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Once an Editor . . .


I do crossword puzzles first thing in the morning, hoping to trigger some sort of thinking. I also do word search and scrambled words puzzles, all on AARP's games site, then work a jigsaw puzzle or three elsewhere online. I don't challenge myself by picking harder crosswords or jigsaws of more than 24 or 48 pieces—I shouldn't burn through too much of the morning before checking the weather (Why are weather videos always interrupted by ads preventing you from seeing the videos?) and finally opening my email (most of which I delete without reading since few are actually addressed to me personally). Then I'm ready to do something useful, like writing or editing.


Is it obvious that I'm retired? Composing weekly blog entries is my major preoccupation. I don't know why I need to post one each week. Maybe, like the crossword and jigsaw puzzles, I need to have some habits beyond occasionally walking in my neighborhood.


Sometimes I'll compose something to send to an editor hoping to have it published or I'll edit something a writer has submitted to The Humble Essayist Press, the project Steve Harvey and Kathy Winograd and I committed to a couple years ago. In the past few weeks I've both edited and also been edited, and this morning, having completed my puzzles, instead of reflecting on a book I recently read (It was a very good one!), I've been thinking a lot about editing.


I've been edited in the past. Sometimes editors steered me towards a stronger, smarter manuscript; sometimes an editor's vision of my text was insistently at odds with my own. Although I'm comfortable with most of the books and essays I've published, a few have portions or passages I regret having been forced to delete or forced to have added. Both personal editing triumphs and editing defeats often rise up in memory whenever I start editing someone else.


The truth is that every reader reads every text differently than the original author would read it. I once had to negotiate through a senior editor a sentence in one of my manuscripts that their copyeditor (someone worried about the correctness of the language in the writing) felt was ungrammatical or awkward and wanted revised. I'd deliberately worded that line as an allusion to something in the text I'd been discussing but she was more remote from my manuscript and its subject and concentrating on achieving extratextual stylistic conformity. I've noticed that kind of distance surfacing in book reviews where a reviewer insists on reading a text differently than the author intended it. I once was forced to delete a sentence in a critical essay that the editor found funny rather than academic—I'd actually written it to be funny rather than academic. I suspect that a manuscript's acceptance or rejection usually depends on an editor's personal taste rather than on some imaginary universal standard of literary quality being adhered to.


When the first edition of my textbook Wordsmithery was accepted by Macmillan, two peer reviewers disagreed with elements of the book in ways contradictory to one another. One thought it needed to be more assignment oriented, more directly instructional; the other thought it ought to have less emphasis on composition research and theory. I approached Barbara Heinssen, my editor, with frustration—how could I revise the book to satisfy demands in opposition to one another as well as in opposition to my manuscript? She advised me to listen to whatever comments I felt made the book stronger, more readable, and ignore the comments that undermined what was already unified in the manuscript. Her advice has stuck with me through the revision of every subsequent book I've written since.


Recently, in a matter of weeks, I've heard back from the reviews editor at River Teeth about my review of two new books. Most of his suggestions were grammar- or style-related, many of which I accepted, many of which I ignored. One passage troubled him, and I responded with an explanation that eased his concerns. The review now satisfied us both. In the same period, I heard back from an essayist whose manuscript I'd edited for The Humble Essayist Press, explaining his resistance to some of my recommendations and acceptance of others. At THE Press the author ultimately decides. We both seem satisfied with the manuscript as it's been evolving. The editor's involvement hasn't changed my sense of that review being mine; my editorial involvement hasn't altered that writer's sense of his manuscript being his.


Both my review and his manuscript say what their authors want them to say. That's what editing should make happen and, happily, just happened twice.


Notes: River Teeth: A Journal of Narrative Nonfiction. Book Reviews


The Humble Essayist Press


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Abandonment's Aftermath


Cal Flyn's Islands of Abandonment: Nature Rebounding in the Post-Human Landscape records the breadth of her travels to sites around the world where the landscape once inhabited and exploited by human populations has been altered and become occupied by other creatures. The sites she visits include three in Scotland, her home country, three in the United States, and others in Cyprus, Estonia, the Ukraine, France, Tanzania, and Montserrat. Associations no doubt arise in readers who recognize certain locations—Chernobyl, of course, probably Detroit and the Salton Sea—and locate others on a mental world atlas with less concrete assumptions of what might be abandoned there.


Flyn spent two years researching and exploring these places and in each chapter we learn what once was there and what is no longer there and what, if anything, occupies it now. The book's Invocation, set on Inchkeith, an island in the Firth of Forth, was formerly a fortress isle with a centuries-old political history and now, "fallen into obscurity, it has risen in environmental significance." Once only nested on by eiders, it is now a breeding ground for a dozen more species and intermittently visited by countless others. When she steps out onto "what once was a gun turret" she sees "the birds rise up as one great moving, wheeling mass [. . .] outraged to see me—here, now, on this island of abandonment."


