Archive for March, 2010
Brenda Jones’ Portrait of Female Northern Harrier, Harrying, over Pole Farm Fields
Flying, myself, to Chicago in a few hours, I send this scene of the female Northern harrier above the [former] grasslands of the Pole Farm, off Cold Soil Road on the way to Lawrenceville.
Lands that used to be covered in silken sheltering grasses, once called to bobolinks each May, until those fields were adorned with black and gold and white and song.
Now we might call the Pole Farm ‘The Invasives’ Lands’. Time and invasives have had their way, so that these fields now bristle with multiflora rose and other invincibles, undesirables that fend off grassland birds. Fend off as in not providing shelter. Actually starve the creatures who depend upon our native species for full nourishment with which they have evolved over the centuries.
However, mice and voles still thrive beneath the prickly ones, so harriers still harry.
Mud was our constant companion on that walk - gift of global climate change: Inevitable, now, as ice caps melt into the seas, “more frequent and more violent storms.”
A pouf of bluebirds, almost like a puff of smoke, filled a conifer stretch with their soft, companionable chatter.
Brenda Jones’ Bluebird of Pole Farm
The greatest thrill of the morning’s walk was in vernal ponds along the muddiest stretch - I’m pretty sure, but I have to wait to get back to D&R Greenway’s naturalist, Bill Rawlyk, to check, that we were treated to repeated watery caches of just-fertilized salamander eggs.
A measure of my disruption, between last week’s homelessness and my sister’s heart challenge, is that I did not have my camera. You’ll have to take my word for what we saw — arrays of oversized caviar, that slatey hue of the finest Sevruga, gleaming in the hot March sun.
Starved for spring, I search NJ WILD Archives - Indeed, we had the green of spring nearly a month earlier last year. Here, if snows, sleets, rains and thunders relent, I will seek spring anew, this Sunday - March 27. Meanwhile, yes, there are wildflowers under all that brown and white!
Fern Still-Life at Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, March 7, 2010 - first green of spring
Quick, before the endorphins fade, let me bring you spring!
This Sunday morning, I fled working on taxes. A third day seemed absolutely beyond me, since I have to list almost everything, despite being, basically, innumerate. I saw that 55-degree forecast and that rain for all next weekend, and off I went, headed for Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, just below New Hope. In no time I was crossing our glimmering Delaware into Pennsylvania.
Only on the way home did I realize the significance of this date: 29 years ago tomorrow morning, I moved from my Braeburn-off-Snowden home in the Princeton woods, to an apartment on a hill above New Hope. My soul seems to have required a re-enactment of a different sort of crossing of the Delaware…
I wanted to see if spring were anywhere at Bowman’s. My heart sank driving through the two mobbed towns of Lambertville and New Hope. I didn’t want spring to be that man in the ugly Bermuda shorts, that girl in shirtsleeves with her ears plugged with wires, not even all those red convertibles with their tops down. I wanted NATURAL SPRING.
Driving down toward Bowman’s, snow streaked the stony Pennsylvania hillsides. Trees seemed even more stark than those on my Canal Road hill. The palette inside the stately gates was brown, brown and more brown, with occasional swathes of white. My quest felt pretty hopeless, as I tromped through what we used to call “frozen granular” at Stowe, only there I was in ski boots.
The Perry Trail seems to have fine strong chiseled new slate steps, which made the descent not only interesting and safe, but also beautiful. I used my trekking poles, having learned long ago that they remove 15% of the stress on hips, knees, ankles and feet. I didn’t have problem joints when I bought the trekking poles - to me, they were wands so that I could stay out 15% longer. Today, on the heels of that Frenchtown fall with all its joint reverberations, I couldn’t have trekked all those hours without those poles.
What I was really after were our two earliest flowers — one being snow trillium, which emerges only as snow tiptoes away; and the other being skunk cabbage. The latter is exothermic - giving off heat that literally melts ice. Those ruddy monks’ cowls, my Bowman’s quest, emerge as though in silent prayer at streamside. In reality, the vivid tough red and green leaf points shelter a strange yellow flower, which gives off an odor we call skunklike, an aroma that lures spring’s first pollinators. If the skunk cabbage isn’t up, it isn’t spring.
I knew where to look for it - the Gentian Trail, over toward the pond that houses basking turtles and bellowing frogs a little later in the new season; and Marsh Marigold Trail. I headed for Gentian.
Sure enough, in feeble but welcome sun and much shadow, there were the first green wizard’s hats, poking through the grainy snow. You would think, after 72 years, that I would realize that, Carolyn, yes, spring does come every year. But I don’t. Winter goes on too long, too dark, and snows too deep, for all my cherishing of that season. Winter gets in the way of light. But skunk cabbage knows how to reach for the sun, carrying me with it.
