Tuesday, May 31, 2011


After seven years at Hogue Wild, I sometimes wonder whether this place still has surprises in store. In the past three days I have
  • finally identified a female rose-breasted grosbeak;
  • encountered the biggest spider I've ever seen outside a zoo (and didn't stomp on it!);
  • watched foxes cavorting on a cliffside while the neighbor's bossy basset hound lumbered past obliviously at the top of the hill; and
  • discovered mud-loving butterflies.
I don't know what was so special about that particular patch of mud along our creek, but yesterday butterflies by the dozens were elbowing each other out of the way (do butterflies have elbows?) to sip up its ooey gooey goodness. Black and gold dominated the scene as tiger and spicebush swallowtails (and a lone zebra swallowtail) competed for space at the mud bar.

I grabbed the camera and walked quietly closer and closer until I was nearly upon them, but then Hopeful came bursting through the underbrush and startled the butterflies into flight. Suddenly I found myself at the center of a swirl of yellow and black flashing and swirling in the evening sun, flying higher and farther until finally dispersing into the distance. No camera could capture the wonder of that moment.

Do me a favor, okay? Next time I act as if I'm stuck in the same old dull routine, give me a nudge and remind me of butterflies in the mud. I'm still not sure what I witnessed, but whatever it was, it was certainly surprising.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Fox news

It started as a flash of movement on the cliff across the road from our lower meadow, but then it turned to fur and faces and long fluffy tails. A family of foxes is living in a den about halfway up the cliff just across the road from our garden.

At first I saw three kits at play near the mouth of the den, but then they caught sight of me and scrambled inside. I dashed for the camera, but by the time I got back just one fox was visible on the ledge outside the den. I could have stood there watching her watching me all evening but then who would have planted the sweet potatoes?

I fired off about 30 shots and just before I left another fox came and entered the den. I was pretty far away and didn't have a tripod so many of the shots are blurry, but I was happy to catch any pictures at all.

I suppose this explains what all the barking was about the other night. Good thing we don't have chickens!

Friday, May 27, 2011

Friday poetry challenge: back by popular demand

It's hard to sleep these days what with hordes of readers clamoring for a return of the Friday Poetry Challenge. You should see the rabid fans jumping up and down outside my window waving hand-lettered signs (in verse!) and chanting slogans:

Poetry is right for me!

Give me doggerel or give me death!

Free the Friday Poetry Challenge
and I'll tell you what rhymes with orange!

Okay, I exaggerate. But there has been some interest from a small number (two) of readers eager for an excuse to assemble some light verse on a regular basis. To inaugurate this summer series of poetry challenges, here's a little haiku about an encore of a different kind:

Dewy green leaves hide
beneath weeds. Poison ivy,
why must you return?

Whew, my poetry muscles are out of practice. Surely you can do better than that!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Free to contemplate unusual moos

I'm in a lawn chair on the deck and on my knees is a new laptop computer, and I'm thanking the IT deities for finally making it possible for me to take work home with me. The crippled computer in my office deleted itself permanently and was replaced yesterday by a shiny new laptop that runs faster than a speeding bullet and leaps tall buildings in a single bound, if you believe the hype.

I like the keyboard. It's just the right size and it's good to have legible letters on the keys, which don't stick or make loud obnoxious clickety sounds. The wide screen is clear and readable and lacks the scratches and smudges that gave my old computer character; right now I've got it set up to display a slide show of my favorite photos from the California trip, so every few minutes I see a crisp new image reminding me of that refreshing time.

This computer's best characteristic, though, is its portability. For a long time my old computer balked at booting up and refused to recharge its battery, so I got in the habit of leaving it turned on and plugged in all the time. A laptop computer that can't be unplugged or turned off is like a set of handcuffs chaining me to my desk, exactly where I don't want to be during this loveliest time of the year.

Far better to sit on the deck drinking iced tea and working on writing projects while the wind sweeps through the trees and the birds chatter and the cows moo in the field across the way. I keep hearing a call that sounds like a baby crying down near the creek and I can't decide whether it's a bird or an abandoned toddler or an escaped calf with an unusual moo. My money's on the bird. After a while maybe I'll walk down and investigate--but if I were still handcuffed to my desk, I wouldn't even have the option of contemplating unusual moos.

I've been working in my office all week but today begins my liberation. Anyone who needs to track me down can just listen for the sound of fingers flying across the keyboard.

