Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Liminal living

The alarm rings and without thinking I fling out my arm to turn it off, but my arm swings through empty space, unable to locate the alarm clock that ought to be sitting on the nightstand that isn't next to the bed. Either I'm caught in a bizarre nightmare in which my bedroom furniture has dissolved and my bed is flying through empty space or else I've forgotten that I'm in Jackson.

At home, the alarm clock is next to my head; in Jackson, it's on the other side of the room. 

Sure enough, I've lost track of which house I'm sleeping in. Awake, I know where I am; asleep, I don't care. It's the in-between state that confuses me.

It's not easy to get used to living in two houses, especially when I've lived in one long enough that it inhabits my dreams. At home, I can wander around in the dark, confident in my internal map of my surroundings; in Jackson, I still have trouble finding things even when the lights are on. And then there are gaps in my knowledge: I haven't set foot in the basement yet and I've heard that the attic is nice but I haven't found any reason to go there. 

And every time I think I'm done buying things, I discover another gap: Where are the cookie sheets? How can I drain pasta without a colander? How can we eat all this marvelous sweet corn without corn-grabbers? 

I remind myself that new students will soon be enduring fall orientation, when they learn what they need to know to shift from one mode of living to another, but the transition isn't instant. They'll spend a fluid amount of time in a semi-disoriented state, not sure how to find their classes or when to eat or where to find books. It's impossible to put a finger on the exact moment when they're fully oriented to their situation, but they'll know it when it happens.

At those in-between moments when I'm not sure where I am and I can't find the alarm clock, there's one sure cure for my disorientation: just swing my legs over the side of the bed and try to find the floor. The bed in Jackson is significantly taller than the one at home, so by the time my feet find firm ground, I know where I am--and if I can't find the floor at all, I'll know it's time to roll over and keep dreaming.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

A walk into (unreadable) history

This morning we took a walk into history, visiting a Native American petroglyph and an old family cemetery where we searched for descendants of the illustrious Mather family, and we found that history is often utterly illegible.

The Leo Petroglyphs State Monument features a sandstone slab purported to portray 37 different images, many of them so eroded as to be unreadable. Even the more distinct images are enigmatic: is that a happy person wearing a weird head-dress or a monster with immense pincers? Whoever carved them has been dead for a thousand years or so and they didn't leave behind a translation, so we just stooped over them looking puzzled, then we clambered down the nature trail to look at caves and gorges and puzzled over why so much poison ivy was allowed to intrude on the path.

Later we climbed a hill to Pierce-Mather Cemetery, on land once owned by Professor William Williams Mather, a descendant of Richard Mather, the patriarch of the family that gave us Cotton Mather and Increase Mather. William Williams Mather came to Ohio in 1837 to serve as the state's chief geologist, assisted by Charles Whittlesey, a distant cousin of my mother's. Professor Mather taught geology at Ohio University but also briefly served as a geology professor at Marietta College, so I guess I can call him a colleague. He donated some lovely hilltop land for the cemetery where his wife was buried, and flanking her gravestone were the graves of their infant sons, Cotton and Increase Mather.

At least that's what the history books tell us. The gravestones themselves tell us precious little, too eroded and covered with lichens to be decipherable. We saw graves for Howes and Swingles and Pierces and many others but did not locate a single Mather. So history eluded us, but it gave us a good excuse to wander around gorges and hillsides on a lovely summer morning.

And it provided one last puzzle: I understand the lambs on infants' gravestones and the occasional attempt at imitating draperies, but what compels a person to put a small ceramic grinning frog on a gravestone? If you figure it out, please enlighten me.


Into the gorge.

My source tells me this is yellow crustose lichen, growing on a tombstone.

The view from the Pierce Mather Cemetery.

Um, what?

Friday, July 27, 2018

Just poking around

If you search online for uses of pokeweed, you might find yourself caught up in a web of conflicting characterizations: it's a worthless weed, a delicious green, a cure for arthritis, a "uterine stimulant" (whatever that means), a dangerous poison, and more. To my mind, any plant known primarily for causing vomiting and diarrhea is trying to tell us something, so I'm not interested in eating it. I just find it pretty.

Right now in the woods you can find pokeweed in many stages: green stems sprouting rows of delicate white flowers that produce fruits shaped like tiny green pumpkins, ripening into deep purple berries on bright pink stems. They grow at the edges of woods and meadows, mingling with wildflowers and merging into thick copses of poke.

This morning at the Luke Chute Conservation Area, I walked amid the pokeweed marveling over its many forms and colors but also watched a spider with bright orange legs building a web, scrambling around on invisible lines and laying down a continuous strand bit by bit to produce a structure so strong and lovely that it made me regret every spider web I've ever destroyed, but that didn't stop me from knocking down a few webs to avoid walking through them. I'll admire a spider web alongside the path, but I prefer not to encounter them face-first. 

Indigo bunting!


