Friday, April 22, 2011

Skywatch Friday: Learning to Love the Prairie

I spend far too much on this blog whingeing about my "exile" in north Texas, and longing for the desert. At my age, and having made choices earlier in my life that brought me here, you'd think I'd have resigned myself to my fate and begun to make peace with the place in which I will probably breathe my last--even if that happens (as I hope) some distance into the future.

Years ago, when I was involved to some small extent in the local environmental movement, and volunteering regularly at the Heard Museum down the road from where I now live, I was somewhat more enamored of blackland prairie. Since those days, now a quarter of a century past, I've lived at the upper end of the prairie (in Chicago) where I got a taste of city life on a really big natural lake, and then lived in a more politically energizing part of the Dallas area before being chased north by the advancement of mega-houses and the destruction of the tolerable parts of the city that I could afford to live in.

We settled in McKinney over ten years ago, attracted by the historic district covenants that prohibit tearing down old houses to build new monstrosities. We found an old prairie-craftsman on a bit of land, where we've managed to build a little organic sanctuary in the midst of a pesticide-loving populace. The city tries to foster green-ness, but the neighbors all use loud gas-spewing mowers and leaf blowers, and dowse their lawns with chemicals. I think things might be getting better, but I'm too busy hiding out to notice.

My Earth Day resolution this year is to start doing what I can to preserve this wonderful old house and its half acre, and in doing so to renew my earlier efforts to come to terms with living here. I'm going to go back to the Heard, with an eye toward once again volunteering there when I reduce my course load in a few years, and begin my emeritus career. I have a feeling that it'll be considerably easier to recover my affection when I'm not driving through rush-hour traffic and dealing with folks who don't like my adherence to the speed limit.

It's time, after spending thirty years in the Midwest, to develop a bit of topophilia for the place I chose (at least in part) for child-rearing. The children themselves probably won't end up with as much love for their auld sod as I did for mine (they, in fact, harbor the same affection for the Eastern California desert as I do). But if I have to live here, it's about time I stopped regretting that fact and started to embrace the job of home-keeping in earnest.

Last week, after I'd mowed the back lawn (which was by then practically a meadow), I sat back to enjoy my handiwork and noticed how beautiful it all looked: no uniformly green monoculture in this yard. Instead, I'd trimmed down a variety of grass and "weeds" that formed small variegated mounds, closely-spaced enough to serve as an aromatic carpet just the right size for romping dogs. The color variations reminded me of the subtle hues one can see in the desert, that only a true lover can spot. My eyes, it seems, have adjusted to the "new" locale--much as the children do in Ursula Le Guin's short story about adaptation in place, "The Eye Altering."

Chairs under a tree in front of the Carbon Sink

When I'd finished mowing, I placed a couple of chairs under one of the pecan trees next to the Carbon Sink, and added a small table for holding coffee, after I'd been chased away from my usual spot by a gaggle of pooping Cedar Waxwings. The new seating area offered me an entirely different perspective, from where I enjoyed the chiaroscuro effect of sun alternating with shadow, emphasizing one area, then another. The wild gladioli, which I've let naturalize and cover more of the yard every year, are just past their prime, but still lovely to look at with their vibrant fuchsia blossoms. They form a short wall, beyond which lies the potager. In another month I'll mow them down to extend the produce-garden, salvaging the disturbed bulbs and replanting them in borders and in other spots where they might do well and add some welcome color next spring.

Wild gladiolus wall in front of the herb and veg garden

As I type this today I'm reminded of an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, "The Survivors," in which an alien being and the re-creation of his dead wife live on a green patch of ground on an otherwise-devastated planet. There are times when I feel a bit like that, living on my own little island of sanity in a world that seems to be going a bit mad. I lack the energy to fight the good fight any more, but do find some solace in being able to keep this place a little wild, with small reminders of what used to be here--the occasional basketflower, a few native grasses, and a number of gifts from birds who propagate all manner of seeds--sometimes in the middle of the book I'm reading.

The birdbath in the potager, at sunrise

This week the air is redolent of sultry privet, sweet catalpa, pervasive honeysuckle, and even some of the irises left in bloom. The nandina will follow, along with roses, lavender, and rosemary as they begin to blossom. The promise is all here, with burgeoning vegetables and ripening figs. We're occasionally reminded, though, that we enjoy our bounty at nature's whim; along with all this fortune come the wildfires in the west, and the ever-present, more local threat of tornadoes.

