Friday, April 30, 2004


We'll walk in the mountains. We'll see our daughter present her dissertation. We'll support her as she goes in to defend it. We'll celebrate afterwards and call her Doctor. We'll walk in the mountains, oh, I said that, didn't I? You can't say it too often....

In the meantime, I'll leave you with all the usual, plus an extra (and extra-hearty) helping from Ivan Burgess's ECHO ECHO. It's like a blog, folks, except it's on paper, and he says some amazing things in his own fractured way.

See you May 10th.


APRIL 18, 2004, cont'd

I have spent Saturday night with my parents in Hampton, Iowa, and now I am headed west on Highway 3 towards Pocahontas and Highway 4 where I'll turn north for a week of Vagabonding in Emmetsburg.

I slow down as I approach Dakota City and Humboldt. A wild turkey flies across the road in front of me. I'm amazed: it looks like it's really flying.

I detour into Humboldt. The Chinese restaurant downtown is closed on Sundays. The library is closed. The churches seem to be packed full. What's a fellow like me to do? These are God-fearing folks and I'm just a fellow poking about. You can't go into a church and say "just looking" the way you do in a store.

I see that girls drive pick-ups out here in Iowa and they look like they know what they're doing. Take note of that, fellas.

West of Humboldt, atop a rise back from the road a little bit, one of those long-handled pumps, the kind that should have a tin cup hanging off it. It's an awful lonesome sight. I suppose the pump still has one end in the water as well as one rusting in the spring-time air. I suppose it would take some priming to get that pump to pump. Sometimes in life you have to give a lot to get anything.

A skunk dead on the road in front of a big empty farm-house. You can tell the house is empty because of its vacant stare, like that of a man with no friends and no prospects. That's what it comes to - everything crushed by something we don't understand in of a universe we can't believe.

In Gilmore City, grit pelts the windows of the car as if to say "Move along." This is another town I've mostly driven through. There is no longer much here to drive into town for. They hold onto what they can. I make a lap of what's left of Main Street - a tavern, a restaurant, the post office, the senior center, the library, Sabo's Body Shop. The churches, yes, the churches. The wind blows straight up Main Street, all the way out of town as far as wind goes.

It's as if the wind has got in under the rug of the world today. You've got to keep your head down. Anything you want too much will blow away.

These are God-fearing people. These are patriotic people with their flags blown straight out to the north today.

Pocahontas is thirty feet tall, she's wooden, she's standing along the highway at the east edge of where? Pocahontas, Iowa, another community holding on at the intersection of Highways 3 and 4. This isn't Palo Alto County yet, but we're getting close. The wind blows all the way through town, up Main Street, flat into the huge stone courthouse that brings the street to a T. You can hear the roar of the wind in the trees from three blocks away. The car sitting sideways to the blow of things shakes and shudders. Yeah, Pocahontas holds on. It is not as prosperous as you might like, but it's here. That's saying something in the rural middle west these days, where hard times start earlier, run deeper, and last longer than they do in the Republican imagination. These are real people out here struggling to survive, not some numbers on a balance sheet. I suppose you can't afford to see the hard times when your intention is to line your pockets with other people's money. George W. Bush tried to tell people in Des Moines, Iowa, that his tax cuts have helped them. It's a little disingenuous to say "my tax cuts have help" when the problem that many people face is finding an income to start with. I like "Outsourcing is good for America" almost as much as I like "We have to destroy the village to save it" (and isn't that coming back into currency: we have to kill the Iraqis to free them). Send more jobs overseas and watch the wind blow away some more of these communities. Declare a war, and when there is no one to respond to the call, they'll have to outsource the military. Oh, I forgot, they're doing that already. Eventually big corporations will have to destroy each other because they will have already destroyed us.

There's a Pizza Ranch in Pocahontas with a lunch buffet. I eat, drink soda, read my paper. Then I sit in the car on Main Street making notes. Tulips in front of Princess City Floral dance a crazy one in this wind. The sun heats the furnace of the day. I have to be moving along.

These are honest, staight-forward people here. A hand-written sign in the door of an empty place on Main Street says "Closed. Out of Business. Thank You."

I hope the window of the car cracked open and I am covered with dust and grit. How the wind flies. It's time for me to move on, I mean it this time. It's 1:30 p.m. Emmetsburg is twenty-six miles straight north, but I think I'll mosey through Mallard and Curlew on the way. Mallard is where I went to church and grade school. Curlew is where we lived, a mile south, a quarter mile west. The cemetery lies between them, St. Mary's Cemetery, where my brother Randy is buried.

Six miles north of Pocahontas impulsively I turn west off Highway 4 to drive through Havelock. It has been forty years, I suppose, since I was last in Havelock. The interval has not been kind to this community, either. Most of Main Street is empty buildings. There's Sandy's Bar, and the Havelock AmVets Hacker Post No. 39, and what? An elevator with a collection of rail cars on the siding near it. The Havelock Public Library. A feed store. Grit, and the wind to pick it up. Pretty soon even the grit will be gone. There will be only the wind.

Dammit, Tom, don't sit here bawling for a past we can never have.



This continues our discussion about "the construction of place," started in our post of April 28, and continued on April 29, in response to the article "A Case Study in the Construction of Place: Boundary Management as Theme and Strategy in Canadian Art and Life" by Gaile McGregor. I have been highlighting points of interest from that article and considering them from the perspective of my Vagabond in the Middle project.

McGregor lists "the less tangible means by which the pioneer creates a bastion against chaos - songs, dances, stories, games, communal food preparation." And McGregor speaks of "using the rituals of everyday life as a mediating device, to create community." A footnote adds that in Canada, community is "an essential concomitant of survival - both physical and psychological." Further, "the community does not (as so many American thinkers seem to believe) necessarily oppress individuals but rather that individuals come into being in and through the community."

While the frontier was pushing through the middle west, farmers and tradesmen may well have seen themselves as rugged individualists; even to this day, I think, middle western farmers like to think of themselves as their own bosses, answering to no one, responsible for themselves. Yet the reality, I believe, is that the middle west was built not by individuals but by communities. I think cooperation trumped heroism in this regard. Admittedly, the characteristics of an individual can season a community with that person's qualities.

It may be that even today in the middle west "individual" is a masculine noun, embodying the traits of some past male ideal. "Community," then, would be a feminine noun for us. Certainly, as the frontier pushed through here, women gave themselves quietly to the business of community-building, and community is what saved many of them from loneliness. Some of the women who didn't find community here died directly of loneliness: the suicide rate among pioneer women here was awfully remarkable. When you leave a family behind in the east or the old country and have no one to talk to for months on end but your tight-lipped husband and the wind, you may go mad. I know less of suicides among male pioneers; in any case, given their occupations, men could more easily disguise their deaths as accidents.

Because we as Americans never thought the wilderness encircled us but instead it rolled westward away from us as settlement pushed westward, we have less need (than the Canadians of McGregor's essay) for community to create a fortress. For the middle westerners, community didn't "save" us from the wilderness but from ourselves and helped to make life bearable. It was a haven not from the wilderness but from the harsh realities of the daily grind.

As McGregor's footnote suggests, there was an element of "community oppresses the individual" in our thinking. In this regard, one might look at critiques of our communities by such as Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser if he wishes.

My own position is that you can blame "community" for anything you want. You are gangly and awkward and something of a misfit, as Lewis was? Blame it on the community that you didn't fit in. I was gangly and awkward and something of a misfit, too, yet I've never thought the responsibility for that belonged to anyone but myself and my particular set of genes.

In any case, I think, how you see community, how you choose to see community, determines what it is for you, and what kinds of effects it will have on you.

If community only oppresses, in the middle west, why were the pioneer rituals of community - church meetings, summer picnics by the river - anticipated with such relish and attended with such glee?

I grew up beside a small community in rural Iowa. I don't think the community oppressed me. I think life oppressed all of us. Even in the 1950s, it was sometimes a harsh life. As a farm boy, I was expected to work hard. We all were. No one had it easy. If I was oppressed, it was by the crush of everything we had to do to survive on a half-section grain and livestock operation. If I was oppressed, so was everyone else.

If we could ask at our cemeteries about it, I'm fairly certain the consensus among the ghosts would be: moments of community were more often moments of solace than of oppression. Community, for many, was family without the blood-ties.



(501 W. Third #12, Smith Center, KS 66967)

"Whenever someone mentions that I have a bald spot," Ivan says, "I always take solace in the fact that God is good, God is fair, to some he gave brains, to some he gave hair."

"Dwayne McGinnis," says Ivan, "was holding his head in his hands and moanin' at Paul's Cafe last Sunday afternoon. Dwayne was getting ready for the opening day of mowing season. He grumbled and growled and snorted about the fact that it took nine and a half dollars to fill his riding mower gas tank. He is danged lucky that the danged thing don't run on Gatorade. Then it would have taken close to forty dollars to fill the tank."

He adds that "with the price of gasoline what it is and everythin', if you see a shaggy lawn this summer, give the owner the benefit of the doubt. He might be, in his own little way, making us less dependent on foreign oil."

"Judy Hall and Mike Hughes are going to be guests at a noon luncheon at the Senior Citizens Center in Esbon," Ivan writes. "Hall and Hughes are going to talk about the advantage of Western Plains living [for the the elderly] and the actitivies at Western Plains. Hall and Hughes - sounds like an old vaudeville team. Maybe they should do some songs, skits, and snappy patter and some of the old soft shoe."

"Dennis Hansen has showed up at the Barnes Aerobic group, camera in hand, a couple of mornings," Ivan says. "Hansen is helping with a brochure that is being put together to promote Smith Center. One of the goals is trying to show retired people the advantages of living in Smith Center."