Another inescapable spring sign is the paling of the beech leaves. Even though they’re not supposed to become this light in color, until just prior to dropping off when beeches need a burst of acid nourishment in mid-April, my heart leaps up at the way the lightening leaves hold last winter light. They also create super sharp shadows:
There is more to spring than sights, however. The sound of spring at Bowman’s on March 7, 2010, was of the loosening of the waters. Although much liquid remains white and firm and dominant on hillsides, much is coursing through Pidcock Creek. People in upper Michigan used to speak of the ’song of the waters’, — my greatest joy this Pennsylvania day.
Another sound of winter’s ending is a fragile one, of which I have never been so fully aware as at Bowman’s today: –the frisson of crisping beech leaves as they thin and pale. You may know that sound in aspen leaves out West, or birch leaves high on mountains in autumn. Beech leaves alter in texture as well as color, setting up this tremolo before they drop to feed the parent plant. It is one of the most magical of spring transitions to me. But never before had I fully realized that beech transformation is audible.
Spring is also a matter of texture. There’s a noble tree at the bridge over Pidcock Creek, a tree that’s always been there. But I’d never known its name, until the year I heard my first phoebes announcing their name among its generous branches. I scurried to the TwinLeaf Shop, managed by knowledgeable volunteers. Describing the birds in color, field marks and voice, we agreed that they had to be phoebes. Describing the tree, the volunteer announced, “Oh, you mean, the cucumber magnolia.” Today the cucumber magnolia was beginning to show the misty green buds whose shape gives the tree its name. They are fuzzy as pussy willows, though larger. I touched them hungrily, laid my cheek against a bud, soft as a newborn’s hair. Yes, yes, ‘cucumbers’ insist it’s spring.
Pidcock Creek Bridge, built by Civilian Conservation Corps in 1930’s -
where cucumber magnolia reigns
On the Azalea Trail, no evidence of azaleas, needless to say. But the first pendulousness of catkins is apparent, there and near the labeled spicebush on the way back to my car. The catkins are small, still, but soft - soft is what matters. Soft means spring. The spicebush has not one spurt of chartreuse, the first shrub flowers of spring. But, scraping a branch discreetly, that pungency that is the origin of its ‘benzoin’ name filled my nostrils and my heart. Even on the drive home, there was a whiff of spicebush on my thumb. There was a certain thrill to have been questing for spring even before the spicebush knew it was time.
Still and all, the star of this day, at Bowman’s, is skunk cabbage. Here is a portrait gallery, so you can see what I mean about their welcome drama in the winter landscape. Some are near the Gentian Trail pond; some are in the waters beside Marsh Marigold Trail. Either way, these humble plants shout of spring. Rejoice!
I call this one, “King of the Skunk Cabbage”
An odd realization came to me, on Bowman’s Trails today: Winter is the time of nouns - blizzard, forecast, snowfall, snowpile, snowman, snowflake, drifts…
Spring is verbs: snows melt, waters swirl, ferns unfurl, catkins soften, spicebush spurts, an ant crawled determinedly along the railing of the bridge on the Medicinal Trail… Spring is activity, reflected even in the language we use to define, discover and describe.
ORIGINAL MEDICINAL TRAIL SIGN
When you look only at the pictures, you may see an excess of brown. Surely not the common man’s version of spring. However, beneath this tone is the color we’ve all been longing to see again - verdant shoots of plants that herald spring.
And, as an extra gift, on my way home, at the stoplight for #518 in Hopewell, what was I given but a tree whose base is completely adorned with winter aconite! That name had been in my head all day, even though I have never seen that plant at Bowman’s. Oh, yes. It was the first color of spring at our long-ago house, the house I left 29 years ago tomorrow, on Braeburn-off-Snowden. Interessant…
There’s a message in the town that holds this scene: HOPE WELL - spring is inevitable!
Brenda Jones Immortalizes ‘The Grey Ghost’ of Pole Farm
It’s after midnight. I’ve just completed Poets’ Night at D&R Greenway Land Trust - when the finest poets of our region joined artists and preservationists, to celebrate the tree theme of the Land Trust’s current art exhibit. I should be ’snug in my bed.’
The electricity of this night, however, has me thinking only of the morning. When I’m joining Connecticut Poet, Sharon Olson, and her husband, Bill Sumner, with whom I just enjoyed a celebratory post-poetry supper, reliving the night, checking off and comparing favorite works (and some not-so-favorites.) The three of us will meet for (their first) typical New Jersey diner breakfast, then head off for birding/hiking The Pole Farm.
The question, at this cusp of spring, is will the short-ears still be there? These diminutive and silent raptors arrive around January and depart any day now upon miraculous migratory journeys. Between rainstorms and unofficial blizzards, I’ve managed not to go on a short-ear quest since the report of their arrival. Even though Pole Farm is right down the road from D&R Greenway. Not, that is, until tomorrow morning.