She warns readers that she will be visiting "some of the eeriest and most desolate places on Earth. A no man's land between razor-wire fences where passenger jets rust on the runway after four decades of neglect. A clearing in the woods so poisoned with arsenic that no trees can grow there. An exclusion zone thrown up around the smouldering ruin of a nuclear reactor." These and others are abandoned places, each "left to its own device," where "nature has been allowed to work unfettered." She believes they offer "invaluable insight into the wisdom of environments in flux."


I dog-eared a great many pages in the book, consulting them later to see connections. In each chapter she anchors her reflections on the past and the likely future of a locale in an observant and vivid narrative of personal exploration at the present site. In Detroit she enters and surveys an abandoned but easily accessible church and its adjacent deserted school before describing Detroit as "a city shrunk from its shell [. . .] in terminal decline for seventy years, its population reduced by almost two-thirds." She explains, "What that means, in practice, is that to drive through the city is to spin through streets and sometimes whole neighborhoods in a state of what looks like decomposition. Tens of thousands of homes stand empty and falling apart, shingles melting from roofs like hot icing, [. . .] sharp-edged gaps where rotten buildings have been pulled like teeth."


In contrast, she reports staying overnight in the deserted Rose Cottage on the Scottish island of Swona, where decades ago people about to abandon the island opened fence gates to let cattle run free, allowing creatures that had long been domesticated to begin leading feral lives. Flyn notes that here, the "process we call natural selection is coming back into play." All the rabbits on Swona, "initially black and white [. . .] now appear brown, like their wild forebears." She continually wrestles with understanding what the aftermath of industrial abandonment and military devastation and climate change mean in terms of what will replace everything that, inevitably, has been and will be lost.


Extinction has happened—repeatedly—throughout the history of Earth; after all, that's how we got here, as an adjustment, an accidental replacement for what was eliminated by a meteoric collision or a change in climate and atmosphere. One of her visits takes her to the ash-coated remains of Plymouth on the volcanic Caribbean island Montserrat where the landscape is reminiscent of Pompeii or Krakatoa or the supervolcano believed to have triggered the Permian extinction of 252 million years ago that eradicated "more than 95 percent of marine species and three-quarters of land species [. . .] leaving a vacuum in which dinosaurs would later come to the fore."


In the end she tries to consider the present planet reasonably. If the planet, "with its warming climate, has mass extinction ahead," she reminds us, "Every major extinction event on the planet has been succeeded by a burst of evolutionary creativity: rapid diversification as heretofore insignificant species take on the roles left empty by those wiped out by meteor or climate change or supervolcano." Her book asks us to consider that inevitability and hopes that, by seeing change in our own islands of abandonment, we will endeavor to resist it, delay it, be active in slowing it down.



Note: Cal Flyn. Islands of Abandonment: Nature Rebounding in the Post-Human Landscape. New York: Viking, 2021.


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Aging and Writing


I've lately been noticing people in their eighties and beyond, particularly celebrities that Facebook highlights. Often an obituary or a commemoration appears on the date of their births or deaths. Annually in November my two sons-in-law and I observe and mostly celebrate our birthdays, their ages far lower than mine, but this year I'm often reminded that aging is, inevitably, linked to mortality. As some of your powers dwindle, pondering the eventuality of losing them all is occasionally unavoidable.


Carl Klaus, tracking his own aging in The Ninth Decade: An Octogenarian's Chronicle—"octogenarian" is a word I run across more frequently these days—mentions reading, in his eighty-second year, Essays After Eighty by Donald Hall, published in 2014. Klaus' own book will take him into his eighty-eighth year, but he doesn't mention whether he encountered Hall's final book, A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety; it was published in 2018, the year Hall died three months shy of his ninetieth birthday. Klaus had read Hall because he was "curious about his octogenarian experiences, as well as his way of recalling and writing about it." He credits Hall with being "very frank and self-deprecating about his recent physical mishaps, bodily infirmities, and mental lapses, but he never mentions memory problems," an issue then troubling Klaus. Acknowledging that Hall "writes extensively and vividly about his past, much more so than about his octogenarian experience," he refers to moments in Hall's life that Hall's readers over the years are likely to be very familiar with.


As it happens, I've been such a reader, not only of those two final books but also of some of his poetry collections and many of his books of essays and memoir, starting with Seasons at Eagle Pond in 1987. Both Henry Thoreau and E. B. White had aroused my interest in New England essays and memoirs and Hall and his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon (whom I'd also read), had left Michigan to live on a family farm in New Hampshire. Hall's memoirs and his final books of essays are set at Eagle Pond. Thinking about everything I'd read by him, it took me awhile to recall publishing a review of his memoir Life Work in a 1995 issue of The English Journal.