"John Boden's mom joined us at the As the Bladder Fills Club last Monday morning," Ivan says. "Mom is from Idalia, Colorado. Idalia has a population of 88. But it is only 30 miles from Wray, 30 miles from Burlington, and 30 miles from St. Francis, Kansas. So, you see, all 88 people are right in the middle of a lot of activity."

"I was gainfully employed last Wednesday. But I would guess that will be my last day of gainful employment. When you hire me you are hiring a fat, one-eyed old man who can't see, can't hear, and can't write so as it can be read. And this fat, one-eyed old man is also fighting a losing battle against senility."

"Judy Hall's maiden name was Rellinger," Ivan writes, "but it is spelled Rilinger."

"Is it true that Coeur D'Alene, Idaho, is the only city in the United States with an apostrophe in its name?" Ivan asks. The answer is No. L'Anse, Michigan, has an apostrophe in its name. L'Anse is also my Vagabond community for Michigan.

"I drove out by where Frieling had his consignment auction last Friday afternoon," Ivan says. "A lot of the stuff had already been removed. What was left looked like old maid school teachers that had been stood up and were still waiting for someone to pick them up."

"The annual firing of the buffalo grass in Gene Conaway's lawn is a done deal," Ivan says. "Every year Gene burns his buffalo grass lawn and every year people will go tsk tsk tsk - he will just ruin the grass. But he has been doing it for years and every year his buffalo is plush, lush, and weed-free. Gene must know just when, just how, and just why to do it."

"Every time I drive anywhere or ride anywhere, when we stop and I get out of the car I'm kinda, I don't know just how to describe it - not really dizzy, just kinda 'lurchy.' I kinda lurch from here to there like a fellow that has had too many. Don't know what it is unless it is old age. It's a funny feeling that don't make me laugh."

"Here's something," Ivan says, "that I got right straight from the horse's mouth. On April 29th Smith Center will see the end of an era. For it is on that date, April 29, that the Weltmer Livestock Auction will hold their last sale. I mean their last sale forever, as far as Dick Weltmer is concerned. Dick said that the Sale Barn Cafe would remain open. Smith Center without a livestock auction? Just don't seem possible. The Chance brothers, Skin and Red, built the sale barn back in the middle '30s."

"The way my knees, ankles, hips, and shoulders hurt," Ivan says, "I'm guessing the frost-free date to be somewhere around May 12th."

"Stay ahead of the posse," Ivan closes, as he always does.



My thanks goes out to the following for his recent contribution to the Vagabond Expedition:

#89 Phil Hey, Iowa

Thursday, April 29, 2004


It's nearly two hours from here and there's no pay, so why am I doing a poetry reading in Green Bay? Well, there are some things we do simply because we want our names on the roster. My poetry reading tonight is at the Neville Museum, which has been sponsoring a series of monthly poetry readings for some time, with an "open mic" reading for the first twenty-five minutes, followed by a "featured poet" who reads for thirty to forty minutes. I am the featured guest. I like that.

The museum's gift shop will make my books available for sale. That's a plus. It is still April, still the cruelest month, still National Poetry Month, that's another reason.

And I really like museums, both those that are professionally curated such as the Neville and those that are homier and more hand-made such as the Fairwater Museum. The objects to be found in museums have been smoothed and shined with the oil of human endeavor, and such objects speak powerfully, to me at least. In the museum at Dauphin, Manitoba, Canada, some years ago, I touched a railing that led to the upstairs loft in an old house; the railing had been worn smooth by many hands. A charge like electricity nearly put me on my knees when I touched that wood: I was touching all those who had ever touched it. "Even in an empty house," I wrote, "you may be surprised at what you startle."

I like museums, yes, and I like reading my work. This time, I shall be doing something a little different by including some newer pieces I haven't read much in public. I'll read "Half the Afternoon in Fairwater," wherein "the cottonwoods are having public sex again." I'll read "Chicago, Be Gone," wherein I cast the city out of the middle west. "Chicago, you sow," I say. I've had it with the traffic there. I'll read my poem that is posted on the Poets Against the War site, "Of Weather and War and Love;" I wrote it on a Thursday and Friday before we went to war against Iraq, suggesting that we need more disasters to keep us from war, and on Saturday the space shuttle Columbia broke up over Texas. That didn't keep us from war. I wrote that:

... bad things keep happening to good
People and politicians go right on
Making laws like saying so makes it so.
Someone somewhere will do something and some
Republican president will have to
Start a war....

I have never been very political, but these days I am angry. I am angry that they lie. I am angry that they steal from us. I am angry that they get away with it. I am angry that 51% of the American people are blind to it.

Did you hear the one about the Secret Service questioning a Washington state high school student about drawings he'd made in a portfolio his art teacher made him keep? I am angry that they have lost their perspective.

Oh, yes, sorry... I'm talking about a poetry reading here. I will wrap up my portion of the reading as I often do, with some poems from The Big Book of Ben Zen. Ben says:

You cannot see
What you've come to see.

What you've come to see
Changes with your coming.


APRIL 18, 2004

I saw my brother Flip and his wife Vickie at supper last night with my parents. I saw my sister Colleen and her husband Dean at breakfast with my parents this morning. My mother had a stroke a month ago and rather than taking breakfast at Seven Stars Restaurant as I'd planned, we ate at home. My mother says she's "not good enough to eat in public yet."

The night was a dark storm. Clouds blew in, and they're dripping a little rain. The wind is a freight train in the trees. I'm packed and ready to head to Emmetsburg. It's about 10:15 a.m.

The trees in Hampton are much closer to spring than those I left behind. Some leaves have already started to open here; that's the difference a few degrees of latitude make in the middle west, I guess.

The wind is blowing hard from the south. It's a grey hang-down day. I'm headed west out of Hampton on Highway 3.

My mother has had a stroke. She says she doesn't know what the future holds. My parents may move to Minnesota, to live closer to three of my sisters, in a place with everything on one level. My dad worries about not having an Iowa address. We are all stay-put people. None of us likes to move after we've set ourselves down. My mother used to get "home-sick for the chickens" and I'm kinda that way myself. I like to go away, but even better I like to come home. I can't help it.

When I want to go deep inside myself, I align myself with the road and drive straight into it. Sometimes I find what I'm looking for; sometimes I take what I get. It is always better to have no expectations, to break through to whatever is here for me. I find that the more I have expectations, the more I miss.

Today I am just bumming. I told Sally Jo I wouldn't show up at her door until 7:00 p.m. I have much of a day to drive and dream and meander the hundred-some miles from Hampton to Emmetsburg, to see Mallard and Curlew and my brother's grave between them, the old farmstead. I can visit my Uncle Larry and Aunt Pat this afternoon if I choose to. The only thing pushing me is the wind.

This is Iowa, where they can build a pole building, put three thousand hogs in it, and call it a farm; where they can build a pole building, put a steeple on it, and call it a church.

Here at the intersection of Highways 3 and 69, this is where my niece's boyfriend was killed some years ago in a car accident, driving her car. He was hit by a drunk driver, the car exploded in flames, he died. So did the drunk driver. You feel the shadow of it as you pass.

The Security Bank in Clarion says it's 10:41 a.m., 68 degrees. I stop for the three stoplights in town: Sunday morning, you wonder why you need to.

A high wind is dragging a blanket of dust across the flat openness of these fields. Pieces of corn rubble scuttle across the road like small furry animals. A handful of sand is tossed against my windshield. And the world smells like pigshit.

The stink of these days is different than when I was growing up. The aroma of 200 pigs in a farmyard versus 10,000 pigs in a factory operation. The smell of money versus the smell of greed.

Out in a field, a big John Deere is pulling a disk half as wide as Kansas, stirring up dust, turning up the smell of earth. Ah, refreshment. Half a mile down the road I see a smaller John Deere pulling a planter, putting hope in the ground.

Sometimes I feel like such a cranky old man, talking about the way things used to be.

Now I pull off into Goldfield, a town I've always driven through, never into. I find Main Street and sit to make some notes. Not that there's much here to make note of. As with many small communities, time has not been kind here. The churches have cars parked in all directions around them. There is a post office, the fire station, the phone company, Goldfield Family Hair, a bank. A log cabin stands near the downtown, built by the Boy Scouts in 1926, restored by the community in 1976. What we have is what we have and we'll honor it. You might think I'm "making fun" of this characteristic of making do. It is part of our charm and part of our steadiness and it is to be admired. Like every virtue, its flip-side is a vice: too much "making do" can lead to immobility in some, disgruntlement in others. That is true here, and anywhere. There are a couple gas stations with convenience stores along Highway 3, and a couple restaurants. One of them calls itself a steakhouse, what in Wisconsin we'd call a "supper club." There's Campbell's High Pressure Washers, Becky's Consignments, Thrivent Financial. It could be worse.

West of Goldfield there's a red-tailed hawk atop a fence post, pointed into the wind like a weather vane. It's staying low for the time being, not so hungry that it has to try to fly in this wind.

It's just another day on the great flatness. The sun breaks through the cloud cover and heats the stink of pigs to another intensity. You can run but you can't hide from it; the stink permeates everything. How did the world get to this sorry state?

It is the stink of efficiency. Like school districts, I suppose. There are about 375 school districts in Iowa now. Those in charge of such matters want to see the number reduced to one hundred over the next twenty years. One school district per county, you might say. You can curse it, but still the wheel turns, grinding up everything in its path, as if greed has co-opted the great mandala.

To be continued....



