with authors of historical fiction this fall.

hammock

Hammocks (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

See you then!

The Salamander Room

Nature and children seem appropriate subjects for summertime musings, and writing about Diary of an Earthworm made me think of another picture book I liked so much I got a copy for myself as well as my nephew.

salamander roomThe Salamander Room is a gorgeously illustrated tale of a little boy, Brian, who finds a “little orange salamander” in the woods and takes it home. Instead of outright denying him his new pet, Brian’s mother instead asks some practical questions—“Where will he sleep?” “When he wakes up, where will he play?”—and then observes, “He will miss his friends in the forest.”

The mother’s responses demonstrate a perceptive compassion that extends to the salamander itself, a gentle reminder to her son Brian that the salamander is not a pretty toy from the store, a plaything made for his own devices, but a wild creature with its own needs, desires, and concerns. By phrasing her observations as questions and statements that demand Brian’s response, she (and the author) avoid accusatory, didactic diatribes on humans and nature, inviting Brian instead to think through the consequences of his action, both for himself and the fellow creature he has taken from its native environment.

Brian’s responses to his mother’s questions and observations (which continue on to the subject of food, and the consequent creation of an entire ecological foodchain) create the magic of the book as the boy envisions how he will transform his room to suit the salamander’s needs. The illustrations by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher show the gradual transformation of Brian’s bedroom to a virtual forest, a complete habitat for the salamander and its food and friends, lush and verdant, lovingly depicted.

The story, by Anne Mazer, is a wise and wonderful tale that creates its own magic. I’m so glad I stumbled on it.

Nature, Beautiful yet Red-in-Tooth-and-Claw: Musings on Larson’s There’s a Hair in my Dirt

My last post, comparing two delightful tales of earthworms (Gary Larson’s There’s a Hair in my Dirt and Diary of an Earthworm by Doreen Cronin and Harry Bliss), gave rise to some more serious thoughts.

hair in my dirtAs much as I love Larson’s mordantly funny satire (and the wonderful introduction by E.O. Wilson), I have to admit that like Larson’s fair maiden, Harriet, I have a strong streak of sentimentality where the natural world is concerned.

I was struck especially hard by Larson’s take on birdsong as “mostly an array of insults, warnings, and come-ons” and his/Father Worm’s dismissal of Harriet’s appreciation of the artistry in Nature when she comes upon a field of wildflowers: ” ‘Oh, Mother Nature! What a sex maniac you are!’ may have been a better choice of words, for Harriet was actually gazing upon a reproductive battlefield.”

I know that Nature is red in tooth and claw—eat or be eaten; robin vs. earthworm; magnificent hawk vs. cute little bunny—but do Beauty and Utilitarianism in Nature really have to be mutually exclusive? After all, sex and beauty are strongly linked, whether we are talking about humans, flowers, or animals. The fact that flowers are beautiful (a proposition that surely few would disagree with) does not mean they cannot also serve their own purposes—or those of humankind.

In like manner, Larson/Father Worm derides Harriet’s description of dragonflies as “winged ballerinas,” pointing out that “winged assassins” is closer to the truth. (One assassin I have to applaud, since they eat mosquitoes!) Nevertheless, dragonflies are graceful. Likewise, birdsong serves a variety of bird purposes, but much of it is beautiful to human ears.

Whether these animals derive happiness or enjoyment from their activities is something that we humans ultimately cannot know. But humans who have spent much time around domesticated animals, at least, have a pretty good sense that many animals are capable of enjoyment just as much as humans. Dogs, for example, seem to derive much pleasure from  exercising their bodies—running, playing fetch, and the like. When they greet us after an absence, it seems to be as much an expression of pleasure in our company as expectation of being walked or fed. And there seems to be strong evidence that some higher mammals, such as dolphins, engage in pure play. So who is to say that birds don’t experience some kind of satisfaction from expressing themselves in song or taking flight through the air?

I struggle with the spiritual dimension of this, and am reminded that when Job complained to God, God finally answered him by listing the wonders of creation, including beasts such as Leviathan and Behemoth that humans of Biblical times doubtless found threatening. For me, the moral of that is: “Job, it’s not all about you. The universe is bigger than that.” (Sort of like the ending of Casablanca.)

