Where the Corn Was Spilled

That title will make sense by the time we’ve come to the end of this entry. I’m going to quote first here from a wonderful comment that came into the blog today from Shieldmaiden. (You should definitely go back to the two previous entries, “Trees” and “Dark Doorways,” to read the latest reader comments! It seems there are often a few that come in just before I post a new entry, and I don’t want anyone to miss these extraordinary contributions from readers. In every way this is our blog, not just mine. Be sure to revisit the comments to “Trees” as well as “Dark Doorways”!) So, anyway, quoting from Shieldmaiden:

“Speaking of dark or magic doorways I don’t think it gets any more magical than the picture I saw on one of the blog posts last summer. The one of an old gate leaning against the trunks of maples and partially swallowed by their trunks. I couldn’t help but imagine that on a certain midsummer night when the moonlight fell just right, and several other elements lined up, that the gate would swing open and when you went through it you would step into an enchanted forest of another world.”

Eeeee! Shieldmaiden, I hope you’ll let me use that in a story someday! That picture is the new header for the blog, but since I change headers from time to time, I’ll include it here, too:

This old gate has been here for as long as I can remember. It's just behind our house in Taylorville, facing south toward the Big Woods.

This old gate has been here for as long as I can remember. It's just behind our house in Taylorville, facing south toward the Big Woods.

Now I’m going to quote again from The Green and Ancient Light, that unpublished, homemade book of vignettes and recollections from my childhood, printed in September of 1990:

“Beneath the living blanket of green leafy vines was a barn. Down among the roots of the high weeds going to seed were bricks and a concrete slab. At the heart of the hedgerow was a rusting fence, hardly recognizable as such. Only a nail and a chain remained, dangling against the peeling bark, of some iron thing the maple tree had swallowed years ago.

“This relentless march of the sprouting, encircling, all-consuming Earth is essential in understanding my childhood. Nature guarded its secrets well, its rough-edged relics of days gone by; they were tucked away in shady, whispering hollow places where only the folk of the hedgerows could readily find them, the cat and the rabbit, the dog with his nose to the dewy ground, the sleepy opossum, the raccoon with his humanlike hands. These folk climbed over and around the treasures in the gloomy hedgeheart — the forgotten gate leaned against the young maples, its boards bleached and bone-hard, its metal fastenings eaten with rust; the roll of fencing behind the tin shed, half-sunk in the earth, down between the treetrunks, a tunnel for foxes and a rusty trampoline for little  boys; the mysterious odds and ends of glass and tarpaper, the dimly-remembered toys of earliest childhood, sheltering now beneath the dusky hillocks of the grass; the several corroded things in the delightful hollows of the man-made cliff behind the cellar.

“All these things and a thousand more called out to two little boys, called out in voices soft and mellow as ripened rust, orange in the hot light, dark amber in the sunset; the grasses called out, their blades in the wind, their roots probing into matters. The world of passage and change called out, the world of transformation and chemical reaction, of unbecoming and becoming: ‘Come and see, boys; come and find. Discover in these green depths the things that once were, the things you lost five summers ago, the things your grandfathers’ compatriots built forty years ago; see what is now, how undauntedly nature takes your ball and runs with it, how it takes all your ideas and improves them, and goes on; and, boys, carry with you from this secret world these purposefully-formed seeds of things that may be.’”

I honestly think that a huge part of my writing is a giving back of the gifts I absorbed from the green world around me in my childhood. A Cricket editor’s comment that I particularly cherish was: “Your memory for detail is phenomenal: you sit in Japan and write lovingly about small-town life in Illinois.”

Anyway, while we’re speaking of the magic of trees and doorways, certainly this tendency of nature to advance and absorb and reclaim the objects of human construction is a worthy subtopic — it has always been a large part of the enchantment for me.

Again, I remember illustrations from a book of fairy stories I had when I was very young (and still have — I know right where it is, though it’s deeply buried in storage). It was a tattered old book that a library was throwing away. My mom the librarian would rescue such castoffs for me, and sometimes they became the greatest treasures of my own library. It didn’t even have a cover. But I remember a beautiful two-page panoramic color painting of a meadow; and half-hidden here and there among the tussocks of long grass were sleepy rabbits in their burrows, rusted swords, crocks of golden coins, and probably a fairy or two — the last time I saw it was several years ago.