After we reluctantly complete the wood-rimmed grassland trails of this treasure of a preserve off Cold Soil Road in Lawrence Township, I must pack and leave for Chicago. My only sister has had a heart attack, despite weighing a mere 100 pounds and eating a thousand times more sensibly than this omnivore for many decades. She is home from the hospital, and I don’t want her living there alone this crucial week.
My sister and I didn’t know about birding as girls. We both became captivated by it as grown-ups, I at Chatham, Cape Cod, where the rarities tiptoed around us while we read on our beach on Nantucket Sound. My sister in many heavenly preserves in the Chicago suburbs, including the Morton Arboretum, Glacial Moraine State Park, Herrick Woods and some others remarkable for birding firsts. I can’t take my sister birding on this trip. So Sharon and Bill and I will do the honors here in New Jersey, before I pack and finish the taxes interrupted so rudely by last weekend’s dire storms.
Nobody captures images of short-eared owls any better than Brenda Jones. So I’ll put their pictures in, but NJ WILD readers may have to wonder with me, whether there’ll be any hovering silently over the preserved grasslands of morning.
Hope to me is not a function of spring. Hope to me moves on soundless wings.
Question: What is the best type of birdseed food for winter? Also, how can I stop squirrels from emptying the feeders?
Answer: Until recently, there has been little scientific information to guide you on birdseed selection for backyards. New information was gathered from more than 7,000 observations of birds choosing between two or more foods at experimental stations in Maryland, California, Ohio and Maine under the guidance of the Urban Wildlife Research Programs of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.
Sunflower seeds seemed to attract most seed-eating birds, with the black oil-type being most attractive. Another popular seed was the white prove millet. Common cereal grains, such as sorghum, wheat, cracked corn, oats and rice, rated significantly lower. Other unattractive seeds included flax, canary and rape.
Brenda Jones finds blue jay puffed against the cold
Rather than buying mixes, it is more economical to buy black oil-type sunflower seeds.
More than 30 species of birds may visit your feeder during the winter. Besides feeders, creating a habitat-friendly environment around your home will increase the number of visitors. Birds have developed an adaptive mechanism that allows them to switch their food choices from mainly insects to seeds.
Some of the birds you may come across are blue jays, cardinals, woodpeckers, tufted titmouse, chickadees, dark-eyed juncos, wrens and nuthatches. Some birds will feed exclusively in trees, while others prefer the ground. Most common backyard birds will visit platform feeders that are simple to make. Ground feeders usually prefer white millet, whereas birds attracted to feeders prefer the oil-type sunflowers. Therefore, placing millet in hanging feeders with small perches is not advisable. The addition of suet in winter months, placed near tree trunks, will also attract several birds, especially woodpeckers.
Placement of these food sources is very important. Feeders standing alone in open areas of lawn attract few birds. Birds prefer the sense of security trees and shrubs provide as a quick hiding spot when predators approach. However, now we introduce the problem of squirrels. These agile creatures can jump at least five feet, especially when food is the incentive. It is recommended to move feeders 10 feet away from branches and trees if possible.
Using excluders is also an effective method. There are also deterrents that are added as a bird supplement. They contain a highly concentrated capsaicin, derived from pepper plants. Their effectiveness has had mixed reviews. Employing all these strategies simultaneously will lead to the best results.
Mona Bawgus is a certified master gardener and consumer horticulturist with Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Atlantic County. Write to her c/o Rutgers Cooperative Extension, 6260 Old Harding Highway, Mays Landing, NJ 08330. E-mail:
Posted in LIFE on Friday, February 5, 2010 2:25 am Updated: 6:00 am.
Richard Cobby captures never-failing light of Provence, winter and summer…
What I do on cold winter days is often to take to the kitchen, starting something hearty and real, such as a stew, homemade applesauce from Pine Barrens apples, or long-simmered spaghetti sauce.
Lacking time or specific ingredients, I do what I’m doing now - savor a leisurely post-tax-preparation lunch (of local cheeses, local apples, French wine, bien sur!, a hearty, grainy bread from the Village Bakery of Lawrenceville,) while READING RECIPES.
Forever homesick, as NJ WILD readers know, for my beloved Provence, I read Provencal cookbooks. Lines in these recipes jolt me away from my candlelit table (yes, in daytime!) and the redolent book, in word and images- to my computer — for recipes of Provence, sheer poetry!
And why Provence, on a gloomy winter’s day? The subtitle of Richard Olney’s treasure, Provence-the-Beautiful Cookbook, is Cuisines of the Sun. Having lived in Cannes in 1987/88, — where I could walk to Picasso’s Vallauris, though not down those cooked-spaghetti strands they consider roads, into Cannes, I know about that sun.
