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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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Where We Are Again


Last fall, gazing through the glass wall of our rental and across the screened-in lanai and beyond a row of trimmed bushes and a shallow stream toward the sprawling Champions golf course, I continually caught sight of plentiful birds and squirrels and golfers and golf carts and, at least once, an alligator floating past. This fall, we've heard a host of cicadas and observed a few sandhill cranes, one solitary ibis, a handful of limpkins and half a dozen blackbirds, but none of the other birds—osprey, wood stork, black-bellied whistling ducks, and many more ibises—that engaged my attention on the course last year. Directly across from us the breadth of white—likely ground seashells—under tall trees has expanded. I mostly notice a wide range of powerful sprinklers alternately spraying different sections of the fairways at different times throughout the day. Despite spotting course-bound golf carts on our morning neighborhood walks, we've yet to see anyone golfing. Occasionally, a barely visible golf cart in the distance speeds along a pathway, probably manned by someone in maintenance. The golf course, started 60 years ago, has once again been renovated, "tee to green," bunkers altered, fairways stripped and then furnished with new greens and grasses. It's not ready yet for golfers to return.


Visiting Sarasota family in earlier years, we felt like vacationers. Autumn in Wisconsin didn't seem so problematic then: Sue's allergies were less intense, the ragweed season shorter-lived, and leaving home didn't feel urgent. In Sarasota we became familiar with certain restaurants, supermarkets, specialty food shops, including a yogurt outlet the grandkids enjoyed, and a well-stocked liquor store. We returned annually to a couple favorite coffee shops and breakfast spots, certain museums or libraries to visit with the kids, city parks for walking, a botanical garden, a wooded preserve near the kids' neighborhood, a state park with abundant waterfowl. We drove across Little Sarasota Bay to Siesta Key to stroll or swim at beaches along the Gulf of Mexico or tour a well-stocked aquarium. We went to places where we added some pleasure to the life we shared with family.


But this is a second pandemic year, more intense now in Florida than last year. Last autumn, before vaccine, people expected Covid-19 would run its course and vanish. When we visited our daughter and her family, everyone wore masks and kept safe distance as best they could. The grandkids wrestled with online learning, their parents balanced work from home with work on site, and restraint ruled social interaction. By this fall the two older children and their parents have been vaccinated and only the eleven-year-old hasn't been yet. Sue and I have had our necessary first two inoculations and she's had one more booster shot. At least this year none of us in the family wear masks when we visit at their house.


In Florida, as in too many other states, the pandemic now takes its toll principally on the unvaccinated and the anti-vaxxers, encouraged in their folly by a governor—himself appropriately vaccinated—who insists that citizens, especially school children, stay unmasked while mingling with others. We're persistently uncomfortable being here, disinclined to enter places we often used to go, relying still on curbside pick-ups and home deliveries, uninspired now by the same locale that formerly invigorated us. We've merely traded the familiar semi-isolation of our northern home for the more humid but fiercely air-conditioned isolation of our southern retreat.


We've been visiting family in Sarasota for decades now and often leave moved by the changes they've gone through: our oldest grandchild began college this fall, her brother and sister have continued growing taller and smarter, their parents appreciate their children's expanding maturity and hold their own in their workplaces. Not least of what I regret about the pandemic is how it distracts me from aspects of my life I value most.


In recent days a snowy egret landed on the stream's far bank, unnerving two nearby limpkins. After they departed, only a distant high-arcing sprinkler activated the scene. One day five sandhill cranes honked repeatedly while looking across fairway and stream at our lanai. Another day, during a heavy downpour, three powerful course sprayers added to the inundation at length. Yesterday, briefly, a wood stork and a spoonbill showed up; today an osprey perched in a treetop. I wondered if life here might again become as familiar, as active, as it used to be, even in the absence of golfers.


We'll leave Sarasota soon, expecting to return next autumn, when ragweed will be rampant again back home. Which Sarasota will we visit then, the one our grandchildren were growing up in before the pandemic or the one that now hauntingly makes us unsettled and uncertain about the future? Where we be again?