But that picture expresses a wonder that I suspect is common to many of us. I remember my childhood fascination with objects overgrown, things half-buried, items long-forgotten and vine-clad and sinking into the ground. I don’t know why the phenomenon was so enthralling to me.

This bicycle beside a wooded path on Niigata University's campus has been welcomed and given a place.

This bicycle beside a wooded path on Niigata University's campus has been welcomed and given a place.

In the north wall of our barn, there were some closed hatchways or windows covered over by Virginia creeper vines. Piles of stone were soon overrun by weeds. Farm implements parked and abandoned sank into the embrace of nature.

As a college student, I was captivated by these lines from Philip Levine’s “They Feed They Lion”:

“Earth is eating trees, fence posts,

Gutted cars, earth is calling her little ones,

‘Come home, come home!’”

And here are three more poems that I think speak to this same theme, each in its own way:

“The Presence,” by Maxine Kumin:

Something went crabwise

across the snow this morning.

Something went hard and slow

over our hayfield.

It could have been a raccoon

lugging a knapsack,

it could have been a porcupine

carrying a tennis racket,

it could have been something

supple as a red fox

dragging the squawk and spatter

of a crippled woodcock.

Ten knuckles underground

those bones are seeds now

pure as baby teeth

lined up in the burrow.

 

I cross on snowshoes

cunningly woven from

the skin and sinews of

something else that went before.

The next one I remember singing in a choral arrangement in an all-state chorus festival when I was in junior high or high school — performed by a huge choir made up of kids from all over the state. The poem itself was written and published during World War II by Thomas Hornsby Ferril, and it’s called “No Mark”:

Corn grew where the corn was spilled

In the wreck where Casey Jones was killed,

Scrub-oak grows and sassafras

Around the shady stone you pass

To show where Stonewall Jackson fell

That Saturday at Chancellorsville,

And soapweed bayonets are steeled

Across the Custer battlefield;

But where you die the sky is black

A little while with cracking flak,

Then ocean closes very still

Above your skull that held our will.

O swing away, white gull, white gull;

Evening star, be beautiful.

 

That is an awesome poem! Do you see how it’s precisely to the point of this discussion? Finally, this next one comes to us courtesy of this blog’s own Catherine, who tracked down the words for me. It’s the old Scottish poem “Twa Corbies,” or “Two Ravens”:

As I was walking all alane

I heard twa corbies makin’ mane [making a moan]

And one ontae the other did say

Where will we gang and dine the day,

Where will we gang and dine the day?

In ahind yon oul fail dyke

I wot there lies a new slain knight

Naebody kens that he lies there

But his hawk and hound and his lady fair,

His hawk and hound and his lady fair.

His hawk is tae the hunting gane,

His hound to bring a wild fowl hane [home],

His wife has taken another mate,

So we can make our dinner sweet,

We can make our dinner sweet.

And you can sit on his white breast bone,

And I’ll pick out his bonny blue e’en,

And with a lock of his yellow hair

We’ll theek our nest when it grows bare,

We’ll theek our nest when it grows bare.

And many’s a one for him makes mane;

Naebody kens where he has gane;

Through his white bones when they grow bare

The wind shall blow forever mare,

The wind shall blow forever mare.

 

Three diverse poems, but I submit they’re all really talking about the same things. Do you agree? And yes, I have a poem of my own to toss into the pot. This is my own version of the same theme — a poem I think I’ve alluded to on this blog but have never quoted in full. So here it is: “Glory Day,” by Frederic S. Durbin:

We found the old cat one hot Glory Day

In the steamy weeds, swelled to twice his size;

Green glory thunder echoed in his eyes

As we laid him out where the smell of hay

And green maple shadows would make the flies

Forget him; and watching the heat waves rise

From the wind-mirroring beans we covered him with clay.