This continues our discussion about "the construction of place," started in our post of April 28, in response to the article "A Case Study in the Construction of Place: Boundary Management as Theme and Strategy in Canadian Art and Life" by Gaile McGregor. I have been highlighting points of interest from that article and considering them from the perspective of my Vagabond in the Middle project.

McGregor quotes Margaret Atwood as saying: "Canadians show a marked preference for the negative."

Middle westerners are not negative, I think; rather they exhibit a quiet acceptance of "this is the way things are." I do not mean this as resignation, for resignation is darker than I intend. Nor do I mean ours is joyful acceptance, for sometimes one simply bites his lip and endures. Rather, you put your head down and do what you must: this is what one does.

McGregor talks of "that oh-so-Canadian syndrome that Northrop Frye called the garrison mentality," also referred to as "the fort in the wilderness."

We had our forts in the wilderness, when the middle west was the wilderness. Rather than being "surrounded" by wilderness on all sides, as settlers moved into the middle west they felt that wilderness lay just to the west of them, that civilization was off to the east, and that the building up of each community pushed the frontier farther towards the sunset. There was the sense here, I think, that civilization was sweeping westward. And when the frontier did move west beyond our boundaries, the settled middle westerners became middlemen: innkeepers and bartenders and provisioners for those chosing to go farther on. Admittedly, some of those frontiersmen who pushed farther west were middle westerners who wanted more than what they found in Indiana and Illinois and Iowa. On the other hand, it is somewhat sobering to realize that Daniel Boone died a middle westerner (or damn near) in Defiance, Missouri, and may be buried with his wife Rebecca near Marthasville.


APRIL 28, 1998

The year's very first daffodils, the two of them, are spent. They have closed for the last time; they have crumpled, we might say. Sring has come and gone for them. For the rest of us, a cool morning, a still pond, a hazy cloud cover.

Kweek kweek kweek goes the speedometer cable of the pick-up, singing like a bird.

The drivers of two on-coming vehicles in succession look sad or angry or ungodly serious - why even bother to get up, ladies, if things are so bad?

In the low spot where we saw the Bonaparte gulls, the water is receding remarkably now. Overnight, it seems, it has moved back from the edge twelve feet or more. At Five Corners there is still a small rivulet in the ditch, only a faint memory of its former self.

To the northwest, vaguely, there is a low cloud like smoke, dissipating.


APRIL 29, 1998
I saw egrets last night, and herons.

A very little black paint,
some water, white paper - clouds
painted on the morning sky.

Along the garage, one tulip thinks about opening.

The Grand River still runs higher than usual, though not so fiercely as earlier this spring.

There is a raccoon dead on the road. As a species, I think, raccoons have the reaction time of rocks. I like raccoons, they may be intelligent, but they have no common sense. Well, I suppose that's not entirely fair - squirrels aren't much smarter about roads. Crows have about the most road sense of any creature I've seen.

I have said that, in the rain, Ripon looks like an old town. In this gray light, this morning, she looks like an old lady.

Although it is somewhat cool this morning, the young nubbins walking to school have bared their legs. Obviously, then, it cannot snow again this season.



My thanks goes out to the following for her recent contribution to the Vagabond Expedition:

#88 Sally Jordan, Iowa

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

APRIL 17, 2004

I have been driving west from Fairwater, Wisconsin, to Hampton, Iowa, for an overnight visit with my parents, after which I'll continue heading towards Emmetsburg for a week of Vagabonding there.

There's a big John Deere off to my left disking up last year's bean field, raising so much dust.

A cop car tears onto the interstate just ahead of me, lights flashing. He is moving at least eighty-five or ninety miles an hour, that's how fast he disappears into the distance. What requires such urgency? Would that I had flashing lights and a siren to get me to my work. "Vagabond here, outta my way," I could say as I flashed past astonished drivers. I don't see the cop again.

In Austin, Minnesota, there is a sign along the highway that says they'll be celebrating "The Week of the Young Child" from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. on Saturday at the mall. Wouldn't an "old child" be an adult, I wonder. What did I miss? Or perhaps it's that if you grow up on a farm you're an old child right from the start.

How is it that these trees along I-90 across southern Minnesota are ahead of ours back in Fairwater? The trees here are blushing green, at least, at their nakedness. The world humps its way towards summer through the tingling-surging-tearingness of spring.

Now the sun has hog-tied the clouds, and that's that. My left shoulder gets heated. I turn south onto I-35 at Albert Lea, Minnesota. Sweat trickles from my armpit, reminding me that I'm animal. Definitely animal, but with a swing of spirit in it.

Another tractor in another field, stirring up other dust. The land awakens. The farmers are at it. The clock has started ticking. The field dreams of fullness.

I've crossed into Iowa now. It's 1:45 in the afternoon. Isn't it time for a nap yet? At least I can stop for ice cream at the Dairy Queen in Clear Lake, Iowa.

Ah, wooded Iowa. You might think there's nothing out here, but remember: this is where God sat down to have his lunch. That was before rooster-tails of dust rose from the gravel roads. That was before the gravel roads, before the glaciers. Back when God was God and not some evocation who carries a flag.

I do stop for ice cream in Clear Lake. I sit eating it and I see an old couple take their sundaes to tables outdoors. The Iowa wind blows their hair and their clothes. They sit at a table. The fellow takes of bite of his ice cream. In that moment, I think of all my friends who have died. The way he turned the spoon in his mouth. The tilt of his head. The sunlight on him. The whole gestalt. Everything.

Then I'm headed south again on I-35, towards my parents' house in Hampton. In a field just off to the west of me, a farmer is putting seed in the ground. That would be corn he's planting, not beans. Beans won't survive the next frost. They don't like snow.

Now I'm headed east on Highway 3, backtracking from I-35 to Hampton. A paper bag scurries from west to east across the road in front of me, big as a raccoon, hesitant like that.



Some weeks ago, I found the article, "A Case Study in the Construction of Place: Boundary Management as Theme and Strategy in Canadian Art and Life" by Gaile McGregor via Awake at Dawn on Someone's Couch, who found it via Woods Lot. You got that??

Admittedly, it's a scholarly article; admittedly I had to get my dictionary out several times to translate McGregor's notions into language I understand. Still, as I'm interested in understanding "place" and one's relationship to it, the effort to understand was well worth it.

While I am not so interested in McGregor's argument that a community or nation's identity is more forcefully conveyed by "visual representation" than by "narrative," I am interested in the many tidbits about place and understanding place that get dropped along the way. Read the full article for yourself. In the following days and weeks I will highlight and comment on some of the points that I find intriguing, and that I will want to ponder as I handle my middle western (Vagabond) materials.

McGregor says: "... when it comes to sense of place it is possible that seeing precedes saying."

McGregor says: "... it is also possible that when we are talking about the underpinnings of collective identity, it is visual representation, not writing, that provides our privileged entry." Visual culture "is at least as important an indicator as narrative."

In this regard, I think of my notion of "emblems." I think of the grain elevator, the railroad station, the water tower, church steeples, courthouse squares, barns, silos, etc. as middlewestern emblems, each a kind of representation of what we are. All of them do have a strong visual element, especially those that reach to the sky from the flatness of our fields and towns. Most of them do have narrative attached to them, though usually we have to infer it or imagine it.

While middle westerners do read more than they let on, I also believe that the visual symbols on the landscape speak more directly to the taciturn heart. Nothing tugs at me quite like the image of a farmstead silhouetted against a South Dakota sunset. I don't know why it moves me so remarkably, but it does.

Are visual images, being unmediated by language, able to grab us more directly than our language-garbled narratives? And, if the answer is yes, what does that mean for an understanding of the middle western psyche? What does it mean for my telling of a middle western story?


APRIL 19, 2001

Blue sky? Clouds? Haze?
There is sunlight
now. We could get

anything. Mis-
print "sunlight" you
get "sinlight," which

enlarges our
list of choices

Blue sky? Clouds? Haze?
Sin? Yes, we could
get anything.


APRIL 24, 1998

The president of our company is something of a bird-watcher. From my description of the black-headed gull, he suggests it is the Bonaparte gull. Its appearance here, he suggests, is "uncommon."

The trees assert themselves. Next to the garage, more daffodils, white ones to go with the yellow pair.

The pond is still. The pond is still the pond. Still the pond is.

Some of the fields which haven't been worked yet look as if they've got a few days' growth of beard, green beard.

This morning the hawk is in its tree in the middle of the field, ordering breakfast.

Some of the worked fields are rough still, some have been tilled to a fine consistency - any wind could put the dust of this earth into the air. A field near Five Corners looks like a mud flat. It has a notion to dry out, but maybe that will take awhile.

The dead deer in the ditch along Highway E between Union Street and Ripon is nearly gone - only hide and bone left, I think. As shall we all, it returns from whence it came - that primordial ooze of matter and energy in electric flux.


APRIL 27, 1998
Rain Saturday night and Sunday morning has refreshed the earth. The sky is a washed blue this morning. Bright sun and long shadows. Leaves on the trees large enough, some of them, to block out the sky behind. Flowers shiver in the cool breeze.

Weeds in some of the fields call out for attention but perhaps the soil there is still too wet to work; or the farmer has other priorities. The grass is the ditches is thick and tough. Will it be dun-colored and sere by the end of August? What summer will the El Nino bring?

The old horse stands at the east side of its barn, warming himself in the sun. In the distance, the whiteness of a fertilizer bag caught in some brush, like a cosmic marker on the landscape.

If you don't like this level of detail, I suppose you can dial up a television news show, eat some cotton candy, drink decaffeinated coffee.

Tuesday, April 27, 2004


As you will read in the coming week or two, I felt a great sadness coming home from my visit to Emmetsburg, Iowa, driving across the great stretch of farmland in Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, thinking about how much has changed, how much has been lost. About those who remain, those who are gone.

