Button & Jordano: Sense of Place

Rachael Button / Dave Jordano

Sense of Place

Choice, Minnesota  

Today, I stopped
in Choice,
where aster,
bluestem
bergamot,
blazing star
bloom straight
to highway’s shoulder.

Why do any of us choose?
Lost
job, lost
love, lost
cause,

proposal,
pregnancy,
plane ticket,

poem to write,
whim to stop.

I pulled over
in Choice
clicked on hazard lights
stepped out

because
it seemed wrong
not to stop
in shadow
of bluffs

road lined by prairie plants,
at the bottom of lush valley:
a choice place to live.

I came here to write,

weave backroads
stop at roadside markets.
I came here to ask:
is Midwest home?

Today, I stopped
in Choice,
smelt rain,

rising scent of soil:
humidity on the cusp
of breaking.

 


 

Witness Trees

1-Olympic National Park, WA:

Seven springs ago,
I climbed
into western red cedar

imagined
home:

soft bark,
mist, moss
63 feet around, 174 feet high
the biggest tree I’d ever seen
the greenest place I’d ever been.

Is it any wonder, the next day, I ended a relationship
I’d outgrown?
I love you, but.

What is courage of words,
next to the courage of weaving
shallow roots in soil,
gathering girth,
reaching for sun
standing up
to ocean storms?

2-Sylvania Wilderness, Michigan:

In Sylvania,
latin for “forest land”
I visited
Michigan’s girthiest red pine

“the champ”
a giant
spared from logging

holding secrets
in hard-wood,
stories of old growth
mothering forest.

When surveyors first measured this land
they choose witness trees,
trees that mapped
Michigan, Midwest,
trees that mapped
time passing
land changing.

A champ this big
can’t fit in arms

instead
of tree-hugging
I let myself be caught,
held, hugged,
contained by branches,
tangling hair,
snarling sap,
smelling pine.

3-Caledonia, Minnesota:

Seven springs ago, I climbed
into cedar, broke up,
played explorer where Pacific Ocean
met old growth,

This summer
married, thinking of moving Midwest
I stood under
Minnesota’s largest pin oak,
centerpiece of Evergreen cemetery.
branches extending,
like straight spokes,
shadowing ground below.

A single old tree
near highway shoulder,
guardian of lives lived,
days gone by.

That cedar I visited in Washington fell down in 2014
after 1,000 years
of standing,
a storm split it,
nurse stump
to saplings and ferns
eventually,
15,000 cubic feet of wood,
will return
to soil.

The pin oak in Caledonia
has conks
“butt rot” which will weaken
from roots to twigs
soil to sky–

a storm could take its weakened branches

but now it safeguards
a Minnesota cemetery,
witnessing to the way we turn
from humans to hummus,
breath and blood
to earth, ripe for roots.

It stands in graveyard
while a champ grows in Michigan,
and cedar decays in Washington

Someday, these trees will be gone,
but now
I retrace
walks

beneath them,
national park, wilderness, cemetery,
climber, skier, wandering writer looking for home
witness, not rooted
but still reaching,
searching for a place to grow.

 


 

Fluvial

I went skating with my husband
behind his parents’ house.
Starting slow, circling
then following the river,
skating beneath limestone bluffs,

bridges webbed by swallows’ nests.

I watched Peter jump
ice shelf to ice shelf
over open water
sticking landings
like a figure skater
gone feral.

His skates scraped a song
while mine stuttered.

We carried no dry socks, no phone.
But when Peter grabbed my hand, asked
“Are you okay with this?”
I nodded.

Five years ago, I fell in love with
a man who grew up Driftless,
A place that wasn’t pressed by glaciers, but carved by rivers,
fluvial
lowland forests which missed the last ice age.

We skated Canoe Creek
until the way back became longer than the way forward.
Nesting eagles, ancient white pines, river frost
the sound of my skates carving a path.

Six miles later, we left the creek
got carried with our skates still on
by a farmers’ skid-loader
to a barn with a space heater

where a neighbor let us use his phone.
This is how some adventures end:
red-cheeked, damp, waiting for a ride.

When my husband says he’s from Iowa:
people think of flat land
seeded with corn, soy–and dreams that follow
straighter paths than ours,
But they don’t know the Driftless:
rivers carving bluffs,
rivers smoothing rocks,
rivers carrying silt,
carrying skates, carrying our bodies
away and back to begin again.

 



Detroit — Unbroken Down 

Detroit is my hometown, but I’ve been gone for over three decades. As a child growing up, my dad, who worked all his life for General Motors, used to joke and say that we had motor oil in our veins. Even after all these years I still believe there is some truth to what he said.

These photos are my reaction to all the negative press that Detroit has had to endure over the years. I wanted to see for myself what everyone was talking about, and like everyone else I was initially drawn to the same subjects that other photographers were interested in; the crumbling factory interiors, the empty lots and burned out houses that consume a third of the city, and the massive commercial infrastructure. It took me a week of shooting this kind of subject matter to make me realize that I was contributing nothing to a subject that most everyone already knew much about, especially those who had been living there for years.

To counter this, I began looking at the various neighborhoods within the city and the people who live within them. This human condition, while troubled, struggles and copes with the harsh reality of living in a post-industrial city that has fallen on the hardest of times. It does thrive. Detroit is not the city of death and decay that gets reported in the news, but one that shows signs of positive human activity and movement. However, notwithstanding the recent press about Detroit’s efforts to rebound from its recent bankruptcy, which is in all ways promising, my focus continues to rest on the current conditions that affect many of those who have fallen through the cracks, forgotten and marginalized poor people whose fate will only be worsened by the present economic down turn, ensuring months and years of continued hardship with little or no assistance in sight.

Whatever that outcome may be, I’ve found that most Detroiters wear their pride for the city they live in much like a badge of courage, defying all odds, openly admitting that if you can survive here, you can survive just about anywhere.

My hope is that this work will convey in many ways that Detroit is a city made up of many small communities, all building a way of life through perseverance, hope, and sheer determination. A city clinging to the vanished ideals of urban oasis that once hailed itself as one of the most beautiful and prosperous cities in America, at one time a model city for all others to follow, but one which has now fallen from grace.

This project bares witness to the fact that Detroit is not a story about what’s been destroyed, but more importantly about what’s been left behind and those who are left to cope with it.

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Rachael Shay Button is a writer, teacher, & place-based educator.  She’s from Metro-Detroit but currently lives in Washington where she teaches science in Olympic National Park.  She wrote “Choice, MN,” “Witness Trees,” and “Fluvial” during her time as a citizen artist at Crystal Creek in Houston, MN.

Dave Jordano has exhibited nationally and internationally and his work is included in the permanent collections of several private, corporate, and museum institutions, most notably the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago, IL, The Museum of Fine Arts Boston, The Museum of Fine Arts Houston, The Library of Congress and The Detroit Institute of Arts. He currently lives in Chicago, Illinois.

Spartz & Trunzo: Songs & Songwriting

James T. Spartz / Sara Trunzo

In Your Own Becoming, You Will Lead:  Songs and Songwriting for Creative Sustainability.

Songwriting is a conjuring. Bird on your shoulder. Rabbit from a hat. Demons at your doorstep. Unraveling a ball of yarn that is the phenomenal world while knitting some cozy metaphorical sweaters, hats, mittens. Productive unraveling and reweaving refines the stories we have heard into stories we want to tell. Through melody, meter, and rhyme poet songwriters find metaphors, conceits, and twists of true-enoughness by spelunking deep into metaphysical caverns, nightclubs, river valleys, backroads and dank basements. Eureka: Inspiration! Gritty, coated, ass-kicked… triumphant… off to the open-mic; try a little something new. Hoping to pass the audition.

Songcraft in the tradition of American Roots Music or Americana offers, at its best, a pursuit of grace. Processing the mystery. Within histories balancing the sacred and profane, many voices, rhythms, rhymes and flows converge in a process of projecting the good life, often by reflecting upon its inverse – the miserable life – the life of struggle; the down-and-out, nobody-knows-you lifeblood of Country Music: heartache and misery. The alchemy of imagination, three chords and the truth, bears witness to the toils and triumphs of everyday people facing everyday choices. Hard work or easy money. Food or medicine. Songs and songwriting in this tradition spring from the shacks of Appalachia, Mississippi Delta and Oklahoma prairie, the doo-wop of Harlem and electric jukes of Southside Chicago. Austin to Boston to Bakersfield and back. Melting pots of spirited becoming. Reflections in the cosmic mirror.

As a song is emerging, one basic goal is to simply receive it. Open mind, open heart. Simple, not easy. Start where you are. Sweat it out. Translate the unintelligible whispers of imagination’s wilderness to an in-the-pocket hook of dancehall salvation. Tears in our beers. Silver wings. Walks after midnight with friends in low places. Til you can make it on your own. Jolene.

Rural themes in this vein ring eternal while strained through filters of particularity, lived experience rooted in an often imagined past while inviting potential for a more satisfying future. “To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul,” writes Simone Weil. Expressing the connections of rootedness is central to the place-based imaginary of many songs. The streets of Baltimore; down in the West Texas town of El Paso; met her accidentally in St. Paul, Minnesota. From the bend of the Cumberland, Skowhegan bound.

If American Roots Music is rooted, focused on root notes and typically simple song structures, the trick is being creative within such constraints. There’s the fun. Devil in the details. Can I write a catchy tune working just three notes, octaves apart? How about a two-chord song? Listeners do not need to sleep in the bend of the Cumberland to know how it feels to love that place, to find lost faith, to connect with such grace.

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Advice from the mid-twentieth century: Scott and Helen Nearing suggest seven areas where human creativity may flourish in pursuing the good life. These include altering and adapting nature; shaping material objects; expressing beauty and harmony; modifying social relationships; increasing control over the self; service to others; the search for order and principle; and achieving harmony and at-one-ment with the universe.

The creative field is “of immense extent, obscure, only partially understood,” Scott Nearing writes. Songs help us embrace beauty and harmony and struggle by emplacing and embodying broader generalizations in specific ways, connecting life at the scale of universality to life at the scale of human experience and perception.

“If people want local musicians to do anything at all,” writes ecomusicology scholar Mark Pedelty, “it is to perform as cultural catalysts.” The best songs can act as change-agents. Not the biggest hits or the most popular songs, but the most effective songs. Hooking one listener at a time, conveying understanding at intersections of disparate social worlds; helping us understand the dynamic impermanence of a life well lived. Through listening, creating, and taking part, a songwriter facilitates change for the to-each-their-own of individual self-efficacy.  

Songs are rituals. Repetitive. Performed over and over, again and again. Purposeful. Reverent attention to time and intention. Oriented toward connection, rooted in individual expression. The audience is immediate and disparate, separate and together, connected via flows of interbeing. Often in three-and-a-half minutes or less. On to the next. Song after song in a set, set after set in a gig, gig after gig in a lifetime. Looking for the immediacy of connecting with an audience, one active listener at a time. Moment to moment. Breath to breath. Finding the balance. Releasing the rest. Equanimity.

A bird may land on my shoulder. As a writer, I need not understand birdsong to experience the trust of interbeing. Finding – allowing – trust in the process of creativity is often fleeting. The give and take, sacrifice and reward; ephemeral. Yet that trustworthiness is accessible to everyone in commonplace ways. To you. Yes, even you. To me. Yes, even me. Chance favoring the prepared, we can all cultivate sustainable creativity in the everyday becoming of our true selves – if we are open to it. Life is the accumulation of everyday moments punctuated by the occasional game-changer. Wherever you are, there you go. The obstacle is the path. Notice, appreciate, recognize the game-changers. Steady as she goes. In a Tucson coffeeshop just off Speedway Boulevard or on a farm near Bells Bend; the top of Katahdin or a king tide on the Salish Sea. Be there for it. Honor the moment. Breathe in. Release.

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A pluralism of graces emerge through the stories we tell ourselves about our own knocked-down/got-up assertiveness. Stories of the past can guide us to demoralized incapacitation or creative evolution. This is the dirigo attitude. In the face of challenge: Grit, gratitude, and grace. A whip-smart smirk in the flow of punctuated equilibrium.

High Life and chocolates. Virgin Mary and a wishbone. Handgun in the drawer, used tires on the curb. Make me an offer. I can’t refuse.

Celebrate the mundane as a gift of living in mutual relation, nurtured flourishing. Creativity as self-care. Sharing as caring.