At the start of the review I claimed, "I keep Donald Hall's Life Work on my bedside table because I take it personally. I first read it for insights into Hall's work habits (and perhaps my own); I now reread it to bring perspective to the intimations of mortality tolling around me." To me, the first half of the book was "a personal meditation on the nature of work" and Hall admits that the idea for the book arose from his saying, in his analyst's office, "'work' where he meant to say 'life'." But the second half of Life Work deals with his concern about his own mortality as a cancer survivor who had "discovered a growth in his liver, and the implications of the title changed again." The book became more "open and intimate" from that point on. I wrote, "So movingly does Hall portray his clear-eyed awareness of imminent loss that we sense our own inevitable losses as well as his."


In fact, at 64, Donald Hall had another 25 years to live, enduring the loss of Jane Kenyon to leukemia only two years later and weathering a host of "physical mishaps, bodily infirmities, and mental lapses" (in Klaus's terms) into his eighties. Essays After Eighty and A Carnival of Losses are very much evidence of Hall's tendency to make "life" and "work" mean the same thing. Near the end of the final book, in the next to last chapter, he claims to have "admitted to myself that I had stopped writing my new book, notes and essays of memoir and meditation, as I shuffled towards ninety." He finds himself unable to "add a sentence to the manuscript, which was hard, because I had written or tried to write every day since I was twelve." He says he knows he won't have another birthday. He died a month before A Carnival of Losses was published. His life and his work ended close together.


While I've been composing this, I've been sitting in a local library with high windows that let me view autumn-hued trees where a brisk wind swirls yellowed leaves across the lawn. Driving away from our condo this morning, I noticed that almost all the trees in front of our complex were entirely bare. It's November in Wisconsin and snow is predicted for the weekend. The seasons will change, the weather reminds me. It's time for me to shelve those aging books, make sure we celebrate those birthdays, and find more work to do in coming days.



Notes: Carl H. Klaus. The Ninth Decade: An Octogenarian's Chronicle. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2021: 52-53.


Robert L Root, Jr. "A Poet on Why We Work." The English Journal. 84:2 (Feb 1995): 125-126


Amanda Petrusich."Postscript: Donald Hall." The New Yorker. June 26, 2018.


Hannah Aizenman. "Page-Turner: Donald Hall in the New Yorker." The New Yorker. June 26, 2018.


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Reading Images


I'm not certain when my son, the writer for animated television programs and occasionally comic books, and I started talking about graphic novels. We probably shared reactions to Maus: A Survivor's Tale by Art Spiegelman, where Jewish mice are oppressed by Nazi cats, and Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi, where female children in Iran struggle with political oppressions; we've likely conversed about their sequels and adaptations—Persepolis eventually became a movie. Memory tells me that one of my gifts from him was the graphic memoir They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, an actor best known for his role as Sulu on multiple seasons of Star Trek but also a memoirist.


Sulu's family were of Japanese descent, his father born in Japan, his mother, his siblings, and himself born in the United States. The memoir centers on his childhood experiences with his family while, because of their family background, they were incarcerated in concentration camps in Arkansas and California during World War II. I've read it a few times now. Initially, by paying more attention to the nature of graphic storytelling, I considered finding a way to think more about Takei's book and compare the political nature of it to those by Spiegelman and Satrapi, all centered on troubling historical moments. The oppressors in Takei's memoir are not quite as villainous as the Nazis and Jihadis in those other books, but they are certainly callous, oppressive, and unjust, and Takei's mention in the final pages of recent bans on Muslim immigration to the United States as on a par with the treatment of Japanese Americans in the 1940s brings his readers into the present.


But then I started connecting Takei's graphic memoir to other visual presentations that have haunted me, specifically Dorothea Lange's internment camp photos that caught my attention over a year ago. I'm tempted to focus on two aspects of Takei's book: its internal narrative and graphic representation of the internment camp and its effort to make the book almost like a scene-by-scene reproduction of a film. On one page there are two almost-identical pictures depicting the Japanese-American internees in the context of two problematic items on a form they were asked to sign, the first making them feel complicit in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the second making them deny an allegiance to an emperor they never felt to begin with. Another page had three images of military trucks in increasing sizes, each with sounds labeled on them, each larger (and louder) in succession. The sequence suggests to me one of the aspects of the book's narrative composition, the graphics working almost like clips from a movie or television series. In an expanded version of the book published a year later, additional pages explain how the illustrator, Harmony Becker, worked with Takei and two co-authors, Justin Eisinger and Steve Scott, to visualize the moments and develop them in an almost cinematic way. One could imagine the book as a graphic screenplay. Throughout the book we are aware that Takei is narrating the story as if it were a TEDx talk—in fact, he is sometimes portrayed on the TEDx stage, sometimes in close-up, sometimes at a distance, the way the speakers on those telecasts are filmed.


