Sunday, March 20, 2022

Spring in War Time

Mammatus-ish clouds after this week's storm

Seasonal changes always cause mischief around north Texas. This year's wind- and hail-storms and wildfires on the cusp of spring seem more frequent and more intense than usual, although I'm too lazy to look up the stats. Counties to the east are burning, and under emergency evacuation notices. We've had two thunderstorms (with golfball to baseball sized hailstones in some areas) in the last two weeks, resulting in swarms of roofing companies in local neighborhoods with offers to repair roof damage that's "visible from the street" (it is not, in most cases). Our big cable-spool picnic table out back has been artfully polka-dotted, but we've avoided any major damage--although in a previous windstorm a very large elm branch broke off and knocked things about, fortunately missing the greenhouse. 

But today is lovely. Daffodils are fully in bloom, and the grape hyacinths are popping up all over. Both have been naturalizing over the property during the last twenty years, and their numbers have increased significantly. It's as if our old house is gussying herself up to celebrate her centennial this year. Our "house clock" seems to be off by a day this year (the first sunrise appeared through the window yesterday), probably because of precessing equinoxes, but the shift to Daylight Saving Time has meant extra time in the evening to potter around and get things done in the garden. 

Clocks have been on many minds these days, especially since there may be a significant change in the works. For many, many years now I've been seasonally annoyed by the spring and fall changing of our clocks to and from "Central Standard Time" to "Central Daylight Time." I get so discombobulated by the shift that I've often grumbled about why we still do it at all. This week, however, the United States Senate agreed with me and voted unanimously to make Daylight Saving Time year-round. I like having more sun in the evening to enhance Animal Companionship Time when the weather's fine, so I'd rather this be the choice--even though sleep experts seem to think that standard time is preferable. And if we want the entire country and its territories to be uniform, we should adopt uniform standard time, so that those who don't ever follow daylight time won't still be different from everybody else. I don't really care; I just want to stop switching back and forth. Every year it seems to take me longer to adjust, although that seems a trivial complaint these days.

The usual celebrations of spring around this house have been severely muted by the war in Ukraine. We've stayed up later at night watching commentary from Hungary and elsewhere about the plight of the Ukrainian people, and feel no real impulse to celebrate anything (even though Purim, St. Patrick's Day, and Holi were all on the menu). We're sending money that would otherwise go to frivolities (like more books) to charities we regularly support that are also aiding the relief effort in Ukraine, as well as to international animal welfare groups trying to rescue lost and abandoned pets. There's not much more we can do, except perhaps share our concern with fellow bloggers and readers, and urge people to rely on news organizations that report factually and avoid the ones that don't. Newspeople are risking their own lives to get the story out, and I'm particularly sympathetic to what their families must be going through. My own mother was a foreign correspondent during the aftermath of the second of the Taiwan Strait Crises (1958-59), and my father had been deployed to Taiwan at the last minute (we were scheduled to go to the Philippines) because of the threat of war. I'm not sure why the whole family was allowed to go, but I grew up with photos of the damage done by the shellings and a political climate colored by the possibility of nuclear war. The Russia-Ukraine conflict is currently being compared to that of the recurring China-Taiwan issues, so it all seems uncomfortably familiar.

In addition, recent events keep reminding me of my maternal grandfather, who served as a medic toward the end of WWI in France. I've finished transcribing his letters to my grandmother, and have lately remembered a poem Sara Teasdale published in 1917 in response to reports of casualties in Europe. I stole the title, "Spring in Wartime," for this post.

I feel the spring far off, far off,

    The faint, far scent of bud and leaf—

Oh, how can spring take heart to come

    To a world in grief,

    Deep grief?

The sun turns north, the days grow long,

    Later the evening star grows bright—

How can the daylight linger on

    For men to fight,

    Still fight?

The grass is waking in the ground,

    Soon it will rise and blow in waves—

How can it have the heart to sway

    Over the graves,

    New graves?

Under the boughs where lovers walked

    The apple-blooms will shed their breath—

But what of all the lovers now

    Parted by Death,

    Grey Death?

I hope fervently that by the time the autumnal equinox rolls around (and preferably much sooner) there will be cause to celebrate, and that the wanton killing will have ended, and the Ukrainian people will no longer be threatened by autocratic ambition and hunger for power. The fortitude and resilience of Ukraine's president and citizens is profoundly inspiring. May it be rewarded with peace and freedom.