Creative sustainability in all manner of living well. The mundane need not be so much so when cultivated creativity sprouts from the ashes of burned out despair. Not all fire is bad. Burn off the overgrown understory. Allow the heat to germinate sprouts of an ever-emergent sense of self-in-place.

Songs can be many things. Both/and rather than either/or. Poetry and noise. Despair and salvation. Frameworks for applying our own meanings to messages conveyed fully formed. Be who you are, cultural catalyst of self in everyday life, affective change-agent. Activation energy for intersection, interconnection, interbeing in contrast to stark indifferences of the actually-existing world.

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Particularity emerges in local venues. Venues for local art are hubs, crucial nodes in networks of overlapping emergence, creating the conditions for critical expression and community convergence. Local venues facilitate productive challenges to unreflected-upon norms, assumptions now antiquated. Business As Usual perpetuates through avarice, indolence, colonialism, patriarchy, racism.  

We need new stories. Ushers in the grand theatre of restitution, reconciliation, restorative justice. Artists tell new stories. Songwriters set them to melody, beats and rhymes. New stories are often old stories retold, ancestral stories, adding counter-weight to status quo abuses and exploitation required for propagating narrowly constructed hierarchies. The common good deserves better.

Creative work is taxing and rewarding. Sometimes more taxing than triumphant… Hard times. Difficult attachments. Codependence. Functional alcoholism steeped in depression. 

Chronic suicidal ideation. High cliffs cast long shadows over the collective unraveling among artists. Exponentially so for women in the male-dominated systems of financial, sexual, spiritual, physical, and emotional exploitation. Time’s up.

The music industry is full of egos living large. Jerks. Sycophants. Creeps. Like badges of honor. Fuck that. Make room for good people, good business, good living. Allow the pomposity of righteous indignation to give way to steady assurances of creative capacity for collective action and constructive change. Inclusion. Equity. Not just decolonial and anti-fascist but pro-sovereignty, pro-dignity, pro-self-determination. The old guard falls. Radicals rise. Radicals for love. Radicals for creative evolution. Citizen artists. Legitimate artists cultivating fruits of craft through inclusive community. Mutual flourishing > managed scarcity.

Let music and art do the work it has always done: Universal connection.

# # #



Recognize your song’s arrival. Bird on your shoulder. Rabbit in your hat. When it arrives: Hallelujah! Redemption. Rejuvenation. Resilience. Borne of dogged stick-to-itiveness. Tenacity. The long-game of spinning gold from heartache redefines prosperity; aligns the trajectory of to-each-their-own becoming into the arc of this one precious life. True becoming. Becoming true. Verve and vitality. Relentless all-in-ness. The creative fire. Lit. Living with the alive ones. The mad ones. Them’s ur people. The inner fire of self-sovereignty forges pluralisms in the pursuit of living well: Compassion, empathy, humility, grace.

Everyone can participate! Yes, even you. Even me. Across generations and cultures, languages and histories, the art of songcraft rings eternal in its synthesis of here-and-nowness. Rhythms and beats, with or without melody and rhyme. The ancestral drumbeat echoes from generations ago. In the blood. In the bones. That spirit remains. Dwell in the stardust. Act as the conduit, connector, catalyst. Mix together narratives and stories spanning cultures and homelands and a potent pool of productive intermingling emerges. Relational networks of dynamic emergence. The arts of living well. Increasingly in the moment, intuitive, open to new experiences.

Longer tables, not higher fences. Grace posts a large tent. Go forth; create. Tell stories. And listen. Most importantly, listen. Men, LISTEN. Sit in the back for a while. Knees together. Seek truths, bare witness. Act independently. Be accountable, transparent. Seek out and differentiate wise elders from old

fools. Listen to the rivers and trees, the birds and the bees, aunties and uncles whispering dreams for a woken world.

Regenerative metaphors inform our personal paths. Sometimes ecological systems are out of control; life spins out of control. The ephemeral nature of seasons, cycles of life and death, remind us of the essential nature of all things: Impermanence. Even in the face of distortion, disillusionment, we look for action. This leads to hope. No mud, no lotus. The obstacle is the path.

Songs are magic. Big magic. Legitimate art. Rituals for returning to life itself, life as it is and as it can be. “There’s a song that wants to sing itself through us,” says Joanna Macy, matriarch of ecological thinking. “Maybe the song that is to be sung through us is the most beautiful requiem for an irreplaceable planet. Or maybe it’s a song of joyous rebirth as we create a new culture that doesn’t destroy its world.” Regardless, says Macy in her interview with On Being, at this moment – you are alive. “So you can just dial up the magic of that at any time.”

Dial it up. Person-to-person. Being-to-being. As a shrike. An oak. A falcon. A great storm or a writer of simple songs. Be who you are. In your own becoming, you will lead. Be the song you want to sing in the world. Courageous. Vulnerable. Because there is but one way: The life you will have lived. Live it well.

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James T. Spartz, Ph.D., M.A., is Associate Professor of Environmental Communication at Unity College and contributing editor to Hawk & Handsaw – Journal of Creative Sustainability. In summer 2019, he will participate as a citizen-artist in the Crystal Creek Canyon Lodge Citizen-Artist Residency program, located in southeastern Minnesota’s Driftless Region.

Formerly a farmer, organizer, and non-profit professional- Sara Trunzo is now a singer-songwriter illuminating rural stories. Community, landscape, and transformation inform her songs. She graduated from Unity College in 2008. Trunzo calls Unity “home”, but lives and works seasonally in Nashville and on the road on tour. Her new record, Dirigo Attitude, is out now. You can follow her on social media platforms: FaceBook // Instagram // YouTube // SoundCloud.

Vojta: The Tree and I

The Tree and I

Christina Devin Vojta

I twist open the jar, insert a hand, and scoop out some salted nuts. With an inquiring finger, I search for a dear friend among the notable shapes that lie in my palm. I feel the crenulated folds of pecans, the artful curves of cashews, the feng-shui lines of almonds, the circular fullness of filberts. I’m looking for a Brazil nut, the one I affectionately call the Ugly Duckling—a nut shaped like a blob of clay that’s been rolled once or twice and tossed aside to dry.

The nut’s not there. I know it can’t be hiding, because, like the Ugly Duckling, it’s always the largest among the mix. With a growing sense of dread, I toss the handful of nuts into my mouth and pick up the jar to examine the list of contents. Sadly, I realize that my beloved Brazil nut is not listed. It’s gone missing, pure and simple. I would have scarcely noticed the nut’s absence five years ago, but recent events have totally changed my relationship to both the nut and the special tree that produces it, and now our lives are inexorably entwined.

My attraction to this particular hunk of protein was born from a love affair with the Amazon rainforest, the only place on earth where Brazil nuts naturally grow. In spite of the name, Brazil nuts are not limited to Brazil; they also grow in Bolivia, Peru, Columbia, Venezuela, and the Guianas. My fascination with the Amazon began in Peru, long before I knew

anything about the Brazil nut, other than the peculiarity of its earthy flavor and the way its sleek sides made my teeth squeak. My original reason for going to Peru was to see tropical birds, and my husband and I saw over a hundred species during our idyllic guided tour of the Manu Biosphere Reserve. I still remember the haunting calls that emanated from dense foliage, the flash of brilliant feathers, and the list of colorful names in our field guide: rufous mot-mot, purplish jay, blue-crowned trogon, scarlet macaw. I’m embarrassed to say, however, that I paid little heed to the trees and bushes that served as perches and nest sites for these species. I remember the thick, ropy trunks of the strangler fig and the flared buttresses of the ceiba tree, but that’s about all. We must have walked beneath several Brazil nut trees, oblivious to their presence.

It wasn’t until my second journey that I finally met a Brazil nut tree, although I had arrived in the Amazon with another objective in mind—I had volunteered as a field assistant on a harpy eagle research study. The hypothesis under investigation was that monkeys prefer not to be eaten by eagles, and will therefore take all precautions to avoid them; thus, my primary duties were recording monkey behavior and taking observations at an eagle nest where monkeys were the standard fare. This month-long position gave me free reign to wander through the rainforest in search of monkeys for hours at a time, completely alone.


The rainforest has a bad rap for being hot, dangerous, and full of sinister creatures that want to suck a person’s blood or invade intestines, but I found it to be one of the most enchanting places I have ever been. Each day, I came across a frog, bird, or insect with either extravagant colors or fanciful shapes. Sometimes I found tracks in the mud left by tapirs and jaguars, and once I spotted an arboreal anteater. I watched brown capuchins feast on the finger-like fruit of the cecropia and saw a family of howler monkeys creep through the canopy with a stealth that belied their large size.

The forest was always cast in a twilight gloaming since the dense canopy of trees effectively blocked the sun. Browns and greens were the dominant colors of this shadow-filled world. The occasional splash of yellow or red blossoms that drifted down from the sunlit overstory were like colorful aliens from another planet. Humidity clung to me like an extra layer of skin, and the aroma of musk reminded me that myriad, unseen organisms were involved in the daily toil of recycling.

I wandered off my usual path one day and came across a living being so beautiful it seemed surreal—an enormous tree, nearly aglow in the faint light of morning, outclassing all normal-sized trees in the vicinity. The massive trunk was a near-perfect cylinder that would have required four pairs of outstretched arms to encircle. As I followed the arrow-straight form upward with my eyes, I saw magnificent limbs spreading sideways, the bulk of each branch exceeding the girth of a

man. If a tree can command presence, this one surely did, and the effect on my consciousness was nothing short of spiritual. Several minutes passed before I could break the spell and look around me. When I did, I found beneath the stately tree a number of curious black orbs that resembled cannonballs, and I recognized these as the outer husks of the Brazil nut fruit, based on one that I had seen in the hands of a rainforest guide. The tree, I surmised, was a Brazil nut tree, Bertholletia excelsa, and tucked inside those round, hard fruits were the seeds of the tree, which I had come to know as nuts. The Ugly Duckling, as the fable goes, was never a duck, but a swan. Likewise, the Brazil nut is not really a nut, but a seed. Both of them, I had just learned, grow into something more beautiful than ever imagined.

After that encounter, I was hooked. I wanted to learn about the ecology of the tree and how the fruits were harvested, so I returned to Peru a year later with Bertholletia as my primary focus. I travelled alone; my husband had his own work to do and wasn’t fond of tropical heat. The solitary nature of my journey seemed appropriate since this wasn’t a vacation, it was a quest. Or rather, a personal invitation from the Brazil nut tree to sit at its feet and learn.

Fortunately, my ability to speak Spanish had greatly improved since my first visit, but I still found it difficult to understand a complex string of information delivered at normal speed. Not to be daunted, I set off for the jungle town of Puerto Maldonado, hoping to find someone who could lead me to a


The Brazil nut tree. ©Christina Vojta

Collecting cocos with a traditional tamishi vine basket and pallana. ©Christina Vojta

 

 


Brazil nut harvest. I had already learned that in Peru, the nuts are only gathered from February through early April. I also had learned that Brazil nuts are harvested under the concept of concessions, in which the government leases to individuals the rights to harvest nuts within prescribed areas. Thus, my plan was to arrive in February and ask around for a Brazil nut concessionaire who would be willing to show me the harvest.

Brazil nuts, or castañas, have long been valued by people. Archeologist Anna Roosevelt and her colleagues found carbonized Brazil nuts at an eleven thousand-year-old site in Brazil, and indeed, a combination of genetic, archaeological, and ecological studies indicate that the current distribution of Bertholletia is strongly linked to the activities of ancient Amazonian people. In other words, the trees primarily grow where humans have long had a presence. In spite of the relationship between nuts and people, however, the trees are rarely cultivated in orchards. To this day, the vast majority of Brazil nut trees are sprinkled throughout the rainforest at a sparse density of only one tree for every one to two acres, each one rising above a host of smaller arboreal species in the same manner as the magical tree I had discovered the previous year. In order to see how the nuts were harvested, I would need to plunge into the interior of the rainforest once again.

Fortunately, I found two concessionaires, or castañeros, who were willing to help me. The first, Margarita Rodrigues, was a heavy-set woman in her sixties whose allocated area was accessible by a series of muddy roads. The second, Sofía Rubio,

was a vivacious young woman whose family had permission to harvest in the Tambopata National Reserve, accessible only by river boat and foot path. Although the access to each concession was different, with motorcycles and trucks used at the first site and only handcarts at the second, the methods of harvest were nearly identical, as I soon learned. And as far as I could tell, nothing much had changed since nuts were harvested by the ancient peoples of the Amazon.