There was lightning low in the sky away

Off, and a distant rumbling down the road;

The Virginia Creeper whispered to the wagon

It covered like time-snails’ tracks, the old load

Of bricks for building; something like a dragon

Crawled south in the blur of wheat’s golden sway

When we buried a tomcat on Glory Day.

 

As one of my two favorite professors would say, when he finished reading a poem aloud to the class, “How do you like them apples?” I’d love to hear your analyses of the poem — of what precisely the “something like a dragon” is. Any takers? (You won’t be wrong, I expect.) [The poem's a sonnet, by the way!]

So, well, well, this theme of nature’s reclamation of objects is large in my mind this week because it’s such a key element of the book I’m writing now. (Since it’s passed 25,000 words, I’m just going to start calling it a “book” instead of a “story.” I think it will likely hit the minimum novel requirement of 50,000 before all is said and done.)

Here's my AlphaSmart Neo on my favorite bench on the Lavender Path. I've had some success lately with writing outdoors using this dear gem of a machine.

Here's my AlphaSmart Neo on my favorite bench on the Lavender Path. I've had some success lately with writing outdoors using this dear gem of a machine.

That book is still going well, by grace! On Thursday, I had the most productive day on this project so far, with 2,858 words written! On Friday I did 1,909, which is still ahead of a NaNoWriMo quota count. Today, Saturday, I was fixing earlier things, so didn’t make any forward progress. I spent a long stretch revising one seven-line poem that plays a crucial part. So it goes, in fits and spurts. . . .

Here’s one more poem of mine [still on the subject -- no disbursements to the Pun Fund], written [I think] during my college years, though possibly right after I came to Japan. I’m not really advocating paganism; it’s more just a statement that humankind’s impact on the created natural world is temporal and transient:

“Urban Requiem”

In the rainy end of days the satyrs

Came and rolled on spools the broken wires,

Rekindled the old infernal fires,

And scooped clean soil over oily matters.

 

Heh, heh, heh! Yeah, I was going through a Lord Dunsany period. I think he had some similar ideas, didn’t he?

As I’m wrapping up here: I just received my copy of the May/June Cricket, and I was thrilled and delighted to see a letter and photograph from The Die-Hard Star-Shard Fan Club! Here are my heartfelt thanks to those readers and their parents! This issue of Cricket is one I’ll treasure. I think I’ll make a good color photocopy of the letters page and keep it in a picture frame! There are several letters that mention “The Star Shard,” and also in the back, the winners of the Urrmsh song poetry contest are printed — so even though the story finished in the April issue, we really need this May/June issue to complete “The Star Shard” Cricket collection!

I’m still listening to Enya. I have two of her CDs now: The Celts and Paint the Sky with Stars: The Best of Enya. Really wonderful. Also, I saw the new Star Trek for the second time tonight.

I’ll let some visual images close this posting out:

Bicycles at Niigata University: Hmm, where did I park it? Oh, yeah! -- Mine's the silvery one!

Bicycles at Niigata University: Hmm, where did I park it? Oh, yeah! -- Mine's the silvery one!

Cupid, the supermarket where I buy most of my groceries. As my other favorite college prof made us say at the beginning of every class: "Mythology is alive; mythology is ubiquitous."

Cupid, the supermarket where I buy most of my groceries. As my other favorite college prof made us say at the beginning of every class: "Mythology is alive; mythology is ubiquitous."

United Cinemas, the theater complex that's about a five-minute walk from my place.

United Cinemas, the theater complex that's about a five-minute walk from my place.

Talk about dark doorways into worlds of enchantment! This is the portal I walk through to see movies: it leads to infinite worlds!

Talk about dark doorways into worlds of enchantment! This is the portal I walk through to see movies: it leads to infinite worlds!

Finally, this is along the Lavender Path. This is a truck bed, parked so that it's sticking over a weed-grown drainage ditch. The truck seems not to have been moved in a very long time. Wouldn't you love to set up a writing house in that truck bed?! Well, I would, anyway. . . .

