It’s As I Always Told You

August Blackberries

Blackberry Picking

by Seamus Heaney

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.

Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush

The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.


Botanists define the difference between a fruit and a vegetable this way; a fruit is anything that develops from the flower of a plant and the a vegetable is anything we eat that comes from another portion of the plant like leaves, stems, roots or stalk.  Of course plant breeders have ingeniously discovered genes that allow for seedless grapes, seedless watermelons and all matter of seedless fruits, but as a whole, most fruits can be identified by containing seeds.  So what are nuts?   In most cases they are the seed and we would classify them as a fruit.   Even peanuts, which flower above ground have a unique adaptation where the  fertilized flower sends a unique structure below ground to form the fruit, which we think of as the peanut hull with the fruits inside.

So why are most fruits sweet?   There are several reasons; either energy for the developing plant or enticement for transport by birds or animals,  transport beyond what would normally happen if it fell to the ground where it would compete with the mother plant.   Why are some vegetables sweeter than some fruits?  It all comes down to what mixture and concentration of sugars are contained in the plant.  There are three primary sugars in plants, sucrose, fructose and glucose. Sucrose consists of one fructose molecule and one glucose molecule.  Fructose is the sweetest on our tongues, sucrose next and glucose the least.  All three are the building blocks for carbohydrates that fuel the energy cells need for all living organisms.  In the graphic below, tomatoes, a fruit, have the lowest concentration of sugars, while sugar beets, a vegetable, have the highest, so its impossible to paint with a broad brush, saying fruits are always sweeter than vegetables, as plant selection over time and modern plant breeders have been able to select for varieties that maximize the value of the plant for which its used.  In northern latitudes most granulated sugar is made form sugar beets, whereas in the rest of the world it is made from sugar cane.  Which is better for the environment and cheaper to raise? Hands down, sugar cane.  Without a strong lobby and without government subsidies, sugar beets and the sugar industry in North America and Europe would cease to be able to compete with cane sugar produced more sustain-ably and far cheaper.  

What is high fructose corn syrup?  A by-product of the ethanol industry, this concentrated sweetener has become endemic in processed foods as a cheap, sweet alternative to granulated sugar.  HFCS (which is produced from corn starch through industrial processing) contains 45% glucose and 55% fructose.  Whereas granulated sugar is 50% glucose and 50% fructose.  Some types of agave nectar contain 90% fructose and 10% glucose. Glucose and fructose have different metabolic fates, so in theory consuming one over the other could lead to differences in metabolic health. For example, glucose is absorbed from the intestine into the blood and is and taken up into muscle, liver, and fat cells in response to the release of insulin from the pancreas. In contrast, fructose is metabolized in the liver and does not increase blood glucose or insulin levels. But since glucose and fructose travel together in the foods and beverages we eat, we need to consider their effects holistically.  In reality health impacts are less around the types of sugars we eat, (including lactose) and more around the quantity of sugars we consume.  The negative health impacts on weight gain and increased incidence of type II diabetes have more to do with the hidden calories in sweetened drinks and the larger portion sizes that have dramatically risen as a marketing tool over the past several decades, than the type of sugar contained in them. The advantage of eating fruits and vegetables over processed foods, is the additional fiber, nutrients and the way the sugars are packaged that make it easier for our bodies to process and digest.   In the end just buy some blackberries and enjoy them.  Its one of the glorious staples of August. 


Blackberries 

by Margaret Atwood

In the early morning an old woman
is picking blackberries in the shade.
It will be too hot later
but right now there’s dew.

Some berries fall: those are for squirrels.
Some are unripe, reserved for bears.
Some go into the metal bowl.
Those are for you, so you may taste them
just for a moment.
That’s good times: one little sweetness
after another, then quickly gone.

Once, this old woman
I’m conjuring up for you
would have been my grandmother.
Today it’s me.
Years from now it might be you,
if you’re quite lucky.

The hands reaching in
among the leaves and spines
were once my mother’s.
I’ve passed them on.
Decades ahead, you’ll study your own
temporary hands, and you’ll remember.
Don’t cry, this is what happens.

Look! The steel bowl
is almost full. Enough for all of us.
The blackberries gleam like glass,
like the glass ornaments
we hang on trees in December
to remind ourselves to be grateful for snow.

Some berries occur in sun,
but they are smaller.
It’s as I always told you:
the best ones grow in shadow.

Justice Can Rise Up

President Joe Biden speaks during the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, Pool)

The Cure of Troy

by Seamus Heaney (1939 – 2013)

Human beings suffer.
They torture one another.
They get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
Can fully right a wrong
Inflicted and endured.

History says, Don’t hope
On the side of the grave,’
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea- change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles.
And cures and healing wells.