The very quiet keyboard.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


One evening during the California trip some students introduced me to Bananagrams, a word game using letter tiles as in Scrabble but with no board or points or turn-taking. Five of us sat on the floor grabbing tiles and assembling words, and in the end we spontaneously began telling stories using the words we'd formed.

"I must own this game!" I told myself, but fortunately I told my daughter too so now I have Bananagrams at home. It's not as cut-throat and competitive as Scrabble, and I like the way it allows players to rearrange letters and cannibalize previously formed words to assemble new combinations. The other evening I ended up with a solitary Q near the end of the game, but I shifted some other words to open up access to a U and allow me to play the Q. Of course, then I ended the game with an unplayable J, but you can't win 'em all. On the other hand, there are no real losers in Bananagrams.

I took the game to campus and played a few rounds with a colleague, wishing more people were around to play. Wouldn't it be great to have word games available in the Writing Center so students and faculty members could grab a game between classes? Or we could designate a weekly word game time, or hold a Bananagramathon to raise money for some worthy cause.

Would students step away from their online games to mess with words face to face? If not, I fear I'll end up sitting alone in the Writing Center wishing for a worthy opponent while grasping a lone unplayable J.

Windfall profits

This is the tree
that fell in the wind
that covered the road
that chainsaws chopped
that woke me up
that will heat our house this winter.

This is debris
that chainsaws chopped
from the top of the tree
that covered the road
that fell in the wind
that will heat our house this winter.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Bitter roots

This clump of weeds (I tell myself as I grasp a handful of Creeping Charlie vines invading our asparagus patch) represents the student who never, throughout an entire semester, figured out how to submit papers electronically (pulling the weeds, tossing them aside) no matter how many times I showed her how.

And this deep-rooted broadleaf (thrusting the tines of the potato fork deep into the soil) is the search committee I served on faithfully (twisting the fork, loosening the roots) without managing to hire anyone (digging deeper, pulling harder) or receiving a word of thanks (will it ever come out?).

And this tiny slip of poison ivy (how did that end up in my hand?) stands for the times I had to convey concerns of faculty members to administrators (more? get it out of here!) whether I agreed with those concerns or not.

And this stubborn stand of dandelions (thrusting the trowel into the ground) is the computer that has been cranky (stabbing the ground) and crippled (stabbing and twisting) and utterly unreliable (twisting and pulling) for more than a year (tossing the weeds aside) until today it finally failed to boot up (kicking the weed pile).

Stupid weeds. Bane of my existence. Still, it's nice to have an avenue (thrusting and stabbing) for the anger that builds up (twisting and pulling) over the course of a complicated semester (tossing and stomping). Better to kick the weed pile than to kick my colleagues.

After all, weeds don't kick back.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Nothing gold can stay

This is the golden time of year, when orioles singing in the treetops draw our gaze toward their sunny plumage, when sunshine makes tulip poplar blossoms seem to be illuminated from within, when even the lowly box turtle trudging across the driveway seems spangled with golden sequins. It looks as if the orioles have chosen to stay around this year and the turtle keeps turning up where you least expect him, but the tulip poplar blossoms are already fading and falling. Robert Frost reminds us that "nothing gold can stay," but if it stays a little while and promises to return again, maybe that's enough.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Pre-weeding workout

Only a fool would go out to run a spring marathon after sitting on the sofa all winter, so what made me think I could dive right back into heavy-duty gardening on the first clear dry day of spring? After just a few hours in the garden, I have sunburn and sore fingers and an achy elbow and a cranky back and an ant bite on the back of my hand. I also have creeping phlox covering an annoying spot in the front garden, pachysandra filling in some blank spots on a slope, and basil, dill, and rosemary in the herb garden, where they'll join the thyme, oregano, sage, and fennel that returned from last season.

And then there's the yucca. Last week we dug up a monstrous yucca plant from our daughter and son-in-law's front garden, or rather a cluster of yuccas clustered around a stubborn root as thick and tough as a fencepost. They've been sitting on our front lawn all week waiting for the rain to stop, but now those yuccas are planted along a well-drained slope near the driveway. Nothing much likes to grow there, but yuccas are tough and these were free so if even a few survive, we'll be happy.

Oh to be as tough as a yucca! Today we did the easy stuff; putting in the vegetable garden takes the game to a whole new level. I need some conditioning exercises to get me in shape when we go Full Veg. Start with some stretches: the weeding bend, the hoe twist, the harvest squat. Carry water buckets and bushel baskets filled with ever-increasing weights, and practice clasping fingers tightly around the trowel handle to prepare for grasping and pulling weeds.