Finally, this is along the Lavender Path. This is a truck bed, parked so that it's sticking over a weed-grown drainage ditch. The truck seems not to have been moved in a very long time. Wouldn't you love to set up a writing house in that truck bed?! Well, I would, anyway. . . .

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21 Responses to “Where the Corn Was Spilled”

  1. Chris Says:

    I know it’s only partially related to the topic at hand but upon reading it I was struck by the parallel. I’m in beautiful Omaha this weekend for a nephew-in-law’s wedding. At the wedding as well is a brother-in-law who acts as the family curator of photography. After their dad passed away last year my wife and her 9 (yes 9 ) siblings started to go through old photos that PHil had taken during his 80+ years. He was somewhat of a photo hobbyist.

    He had photos of old friends from college back in the early 1940′s and all manner of family photos from the 1930′s up to the 1990′s. He dutifully labeled most of the pictures but some he failed to label or were labeled “mysteriously”.

    One last night that particularly fascinated me and that no one really knows the origin of is a WWII photo with a troop ship on a South Pacific shore that has a label written nicely along the top: “Loaded with Ammo, Tinian, 7/45″.

    We don’t know who in the family was stationed on Tinian during that momentous summer, Rita’s dad didn’t leave the Rhode Island base he was stationed at, so we dont’ know who it was.

    I’m sure you recognize the importance of that locale and date, but in the event you don’t, July 1945 was just a month or less before the Enola Gay took off from Tinian Island to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

    It fascinated me because here was something from some unknown person reflecting their presence at one of the most important places in time, and we have no idea who it was.

    It’s just a mysterious little “gate being eaten by a tree” moment in photography and history. Looking through hundreds or thousands of pictures from the family this little mystery has popped up and will probably never be explained. But it is quite interesting.

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      Chris, that is fascinating! I’m always intrigued by pictures taken in a time and place just days or months before something momentous happened there, when nobody knew it was going to happen. And when I’d be at our local historical museum helping Mom (who was a very active officer and volunteer there for about the last 30 years of her life), I loved looking at the rows and rows of fading photos from bygone eras . . . thinking about how those were real people in real times, with lives and personalities and stories. . . .

      During that bizarre, disjointed, lonely year after my parents died, I lived alone in our old house and had the task of slowly going through it room by room, drawer by drawer, and cleaning it all out so that I could rent the house to a tenant. I remember one dark, rainy day when I was cleaning out Mom’s “shpint”–a wardrobe she’d painted with Pennsylvania Dutch designs. I’m sure you remember it–we played in it when we were kids. On its top shelf, I found a series of large, very carefully made “death photos.” These were black-and-white, about the size of a piece of typing paper, printed on a stiff board like cardboard, and all showed (from various angles) a dead little boy in his coffin, surrounded by flowers. Talk about a creepy discovery on a dark day in a sad year! I showed them to my aunts, and I think the consensus was that it was Friedrich, the boy I’m named after, who died of either a strangulated hernia or a burst appendix when he was about 11, if I’ve got all my facts straight. (Why on Earth did people used to take “death photos”?!)

  2. mileposter Says:

    There is a sense of comfort when human structures are reclaimed by the growth of plants, and when we witness the obvious evidence of the effects of wind and rain. No matter how hard we try, we cannot hope to equal the “lilies of the field.” It’s the same atmosphere of peace that we experience when the fruitless strivings of humans are covered by a deep blanket of snow.

    Although one of my students disagrees, I think the final picture looks like a canal lock. That’s a sort of double dose of peacefulness, since the pace of life along the waterways of the nineteenth century was much more relaxed than the cacophonous strivings of the twenty-first. When even that ambiance is smothered in abundant greenery, we know that we are closer to our Creator.