Image note: Almost-mammatus clouds after last week's hailstorm. Mammatus clouds are often a tornado omen, but these are rather less threatening. They provided for a gorgeous sunset, and folks to the north were treated to a huge double rainbow. But we had better clouds.

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Trying to Think Little in Big Scary Times

A murder of crows, lurking

In the midst of global uncertainty, the only wise thing to do, it seems, is to construct bulwarks against approaching darkness:  war, disaster, disease, or whatever else draws near. In my case, the protective bastion is built of people. Writers, to be exact: William Morris, George Eliot, Pearl Buck, Ursula K. Le Guin, Jamaica Kincaid, Kim Stanley Robinson. Wendell Berry, Margaret Renkl. 

There are many others, of course, but these are the ones whose wisdom, perspectives, words, and examples provide me with protection against the weight of this particular moment. They all offer insights that furnish mortar for shoring up my sense of hope that things will, some day, change--in some more positive direction. 

Margaret Renkl writes for the New York Times, and two collections of her essays have been published by Milkweed Editions: Late Migrations (2019) and Graceland, At Last (2021). The latter has recently won multiple literary awards, including the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. Her most recent essay for the Times, "What to Do With Spring's Wild Joy in a Burning World," quite literally brought me to tears, when I had been wondering about how one even begins to enjoy the early spring practice of phenology when Ukraine's life and landscape are being obliterated by an unjust, undeserved war, and climate change is reaching multiple tipping points. Renkl's thoughtful, lyrical essay, however, reminds us to recognize and enjoy the non-human beauty of the world if only for a moment:

The world is burning, and there is no time to put down the water buckets. 
For just an hour, put down the water buckets anyway.
Take your cue from the bluebirds, who have no faith in the future 
but who build the future nevertheless, leaf by leaf and straw by straw,
shaping them and turning them into a sheltering roundness
fitted to the contours of the future they are making.

I don't have to feel too self-indulgent, however, because there are few signs of spring so far in north Texas, where our not really being southern (Renkl lives in Nashville) means that we enjoy several warm days, and then succumb to more winter weather. But the anoles are beginning to sneak out from their hiding places, and the Byzantine gladioli are beginning to poke up. And I've plucked my first daffodils--just in time for them to get frozen down again at the weekend.

Wendell Berry, who has been shaping my thought for the last fifty years or so, was recently featured in a New Yorker profile by Dorothy Wickenden: "Wendell Berry's Advice for a Cataclysmic Age." The news that he's got a new book coming out, The Need To Be Whole, couldn't have come at a better time, and the essay reminded me of the manifold contributions Barry has made to raising my consciousness (and those of myriad "boomers" like me) over the years.

In an effort to re-inject my psyche with Berry's ability to imagine a life richer and more environmentally fulfilling than the current norm, I ordered the first volume of the Library of America edition of his Port William novels and stories. I've been reading his essays several times a year for decades, but have never read any of the novels. Now is probably the perfect time to start. And just this morning, while following Molly about the garden as she probes the mulched leaf litter for emerging wildlife, I carried about my old copy of A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural & Agricultural, in which appears one of my favorite essays: "Think Little." A particularly pertinent observation (among many others) provides an idea of why Berry's thinking might have touched a chord in my growing awareness about the consequences of what was going on in 1970:

Odd as I am sure it will appear to some,
I can think of no better form of personal involvement
in the cure of the environment than that of gardening.
A person who is growing a garden, if he is growing it
is improving the world.

Berry reminds us, throughout his life and work, that by living on this planet, we must own our part in its destruction. Each one of us really has to do what we can--even if it's only cultivating a little garden--to stave off destruction. And there is always more we can do.

Perhaps the fact that the folks I'm turning to now aren't all old dead white guys (though some are guys, and some are dead, and most are white), indicates that none of them have been fads left over from particular moments of angst in the past or simply bits of canon that stuck around on my bookshelves over the years. Some, like George Eliot (a concurrent project to reading Berry's novels is re-reading Middlemarch), I'll write about later. Some I've written about recently. All have contributed to my abiding love for the environment and have fostered my sense of place. And it's because of them that I still find  some good reasons for soldiering on in these very bleak times.

Image note: an iPhone shot of a noisy gathering of doom-omens in the as-yet not-budding pecans overhead. 
Editorial note: I wrote on Margaret Renkl in March of 2020 here.