Sunday, August 30, 2009

In June, Bill and I visited Cahokia (Illinois) to experience the work of the Mound Builders. A few weeks ago we visited Spiro (Oklahoma) to experience more mounds. The Spiro archaeologist explained that to the Mississippian Culture, Cahokia was the equivalent of New York City, while Spiro was its Washington DC. My photo below shows the reconstruction of a wattle and daub house built during the culture's heyday.

I just now came across a piece I wrote more than thirty years ago after getting fed up with archaeological jargon. What's weird is that there's something eerie about my made-up tale that resonates today.

A Classic Tale (1977)

Only the artifacts have been changed.

Once upon a time as I was walking in the gallery forests, having been temporarily overpowered by subsistence stress, I encountered a Megafauna.

“Holocene!” I yelled, in an attempt to force a rapid migration.

I reached for my shell-tempered, lip-notched, rim-corded chert-shard, when the temperature suddenly began oscillating and we were all but phased out. I ran for the nearest rockshelter and waited until the climatic optimum had blown over.

Cautiously emerging, I found myself in an over-all warming trend with an extinct Megafauna. I had lost my time period. Was this still the Late Early Tradition?

I trekked over undulating grasslands, through encroaching savannah vegetation, up the interriverine floodplains, past complex mortuary sites, toward densely populated habitations in search of my origins. Just then pluvial conditions altered the environmental factors and I awakened in my own horizon in the mound I call home.

Needless to say, I was eustatic.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

East Fork West Fork
of the North Branch of the Chicago River

My daughter and I stole down
the woodsy slope of the East Fork,
sliding from elm to oak to buckthorn
until we knelt on the mucky bank
covered with night prints
of deer and raccoon.
Giggling conspirators,
we plucked slimy fishbowl snails
from a hidden cache and cast them
forth into the brown waters.
Rejoicing in freed gastropods,
as well as freedom from gastropods,
we never once considered

the river.

I always imagined the East Fork
deep with giant turtles dwelling
in bottom ooze, eyes blinking once
every decade or so, but one afternoon
a white-tailed deer bounded
out from Harms Woods and skipped
across the river, hooves barely splashing
the water like wing├ęd feet.
My daughter declared the river low.
I caught my breath and told her
those turtles must be a lot bigger

than I ever dreamed.

During winter, in the days
when winters were really cold,
I used to ice skate on the West Fork.
Boys in black leather jackets
and flattops played ice hockey
upstream behind a grove of elm trees
while Sue and I perfected figure
eights, sharp blades feathering ice.
The boys hollered in the frosty air
and slapped the ice with their sticks.
Now and then one of their pucks slid
into view. Our pulses raced
at the thought of hiding them.

Below a bridge over the West Fork
sat a turtle the size of a large stew pot.
He was tearing flesh from a carcass,
his bear claws gripping what had once
been squirrel, skunk, possum,
rabbit, or an unwary raccoon
groping in the shallows.
Massive jaws snapped open and shut,
his broad neck bulging with every bite.
Sue and I watched from the bridge
where long ago, in moonlight,
we had kissed the boys goodnight.
Water riffled about predator and prey,
a minor disturbance on the surface
of a river I thought I knew.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

#117 Has Her Calf

In the western grasslands of Larimer County
southeast of Bobcat Mountain, #117 struggles
upright under darkness of a rainy spring night.
Eleven hundred pounds of her black angus body
all but disappear into an invisible presence licking
blood-streaked mucus from her newborn calf.
The wind worries her with rumor of coyote.
She twirls a long tongue over her nostrils
and steps around her calf like a ballet dancer.
He must learn to stand soon and suck on her teat
to release the afterbirth hanging as an iridescent
cord of slime down from her rump.
Only then will she rest.

The bull calf inhales a sharp wind and shivers
from the first drops of cold rain on his fresh skin.
He recoils from the hard, unforgiving ground.
He buckles and wobbles, flails his limbs
like an unstrung, tangled marionette,
and collapses into a womb curl, submitting
to the long tongue that tickles his hide,
to the being that nuzzles his flanks
and shoves him over and over in the grass.
He stares up into fierce, snorting nostrils,
the spring rain misting into his own.
He’s supposed to do something soon, but what?

Concealed in the darkness, a lone coyote
lies in a shallow depression of locoweed and sandstone.
His keen senses have detected the birth, and though
his belly is filled with prairie dog, he can’t resist
waiting to see what might happen. He’s no match
for the angus cow, but her calf is another story.
No calf has ever been born that can match his sprint,
his spring, his jaws. He is, after all, Coyote!
He grows weary of waiting, yelps to let them know
he knows, and trots off toward Slab Canyon Wash,
melding into the rainy spring night.

After a day spent arguing with barbed wire,
cleaning out the horse barn, overhauling his tractor,
and digging out irrigation ditches while snowmelt runs
down through the Cache La Poudre Watershed,
the cowboy sits deep in his armchair, scuffed-up boots
on the coffee table, a pair of glasses sliding down his nose.
He hears the coyote yelp and springs for his battered
1947 International with the rusted-out doors.
He finds #117 in his headlights and climbs out
to inspect her calf. A good omen, this sturdy new calf,
this slow-soaking rain. Maybe there will be enough hay
to keep them both through the winter. Maybe now
with a calf to consider, #117 will quit jumping
over the barbed-wire fence. Maybe.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Desert Sestina

When I set off into the wilderness, I had plenty
of cookies for three days of hiking through orange
globemallow and prickly pear cactus, but a problem
arose on the very first day that caused me to stumble
and tumble backwards and down into a rocky draw
where I lost my cookies at the height of the season.