So what is the difference between a Lange photograph and a Takei-Becker graphic, between a static image and a hand-drawn illustration? I've seen a series of black-and-white photographs that Lange took at the internment camp. They are not sequential or serial, but essentially random and individual and cumulative in their often ironic impact on the viewer. The images in Takei's graphic memoir, also in black-and-white, are less explicit in terms of background and close-up details; they emphasize expressions on individual faces and establish sequences of action and re-action in the characters they depict. Narrative insertions tend to contextualize the images. The book is cinematic in its visuals and sound-effects and virtually provides a voice-over narration as well as dialogue in prose rather than in sound.


In the expanded edition Takei explains how the book came together through the efforts of himself and his team. They essentially provided a screenplay for a graphic production of the story Takei was essentially telling on his TED talk in Kyoto. Does this alter our sense of how a graphic novel or graphic memoir (or comic book) operates? A sequence of narrative images that might readily be transferred to cinematic animation? I've seen (and enjoyed) Marjane Satrapi's film version of Persepolis. I suspect that Maus could make the transfer readily. Maybe we yet will get the chance to see They Called Me Enemy as an animated film and reading the graphic memoir will be even more emphatically like reading the screenplay of the film.


Notes: George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steve Scott, and Harmony Becker. They Called Us Enemy. Expanded Edition. IDW Printing, 2020.


Dorothea Lange, Pledge of Allegiance Internment Image is viewable here.

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Essaying Aging


Nearly fifty years ago, Carl Klaus introduced me to English Restoration drama in a graduate course at the University of Iowa. Good paperback editions existed of plays by the best- known dramatists—Dryden, Etherege, Wycherley, Congreve—but only a library copy was available for Thomas Southerne's The Wives Excuse. Carl assigned me to report on it in class. That began my immersion in Restoration drama and eventually led to my wide-ranging dissertation, The Problematics of Marriage: English Comedy 1688-1710, directed by Carl in the English Department and Judith Milhous in Theatre. I remember Carl sticking up for my approach to the subject matter at my dissertation defense. My first scholarly book, Thomas Southerne, followed a few years later.


Academic Jobs for Restoration specialists were few, and when I became an unemployed Ph.D., Carl advised me to pursue a year of post-doctoral study, concentrating on composition, rhetorical theory, and nonfiction literature, courses that would eventually become a Masters Program. Though my employment at Central Michigan University initially began as a result of my having taught Ancient and Biblical Literature at Iowa as a teaching assistant, composition and nonfiction became the major focus of my academic career. I wrote a a textbook for composition classes, a book on nonfiction writers, and, with Carl's editorial input, a study of a major essayist, E. B. White. Eventually, I became an essayist and memoirist.


Carl had co-written or co-edited several textbooks and anthologies—Elements of the Essay was a favorite of mine—but as he neared retirement, he focused more on his own nonfiction narratives. An avid gardener, he published My Vegetable Love: A Journal of a Growing Season (1996) and Weathering Winter: A Gardener's Daybook (1997)—the second book, drawn from a portion of the first book that his commercial publisher preferred to omit, was published by University of Iowa Press. Later it also published Taking Retirement: A Beginners Diary (1999). All three books grew out of frequent journaling, the process of thinking by writing constantly—often daily—rather than standing back from composition in hopes of something eventually rising to demand expression. I don't use that method often enough but relied on it for portions of my first travel memoir and for writing weekly radio essays years ago and, presently, for composing weekly blog posts (like this one).


Everything I've written here was set in motion by discovering Carl Klaus' newest book, The Ninth Decade: An Octogenarian's Chronicle, covering his thoughts about aging. Each chapter focuses on a six-month period in his life from his eightieth birthday to his eighty-eighth. The book, he claims, is "a product of good luck and irrepressible curiosity" that grew out of his desire to learn what others had written about their eighties and, unable to locate "personal books on the subject," encouraged recording his own experiences and reactions. The format resembles his approach to composing the gardening and retirement books as well as Letters to Kate, centered on the loss of his wife, the writer Kate Franks. His letters updating Kate about his efforts to adjust to her absence are a form of confessional grief therapy that helps him arrive at a place where he can continue to live a life without her, a life he never wanted to be living.


In The Ninth Decade he sets out to chronicle his adjustment to his eighties by recording not only what he thinks and feels about his health and his most intimate relationships but also by noting "the experiences of other octogenarians—loved ones, friends, acquaintances—and thereby produce a collective depiction of life after eighty." Each essay is based on notes made throughout a six-month period and recounts encounters with friends, family members, and acquaintances, health issues for him and his beloved, experiences during brief vacations or excursions. Throughout he expresses his innermost reactions to moments of pleasure, pain, and, inevitably, grief, as many of the people he worked with and socialized with pass away.


My copy of The Ninth Decade now has about a dozen dogeared pages, some of them reminding me of people I knew in Iowa, mostly my professors or advisors, tactfully identified by first names only, and some of them reminding me of aspects of aging I'm beginning to be too aware of myself. I'm a decade younger than Carl, and though I suffer from few of his ailments, I identify with certain aspects of his life: his efforts at and resistance to decluttering, his problems with hearing or with mobility or, most familiar, with memory. I'm not that far from eighty. I'll keep Carl's book handy for when I reach it, to give myself notice of what I might expect, what likely lies ahead of me. I'll also hope to face up to aging as well as he has.