Behemoth and Leviathan by William Blake (from Wikimedia Commons)

Behemoth and Leviathan by William Blake (from Wikimedia Commons)

True, understanding Nature is important. But love for Nature must come first, else there’s no incentive for understanding. Love for Nature, fostered by experience, but also art and story, including stories that anthropomorphize. For all his caution against painting Nature in our own image, Larson’s book is successful precisely because it also includes its share of humorous anthropomorphism (Mother Worm’s beehive hairdo and glasses; Father Worm’s pipe).

I would further argue that the Harriets of this world want to be educated, and that in this era of global warming humanity’s best hope lies in such Harriets, their love for Nature fostered alike by the science of E.O. Wilson, the humor of Gary Larson, and the “kindler, gentler” image of Nature presented by Doreen Cronin and Harry Bliss in Diary of an Earthworm.

Two Tales of Earthworms

I love children’s picture books, and I also love earthworms (the latter discussed in a previous post), so it’s not surprising that two of my favorite picture books feature this lowly but supremely important tiller of soil. hair in my dirt Gary Larson’s There’s a Hair in My Dirt presents a decided contrast with Diary of a Worm (story by Doreen Cronin; charming pictures by Harry Bliss). Of course part of the difference is that Larson’s book is really meant more for adults. One of my favorite bloggers, Isaac Yuen of Ekostories, wrote about Larson’s book here, providing a useful summary and thoughtful commentary.

Both books engage with plenty of humor. Some of my favorite lines from Larson include: “Mother Worm . . . . tried to make their home as cheery as possible, even going so far as always putting silverware on the table—despite the fact that none of them had arms.” And “[Harriet] was as excited as a tapeworm in a meat patty!” From Diary of a Worm there are humorous references to Junior Worm (as I call the unnamed first-person narrator) eating his homework and telling his sister that “no matter how much time she spends looking in the mirror [a puddle on the ground in the drawing], her face will always look just like her rear end.”

Along with the hysterically funny one-liners are some much needed reminders of important truths. From Larson: “As any worm with half a ganglion knows, the plants did a little more than just make the air crisp and clean—they made the air air! Every molecule of oxygen in the earth’s atmosphere was put there by a plant.” My husband especially enjoyed Larson’s reminder that the grey squirrel, though “cute,” is an aggressive invader that has driven out native Red Squirrels (and attempts to invade people’s attics, as well—the source of my better half’s quarrel with them).

Diary of a Worm by Doreen Cronin; illustrated by Harry Bliss. One of my favorite books!

Diary of a Worm by Doreen Cronin; illustrated by Harry Bliss.
One of my favorite books!

Diary begins by informing the reader that “Mom says there are three things I should always remember: 1. The earth gives us everything we need. 2. When we dig tunnels, we help take care of the earth. 3. Never bother Daddy when he’s eating the newspaper.” Junior Worm ends his little tale by concluding: “It’s not always easy being a worm. We’re very small, and sometimes people forget that we’re even here. But, like Mom always says, the earth never forgets we’re here.”

Both books also address the question of humans and their relationship to the natural world. For Larson, this is the heart of his book, addressed in an unabashedly moral tale told by Father Worm featuring a “beautiful young maiden” named Harriet whose sentimental and well-meaning but uninformed interventions in Nature ultimately result in her rather gruesome death when she “rescues” a mouse from a snake—a mouse infected with a deadly disease. Yeah, not really a children’s book. (Although little boys may well like it because of that—as Larson reminds us, some things about biology can’t be changed.) Like the little worm, the reader is tempted to ask, “What kind of story is that?”

But Larson’s gruesome little satire is designed to illustrate a very specific moral: “Loving Nature is not the same as understanding it. . . . Connections . . . are the key to understanding the natural world.” And earthworms, it turns out, are crucial in this natural web: “We till, aerate, and enrich the earth’s soil, making it suitable for plants. No worms, no plants; and no plants, no so-called higher animals running around with their oh-so-precious backbones! . . . Heck, we’re invertebrates . . . . Spineless superheroes, that’s what we are!”

Diary‘s examples are more specific, giving the reader a visceral sense through the drawings of how a worm might respond to activities that many humans engage in without giving them a thought: “Fishing season started today. We all dug deeper.” Followed by a worm’s-eye view on the next page of child playing hopscotch, “a very dangerous game,” that nicely illustrates E.O. Wilson‘s parting words in his introduction to Larson’s book: “Just watch where you step; be careful of little lives.”