And then - wouldn't you know it - I got home and learned that Tonio has taken down his blog permanently; and the good ship common beauty has folded its sails as well, irrevocably it seems.

Tonio said: "This website will close on or around May 03, 2004, for various reasons which are about as interesting and difficult to explain as quantum field theory."

CB said: "My decision now is that, as it happens in the corporeal realm, this termination should come with little warning, no pomp, and an echoing sense of finality. Oh, how I have enjoyed this little stage of the journey, especially the company of my fellow pilgrims!"

Tonio, I'll miss you because you have not been afraid to say "The emperor has no clothes." We need that.

CB, I'll miss you because - as the emperor walked around with no clothes - you remarked on the beauty of the day, of faces in the crowd, of this one special moment; of "the many forms of the 'everyday sacred,'" as you say.

The turn of the seasons. The march of the generations. The swing of the stars. Everything changes, everything stays the same. Whether I like what I see changing, or don't like it.

For now, Tonio, CB, I'll offer some simple hopes: that the wind stays at your back, that what you find is what you need.

Go in peace.


APRIL 17, 2004

This is the middle west. There is a church steeple in every distance. We are a godly people, at least we say we are.

The weathered woods of an old shed and an old barn call out to me: "There's a story here, come hear it!" You can't stop at every abandoned farmstead. Well, you can, but that's all you'd do. But you could do worse than spend the rest of your life talking to old barns, I suppose.

"Tom, it's not so much that you're here," the old barn says, "it's that you write it down."

"Yeah," I say, "I guess I'm born to be witness." Which is not a religious task, but a spiritual task nonetheless - to see the world as it is and to attest to the truth and beauty of it. I am blessed with this responsibility. Still, sometimes I want to ask "Why me?"

This isn't heaven, the middle west, but we can see heaven from here, and we can see hell.

Where I-90 is supposed to split off from I-94, south of Tomah, Wisconsin, the ramp is closed. We're detoured to the next exit, we cross over, then we come back the way we came. It's just about as sweet and direct a detour as I've ever encountered. You do what you have to do, and sometimes it's not so bad.

The rise and fall of the country east of La Crosse is as lovely as any landscape in the world, I think. When I top the rise that affords a view of all the bluffs in the distance, I am reminded of the Smoky Mountains. Almost heaven. If this isn't enough for a fellow, he's awful damn greedy.

That we sip it rather than gulp it, the beauty, that's an inheritance from our immigrant forebears, isn't it? "Yah," they'd say maybe, "not too much there now." It's not a Republican conservatism. Farmers hoard to hand on, instead of hoarding to have as the Republicans do. There is no status involved out here, except that the next generation be a little better off than this one. Republican conservatism doesn't look to the next generation but to the short-term gain, often at the expense of many generations to come. It would make my grand-dad puke, what's going on in Washington these days.

Two dead wild turkeys along the highway. A crow eats at one of them. Hitting one of those birds would be like hitting a bowling ball, the damage it would do.

West Salem, Wisconsin. Hamlin Garland. I suppose I can't talk about the middle west very long without talking about Hamlin Garland.

Ah, now, the Mississippi River, a crease on the continent like a woman's crease where she turns inside herself, that middleness.

Then I pull away from the river and the bluffs surrounding it, headed west into Minnesota. At one point I'm driving higher than two crows are flying. Don't talk to me about flatness.

Another decrepit barn, its mouth open in the shape of an O. "O, look at me," it says. Everything quivers.

A row of fence posts with stones atop them. Everyone wants attention.

In an embankment along the highway three mounds of dirt look to me as if a badger has made a den here.

Up well away from the river now in the heart of the flatland, insects are hitting the windshield. The tat-ta-tat-ta sounds like shell corn has been tossed at me. We plow onward, covering in mere hours what it used to take days and weeks for pioneers to traverse. Traveling by car, I have time to tell myself some stories. How many stories, traveling by horse and wagon?

Sometimes it seems like it's uphill all the way across Minnesota. Why?

Oh, the green trees here. And a red-tailed hawk, its steel gaze, the land rolling away from it with an erotic smoothness. You can't let go of the middle west, Tom, even if you'd want to.

Didn't it take giant men and women to break this land to their will? Doesn't it still take giants.

Another old barn. Its eyes are half-shut. It's roof has been let to ruin. There is not much money to be made patching the soul of the countryside. I have chosen the damned-est work.

Dammit - why am I like this? Once I'm on the bull, I've got to stay on til it's done bucking, the way the crow chases the hawk, with never a moment's peace for either of them. If you accept the gift, you have to carry the burden of it. Duty, you know.

Some day someone will be driving along I-90 across southern Minnesota listening to my words on tape. They'll hear me say 5-5-8-0-5 and they'll look up and see this very same bridge, 5-5-8-0-5. Believe it. This can happen.

Yet, too, I would warn you to beware of the blind seer.

Now the sky is clouding over. There is sun still, and then there's not. A blackbird chases a crow; there is no peace for either of them.

Was every grove I see once a farmstead? That's possible. Farms of forty and eighty and one-hundred-twenty acres were once more nearly the norm. Where do the souls of dead farmers go when their homesteads get torn out? Who takes responsibility for the great emptiness that remains?

To be continued....



(501 W. Third #12, Smith Center, KS 66967)

"I learned something last Saturday morning," Ivan writes. "Learned it from a native of Pennsylvania. Don Wick, transplanted Pennsylvanian, says with authority that 'you don't put sausage in a Western Omlette.' But you do in a High Plains Omlette."

"Another thing that has kinda surprised me," says Ivan, "is the discussion about the remodeling of the grade school. Somehow I had the feeling that most of the older people in town would reject such a project without even hearring what they had in mind. But I have been hearing some older people, some conservative older people, some really conservative older people, some really really conservative older people talking and at least they are discussing it objectively."

"They tell me the movie 'The Passon of Christ' is showing at the theatre dowtown," Ivan writes. "I ain't goin'. I've already read the book."

"What is an in-service day," Ivan wonders. "I hear about it all the time and the only place I know that they have them is at the school house. I just wonder what one looks like."

"I believe I can state with a reasonable degree of accuracy," he says, "that to the best of my knowledge Echo is a lo-carb newspaper.


APRIL 22, 1998

This morning the sun is like a bucket of bright paint spilled across the land. O blue sky! When we die, when we go to heaven, those who will, this will be a day in heaven. Let me appreciate it now.

Of course, it is neither hot now, nor cold, so perhaps I should spit it out. Nahhh....

The trees are making a stronger green statement. Their stain against the sky is becoming serious. They will soon have leaves we can't deny.

Today is bulky article pick-up in Fairwater. The curbs are covered with junk. Junk. Why do you keep it and where did you put it, I ask of no one in particular. The junk we accumulate is proportionate to the space we have available. I am the worst offender.

More of the fields have been worked. I am so far from farming now I do not recognize some of the equipment being pulled behind the tractors. I know the "spring tooth" when I see it.

A few black-headed gulls still sit on the puddles. This is the first year I've noticed them. Is it the first year they've been here or the first year I've been paying attention? The age-old question - is it the observer or the observed?


APRIL 23, 1998
Another blue sky, another day the Lord has made.

Long shadows in Fairwater and across the farmland to the north. More fields have been worked, with wide sweeps made to miss the low, wet ground. They will farm what they can.

The big tree in the middle of its field drops a dark doily on the ground. Grandma, I say doily and I think of you.

This morning at the shed near where the snowy owl had perched, two men are unloading fertilizer and preparing to put it on the field.

I keep hoping to see a prominence off in the distance, to the northwest in Green Lake County. What do we call it? Mount Tom? My eyes are not good enough to see that far. And there is a ridge between here and there blocking the view.

If ever I could see that far, it would be today.

Monday, April 26, 2004


Yes, I am safely home from my Vagabond trip to Emmetsburg, Iowa. It was another lovely visit. As usual I stayed with Sally Jordan, a classmate from grade school days. If ever you should visit Sally, be sure to take your appetite; she will feed you well. I teased her about running a B&B, pet kennel, and writers' retreat. Her hospitality was wonderful.

I did a few interviews, including one with Dick and Anne Marie Nelson, parents of Bruce Nelson, the nicest young fellow ever to play for the Carolina Panthers of National Football League. Just ask anyone who knows him. Bruce was a walk-on at the University of Iowa; his success shows what hard work and determination can do. He got his good manners, obviously, from his lovely parents, who farm a mile north of Emmetsburg. Eventually I will report on my interview with the Nelson's in my Vagabond newsletter. In coming days, however, I will recount my visit to that couple's retreat just north of their farmstead, known locally as "Nelsons' Cabin."

I toured four places while I was in Emmetsburg - Horizons Unlimited; Sky Jack; SNC; and IEI. I will report on these tours in coming days, too.

On Tuesday night, April 20, I attended the Emmetsburg Chamber of Commerce annual banquet at the invitation of Chamber Director Kathy Fank; and on Friday, April 23, I was in the crowd at the ground-breaking ceremonies for the Broin Companies' Voyager ethanol plant being built a mile southeast of Emmetsburg. Expect to hear reports of these events as well.

I will be here blogging this week but please note that Mary and I will be flying out bright and early on Saturday morning, May 1, to spend a week visiting our daughter and son-in-law in Montana and to be with Jessica when she presents her dissertation on May 7. We hope our presence actually provides support for her, rather than making her life more stressful. But you just don't know how things will shake out in the last days leading up to defense of the dissertation, so it is possible we just might have to go for some long walks in the mountains to help alleviate stress. Tough work, but someone has to do it. We'll fly back to Wisconsin on May 8th and thereafter I will return to blogging on May 9th, perhaps, or certainly by May 10th.


