Year of the Artichoke

This year spring has arrived with a whimper, heralded by icy rains and hard-frost mornings, dense fogs and high winds. Crocuses sat for weeks with lonely daffodils, waiting for an early rush of greenery and blooms that never appeared and snow clung to low hills with alarming tenacity. Now, the daffodils are stooped from frosty mornings and the cherry blossoms float like snow through the air, carried by whipping winds.

I do not know what to make of this.

My mind fights back perseverations on hidden meanings of such an extended winter, dark thoughts of warnings, canaries, and the consequences of these strange and changing times. I try hard not to take each cold rain as a sign of impending doom.
And then, hope, in two small leaves. The sad artichoke I planted years ago, in a time of personal tumult and trial, the artichoke that has been eaten by squirrels, frozen solid, stomped on by the children, burned in summer heat, and generally mocked for it’s diminutive stature (it stood, at its best, just six inches high), lives.

And that, I tell myself, is enough.


The Affluence of Time

Recently, I have been reading about a shift in the American psyche related to how we define, and experience, affluence. Like most institutions of the 20th Century, affluence itself is undergoing a radical makeover, shifting from the mid-century model of keeping up with the Joneses, in which your collection of things, and the leisure time to enjoy, them were the primary indicators of affluence to a culture in which affluence is primarily defined by busyness.
Busyness, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘the state or condition of having a great deal to do, the quality of being excessively detailed or decorated.’ Busyness, evidenced by living one’s life from event to event, by constant contact, connectedness, and a carefully curated sense of frazzled urgency. Busyness, the reliance on texts to plan or forgive tardiness or absentia. Busyness, the manifestation of Fear of Missing Out. Busyness, the excuse for everything not gotten to, especially for lack of mindfulness or self-care. Busyness, as shaped by a society whose adults spend nine or more hours a day staring into screens. Busyness, as driven by the need to purchase a consumer product for every activity. Busyness, demonstrated through stress, through checking out on people and interactions but checking in to locations and social media. The more busy we have, the more important we are supposed to feel.
It used to be called the rat race. It used to be the thing we were trying to escape, the very thing we sought vacation from. It used to be the result of analog work, manual tasks, and participation in the world around us. Now, it shields us from those things.
This year, consider eliminating busy. The small bits, social media platforms, excessive children’s parties, relationships that drain rather than fulfill you, and the big chunks, traditions that are more work than joy, things you no longer enjoy, obligations which serve no clear purpose. Practice sitting still, doing nothing, in a quiet place. Take walks. Slow down. Revel in the delicious affluence of having time.

Local Histories- Kumbaya

The last thing one might think of when considering the cultural origins of the ubiquitous hippie-camp song Kumbaya, is early 20th Century Oregon. Even if you did, it would be easy to wrongly assume that the song had its origins in regional Native American culture and was appropriated at some time for the drum circles and festivals of the New Age generation. Not so. In fact, the copyright for Kumbaya (Come By Here) has long been held by a white Pastor from Portland, Oregon, who claimed to have first heard it sung by a street evangelist in the city in the early 1930’s. In truth, Kumbaya, is now widely considered to have originated with slaves in the Southeast, speakers of Gullah, and gained popularity during the scouting and summer camp movement of the 1920’s. How did it make its way to Oregon in the 1930’s? Likely with the Ku Klux Klan, who migrated west to Oregon in droves the in 1920’s, making Eugene and Portland its national headquarters. Decades later, a new migration of liberal Jesus People would adopt the song, popularized by Joni Mitchell, as an anthem, forgetting entirely its origins and whitewashing its significance.


Peace Cranes

Born in Hiroshima in 1944, Sadako Sasaki was exposed to wartime nuclear radiation at the age of two. By 1955, she had developed full-blown leukemia and was placed in hospital, given less than a year to live. From her hospital room, inspired by a Japanese legend about whoever folded a thousand paper cranes receiving a wish, she started folding paper cranes in the hopes of saving her own life. Her effort, though not lifesaving, became an international symbol and movement for peace. The simplicity of her vision and the enduring symbolism of her work have rung true for generations that have read her story in Sadako and the Thousand Cranes, myself included. In these dangerous and uncertain times, I think it’s important to be reminded of the powers we grant to our elected officials- and the impact of a single voice.

The Empty Season

One of the things I am grateful for this time of year is the quietude of natural areas. Once the sun stops warming swimming holes, school sports begin, and the rain starts up it becomes what I call, The Empty Season. While everyone else tucks into winter movies, cups of eggnog and holiday parties I make a mad dash to all of the most popular attractions and trails, abandoned for the year. I am thankful for the changing light, the increased views through now-fallen foliage, the special kind of quiet that comes from decreased traffic. It is cold, to be sure, also often wet, and the short days make for dark drives. But to have the trail to yourself, to enjoy a cup of tea at the base of a raging winter falls, to breathe the crisp winter air, and witness the last of the migrating flocks- to refuse to lose one’s connection to the natural world for six months a year- surely it outweighs the weather?