Both contain appealing illustrations, Larson’s with his trademark critters that manage to look anatomically correct even while wearing harlequin eyeglasses and a beehive hairdo (for Mother Worm), while the humans are typically Larson: goofy-looking, overweight, and rather grotesque. Harry Bliss’s drawings in Diary of a Worm strike a nice balance: whimsical without straying into cutsey—the be-spectacled worm father and baseball-capped son no more anthropomorphic than Larson’s worm family, the background details such as bottle-cap seats for the little worms in class a charming way of showing the small dimensions of the worm family in a way that relates to children’s experience.

Where Diary differs most strikingly from Dirt is its portrayal of inter-species friendship between Junior Worm and Spider. Obviously in the real world, the two seldom meet and Spider would be more interested in Worm as potential food if they did. Nonetheless, the interactions between Worm and Spider nicely illustrate how each differs from the other, giving the reader a good sense of how special and unique each kind of creature is. To quote from Wilson’s introduction to the Larson book: “We all need one another, each in our special niche.”

Each of these books does indeed occupy its own special niche, and each is well worth perusing multiple times for its richness in both text and pictures. Their minds and hearts engaged by books that teach love of Nature, future generations will be better primed to follow Wilson’s parting dictum: “Just watch where you step; be careful of little lives.”

Farmers Market

Last Saturday I made my first visit of the season to our local farmers market. I get such a kick out of seeing all the lovely fresh produce, and I was looking forward to seeing what was on offer after such a long, cold winter.

Farmers & Artisans market at Farmington Michigan

photo by Scott Stevenson of Artziephartzie graphic design

The organic stand where I buy most of my veggies was open. I picked up fresh greens: salad mix, Swiss chard, and kale—a mix of curly and the smooth dark-leaved varieties. A bunch of asparagus—it seems late for it, but everything will probably be late this year. That’s fine with me; we haven’t actually had local asparagus yet this spring.

There were even tomatoes, though these were marked “not organic.” I took a couple of little ones; local produce is less likely to have been sprayed, and a lot goes into the process of official organic certification, so maybe their greenhouse plants still had a few hoops to jump through.

I bought scallions/green onions from another vendor: nice big, fat white bulbs that will be lovely with salads and other cold dishes.

Funny, cooking wasn’t on my radar of things I thought I’d enjoy when I left the day job, but it’s been a big part of my new life. It was such a pleasure to get home with my finds and start rinsing the kale, getting it ready to steam for a yummy kale sandwich (tortilla spread with my favorite mustard; greens topped with freshly squeezed lemon juice and garlic powder). I’m not eating completely vegetarian, but I’m enjoying more vegetable courses than before.

Most of all, I love the feeling of unity with the earth that eating and buying organic gives me. It makes everything hang together: the health of the soil, the planet, and the health of the people who tend it and eat it. It gives a feeling of harmony, and puts me in mind of one of my favorite “saints”: poet-farmer Wendell Berry, whose writings celebrate the earth and those who care for it.

Welcome, Summer and Spring!

 

Merton’s “O Sweet Irrational Worship” set to Music

A few weeks ago, when I was writing the post on Thomas Merton’s poem “O Sweet Irrational Worship,” I came upon the following link: http://www.overgrownpath.com/2008/12/sweet-irrational-worship.html

o sweet irrational albumIt describes Merton’s meeting with composer John Jacob Niles, who had already set many of Merton’s poems to music, and goes on to review a then-new recording of Niles’ Merton song cycles sung by baritone Chad Runyon. A quick search of the Internet shows the recording is still available. I couldn’t find any audio excerpts of this particular song, but the singer’s website includes samples of several others on the album. Baritone happens to be my favorite category of voice, and any composer sensitive to the nuances of Merton’s poetry is one worth checking out: I intend to order it soon. I was also happy to stumble upon the Overgrown Path blog, which looks to be a thoughtful collection written by a kindred spirit.