APRIL 17, 2004

It's a lovely morning. The sun is on the still surface of the pond. A flower in the bed along our garage bloomed this morning, confident that winter is over. The weeping willow at the steep west edge of our property is letting down its green hair.

My mother doesn't like weeping willows. She thinks they're "dirty trees." And they do leave a lot of debris, no argument there. Yet hers is a farmer's view, I think - we want to grow what we want to grow and anything else is weeds. A weed being any plant growing where you don't want it.

In terms of evolution, I suppose the weeping willow's dirtiness is a successful ploy. I don't understand exactly why it would need to be a dirty tree to survive, but then I don't understand a lot of things. I do like weeping willows, however. I like how they let down their green hair, a sign of spring before any of the other trees make much note of it.

My parents, when they farmed, did not practice a monolithic mono-culture, that's not what I mean to suggest. They rotated corn, beans, oats, and alfalfa. We had beef, pigs, and chickens. Our egg money bought groceries. When my brothers and sisters and I walked the neighbors' bean fields, cutting out the corn and pulling the cockleburrs, we earned the money for our fall school clothes, new shoes. Our walking beanfields and my sisters' baby-sitting meant we got new blue jeans at the start of every school year. I say that with pride, that we contributed.

April 17th. It's high spring. I am headed west across Wisconsin and Minnesota, down into Iowa. High spring in the upper middle west, a lovely time to be driving, a lovely time to be alive.

There are clouds enough to make dark patches on the corn rubble in the fields. Along the horizon is hazy sky. The sun will win its battle, I suppose, but has its work cut out for it.

You go, crow, flying west, from hope to happiness.

Either everything I need is here, or it's nowhere. If you can't love what you've got, you can't love anything.

I see an old man's face. The land's dream. The endurance of the long distance wind. I see that man in an on-coming car, I can imagine everything else.

Some people say "tree huggers" as if that's bad. Trees give us oxygen. The day we cut down the last tree, we'll gasp for breath. Perhaps that's the plan. Perhaps Halliburton will make billions overcharging us for oxygen on a no-bid contract with the government.

We think of this land as a great flat accumulation. In fact there are river banks and bluffs, coulees and crowns, sandhills and blue hills and unnamed prominences, ravines. There is all manner of variety in this sameness; we just have to stoop to see it sometimes. Because we're not given to grand statements, the worn beauty of our smoothness suits us.

As I proceed in my investigation of what makes us middle western, I'm finding some confirmation of my notion that immigrants settled where the land looked like home to them. I have had people say that grandfather or great-grandfather settled where he did because it looked like the place he'd left behind.

What makes us great sometimes breaks us.

I suppose some folks see the sunrise as where we've come from, the sunset as where we're headed. The day itself becomes a metaphor for the nation's hopes.

Here in the middle west, we're high noon. White heat. No shadows.

No place to hide and no deception.

There's a silly, bald-headed, grey-edged old man in a red sports convertible coming down the road towards me. He is making a grand statement and I'm laughing at it as someone will laugh at my grand statements. They should laugh at my big pronouncements. Like the blizzard or the tornado, laughter helps to keep us humble. Humility is simply clear vision. Laughter is a soap that washes off pretension.

We could learn something from the crow in the ditch tugging at an old deer carcass: you do what you have to. Middle western duty and resilience.

In the sandflats west of Oxford, Wisconsin, the fields are soaking up sun. This past week's rain is evaporating. The wind carries as much as the rivers.

I've got everything I need. Why am I so fortunate?

Isn't that a middle western question, to question one's blessedness? To ask: why has this been given to me. We expect it to be tougher than it sometimes is; sometimes that's even what we want. It's good that life is good, we think, but it shouldn't be too good.

I drive across the bridge over the Wisconsin River. I'm hoping to see eagles where I've seen then them before, but I don't. I'm not disappointed because - God - we've got the river. That we see eagles here sometimes - that's the surprise of grace. Too much grace, no surprise.

To be continued.....


APRIL 20, 1998

Well - once this was prairie, open ground as far as the eye could see. North of here were the woods, the pineries. If there were trees here then, it was small clusters of oak. Those days are gone.

The geese seem to have gone north. There are not many of them around now. The skies are quiet except for the occasional sandhill crane and its raucous cries.

A blue sky today. The two daffodils near the garage have recovered from their bout with wind and rain; they are standing straight again, or nearly so. Windflowers are low and bright along the house.

The Grand River is less fierce coming through town. Weeds are taking hold of the plowed fields north of town. A haze in the distance, then clouds. If we had a mountain, we would not be able to see it today perhaps.

The water in the ditches near Five Corners has slowed considerably. No reason to speak of it again, I think.


APRIL 21, 1998
The reassuring sound of a mourning dove taking flight from our driveway. Praise Allah, some things are constant.

I have nothing much to say this morning, so perhaps I shall be brief. Well, actually, I've never been known to let having nothing to say slow me down. So hold on.

At a neighbors' the grandma has been staying with them while she waits to move into a new place. She parks her car on the street overnight. It is a church-mobile. The back bumper is a sermon. I am reminded of the Pharisees.

The fields are being worked, some of them. Some are still too wet.

The day is overcast, and cool enough that the bird on the wire is plumping its feathers. It is a blackbird, I think.

I put bird watchers in the same class as fly fishermen.

Black-headed gulls float in standing water in fields along the road, as they have for the past few days. I do not know which gull they are.

I don't fly fish, either.

A young man walks the railroad track to school. There is a metaphor in that, perhaps.

Saturday, April 17, 2004


I'll return to blog here about April 26th.



by Mark Vinz

for Mark Strand
Rugby, North Dakota

There used to be elms, I'm sure of it--
that dark, safe canopy above me as I
walked each summer day to the post office
when the mail train came through town.
Streets were wider, too, houses bigger--
a porch that isn't there, a greenhouse
disappeared, the fairgrounds shrunk to
one small racetrack. Every person I stop
is from somewhere else; every child
smiles shyly as I pass and stares, amazed
to see me photograph these tidy,
blank-faced houses where they live.

All that remains is the long drive back
through golden stubble fields and sunflowers
that turn from light--I always thought
it was the other way. The prairie sloughs
are drying up this year but still a great
blue heron rises, dips across the road
and veers toward storm clouds massing
in the west--the sound of one small engine,
tires on pavement, turning wheels.


by Mark Vinz

Something holds us here--
call it the madness of phone lines,
the pride of blizzards,
the love of wheels and wind.

Something holds us here,
where roads don't ever seem to end.
Our maps are letters home
we don't know where to send.

"The Old Hometown" is from Mark Vinz's Affinities. "Midcontinent" is from Climbing the Stairs. Reprinted by permission of the poet. Mark was born in Rugby, North Dakota, and is a true son of the prairie. Since 1968 he has taught at Moorhead State University. His poems and stories have appeared in numerous periodicals and anthologies and he is the author of such books as The Weird Kid, Climbing the Stairs, Mixed Blessings, Late Night Calls, Minnesota Gothic, and Affinities. With Thom Tammaro, he co-edited Imagining Home: Writing from the Midwest, which was discussed in these pages in my "Reflections on Books." I interviewed Mark for my Vagabond project on March 20, 2004, at his home in Moorhead, Minnesota.


I'm interested in considering your "poems of place" for publication in The Middlewesterner's "Saturday's Poem" feature; send two or three of your best in the body of an e-mail addressed to . Put "Saturday's Poem" in the subject line. Then be patient. I will get back to you about whether I'll use your work or not. Send along a short biographical note and information about where your books can be purchased and I'll include that when your poem runs. There's no payment involved for having your work appear in "Saturday's Poem," but the feature is seen by some high class readers. About seventeen of them, by our current count.

Friday, April 16, 2004


I expect to post Saturday's Poem tomorrow, then I'll leave for Iowa. I'll stay with my parents overnight Saturday, I'll take them for biscuits and gravy at the Seven Stars Restaurant in Hampton, Iowa, on Sunday morning, and I'll head for Emmetsburg for a week of poking about and interviewing. On Wednesday I'll do some reading from Curlew:Home at the Emmetsburg Public Library, some talking about how folks might go about writing their own life stories or family histories, and some explaining of my Vagabond project. I have two hours, which will be enough time if I talk fast and they listen hard. On the Saturday following, I'll be at Tuesdays Coffee & Books at Southpark Mall in Spencer, Iowa, doing a book signing. Some writers don't like book signings but I don't mind: I've never had to sign so many autographs that my hand cramps up. Besides, you meet some interesting people in bookstores, and hear some interesting stories. At least I do.

I suppose I'll be back to blogging on Monday, April 26th.



It was, once again, a small, intimate group who heard me read in Waupaca last night. I gave one of my better readings. One of the fellows in the audience was a "semi-retired" farmer. "If a farmer retires entirely," he said, "he's got no reason to get up in the morning." Said he had two ewes drop lambs yesterday, said he's had nearly eighteen so far this spring. I could tell he was enjoying the farm poems I read, "Making Hay," "A Neighbor Hailed Out," and such.

I read from the "Married to Prairie" poems, too, about the woman widowed on the tall-grass prairie in the 1880s. A woman came up and talked to me afterwards; those poems astonished her: her grandmother had been widowed on the prairie in South Dakota in the 1880s, some fifty miles or so from Redfield, my Vagabond community out there.

About half-way through the reading, a dozen or fifteen high school students came in; they had been busy elsewhere until then. I am glad to see young people at poetry readings, I just wish I'd see a few more males showing up. I guess the way we teach poetry is scaring the guys away. Though the farmer in the audience said I'd read a lot of stuff that fellows could relate to.