Note: Carl H. Klaus, The Ninth Decade: An Octogenarian's Chronicle. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2021.


Laura Farmer. "Writing is a 'mind-altering endeavor' for Carl Klaus." The Gazette. Oct. 21, 2021. 7:00 am


Root, Robert. Interview with Carl Klaus, Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction 14.1 (Spring 2012): 125-145.


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Seeing the Invisible

Ai Weiwei, "Gilded Cage"


I recently toured "Seeing the Invisible," billed as "An Augmented Reality Contemporary Art Exhibition," at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens' Spanish Point campus on Little Sarasota Bay. We'd walked its 30 acres of varying historical and environmental sites several times over the years—entered its "Window on the Past" archaeological exhibit within an ancient shell midden; checked out the pioneer history also preserved there, a few buildings carefully restored; and strolled well-maintained formal gardens and lawns. A twisting walkway extends partway out a wooded peninsula (the Spanish point) and bridges a cove to further historic buildings and gardens. Spanish Point is rich in botanical variety, small signs identifying plants and trees everywhere, and the landscape abounding in butterflies. It felt odd this time to walk around Spanish Point and not pay ardent attention to the landscape.


"Seeing the Invisible," which will run until August 2022, features works being simultaneously displayed in five other countries—Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, Israel, and South Africa—and five other states. Developed by the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens, it highlights works by thirteen artists of varying international heritage. At each site visitors who have downloaded the exhibit app (preferably before arriving at Spanish Point) can stand near a numbered sign to open up a scan of an artist's presentation and hear audio accompaniment. The first site opened on Daito Manabe's "Morphecore Prototype AR," showing, the online guide tells us, "an endlessly dancing digital figure, continuously morphing into new shapes." All the while I could see the wooded garden behind him. Juno Enoch, the box office attendant who helped me activate my app, had led me to that site and when she indicated something behind the contortionist, her physical hand entered the digital image.


Out on the point, in a sunken garden with a pergola, I opened "Dawn Chorus," Sarah Meyohas' presentation. A player piano appeared in front of me from which birds "seem[ed] to trigger a series of musical phrases . . . Watercolors bloom[ed] across the surface of the piano, visualizing the movement of the birds as well as the sound waves that emanate[d] from the vibrating strings." I stepped away from the piano, then nearer, then from one side to the other, occasionally glancing away from my phone to assure myself that no piano or birds were actually in front of me.


Not far from the sunken garden, on an open lawn, other visitors investigated Ai Weiwei's "Gilded Cage," appearing as a huge circular wooden structure with open entrances on either side. One woman trying to walk through it disappeared when she reached the wall. I moved my phone up and down to scan the height of the walls, then circled the cage, confirming that it was fully three-dimensional. Weiwei had made his augmented reality project from an earlier physical work he had constructed. On site it seemed fully real. Further out the point, at the end of the walkway, I tuned into a 3-D scan of "a snake-like creature entwined with a dry cactus," Jacob Kudsk Steensen's "Water Serpent," and watched it writhe for several minutes as its global eye turned toward and away from me.


Before my iPhone overheated and shut down (exhibitors recommend bringing a charger on your walk—I didn't), I viewed two works on open lawns. Timor Si-Qin's "Biome Gateway" displays "a temple cave that connects the biotopes and organisms of the botanical garden to a parallel universe," part of the artist's "long-term meta-project" reacting to "climate change, global pandemics, and biodiversity." An open portal invites entrance. Sigalit Landau's "Salt Stalagmite #1 (Three Bridges)," a tall, sprawling structure that made me back ever further away to take it all in, "derives from Landau's original idea of building a floating salt bridge over the Dead Sea to connect Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Jordan." Until I opened those scans, I found myself in the midst of lively large butterflies and moths, reminding me that I'd previously come to Spanish Point for the natural environment, the woods and the gardens and the views of the bay.


I shut down the app and un-augmented Spanish Point returned to view, the small AR number signs barely noticeable. I'd been only slightly uncomfortable walking through a garden looking at my phone, pleased to have had the reality of a familiar place modified in the way it had been, impressed with the quality of imagination in the art, and uncertain how to feel about their impermanence. How much of the digital future should I be willing to accept as a permanent addition to the past? When I visit Spanish Point again next year, after the exhibition has ended, I wonder how many of those images I'll still be able to visualize, and how often in the future we'll accept having reality augmented.