To exercise the elbow and wrist, practice snapping a damp bandana toward the small of your back as if to repel a persistent horsefly. Do the don't-step-on-the-ants two-step, the make-it-go-away Macarena. Develop a stillness to serene you can work with sweat dripping in your eyeballs, blisters bursting on your hands, and flies crawling on the back of your neck.

That's the sort of workout I need to get me ready for gardening season. Too late for this year. Maybe next winter, right around the bleakest part of January, someone should put a trowel in my hand and put me through my paces so that I won't poop out when gardening season finally arrives.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

When the rain won't stop

Carve a maze in the tall grass.
Charge for admission.

Remember when your mom used to tell youthat your ears were so dirty you could grow potatoes in there?
Try that.

Leaf through seed catalogs.
Lust after tomatoes.
Buy big-leaf basil plants.
Leave them sitting on the kitchen counter.
Think about pesto.
Do a sun-dance.

Hold an umbrella over your hubby as he digs out a big yucca.
Bundle the yucca into the car and move it across the state.
Toss it on the lawn.
Wait until the rain stops.
Keep waiting.
Hope it doesn't root to the ground where it sits.

Become a transparent eyeball.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Course prep passion

Designing online courses is supposed to be drudgery, so I can only conclude that I'm doing something wrong. I'm having an absolute blast designing my summer course in Nature Writing. I'm producing podcasts and narrated powerpoint presentations! I'm posting assignments and links and photographs! I'm translating the techniques I learned in the Digital Imaging class into writing exercises! What's not to love?

I've taught hybrid classes before but never an all-online class, so I sort of know what to expect but I may be in for some surprises once all those students (nine!) start submitting reading comments and writing exercises and drafts. The class starts June 6 and I've posted all the assignments on Moodle, but I'm still working on some narrated powerpoints and podcasts and discussion questions.

This is what gets me really pumped: I'm using many photographs I shot for the Scientific Imaging class two years ago, and as I looked through the available photos chronologically, I was pleased to see significant improvements in quality as the course progressed. Since those imaging exercises helped me become a measurably better photographer, let's see if I can adapt them to help my students improve their writing skills.

For instance, I can insert a human hand into a photograph to show the size of the blackberry, but how can we insert a similar scale into a written description? Or a photograph can emphasize motion by letting moving parts produce a blur, but how do we write a blur of movement? I'm eager to see how my students respond to these challenges.

I've reminded them that this is an upper-level writing class that condenses 15 weeks of work into a mere eight weeks, which means they'll have to work hard and stay on schedule--and so will I. I don't know how demanding that work will be, but if the execution is half as enlightening as the planning, we'll all have a blast.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

A not-so-helpful suggestion

I've been dreading reading my course evaluations this semester because of some problems I had with one class, or actually just one small segment of that class--a group of students not at all shy about expressing their dissatisfaction all semester long. I agonized over that difficult class from the first week: Is it something I'm doing or not doing? Should I devote more class time to troublesome topics or insist on one-on-one conferences? Or maybe the problem is unrelated to my teaching: is it the textbook, the time of day, the composition of the class?

Whatever the reason, that class challenged my sanity all semester long and made me wonder what that small group of mouthy malcontents would write on the online course evaluations. And the answer is: not much.

The numerical responses from that class were about the same as those in my other classes and the written comments were mostly positive--except for three that stood out from the rest. The most concise complaint suggested that I could improve the course by "being a professor instead of a [really nasty word]."

I'll take that suggestion under advisement.

Course evaluations are anonymous so I can't say for certain who wrote this, but I recognize the style and I am not inclined to give the complaint much credit. It's not a particularly compelling argument and it differs so drastically from the style and content of the other comments that it's clearly an outlier, a cry of pain from a student who found the road to success pockmarked with potholes.

I found these evaluations oddly cheering. After all that agonizing over where I had gone wrong in teaching this course, the students rose up and declared that it really wasn't all that bad after all. That may not be a ringing endorsement, but for a really difficult class, this may be as good as it gets.

Friday, May 13, 2011

A beautiful day for baseball

I was sitting in the stands at a baseball game today when a colleague sitting in front of me offered to block any foul balls that might come my way for a mere two dollars. "I'll stick my hand out there and back down so fast you'll never even see it," he said, and it's true--I never even saw it. But then again, I never paid the two dollars either.