One of the high school girls asked if I'd been interested in poetry all my life. Yeah, I said, I'd written my own version of "Snow Bound" during an Iowa blizzard when I was in the sixth grade, I'd written a poem in high school about the loneliness and longing I felt, called "End of th World." Fortunately both of those poems have been lost.

We had cookies and coffee afterwards, then made the drive home in a slow, steady rain that will be good for the farmers' fields.


FEBRAURY 3, 2003

I arrived at the weekly Evergreen Outreach get-together at the big meeting room in Vandalia's United Methodist Church just before the wave crested, which is to say I was there fifteen minutes early, about 12:45 p.m. I had time to meet Phyllis Rames and a few other people, then took a seat among the crowd of a hundred. The afternoon program opened with a rendition of the Outreach song, new words put to a familiar tune; followed by another song, again new words to a familiar tune. Evergreen Outreach is twenty-three years old, it brings together old folks from assisted living facilities, nursing homes, and the hospital's long term facilities, along with a group of Vandalia's handicapped.

"Inclusion," Phyllis Rames would say, is the theme of her life; and those who come to Evergreen Outreach seem to appreciate being included.

Phyllis is an original brick in the Evergreen edifice. She has a Master's degree in English and has taught part-time at St. Elmo High School, Greenville College, and Graham Correctional Center in Hillsboro, Illinois, but never let her job get in the way of her Monday appointment at Evergreen Outreach. Her first business has always been family, she said, then Evergreen Outreach, then teaching English part-time.

Phyllis's husband was a family practitioner in Vandalia from the 1950s until he retired just this past December. He was a practicing family doctor in a world headed more and more towards managed care medical clinics and medical specialization. I arranged an interview for Wednesday with Phyllis and her husband when we'll talk about Evergreen Outreach and the career of a family doctor in a small town in rural America.

I also set up interviews with some of the people I met. One is tomorrow with Mary Peyton Meyer, 93, at the Hospital's Long Term Care facility. She said she would have to miss her exercises to talk with me. She is from St. Peter originally, she has lived in the country all her life.

Delbert Cothern played a couple of songs on harmonica for the Evergreen group. A lot of people have told me to talk to Delbert. He has been paralyzed since he was a young man. On a dare he had dived into the river without putting his arms out in front of him on the dive, and his collision with the river bottom paralyzed his legs for life. He sat in a wheel chair dressed in blue overalls, the microphone in front of him, he said "I'm gonna play an old fiddle tune here called 'Silver Bells,'" and his harmonica took off like an accordion, as lively as a fiddle would be. Then he said: "Now here's a waltz," and it's 1-2-3, 1-2-3. Where did he learn his songs? Was he interested in music before he was paralyzed, or did that come later? What has sustained him over the years? When I asked Delbert if I could interview him tomorrow, there was a playful dance of light in his eyes as if to say, "Silly boy," but he said yes.

I set interviews with Pauline ("I'm the last of the Sampson family") Hicks and Beulah ("Every hour is spoken for") Brown, a very busy volunteer. I took down the names and phone numbers of a few other people I'll want to talk to - Beverly Hood, who sang "Let There Be Peace on Earth" to a room that could not be silent; people had to share the sense of community by talking or they had to sing along, they could not contain themselves.

I'll want to talk to Floyd Meseke. He had been a farmer in the area. When he'd heard a radio program about the Evergreen Outreach program, Phyllis told me, he had called her and said: "When I retire, that's what I'm going to do. I'm going to volunteer on transportation at Evergreen Outreach." And so he has.

And Joan Kelly, from London, with quite a British accent still. She has lived in London, she lived three years in Los Angeles, she came to Vandalia, and "I would never leave Vandalia."

Inge Compton, one of the piano players for the program, came here from Austria and stayed even when she divorced.

I was sitting next to Mary Peyton Meyer at the program, and when they came around handing out bells for the songs with bell-orchestra accompaniment, she made sure I got one of them. She didn't want to play it herself, she was sure I'd understand the instructions and would do just fine. There was really no arguing with her, she'd made up her mind. Phyllis Rames was up on stage, and when she held up a card that had the same color on it as my bell, that's when I was to ring the bell. The first song she had selected for the bell orchestra today was "Let There Be Peace on Earth," which Beverly Hood had sung earlier. "Bev and I must be thinking of the same thing - peace in the world," Phyllis said. She started the tape recorder, she held up the cards in time to the music, the bells rang out "Let There Be Peace on Earth." Then we did "Amazing Grace." By the third song I was having such a good time with the bell I don't remember the name of the song. My bell was red; whenever I rang it, a "C" note pealed out, joining the notes of two or three other bells to form a chord.

When it was my turn to speak to the folks gathered for Evergreen Outreach, I told them I couldn't help recognizing the sense of community in the room. The lively conversation. Singing, ringing of bells. Applause for those with birthdays, for the winners from the Olympic Corner of the room. Paintings proudly displayed on the stage. Everyone was welcome, they all seemed to feel included.

I told them about my Vagabond project, that I was already setting up interviews with people in the room. There was a glow in the crowd, pride that the people of Vandalia were being included. When I finished, a few people took the microphone on the pretext of asking a question. One of them led us through a version of "God Bless America," ragged but right. Others offered suggestions of people in Vandalia I should interview.

Even when the program was over, even as those in wheel chairs were being lifted hydraulically up into the Operation OUTING bus, I had a hard time leaving. Phyllis and I were talking, Phyllis was pointing out some of the volunteers without whom the Evergreen Outreach program could not operate.

Finally I walked out into a rainy mid-afternoon.


APRIL 16, 1998

Rain did come yesterday. I walked in it to go to lunch at noon, walked in it again at quitting time. Water in the ditches on the way home was running fiercely as a result. The world goes on re-making itself, whatever we think or do. It is still grey and wet this morning, and somewhat chilly, too.

I often say what we get is a reflection of what we give. We create our reality to some extent. We are about as happy as we choose to be. Shall I curse these wet streets or praise Allah for the moisture. Knee-jerk response is not enough but often it is all we muster.

Not fifty miles north of here, they got three to five inches of snow; that will slow their lawns some.

One of our daffodils is entirely beaten to the ground. The forsythia is half nekked - her yellow dress gathered in a heap 'round her feet.

A red-wing blackbird sitting on a fence. Now that sounds like the start of a child's rhyme. What rhymes with fence?

Hence, thence, whence. Dense, pence, tense.

Tents, cents, dents. Gents, rents, vents.

Is it true the search for clarity is a search for truth?

The bare fields look slick and greasy this morning. The windshield wipers, all the way to Ripon. The wind, all the way to Ripon. At Five Corners, the ditches run heavy with water. The world falls all over itself trying to keep up with itself.

This life is too good a show to want to leave it behind. See the girl with the puzzled look. Give me another day like this.


APRIL 17, 1998
Blue sky. A bright day. O spring. Hope is eternal. We march forward, another day. On a day like this, one cannot despair.

The river through Fairwater still runs high.

What we call prairies - Round Prairie just north and east of Fairwater, Mackford Prairie south and west. Why do we call them that? I assume our fathers saw these swells of land as flat and grassy plains like prairies.

Three geese against the blue of sky. They are heading north. Three sea gulls, heading east.

People died in storms across the south yesterday. Today, here, the sky looks so innocent. We know it can turn on us in a moment, though.

New and tiny leaves on the trees are now staining them their pale green. It is as if the sky behind the trees is tinted.

Water continues to run in the ditches at Five Corners. It is chilly enough that where the water is calm a skin of ice has formed.

Even so, on a day like this, one cannot despair.

Thursday, April 15, 2004


I have always loved to read my work in public. I like to feel the rolling thunder of it all the way from my core. Our daughters attended a lot of poetry readings in their time. The elder of them was only a little girl when she asked me: "Dad, why do they call it free verse when you tap your foot?" I don't call it free verse and I tap my foot to mark the rolling beat of it. It doesn't have meter and rhyme, but it's measured. Some of you, maybe, could even dance to it.

It's National Poetry Month here in the USA, and to celebrate it I have been invited to do an hour-long session at the Waupaca Public Library tonight. I'll open with a poem from as far back as 1971, "Lecturing My Daughter in Her First Fall Rain." And then I'll read from all my voices:

- The Civil War soldier, his Letters Home. George Cadman was my wife's great-great-grandfather: Man is very like a dog....

- The farmer, his Notebook & Manifesto. He perhaps is the farmer I would have become, had I wanted to work that hard: To be dying still is to be alive....

- The pioneer woman widowed on the tall grass prairie, her Married To Prairie. I don't know where she came from but some of the poems affect me to an extent that I still can't read them in public: Not even God could turn this sod....

- And, yes, there's Ben Zen, gentle Ben:

Trees are at least

As intelligent
As elephants,

Ben says, and they have
Longer memories.

- And, of course, there are the other poems, those in my "own" voice:

we will dream the day all night; making hay in our sleep,
we will not tire. we will breath clean wind. it will/
touch us, touch our blood,
can taste it
in our sleep/
against us as blood moves:
as the sun moves
& more slowly: as fire.


What a man is

what he has.


A simple stone,
grey, weathered, hard, as if
something has been settled.


Love what you must
because we come so

soon to energy again,
raw, naked, waiting

for the next big bang
as the next big bang

waits for us.

Come to think of it, perhaps it's good that I don't do a lot of poetry readings because when I do them, I have a hard time keeping it in the building. The thunder of the poems lifts me. I want that thunder to lift everyone.