Saints and Trees goes bi-weekly (for now)

Life gets busy. I’m finishing up the first draft of a novel about a teenage witch who must cope when her family moves to the “ordinary” world. It’s my first foray into fiction aimed at younger readers, and I’m enjoying the change from the rather intense world of my last novel. Hard on the heels of my self-appointed deadline are some other doings (pleasant ones, I’m happy to report), family visits and the like, so I’ve decided to put the blog on a less demanding schedule for the next two or three months, posting only every two weeks. This week doesn’t really count as a proper post, so one will appear next Thursday as usual.

Enjoy the spring!

 

Thomas Merton Conference

Merton_Logo_procAfter last week’s post on Thomas Merton’s poem “O Sweet Irrational Worship,” I was contacted by the organizers of a Merton conference, “Coming home and going forth: Merton as mirror and model,” to be held June 19-22 on the grounds of Saint Bonaventure University, in Olean, NY, where Merton briefly taught before entering the Trappist monastery outside Louisville, Kentucky.

The paragraphs below are taken from the conference’s official press release. Sarah DiPofi of the Travers Collins public relations firm was kind enough to bring the conference to my attention.

The life of beloved Catholic contemplative, poet, and Trappist monk Thomas Merton will be the focus of the summer 2014 conference “Coming home and going forth: Merton as mirror and model.”

The three-day event at St. Bonaventure University will celebrate the relationship between St. Bonaventure University and Merton in anticipation of Merton’s 100th birthday in 2015. Speakers include America magazine columnist Fr. Dan Horan, O.F.M. For schedule and registration information, visit http://www.sbu.edu/merton.

While Merton’s time in Western New York was brief, his experiences at St. Bonaventure, from the time that his friend Robert Lax brought him to Olean to his days in Devereux Hall, were influential in his life’s journey.

Merton’s autobiography “The Seven Storey Mountain,” regarded as one of the 100 best non-fiction books of the 20th Century, reflects on his time at St. Bonaventure University.

Through keynote speakers, worship experiences and tours, the conference will explore the relationships Merton had with the people and places of St. Bonaventure.

In addition to Father Horan, renowned Merton scholars on the schedule include William H. Shannon Chair in Catholic Studies (Nazareth College) Christine Bochen and professor of religious studies and vice president for mission and Catholic identity at Sacred Heart University Michael Higgins.

Merton photoSt. Bonaventure University President, Sr. Margaret Carney, O.S.F., S.T.D., said the conference will appeal to both those who have studied the life and perspectives of Merton and those on a spiritual journey of any kind: “Merton’s time at Bonaventure can be both a mirror and a model for those of us who strive to find a spiritual home in our own lives.”

Conference coordinator Julianne Wallace says the conference theme harkens to Merton’s calling to religious life: “Merton’s spiritual home was the Abbey of Gethsemani, the bells of which called him to pursue monastic life. We echo that call with this conference invitation to gather current and future Merton enthusiasts to continue to learn from and build upon the tremendous spiritual and intellectual gifts he gave the world.” Wallace is the director of faith formation, worship and ministry at St. Bonaventure.

Visit www.sbu.edu/merton for the schedule of events, speaker biographies, and conference registration information. Follow the conference preparations and latest news on Twitter using #MertonMirrorandModel.

The nation’s first Franciscan university, St. Bonaventure University cultivates graduates who are confident and creative communicators, collaborative leaders and team members, and innovative problem solvers who are respectful of themselves, others, and the diverse world around them. The University is establishing pathways to internships, graduate schools and careers in the context of our renowned liberal arts tradition. Our students are becoming extraordinary.

I hope some of you will be able to attend. It sounds like a fascinating event!

 

Celebrate Earth Day with Thomas Merton

Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton wrote many poems over the too-brief span of his fifty-three years, but my favorites are those dealing with nature. A few months ago, I blogged about “Night Flowering Cactus,” which I think is his masterpiece in the genre, and today, in honor of Earth Day, I’d like to look at a more spring-like gem, “O Sweet Irrational Worship.” Here is the beginning:

“Wind and a bobwhite
And the afternoon sun.

By ceasing to question the sun
I have become light,

Bird and wind.

My leaves sing.

I am earth, earth

All these lighted things
Grow from my heart.”

The entire poem can be found here.

The poem begins very simply, reflecting perhaps Merton’s interest in the radical stripping away of the extraneous, which he found in Zen Buddhism as well as in certain mystical paths of Western Christianity such as that of Saint John of the Cross (known for his meditations on “the dark night of the soul”).