Call miracle self-healing,
The utter self revealing
Double-take of feeling.
If there’s fire on the mountain
And lightening and storm
And a god speaks from the sky

That means someone is hearing
The outcry and the birth-cry
Of new life at its term.
It means once in a lifetime
That justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.


It is the 21rst day, of the 21st year of the 21st Century.   I feel better already….


Sonnet 21

by William Shakespeare

So is it not with me as with that Muse,
Stirr’d by a painted beauty to his verse;
Who heaven itself for ornament doth use,
And every fair with his fair doth rehearse;
Making a couplement of proud compare,
With sun and moon, with earth and sea’s rich gems,
With April’s first-born flowers, and all things rare
That heaven’s air in this huge rondure hems.
O’ let me, true in love, but truly write,
And then believe me, my love is as fair
As any mother’s child, though not so bright
As those gold candles fix’d in heaven’s air:
   Let them say more than like of hearsay well;
   I will not praise, that purpose not to sell

Cold Comforts Set Between Us

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The Cross of Snow

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

In the long, sleepless watches of the night,
A gentle face- the face of one long dead-
Looks at me from the wall, where round its head
The night-lamp casts a halo of pale light.
Here in this room she died; and soul more white
Never through martyrdom of fire was led
To its repose; nor can in books  be read
The legend of a life more benedight.
There is a mountain in the distant West
That, sun-defying, in its deep ravines
Displays a cross of snow on its side.
Such is the cross I wear upon my breast
These eighteen years, through all the changing scenes
And seasons, changeless since the day she died.


I can’t imagine the increased sorrows and difficulties that COVID has created for those mourning the deaths of loved ones, regardless of cause.  Celebrating life and mourning the death of friends and family is supposed to be an expression of family and community unity, not something we do remote.   We hug, we cry, we eat, we talk, we share, we sit silently together.   October is the anniversary of my Mother’s birthday and internment of her ashes.  This blog arouse out of me processing the one year anniversary of that event and using poetry as a salve for the hurt of mourning.

October is a month of harvest and senescence, living things withering, dying, decaying, recycling the contents of their living cells and nutrients back to the soil, in preparation for new life next spring. The vibrant colors of this year’s leaves in Minnesota are a reminder of the inherent beauty in the cycle of life all around us.  Even the end of the cycle of life.

When All The Others Were Away At Mass

by Seamus Heaney (1939 – 2013)

When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.

So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives—
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.

You Are Neither Here Nor There

St. Kevin
St. Kevin and the Blackbird

Postscript

by Seamus Heaney

And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

 

 

St Kevin and the Blackbird

by Seamus Heaney

 

And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so

One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
And lays in it and settles down to nest.

Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,

Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.

*

And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time

From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth

Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,
‘To labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays,

A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.

Paralyzed At An Angle

seamusheaney
Seamus Heaney (1939 – 2013)

Poetry is always slightly mysterious, and you wonder what is your relationship to it.

Seamus Heaney

Rite of Spring

by Seamus Heaney

So winter closed its fist
And got it stuck in the pump.
The plunger froze up a lump

In its throat, ice founding itself
Upon iron. The handle
Paralysed at an angle.

Then the twisting of wheat straw
into ropes, lapping them tight
Round stem and snout, then a light

That sent the pump up in a flame
It cooled, we lifted her latch,
Her entrance was wet, and she came.


A Drink Of Water

by Seamus Heaney

She came every morning to draw water
Like an old bat staggering up the field:
The pump’s whooping cough, the bucket’s clatter
And slow diminuendo as it filled,
Announced her. I recall
Her grey apron, the pocked white enamel
Of the brimming bucket, and the treble
Creak of her voice like the pump’s handle.
Nights when a full moon lifted past her gable
It fell back through her window and would lie
Into the water set out on the table.
Where I have dipped to drink again, to be
Faithful to the admonishment on her cup,
Remember the Giver fading off the lip.

 

Soaked In Our Broken Wave

_seamus_heaney
Seamus Heaney (1939 – 2013)

Requiem For The Croppies

by Seamus Heaney

The pockets of our great coats full of barley…
No kitchens on the run, no striking camp…
We moved quick and sudden in our own country.
The priest lay behind ditches with the tramp.
A people hardly marching… on the hike…
We found new tactics happening each day:
We’d cut through reins and rider with the pike
And stampede cattle into infantry,
Then retreat through hedges where cavalry must be thrown.
Until… on Vinegar Hill… the final conclave.
Terraced thousands died, shaking scythes at cannon.
The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave.
They buried us without shroud or coffin
And in August… the barley grew up out of our grave.