I was only an observer for the harvest at Margarita’s location, but I got to participate in the process when Sofía took me to their concession. We traveled three hours by boat and spent several nights sleeping on a tarp-covered wooden platform, which made me appreciate the difficulty of harvesting nuts in a protected reserve. That first morning, I struck out with my fellow nut harvesters shortly after the howler monkeys had finished their dawn chants. Some of the trails had not been used since the previous year and were overgrown with brush and vines, so the man in the lead sliced open the way with a steady ping of his machete. I followed behind, galumphing in my rubber boots, slapping mosquitoes, stepping over harvester ants, and reveling in the aroma of musk that I had grown to love.

After a short walk, we arrived at the base of a colossal tree, and I was handed the tools of the trade—a four-pronged stick called a pallana and a backpack woven from tamishi vines. With the aid of the three-foot long pallana, our objective was to pick up the hard fruits, known as cocos, and fling them


Cutting open the coco. ©Christina Vojta


over one shoulder into the basket on each of our backs. The pallana enabled us to collect cocos without bending over, and helped us avoid contact with any creepy-crawlies that might be hiding beneath the fruits. Sofía showed me the necessary technique: thrust the pallana onto a coco until the prongs spread into a finger-like grip, then swing the stick over the head and tap it against the upper edge of the basket. Presumably, the coco would fall inside.

At first, I was fearful that a slime-covered coco would slip out of the prongs and land on my head. At a weight of nearly five pounds, the cannonball could potentially leave a dent in the skull, a fact that keeps castañeros from walking below Brazil nut trees in January when the branches are laden with fruit. But a coco never slipped from my grip, and in fact, the greater challenge was getting the ball to drop into the basket. I had to tap the rim several times to get the coco to break loose. Eventually, however, I got into a rhythm—walk, jab, swing, tap. Walk, jab, swing, tap. Finding the cocos was simple, because they were everywhere. On average, a single tree will produce about one hundred of them. Carrying the basket was more difficult. A basket half-full weighed nearly fifty pounds, and that was enough for me.

Sofía told me to empty my basket onto the pile of cocos that was accumulating a few feet away from the tree. I accomplished this task by leaning my body to the right until the

fruits tumbled out of my basket. The release of weight gave me a sense of sudden buoyancy as I stepped away from the heap. By then, I was sweating like a fiend and was grateful for the natural pause in my work so I could mop my face with a bandanna. I knew I was probably wiping off that morning’s insect repellent, but the sweat had to go.

So far, I hadn’t seen a single Brazil nut during my labor of collecting the cocos that held them, but that was about to change. One of the men was sitting next to the pile of fruits with a machete as long as his forearm and a coco between his legs. He steadied the ball with three fingers of his left hand and swung the machete with his right. Briefly, I feared I might witness a dismemberment, but he whisked his fingers away as the machete made contact with the husk—thwack. He repeated the motion, holding the ball steady again before striking. The third blow left a crack in the coco, and the fourth sheared it in half. The man cupped one of the halves in his palm and extended it toward me so I could see the contents. Nestled together were the Brazil nuts that I had known since youth, the unshelled nuts that Santa had always sprinkled into my Christmas stocking. I noticed how the three sides of each “shell,” or, technically, the coat of each seed, provided an efficient shape for growing the seeds in a circle, similar to the segments of an orange. But in this case, there were two circles, the inner one positioned partly above the outer ring, and when the fruit was broken in half, the upper circle spilled sideways, upsetting the symmetry.


An open coco with Brazil nuts inside. ©Christina Vojta


Still, I could imagine the original placement of the seeds inside the globe-shaped fruit. I dumped the nuts into my lap and counted them—twenty-two in all. This fell within the normal range of eighteen to twenty-three nuts per fruit. With no nutcracker in the vicinity, I had to forego my urge for a nut-tasting experience. Instead, the nuts were added to a woven plastic bag that, when filled, would weigh one hundred and fifty pounds and would be hauled out of the forest on a hand cart. The man said something in Spanish that sounded like, “It’s your turn,” but I feigned a lack of comprehension; I couldn’t imagine swinging a machete so near to my legs. When he waggled the handle toward me using sign language anyone could understand, there was no way I could back out. This was the first time I had ever held a machete, and the fine edge of its blade brought sweat to my palms. Reluctantly, I put a coco between my legs and mentally prepared myself for amputation. Knowing that timidity would get me nowhere, I swung with all my might, but even that forceful blow left only a small dent in the shell. Fifteen swings later, I finally whacked the coco in half, and I called an end to my coco-cracking career. I was happy to use the pallana all day, but I left the machete to the experts.

My short-lived experience with the machete lead to an obvious question: if it took several whacks with a steel blade to break open a thick-walled fruit, how did the seeds ever burst free from their double-shelled bondage to become seedlings?

I saw no evidence that the cannonballs ever broke open on their own. I asked Sofía this question during our lunch break. She explained that only one genus of rodents, the agouti, was able to chew through the tough pericarp. I knew this furry creature because I had seen several of them scurrying under the bushes during our harvest. They resembled large squirrels with their pointed noses and short ears, but they also looked like rabbits due to their short tails, hunched backs, and peculiar way of hopping. Sofía showed me a coco that had been gnawed open by an agouti. The creature had left telltale tooth marks around a hole that was large enough to slip a paw inside. Unable to crack and eat twenty nuts at one sitting, the agoutis typically carried each nut several hops away from the tree and buried it for later use. As can be imagined, many nuts remain buried and were able to begin lives of their own.

I was also curious as to why Brazil nut trees weren’t cultivated in orchards. It was all about the pollinators, Sofía said. She picked up one of the quarter-sized blossoms and showed me the way the six cream-colored petals were arranged symmetrically around a central dome. I thought at first that the dome was solid, but Sofía gently lifted one edge of it with the tip of her fingernail—it was a hood-shaped structure that covered the flower’s pistil and stamens. She explained that only one family of bees (Euglossine, or orchid bees, I later learned) was strong enough to lift the little hood and pollinate the flowers, and that these bees were found only in mature forests.


Although Brazil nut trees could be easily established in orchards, the flowers would have minimal chance of pollination without the bees, and the orchardists would scarcely see a crop of nuts. The only way to harvest Brazil nuts was to meet them on their own turf, in the heart of the rainforest. The Brazil nut tree couldn’t—or perhaps wouldn’t—produce nuts anywhere else.

After this revelation, the Brazil nut tree grew even more lofty in my eyes. As humans, we have managed to tame, subdue, modify, and force into slavery nearly every plant and animal that feeds us. Yet here before me was a tree that could not be tamed and a spirit that could not be broken. Due to the singular nature of its floral anatomy, the tree had won the upper hand. Moreover, it was in a position to force a deal out of Homo sapiens—if you want my seeds, you had better preserve my forest.

This ultimatum has worked to a point, because the world definitely wants the nuts and is currently willing to pay $2.5 billion a year to get them, according to global market websites. Moreover, the nuts create an income for thousands of people. Unlike most extractive industries in the Amazon, the profits go to local people rather than to large corporations and are quickly diffused through rural economies. In the Madre de Dios District of Peru where I swung my machete, nearly forty

percent of the population is partially or wholly dependent on Brazil nuts for their livelihood. Because of the Brazil nuts’ economic importance, every nation within the Amazon has established a law that prohibits harvesting Brazil nut trees for lumber. Vast tracts of land have been set aside to protect the rainforest on the trees’ behalf.

Unfortunately, rules are bent and laws are broken because humans want more than nuts—they want cattle, soybeans, and papayas. The clearing of rainforests requires an administrative change in land use from Brazil nut production to one that is deemed more appropriate (or lucrative), but unofficial and even illegal clearing frequently occurs. In Brazil, land use changes have reduced the quantifiable extent of rainforests to the point that, ironically, the country that bequeathed its name to the nuts is no longer able to export them; Bolivia is now the lead exporter. Peru, like Bolivia, has managed to hang onto its nut trees, but it has allowed papaya plantations and ranches to be established beneath them. In other words, the nut trees are not removed from the rainforest, but the rainforest is removed from the trees. After leaving the Tambopata National Reserve, I saw papaya plantations with remnant Brazil nut trees sprinkled among them. The giants looked lost and vulnerable, like indigenous people stripped of their culture, with nothing left of their former community. I knew those trees were doomed to sterility and would die of old age without children or grandchildren.


Tightly curled blossoms of the Brazil nut tree. ©Christina Vojta


By the time I returned home, I thought I had learned all that the Brazil nut tree wanted to teach me. I had learned about its life and the interconnected relationships with agoutis, orchid bees, and humans. I had witnessed its struggle to survive against competing land uses, and I thought I knew what needed to be done. But the lessons weren’t over. When I found none of my rainforest friends among the mixed nuts in my jar, I needed to find out why. This time my journey was only virtual, down the complex and intertwined paths of the internet.

I discovered that the Amazon region experienced a substantial drought in 2015-16 that climatologists Erfanian, Guiling, and Wang called “unprecedented” and with “profound eco-hydrological and socioeconomic impacts” in their article in Scientific Reports the following July. Their research indicated an El Niño year with warmer than usual ocean temperatures, accompanied by non-oceanic factors like land cover change and CO2 emissions. The results were disastrous for Brazil nuts, castañeros, and people like me who hope to find the Ugly Duckling in their mixed nut jar. Because the trees produce flowers during the rainy season and the nuts mature fifteen months later, the drought that shriveled the blossoms in January of 2016 left a scant harvest in March of 2017. Nut exports from Bolivia declined by half while prices increased

sixty percent. As a consequence of this scarcity and corresponding price increase, the Brazil nuts in my jar had been replaced by pistachios.

This manifestation of climate change is alarmingly personal. I love pistachios, but the loss of Brazil nuts seems ominous. That the Amazon could ever lack rain is almost unimaginable—I remember being soaked to the skin while I carried my basket of cocos. Yet if a drought occurred in 2015, it could happen again, and probably will.

I pause to consider the phrase “food for thought” while I toss another handful of nuts in my mouth, including three pistachios. Suddenly I hear the voice of the Brazil nut tree, overriding the sound of my crunching: If you want my nuts, you must tell my story. The message slowly permeates my brain and my jaw stops moving. I now understand the significance of my journey—the one that began with searching for birds and unwittingly lead me to the base of a tree. If Bertholletia can use its nutritious nuts to motivate agoutis to aid in its propagation, why not use the same currency to beseech a human to speak out on its behalf? Truth be told, the nuts are not really nuts, but magical seeds that help keep the rainforest intact. Obediently, I accept my end of the bargain. I place the jar next to my laptop and begin to write.

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Christina Devin Vojta worked for the USDA Forest Service as a wildlife ecologist for many years. Currently, she is adjunct faculty at Northern Arizona University and has also spent several months in Peru. Her science publications have appeared in Ecological Applications, Journal of Wildlife Management, and Landscape Ecology.

Pillars: Garrigan and Friedlander

Michael Garrigan / Yoav Friedlander

Barrel of Eels

My grandpa told me back before the dams
he’d take a wooden barrel and carve holes
down the sides curving around nails, sun shone
a kaleidoscope of wooden shadows
and coke oven light on diabase rock,
he’d sink those barrels into the river
small weirs
with bait hung inside, nightcrawlers bloody
chicken livers, eels would squirm their way in
moulded pig iron until the morning,
he’d stand on limestone banks and drag barrels
thick rope calloused hands shoveled dead skin shad
scales on top of eels oily river snakes
floating then flailing as the water drained
he’d shove his hand down into the jellied
mess and grab one, nail down its head while
he sliced the top seam with a buck knife, skinning
it for the meat smoked over catalpa
and cherry, now it’s just flathead catfish
carp mercury those eels tasted so good.

 


 

Pittston, PA, 2017, ©Yoav Friedlander

PA-54 Girardville, PA, 2017, ©Yoav Friedlander

 


 

Severance Tax

Vultures pick deer carrion in the gravel edge of Route 81
they mean no harm in their clean up but get no love,
their beaks are made for the job they do.

Dragline excavators and drilling rigs fissure the horizon
steel rails and pendulums offer no buds in spring, rust yearlong.
Anthracite, now Marcellus Shale.

All – flesh, water, rock, dirt, stem –
pay a severance tax for existence.