Provence Light on Winter Vegetables
Light all over. Everywhere. All the time. Sun that shattered into prisms and rainbows– not only upon water and sand and jewelry along the Rue d’Antibes and the hot metal of my little Peugeot. Light splashed along the concrete of La Croisette itself, upon the red rocks of the Esterel Massif, its pines and cork oaks. But even inside my deep apartment, light’s full spectrum splattered upon dark woods and fabrics, as well as upon wild herbs growing on my curve of balcony overlooking the blinding sea.
Provence Light on Pottery, as in Vallauris
That unconquerable sun of Provence! By comparison, sunlight here, –upon my hill above the canal–, is like watered skim milk. No, I was never lonely there. Provence sun was my constant companion, winter and summer. Except when it snowed, which it did upon on the palms of Cannes in January of 1988. Sun was simply omnipresent, even during mistrals. And once, sun was truly obscured, during la pluie du Sahara - the rain of the Sahara, –full of golden, blinding, scouring Sahara desert sand.
Ancient Olive Tree, Provence
Richard Olney divides his Provence, [which I never knew til 1976 is a separate world, not just a separate region from France itself], into Alpes-Maritimes, Var, Alpes-de-Haute Provence, the Vaucluse and Bouche-du-Rhone. In his books, he gives the specialties of each. In 1987/88, I explored them all, –in depth, by day and by night, usually alone, with passion never sated in all those months.
Sometimes, I would pop my neighbors of the villa into the car, –the Carre’s and Charles Mouzon especially, occasionally La Marquise, La Comtesse — all of whom would burst into song the minute I turned the key in the ignition in those tinny cans that passed for automobiles in Provence. They could never believe how fast my car was, especially at des feus rouges - red lights — despite being une automatique! “Ooo! Ca bouge!”, they would exclaim - roughly, “OOO, it leaps!” Before returning to song.
Old Provence Chapel at Time of Lavender Harvest
Most of our trips together were gastronomic, although one was in quest of the lavender harvest. And once, through a troupeau (troop, migrating flock) of sheep and goats led by a shepherd/goatherd with all his needs in leather sacques on either side of a donkey, to Opio for the pressing of the olives. All of our time together was merry and blessed. All the years since, I have been de-paysee(d) –uncountried — lost and longing for my own year in Provence.
The recipe line that started me on this poeme du Provence is “add the tentacles and wings and saute for one minute”
Alas, I have not cooked with tentacles and wings.
How matter-of-fact are Provencals about matters unknown, unconsidered, even off-putting to so many Americans.
French recipes even explain their commands. A far cry from “microwave for 33 seconds…”
“The flesh of skate wings is melting and voluptuous. At table, it separates like magic from the tender, gelatinous bones.”
Ah, but we are talking talking of “squids’ tentacles and wings, chopped” here, not skate wings - which I first sampled and savored with black butter (au buerre noir) in Normandy in 1964. We are told to be careful to pack “the squid mantles, or pouches, carefully, because they shrink in cooking.” Their tentacles and wings are to be cooked for just one minute. I didn’t even know that squid had wings.
Fennel leaves are suggested for this recipe, but only “if the season is right.” To auslanders such as I, every season in Provence is the correct one. My neighbors were quick but gentle to correct me - for example cautioning me to make sure either to, or not to, buy cheeses made of ewes’ milk when they were lactating. As I am back in America now, c’est dommage, I am unlikely to need this advice, so have forgotten all but the gentleness with which it was conveyed in late winter of 1988.
This particular recipe concludes with putting the daurade (a generous delicate fish) on the grill when the coals are “slightly on the decline” …”with a film of white ash masking the ardent embers.” Right — “The Joy of Cooking” was never like this!
Richard Cobby’s Provencal Fishing Boat - re only out for the morning - fish never fresher!
Once the daurade is (minimally) cooked, we are to “sprinkle inside and out with the olive oil, then with pastis”. Of course. Every Provencal cook has pastis ‘ready to hand’.
I have relished loup de mer (wolf of the sea - don’t ask! it loses everything in translation, but not in cooking) roasted on fennel branches, then flamed with pastis, at L’Oasis, in La Napoule Plage. That town, that legendary restaurant, were but moments from what would be my Cannes apartment. But with long long ago husband and daughters. That most sublime fish of my life arrived after the tiny, ruddy melons of Cavaillon with their traditional lashings of port.
I’m fresh out of skate, squid, fennel and pastis. To say nothing of melon. Much as I love New Jersey, for a homesick former resident of Provence, it is NEVER the right season around here!
Yes, of course, I have prepared Provencal specialties back in the States. Le Grand Aioli, for example, up in the Berkshires, in January, for friends who shared a birthday. Turns out, according to Olney, I left out the main ingredient. Despite having hand-ground the garlic in marble mortar and pestle, as instructed, for the garlicky mayonnaise that is the heart and soul of this recipe, my accompaniments were incomplete.