"Sure," Mike Souther said, "I'll talk to you." He has a hard time saying "No" to anybody; that's why he won the Chamber of Commerce's "Mr. Volunteer" award in 2002; that's why he is sometimes known around DeKalb County, Missouri, as "Mr. Maysville;" that's why folks in the area think he is "involved in everything."

Sure, Mike was willing to talk to me, but he was an insurance agent then, and he collected taxes for the town, and his office had a revolving door. "You're harder to catch than the mumps," I heard someone say to him.

Since I interviewed him, Mike has handed the insurance business over to another agent and he now works as Maysville's City Planner.

"Just as soon as I deal with this rental property, we can talk," Mike said as I waited for him. He went off to see about cleaning up a property he rents out, I went to the Maysville Library. My wife was there at the library. She told me that news of our visit to Maysville was making it around town. One volunteer at the library had apparently told another one who told a patron. Soon everyone in town will know I'm coming before I ever get there, I thought. That's the blessing and the curse of small towns: everyone knows your business.

Soon I was back at Mike Souther's office and Mike got back. We went behind closed doors. "I'm with a customer and can't be disturbed," he told the woman who would be answering the phone.

We talked. Mike is young, six or seven years out of Maysville High School, a few years out of college. He can talk. "Some people think I'm opinionated," he said. "Yeah, I've got opinions. If you listen to mine, I'll listen to yours." He's wiry, he wears a goatee and a flat-top, he's got a ready smile and a quick wink and, yeah, I suppose he has opinions.

Seven years earlier someone had asked Mike to help with the Country Harvest Festival in Maysville. He has been chairman ever since. "One thing I've found," he said, "you just ask someone for help, they'll help you. It takes a lot of hard work by a lot of good people to make the Country Harvest Festival a success."

One of the contentious issues in DeKalb County then was 4-H and Missouri's Extension Service which sponsored it. "I don't know enough about it to have an opinion," Mike said mildly. "I do know the world has changed since the days when 4-H was first established."

Mike ends up in charge of things. I wondered why.

"When my dad got sick," Mike said, "I asked my parents if they had a will. My mother cried, my dad asked 'Why do you always do that?' but they made a will. I have an older brother and sister and a younger brother but they put my name first in the will. "That's so they'll know you're in charge handling things," his parents told Mike. "I realized right then that I am kind of bossy. I guess I like to be in charge. It started a long time ago. I was class president from seventh grade through my junior year of high school. My senior year I was student body president."

"I chose to return to Maysville after college," Mike said. "I choose to live here. I like to live in a place where you know everyone. I live in a house only a few hundred feet from where I was raised. I know the genealogy of everyone in town, who's related to whom, why stuff happens as it does. A couple that had graduated from Maysville left and came back for a visit. 'Mike Souther, are you still here?' they said. I nearly went through their windshield to get at them. 'I'm here because I choose to be here,' I told them. 'Okay, okay,' they said. 'We didn't mean anything by it...' 'Just so we're on the same page...' I said, and after that we had a pleasant conversation."

"I've thought about it," Mike said. "I don't really know why I feel so strongly that I have to live here, but I do. I'm here. I'm doing what I can to help make Maysville a better place for us to live."

And Mike made me an offer: "As you go along, if you think somebody in Maysville is feeding you a line, you come back and talk to me."


APRIL 15, 1998

OK, so I do need a weatherman to tell me which way the wind blows!

The dark front I saw to the west yesterday missed us. It was blue sky that blew in, it was a beautiful spring day we got, all the way to evening. This morning, by contrast, looks grey and moist.

A calm morning, as if the gods partied late last night and they are still sleeping fitfully. They will not disturb us, perhaps, if we do not disturb them. Ah, but rain is predicted, my wife has said. Perhaps if we don't disturb them, they will leave us the hell alone.

Forsythia blossoms have been falling on our lawn. They make a yellowed lace in the grass.

No wild geese in the farmyard today. The air looks misty with distance.

The knobs in some of the fields - high points that are not cultivated - are green with grasses now. The bride gets dressed at her own pace. She is lovely. She will be lovelier still.

Water runs in the ditches yet; the ditches are like creeks.

A blast of flowers brightens the corner of Barlow Park as I come into Ripon.

Sometimes we are touched by angels. Who rides shot-gun with me?

Wednesday, April 14, 2004


Trey at Only Connect recently wrote about the experience of learning to scuba dive.

I learned to swim at age 53 so that I could learn to scuba dive. As Trey notes, to be certified for diving you have to swim two hundred yards and tread water for ten minutes. Admittedly there is a bit of terror and trembling involved in learning to scuba dive. The moments of incredible beauty come later.

Here are excerpts about my own experiences learning to dive, from my essay "Poet In the Water" in Kissing Poetry's Sister, reprinted for Trey's amusement.

Trey, it's all worth it!

There must be other poets who scuba dive and I just don't know them. Scuba diving and poetry seem to belong to one another. There is nothing so regular in poetry as breath, and nothing so regular in diving.

For sheer terror for the Iowa-farm-boy-poet-at-age-53 there is nothing like putting his face into the water and taking that first deep breath; breathing in water is not natural! I struggled to do it. I was having a good stout argument with myself: my head was saying "Go ahead, go ahead" while my heart cried "No, no, no!" My instructor watched me wrestling with myself; he said to the other students: "Look at Tom, he's doing a Zen thing." I was. By sheer force of will I was going to take my first breath underwater.

Growing up I was not well acquainted with water, let's put it that way. My grandparents had a creek running through their farm, one not deep enough to drown in. Our own farm didn't have much water, not creek, nor pond, not even any big puddles. Rush Lake was four miles from us, you wouldn't swim in it. The summer I was supposed to learn to swim - in fact I took lessons at the swimming pool in Laurens, Iowa - it snowed; well, maybe it didn't actually snow but it was cold enough to snow and I'll tell you a farm boy who turns blue with cold is not going to learn anything. I didn't even learn how to float.

We did get to see water at the midpoint between summer solstice and the fall equinox - August 15 was a Catholic Holy Day of Obligation, Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin into Heaven. We went to our landlord's cottage on Lake Okoboji on the Feast of the Assumption for many years. The landlord's family was Catholic, and so were we. I didn't swim in Lake Okoboji, I put worms on a hook and drowned them. I was a little older when I tried diving head first into some Iowa pond in a little park at a family picnic. I scratched my nose on the gravel bottom and when I surfaced someone told me Marilyn Monroe had killed herself.

These are not the kinds of experience that make you want to spend much time in the water.

So how did I come to scuba diving? Well, my wife, Mary, had cheerfully put up with me as I covered a thousand miles of gravel road in southwestern Saskatchewan a year and a half ago - I called that a vacation; she just smiled. She smiled and said: "No, go on, drive to your heart's content, we can buy more tires if we need to." We needed to; we bought a pair of Canadian tires to replace ours when the steel belts started showing through. I drove on; and I said: "You've earned a trip to some warm tropical island."

This past fall Mary called in the chit. Our sister-in-law Karen had died of cancer in September. Karen's husband and their daughter, Mary's brother and our niece, Philip and Kirstina, were going to Cozumel after Christmas, scuba diving, part of a reef ecology class that Philip has been involved with for several years. Philip and Kirstina would continue living in joy at the memory of Karen's life, rather than wallowing in the loss of her. We could too.

Karen never wallowed in the unfairness of it all.

Mary took firm grip of the front of my shirt and pulled me up close to her and she said: "We are going to Cozumel with Philip and Kirstina, we are going to scuba dive, and you're not going to screw this up." I got the impression we were going to Cozumel, diving. She may deny this is how it happened, but that's the way I remember it.

If I'm going to scuba dive, I figured, I'll probably have to tread water at least, so I decided to spend three or four nights a week during November teaching myself to swim. Some evenings my wife joined me and offered support. I told her: "You know when a three-toed sloth comes down out of the tree and swims across the river? That's what it looks like when I swim." She gazed at me full steady and said: "Except the sloth is graceful." She'd been watching me.

I spent enough time in the water during November that I was no longer entirely panicked when I got wet. Then soon enough I could swim two hundred yards, three hundred, four hundred, and I could tread water indefinitely; sometimes, admittedly, it was hard to tell my treading water from my swimming. It turns out that to get Open Water Certification, you must be able to tread water ten minutes and swim two hundred yards (no time limit); you will be tested. When our class took the swimming test, I got done a full ten minutes after everyone else was out of the water. They had dried themselves off, packed up their equipment, and were heading out the door; I was still swimming my two hundred yards. But I passed. It wasn't pretty but I passed. Our scuba instructor thought the farm boy who'd taught himself to swim like a sloth did a pretty good job of it. Of course my wife is a fish so the swimming test was little more than a sneeze for her.

Perhaps I have not said enough about the immensity of this achievement, learning to swim. I am flushed with pride. The farm boy who had never gotten sun on his legs his whole long life has learned to swim! I had never been "terrified" of water, yet I was never comfortable with it either and was terribly deficient in experience. At the age of 53, I remedied that. I took hold of myself and made myself do it. I learned to swim, then I learned to scuba dive. I amazed friends and co-workers. A much younger and much fitter acquaintance who already snorkels said: "Oh, I could never do that, scuba diving is too scary."

I said: "If I can do it, anyone can."