Some of us band together, use language to make lines on paper
to create larger illusory selves that exist yet can’t be touched
or handcuffed or kissed or made omelettes on a rainy morning,
becoming an incorporated capital W and E and fracture geological lines
and shoot water down encased wellbores, flood the ground, pressure against pressure
to rupture gas, suck it dry, raze whole mountainsides, leaving only smears of burnt coal and gas
hazy like an August day even in December. We let
vultures pick at what’s left, and the individual I and lowercase
we pick up the bill and sweep the anthropogenic debris downstream.

 


 

State Route 901, Coal Township, PA, 2018, ©Yoav Friedlander

Coxton Road, Duryea, PA, 2018, ©Yoav Friedlander

PA-54, Girardville, PA, 2017, ©Yoav Friedlander

 


 

Diadromous

 Catadromous

A mythical west of riprap peaks
pulls into elixir of salt
water trenches, cheap beer bays
blurry steep stairs relentless
pedals pounding up Pittsburgh
inclines no rock to hide under
no fallen tree to slide along
Hand rolled cigarettes clasped
between chapped lips
currents catch pectoral fins
under indiscernible storms
smoke so deep
sunlight can’t reach
eyeshine through thin nylon
tent walls perched in the San Jacintos
the Siskiyou, on granite banks of tarns
vision blurry in each new water
shoulders raw from backpack straps
heavy with clothes, a book, a journal,
a caudal fin relentlessly swaying
back and forth back and forth
I flounder.

Anadromous

A cup of coffee each morning
weekends waxed and waned on water
sometimes a summertime jaunt
to Maine woods. A paycheck every two
weeks, dead batteries, budgets blown
annual floods from hurricanes that clip
us off the coast, from ice jams that thaw
suddenly in fifty degree January afternoons,
from dams that don’t release water
quick enough into the bay.
Deep breathes, dorsal fins
treading before a final run
upstream until we hit a dam
or get pecked by long knife herons, clamped by eagle talons
or we make it to where we started
and we wait and we are there
and we leave what there is left of us and water
recedes eelgrass strapped
across rock husks
drying out spent
insides wither
to dirt.


 

Hazleton, PA, 2018, ©Yoav Friedlander

 

Pittston, PA, 2017, ©Yoav Friedlander

 


 

Robbing the Pillars

Poppy Augustine crawled into the deepest
part of the Shamokin mines as a kid to rob the pillars,
drilling holes into the anthracite, placing dynamite
into walls of stone left to hold up the mountain,
lighting the fuse and running until he was far enough
to sit and wait for the blast
the settle
the quiet
that had to last
at least sixty seconds.             In that silence he made
eye contact with the mule, and if he fell still the oxygen was gone
sucked back to the surface and that meant to chase it. Retreat.
Once that silence was long enough
and those breathes taken
he’d grab his short shovel for his short arms and small hands
and start filling the carts with the blasted coal.

Did he blow out his carbide lamp and rest in that dark silence?
Did he play with dirt between his fingers? Did rocks become
toy trucks in those seconds of possible collapse?

I strand myself in streams and close my eyes
and wait for water crashing collapsing that covers
but does not bury become a silence that settles
onto me the bank the clouds of bugs the breaths of woods
gripping the soil and geology of their seed.

Everything becomes a silence if we give it long enough.

 


 

Coxton Rd, Duryea, PA, 2018, ©Yoav Friedlander

 

 

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Michael Garrigan writes and teaches along the banks of the Susquehanna River in southern Pennsylvania. He enjoys exploring the river’s many tributaries with a fly rod and hiking the riverlands. You can find more of his writing at www.raftmanspath.com.

Yoav Friedlander born in Jerusalem, Israel in 1985. He received a B.A in Photographic Communications from Hadassah Academic College, Jerusalem in 2011 and left for Queens, New York where he still works and resides. In 2014 Yoav received his MFA from the department of Photography Video and Related Media at the School of Visual Arts in New York.

The Other: Skaar and Kelly

Anneli Skaar / Mark Kelly

The Other

A Story in Five Parts to Accompany The Other, a photo collage by Anneli Skaar and Mark Kelly.

E PLURIBUS UNUM

It might come as a surprise to some that, even in the 1700s, really important arty stuff was being designed by committee.

The responsibility for creating a great seal for the newly formed United States of America was not immediately handed over to an artist — it was referred to three guys who were on the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence: Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson.

In a testament to their wisdom, they soon realized that it might be a good idea to consult with a professional designer. They engaged a recent immigrant as a consultant, Pierre Eugene Du Simitiere, from Switzerland by way of Jamaica. Together, the four of them made several mock-ups, yet each of their proposed designs was immediately and unequivocally rejected by Congress.

In subsequent years two new committees were formed to attempt an approved design concept and both groups hired consultants to do the artwork. In March of 1780, a mediocre effort was submitted, created by Francis Hopkinson, the designer of the flag we know as the Stars and Stripes, but it was rejected. In May of 1782, William Barton, a twenty-eight 

 

year-old heraldry designer, submitted his version of the third committee’s ideas. It was rejected. It wasn’t until Charles Thomson took up the challenge in June of 1782, that the Great Seal as we know it was formed.

An Irish-born immigrant, patriot, and an outspoken critic of slavery, Thomson was a wise man, well-respected by his political peers. Thomson wrote a letter to Thomas Jefferson in 1785:

“It grieves me to the soul that there should be such just grounds for your apprehensions respecting the irritation that will be produced in the Southern States by what you have said of slavery. However, I would not have you discouraged. This is a cancer we must get rid of. It is a blot on our character that must be wiped out. If it cannot be done by religion, reason, and philosophy, confident I am that it will be one day by blood.”

He was also involved in the local Delaware and Shawnee Native American tribes, studied their customs and policies, and even assisted in their councils.

Thomson was the Secretary of the Continental Congress for fifteen years. The United States was still without a president 


 



 

and would be until 1789. The government was run by the Continental Congress and functioned both 
as the Executive branch and the Legislative branch. There was only a President of Congress, who was elected by Congress. Thompson’s job as Secretary combined the duties of Department of State, Secretary of the Senate, and Clerk of the House of Representatives. Thomson’s name was synonymous with honor and wisdom, and his signature on congressional documents would be met with respectful murmurs of, “Here comes the Truth.”

Thompson drew his rough sketch of notion for the Great Seal without group input. He incorporated elements from all three previous groups’ ideas. The drawing was quite good for one who wasn’t a professional artist, loosely sketched as if on a napkin, and the image is undeniably recognizable as the version we see today on everything from money to passports. His design was proposed to Congress entirely on the basis of its written description, only later to be realized visually by a variety of different artists. His text reads:

On a field … Chevrons composed of seven pieces on one side & six on the other, joined together at the top in
such wise that each of the six bears against or is supported by & supports two of the opposite side the pieces of the chevrons on each side alternate red & white. The shield born on the breast of an American Eagle on the wing & rising proper. In the dexter talon of the Eagle an Olive branch & in the sinister a bundle of Arrows. Over the head of the Eagle a Constellation of Stars surrounded with bright rays and at a little distance clouds. Motto In the bill of the Eagle a scroll with these words E pluribus unum.

The eagle’s head points to its right, as freedom favors peace.
 The written proposal was presented to Congress on June 20th, 1782, and immediately ratified.
 Never codified by law, E pluribus unum was the unofficial motto of the United States until 1956 when Congress passed an act adopting “In God We Trust” as the official motto of the country. This was at the height 
of McCarthyism and the Cold War. What is not commonly known is that the words E pluribus unum had been established very early on in the first committee’s sketch as a potential motto for the new nation, and it was inspired by a surprising source.

Some believed the Latin text came from Cicero’s De Officiis, Circero’s treatise on human obligations and his thoughts on basic family and social bonds as the origin of societies and states. “When each person loves the other as much as himself, it makes one out of many.”

However, it is more widely assumed—and more easily proven—that it was appropriated from “The Gentleman’s Magazine,” a well known and very popular London publication since the 1730s, read by the colonies’ educated class well into the 1770s. On its title page were the italicized words E Pluribus Unum, accompanied by a woman’s hand, offering a nosegay of flowers.

The flowers are an assortment; none of the illustrated blooms are the same and they are tied together with a loose knot of ribbon. It is a surprisingly delicate offering, a symbol of the


 



 

 ideal of coexistence, unity, and also individuality. Its visual symbolism is a far cry from the powerful grasp of eagles’ talons.

The text next to the bouquet reads in Latin—as the hand hands the gift from one to the other— “Out of many, one.”

 

THE STARLING

One spring day in 1890, a man and a group of his supporters let sixty birds loose in New York City’s Central Park. Forty more birds would follow the next year. The man’s name was Eugene Schieffelin, and the birds were European Starlings.

Eugene had decided to populate New York with every bird mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare. Why this seemed like a good idea to him and his helpers remains a mystery. What can be safely asserted is that Mr. Schieffelin was quite the romantic and had way too much time on his hands. It is worth noting that Starlings are only mentioned once in Shakespeare’s plays, in Henry IV. Starlings have excellent mimicry skills—both in behavior and in calls, making them incredibly adaptable. Shakespeare’s lines are for

Hotspur, the charismatic Sir Henry Percy, as he plans to drive his enemy crazy with the constant mention of the name of a foe:

But I will find him when he lies asleep,
 And in his ear I’ll holla ‘Mortimer!’
 Nay, I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak

Nothing but ‘Mortimer,’ and give it him To keep his anger still in motion.

I assume that the sixty birds, having made the long, arduous journey by boat from Europe, would have first been shocked to find themselves set loose in the bucolic setting of Central Park, itself only created a little over forty years before—a vast green lung in the midst of the growing metropolis. The 1890s was a time of anxiety: economic, political, and social—boundaries stretched to the limits by the massive influx of immigrants. The air would have already been touched by the filthy, black smoke introduced by rapidly expanding industry. In 1890, the population of the US was 63 million, a number that was compounding fast, wheels and engines churning.

However unlikely, I do like to imagine the starlings first getting their bearings and then rising far up, circling the park en masse, only to swoop down and around again, in that beautiful formation that starlings are known for: the murmuration.


 



 

Murmurations are named for the murmuring sound, presumably the sound the wings make as the birds swirl
like a black cloud. Sort sol, the black sun, as the Danes call it—is when a million starlings might hover at dusk
over the low—lying bogs and marshes and completely block out the sunset. The tips of their wings touch as the 
flock swoops left, then right, then left again—always following the lead of their closest neighbors, the formation designed to confuse predators. The shape shifts in the sky like a liquid or a mesmerizing fluid dance. I’ve never seen a murmuration but I imagine it looks like a brewing storm.

The problem is, for all its adaptability and sociability within its own species, the starling is a problem bird. As starlings raid other species nests to deposit their own eggs, the population grows. And grows. So successful was the European starling in occupying Central Park at the turn of the century that by present day, it has invaded every state in the union and beyond all borders north and south. Today, the population of starlings in the United States is 200 million. It was once suggested that a tasty starling recipe might be created to take a bite out of the population, but unfortunately starlings taste like crap.

In the Sonoran desert of Southern Arizona, the starlings have become a serious problem. The species have ousted the Gila

woodpecker out of their nesting hollows in the saguaro cacti—the 200-year-old giants who have witnessed centuries of shifting borders and contentious claims to the ownership of these lands—their prickled arms thrown up in exasperation.

This was Mexico not so long ago. The Gadsden Purchase of 1853 secured land for further expansion west with a transcontinental railroad along the southern border. The signatory on the purchase, James Gadsen, was the grandson of Christopher Gadsen, the general and politician who designed the iconic “Don’t Tread On Me” flag during the American Revolution—the coiled rattlesnake then considered as much a symbol of the spirit of the United States 
as the eagle. That flag has enjoyed something of a resurgence lately, co-opted by the conservative far right. The serpentine trains for which the Gadsden Purchase secured the rails, still undulate slowly across the desert, laden with steel containers.

Along the most deadly desert corridors of the Arizona border with Mexico, poor migrants flock to begin their emigration north. It didn’t use to be like this, the funneling of people through a deterrent section of the border
—a hostile terrain where Nature itself can easily and casually kill them. Border patrol checkpoints are now set up strategically along the main roads and within the 100 mile rule of border enforcement, forcing migrants to walk
up to 80 miles into the desert


 



 

 to avoid them—deep into wildlife preserves and military bombing ranges. In the 
past decade, thousands have died along these corridors, but the exact numbers are unknown. The organic matter 
of a human being decomposes completely in three weeks under the Sonoran sun; bones turn completely to dust in one and a half years. Many bodies are never found, simply absorbed into the dry earth like water. Of those that are found, many are never identified and will never be reunited with their families. The cooperation and coordination between humanitarian aid groups and law enforcement has broken down over the past few years, due to the current administration’s directives. As a result of the new policies, there are fewer migrants but a higher number of deaths.