Barbara's Books

I have been thinking lately about the power of taking action, however small or simple. It’s part of the musings of the time, and like most people, many of my thoughts on the subject have been political or social in focus and scope.
Life, however has been more elegant and instructive in this matter than I could ever be on the subject, with the simple matter of Barbara’s books.
In early January I see a notice in a newsletter that I never read about a woman helping a couple-friend of hers, an elderly man looking for a home for his wife’s collection of fairy and folk tales. The notice describes the collection as consisting of several hundred volumes- the accumulation of an entire life’s curiosity, and makes it clear they are hoping to avoid falling victim to someone looking for some fast cash. They want them to be valued as Barbara valued them.
I email, telling them that I am a reader, someone that collects books, that I know folklorists that would also like to see the collection. They reply, and give me instructions to the house, nearly an hour away. I begin to doubt, wondering what I will do with all those books that I’m giving up half a day to collect.
Several weeks later I arrive with my husband, a card, a homemade jar of jam. We’re greeted at the door at and shown through to the back room where Barbara sits with her in-home health worker. Her husband introduces us as friends, but she’s clearly beyond recognizing if that’s true. Outside in the garage, his love for her wells up into his throat as he describes their downsizing, her dementia. We listen. He loads boxes into the truck.
At home, the books fill up the window seat with fairies and princes and tricksters of all kinds. I thumb through them, a symbol, clearly, of something essential to who she was, glad to be the shepherd of someone else’s imagination, now lost to them.
Now, in my thoughts on action, when I begin to doubt, I remember Barbara’s books and decide that even the small things matter.


Patriotism, Freedon of Inquiry, and the Texas Library System

In the Trumpian era, I think there is a good argument to be made for viewing the act of going to a library as one of healthy and patriotic subversion. Libraries are not just symbols of education, free speech, and truth, they are actual physical repositories of these things. They are the keepers of our public, and often private, histories, first points of contact to government agencies and documents, and safe havens for thinkers of all kinds. Texas is not where I thought I would find this point most publicly, and fervently, underscored.
The Texas Library Association has an entire portal dedicated to Intellectual freedom, based on the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights, a document that until today, I had no idea existed. But it does, and that comforts me. The Texas Library Association website summarizes the concept this way:
“Freedom of choice in selecting materials is a necessary safeguard to the freedom to read, and shall be protected against extra-legal, irresponsible attempts by self-appointed censors to abridge it. The Association believes that citizens shall have the right of free inquiry and the equally important right of forming their own opinions, and that it is of the utmost importance to the continued existence of democracy that freedom of the press in all forms of public communication be defended and preserved.”
They then go on to provide links to first, and interestingly, the United States Patriot Act, as well as banned books, the Intellectual Freedom Handbook, and the American Library Association.
The Bill of Rights is for everyone. So are libraries. And it may just be that saving one saves the other.

Ordinary Bliss

The New Year is one of my favorite times of year. The metaphor of coming light and lengthening days inspires, enlivens, and excites me. While I don’t make resolutions, I do take time to take stock, evaluate the things in my life that serve me, and those that don’t. This year my focus is on authenticity and simplicity, reveling in the small joys that come from a life well-lived. There are so many large challenges, bad luck, bad people, things beyond our control. I think it’s important, in the middle of winter, to take joy in the ordinary bliss of everyday life. (original post January 4, 2016)


Local Histories- College Hill

Eugene, Oregon is nothing if not a college town. Which is why, presumably, no one questions the locals referring to a small lump of a hill in the middle of town more than a mile from campus College Hill. Duck country.

What most locals aren’t able to tell you is that College Hill was named for Columbia College, an early predecessor to the University of Oregon and an ambitious undertaking in 1855 for a town of only 200 residents. Like a lot of things in the region at that time, the college was burned to the ground by the end of its first month. The fire was decried as arson, an attempt to oust the anti-slavery and pro-woman board of directors by a pro-slavery group.

Undeterred, the University resumed classes just two days later in a private residence and began reconstruction. The new buildings were completed in November of 1857 and welcomed an astonishing 150 students- three times the original enrollment.
Just three months later the college burned again.

The third, and final attempt at the construction of Columbia College (this time out of fireproof sandstone) was permanently blocked by the pro-slavery contingency. In 1867 the remaining portions of the unfinished building were demolished and the stones dispersed across Eugene City to act as cornerstones for banks and civic buildings.

(Ref: A Brief History and Walking Tour of College Hill, Eugene Historical Review Board, 2001)


A Walk in the Woods

***From a 2009 post that has become the basis for a new essay on walking and the wilderness***
A long weekend and the beginning of summer do a lot to remind us to go outside, breath the fresh air, listen to the birds, stretch our legs, and experience wildness. I think it’s important, amid the beer, fireworks, weenie roasts, and recreational vehicles that mark the American camping experience, to make sure that we do just that, stretch our legs and experience wildness. It’s not often anymore that the majority of us find ourselves away from the crush of noise, information, and development that comes with “civilized society”, and I think our distance from the wild plays a key role in our health and well-being, and our decision making as a people. Distancing ourselves from the wild is part of why we are able to devalue the environment, and that devaluation reveals itself in our politics, policies, and way of life. It allows us to waste resources, diminish habitat, allow entire species to go extinct, and engineer our bodies and our food.

I feel at my most engaged in the environment when walking through it. A walk in the wilderness does more to ease my mind, body, and soul than almost anything else. And it reminds me, in a tangible and profound way, that I am connected to this place, this world, this land, that it sustains me. Thoreau, in his 1862 essay, Walking, had this to say about the value of a walk in the woods, “I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks, who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering; which word is beautifully derived “from idle people who roved about the country, in the middle ages, and asked charity, under pretence of going à la sainteterre” — to the holy land… They who never go to the holy land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds, but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean. Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere. For this is the secret of successful sauntering.”

We can make no progress in the improvement of our daily lives, in the fostering of health, community, sustainability, or peace, until we acknowledge and embrace our connection to the wilderness. Take a first step, take a walk.

To read the full text of Thoreau’s Walking: