Sunday, March 22, 2015

March wind wafts dry oak leaves


March wind wafts dry oak leaves --
curling around the green hair 
of fruiting moss

The woods along Pilgrim Creek are still 50 shades of brown, except for the path lined with mounds of emerald moss. It's the time of the vernal equinox and after the lethargy of winter the musky scent of sexual reproduction permeates the air. The velvet moss cushions are sprouting their reproductive parts, fruiting bodies on slender stems that look like a Punk hairdo. A dry oak leaf, which held on tenaciously through the long cold, lets go in the warm wind and wafts down to curl around a clump of moss sporocarps. 
          The blister galls on the oak leaf formed when an insect, perhaps a tiny wasp, laid its eggs on the leaf, which provides protection and food for the insects. So now the fallen leaf will decay and feed the moss. What does the oak tree get out of all this? Moss retains a lot of moisture and the dense clumps also protect the ground from erosion. The clumps are probably too dense for acorns to sprout, unless a bird has pecked at the moss to get at the insects that shelter underneath. But smaller seeds will germinate in the moss and mice will eat the spores.
          I'm wearing green jeans (remember Mr. Green Jeans?) as I kneel to examine the fruiting moss. When I get up, the knees of my jeans are wet and muddy, with bits of moss clinging to the cotton. So I become a disperser of spores, carrying moss fruit back home where it will happily take root in the shade of our trees.

harbingers of spring


harbingers of spring --
snowdrops flutter in the wind
like white hummingbirds

Next to the ring of granite stones near our house, a fallen oak leaf curves back under a clump of snowdrops. The blossoms look like hummingbirds with white wings, green heads and tails. Linnaeus called these bulbous plants Galanthus nivalis. Gala comes from the Greek word for milk, anthos means flower and nivalis means snowy. The pendulous buds, which look like drops of milk, appear at the end of winter, sometimes poking up through snow cover.
          Why bloom so early? As soon as it warms up enough, bees begin foraging for nectar, so these early bloomers get the first pollinators. Then the plant produces seeds with a fleshy attachment called elaiosome (√©laion means oil in Greek and soma means body), which contains fats and proteins. Foraging ants take the seeds to their nest to feed the elaiosomes to their larvae. Then they take the seeds to their waste disposal area, where they germinate. Thus the seeds get dispersed through a mutual symbiotic process called myrmecochory (from Greek myrmex, ant, and kore, dispersal).
          For humans, the entire plant is poisonous if eaten in large quantities, but it has medicinal uses. The common snowdrop contains an alkaloid, galanthamine, which is used to treat Alzheimer's disease and traumatic injuries to the nervous system. So here again the plant gets dispersed through cultivation by humans, which might be called "homocochory."

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

green lagoons submerged


green lagoons submerged 
in the deep open ocean --
live on in the clouds

Climatologist Simon Donner has spent 10 years studying the impact of climate change on coral reefs and human adaptation in the Pacific Islands. In "Fantasy Island" (Scientific American, March 2015), Donner reviews how islands in an atoll grow and crumble over time, some rising, some falling in a few centuries. Ocean currents can build one island with sediment while eroding another, and human activities such as constructing a pier or causeway can alter the balance. Accelerating climate change leading to sea rise adds to the complexity of the situation, threatening to submerge island nations such as Kiribati. But rather than short-term international aid for a quick fix, Donner calls for consistent aid for careful, customized adaptation plans. 
          In his poetic conclusion, Donner reflects on the future of these atolls. "As you travel out to sea in Kiribati, the flat islands quickly disappear below the horizon. In the old times, fishers navigated home by looking for the reflection of the shallow, greenish lagoon waters in the clouds. One day in the distant future, many of the islands of Kiribati could succumb to the sea. The people may leave, the trees may die and the land may become a submerged reef. The lagoons, still shallow in contrast to the deep open ocean, would remain green as before. To outsiders, Kiribati would be gone. To the Kiribati people, the ghost of their former homeland would live on in the clouds."
          I wonder, when I am gone, submerged in the deep black earth, will the spirit of my former self live on in the clouds?

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

ancient portal tomb


ancient portal tomb
carpeted with Irish moss long
before St. Patrick

Today many people celebrate St. Patrick's day, whether or not they have a drop of Irish blood, by wearing green the color of shamrocks and moss. Do they know that March 17 was not his birthday but his death day? Or that he was the son of Romans living in Scotland? Or that he was captured and lived as a shepherd slave in Ireland for six years before he escaped back home? Perhaps they know about his call from God to return to Erin to convert the pagans druids to Christianity. 
          Thousands of years before the death of St. Patrick or the birth of Jesus, neolithic peoples built huge stone burial sites on the island. At the entrance to the passage leading into the house of the dead, these New Stone Age farmers erected a megalithic portal. The huge stone entry, much taller than a man, consisted of two thick pillars supporting a massive capstone. Few of these portal tombs still exist intact, but wherever they stand, they are sure to be carpeted with moss.
          Irish moss (Sagina subulata) has a different color, texture and smell than any other moss. Cushiony, velvety, earthy, this tiny evergreen ground cover proliferates in the moist island climate. A lowly plant, it flourishes in the narrow space between a rock and a hard place; it survives being trod upon. Irish moss will surely keep regenerating long after the rigid structures of humans have crumbled. 

red onion rising


red onion rising --
layers of sweet skin curving
back over twined sprouts

Making the first cut into the red globe, the white ceramic blade slices swiftly through the firm flesh, unzipping curved layers of onion. I stand far enough away that the sweet, pungent fragrance floats up, filling the space between the onion and my nostrils, but does not cause tears. The hemispheres fall apart, revealing not one but two sprouts, conjoined twins held in a red striped womb. The blonde twins -- one fat, one thin -- have been severed, not apart but along their spines. One half of the quadruplets I hold in my left hand. The other half lies on a blue plate, rising in the center of a new cosmos.
          If I were a skilled surgeon, perhaps I could have made the precise cut to separate the sprouts intact. But to what end? The onion is destined for the stew pot. Still, I have to turn the twins face down before I begin chopping the red onion into small cubes. The smell of onion lingers on my fingers long after I wash my hands.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

gazing through a portal



gazing through a portal
into a world where outside
merges with inside

The play of squares and circles begins at the Prairie Canary, in the old downtown area of Grinnell, Iowa. A cup of hot water comes in a marble-white sculpture with two yellow crescents on the side. My lips feel funny as my upper lip overlaps the cup's inner curve while my lower lip spreads out along the thick, square outer edge. A half-moon omelet stuffed with diced red and green bell peppers arrives on a square plate with potato cubes, a biscuit pillar, a square of butter wrapped in gold foil, and a tiny bowl of apricot jam. 
          And now also begins the play of illusion. My taste buds get a surprise when I dip a potato in the red-orange jam, mistaken for catsup by my eyes.



We are here to walk through a time portal back to 1948. The location of the time portal is the Falconer Gallery at Grinnell College and the transportation mechanism is a photography exhibition entitled Gordon Parks: the Making of an Argument. The exhibition documents the production of "Harlem Gang Leader," a photo-essay by Gordon Parks in LIFE magazine. 
          First we follow the process of how Parks gained the trust of a 17-year-old gang leader, Leonard "Red" Jackson, following him for a month as Parks documented Jackson and his gang, the Midtowners. Next we see how the editors of LIFE magazine turned Parks' negatives into the story they wanted to sell. And then the argument that developed between Parks and the editors.
          As the first African-American photographer on a major American magazine, Parks hoped to bring attention to the conditions that fostered gang warfare in order to encourage social service agencies and government intervention. But he felt that the final essay, which focused completely on the violence, fell far short of his goal. 
          When LIFE editors showed Parks the final mock-up, the cover had a photo of the gang leader holding a smoking gun. Parks objected, saying it would destroy the trust he had built and would result in Jackon's incarceration. The editors persisted, compelling Parks to destroy the negative. Because of this act of disobedience, the editors metaphorically pushed Parks to the back of the bus, placing the photo-essay in the bowels of the magazine and surrounding it with inane 1940s advertisements.
          In the exhibition each final photograph is paired with contact prints that show the red cropping squares made in the editorial process, focusing on the fighting and bloodshed. None of Parks' photographs of quieter moments in the lives of the gang members, such as Red washing dishes or sweeping the floor at home, were included in the article.



I blink as I exit the dimly lit realm of 1948 into the brightly lit lobby. Without realizing, I'm about to reenter that other portal, the portal of illusion. On a far wall I notice what appears to be a large, colorful mural of a man's face. From a distance it looks like it's made of square tiles arranged in a circular pattern. But as I move closer, the image looks like a Pointilist painting, with rounded squares of paint instead of circular dots.



The closer I get, the less it looks like a face, until it just becomes blotches of color. When I arrive at touching distance, my mind makes the final flip. Aha! It's actually a silk tapestry, soft and shimmering, inviting touch. Every square inch could be an abstract work of art. The label says "Lucas/Rug" by Chuck Close. Imagine getting really close and rolling around naked on this silken rug.




Across from the gallery, calligraphic squiggles appear to be suspended in the air. Close up, I see that both sides of the windows are covered with sinuous strips of silver tape, inviting the viewer to view the world through art.

Where the hallway turns a corner, more squiggles. Squiggles on top of squiggles overlap more layers of squiggles. It's a squiggly wiggly world.

Moving outside, is that a petrified sponge? No, it's a holey curvaceous sculpture.



The rectangular windows of a large modern building built in an L-shape provide a view of circular lights inside as well as reflections of the boxy wing across the courtyard. Space inside and space outside co-mingling.



White spherical lamps float like bubbles above stacks of square black chairs while the transparent square window reflects a gigantic round window, which in turn reflects trees. What is real and what is reflection?



What is inside and what is outside? On which side of the porthole are the squares and circles?



Another mind-boggler: squaring the circle.


Are those square leaves floating in a puddle of melting snow around the blue poles of a jungle gym? Or the reflection of square windows on a brick wall?



The sun casts long black shadows on gray slate blocks. Like the people in Plato's cave allegory, you have to turn around to see the tall sycamore tree hung with last year's seed balls, and beyond that, the impossible-to-look-at-directly Sun.



Gun-metal lichens with copper fruiting bodies trailing down a grey window turn out to be corrosive etching and rust spots.



Another mind bender: beauty blossoming through entropy.

Monday, March 9, 2015

spring snow melt at last


spring snow melt at last --
an oak leaf finally falls
in a mud puddle

Overnight the scenery shifts, like a woman changing her wardrobe. White with black trim is out, brown with a touch of green is in.



Dark circles on the ice record the hooves of deer mincing across the frozen pond.



In the transition phase, the burnt umber hue of a pin oak leaf is just dark enough to partially melt the pond ice.


Left by the snow plow, an ice pyramid with a circular portal invites time travel as winter merges with spring.