The civilian militia are prevalent as well, encouraged and validated by the increasingly audible murmurs of the current administration. You see NO MILITIA signs in small town storefronts here. No one locally wants the people with the big trucks and the fake machine gun turrets mounted to their flatbeds taking the law into their own hands. A few years ago, members of a militia group targeted a local man, mistakenly suspecting him of drug smuggling. They shot him, his wife, and his 8-year-old daughter. The wife survived.

Starlings are fair game and may be shot on site. They don’t belong here, they say. They have sailed across the ocean and now they fly right across our borders and into our homes.

They are taking food, they spread filth. They are foreigners who must be stopped.

Others say they that this is nothing new. They say the Europeans have invaded this land and displaced those who were here before them and aggressively claimed all this land for themselves. Shooting these birds won’t help much. It will make things worse.

In the words of William Shakespeare, it keeps our anger still in motion.

 

ST. MICHAEL

As we process prints out in the desert, outside a small border town, we feel a bit vulnerable. Every third car is border patrol. We know we aren’t doing anything wrong, but our very presence seems illicit.

“I really hope no one stops,” Mark says.
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe it would be interesting. I mean, we’re not doing anything illegal. It’s just art.” 
Mark shakes his head. 
Sure enough, 


 



 

a white truck with its distinctive green line slows down and stops on the trail. A cloud of red dust billows up behind it as it brakes. The window rolls down.
 I grab the bull by the horns and walk up to talk to the agent before they even get out of the car. Surprisingly, it turns out to be a woman, in her sixties, perhaps Latina. A velcroed strip of webbing above her jacket pocket reads: G. RAMOS.

“What are y’all doing out here?” she asks. Friendly. Wary.

“We’re artists. We’re making prints. Cyanotypes. We use water and the sun to process them. About 20 minutes for one print.” I hesitate before I ask: “Would you like to come see us make one?”

“Sure.” She unbuckles and steps out of the vehicle. 5.11 tactical boots on the ground. She hitches up a duty belt brimming with gear: Handcuffs, baton, taser, radio, Maglite, 11-round magazine clips and a Beretta 96D “Brigadier” pistol. We walk over to the processing area. Mark, nodding hello, has quite possibly shit his pants.

“See, this is what we do,” I say, showing her the watercolor paper. It’s greyish-green like the landscape, having been exposed to the Arizona sun. I hand it to Mark.

“Mark?” “What?”
 “Go ahead and show agent Ramos what we’re doing.”
 Mark dunks the crisp, thick sheet of paper in the pan of water to stop the exposure, and rinses it carefully with his fingers. He adds some hydrogen peroxide and the image of the starling blooms instantly from grey to a deep blue. Agent Ramos looks delighted.

“You see here, it’s a starling. An invasive species. But what is an invasive species, really? See the talons? It has the Virgin of Guadalupe and a coyote bone in one and the St. Michael pendant and the arrows in the other. Like the Great Seal of the United States. Both sides of the coin, you know?”

Agent Ramos looks thoughtful.
“Like your badge,” I add. 

“May I photograph it?” 
She hesitates for a moment.


“Okay. Why not.”
 Mark is holding his breath.


“You see these symbols?” I say, pointing at the soft patch, “It’s like this seal in the photo.”
 She nods—sideways—as though to agree, kind of. We say our goodbyes and finish our printing. We are relieved.


 



 

She seemed to like us.
 The area along the border of Arizona and Mexico has the highest presence of law enforcement in the entire country. In addition, the Yuma sector has the Marine training center, and close by is the Army bombing range. I-8 running east-west through Yuma, is studded with checkpoints.

When you are in line at a checkpoint, you drive up to someone who is looking at something—gauging someone—far behind you when he says, hello. His split-second evaluation of you is already done. “Have a great day.” Judgment made.

St. Michael is the patron saint of the military and law enforcement. This archangel traditionally has four duties: To wage battle against evil; to save the souls of the faithful; to protect the People of God; and to lead the dead from this life and present them to God for judgment. Medallions and pendants show the image of St. Michael wearing armor, wielding a sword or spear, and standing triumphantly on a serpent or some other symbol of the devil. He is often shown holding the scales of justice or the Book of Life. St. Michael is also the patron saint of the border patrol. Deter, Detect, and Apprehend.

“They rotate the border patrol officers often because they don’t want them to become too friendly or familiar with the

locals,” one man told us in Arivaca, just north of the Mexican border. “If they know you, it’s more difficult to 
be tough.” He lives in a town overrun by law enforcement, with a temporary checkpoint that feels more and more permanent.

It was late when we landed in Yuma earlier this week. We dumped all of our things in our motel rooms and
 didn’t have to drive further than a few blocks through the stripped down concrete slab of downtown before we saw the bar with the neon sign. It looked exactly as you’d hope such an establishment would look—like a rusty box of cheap junk in the very back of the garage, lit up with the bright blinking colors of a child’s toy. Strangely familiar, yet altogether strange. The kind of bar you can find anywhere, if you look. Two red felt-covered pool tables, and
 the accumulated bric-a-brac arranged like elaborate religious shrines amongst the bottles. Only a few people were at the darker end of the longish bar, and a cheerful but tired looking lady who was probably younger than she looked brought us beers and tequila shots. Short of driving the short distance across the border to San Diego, geographically we couldn’t be much farther away from Maine.

Later, a few more people filled the seats at the long counter. A group of young men, clearly military or border patrol, ended up on our end, their professions betrayed by their bold and cocky demeanor, good posture, and clean cut hair, high and tight. Loud but cheerful, they had a alpha vibe that you 


 



 

felt could dial either way. They might just come over and slap you on the back, their tan and powerful bodies crushing you in a bear hug. Alternately, a conversation could go wrong and someone might end up thrown over the bar and into the glassed-in stagecoach model above the extensive tequila selection. Mark and I are both a bit wary around this type of energy. It’s like we were sweating empathy and Bernie slogans out of our pores.

There was some activity on the other end of the bar and then Lana, the bartender, came back down to our end and handed us all small plastic tokens for free drinks.

“The gentleman at the end of the bar is buying this next round,” she said.

Mark went to the jukebox in the corner with a wad of dollar bills, and began to line up a playlist. Mark moonlights as a DJ, and his musical sophistication ranks above most mortals. The jukebox was digital, and the access to music was universal. He could choose anything. Pretty soon, a song started blaring out of the shitty speakers, one that had clearly never been played in here ever before, not at this dive nor on this particular strip, ever, in the history of Yuma. Lana perked up and nodded. “You picked that?” Reggae. An obscure 80s punk band. Soon, “Blue Moon” came on.

“What is this?” I asked when Mark came back to the bar, out

of cash. I was genuinely intrigued. The lyrics I knew, of course. But the wooden, hollow knocking, the splintered opening, and the soft cry of a voice was eerily unfamiliar.

“Elvis,” Mark said. “Probably his best recording ever and hardly anyone knows it.”

An older gentleman and his wife had moved up to our end of the bar to chat with the young marines at our end. He pulled out a couple of dollar bills and asked if there was any Johnny Cash on the jukebox.

“It’s coming,” Mark said. “It’s in the line up.”

The marines were gently flirting with the older man’s wife, who was giggling at all the attention, her crooked humpback resting against the bar. Her eyes sparkled. Her husband was a veteran and he started to ask questions of the youngsters who were billeted at the local Marine Corps Air Station.

“What do you guys do over there,” I leaned over and asked one of the men, the quietest one in the group. Young and a bit more shy than the rest, he reminded me of my son.

“Sweating and flying,” he said, “It’s just like Afghanistan here. Good for training. HEY! I’ll buy this lady a drink.” He pointed at me and I got another free drink chip. I had already


 



 

 

cashed in my first one for a fourth shot. Strangely enough, I felt completely fine.

Learning that we were from Maine, a marine named Justin cornered Mark. He wanted to know about lobster. How do you catch it? Was Mark a lobsterman? Mainers must all be lobstermen.

“No, no, no,” Mark had said. “I’m not a lobsterman. I do building work. Tile work.” “Do you build houses?” 
“I have built houses. In the past…but…I’m here as an artist–”
 “Could you build my house? Could I hire you? I need someone to manage the workers.” “Here? In Yuma?” Mark asked incredulously. “I don’t…”

“No, dude. In Texas. I’m totally serious, man. I don’t trust anyone. I trust you, though. You’re from Maine. You could come make sure my house gets built. Keep the workers in line and just make sure it gets done. Gimme your phone number. Here’s mine…”

I noticed Justin was wearing a small silver medallion. I knew what it was before I even asked. The oval silver St. Michael medallion gleamed on his chest like the moon.

COYOTES AND VIRGINS

“That was a coyote,” Mark says.

We’re driving the I-8 from Yuma, skirting the northern border of the Barry M. Goldwater bombing range. The road is endless; the landscape is an immutable backdrop of washed out grey green, like an old faded photograph. A rusty fence parallels us all along the way. It’s spiked, but doesn’t look particularly difficult to squeeze through. I’ve read that there are entire mock towns in the vast range contained by this fence, towns designed to look like middle eastern villages, with houses and mosques. Sometimes migrants stumble across these houses and use them as shelters, which for obvious reasons is risky in itself. Humanitarian aid workers need a permit to enter the area to leave water and supplies, or to recover bodies. It is a permit which is increasingly difficult to obtain. The number of corpses found in the 1.9 million acre range is generally considered to be vastly underreported.

I screech to a stop, squint at the image in my rear view mirror, shift to R for rewind and back up about 200 feet along the shoulder, to where the dead animal lies in the road. 
I’ve never seen a coyote before, not even in Maine. This one is flat as a mat, but strangely crushed as though it were still in motion, still running across the two-lane road. Mark makes a joke about Wile E. Coyote and an anvil and I laugh. As


 



 

we get closer we can see the bones and intestines pressed out between shreds of blood-matted grey fur. It’s not really the fierce animal I thought it would be, and that’s disconcerting. Both Mark and I stop joking. Maybe we’re both a little embarrassed at our flippancy.

In the noon heat the flies are ecstatic and buzzing all over it. We don’t know it yet, but the stench will stay with us for a long time on this trip. We poke around the side of the road.

Humanitarian aid is not a crime, but littering is, and besides trespassing, it’s often the argument against leaving water bottles in these areas. Also, water might just help drug mules get to their destination. This is true. The problem is that these couriers are often destitute themselves; the long journey by foot carrying marijuana on their backs is their hazardous and hard won ticket out. “We don’t judge the motivation,” the aid workers say. “We just want to prevent human suffering and death.” So they place water in the desert. Water for anyone who needs it. It doesn’t matter who the migrants are.

In January of 2018, the humanitarian organization, No More Deaths, posted a video on social media of Arizona border patrol agents slashing water bottles that had been placed in the desert. Mocking the videographer, they poured out the water gleefully on camera. A few hours after this film went viral, a man—Scott Warren, a professor at Arizona State University and a volunteer with No More Deaths—was

arrested for harboring migrants, a felony charge.

We’ll attend the court hearing this week. The defense will be filing a motion to gain access to evidence in this case—a request for the release of email records showing that this was a targeted arrest. We will be entering the courtroom, surrounded by 13 screens showing the Great Seal of the United States. The judge, after listening to both sides will ask the defense, without a hint of irony: “Where is it written that humanitarian aid is not a crime?”

Small tin or silver pendants bearing the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary as Our Lady of Guadalupe often accompany migrants on their journeys. The story goes that in 1531, near the village of Guadalupe, Mexico, the Virgin Mary appeared to an indigenous farmer named Juan Diego and asked him to build for her a house on a hill. He told the archbishop of this apparition and was not believed. So the Virgin Mary told the farmer to gather roses from the top of the hill to bring to the bishop. Although it was winter and roses were not in season, Juan Diego found them in bloom and collected the blossoms in his cloak, and when the roses tumbled out at the feet of the archbishop, a life sized brown-skinned image of the Virgin Mary was found on the inside of Jaun Diego’s cloak.