Note: "Seeing the Invisible: An Augmented Reality Contemporary Art Exhibition," Marie Selby Botanical Gardens Historic Spanish Point Campus

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Augmenting Reality


"Augmented Reality" was, for me, an unfamiliar term. I only seen it for the first time online pursuing some connections that started out in my reading. My youthful self once had contemplated a career as an archaeologist until a hot afternoon digging with a spoon in a small square patch of dirt at a historical site made me think the career might not be much like it was in movies like King Solomon's Mines and Valley of the Kings. But interest in ancient sites stayed with me and I enjoyed occasionally being a history tourist. I took in Fort Niagara in my home county, Fort George across the Niagara River in Ontario, and Forts Ticonderoga and William Henry in the Adirondacks (also enduring my siblings' preference, Santa's Workshop in North Pole, NY). Visiting relatives in Cooperstown, I fantasized about the setting for The Deerslayer and made sure to visit Natty Bumppo's Cave and Leatherstocking Falls whenever I could. Where I lived, history seemed only to go back a couple centuries.


Many years later, in the summer of 1982, Sue and I traveled into the southwest where we explored the ancient Anasazi sites of Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon. It took ten years to complete my essay "Anasazi" in time to publish it in an anthology recognizing the 500th anniversary of Columbus's first voyage to the Americas. Somewhere in those years our wanderings took us to Aztalan State Park in Wisconsin, a National Historic Site that flourished between CE 1000 and 1300, and also to the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in Illinois, across the Mississippi from St. Louis. Cahokia and Aztalan both centered around earthen mounds, Cahokia's scale far more massive than Aztalan's, and clearly they were related. I've gone out of my way to visit midwestern mound building sites—Effigy Mounds in Iowa, Serpent Mound in Ohio. Wisconsin has the most abundant mounds in North America and over the years here we've tracked down many of the most prominent sites still surviving.


In all that time I've only written that one essay about such ancient cultures, but I've read the writing of others about them, most memorably Reg Saner's Reaching Keet Seel: Ruin's Echo and the Anasazi, Elizabeth Dodd's essay "Cahokia" in Prospect: Journeys and Landscapes, and her writing about Chaco Canyon in Horizon's Lens: My Time on the Turning World. So it shouldn't be surprising that Annalee Newitz's new book, Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age, caught my attention. It recounts the author's visits to four significant archaeological sites: Çatalhöyük in Turkey, which thrived from 7500 to 5700 BCE; Pompeii in Italy, 700 BCE-79 CE; Angkor in Cambodia, 800-1431 CE; and Cahokia in North America, 1050-1350 CE. The chapters on each site open with a map drawn by Jason Thompson that I find myself turning back to often as my reading progresses.


The book is fascinating, drawing on a breadth of knowledge about each city that has accumulated over years of on-site research. When I started the section on Pompeii, I paid attention as if this were a class in archaeology. The book cover colorfully offers strips of illustrations but, other than those maps, no further images appear to help me picture what I'd see if I were accompanying the author on those visits. Because I'd once been to Cahokia, the location that drew me to the book in the first place, I went online to see what images I might find. Surely that historic park would have undergone changes in the decades since I'd first seen it.


And that's where the idea of "augmented reality" comes in. In any number of museums and historic sites, I've rented audio guides to accompany my viewing, but when I entered the Cahokia Mounds Website, I was immediately informed about the Augmented Reality Project, a video guide to elements in the park. At carefully mapped locations visitors can link on iPads or iPhones to digital sites that will allow them to view the landscape in front of them and then transform it into a visual reconstruction of the site as it might have appeared seven to nine thousand years ago. The images alter—augment—the reality before your eyes, so that you might have the sense of being at Cahokia as it once was, simultaneously seeing it both now and then.


Another trip to Cahokia, about 5 hours away, means taking close to a full day to augment reality as thoroughly as I possibly could. I wouldn't simply be sight-seeing—I'd be engaging in time travel, visiting not only the remains of a lost city but experiencing it, on one level, in its own time. Given the times we're living in, I'd very likely feel like a visitor from the future arriving in an augmented present.


Notes: Newitz, Annalee. Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age. New York: WW Norton, 2021.


Cahokia Mounds Website—Augmented Reality Project

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Something came into my head about distance, circled around vaguely, and then evaporated, leaving a barely perceivable image or nearly inaudible echo to remind me that I'd somehow thought about it. From time to time over the course of the day I'd hear and/or visualize that word and hope to recognize more distinctly what it originally alluded to. It might have been prompted by the realization, growing increasingly constant, that we would be leaving Sarasota around the end of week, returning home to southeast Wisconsin. That would certainly put distance between where we had been for over a month and where we would be throughout the end of the year and most of the following year, until we almost certainly would come back again.


The physical distance between the two locations is around 1,329 miles, at least on the highways we used to take when we drove back and forth—we tend to fly now—but I doubt that's the distance I was thinking of. Those are just miles, mere spatial measurements that my old AAA maps and my current iPhone GPS could readily help me track. I suspect that physical space wasn't what brought distance to mind.