They didn’t include octopus: “Serve the octopus hot from its cooking vessel. Its sauce mingles wonderfully with l’aioli.” At our birthday dinner in the snowy north, we were none the wiser, relishing every morsel of poached salt cod, roasted beets, new potatoes, crisp-tender carrots, ditto green beans, hard-boiled eggs, and cauliflower. These were the ingredients served with the Carre’s in a Bistrot/Art Gallery in nearby Biot, where a world-famous artist enjoyed the same at the next table. I had an American art magazine article about him right in my ’sacque’ to share with the Carre’s. When I showed it to the waitress, she took it over the artist so he could sign it. This merry man ate lunch with her every Friday, ‘le jour maigre’ - the meagre day - the fast and abstinence day - feasting on l’aioli.
Olney teaches me everything I ever wanted to know about sweetbreads, which I have eaten (in Manhattan and oddly enough, north of Detroit) but did not taste in Provence. “Sweetbreads should be plump and full in appearance, white, with a slight pink cast, moist and glistening.”
Although I sought out the regional restaurants everywhere in 1987/88 — not easy in that reign of the ridiculous la nouvelle cuisine! – the closest I came to sweetbreads was a lunch at Lou Nissarda, the Nicoise Place, near the fountain of La Place Massena, in Nice, on the heels of Mardi Gras. After photographing spent flowers from des batailles des fleurs, (Mardi Gras flower battles), abandoned serpentine and confetti, along curbs, in people’s hair, languidly drifting along the Boulevard des Anglais, and yes, in the fountain, a Princeton friend and I went to Lou Nissarda so I could introduce him to Nicoise specialties.
Nice, The High View and the Sea
Even Charles Mouzon and the Carre’s had not eaten there, until I drove them to Nice. Though French, they were not Provencal. They didn’t know this regional food. My guest chose, as his first course, beignets/fritters of zucchini blossoms, as did I, among other treasures of Nice. The host brought us a gift of cooked marinated chick peas - the cuisine of the peasants — redolent of fruity olive oil, probably from Aliziari down the street; and lemon juice, from Mentone, about 20 minutes farther along the coast toward Italy.
What my guest ordered next nearly daunted, and yet did not — fried testicles. Lamb, to be sure. The whole point of my year in Provence was the point of my 71st year last year– Do the New. So yes, I tasted them. Fine - except I have nothing with which to compare. We always knew the French would eat anything. And, in terms of unexpected foods, the Provence leave the French in the dust.
When in Provence, do as the Provencals do. We ended our meal with another gift from the proprietor - a liqueur, fresh from the freezer, in which twined a sinuous, ineffably thin single paring of lemon. Paradise enow.
The height of weekly joy in my Provence was to journey to Old Cannes, Le Suquet, which goes back to the Phoenicians. Cannes-the-glamorous, was named, –though nobody knows it–, for cannes, fishing poles, –canes/bamboo-like, which grew in the Mediterranean, buffeted and therefore toughened by the mistral, month upon month.
I like to think that I was buffeted and strengthened for all that lay ahead, by my time in the Provencal hinterlands, back country, garrigues (scrubland where the Resistance hid and managed to prosper), La France Profonde.
Far Vista of Provence in the Luberon
My time in Provence toughened me so that, ever after, first in Georgia and then back here, I could wander with and without maps, in all seasons, in the wild regions near our Delaware Bay, learning to love NJ WILD - long before I had ever heard of a blog.
Le Suquet was a look-out point for invaders, which arrived in all seasons for more than eight centuries, usually from the sea. Now it is a segment of the town frozen in time - light years from La Cote d’Azur, though only inches away…
At Le Suquet, at Marche Forville, I would buy fresh eggs from a woman weighing a lively protesting chicken for another, braver customer. At March Forville, I’d be GIVEN olive oil, my francs waved away, due to my preference for the oil-presser’s favorite, which sounded like “la fruitier” — the fruity one. At Marche Forville, I had my favorite apicultrice - the honey lady - who taught me the joys of lavender honey she had gathered and packaged and was now selling, from her own bees.
Outside Marche Forville, the news-seller would also refuse my francs: “Vous etes Amereicaine. Vous avez sauvez nous.” “You are American, You have saved us.” I have been in Normandy more times than I can count - no one there has ever said nor done anything comparable.
At Marche Forville, as at our New Jersey Slow Food indoor winter farm markets and our soon-to-be spring farm markets, I could josh with the farmers, take home memories as well as taste. You can, too, in our own regional markets, soon, pretty soon…
See Packet Article below - re transcendence - the ONLY word! Thank you, Adam!
Poet-in-Residence and Cool Woman, Judy Michaels, will launch her splendid new book by the fire on the second floor of the Princeton Public Library, on Monday, March 8.