Mark and I find an unbelievable amount of junk along the strip of land between the road and the rusty fence. Stuff that seems unlikely to have been thrown 30 feet from a


 



 

 

moving vehicle. An incredible number of water bottles lie abandoned under creosote bushes, and I find a pair of cheap polyester pants. I’m tempted to check the pockets for a personal item, maybe a Guadalupe pendant or even a rosary, but I’m not enthusiastic about the prospect of discovering a scorpion or a spider in there. I read that as migrants reach the highway and catch the ride that their guide – or coyote – has arranged for them, they often discard all unnecessary belongings at the side of the road.

Protegernos, say the Guadalupe pendants. “Pray for us.”

“Look over here,” Mark says. He’s off to my right and is pointing to something on the ground. It’s glowing like a precious gem. It’s urine in a plastic bottle, glistening in the sun. The reality and desperation of this crossing is suddenly very evident, and Mark and I are silent.

Later, I send my son an image of the dead coyote on the road. He’s in Maine, and I promised to send him some odd photos from my trip.

“Oh. I thought a coyote would be bigger, like a wolf,” he texts me back.
 They are not so big, I explain. They are not much like wolves, more like dogs. They are strangely familiar.

THE DAHLIA

The dahlia is a particularly hardy genus of flower. Blooming well into October, when most flowers have succumbed to the cold here in Maine, the dahlia is unfazed by the cool autumn weather in the Northeast. I picked up a huge bunch at a stand just outside of town, and they look as enthusiastic as if it were a hot July day. The flowers of the forty-two species of dahlias can range from a two-inch tight pom-pom to a one-foot-wide dinner plate size. None of the blooms I bought were the same, and they were bunched together in Ball jars filled with water. I bought several bunches, so seduced was I by their variety and bright colors.

The dahlia is native to Mexico, and their tubers were originally cultivated as food and as medicine by the Aztecs, who called them “water pipe flowers,” but the practice faded after the Spanish conquest. The word pinnata, derived from the Latin word pinna, means “wing,” and the strong hollow stems can easily support even the largest of these feathery blooms.

In 1789, at the same time that Mexico’s neighbor to the north was instating its new constitution, the Director of the Botanical Garden in Mexico City sent this beautiful, native flower to Antonio Jose Cavanilles, the director of the Royal Gardens of Madrid. After some trial and error, Cavanilles was able to grow the flower consistently and successfully.

Cavanilles named the plant for Anders Dahl, a popular


 



 

Swedish naturalist whose work in hybridization had paved the way for the dahlia’s success throughout Europe as botanists, taxonomists, and growers sent documented and undocumented seeds to France, Holland, and Great Britain. Soon, there were more than 85 species, and it became more and more difficult to differentiate one from another. Eventually they would be classified by two color groups: Group I (ivory-magenta) or Group II (yellow-orange-scarlet).

There were dahlias for sale in Nogales, the mountain city split in two along Arizona’s border with Mexico. Mark and I had headed there from Tuscon in the early morning. We drove over the mountains of Route 82 and stopped to stare slack-jawed at an isolated parking area where hundreds of border patrol trucks were fenced in with barbed wire and surrounded by some of the most beautiful, desolate mountain landscape we had ever seen. By the time we dipped down into the outskirts of Nogales, it was 9:00 am and well into a bustling Wednesday morning.

Nogales used to be one city. In 1918, a Mexican civilian crossed back into Mexico after avoiding interrogation on the U.S. side and all hell broke loose, resulting in what is known as the Battle of Ambos Nogales. Fueled by anger on the Mexican side due to the killings of border crossers by the U.S. Army, there was a gunfight and even the Mayor was shot while he waved a white handkerchief tied to his cane. The

precise location of the official border at the time was vague at best, but in the aftermath of the battle the first permanent border fence was built down the middle of the city.

Today there is Nogales, Mexico, and Nogales, Arizona. The wall is huge, almost out of scale with a town that seems small and almost quaint.

Mark and I had been told of a good place to park our rental car on the U.S. side so that we could walk into Mexico. So distracted were we by the massive, red-rusted steel fence snaking its way right up against houses along the hillside off to our left, that by the time we got our bearings, we had been funneled through a one-way gate and were face-to-face with a smiling officer.

I buzzed down my window.

“Good morning, officer” I said, sheepishly. “Where am I supposed to park so I can walk over to the Mexican side?” I hoped I didn’t sound too idiotic. Mark was rolling his eyes.

“Señora, you are in Mexico. Bienvenidos!” He pointed me toward a parking spot just beyond the gate.


 



 

“Well, that was easy,” Mark said, climbing out of the car, stretching, and looking around for somewhere we could grab a quick breakfast amongst all the cheap store fronts. I was dumbfounded, and keenly aware of the fact that our vehicle was not actually insured in Mexico. On the wall in front of the car the Great Seal of Mexico, formed in steel and painted with bright colors, welcomed us.
 The Mexican seal features an eagle, its talons grasping a snake and a cactus. The imagery refers to the legend that the Aztecs would know where to build their city when they saw an eagle eating a snake at the top of a lake. The lake in the seal is represented by the Aztec symbol for water, atl tlachinolli, which really has a dual meaning that means war—water and scorched earth.

After a quick breakfast of huevos with chorizo consumed under the watchful eyes of a plastic Virgin of Guadalupe statue, we survived a friendly assault by the salesmen of the local souvenir shops and were back in the car and ready to head north. One mile and a U-turn later we were in a bumper-to-bumper line to return to the United States.

Window washers, toy and candy hawkers, newspaper salesmen, paraplegic beggars and flower sellers, strolled and cajoled among the cars inching their way toward the checkpoint. It took two hours. Mark got a large plastic Guadalupe statue.

“What a life,” I said to Mark. “Can you imagine having to do this every day?” One particularly scrappy kid was at our

window with a pile of local Mexican newspapers. Mark rolled down his window and bought two. After disappearing for a while the boy returned, opened the page of the newspaper to the sports section and wanted to discuss soccer with Mark, which they did at length.

An old man in a remote desert town some miles north of the border had told us about the migrants who regularly show up on his doorstep. They are invariably dehydrated and in need of urgent medical attention after the miles
 and miles of walking. A simple blister can become a death sentence in the desert. Desert bandits—often Mexican nationals themselves—rob migrants of their last resources. Some are raped or killed—sometimes by the very coyotes they paid to protect them. Some travel alone, with little to lose. Many begin their walk outside of border towns just like Nogales.

The man up north had told us, “Once I had three visits in three months. Younger people. Really kind, polite people, not all these drug smugglers you hear about. People who have been abandoned by their coyotes and who were pretty much done. In those situations you don’t have very much time to decide what you’re going to do. Once I saw a girl along the side of the road, and I picked her up. I knew I could get in really big trouble. She looked like 
a little kid, like she was fourteen. Sometimes in your life you are met with a choice that is fairly black and white. For me, I know what is the right thing to do for me. I know I can go to jail for it, but it’s an


 



 

obvious choice. I know people who feel the same way as I do, who are doctors and nurses and who can help.”

He continued, “We all talk about the Mexico and the United States, but we don’t talk about the third nation.”

The third nation is the one right on the border, he said. The third nation is where the dirt and dust intermingles over the line in the sand and the birds fly across migrating north and south as they have always done. It’s where students cross to go to school, people go to shop, and to work. Where the people know each other and know they are the same. The third nation is the Other nation.

Mark and I returned to the United States side of the massive fence at Nogales without incident. The blond agent who interviewed us was friendly but firm, giving Mark an extra once-over on account of his darker, olive skin, before waving us through. The American flag and its bright colors waved at us cheerfully from the parking lot of a McDonalds as we 

drove north.

There’s an expression that was coined by Sigmund Freud in 1917, not that long before the Battle of Ambo Nogales: “The narcissism of small differences.” It’s a thesis which describes a pathology: the closer two communities or individuals are, the more they exaggerate the differences between them in order to retain their individuality. This happens in loving relationships, in consumer culture, in our relations with other nations, with those different than us. It happens at our borders, in regard to the other. If we see the other as part of ourselves, we feel we might lose our own identity.

In 1963, the Dahlia pinnata would be designated as the national flower of Mexico. It is a member of the family 
of Asteraceae plants, whose flowers look like one bloom with many petals. Asteraceae refers to its appearance of a star with surrounding rays. However, this type of flower does not have individual petals at all. They are actually made up of many, very small, separate flowers that appear as a singular beautiful bloom. It’s just an illusion, you see. They are all one.

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Mark Kelly and Anneli Skaar recently completed a collaborative project at the Arizona/Mexico border around the themes of passports, identity, and compassion. Mark Kelly is a multimedia, visual artist, and educator. Anneli Skaar is a painter, graphic designer, writer, and the Creative Director at the Farnsworth Art Museum.

Cluster: Kayser & Anselmi

Talley V. Kayser / Daniel Anselmi 

As a Kayaking Guide, I Always Describe Oyster Sex with Particular Care.
Shem Creek, South Carolina

Some fathers object to the mention of semen
in front of their offspring. Some mothers remark
that “the girl oysters have life much harder,” and we
who have vulvas nod sagely. A bro in pink glasses
once boomed, “it’s a clusterfuck, dude!” and I used
that same joke for all subsequent bros. But what blows

people’s minds isn’t how shellfish sex slicks the creeks
in late spring, or the wild odds that each thrashing larva
must face, or that some spawning females release fifty
million or more eggs per day––but the way oysters
change. Protandry, simultaneous hermaphrodites…
I explain. Middle schoolers who giggled at sperm

all clam up and avoid that one kid with their eyes––
or a red-cheeked man quickly intones, “God be praised!
His creation is wondrous!”––or maybe a grayed
pair of women share wide grins and laugh. Oh, so strange,
what goes on in this water we cross. Boys grow up
to be girls. Girls can also be boys. Never mind

that for seventeen million years oysters have thrived
through such changes––it’s slippery space. So I say:
“what amazing resilience.” I say, “great success
under pressure.” I marvel at oysters, who bear
hurricanes on rough shoulders, who shelter the weak
of the sea, whose strong stomachs cleanse impurities

from each last drop of marsh, every day. I call out
to my clients, and raise high my water. Together,
we toast Crassostrea virginica’s honor:
all praise to the oyster, robust clusterfucker,
both mother and father, essential.

 

©Daniel Anselmi, “Untitled (3-1).” Collage, 2017.

 

©Daniel Anselmi, “Untitled.” Collage, 2013.


 

 

 

©Daniel Anselmi, “Untitled (2B).” Collage, 2014.

 

 

 

 

 

©Daniel Anselmi, “Untitled.” Collage, 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

©Daniel Anselmi, “Untitled.” Collage, 2013.

 

Black Skimmers
Colonial Lake, June.

I.

Their art is called cut-water.

Wide-flung and tapered wings lilt in iambic rhythms.
Black and white, with surety and speed,
the wild birds trace the edges of the lake
as if they’re caged, trailing
ink-shaped shadows.

From low, unbroken flight
their sleek necks stretch. Red, blade-thin beaks
reach, slice their own reflections––each
bird carves its one white line, a single wake:
a lean, bright trail
a clean and perfect shape
that flares against the surface
and then fades.

 

II.

such beauty! in
these gentle
carousel flights
dipping as if to drink

(but the birds are not drinking)

the shallows tremble with ripples/and the wet light
shudders. half-sunk cups gape

open wonder. crumpled
wrappers hum, and lift
their crumbling offerings
in silver fists

(but the birds are not gods)

what then/of this/jittered rhythm/
what then/shall we make of this/strange flight

(watch the shallows)

and what shall we watch in the shallows

 

(the fishes that tilt their flat eyes toward the light
and seek it, as if summoned)

III.

The art is called cut-water. It recurs.

Again the skimmers pass––again, they bend
their necks to long, low kisses. Ripples sing.

Watch closely the wild silence of their wings.
Watch close the wounds they knife into the water.


This is no quiet art.

This art is hunger.


 

 

 

©Daniel Anselmi, “Untitled.” Collage, 2013.

 

 

 

 

 

©Daniel Anselmi, “Untitled (12-1).” Collage, 2016.

 

 

 

©Daniel Anselmi, “Untitled.” Collage, 2013.

 

 

©Daniel Anselmi, “Self Portrait.” Collage, 2018.

 

 

 

 

©Daniel Anselmi, “Untitled.” Collage, 2016.