The thought of distance possibly arose after a Sunday evening FaceTime conversation with our son in California. Since we were calling from Florida, we added one more time zone to the complication of getting in touch, mid-evening on the east coast lining up with his workday's end on the west coast. We had a good conversation, chatting mostly about the challenges of negotiating recurring computer problems, laughing about his momentarily aligning with our generation in regard to technology while distancing himself from the generation of his nieces and nephews. When we called, he was physically 2,591 miles away from us and from his sister and her family in Sarasota and 2,068 miles away from his other sister and her family in Wisconsin, the ones 1,329 miles north of where we were calling from.


The call ended and distance immediately became less tangible, if communicating face to face through the internet can be considered tangible. We wouldn't talk again for days. He would turn his attention to his daily life, as we would, he to screenwriting and program production, we to Sue's tutoring schedule and my doing—well—this sort of thing. In Florida and in Wisconsin, our daughters and their husbands and their children would be preoccupied with schooling, extracurricular activities, employment, household chores, and time together. We would visit with the Florida gang one more evening and the next day see them in the morning on the way to the airport; we hoped to see the Wisconsin gang when we got off the bus from O'Hare but likely would have to wait a few more days. Close personal distance briefly experienced and enjoyed before we all return to separate preoccupations in our own houses and renew the physical distances we're accustomed to.


Somewhere, probably in something that cropped up in our interactions with everyone over the past few weeks, I started to let go of my sense of distance in terms of where everyone was and recognize it more in who everyone had become—or was becoming. When you live with someone daily, you barely notice the changes in them, not simply physical alterations but also modifications in personality, in their—and your—sense of their identity. Distance in terms of time tends to offer revelations of various kinds when, after long absence, you reunite once more. Children now have clearly become adolescents, their preoccupations and interests have expanded beyond their family lives, their conversations—their very vocabularies—are more mature, more grounded in deeper present knowledge. They rely less on the wisdom and knowledge (and approval) of their parents and grandparents. And the grandparents discover that they can turn for advice or guidance or relevant information to their own children who have become reliable masters of their own fields, their own environments, their own lives.


I used to think of life as something like a solar system: As an infant you are at the center of the system, aware only of the moment you're in, your own identity, your dependence on your parents; then you become an independent adult, a parent yourself, and your parents orbit more distantly as grandparents; then your children grow up, are independent, and become parents and you become a grandparent, often aware of the distance you've come from where you started out and what you used to be. Talking to my children about their work and their lives and observing my grandchildren engaging in their encounters with all of us and the outside world, I recognize that distance is in all of us and has been since we first began to exist.


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Self-isolating during a pandemic well into its second year often makes you feel as if time has stopped moving forward. Each day is like countless days before and will predictably be like days to come, if other days actually come. During our weeks in Sarasota to escape allergy dangers back home, I sometimes struggle to recall what we did before we came here, whether our secluded life there differed from our secluded life here. We frequently ask one another what day of the week it is, and later I check the calendar on my watch or laptop to make sure it's still the same day.


But time itself has not been quarantined. The sun now rises a little later each morning, shifts its position in the sky a tad further south, illuminates our lanai at a slightly different angle. And because we have other family elsewhere in Florida whom we crossed the state to see last weekend, we've had to acknowledge that time is still passing, has passed, will keep passing.


We hadn't seen my sister-in-law—my brother's widow—for over two years and, like many distant relatives avoiding contagion, had missed my brother's funeral a year ago. We met Linda for lunch at a Coral Springs restaurant, the three of us the only customers entering masked. Her daughter and son-in-law and their children, except for a son in graduate school, were militantly unvaccinated, and though I'd known my niece all her life—had subbed as godfather at her christening—I'd worried about transmission if we met them. But only Linda was there, very much thinner now than when we saw her last. She mentioned her many siblings, whom we'd met decades earlier, and reviewed for us the ones still alive and the spouses surviving the ones who had passed. We tried to speak about my brother's death but choked up during our attempt at shared consolation. She knew that her present time was radically different than it had been over a year before; no matter how similar each day now seemed, she was always conscious of the past she carried with her.


That afternoon we drove to Daytona Beach, where our oldest grandchild had started her freshman year of college. At her parents' home in Sarasota, we had been alert to Zola's absence, of course, but her teen-aged brother was often out and about and only her younger sister was there to amuse us—or have us amuse her—with various board games, and so we didn't think too much about where she'd gone until we set off for her college. We went directly to the campus to meet her and her three roommates and treated them to dinner at a good organic restaurant. The girls were chatty and funny and we enjoyed their company. On the following morning we met our granddaughter alone—her roommates slept in—and she gave us a campus tour before we took her to breakfast. On the restaurant patio, we three unmasked and mostly alone, she relaxed for personable conversation. She knew where she was and who she was and whom she was confident she would become. She could fully inhabit the present and was confident of where it would take her into the future.


