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.

Summer – Do Your Worst!

Dorothy Parker (1893 – 1967)

“In youth, it was a way I had,
To do my best to please.
And change, with every passing lad
To suit his theories.

But now I know the things I know
And do the things I do,
And if you do not like me so,
To hell, my love, with you.”

Dorthy Parker

An August Midnight

by Thomas Hardy  (1840-1928)

I

A shaded lamp and a waving blind,
And the beat of a clock from a distant floor:
On this scene enter—winged, horned, and spined—
A longlegs, a moth, and a dumbledore;
While ‘mid my page there idly stands
A sleepy fly, that rubs its hands…

II

Thus meet we five, in this still place,
At this point of time, at this point in space.
—My guests besmear my new-penned line,
Or bang at the lamp and fall supine.
“God’s humblest, they!” I muse. Yet why?
They know Earth-secrets that know not I.


I don’t remember a summer where the drum beat of doom has sounded so regularly from the encroaching jungle.  I can’t hardly listen to NPR anymore, every news item goes from bad to worse, from drought to flood, from fire to furnace, from peace to war, it takes its toll on optimism.   I keep reminding myself, yes, its dry and its been dry before. Likely it will rain again and refill the wetland that lays to the north of my driveway; more likely it will do that than dry up completely.   In the interim, the sky is blue, the purple loosestrife is purple and the trumpeter swans swimming on what remains of the lake are white, just like last year and all is just as beautiful.    I have to remind myself that of all the things I should be feeling with all the bad news around the world, the one that stands is out in my mind is gratitude.  I am incredibly fortunate to be in a position to pick and choose what I allow to enter my mindset because I have choices, something most people around the world do not.   

Today’s poems are a bit of fluff to enjoy on a late summer day.  I was struck by the word dumbledore in Hardy’s poem, given that anyone who is a fan of the Harry Potter books thinks of that word in the context of a character in the book.  It sent me looking it up in the Oxford dictionary and discovered the word dumbledore is synonymous with bumblebee or a type of beetle, which also makes a sound when it flies, in my mind’s eye I hear the likes of a June bug.  The Parker poem is easier to connect with if you know the definition of the word slattern – which means harlot.   Parker has a tendency towards a self-deprecating style.  I think of her use of the word like a current female rapper using the word “bitch”; it’s possible to call yourself all manner of things without taking offense.  

I found Parker’s poem took on more interesting ideas if I read it several times through, putting myself in as the person experiencing the words, writing the words, with eyes as weeds, and new lilac sprouts pushing up through my heart….


August 

by Dorothy Parker

When my eyes are weeds,
And my lips are petals, spinning
Down the wind that has beginning
Where the crumpled beeches start
In a fringe of salty reeds;
When my arms are elder-bushes,
And the rangy lilac pushes
Upward, upward through my heart;

Summer, do your worst!

Light your tinsel moon, and call on
Your performing stars to fall on
Headlong through your paper sky;
Nevermore shall I be cursed
By a flushed and amorous slattern,
With her dusty laces’ pattern
Trailing, as she straggles by

There Is Perfect Peace

Thom Gunn (1929 – 2004)

Happiness is impossible, and even inconceivable, to a mind without scope and without pause, a mind driven by craving, pleasure, or fear. To be happy, you must be reasonable, or you must be tamed. You must have taken the measure of your powers, tasted the fruits of your passion, and learned your place in the world and what things in it can really serve you. To be happy, you must be wise.

George Santayana

Mont Brevent

by George Santayana (1863 – 1952)

O dweller in the valley, lift thine eyes
To where, above the drift of cloud, the stone
Endures in silence, and to God alone
Upturns its furrowed visage, and is wise.
There yet is being, far from all that dies,
And beauty where no mortal maketh moan,
Where larger planets swim the liquid zone,
And wider spaces stretch to calmer skies.
Only a little way above the plain
Is snow eternal. Round the mountain’s knees
Hovers the fury of the wind and rain.
Look up, and teach thy noble heart to cease
From endless labour. There is perfect peace
Only a little way above thy pain.