Guests are welcome to come early to chat with this legendary poet, from 7 p.m. , then settle into what promises to be a reading of unforgettable power at 7:30. Books will be available for sale and signing at the reading.
“Reviewing the Skull” is Judy Michaels’ second collection - after “The Forest of Wild Hands” from the University of Florida.
The new work is a wry and indomitable journey through Judy’s recent years, as her unassailable creativity has been beleaguered by repeated bouts of cancer. This lively woman is renowned equally for the strength of her own body of work, as for her indelible and catalytic effect upon students at Princeton Day School for many decades, as well as serving as a Geraldine R. Dodge Poet In the Schools. Her poems have been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes, and Judy has received two New Jersey State Council on the Arts poetry fellowships.
In life and in words, with assertiveness and humor, Judy conquers and reconquers the villainous disease, teaching far more than poetry by her every action. Hearing her, at the peak of her powers Monday, will be a night to remember.
Judy is my dear friend of long standing, and was my daughters’ favorite English teacher at Princeton Day School during the 1970’s — which seems to be the case with anyone who has ever been fortunate enough to study with Judy.
Here’s what the Packet just published:
Balm in Poetry
Judy Michaels hears music in language
Friday, March 5, 2010 7:05 AM EST
BESIDES being a teacher, poet, sister and wife, Judy Michaels is also a five-time ovarian cancer patient — an identity that tends to trump the rest. Cancer is but one topic in her new book of poetry, Reviewing the Skull (WordTech Editions, 2010), but in literature as in life, the weight of the disease commands the most attention.
This was not the poet’s intention, though she concedes it may be true. Nonetheless, she hopes the way she transformed her confrontations with mortality into language — into poetry — can serve as a balm to readers. “My hope is to suggest a kind of transcending of the ugliness and painfulness through the language,” she says. “That’s what I hope for.”
Ms. Michaels, who will read during her book launch at the Princeton Public Library March 8, has been an English teacher at Princeton Day School for more than 30 years and poet in residence for nearly as long. Now on sabbatical, she spoke to TIMEOFF from Detroit, where she was reading at a jazz club and working on a book about creative writing (she’s already written two books about teaching writing to high-school students).
On a previous stop in Detroit, where a sister lives, Ms. Michaels visited the Detroit Institute of Arts while waiting for test results that would indicate whether or not her cancer had recurred. She became absorbed in Picasso’s “Melancholy Woman.”
”I was looking at the depth of the blueness,” she says. “I think this thing resonated because of what I was going through in the midst of my own life. I invested the painting with my own fear and an intense appreciation of its beauty. I think this (double emotion) characterizes the book as a whole. One feels extremely appreciative and so full of fear that it’s hard to be appreciative.”
Of the woman in the painting, she writes in her poem “To Picasso’s ‘Melancholy Woman,’” “All you can do is watch for me to give/ Your pooled blues the weight of mortal fear.”
Because of the nature of ovarian cancer, Ms. Michaels says it is often found late, which leads to a high rate of recurrence. The first time her cancer went into remission, she recalls feeling relieved, as if she was permanently cured. Five recurrences later, her cancer has now been in remission for 15 months, and Ms. Michaels expects it to return in around nine months. (Two years between remission and recurrence has been her pattern.)
One way poetry functions in Ms. Michael’s life is as a way to cope with her illness. If it doesn’t provide answers, her poetry gives her a forum to ask questions. “Poetry isn’t about answers,” she says. “One’s life, especially one’s life with a disease, is so full of questions that are unanswerable. My poems spring out of questioning and I don’t really expect answers.”
Another reason she writes is to discover feelings she may be unaware of or to crystallize an experience. For instance, in “Presenting the Skull,” she writes about the time she borrowed a skull from the biology department to present to her 11th-grade students, who were about to read Hamlet.
”The image of the skull can lead to an intense meditation,” Ms. Michaels says. “I wanted to see where it would lead them.”
Teaching is another source for writing, and as she observed her students and wrote along with them, a poem began to form in her mind. “In a sense, it’s a found poem,” Ms. Michaels says. “They were confronting the visual image of the skull, and it was also resonating for me.” Marshaling her sensations into language, she began to hear music in it, breaking her sentences into lines to create a rhythm.
”I think for me poems often take their shape when I become aware of their music,” Ms. Michaels says. “It’s not so much trying to figure out some answer to mortality or something — I’m listening to the music.”
Music was a force in Ms. Michael’s childhood in Connecticut. Both parents gave lessons at home — her father, piano and her mother, flute. As a child, Judy sang and played cello and organ, before giving them up to spend her time writing. “I fell in love with poetry at a very early age, and music was a big part of the love I developed for poetry,” she says. “I also lived in a family where language was important. I got filled with it and it never left me.”