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Being a Bird


How many times in your reading do you cry out "Oh, my god!" or "No, no ki dding, no"? How often is it likely to be in a book that intends to be mostly informative? I read a lot of nature memoirs or narratives in which writers wander around outdoors and contemplate what they see—Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez, Gretel Ehrlich, John McPhee, and others. I've read a few birding memoirs as well: T. H. White's The Goshawk, Helen Macdonald's H Is for Hawk and Vesper Flights, Jonathan C. Slaght's Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World's Largest Owl, Susan Cerulean's I Have Been Assigned the Single Bird, and J. Drew Lanham's The Home Place. I own several different bird guides, some a uthored by familiar names—John James Audubon, Roger Torey Peterson, and David Allen Sibley (men who write bird books usually have three names). National Geographic's Field Guide to the Birds of North America (Third Edition) rests on a shelf near our front door, so I can identify the birds who snack at our front yard feeders, and the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds: Eastern Region travels with us in a backpack in our car. I'm pretty certain that none of these made me blurt anything out loud.


But here I am reading a lovely gift from my daughter and her Florida family, What It's Like to be a Bird by David Allen Sibley. I imagine that Sibley has authored the most read bird guides after Audubon. Here I am, past the fact-filled multi-pages of introduction and into the dual-page treatments of individual birds, and I find myself having to stop on pages about Alcids to exclaim once again "Oh, my god!" and "Are you kidding?"


We're past the Loon, perhaps the bird I admire most, denizen of Lake Superior and favorite sites along the shores of Isle Royale, of whom I've written before, having discovered how fast their offspring grow to become independent feeders and what good parents they are—I know this—and how they need open lakes to catch flight into the air—but three pages later I'm looking at Alcids, "equivalent to penguins but unrelated," their large bills "strange and wondrous" and unexplainable, and how their related Murres can dive 200 feet below the surface, "unlikely using vision to locate and pursue prey, but"—and I quote here—"nobody knows what senses they are using." "Similarly, no one knows how the birds withstand the pressure of those depths . . . or how they can travel that far and fast without breathing."


And then Sibley goes on to Cormorants, another of my favorites, "the most efficient marine predator in the world," where he explains that, unlike humans, whose vision blurs underwater, they have a flexible lens that lets them see clearly. When talking about Sandhill cranes, which I encounter annually, he tells us that "what we call a bird's foot is really just the toe bones," and what we think is the bird's shin is actually its ankle. The book is rich in this kind of information.


Did you know that if you record bird song and then play it back at half-speed, you'll hear a wider range of notes and pitches than you thought you'd heard? My recent reading, in a variety of nature books, has made me aware of how much more complicated and sophisticated relationships within and among other species are than our human-centered attention to the world has led us to believe. I noticed this in Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer and anticipated it in Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard, our current dinner read. I'm learning it in Elizabeth Kolbert's writing on the shrinking of Lake Powell and Rivka Galchen's article on the potential to view the earliest ages of the universe, both in the August 16 issue of The New Yorker.


Almost weekly, sometimes daily, I realize how much what I've always taken for granted was wrong, partly because I gave no thought to it at all but partly because little in my information sources or, to be honest, in my education made me consider it. We're living in an age where what we're doing to our planet's climate is rapidly altering the kind of future it will offer us and learning what we've overlooked in the life forces all around us, including the nature of humanity as well as the nature of the other creatures that we need to share the planet with. Even as I'm exhilarated by what we're discovering about existence, I'm dismayed to realize how long it's taken us to get here and how little time we have left to understand it more fully.



Notes: Sibley, David Allen. What It's Like to Be a Bird: From Flying to Nesting, Eating to Singing—What Birds Are Doing, and Why. New York: Penguin/Random House, 2020.

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I once saw, somewhere, a display of Audubon's original double-elephant folio format (29½ by 39½ inches) colorplates depicting life-sized and lively birds. He later published a smaller seven-volume octavo edition. My copy of the Audubon Society Baby Elephant Folio edition of Audubon's Birds of America, edited by Roger Torrey Peterson and Virginia Marie Peterson, contains all 500 plates reorganized to meet contemporary classifications and measures 4 by 4½ inches. The Spring 2021 issue of Audubon, the Audubon Society magazine featured an article by J. Drew Lanham (his book The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man's Love Affair with Nature was then on my nightstand) titled "What Do We Do About John James Audubon?" The article prompted me to re-read a graphic biography of Audubon I also own.