We are at day 23 this summer of days over 90 degrees by end of July, which for central Minnesota is trending towards shattering the record for a season.  My partner and I have found our new swimming lake and are trying to get a swim in each night as the sun is going down to relax and cool off, before heading back to a farm house without air conditioning.   Although we may someday install air conditioning, there is something about the lack of it that brings us both back to our childhoods, where keeping windows closed during the day and opening them at night with a small fan circulating the evenings cool air, that feels energy efficient and familiar at the same time.   Yes, there is a bit more sweat on the sheets some nights and a bit of tossing and turning, but as a Minnesotan that also needs to prepare for -10 to -20 F some night this winter, I see it as my bodies need to store some of that latent heat deep in my bones so that I can call upon it when faced with sub zero temperatures. 

I don’t know if I can explain the joy of swimming in clean, clear fresh water, its softness, its crystal embrace.  There is no other feeling like when you dive head first into clear water in a lake just cold enough to refresh and yet warm enough to be comfortable.  Swimming in fresh water is so different than swimming in the ocean.  It smells different, tastes different, feels different.  Our new favorite swimming lake has a great city park that is not too crowded, and yet part of the fun is there are others there sharing the lake with us.  Most nights we get there about 8:00 pm, and there are several groups of families speaking multiple languages, taking their kids down for a dip in the evening before bed.   The scene in the evening are toddlers all the way up through teenagers frolicking in the shallows of the sandy beach up to their waist, throwing balls or wrestling, each age group with its own rituals of rough housing and play, while older kids and adults take out paddle boards and kayaks or swim, like we do each night, out into the middle of the lake and back.  Our goal is to swim as many nights as possible the next 2 weeks, each night going a little farther and farther out into the lake, until one night we will swim all the way across it.  It’s not a small lake and more than once as we return we get comments from fellow beach goers about how far out we swim each night.  We swim close to each other, but not on top of each other, keeping an eye out for the other, but letting each take their own pace, letting the silence of the water cleanse our minds and bodies.  There is a family of loons, one juvenile and its parents, that are frequent companions on these swims, diving for fish and swimming close enough we can observe their behavior, their calls of joy punctuating the silence now and again, a sound that connects us to past summer’s swims on lakes far more remote than this one that takes us back in time and connects it to the present.   If you haven’t swam recently in a clear, cool lake, particularly one with a loon calling as you swim, seek it out, and get out and dive in sometime in August.  Find water worthy of protecting the unique experience, find your own swimming perfection.

From the Wave

By Thom Gunn

It mounts at sea, a concave wall
     Down-ribbed with shine,
And pushes forward, building tall
     Its steep incline.

Then from their hiding rise to sight
     Black shapes on boards
Bearing before the fringe of white
     It mottles towards.

Their pale feet curl, they poise their weight
     With a learn’d skill.
It is the wave they imitate
     Keeps them so still.

The marbling bodies have become
     Half wave, half men,
Grafted it seems by feet of foam
     Some seconds, then,

Late as they can, they slice the face
     In timed procession:
Balance is triumph in this place,
     Triumph possession.

The mindless heave of which they rode
     A fluid shelf
Breaks as they leave it, falls and, slowed,
     Loses itself.

Clear, the sheathed bodies slick as seals
     Loosen and tingle;
And by the board the bare foot feels
     The suck of shingle.

They paddle in the shallows still;
     Two splash each other;
Then all swim out to wait until
     The right waves gather.

In The Blissful Pulp

Forrest Gander (1956 –

Voiced Stops

by Forrest Gander 
 
Summer’s sweet theatrum! The boy lunges through
The kitchen without comment, slams the door. An
Elaborate evening drama. I lug his forlorn weight
From floor to bed. Beatific lips and gap-
 
Toothed. Who stayed late to mope and swim, then
Breach chimneys of lake like a hooked gar
Pressing his wet totality against me. Iridescent
Laughter and depraved. Chromatic his constant state. At
 
Ten, childhood took off like a scorched dog. Turned
His head to see my hand wave from a window, and I too saw
The hand untouching, distant from. What fathering-
Fear slaked the impulse to embrace him? Duration!
 
An indefinite continuation of life. I whirled out wings. Going
Toward. And Lord Child claimed now, climbing loose.
 
 

The fireflies have been incredible the past 4 weeks.  Now, their time is waning and the frequency of their flashes dwindling as darkness sets in.  There will be late emerging cousins who will continue to blink in our yard for weeks to come but the firefly light show is more subdued than compared to July 1.   That’s the way with summer, things come and go quickly, its why I have to seize the moment and enjoy transient pleasures that lie at my feet, like strawberries and fireflies. 