We returned to Sarasota that day, dropped off our seven-passenger rental car that temporarily replaced the four-passenger Honda Fit our granddaughter drove before college—the coeds all joked at length about learning to drive both stick and automatic and the order in which they'd learned them and in what country—and drove to our daughter's house to share our experiences on the east coast. The grandson was out with friends, and the young granddaughter set up the Herd Your Horses Game (which she won). Her parents enjoyed hearing our impressions of Zola's campus and roommates but were very conscious of having initiated the first stage of Empty Nest Syndrome, that inevitable period when children reach the end of childhood and launch themselves into adulthood—I saw my daughter tear up once after a cheery phone call. There was some comfort in thinking their daughter was handling growing up well.


Memories arose. When my daughter had been her daughter's age, we'd visited her on campus at Penn State her freshman year. On our return home to Michigan, three empty bedrooms and quieter meals reminded us that all our children were now college students. Since then, time has passed steadily, consistently, relentlessly, and now it was passing inexorably again. We would soon be back in Wisconsin, relying on FaceTime to provide a disembodied way to keep in touch with how our children and grandchildren were spending time in the present and moving into the future. We are well aware of how much we needed to remember the past.


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Tree Watching


The lanai in the ground-floor condominium we're renting opens to the east, towards golf course fairways. The daily sunrise comes a little later now that seasons have changed, and we expect our mornings to grow slightly darker daily. I usually work at the dining room table, facing the lanai, where Sue sometimes works if she rose earlier than I did, but with curtains open along that glass wall of our living area, the sun glares directly at me once it clears the stand of trees in the center of our view. I often move into the kitchen if no clouds dull the sun's intensity and I can't avoid its brilliance. Once the sun ascends high enough to be hidden from direct sight, I return to the dining area, distract myself by noticing the high arc of the golf course sprinklers—at least four rotating in the distance this morning, two of them dueling with one another—and then try to settle into some project in progress.


This morning, once the sprinklers turn off, the fairway is nearly devoid of motion of any kind. I see no birds, only an expanse of green grass interrupted by occasional gray patches of crushed seashells, the largest below five trees, four of them close together, the fifth a little way off. I don't know why the gravel needs to stretch so far to include the fifth tree or, for that matter, why the gravel is there at all when trees closer to the stream and to our condo complex have none. Six trees in another group aren't the same species as that group of five, but three widely spaced singles in line with that half dozen and a lone one like it are. Standing at the entrance to the lanai to check all this out I spot an isolated third quartet of trees, possibly a third species, clustered further into the course.


Gazing out of the lanai, I realize that each day I chiefly look for birds, as if nothing else would be visible in that landscape, but today I see all those trees. And, in my second autumn viewing them, I'm only now aware that, other than deciduous or coniferous, I don't know what kind of trees they are. Looking for any tree guides possibly stashed in a drawer or basket somewhere, I notice on the coffee table Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest by Suzanne Simard, the book we finished reading aloud together last night. Perhaps it alerted me to the presence of the trees.


Simard chronicles her decades-long effort to understand relationships among forest trees, starting with studies of interchanges between Douglas firs and birches and the impact of clear-cutting and competitive logging practices on forest restoration, tree growth, and climate change. One of the richest elements of the book is her growing recognition of systems of communication in the natural communities that echo those in human communities, including personal dimensions of her own health. She makes us aware of the underground networks of interaction in neighboring root systems and brings readers to a deeper appreciation of the lives of trees. As she made clear in an earlier TED talk, available online, "Forests are not simply collections of trees, they're complex systems with hubs and networks that overlap and connect trees and allow them to communicate, and they provide avenues for feedback and adaptation, and this makes the forest resilient [. . .]" She changes the way we comprehend the life of forests.


I'm not seeing a forest beyond my lanai, only intermittent small groups or starkly single trees. Virtually none have any plant growth around them where a golf ball might disappear, and that conifer cluster's brown ground cover likely is an accumulation of fallen needles. Only those few groups of trees are likely to be interlinked underground. Given the sand or seashells beneath them, the trees in bunkers may not be able to communicate with each other, let alone other species. All that relentless sprinkling, even in the midst of rain, is principally for the benefit of the grass on the fairways and greens; nurturing the trees is more of a necessary collateral effort—dead trees don't make an inviting golf course.


The course posts videos showing what fairways looked like stripped of grass, how uniformly green they'll be when the restoration is over. The abundance of powerful sprinklers suggests a vast network of pipes and hoses under the replaced grasses. I wonder what kind of soil subsurface there is for roots to reach.


After reading Simard I'm not just more attentive to the trees—I'm feeling a great deal of sympathy for them. At least when the golfers come back, the club will be sure to keep the isolated trees alive.


Notes: Simard, Suzanne. Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2021.


Simard, Suzanne. How trees talk to each other: TED Talk, YouTube, August 30, 2016


Simard, Suzanne. Finding the Mother Tree: Talks at Google, YouTube, May 7, 2021

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