 

 

Albatross Ekphrasis
after Chris Jordan

it is unlike me
to look at a bird
and think of myself

and not the bird.
but still I wonder
which bright bits
stab jagged

through my even
most silversoft lining. which
is the biggest bolus
drawing the eye

when
I am
opened

*

my little brother
is a doctor. my little
brothers cuts people open my
little brother cut open a person

cadaver corpse––for a
full year he teased it
into pieces. he says
they start you with

the back. the face
comes last. the face
is difficult. one morning
he gently lifted

a bright bow tie from
the neck of his
corpse. he walked the scrap
of plastic to the trash

then turned to his lab mates.
we’re not doing that
again. he says
they covered her

hands to hide the color
on her nails, which was like
someone’s mother’s.

*

the photographer’s hands
(bare) teased from the
dark bile of the bird that stuff

which cut and
lodged and
crowded but never
fed and therefore

killed. the photographer scrubbed
each bright piece clean
and lay it back against
the opened body

riddle: my father
is like unto or not
the photographer

*

much of my mother
has been removed

but lucky she
remitted. I made
the mistake of googling

tumor. I am no doctor but
they don’t appear to come
in a wide variety

of colors. my mother
is farm-raised and
well bred. also uneasy

and diseased. my mother
fed on food fresh
from the garden

which they sprayed
same as the cotton.

*

the birds swallowed
the bright bits on the sand, as they
have always done.

as they have always done,
they offered from the depths
of their bodies those same bits

and fed their children, so tell me
what I’ve swallowed. tell me
how it’s killing me. given the chance

I would prefer to slough in the dirt
without particular color––no pink
clinging to my nails, no strange red

bulge collecting in my breast, no evidence
of which stray memory choked
my growth or stunted flight,

which sadness I was fed
and ate. I would prefer
earth swarm what’s left:

an opened harmlessness,
soft, gnawable flesh
and clean, bright bits of bone.

 

 

 

00

Talley V. Kayser has been an outdoor professional since 2007, and has worked as a naturalist and wilderness guide throughout the United States. During the academic year, she directs The Pennsylvania State University’s Adventure Literature Series, teaching courses that combine literary study and outdoor exploration.

Daniel Anselmi explores the use of paper as a dialogue between painting and collage. He creates painted paper as one would handle a brush to elicit brushstrokes on surfaces, creating opportunities to express color, line, and form. All works are Untitled, removing references that  interfere with or assist in viewer perception.

Poetry: Langfur & Riff

Charlene Langfur / Paula Riff

 

©Paula Riff, “Ginkgo’s Folly,” from the series Shibui, 16×10”, Cyanotype and Gum Bichromate Print, 2018

 


 

Trying to Do The Right Thing Even When It Doesn’t Matter

My 13 pound honey colored dog and I are out walking
under the blood colored moon in the middle of summer,
under the ashes from the fire in Cranston.
Today the fire is on the other side of the mountains in 119 degrees
and this is the way of it now for those of us here near the old oasis,
troubles and omens around us, I call them signs and move on
but they are everywhere I look, past the fat old palm trees,
trees overwhelmed with their own fronds, burgeoning leaves, carrying
weight, trees trying to stick to a life plan, and we walk past the scrub pine,
and wild yucca in near bloom, whatever made it through the hottest
most humid of summers, here where life continues as if no change
is actually taking place in the world, as if no shifting to solar and low water use
is an imperative, nor focusing  on what is needed most in order to make it through to what is
we know we need in the future. We walk easy along the sand, a familiar sand path along
the canyon’s edge, each of us breathing in the darkening air as if it is easy
to react to what is around us, and we do our best to adapt to a new world.
I am of the mind to help with the earth changes around us. It is because
of the way I am, trying no matter what the odds. As I walk I plan
for low water gardens, calendula, aloe, planting a sweet orange nasturtium bed,
colors to enchant the heart when nothing else will, a plan to plant seeds to grow herbs
and flowers and to save the seeds for next year, for dreams and succulence.
Later I think we can walk through all the heat wave’s bad air
to the other side of it as if there is a door, past the wild air of trouble around us
which seems to have no end. Talk in Washington is we do not have the resources
to change what is happening, no money to help humans and animals.
But money is piling up, monopoly style, higher and higher. Green paper, gold bricks,
all that. This tender we use to represent our real needs in life.
My dog and I move on, speed up a little, waiting for what comes next.
The fire finally to be put out, or the air to turn even poorer. Tomorrow
we will pile all our recycling in the car to bring to the recycling plant
and we’ll buy up more seeds to plant for the next season. Planning to give back
and live with less. We head home, any way that works, here in the same world
we were both born to, with its earth and water and here where we think we can keep it safe
by changing our ways to plan for whatever comes next. We know how to make it home,
walking hard, reaching out far as we can until we catch hold
turn the key in the door, make it all right again for one more day. 

©Paula Riff, “Snapped & Crackled,” from the series Shibui, 8×20”, Cyanotype and Gum Bichromate Print, 2018

©Paula Riff, “Indigo Dreams,” from the series Shibui, 16×20”, Cyanotype and Gum Bichromate Print, 2018


 

©Paula Riff, “Because of Sunflowers,” from the series Shibui, 8×20”, Cyanotype and Gum Bichromate Print, 2018

Signs of Life

What survives the big summer heat in the desert always catches my eyes.
It’s easier to see the gains and losses here than everywhere else,
here where there are endless stretches of sand and the lavender survives at 117 degrees.
I am not sure how it does it but I see how what survives encourages me to thrive along
with it as if we are all part of the same life force. I see the plants grow, with such insistence
in spite of everything, taking what they need and letting everything else go.
Today I feel my life feels stronger as I am able to hold up against the force of the heat.
The rabbits bolting from behind the mesquite, I watch them carefully to keep them in my sight,
movement from out of complete stillness. All at once they disappear in thin air and never look back.
I see how fragile we all are here, here where the giant century plant takes 20 years to grow
and poachers bleed them dry to make the littlest bit of tequila. Here where the moon rises
over the mountains as if perfectly timed. I see how what grows here tells us more
about our future than we may want to know, how our government turns a blind eye to it all,
ignoring advances in solar, wind, anything that works to save what we have now for the years ahead.
Here in the desert it’s easy to see the advances needed. See what we need to do next.
This morning the cactus was in bloom, a single flower reaching out on a single stem
of its own, only inches in diameter, lotus like, full blooming with crème colored jewels,
a near impossible sight, I think, rare, miraculous, something from nothing even in times like these.

 


 

A Simple Life with What is Here

Today my plants became a way of life
for me. Transplanting the lavender takes time.
$3.00 on sale a Home Depot. Can you imagine
my good fortune? I dig up the dirt from an unused lot
and carry it home. A shovel full at a time.
Set the plant on top of the dirt with a half inch
to spare on the sides of the plant’s roots. Room to grow.
A rule of thumb for a job like this. Getting the room
it needs exactly right matters. And picking off the old growth to lighten
it up. I can smell the lavender on my hands and arms
as I work through the delicate leaves to thin them out.
And when the plants grow I know I will feel richer, protected.
Already I see how the plant takes to the pot quickly, how it settles in,
protecting itself, how the leaves are a sweet green, and I am sure
the healing color will help me live as the plant grows. That is how full life
starts here. From branch to root, everything I’ve put to a new life
more than I know.

©Paula Riff, “Beneath Her Feet,” from the series Shibui, 11×15”, Cyanotype and Gum Bichromate Print, 2018

 


 

 

©Paula Riff, “Night Garden,” from the series Shibui, 11×15”, Cyanotype and Gum Bichromate Print, 2018

 

©Paula Riff, “Day Glo,” from the series Shibui, 16×20”, Gum Bichromate Print, 2018

Catching After the Light

The heart takes me to where I feel at my best today,
helps me find a way for me to connect to a human place,

a path for me to follow when there is no other way

find a few words for what runs too deep for me to describe,
a simple way out,
a way for the 10,000 thoughts
the mind comes up with every day, to take me where I want to go,
thoughts that help keep me afloat

thoughts about saving what we have, gathering small seeds
getting ready for another season, tending the aloe plants for healing,

especially the soft, nubile ones,
take to what is around me in the dirt to help me start over no matter how much
I want to stick with the past and not move ahead,
I push forward on solid ground, gather what works,
the morning coffee, sweet red strawberries

looking for a path with patience to it,
today I’ve spent a good part of the day watching the road runner
idling on the back porch, the opal feathers glistening in the sun,

and the purple headed lizard
watching me from behind a rock and running off when
the time is right. It knows the exact moment to take off.
I feel better with them, the small animals
and the path we were on together, waiting for the earth to lighten up again

as if there is more to all our connections than we know in our bones,
staying true, sleeping long, catching after the light

one day another night until we know exactly how
to do it again and then again until it works.

 


 

©Paula Riff, “River Wild,” from the series Shibui, 16×10”, Cyanotype and Gum Bichromate Print, 2018

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Charlene Langfur is an organic gardener, a rescued dog advocate, a Syracuse University Graduate Writing Fellow. Her poems are about the environment and how we all need to make changes. Her most recent publication is in Still Point Arts Quarterly, called “Chasing Home.”

Paula Riff creates cameraless images using the processes of cyanotype and color gum bichromate as a way to physically interact with the natural world as an artist.  She cuts the paper at various intersections which allows her to enter the conversation with the images in a very intimate way. Her intention is to strip away as much as possible so that she can focus more on the elements of design and consider elements of nature in a different way.

Shibui. The Japanese word shibui refers to a particular aesthetic of simple, subtle and unobtrusive beauty and it is this concept that reflects the spirit of this series, Shibui.  An object of art that employs these characteristics may at first appear to be simple, but upon closer inspection the subtle details and textures balance that simplicity with a rich complexity.

Tenneson and Short: Trees

Kayann Short / Joyce Tenneson

 

Bones  Beneath   Bark: The   Ecological   Kinship  of    Trees   and   Humans

“[W]hat ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us in the act of sickness . . .” – Virginia Woolf “On Being Ill”  

The trail in the Rockies is steep, but pine roots stretch across the dusty path, creating steps my feet can find. Because I am still weak from an early summer flu, I watch for these roots to help me climb like rungs of ladders nailed across the face of the earth. Roots are limbs without bark, growing down instead of up, exposed on the mountainside by the wind and rain of violent storms, bare as skinless bone. If all goes well, those roots will anchor their trees for many more years than I will live.

The mountains are covered with pines in all stages of growth—and death. Pine beetles have chewed rusty swathes across high slopes; deadfall and forester-felled pines, fir, and spruce lie like scattered toothpicks atop millions of acres of national park land. A warming climate means the beetles survive the winter and the infestation spreads among trees already weakened by lack of rain and snow, with the health of the forest at stake. In some places, crews have piled logs and branches like makeshift bonfires, but not for burning. Some of the material will be used for building trails in the park itself; firewood can only be taken out of the park by those with permits.

 

 

 

Along the trail, I’m on the lookout for anything of interest. At the ocean, I walk the wrack line for shells, beach rocks, and other artifacts thrown on shore by passing waves. In the mountains, I scan the edges of the trails for pinecones, stones, and small sticks in interesting shapes and colors. I search out visual patterns: the randomness of the fall, the grouping of the objects as they lay, the contrast between light and dark. I find bones, round and white against the rougher ground. Except these bones do not come from animals, but are litterfall: coarse, woody debris from fallen tree limbs, bleached and smoothed by the forest elements of wind, water, and weather, waiting to be broken down by microorganisms into finer humus, the rich topsoil in forests. These leftover bits are the bones beneath bark, broken by epoch and skinned by time.

From the series, “Trees of Life”; Gold mixed media on plexiglass ©Joyce Tenneson


As a farmer and environmentalist, I write about animals and I write about vegetables, but the living organisms with which I feel the deepest ecological kinship is trees. Growing up, I thought nothing would be cooler than to live in a tree like run-away Sam in My Side of the Mountain or the Swiss Family Robinson in the movie my family saw at the drive-in one summer. I had a swing in a weeping willow in our backyard, but that was no tree house. Even so, when the tree was felled to build a patio, my heart was broken and I sobbed, inconsolable, to the chain saw’s drone. Any chance I’d had of living in that tree someday was severed with its trunk and limbs.