In the line “By ceasing to question the sun,” I believe Merton is describing a path to mystical contemplation in which we let go of the rational, analytical part of our mind and simply experience the present: the sun, the wind, the bobwhite (not a generic “bird” but a specific creature). If you go still long enough and just let yourself experience these elements of nature, you may perhaps enter into a mystical union with them as Merton did in the encounter he depicts in this poem: becoming  the light, the bird, the wind.

In the next line, Merton moves beyond this to a more universal identification with the natural world. His “leaves sing” as if he were a tree, and then he moves on to a yet greater epiphany: “I am earth, earth. All these lighted things grow from my heart.” By identifying so completely with the natural world to the extent that he experiences a kind of mystical oneness with it, Merton then perceives the interconnectedness of it all, of all the “lighted” things: things that share in the universal condition of being lit by the sun, things that also share in the universal light of the love and creativity of God.

And then more than this, a connection that shares not merely the same experiences, but one that has gone beyond this to take on a sense of responsibility, of a deep inward tie so that for a mystical moment, all creation seems to grow from his heart. And in fact, perhaps it does, just as in Roman Catholic theology the blood and body of Christ transmute into the wine and bread that Christians take in the mystery of Eucharist.

I fancy that more conservative Christians would frown on the poem as veering towards pantheism, nature-worship, but that is to ignore the deep, worshipful response that nature inspires in so many people, across so many eons and cultures. As I mentioned last week, it was C.S. Lewis, certainly no “liberal” (and certainly no “conservative,” either, but a “mere” Christian), who wrote of the deep joy that nature inspired in him, and of how it pointed the way to his certainty that a transcendent element exists.

Reverence for the earth is urgently needed, now more than ever, when we humans are on the verge of destroying the beautiful world that people of religion believe was made by God, not merely, I would argue, for its utilitarian value, but for its beauty, its joy, and for the opportunity to share fellowship with other living creatures that are so different from ourselves such as Merton’s bobwhite and pine tree.

After celebrating this tree, “a tall, spare pine / [that] Stands like the initial of my first / Name when I had one,” and two ecstatic stanzas that are each followed by the “I am earth, earth” refrain, the poem concludes as simply as it began:

“Out of my grass heart
Rises the bobwhite.

Out of my nameless weeds,
His foolish worship.”

In this final image, the bobwhite, Merton, and the earth itself are inextricably linked, so that Merton’s heart becomes the earth, an emptying of a self that now has no name. The poet’s heart is the humble, lowly matter of grass and weeds, the setting and habitat for the bobwhite, who is now linked with Merton the monk in an act of thanksgiving for life, the act of “foolish” worship, worship of the One in whom both poet and bird live, move, and have their being.

photo by Matt Tillett

photo by Matt Tillett

Birdsong and the Transcendent

I wasn’t planning to post this week, but walking back from Maundy Thursday service at church this evening, I was struck by  the abundance of birdsong. It was dusk, so that was not surprising, but the birdsong added an extra touch of beauty and contemplation to the day. Birdsong was present during the service, too: during communion I could hear birds twittering in the bushes on the other side of the stained-glass windows, and a flock of wild geese called as the priest recited the Eucharistic liturgy, adding a lovely counterpoint as if all creation were participating in the service.

from tgreyfox's photostream

from tgreyfox’s photostream

I noticed birdsong last Sunday as well, on my way home from church. On both occasions it brought to mind the opening of my new all-time favorite film, Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza), which begins with a quiet, contemplative scene in a park on the outskirts of Rome. A woman sits on a bench, we hear birdsong, then an a cappella women’s chorus. And then the scene shifts abruptly to a loud nightclub—an intentionally grating contrast.

The film, which I saw (twice) a few months ago, moved me very powerfully, and I suppose one measure of that is how often I think of it during especially contemplative moments. But it also made me more attentive to the occasions for mindful contemplation of the world, of the present, of the moment, of nature and of other people, so that the current, so to speak, flows both ways.

The point of all this is my realization that, for me at least, birdsong is a gateway to the transcendent, a symbol of the earthly joy that C.S. Lewis speaks of as a pointer to the reality of a transcendent nature and being. Without birdsong and birds—and the trees and plants that support them—the world would be a very poor place indeed. I thank the Creator for the gift of birds!

Happy Spring.

 

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