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      Thanks, mileposter! Very well said!
      I think a canal lock would be much bigger than my little drainage ditch, but I agree that it looks like one! :-)

  3. Rich Heinz Says:

    As I read the editor’s comments about you comfortably writing about Illinois from far-off Japan, I am taken back to Concordia, performing Spoon River Anthology…

    The meadow is flooded with white daffodils
    The brook babbles on as it flows to the hills
    They haunt me, they hunt me wherever I roam
    Spoon River, Spoon River is calling me home

    No matter how far I may wander away
    Or what new land I find at the end of each day
    I’m haunted, I’m hunted wherever I roam
    Spoon River, Spoon River is calling me home

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      Thanks, Rich! Spoon River Anthology is great! I remember making an 8mm sound movie when I was a teenager — it was somehow to help out Mom at the museum, but I don’t remember the exact reason. I filmed a bunch of tombstones in some historic cemeteries around our area, and for the soundtrack, I had some poignant music playing while I read from Spoon River. When we showed it at the museum, some people (particularly older people) had some very emotional reactions to it. I remember one elderly lady getting up and leaving. I felt bad that I’d probably triggered some really sad memories for her, but I was also awed by the power of combined music, words, and images.

  4. Jedibabe Says:

    To me, the ultimate passage to an Otherworld is, and always has been nature. Others have mentioned previously what grand passageways Tolkien created: down the road, through the forest, along the river, the tops of mountains… all were passageways to the next phase of a sacred journey to save the world. Fred has mentioned the sacred nature of trees; I would perhaps extend that sacred title to the natural world generally.

    If we look to the story told in Genesis, God was the superlative gardener. It was man that in his own child-like desire to be creator of his own worlds corrupted the concept of “Garden”. Now, when we feel the natural world around us, we feel a call to something primeval, something sacred. The idea of nature reclaiming her own offers a sense of perfect justice, of a sacred reality humanity unconsciously longs for, just as a child longs for a parent who sets clear boundaries and teaches respect. Nature is a clear and humbling reminder that we are a part of something much grander than our very best efforts.

    The stories we read, the stories we tell that are most thought provoking, memorable and life changing are the ones that take us through that natural passageway, beyond the mundane, man made reality to someplace entirely new, and yet profoundly old, a place where we are both awed by the feeling of light and by a sense that we are a part of something so much greater than we previously knew. The passageways that we remember connect us to that something universal, the sacredness that is greater than ourselves of which we are an essential part.

    These last three posts have been marvelous and flow so pleasingly one to another, from trees to passageways to nature’s reclamation of her own. For me they are each a piece of a greater whole, just as we are ourselves. These concepts are what drew me to my field of landscape architecture. In reality they are what have drawn me through the growth process of my life, each new concept and realization an exciting stepping stone to my next. May they never end!

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      Jedibabe, this is really profound. Thank you! A reality we unconsciously long for. . . . Amazing! Yes!

  5. Shieldmaiden Says:

    Just wishing you luck with the fits and spurts of writing your now half finished book. I have to say, your AlphaSmart Neo is sure anOtherworld from dragging out that 75 feet of extension chord to write outside as in days gone by. Have you already posted pictures of what you see from your favorite bench on the Lavender Path? Just wondering about your view.

    I’m still thinking about the “something like a dragon” that crawled away…

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      I was hoping someone would take a stab at defining the dragon, but no one did. . . .
      Thanks for the well-wishes on the new book! The AlphaSmart Neo is a fantastic machine — it’s just perfect for laying down a rough draft, because it lets you write wherever you want to be — and the batteries last and LAST!

      That bench on the Lavender Path looks straight at a barbed-wire fence around a tiny parking lot! I have no idea why barbed wire is even sold in Japan! It’s not as if we have herds of cattle grazing around the streets . . . and it’s not as if that parking lot needed such extreme defense measures. So what if a kid would cut through it on his way home from school?! :-)

  6. Shieldmaiden Says:

    P.S. Nice blog header! :)

  7. mileposter Says:

    I second the motion on the header photo! If it isn’t the perfect picture for this blog, it comes awfully close! :) :)

  8. I remember walking by it Says:

    On the lane down to the pond, right? For some reason I never inquired about the gate in question, probably because, to me, the “doorway” on the Durbin homestead was the north door of the barn, which was overgrown with creeper. I was also always fascinated with the dark stairs down into the shelter (or whatever it was … you had a photo of it on a prior posting).