Each of Ms. Michaels’ three siblings became teachers or artists. She earned her bachelor’s in English from Middlebury College in Vermont and a doctorate from Bryn Mawr in Pennsylvania, writing her dissertation on Coleridge. (Her husband, Bill, who earned his doctorate in American literature from Berkeley, wrote his dissertation on Thoreau. “We’re both romantics,” Ms. Michaels says.)
Before landing in Princeton, she taught in California and the Berkshires. On sabbatical in 1987, she began writing poetry for the first time since adolescence. “Something turned the juices on,” she says.
Ms. Michaels became one of seven founding members of Cool Women Poets, a group of female poets that meets regularly to critique each other’s work as well as to give public readings. For 12 years she has also participated in Survivors Teaching Students, a program sponsored by the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance that is now conducted in 80 medical schools across the country. Women who have lived with ovarian cancer describe their symptoms to medical students, hoping their first-hand experience will aid doctors in diagnosing the disease.
”I’ve found it very rewarding,” Ms. Michaels says. “You feel you’re reaching the future doctors, and it’s very practical. It’s an emotional experience for me. Doing it for 12 years is a little tough, but hearing the other women’s stories is remarkable.”
Living with a disease like cancer creates a new rhythm to life, says Ms. Michaels, whose mother died from colon cancer in 1995. “I’ve found that there’s a rhythm that your life assumes, which is true for anyone with a chronic disease. It’s an intensifying of life.”
But don’t call her a survivor — she’s uncomfortable with that label because it implies a quality of tremendous courage or perseverance she doesn’t identify with. “I’ve been extremely lucky,” she says. “I’ve had good insurance, good doctors and good hospitals that other people don’t have.”
Reviewing the Skull author Judy Michaels will read from her book at the Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon St., Princeton, March 8, 7 p.m., free; 609-924-9529; www.princetonlibrary.org
For southern New Jersey’s birds, this winter has turned deadly
Brenda Jones Captures Winter Whiteouts - particularly hard on raptors’ search for food
Frozen ground, broken trees limit food, shelter for South Jersey birds
A cedar tree in Lower Township on the afternoon of Feb. 6 shows the effects of the storm that hit that morning. The cedar is one of the most important trees to area wildlife during the winter — the berries provide food, and the foliage provides cover. A dense cedar can even prevent snow from getting to the ground under it, giving birds that eat worms a chance at dinner.
Brenda Jones’ Image of Winter’s Glazing Effects
You think you’ve got it bad? Try finding a worm right about now.
(NJ WILD Readers may recall that robins, at least, can switch from omnivores to fructivores in winter, berries providing all that those birds need. Woodcocks may not have this luxury… Cedar berries aren’t the only ones in southern New Jersey woodlands - but they may be the most important… cfe)
As bad as the dual blizzards of 2010 were for people in southern New Jersey, it’s a lot worse for the American woodcock. The rusty brown bird, a rare inland shorebird, has to eat its weight each day in earthworms.
While people struggle with power outages, dead cell phones and impassible streets, woodcocks are trying to find dinner under several feet of snow. The birds can be seen probing with their long bills on the few bare spots uncovered by snowplows on the side of the road.
The woodcocks that stay this far north in the winter gamble that the weather will not be that bad and that they will have the habitat to themselves, experts say - and this year the gamble did not pay off.
“A lot of birds are dying. It’s a tradeoff, and a lot of times it works,” said Don Freiday, a naturalist at the Cape May Bird Observatory.
It isn’t just the woodcocks dying. Freiday said that the fact that the salt marshes are frozen is also deadly for birds, such as rails, that winter there - there isn’t one in sight.
“I look out at the marshes of Cape May County and don’t see a sign of life,” Freiday said.
Birds that rely on evergreens, such as the Eastern red cedar, also are affected. The wet snow Friday stuck to the foliage of the evergreens, and high winds sheared the tops off or stripped their branches. Cedars tend to be very brittle.
“I hate to lose them because they’re habitat for tree birds in the winter,” said Jay Schatz, who chairs the Cape May Shade Tree Commission.
The red cedar is arguably the single most important tree in this region during the winter for birds. The blue berries on the female trees provide food. The green awl-shaped leaves, or needles, provide cover. A dense cedar can even prevent snow from getting to the ground under it, giving birds that eat worms a chance at dinner.
“A lot of cedars got killed and that impact is strong and bad. It will affect roosting of owls that like that cover in front of them. Yellow-rumped warbler is a main winter eater of cedars. Cedar waxwings and robins also eat the berries,” Freiday said.
Brenda Jones’ short-eared owl sails high in auditory search for vital nourishment in Pole Farm fields
The good news is the berries produced last summer are still on the broken trees and they will continue feeding birds. The cedars that survived may take on a more bush-like appearance this year.