In a land of illusive rain, spring is the best season
and reason to explore the desert with its plentitude
of neon clean blossoms and secretive creatures drawn
from shadowy habits into the bright light orange
days for food and water, for the pure joy of stumbling
over each other for love, for forgetting problems.

But spring in the desert can’t last and the problem
is that foreign matter can from season to season
with dry winds and no rain. Creatures must stumble
upon my broken cookies and digest them or plenty
of chunks and crumbs will petrify in the torrid orange
scorch of summer down on the floor of that draw.

And future archaeologists would undoubtedly draw
conclusions about the odd debris, worry a problem
not knowing it was me who had fallen with an orange
backpack over the edge of reason, down that season
onto granite scree that broke my ankle while plenty
of bruises blossomed bright to prove who stumbled

on her first day in the desert. I felt like a stumble-
bum rookie, a tenderfoot, a dark-eyed fledgling drawn
from the nest before knowing how to fly. Oh, plenty
were the personal epithets I assigned, the problem
easily forgotten of crumbs scattered like seasoning
across the sand, raisin brown almond burnt orange.

When I set off into the wilderness in those orange
and black butterfly days as an artless spring stumbler
of rock, when for a very good reason in the season
of midlife I fell down, down in a rabbit hole draw,
I tasted the sharp crumbs of mortality and problems
small withered and flew but still I cursed a-plenty!

I had thought twenty was plenty but that was a problem
and very good reason in all desert seasons to stumble
and tumble down orange-varnished cliffs in a draw.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The War Against Clutter (Part 3 - A Candid Camera Moment)

In the early 1920's, Dad began a fifty-year love affair with home movies: 17.5mm, 9.5mm, 16mm, 8mm, and Super 8 which he helped develop in his film laboratory on Wacker Drive in Chicago. Scores of heavy steel film cans lined his projection room in our basement, all meticulously marked with indelible ink on fabric tape: Palace Posters and Mechanical Displays; Four Generations: Little Grandma, Mom, Ev, Alice; Around the World, Part One; Stephanie and Piano March 1947; and so forth.

After Dad died in 1973, the film cans in the basement sat untouched for nearly twenty years, but for spiders and dust motes. Then one day while Elliott was home visiting from Colorado, Mother asked him to set up a projector in the dining room so we could look at the old movies. Some films were odorous and brittle and plunked directly into a trash basket. Others, upon being viewed and deemed silly or otherwise unnoteworthy, rewound themselves directly into the trash. Mother no longer had a need to hold onto the films or the memories they evoked. The movies we didn't have the time and patience to look at that day went downstairs, back onto the projection room shelves.

Six years later after Mother died in 1998, the remaining film cans fell under my jurisdiction. The house was sold, I was moving out, everything had to find a new home.

Two dozen weighty cans moved with Bill and me into a condo in Glenview for three years, up to a condo in Wisconsin along the shore of Lake Michigan for a year, down to a house in Tulsa for the past seven years. Inside the Tulsa house, the cans have lived in the dark shadows of a high closet shelf until tornado season when they have been sequestered in hall drawers, so as not to clunk us on the head if we have to wait out a tornado in the closet. And every single time I move them I say, "This is absolutely the last time I'm moving these cans!"

A few days ago was absolutely the last time. I sat on the office floor carpet with the cans spread around me, their provocative titles like fish hooks in my heart. Should I spend the money to have these films transferred to DVD? How many times would I even want to look at them again? The prospect of spending so much money for what might be little return disturbed me. I picked up a 10.5 inch steel can marked 1927-1928 Pathex Pictures, Wedding, Grandpa, Willow Pattern, Mary Wedding, Love and Sand, Charleston, Adolph Weidig. I really wanted to see Love and Sand again, a silent movie Dad had created and photographed on the sandy beach of Illinois State Park with Mother in the role of femme fatale. I opened the can. Inside sat a reel big enough to hold 800 feet of film, but the reel was empty. Not one foot of film. I opened Second Trip to South America Aboard the Santa Maria and Paula. Another empty reel. And then I laughed out loud.

If you're going to keep it, move it around, fret over it, at least know what it is you have!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Costumes (Part 4)

We have a venue! The show will have four performances in the Linnaeus Garden Barn at the Tulsa Garden Center October 22-24. This will be the first time one of my shows has met the public and I am thrilled. My characters had a moment a few days ago - someone might not like us - but they're okay as of this writing. They'll be photographed at the end of the month for an article in the October issue of TULSA PEOPLE for which I was interviewed ten days ago.

Last Sunday while vacuuming the living room, not consciously thinking about the show, I was drawn to the piano. I shut off the vacuum cleaner, sat down on the piano bench, and composed the love song "I Remember You" for the show. I'm not sure how that creative process happens, but when it does, it's magic. The song will be a show stopper.