It's a beautiful day for baseball even when it isn't. Our college team is in the conference tournament and yesterday's game kept being threatened by dark grumbly clouds. We would have lost if the game had been rained out before the seventh inning, but fortunately the storm bypassed the stadium and we came back for the win. Today's game was the converse of yesterday's: we scored a few runs early and then nothing for the rest of the game, but we held on for the win.

Will I go to the championship game tomorrow? I could stay home and clean the house, plant some flowers, mow the yard...nothing that can't be put off for a few hours. After all the angst of the end of the semester and the annoying encounter with car repairs on our recent road trip, I could use some baseball therapy.

You too. Come sit by me and I promise to block all the foul balls that come our way--for a price. My hand will move so fast you'll never see it.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Clean sweep

My desk is sparkly clean while my office trash can is stuffed to the brim, so it looks as if I just tilted my desk and slid everything into the trash. That's not quite what happened, but it's close. Yesterday I cleaned and sorted and filed all kinds of academic stuff that's been accumulating on my desk for at least the past year. It's not always easy to know what to keep and what to toss: do I really need to hold on to last year's Faculty Council ballots? How about leftover handouts for a class I probably won't be teaching again? If a student hasn't picked up a final exam he took three years ago, why do I need to keep it?

The process was grueling but the result is great: a clean office with plenty of space on the desktop for stacking new piles of stuff. A similar sorting-and-deleting process neatened up my computer desktop. My house could use a good spring cleaning, but the office chaos is now under control.

Since we returned from Texas I've been focusing on cleaning to get my mind off the CT scans and blood tests I took last week. The scan left a lasting impression--a nasty bruise where the phlebotomist had trouble accessing my port--but the results are now in: no sign of cancer whatsoever. Two years after my diagnosis, I've been given a clean slate (for now). I'll go back for the next round of tests in six months, but meanwhile, I'm enjoying feeling all sparkly clean--inside and out.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Car wars

The other day as we crossed the swollen Mississippi River, I wondered how long it takes a drop of water from our creek to make it down to the Gulf of Mexico. I'll bet they have a jolly old time floating along without a care in the world: they carry no luggage, have no need to fuel up, and I'll bet they never even think about car repairs.

I, on the other hand, spend way too much time thinking about car repairs and waiting for car repairs and paying for car repairs. At first it looked as if we would have to perform some sort of car repair in every state we visited after our son's commencement, but we broke our streak after Mississippi, leaving the total thus: car repairs in three states, no car repairs in six. And we still made it home in one piece--but in two cars, which complicated matters. Three drivers, two cars, three repairs, one unexpected overnight stay at a cheap motel (you try finding a mechanic late on Mothers Day in Vicksburg, Mississippi!).

On the plus side, I got to spend some extra quality time with my son. In Louisiana we replaced the spark plugs in his car while parked next to an air show. We were hot and sweaty and greasy and tired but the jets doing loops and swirls and tight formations right overhead provided serious entertainment.

And then in Mississippi while we awaited repairs on my car, we toured the Vicksburg battlefield and saw what remains of the U.S.S. Cairo, a Civil War ironclad that was sunk in 1863 and sat in mud for 100 years before being lifted from the river and partially restored. It looks like a ship a child would make with Legos, more like a mechanical insect than a seaworthy vessel. It was pleasant to walk among the war memorials and cannons in the cool of the morning.

In the heat of the day we turned our backs on the mighty Mississippi and drove and drove and drove, finally arriving home early this morning. I've never been so happy to see our creek. It may not be flooding cities or making headlines, but its waters daily retrace the treacherous trip we just finished without muttering a single complaint. Oh, to be a drop of water!

But first I'd like to drop off to sleep.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

A very grand son

The breakfast room at our hotel was crowded with people preparing to attend a college commencement, including an elderly man who hobbled over to sit at our table and asked, "So are you here to see your grandson graduate?"


I gave birth to that boy not quite 22 years ago!

The drive down to Texas may have aged me far beyond my years, but could this tottery old sod really think we were his peers? Grandson indeed!

I suppose that's what I get for hanging around with a genuine graybeard. Today my husband and I and our daughter and son-in-law were delighted to see our son walk across the stage and pick up his diploma. Afterward he took us out to the airport and showed off the aeronautical expertise that will (we hope) eventually land him a job somewhere up in the air.