 

From the series, “Trees of Life”; Gold mixed media on plexiglass ©Joyce Tenneson

 

* * *

 

How like a tree our bodies can be, with trunks and limbs upright in our common standing. Beyond the shared basic biological fact of our existence–composition from living tissue and constant need for air, water, and food–trees grow branches and we grow bones, both structures forming a life support system that provides nourishment and strength. Like a tree’s trunk and branches, our bones allow us to stand upright, that upward stance of evolutionary development seemingly separating our industrious primate order from other species. Just as trees line the surface of the earth, humans, too, are vertically propelled, but with an important difference from our arboreal relations: trees are rooted in place, while our skeletal structure allows movement. We may break a bone, we may even lose a limb, but our imperative is always to use our skeletal system toward physical momentum. Any rooting we do is the metaphorical equivalent of stability and permanence. 

While humans are not exactly like trees, “upright” and “uprooted” describe an inverse relationship of health that further points to our ecological kinship and mutual existence. For both trees and humans, to be upright means to be healthy. Uprooting creates or indicates death for trees. Similarly, as Woolf suggests above, in humans, uprooting is aligned with illness and potential death. 

 

 


 

 

My metaphors here are toward this point: we are more like trees than we think. The ecological kinship between trees and humans goes beyond the analogy of bodies, however. The conditions that threaten trees threaten us too. If uprooting means disruption of normal processes, then climate change is uprooting on the largest of scales, affecting trees and humans alike.

Humans have long owed a debt of survival to trees. With the exception of water and soil, trees provide more benefits and resources to humans than any other part of our ecosystem. Trees provide shelter (think lumber, furniture, and shade), paper and fabric, food of many kinds, and, most importantly, clean air. Trees have been called the lungs of the world; they cleanse the air we breathe by inhaling CO2 and exhaling the oxygen we need.  

In “When All Trees Die, So Will You,” Adam Rogers writes, “Dead trees mean dead people, and scientists are finally starting to figure out why.” In other words, loss of trees means loss of human life because without trees to clear our air, more of us will die from preventable illnesses.

According to Rogers, scientists are attempting to correlate trees with public health and “differences in illness and death in populations that live near greenery versus those that don’t.” Some studies suggest links between tree loss and increased morbidity from lung and heart disease, as well as 

 

its inverse: higher contact with green spaces leading to conditions as diverse as higher-birthweight babies and lower rates of anti-depressant drug use. Studies like these are beginning to reveal the benefits of protecting and replenishing trees as part of our public health infrastructure.

From the series, “Trees of Life”; Gold mixed media on plexiglass ©Joyce Tenneson

A similar message is found in “Trees Are Our Best Defense Against Climate Change, But Forests Are Dying at Unprecedented Rates.”  As Eric Holthaus bluntly writes, “Forests are our last, best natural defense against global warming. Without the world’s trees at peak physical 

 


 

 

condition, the rest of us don’t stand a chance.” According to Holthaus, even though human CO2 emissions have flattened, climate change is still accelerating. That’s because even though we count on trees to draw a hundred billion tons of carbon dioxide out of the air every year, trees are dying from drought, forest fires, insects, disease, and development encroachment faster than forests can recover or migrate northward to cooler temperatures.

From the series, “Trees of Life”; Gold mixed media on plexiglass ©Joyce Tennyson

Climate change creates an anti-arboreal loop which not only increases the likelihood of forest fire but in which forests have a harder time regenerating after fire because of climate change-induced conditions like drier, warmer weather. To mitigate these impacts, according to Holthaus, some conservationists “are considering tinkering with the ecosystems in various ways, including introducing novel species, replanting forests with climate change in mind, and even planting fast-growing species just to burn them for energy.” But if “an area equivalent to the size of India would be needed by 2100 to remove enough carbon from the atmosphere to help stabilize the rise of global temperatures,” can we plant enough trees in time?

With the loss of the resources and benefits trees provide—euphemistically called “ecosystem services,” as if trees make house calls–we should all be concerned about decreasing tree population. The truth is, however, forests will be able to adapt better than humans will. To use Woolf’s word, trees are “obdurate,” stubbornly holding to their course of action despite change. Their resilience gives me hope that forests will survive the changing climate in some form. The likelihood of human survival is much more tenuous. 

* * *

 

 


 

Now that I live near three irrigation ditches on rural land, I pay particular attention to trees. Our farm lies along the Front Range foothills of the Rockies. We can see Long’s Peak and Mount Meeker from our fields. Our land is crossed by vintage waterways that began as natural limestone gullies dug by teams of burly horses in the late 1800s. Willow, cottonwood, birch, ash, pine, and cedar grow along our ditches, some of them more than a century old, which for this dryland area of the country is considerable. Apple trees are prevalent here, too, some planted by us and some planted before our time by others, including squirrels saving seeds for winter food. 

I think and write about trees a lot because they grace my life with shelter, shade, and sustenance. They prevent soil erosion around our cropland and provide habitat for neighboring species. Without trees here, our land and our livelihood would be drastically diminished and eventually devastated. As old as our trees are, sometimes they fall. We have lost many trees on our farm, but they do good work before they go. 

One mid-summer night as I lay in bed with the window open, I heard a noise outside. I couldn’t tell from how far away the sound came; I’d never heard a sound quite like that before. It sounded big and brittle and thick, yet muffled, somewhere between a thud and a clunk. Even though the night was calm, something large had broken and fallen,  

 

 

 suspected, like a tree limb on a rooftop, a serious enough thought for that time of night, but it was too late to get up and look. I would investigate in the morning.

From the series, “Trees of Life”; Gold mixed media on plexiglass ©Joyce Tenneson

 

 


 

 

From the series, “Trees of Life”; Gold mixed media on plexiglass ©Joyce Tenneson

It wasn’t a tree limb that fell, but a whole tree of limbs, one of the largest willows on the farm, a tree that had been leaning for years across our lower ditch a quarter mile from the house. I wasn’t surprised it had fallen, but rather that I had heard it fall at all. What were the chances I’d be awake with my window open and ears attuned enough to hear something out back? Even though the tree was a giant—150 feet high and 6 feet in diameter–the impact must have been great for the sound to travel so far.

The impact, in fact, was hard enough to shatter the old tree, which was dying by degrees. Half the tree was in leaf from branches still drawing nutrients from the trunk, while the other half was already dead, its limbs standing without bark, brittle and bleached by the sun. Dead wood is heavier than live wood because the tissues compact as they dry; that’s why old logs burn longer than newly cut logs.

Dead wood also hits the ground harder. The cottonwood fell across the ditch. Where the lower tree spanned the water, the trunk was saved in one long slab like a bridge. But where the upper trunk and limbs smashed the ground on the other side, the tree now lay like a splintered skeleton, spine severed on impact, vertebrae scattered among scapula, humerus, and phalange. As the force of the fall from heavy boughs dug trenches into pasture grass, brittle limbs were thrown wide. The ditch company tasked with clearing the tree used their largest crane and heaviest chains to lift and swing the trunk to the bank’s edge, where it will


 

 

decompose in time. Walking in the meadow after this operation, I stumble over broken bones, the cracked ribs and bare-knuckled fingers that will lie in the grass for years to come.

From the series, “Trees of Life”; Gold mixed media on plexiglass ©Joyce Tenneson

The death of such a large tree on the farm fetched a heavy loss. That cottonwood framed our view of high mountains, especially lovely in the golden hues of fall against new snow on the peaks. The tree provided habitat for birds and small animals. Its limbs shaded the pasture and its roots anchored the bank of the ditch. Growing up along the ditch, that tree was older than our century-old farm. 

But as much as we cherished that tree and the homes it made for owls, squirrels, and raccoons, it didn’t provide food for our farm members. Not like the apple trees that died the winter before. That November, an 80-degree drop in temperature killed our largest apple trees following a mild fall. Our farm season ends on the last Saturday of October and we were still giving tomatoes for the last share, unusual for the Front Range where heavy frosts used to hit predictably between mid-September to mid-October. The autumn apple harvest was heavy that season, our best ever. We used the bucket of the tractor to raise apple-pickers into the top branches. We pressed hundreds of gallons of cider with our members, some to be made into hard cider for later enjoyment. 

Our first light frost finally caught up with us at the tail end of October, but the trees were still not dormant on November 10 when the killing frost struck. The morning started mild, but by the end of the day, the temperature dropped 80 degrees from summer to winter and the damage was done. 

A hundred years ago, Colorado’s Front Range was an apple-growing region. Now, with more frequent drought and less predictable climate, growing apples is a gamble. We plant varieties that bud later in the season in the hope of missing a late spring frost but that’s no guarantee. Warmer 

 

 

 

 


 

 

fall temperatures, a longer autumn, and temperature variability are taking their toll on apples here. The warmer conditions that created our best apple crop contributed to the death of the very trees that produced those apples. Ironically, heavy fruiting may have weakened the trees, making them even less resilient to the sudden temperature drop that caused their demise.

It will take years for newer apple trees to grow to the size of those mature trees. Some days, it saddens us to know it’s possible, even probable, we may never get an apple crop like that again. Other days, it frightens us. This loss of apples is, in itself, a kind of uprooting, one more reason to be anxious about the future of the planet. Yet as I worry about our apple trees, I can’t help but worry about myself too. How will I stay healthy on a planet in which human practices threaten the trees upon which I depend? How much of what trees provide will be uprooted as both our species adapt not just to climate change, but climate crisis? If upright is the word for our continued mutual existence, I think, then how will upright be sustained for trees and humans alike in the not-to-distant future? 

In illuminating our ecological kinship, I write to forge an alliance between humans and trees that will lead to our mutual survival, an uprightness that provides a future for trees and humans and all other living things, as well. Clearly, our future is tied to trees. If you don’t do anything else for the future of trees and all they support, do this: Get upright. Get moving. Go find some trees. Plant more. 

 

 

From the series, “Trees of Life”; Gold mixed media on plexiglass ©Joyce Tenneson

 

 


 

 

 

From the series, “Trees of Life”; Gold mixed media on plexiglass ©Joyce Tenneson

 

But if you can, go another step and join with others to preserve trees, cherish trees, and make and keep a home for them on this planet. We must, if we intend to make and keep our homes here as well. 

Hiking along a river trail on the flatlands east of our farm one cold, but bright, January morning, my grandson and I pick up what looks like a deer femur from a pile of leaves, only to discover it is not a bone attached to a chunk of hide we hold, but a stick wrapped with bark.

The stick reminded me of the deer foreleg the farm crew and I found while picking vegetables six months earlier, the animal’s rough skin still attached, a bone dropped by a coyote or mountain lion as it crossed the field one moonlit night. Instead of burying it, we threw the leg into the trees to be eaten by other animals, insects, and organisms, providing a feast, as nature intended. 

In reverence of that cycle, my grandson and I lay the bone-branch back where we found it to become litterfall, preserving, perhaps, one tiny, upright step in nature’s obdurate ways. 

 

 


 


Holthaus, Eric. “Up In Smoke.”
Grist. March 8, 2018. https://grist.org/article/the-last-ditch-effort-to-save-the-worlds-forests-from-climate-change.

Rogers, Adam. “All the Trees Will Die, And Then So Will You.” Wired. May 9, 2017. https://www.wired.com/2017/05/trees-will-die-will/

Woolf, Virginia. “On Being Ill.” The New Criterion. January 1926.

 

 

From the series, “Trees of Life”; Gold mixed media on plexiglass ©Joyce Tenneson

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Kayann Short, Ph.D., is the author of A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography, a Nautilus winner published by Torrey House Press. Her essays appear in The Hopper, Pilgrimage, Dash, Mad River Review, The Roost, Dirt: A Love Story, and Rooted: The Best New Arboreal Non-fiction. She farms, writes, and teaches ecobiography at Stonebridge Farm in Colorado. See more at ecobiography.com.

Joyce Tenneson. Internationally lauded as one of the leading photographers of her generation, Joyce Tenneson’s work has been published in books and major magazines, and exhibited in museums and galleries worldwide. Her portraits have appeared on covers for magazines such as: Time, Life, Newsweek, Premiere, Esquire and The New York Times Magazine. Tenneson is the author of sixteen books including the best seller, Wise Women, which was featured in a six-part Today Show series. She is the recipient of many awards, including Fine Art Photographer of the Year in 2005 (Lucie Awards), and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Professional Photographers of America in 2012. In a poll conducted by American Photo Magazine, readers voted Tenneson among the ten most influential women in the history of photography. In the Fall of 2014, Fotografiska Museum, in Stockholm, Sweden, mounted a large retrospective of her work which was seen by approximately 30,000 people. Tenneson’s work has been exhibited in museums around the globe and is part of many private and public collections. In addition to her photography exhibits and books, Tenneson has taught master photography classes in the U.S. and Europe for over 40 years.