    The path down to “Devil’s backbone” in Manner’s Park was also a continuing source of wonder for me, as was an old trail (a ranger told me hardly anyone ever walked it anymore since a new paved path had been put in) in Deer Lick Creek park NE of Tuscaloosa.

    I’d never read the Ferril poem before; it reminds me of “the grass” by Sandburg, a favorite of mine (both the poem and the poet) — ‘cover them over and let me work; I am the grass’

    Thanks for the looks around Niigata. I am always amazed by the Japanese use of the Roman alphabet, because you certainly do not see the kanji in America!

    As for the death photos, that has always been a source of wonder for me as well. For some reason I was taken back to Ken Burns’ outstanding “Civil War” series (the viewing of which I would make a requirement of any student wishing to graduate high school in America). In a segment on famed photographer Matthew Brady it was discussed how he went broke after the war, and had to recoup his losses by selling hundreds of glass negatives of photos taken at battle sites. Gardeners bought the glass and used them for greenhouses, where the sun gradually faded away forever the images caught thereon. Ohh the loss to our history!

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      Hey, “I remember” — I’m glad you’re still here! Hadn’t heard from you in awhile! :-) Yes, that’s the gate, on the way down to the pond. On the north wall of the barn, there were about 3 or 4 entrances, weren’t there? — all grown over with creeper. I count it as one of the greatest losses of my life that that barn is no more. May it live vibrant in our memories until we leave this life, and beyond!
      Yes, the shelter — we always called it “the cave.” And I remember Devil’s Backbone, too, and that root stairway leading down into it. Do you remember the tunnel under the 48 bypass that we called “Cirith Ungol”?

      I thought of you in particular when I posted the Ferril poem. I wish you could have heard the choral arrangement! Now I’m curious about the Sandburg “grass” poem!

      Yes! I remember really enjoying and appreciating Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary!

  9. Daylily Says:

    All right, I’ll bite. My guess is that the “something like a dragon” which was crawling south is a train, which would add its own rumbling to the distant sounds of thunder and the echoing memories of the fireworks explosions.

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      Good to hear from you, too, Daylily! Thanks for the guess! I guess I should hold off on my own interpretation for now, but I like yours — it’s well thought out and fits into the landscape of the poem.

  10. SwordLily Says:

    Is the “something like a dragon” a river or a stream? That’s what I immediately thought of ^^.

    It is a truth that being reclaimed by nature makes any ordinary object magical and beautiful. In the canal by my house, when the tide is low, you can see what was once a boat jutting up out of the water like the blackened bones of an ancient beast. I always dreamed of diving down into that wreck to see if there was any hidden treasure. Even though I know now the boat is just a fishing boat that met an unfortunate end, the sight of that wreck still feeds my imagination.

    And I love the new header, also!

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      Thanks, SwordLily! I guess I’d better leave that header up for awhile — it seems to have the highest approval ratings so far!

      Your theory is also a good one about the “something like a dragon.” It also fits the atmosphere nicely. If I forget to eventually tell my own version of what I meant, somebody please remind me!

      Oooh, yes! Shapes just visible under the water are also very magical and intriguing! I can just picture your sunken ship! Your description of it reminded me of some book I read as a child and really liked — I can’t for the life of me remember what it was now — but the main character saw the shape of a rectangular trunk or box under the water, down in the sea bed, and was sure it was a treasure chest. I don’t remember what happened, but I can vividly recall the thrill and wonder of reading that story. . . .

  11. Tom Says:

    I sang Thomas Hornsby Ferril’s poem ‘No Mark’ in the 1985 Ohio All State Choir in Cleveland, Ohio. Did we sing in the same choir?

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      Hi, Tom, and welcome to this blog! I invite you to stop in regularly, if you don’t already — we have a great community of friendly, witty, knowledgeable, and fascinating people here.

      Anyway, I don’t think it was the same choir, because I graduated from high school in 1984, and the All State Choirs I went to would have been in Illinois. I’d guess “No Mark” was probably pretty popular with good choir directors, because both the poetry and the musical setting were so compelling. I’m delighted to hear from someone else who sang it and remembers it!

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