Audubon: On the Wings of the World by Fabien Grolleau, illustrated by Jérémie Royer, follows Audubon's early nineteenth-century travels in search of North American birds. It opens on the Mississippi River in 1820 as Audubon and rafting companions seek shelter from a storm in a cave where he draws an owl. This prologue establishes Audubon's tendency to ignore people around him and concentrate on his sense of artistic mission. His obsession with art is his most elemental characteristic. He continually wanders alone, shooting birds and posing them for his drawings. Pages of panels go by without words, any text only quoting his original writings or appearing as dialogue when he interacts with others, such as his patient wife or infrequent traveling companions. One narrative thread emphasizes his relationship with Alexander Wilson, his prominent predecessor at bird illustration, which later is portrayed as imagined encounters in Audubon's delirium and ending with Audubon's dying fantasy of morphing into an eagle, destroying a vulture-like Wilson, and reigning supreme over a world of birds. The book simultaneously celebrates and complicates Audubon's career.


In his foreword Grolleau acknowledges his "retelling" as "a more 'romanticised' version of Audubon's life." He admits that "views expressed in Audubon's writing and in the speech of the characters" reflect "the oppressive attitudes and terminology of the time towards African American and indigenous peoples," but credits him as "an unparalleled ornithological painter" and "one of the fathers of modern American ecology." Endnotes revealing that "numerous episodes . . . were inspired by Audubon's writings" cite specific chapters in his Ornithological Biography and admit to having "invoked a little artistic license" (as when Audubon meets Darwin). Alluding to the section where Audubon meets a runaway slave and gets him to return with his family to his owner, Grolleau acknowledges, "This book does not show that Audubon kept slaves" and his having "chosen to evoke [the subject] only in this episode inspired by his writings." Given his attention to Audubon's art and its enduring influence, was that an appropriate choice?


J. Drew Lanham doesn't think so. He claims that, though "relatively few men of his time" spoke against slavery, Audubon "enslaved at least nine people," identified as "servants" or "hands," and was seemingly "unconcerned about" their status. Audubon himself, Lanham suggests, was possibly of mixed race, since his mother might have been (or perhaps wasn't) Creole. Lanham expresses admiration for Audubon's art and acknowledges his enduring influence on ornithology, yet his sense of the artist's racism continually undercuts that appreciation. Identifying himself as a Black birdwatcher and declaring "I don't just love birds, I'm in love with birds," he's continually conscious of his separate status among birders, who are overwhelmingly white.  He identifies most nature writers as "a pantheon that speaks to the white patriarchy that drives nature study in the western world."


As a retired pre-boomer heterosexual Caucasian male educator of multi-generational European-American descent, I can easily, in 2021, be accused of racist, sexist, political, and/or philosophical bias no matter what position I take, so I won't take much of one here. Based on the evidence Lanham offers I don't find his argument fully convincing but appreciate his explanation of his mixed reactions. I don't identify myself as a White birder (to the extent I'm a birder) and am seldom self-conscious about my race. Perhaps, if Lanham hadn't examined Audubon's biography the way he has, the race issue would not have intruded between them. We would never be aware of it if we concentrated on the art—the accomplishments— of the person under investigation and didn't explore the artist's potential for flaws of character. I read Lanham's The Home Place without much attention to issues of race until the final chapters, more attuned to his personality and humanity, the elements of family and personal growth that gave me more insight into the human condition. What disturbs Lanham about Audubon is not to be found in Birds of America, a book that Lanham still keeps on his shelves. I'll keep my copy as well.


Notes: Grolleau, Fabien, & Jérémie Royer. Audubon: On the Wings of the World. Trans. Etienne Gilfillan. London: Nobrow, 2016.


Lanham, J. Drew, "What Do We Do About John James Audubon?" Audubon (v123:n1, Spring 2021: 28-35)

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