It was a grand event and my son is a very grand guy--but grandson? That smarts.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Disagreeable greens and drones

Here I am sitting on this odd little elevated window seat in a minuscule motel room in Jackson, Tennessee, a motel room that offers exactly what the website advertised (cheap rates and close proximity to the interstate) plus an unexpected extra-special bonus: a decorating scheme involving four shades of green loudly competing for Ugliest Color on the Planet, the sorts of green you generally don't expect to see outside a baby's diaper or a moldy rotting milk product. This room isn't big enough for that many clashing colors. My eyes object to this constant Assault by a Deadly Color. They demand a rest.

And that's exactly what they're going to get. We had planned to sleep late and leave for Texas at a civilized hour, but the phone rang at 5 a.m. and we were awake so why not hit the road? The temperature on our back deck this morning was 30 degrees and we drove through dense fog all through West Virginia, but by the time we hit Kentucky the sun was shining and the sky was clear. From my perch on this window seat on the third floor of the Motel of Misbegotten Remodeling, I can see blue sky as far as the eye can see, with not a hint of cloud in the sky.

I can also see the interstate. The website mentioned that this motel was close to the interstate, but it didn't specify how close: close enough to allow us to spit across all four lanes, close enough for truckers to say "excuse me" as they take the short cut through our closet, close enough for us to see the whites in the eyes of roadkill armadillos. On the Annoying Noise Continuum, the droning of trucks roaring down the interstate approaches Dental Drill level, and it may even be more annoying than the loud obnoxious shades of green. I can make the colors go away just by closing my eyes.

I can't close my eyes, however, to the flooding that has put part of I-40 under water in Arkansas, a state we need to cross tomorrow to get to Texas. Time to find an alternate route. Truckers always know the best routes, right? I'll just lean out the window and hail a passing semi.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Inside, outside, online

There's something a little odd about teaching a summer online course called Writing about Nature. I assume that students who take the course are interested in spending time experiencing nature face to face, but instead I'm going to force them to sit inside with their eyes glued to their computer screens and their fingers flying across the keyboard. Walt Whitman would be appalled.

Then again, he's not registered for the course.

But eight students are registered. Eight! That magic number allows the course to proceed and releases me to construct a syllabus and post assignments and activities online. The course starts the first week of June, but I've already got a whole host of reading and writing assignments ready for my unwitting victims--er, students. I'm squeezing 15 weeks of material into an eight-week session, so this course is no walk in the park, no matter how much we would all prefer to be in a park instead of in front of a computer.

Why not do both at once? I'm determined to find a way to do some of the course work out in my woods, and I've even picked out a prime work location: a big smooth sittable rock nestled in near a mayapple patch. It's easily accessible now, but we'll have to diligently clear weeds from the path to keep it accessible through the summer. Next week I'll start recording podcasts to post on my course page and I may try to do some recording from the field, as it were. Picture me sitting on the rock and balancing a computer on my lap while surrounded by trees and wildflowers and butterflies and birds.

It sounds idyllic but it will work only if I can prevent one potential problem. What nature and technology have in common: a tendency to be infested by bugs.

Monday, May 02, 2011

So pricketh them Nature in their courages

T.S. Eliot tells us that April is the cruelest month, but Chaucer contends that when April with its showers sweet the drought of March has pierced to the root and bathed every vein in such liquor of which vertu engendred is the flower--in other words, when all those April showers make spring begin again, then folk like you and me long to go on pilgrimages. And so I did--not to Canterbury but to my woods, where April showers have brought out May flowers by the bushel.

We found mayapples and violets and stonecrop and fire pinks, and in a spot where the power company cleared out some trees last fall we found a mature lilac bush blooming. We've lived here seven years without ever knowing lilacs grew back there. Along the driveway we saw plenty of pawpaw blossoms, so tiny and velvety brown that they don't look like flowers at all unless you're right up close. Up in the pine grove I found an interesting fungus, and right up at the top of the hill I found a plucky late trillium poking its head out from beneath dead leaves and fallen trees.

That's me, I told myself, trying to blossom through the weathered and wearying detritus of life. My April would have been much less wretched if I'd spent more time in the woods and less in the office, but I was sick and busy and surrounded by people who needed things and the rain kept falling and falling and falling and so I stayed in my office and worked and sulked and forgot about the woods and the trillium and the indigo buntings.

But now it's time to put April behind me. It's a whole new day, a whole new month! Today I'll turn in final grades and wash my hands of this semester, and tomorrow I'll hand over a pile of faculty governance files to my successor. The cruelest month is over! Now it's time to bloom.