Thursday, July 26, 2018

No thanks for angst

On a long midsummer walk, the baseball cap I wear serves a twofold purpose: eyeshade and horsefly swatter. When a horsefly the size of a Piper Cub starts circling persistently around my head and trying to land on the least accessible spot on my back, I swing the hat through the air, frantically swatting at the horsefly. You think a mosquito bite in your armpit is bad news? If a horsefly bit me in the armpit, I'd have no choice but to amputate. And so the hat swings jerkily through the air, making me look like a person suffering from severe standing seizures.

The walk itself serves a twofold purpose--exercise and head-clearing--and sometimes a third: giving the dog a chance to bark at the neighbor's donkeys. It's a tough job, but someone has to do it. Hopeful used to bound far ahead of me and then sit and look back with an expression that clearly said Hurry up! Exciting stuff just ahead! But these days she's more likely to sit by the roadside while I walk the last leg of the loop, happy to rest and cut out a little distance. I don't even do the six-mile loop anymore because I can't stop her from following me and I know she'd be limping by the time we got halfway around. These days she takes the uphills pretty slowly--but then again, so do I.

So we know the hat serves a purpose and the walk serves a purpose and the dog serves a purpose, but what about the horsefly? Today the horsefly serves a twofold purpose: give my arms a little exercise and rouse me from a bad case of midsummer blues. I'd set off on my walk reluctantly, stewing in a funk of existential angst, despair over how little I've accomplished, and panic over what I still need to do before school starts, and I was walking dutifully through the woods with my head down, determined that if I accomplished nothing else of any worth in my whole entire life, at least I'd get a little exercise. So I wasn't paying attention to the kingfisher by the creek, the butterflies sipping up minerals from the creekside mud, or the goldfinches chasing each other from one stalk of Queen Anne's Lace to another, sights that would normally fill me with glee.

It took a pesky horsefly to wake me up and break my wretched mood. Existential angst can't hold a candle to a persistent horsefly that wants nothing more than to land on your damp eyeball, and it's difficult to remain focused on your own petty grievances while you're flailing spasmodically against a horsefly's onslaught. Fighting off a persistent horsefly engages mind and body in a twitchy dance requiring total concentration, quick reflexes, and intense focus on the moment. Sulking would be counterproductive; your entire body aims at one tiny target and swats it as sharply as possible with the hat, even if you end up hitting your own back hard enough to leave marks. Such an all-consuming activity leaves no room for existential angst.

So the horsefly did me a service: by the time I'd won the battle, I felt fully alive, alert, and ready to take on whatever might come my way. Next time I'm in a foul humor, just lock me in a room full of horseflies and see how happy I am when I emerge! I'm sure I'll be showering you with thanks. 


Saturday, July 21, 2018

Near the corner of Grace and Daisy

For weeks I've by trying to figure out how this sentence ought to end: In a neat yellow cottage on Daisy Avenue there once lived a---what?

A witch? An orphan? A kindly old woman who loved to bake sweets for small children? Or, ramping up the incongruity, a serial killer, an ogress, or a Great White Shark?

A little yellow house not far from the corner of Grace and Daisy is where I'm making my home on the weekends when I'm in Jackson, Ohio, and it's just as cute as it sounds, with a magnolia tree in the front yard and a spacious front porch where we can sit and watch the world go by, although not much of the world makes its way up Daisy. Jackson is a little town (population just over 6000) that resembles many others in this part of Appalachia: from its bustling downtown, you can drive five minutes in any direction and find yourself in the middle of a cornfield. 

Hints of the boom times are visible downtown, where historic markers describe the impact of salt-boiling, iron-smelting, and apple-growing on the town's economy. Next to the courthouse stands a statue of James Rhodes, a local boy who served four terms as Ohio's governor, and the vicissitudes of history are evident just down the street, where the county sheriff's office, a brutally modern concrete building, sits across the street from an empty wood frame building evoking the city's frontier days, its faded paint peeling except where a realtor has painted "$95,000" in bold red figures. A sign on the window reveals that this was once the home of Michael's Ice Cream, now located in a nicer building on Main Street. (Try the Bubble, a great excuse to scarf down ice cream and nuts toasted to perfection.)

Early Saturday morning the town is so quiet that I feel no qualms about jaywalking right in front of the police station. A few early risers are out and about: a man mowing, a woman weeding, a young woman pushing a toddler in a stroller and carrying a baby in a backpack, a tall man walking a tiny fox terrier, a petite woman being dragged behind an immense fluffy mutt. A church carillon plays "Morning Has Broken" as I walk the broad avenues, where peeling asphalt reveals the original brick streets and big friendly front porches hold Adirondack chairs or sturdy wooden rockers. 

Over here a tidy white fame house looks as if it had stepped out of the frame of Grant Wood's American Gothic, gussied itself up with red shutters on the arched windows and red pillars around the porch, and then squatted down on a busy Jackson avenue. Here's an imposing yellow brick house fronted by a wide oak door surrounded by stained glass, while across the street another yellow house sits neglected, with water-stained plywood where the door ought to be and weeds colonizing the yard.

Smaller houses squeeze together on side streets, and every once in a while I make a turn and suddenly catch a glimpse of the downtown water tower just where I don't expect it to be. It's painted to resemble a rosy red apple, another nod to the town's apple-growing industry, rumored to have started with a visit from Johnny Appleseed and now sadly in decline.