I'll try to remember to revisit this post in another year, to see if I've been at all successful in fulfilling any part of my resolution. In the meantime I can certainly enjoy the good weather, the blooming garden, the approaching figs, and the promise of a decent harvest. At least I managed to get the garden in early this year, so it stands some chance of settling in and producing before the relentless north Texas heat replaces the balmy mornings we're enjoying for this year's Earth Week. But today, in the still-cool morning, I find it easier to love the prairie. Sometimes, I guess, all it takes is a bit of reflection on one's good fortune to make the cranky world go away for a while.

Image notes: all photos were taken in the garden with the Nikon D80. This year's Earth Day/Skywatch Friday shot was taken under the pecan tree, fortunately (for these purposes) empty of Cedar Waxwings--else there'd have probably been a blob in the middle of the picture.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Be Here Now

Most of my musings over the last few weeks have taken place among friends and colleagues, all of whom are noticing the rapid passage of time and tide. I was beginning to think that I was alone in lamenting the loss of what now seem like copious amounts of free time--moments that used to allow me to post more than once (on more than one blog) per month, and when I used to be able to sit in the garden and simply enjoy a few minutes of pleasant lethargy, watching butterflies alight on blossoms, raptors gliding aloft, squirrels pilfering seed from the bird feeders, and "puppies" lounging in the shade after a hard romp--without feeling guilty about not doing something more "productive." But others report feeling the same way, as if we've lost something important.

One reason I'm not posting much these days is that I don't have anything particularly helpful to add to political discussions going on in Washington and/or in Austin. Mostly they're not really discussions at all--more like bickering and spouting. I'm quite simply tired of it all, and thoroughly disgusted that people of all flavors seem to have lost any notion of common sense, common purpose, or common good. I'm too dispirited to rant; I lack the energy necessary to compile cogent arguments in favor of anything. I simply delete pleas that appear in my mailbox to contribute to any conversations, even those from groups like No Labels that are actually trying to do something to ameliorate the situation.

I've turned my efforts toward the tiny things I can actually do, like put together more interesting discussion topics for students in hopes that at some point in their lives they will become concerned about some of the big questions I've been pondering most of my life. I've actually put in a garden this year, too, with some vegetables (eggplant, beans, squash) in addition to the usual tomatoes, peppers, and herbs. I expanded the portion of the back quarter acre devoted to food crops, with plans for further expansion for fall plantings in the now-trimmed Carbon Sink. The former "accidental garden" has been shorn of some of its volunteers, and the wood will be harvested for projects and mulch.

As the puppies age (they're now seven, officially "senior" according to our vets), they're beginning to slow down, too. Woody now has arthritis in his hips, which recently required doses of NSAIDs and the addition of very expensive supplements for the rest of his life. So far Arlo is doing fine, but because he's long and low, we anticipate back problems for him in future. The three of us get out into the garden to "work" more--I with the planting and digging, they with the squirrel-chasing and protecting me from dangerous babies strolling by--if I don't write. What free time I actually find seems now to be spent out of doors, except when I'm driven in by loud music or noisy lawn equipment.

I guess this is really what's going on: a change in priorities. Whereas during the last four years of messing about in the blogosphere and thinking on digital paper I've had the chance to locate my philosophical core (sustainable economies), I appear lately to have reached a plateau. I don't seem to need to get it all written down, although I still appreciate having recorded some of what's been going on and being able to go back and see where I've been. As life winds down, though, and memory gets less and less reliable, priorities seem to be shifting to the immediate: what's happening this week, today, now.

The irony involved here is that for years I've practically berated my students for not thinking past the moment, for not planning ahead, for not investing in the future. They're so totally involved in the local, personal, and immediate, that they develop only vague notions of what all their hard work is leading toward. Instead, the songs playing on the iPod, the phone call or text message interrupting my class, the inevitable call to the restroom after consumption of an energy drink--all these take precedence over everything else.

Perhaps the common ground between the old and the young lies here: in the realization that the moment really does count. That we can't spend all of our time planning for the future or yearning for the past.

My sweet, gruff, funny brother-in-law, who spent several years waiting for a heart transplant, died this last weekend, only a couple of years after he'd received his new heart. He was only sixty-six, but in the last fifteen years he seems to have packed in more living than most of us achieve in much longer lifetimes. I don't think he spent much time planning very far beyond the next day or two, and over the years I've watched him savor life with abject appreciation for what time he'd been given.

I think, in the end, I'd rather spend my time in the garden, savoring days like this one, clear and scrubbed clean by last night's storms, than keep fussing over things I can't do a rutting thing about. Thanks for the lesson, Dennis. We will all miss you.