Forrest Gander was born in California and tends to return to live there after adventures elsewhere, in places like Mexico and the Midwest.   He has degrees in both geology and English, suggesting an expansive curiosity that infuses his poetry.   He is an accomplished translator as well as author.  Gander won a Pulitzer Prize for his collection Be With in 2019.  He co-authored with John Kinsella the book Redstart: An Ecological Poetics, that merges his passions.  He is the editor of  a bilingual anthology of contemporary Mexican poets, and has published many translations including of Neruda and Bracho below.  

Translation is a complicated tango between authors.   Bracho, an accomplished author and poet from Mexico City, and Gander do that dance well.  I would prefer to read and understand Bracho in Spanish. Yet, I am grateful that Gander’s intelligence and wit were brought to bear to give me the opportunity to enjoy it in English.


 

Firefly Under the Tongue

By Coral Bracho (1951 – 
 
Translated by Forrest Gander 
 
I love you from the sharp tang of the fermentation;   
in the blissful pulp. Newborn insects, blue.   
In the unsullied juice, glazed and ductile.   
Cry that distills the light:   
through the fissures in fruit trees;   
under mossy water clinging to the shadows. The   
            papillae, the grottos.   
In herbaceous dyes, instilled. From the flustered touch.   
            Luster   
oozing, bittersweet: of feracious pleasures,   
of play splayed in pulses.
                                    Hinge   
(Wrapped in the night’s aura, in violaceous clamor,   
refined, the boy, with the softened root of his tongue   
expectant, touches,   
with that smooth, unsustainable, lubricity—sensitive lily   
folding into the rocks   
if it senses the stigma, the ardor of light—the substance, the arris
fine and vibrant—in its ecstatic petal, distended—[jewel   
pulsing half-open; teats], the acid   
juice bland [ice], the salt marsh,   
the delicate sap [Kabbalah], the nectar   
             of the firefly.)
 

Give Me The Hearts Last Love

Wheeler
Ella Wheeler Wilcox

I heard the sweet voice of a robin,
High up in the maple tree,
Joyously, singing his happy song
To his feathered mate, in glee!…
If we could be like this tiny bird,
Just living from day to day,
Holding no bitterness in our hearts
For those we meet on our way…

Gertrude Tooley Buckingham

Solitude

By Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Laugh, and the world laughs with you;
Weep, and you weep alone;
For the sad old earth must borrow its mirth,
But has trouble enough of its own.
Sing, and the hills will answer;
Sigh, it is lost on the air;
The echoes bound to a joyful sound,
But shrink from voicing care.

Rejoice, and men will seek you;
Grieve, and they turn and go;
They want full measure of all your pleasure,
But they do not need your woe.
Be glad, and your friends are many;
Be sad, and you lose them all,—
There are none to decline your nectared wine,
But alone you must drink life’s gall.

Feast, and your halls are crowded;
Fast, and the world goes by.
Succeed and give, and it helps you live,
But no man can help you die.
There is room in the halls of pleasure
For a large and lordly train,
But one by one we must all file on
Through the narrow aisles of pain.


Last Love

by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

The first flower of the spring is not so fair
Or bright, as one the ripe midsummer brings.
The first faint note the forest warbler sings
Is not as rich with feeling, or so rare
As when, full master of his art, the air
Drowns in the liquid sea of song he flings
Like silver spray from beak, and breast, and wings.
The artist’s earliest effort wrought with care,
The bard’s first ballad, written in his tears,
Set by his later toil seems poor and tame.
And into nothing dwindles at the test.
So with the passions of maturer years
Let those who will demand the first fond flame,
Give me the heart’s last love, for that is best.

Earnest Love That Laid The Swale In Rows

Freshly baled hay smells so good!

The fears of what may come to pass, I cast them all away, Among the clover scented grass, Among the new-mown hay

Louise Imogen Guiney

Mowing

BY ROBERT FROST
 
There was never a sound beside the wood but one,
And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground.
What was it it whispered? I knew not well myself;
Perhaps it was something about the heat of the sun,
Something, perhaps, about the lack of sound—
And that was why it whispered and did not speak.
It was no dream of the gift of idle hours,
Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf:
Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak
To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows,
Not without feeble-pointed spikes of flowers
(Pale orchises), and scared a bright green snake.
The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.
My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.
 

It was a busy week at the farm.   The alpaca got sheared, the hay field was cut and baled and the 160 new square bales stacked in the shed.  You can tell by Captain Crunch’s grin that he’s pleased about it too.  Our barn yard has a pleasant smell.   We have a small Case IH utility tractor, 1956 55 HP with a loader that makes quick work of cleaning up the horse stall and the alpaca pen.  Alpaca have this interesting trait in that they defecate and urinate in the same place, outside their stall in the barn yard.   It makes it very easy to clean things up every other week or so.   