Poetry manifest as a reminder of bravery in the face of injustice has a long history in literature. It is the stuff from which epics and legends arise. Seamus Haney’s poem is about the battle at Vinegar Hill where 15,000 Irish rebels, many armed with only pikes, were outgunned by the English bent on slaughter and extermination. The English deploying a professional army of nearly 20,000 men, replete with cavalary, cannons equiped with newly invented shrapnel artillery shells to more effectively rain death down upon your enemy from afar. To say the battle at Vinegar Hill was a mismatch is an understatement.  Courage and luck were on the rebels side and though 1,200 died that day, many of the dead women and children camping with the rebel army for protection, the majority escaped through a gap in the lines and lived to fight another day.

My daughter spent a semester abroad in England a few years ago and during her spring break I picked her up in London and we rented a car and drove to Edinburgh, Scotland. We rented a flat for five days and tramped our way around the sites on the Royal mile, visiting museums, art galleries, churches and castles packed into the center of that marvelous city.  It was my first time in Scotland and the history of war between the Scots and the English is a bit overwhelming for a Minnesotan.  But the biggest surprise to me was the history of Scottish on Scottish violence.  It would be easy to characterize the long history of conflict between the English and Scots or the English and the Irish as the fault of English domination and cruelty, but the darker truth is much of the history of violence throughout all three countries arose from local conflicts over land, power and control. Religion was not the true root of the conflict during the clearing of the Scottish highlands, it was a shallow excuse for the brutal dislocation of the rural poor.  The conflict was really about power and the wealth that came from it between the landed gentry and the rural peasants who lived on that land.

I had never heard of the clearing the Scottish highlands prior to my visit to Scotland and what was interesting was how little it was discussed in all the museums we attended.  It came to light while visiting with an employee at a Scottish museum on the shores of Loch Ness and once I came aware of it, it helped knit together a more complex history of the United Kingdom.  The clearing of the highlands began about the same time as the great famine in Ireland and in many ways is relatively modern history.  The Scottish peasants were forcibly driven into the cities from the end of the 18th century and continued into the mid 19th Century.  These were poor farmers dislocated from their agrarian cattle based existence not by famine but by force, to be displaced by sheep that did not need a large rural labor force for landowners to make money.  The clearing forced the poor, largely illiterate peasants into slums in rapidly expanding cities to become cheap labor for the industrial revolution.  Industrial factories owned by the same wealthy land owners, industries like fabric mills in Paisley and the ship building industry across Scotland that utilized iron and coal mined locally.  The clearing of the Scottish highlands marked a transition across the region from rural to urban, from agrarian to industrial, from a mix of pagan/Catholicism to Presbyterianism, a change in perspective in the way the average person looked at the world in which they lived and the way they made their living.

It’s hard to walk away from a visit to Scotland and figure out where does justice reside? Each side, (the Scots and the English, the Protestants and the Catholics, the Anglicans versus everyone else) committed so many atrocities over such a long period of time that it is amazing that a United Kingdom ever came to be. Each side lionized their heroes and victories with monuments and poems.  But after visiting at least one castle a day for a week, I got the impression that the past 1000 years were one continuous battle, everybody fighting everyone else that was the  “other” for their one square inch upon which to scratch an existence.

The history of Presbyterianism came alive during that visit, its birthplace the revolutionary Calvinist principles that would supplant the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church with small free kirks (churches), whose seat of power was local and largely democratic.  The protestant reformation changed how many viewed their relationship with their God and alliance to King and Country. Is it any surprise then, that the evolution of the Church of Scotland, which is the Presbyterian Church, would result in bloodshed?  The institutions of religion, royalty and governance so intertwined in Scotland, Ireland and England that change could only come about through violence. It’s a history that is very relevant today around independence and Brexit and the advantages and disadvantages of local populism versus larger economic collectivism.

The following poem wrote itself one afternoon, while sitting in the park on top Calton Hill overlooking the city, the rhymes and rhythms of the past echoing into the present.


Reformation

by T. A. Fry

Speyside.  Wayside.   Go round the roundabout.
Hang’em high!  Crucify!  While women scream and shout.
If it’s my fate to make a date, with a Scottish maiden.
Then bless the martyrs just for starters and send me off to Satan.

In the High Kirk or Free Kirk, we’ll say our common prayers.
Jenny Geddes said “Come and get us, King Charles if you dare.”
But the Jacobites were not affright; took up the Bishop’s cause.
To kill free men and say Amen, to the King’s unholy laws.

Playfair.  Wayfair.  A call from Calton Hill.
“If we’re to die then let ’m try to enforce the conventicle.”
For John Brown was gunned down with polity on his side.
The King’s men shot again and justice was denied.

Claverhouse, a clever louse, the English devil’s son.
He took to killing for his living, ‘till Scotland was undone.
“I don’t need a reason to call it treason,” laughed the Bluidy Clavers.
“So fall in line for the killing time, the dying’s just begun.”