Mary and I took our classroom and our confined water training in Wisconsin in December. We wanted to take our open water training in warm water, hence we would get certified when we got to Cozumel. Anything else would be crazy, wouldn't it? Although we had already practiced our skills in a swimming pool twelve feet deep, I had a moment of panic the first time I needed to demonstrate "a controlled emergency swimming ascent" with one breath from the depth of a full 33 feet. To be certified, you must do it, there's no choice. And you must be blowing out small bubbles the whole way up. (The first law of scuba diving is never hold your breath.) On my first attempt, within a couple feet of the air above me, I was sure I had run out of breath and I aborted the attempt; I sucked on my regulator. If this had been an actual emergency, as they used to say on the radio, I suppose I would have exploded out of the water. I succeeded on my second try....

Scuba diving may be as close as humankind will come to the sensation of bird flight, to the climb and roll and pitch of it, the tilt and swoop and sweep, the stoke and dive and hoot of it. We are mostly water; underwater the wetness seems an extension of us. Or are we an extension of the water? Is it the dancer or the dance? Why oh why did we ever come out of the sea? Why did we ever choose to become clumsy land beasts when water is our essence and feels so much like home?

And the colors underwater! The psychedelic aura of everything. The shine and color and shake. Well below the surface, a large fish swims past, close to me, very close, it looks as if it has been drawn and colored by a small child, it looks like a cartoon of a fish come to life. I laugh, and laughing I nearly lose the regulator from my mouth.

We are at Palancar Reef, the outer wall at the edge of open ocean. We are swimming at 55 feet amongst the coral heads there, then the wall of the reef falls away and we fall into a blue ocean, into an infinite midnight blueness of outer space receding forever, there are little blue fishes winking on and off like stars twinkling, the Yucatan channel is 2600 feet deep, it is a great blue abyss and looking into it takes my breath away. I am not seeing God, but it's like seeing God. Looking into the abyss, I have to remind myself to breathe. We cannot speak the name of God and now I know why. I have to remind myself again - breathe! I have never been so alive.


APRIL 20, 2001

It's a grey, wet morning.
This pale light has been
used already at some dim
street corner in a small
town along Maine's coast;
beneath the yard light
of any farm in upstate
New York; or a steel mill
in Indiana,
the fire in it. It is
light as seen through water
the way a fish's eye sees.
A used-up brightness
but good enough for us,
we're middle western,
we don't have to have
the best of things.


APRIL 14, 1998

It rained yesterday. This morning, broken clouds and blue sky above. A dark front seems to be moving in from the west. There is a pattern to all this - to the weather, to the roll of our days, to the turn of the season - though sometimes I do not discern it. It seems, sometimes, simply a roiling, grey mass around me. I know that's not true, but often I'm not able to find the end of the string and tug out what is special. It would be even worse, I suppose, in a climate less given to extremes, less blessed with the color of its changes. The tropical fellows would likely say "No problem, mon!" but I wonder. Lethargy is the fruit of sameness. When we come through a tough blizzard, at least we can feel blessed that we have survived.

Smug midwesterner, no?

"Yeah, mon."

Very Canadian clouds this morning. Daffodils bent low by yesterday's rain. A wind. The call of a goose overhead.

Still a high, hurried river coming through Fairwater. Still wild geese in the farm yard. Still fierce water in the ditches.

The farmers have been making progress in the fields - corn stalks are being disked into the soil.

When did they disappear, those piles of snow that had been heaped up in the park in Ripon? I do not know. You think you've been paying close attention and all of a sudden you recognize how much you miss.

"Yeah, mon."

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

JANUARY 18, 2003

It was a cold January afternoon in Rugby, North Dakota. At the Cornerstone Cafe, I ordered an open-faced roast beef sandwich with mashed potatoes and gravy and dressing. That's "comfort food" and a fellow needs some comfort when the weather forecasters are promising temperatures of 20 below zero, winds approaching 50 m.p.h., and a little snow mixed in just to make everybody nervous.

As I ate, I could see the wind shaking the traffic signs, I could see snow blowing and drifting across the highways, I could see the light disappearing from the western sky and a grey pall of darkness approaching like sadness.

What do you come to Rugby in January for? For this, a Great Plains blizzard. The wind slapped me hard as I walked out to the car after my meal, it slapped me like it meant business. Yet all that wind turned out to be a lot of empty bluster that wouldn't amount to much.

On my way back to my room at the Oakwood Inn I stopped at the office and was talking with Therese Rocheleau, who runs the place, and Teddy, the maintenance man, when Big Jim's truck rolled into the parking lot. Big Jim Rocheleau was just back from his run to Nebraska and Iowa hauling rocks. "In Nebraska, they've got to get their rocks from Montana," he would tell me. "Nebraska rocks aren't good enough. In Montana, they haul their rocks from Nebraska. That's job security for me."

You might talk to Jim Rocheleau only five minutes before you recognize you'll need a bull-dozer if you're going to keep yourself dug out from under his stories. He hadn't even kissed his wife hello yet and already he'd told three jokes. He did kiss his wife, we did get introduced, I got invited to a surprise party Jim's mother would be throwing on Sunday for Jim's uncle's 81st birthday. "It'll be lunch and supper," Jim predicted, "there'll be plenty of food. On the farm my mom cooked for four big hungry farm boys and all the hired help and she hasn't learned to make small recipes yet."

Characteristics of middle westerners? I didn't ask, but Jim offered this: "My mother is so tight she can squeeze a nickel and end up with a dime."

Jim and Teddy started talking about the work they'd done tearing out a piece of concrete in the Rocheleau's house across the street from the motel, a place where Jim bumped his head when going to the basement. "The fellow who had the house before us started tearing it out," Jim said, "but he stopped when he ran into the concrete re-inforcement." Jim and Teddy wanted me to see that it was a great adventure getting that concrete out of there; Therese wanted me to know how much grey dust settled onto everything on the first and second floors of the house while Jim and Teddy were banging on the concrete. I think she wanted me to know how much dust they stirred up and wanted to make Big Jim feel guilty about it, but I don't think he did.

Jim and I talked about making hay and about hauling hay. In Iowa when I was growing up, we put up high quality alfalfa for our cattle. Here in North Dakota, they harvest grass out of the sloughs and feed that all winter. One slough that Jim and his father and brothers harvested was fifteen miles from the home farm. Another - harvested only once, during a drought - was thirty miles away. "When we were working in the fields," Jim recalled, "my mother would bring meals out to us, otherwise we'd waste half an hour driving back and forth."

Jim told me about the custom-built truck his father bought to haul the loads of hay home. "The fellow who built it spent $200 on telephone calls just to get all the transmission and gear ratios exactly right," Jim said. You could engage the PTO to start the chain that pulled the load of hay onto the tilted flat-bed and at the same time put the truck in reverse: the truck would back under the load of hay at the same speed the hay was being pulled onto the truck. The Rocheleaus could haul a lot more hay with this truck than their neighbors could with their rigs for tractors, so they hauled hay for the neighbors, too. "The driver's seat in that rig was sweet," Jim remembered. "The passenger seat was just a foam pad and the front end suspension was real tight like it was in trucks back in those days. When we hauled hay for the neighbors, they'd want to ride along. There I'd be driving along just as nice as you please and in the passenger seat the fellow would be bouncing up and down, up and down. It got so they'd just ride out and show us where their hay was and when we got the first load home they'd jump out of the truck and let us haul the rest of the hay on our own. They'd had all the bouncing around they could stand."

"I really loved that truck," Jim said. "I really hated it when it caught fire and burned up on us."



(501 W. Third #12, Smith Center, KS 66967)

"The Lambert-Conaway potato wars continue," Ivan Burgess reports. "Last Friday morning at Paul's Cafe Gene Conaway said to Joe Lambert, 'Got your potatoes planted yet?' He asked the question knowing full well the answer would be no. Joe said, 'I got a few planted.' Conaway was visibly shook at this revoltin' development. But he recovered quickly. He said, 'I don't like to plant mine too early because they stool out.' Whatever that means."

"We had fog on March 26," Ivan says. "That means somewhere around the Fourth of July we will have a rain. And that rain will come during harvest."

"I was sittin' tween Judy Hall and Mary Jean Heater last Thursday morning when it thundered," Ivan writes. "They both looked at me like it was me. I think they are both too young to know about thunderstorms."

"Every spring I am always reminded of John Bonecutter's old saying," says Ivan. "John used to say that Mother Nature could fool anything but buffalo grass and osage orange trees. John said that when buffalo grass turned green and the osage orange trees started to leaf out, spring was definitely here. John also said that the time to plant corn was when the osage orange leaves were the size of squirrel ears. Of course that was back in the old open-pollinated corn days."


APRIL 13, 1998

Grey clouds this morning, like rolled oats. Yesterday was a holy day. Today is not. Well, perhaps we should ask the birds; they sing as if it is; they call and call. You could not run away from the sound of their calling even if you wanted to.

The daffodils are bright, bold strokes of yellow, opened to contrast with the greyness overhead. The forsythia is set against the redness of our house. Without such color, we'd be overwhelmed with sadness, wouldn't we?

There is a red cast to the silver maples in this light, their swollen buds. The world is full of adolescent urgency. Still the river runs high.

Yesterday at noon in full brightness the land looked more desolate than it does this morning in the diffused light of morning. Farmers have been working the high ground. Low areas are still wet. Water is still standing. Water is still running in the ditches. Has the water been running harder and longer this year than in the past? I do not know. I am tempted to say yes, but I have no facts to base that on.

On Watson Street in Ripon, spring clippings are piled at the curb for city pick-up. Even those of us who are not farmers must do something in this season.



"I am satisfied that I never saw any intelligence that indicated there was going to be an attack on America - at a time and a place, an attack." That's what the New York Times has reported that President W said. I'm not very political but... I think all anyone should need to do to win election is say: "If ever I should obtain information such as the August 6th PDB that Bush received, I pledge to the American people I will not to sit on my hands until after we are attacked - I will act."

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