There is something immensely satisfying in cutting your own hay field.   This is a hay field that is in need of some agronomic attention next year, a bit scant on clover, but nothing a little fertilizer and over seeding can’t cure.   It is the kind of hay field that doesn’t lend itself to much else, too rolling in some areas, too wet in others, it fits its purpose as pasture for the horse and hay cut once a year.   The hay field is surrounded by huge preserve and wetlands, which makes for great habitat for birds and insects and wildlife.  It is the kind of hayfield that is disappearing in my county, sadly to development and new houses.   We are hoping to hold on to this little slice during our lifetimes.  

When you see pictures of Robert Frost, it’s clear he was a farmer at heart.  The poetry of his that I am most attracted to are his postcards in words of his life and observations of nature on the farm.   Frost is at his best in my mind when he is simplest in his words.   I hope to follow in his foot steps and grow old tending to fruit trees, a chicken or two, some bees and a garden that requires daily attention.  It is not surprising that there are many references to pastures in poetry.    Seek out a pasture and lay down in it.  Watch the clouds go by for a bit quietly, hiding in the grass.  And then slowly peek above the grass,  look about and see what comes to visit you.  Is it any surprise that pastures are an inspiration to writers throughout history?  

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.  He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters. He restores my soul; 

Psalm 23

Butterfly in our pasture in June.

The Pasture

By Robert Frost
 
I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;
I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):
I sha’n’t be gone long.—You come too.
 
I’m going out to fetch the little calf
That’s standing by the mother. It’s so young,
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I sha’n’t be gone long.—You come too.
 
 

My Bones Drank Water

Swimming at Cedar Lake, South Beach – Minneapolis

Morning Swim

by Maxine Kumin

Into my empty head there come
a cotton beach, a dock wherefrom

I set out, oily and nude
through mist, in chilly solitude.

There was no line, no roof or floor
to tell the water from the air.

Night fog thick as terry cloth
closed me in its fuzzy growth.

I hung my bathrobe on two pegs.
I took the lake between my legs.

Invaded and invader, I
went overhand on that flat sky.

Fish twitched beneath me, quick and tame.
In their green zone they sang my name

and in the rhythm of the swim
I hummed a two-four-time slow hymn.

I hummed “Abide With Me.” The beat
rose in the fine thrash of my feet,

rose in the bubbles I put out
slantwise, trailing through my mouth.

My bones drank water; water fell
through all my doors. I was the well

that fed the lake that met my sea
in which I sang “Abide With Me.”


One of the simple pleasures of summers in Minnesota is swimming in the neighborhood lake.   There is a quality to swimming in a clean lake that is unmatched, compared to the ocean or a pool.   The water is soft and inviting, the unexpected interactions with the little fish that nibble on your skin and the pleasant sounds of families and children playing in the sand and water.  When my children were small we went swimming during July and August as often as possible, probably 3 to 5 times a week.  There was a local pond that was stream fed, that had once been a gravel pit that sprang a leak and it had a sandy beach, clean water and no lifeguard, so we could do all the fun things we wanted to do, like leap off the rope swing tied in the tree and have the kids jump off my shoulders. It was exactly the kind of fun I had as a child and it was delightful to re-experience it again with my children.

Today I am swimming at a neighborhood lake and beach that my grandfather used to swim at regularly as an adult when he lived in the same neighborhood I live today 60 years ago.  I am blessed to have a partner who loves to swim and we love to head over after dinner and swim for about an hour as the sun goes down.  It is a short window for swimming in Minnesota but we are in its prime and we need to savor every opportunity we can to get in the water.

Do you have favorite memories of swimming as a child? Wast it at a pool, at a lake, in a river or the ocean?   Where do you swim today?  If its been awhile, throw modesty to the wind, find a swim suit that mostly fits and get out there in the water and enjoy.


Why I Am Happy

by William Stafford

Now has come, an easy time. I let it
roll. There is a lake somewhere
so blue and far nobody owns it.
A wind comes by and a willow listens
gracefully.

I hear all this, every summer. I laugh
and cry for every turn of the world,
its terribly cold, innocent spin.
The lake stays blue and free; it goes
on and on.

And I know where it is.