I'm trying to get to know the town in the best way I know how: by walking its streets, reading its historical signs, taking pictures of its points of interest. The next step is more difficult: talking to the people, finding out what makes the mowing man, the weeding woman, the dog-walkers, the stroller-pushers, and the carillon-players love a place that struggles with the same problems haunting all of southern Ohio: unemployment, opioids, lack of outlets for young people's ambitions. Not all of these issues are visible from the front porch of the little yellow house on Daisy Avenue, so I'll have to go where the people are and ask questions. 

For now, though, it's a lovely morning and I think I'll sit and enjoy the breeze, the lingering magnolia blossoms, and the banana trees and continue to ponder how my peculiar sentence will end.  

Where I live (on weekends)

Water tower planted by Johnny Appleseed?

Old train depot.

This historic building can be yours for $95,000.

Sheriff's department.

James Rhodes statue next to the county courthouse.

Friday, July 20, 2018

The smell of the funnel cakes, the roar of the hog

I'm sitting on a bench breathing in that familiar county-fair aroma and trying to distinguish its constituent parts: cotton candy, onion rings, and funnel-cake grease combined with diesel fumes, sweat, and a whiff of the livestock barn. Nearby some teens in tank tops and torn jeans flirt shamelessly while a mom orders lemon shake-ups for her thirsty crew, and in the background I hear music that I swear sounds like a mutant hybrid of rap and country. We're definitely not in Kansas anymore.

We're at the Jackson County Fair, located not in Jackson but in the nearby town of Wellston, Ohio. It's a small fair but plenty colorful, and we're just in time to see some 4-H members auction off their chickens, goats, and rabbits. Men in plaid shirts and cowboy hats cluster inside the auction enclosure to bid exhorbitant sums for the rabbit trembling nervously in the arms of a pig-tailed girl in a white shirt and spotless jeans. Meanwhile, outside the barn the grand champion hog balks and squawks, objecting to being moved to the arena.

I don't blame the hog: the place is crammed full of people, and the huge ceiling fan does little to dissipate the blistering heat. The auctioneer's voice pierces the air and hammers on and on through the afternoon while his bid-spotters out in the crowd holler out when they catch a bid. If I were a hog, I'd want to go wallow someplace quiet in some nice cool mud.

Instead, we wallow in fair food, although not too much. Is there anything they won't deep-fry? I've eaten a fried Oreo once and I think I've met my lifetime quota, but in this heat a peach sno-cone refreshes the tissues nicely. We nip inside the Junior Fair barn to enjoy the air conditioning and look at the 4-H displays: one poster illustrates parts of a goat while another demonstrates a child's first attempts at photography, and over there is a whole booth full of colorful hand-crafted jellyfish made of yarn. So much creativity! So many colors!

Outside the sky darkens and the lights come up all over the midway, a million bright colors competing for attention. Here's a new attraction called the Hampster Wheel--inflated plastic wheels floating on water that you can climb inside and spin--and I'm tempted to point out the spelling error, but anyone who goes to the fair to correct spelling is sort of missing the point.

The Tilt-A-Whirl spins into the sky where dark clouds loom, threatening rain. The first raindrops hit as we leave the parking lot and soon we're driving through a storm more exciting than any thrill ride--but that's a story for another day. 

Hamster wheels getting inflated.

Bid-spotter at the auction arena.

4-H members waiting to enter the arena.

Time to go home!

Monday, July 16, 2018

Rain, work, walk

I had intended to drop by my office for just a few minutes, long enough to water my plants and pick up a book or two, but the moment I stepped out the building to head back home, rain started pouring down. Of course I brought an umbrella with me! It's in my car. In fact I think there are two or three umbrellas in my car, which is where I need to be, but I don't care to run out there through the pouring rain with books and a computer in my arms, so I think I'll just sit here for a while and ramble on about what I've been doing.

Not enough is the answer. I haven't been doing enough writing, mowing, walking, cleaning, or anything else of substance for weeks on end. I've finished two and a half syllabi (out of four), and I've organized my dad's upcoming 85th birthday party, and I've mostly finished another annoying little project, but the big things are still looming: revising my journal article and laying some groundwork for my spring 2019 sabbatical. Can't do anything about all that while I'm sitting here waiting for the rain to stop, though, so I may as well think about happier things.

Like the pollinator habitat! This morning I went out to Luke Chute Conservation Area and walked around the pollinator habitat, where the trails wind through tall flowering plants stretching way overhead. I heard a bunch of common yellowthroats and a hawk, saw two hummingbird moths but couldn't get the camera to my face fast enough to take photos, and walked face-first through enough spider webs to make my hair feel shellacked with spider silk. But mostly I enjoyed watching the pollinator habitat do its valuable work: attracting pollinators of all types. I can't identify all the different types of bees I saw but there were bunches of 'em.

Now I hear wet squeaky shoes trekking through the hallways as a bunch of incoming students head for a meeting, and it looks like rain has stopped for now. Time to make a dash for it before it starts up again. I could gripe about having to wait, but at least it gave us a chance to have this little chat. Let's do it again soon.