Image notes: this is a photo I took with the "wet" Nikon during one of our last trips to California by car, in 1999. On our way back from Porterville, we took the Death Valley Road out of Big Pine and headed back east. While remembering Dennis this week, I thought about this trip because he had lived with my sister-in-law (who has managed several refuges for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) near Porterville, and they had met in Pahrump, Nevada, not far from Death Valley. It seemed like a fitting shot, both for the topic, and for Skywatch Friday.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Precept of the Teacher

The other day, during a Library Committee meeting, one of my colleagues used what's probably an old saw by now (the toilet paper analogy) to characterize the way time works on old folk: the closer you get to the end, the faster it goes. The perceived phenomenon of the increasingly rapid passage of time has been weighing on my mind much of late, because there never seems to be sufficient time for getting done what I'd like to.

So I haven't posted on any blog in nearly a month, and am seriously thinking of bundling everything except the Parliament back under the aegis of the Farm so that I don't feel so much pressure to compartmentalize my musings. I'll probably end up using the others as an archive and--at least until I'm not teaching as much--restrict my efforts to the original focus.

A new quarter has started, with a fresh batch of students (the one class of mostly "old hands" doesn't meet until Friday), along with yet another massive effort to keep them engaged. Oddly enough, my two 8 am classes are, so far, the most enthusiastic and vocal, making it easier for me to muster the energy to embrace the educational cheerleader roll my job requires even when--as is the case on Wednesday mornings--I've only left campus at 10 pm the night before.

For many years my pedagogical philosophy has involved emphasizing common ground as a means of connecting with my students. I use translation as a model for teaching, so finding out what my students know that I know (and vice versa) is part of my engagement strategy. But as I told them yesterday, it's now easier for people of their generation to connect across cultures and continents than it is for my generation to connect with theirs.

The advent of social networking media has created a web of interaction among young adults who share interests in popular culture that transcends national boundaries. But because many in my Boomer cohort find it extremely difficult (if not downright impossible) to embrace various aspects of that culture, the gap can often broaden into an unbridgable crevasse. In my case, unless I've got a class full of science fiction geeks or Miyazaki fans, I have to work really hard to locate areas of common interest and knowledge. They just don't know what I know--and not all that many of them really want to.

It does help that we're at least all designers, and that I know some stuff that they will eventually find helpful. They seem to appreciate my sense of humor, and my acknowledgment of my own shortcomings, but keeping them with me for the entire eleven weeks gets harder and harder every quarter. It seems to me that at this point in my career I shouldn't have to work quite so hard, and I should have more time to just enjoy getting old. Shouldn't I be resting, Buddha-like, on my laurels or something?

And this is probably where the time-perception problem originates. Between every quarter I now spend a considerable amount of time going over old lesson plans and presentations to freshen them up and integrate new material I've discovered that looks promising. Education, as I've often preached, is an ongoing process; so if I keep learning stuff, chances are I'll be able to keep the small parcel of common ground from eroding completely in a world that seems to share my values less and less.

A footnote of sorts: As I was looking for an image to illustrate this post, I typed a few keywords into Wikimedia Commons, starting with "crevasse" but ending up with "teacher." The latter led me on an interesting quest to locate the painter whose work I used. Not realizing initially that "Nicholas Roerich" was the anglicized name of the Russian painter Nikolai Konstantinovich Roreicha, I spent some time transliterating his Russian name from Cyrillic into Roman letters and looking for some information on him. This took longer than it should have, but I was rather well rewarded in the end. Roerich died the year I was born, this was his final painting, and I'd never heard of him. However, the discovery does seem particularly fortuitous, given the focus of this post.

According to the biography on the Nicholas Roerich Museum page, the painter "constantly sought to connect ethical problems with scientific knowledge of the surrounding world. . . It was Roerich's gift that these 'connections' appeared so natural to him and presented themselves in all life's manifestations. And it was this talent for synthesis, which he admired in others and encouraged in the young, that enabled him to correlate the subjective with the objective, the philosophical with the scientific, Eastern wisdom with Western knowledge, and to build bridges of understanding between such apparent contradictions."

On the Wikimedia Commons page from whence I pinched the image, the title of the painting is listed as "The Precept of the Teacher," although the museum page calls it "The Command of the Master." "Command" doesn't make much sense to me, but since I don't know much Russian, I'm not in a position to question either translation. But I like "precept" better than "command," and "teacher" better than "master." By using "precept" in the title of the post, I'm calling on its connotation of a "guiding principle"--in this case, nature. Roerich clearly possessed the same appreciation for montane landscapes that I do, and I find the image of the solitary teacher atop a peak to be especially evocative.

In the end, another lesson emerges. As I continue to lament the evident loss of curiosity among a growing number of students, the process of locating this image, and eventually discovering this artist, reaffirmed my assertion that not only does philosophy begin in wonder, but so does creativity.