Cedars, actually members of the juniper family, are an old tree found all over the world. The Eastern United States is one of its major strongholds and Freiday expects the trees to bounce back. Tree experts in the region give the red cedar the tree version of a four-star rating, which includes D (drought tolerant), S (salt tolerant), N (native) and W (flood tolerant). It’s one of the few trees at the shore to be rated at D, S, N and W.
“I don’t think it will affect berry production. I think we’ll have the same number of trees, but they’ll be shaped differently,” Freiday said.
The weather has also led to some strange animal behavior. A bat, which probably decided to migrate too late, came down the chimney into a Lower Township home. Field mice are moving into houses. People with bird feeders are seeing unusual visitors.
“I’m hearing people have meadowlarks at their bird feeder, which is crazy,” said Freiday.
Brenda Jones’ Magnificent Eastern Meadowlark in More Convenient Weather
Schatz said deciduous trees are faring better than cedars and pines unless they are covered in vines. Trees along New England Road in Lower Township were devastated for this reason.
“The vines held the snow,” Schatz said.
Bushes in Cape May, many planted to benefit birds and butterflies, were also flattened by the snow load.
The state Department of Environmental Protection is not worried about the impact of the blizzards on wildlife because nature always bounces back.
“It’s all part of nature’s cycle, as devastating as it seems,” DEP spokeswoman Elaine Makatura said.
(NJ WILD readers are savvy enough about political agencies to know that the DEP will downplay the seriousness of a problem such as this, lest we look to them to resolve it. Unfortunately, the solution lies in ending the exacerbation of catastrophic climate change, something for which we have to look to politicians, once seen and known as leaders, of nations, above all, our own! cfe)
Contact Richard Degener:
Posted in TOP THREE on Monday, February 15, 2010 1:14 pm Updated: 1:56 pm.
“To Watch These Woods…” mused Robert Frost - a peaceful past-time the poet enjoyed, rendering his “little horse” quizzical, “to watch these woods fill up with snow…”
In the 21st Century, watching snow is no longer peaceful. Somewhere, somehow, weather has turned into something about which to be warned, from which to be rescued.
Ceaseless snow-fills my Canal Road woods –one of three storms, so far, in February.
In the 1960’s, there was a nursery song, taught to my daughter by my mother –way before I thought that baby could learn jingles — at four months. Immediately, Diane would begin its traditional gestures, the moment my mother would begin to sing, “This is the way the snow comes down, snow comes down, snow comes down.” … a soothing song. Because watching snow used to be joy.
The nursery tune, however, ends with “softly, softly falling”. Anything BUT true of of storms of recent months, –starting with the Nor’easter whose devastating aftermaths Betty Lies and I discovered at Island Beach State Park late last year. Let alone what repetitively takes place outside my new Canal Road windows.
If we learn nothing else from this WILD Winter, we need to face the reality that both the violence and the frequency of these tempests are consequences of catastrophic climate change.
Devastation is not a future possibility - devastation is now. Every snow flake (although even the flakes are altered, abraded, by these severities into something small and round and hard) reminds us. WE we are doing this — to our storms; to our planet; to the two-leggeds, the four-leggeds, the winged, (as the Native Americans would say), who share the planet with us; and, yes, to ourselves.
We are destroyers and despoilers, we who were put on earth to be its stewards. Our guilt lies in heedless actions. And, even more-so, in indifference. Our guilt is fueled by greed.
Someone at dinner this weekend balked at my fury that people see this snow as ‘disproving’ global warming, rather than recognizing every “Winter Wallop” as climate change’s dire signature. “Carolyn, nobody wants to learn about climate change.”
NJ WILD readers know what I answered: “Well, they HAVE to!”
Scientists know we are in the middle of an extinction scenario. It has a name, as did the extinction of the dinosaurs. “The Holocene” is ours.
Edward Humes, in his riveting multi-bio of modern heroes, Eco Barons, jumps right in with “Planet Earth is experiencing a major extinction event. Life is dying everywhere, and at unprecedented speed.”
EXTINCTION OF DUNES BY NOR’EASTER BLIZZARD, ISLAND BEACH, 2009
[Once seamless dunes, overwashed, had been turned into flattened separated mesas.
A foot of snow/sand lies beneath walkers ON the boardwalk toward the very distant sea.]
Peter Galvin, –deeply interviewed in Eco Barons, because both deeply concerned and INVOLVED–, calls our Holocene extinction “The New Holocaust.”
While politicians use the verb ‘believe’ conjoined with science, in the summer of 2007, scientists measured one million square miles of sea ice melted — pouring fresh water and icy temperatures into oceans in general and the Gulf Stream in particular. We could be all out of glaciers in ten years.
It’s not only the polar bears, everyone. They’re NOT the top of the food chain - we are. We are all in this ice soup together. What are you doing about it? Now?
All along, NJ WILD readers have borne with me, carrying on about saving New Jersey. Because I for one never again want our state to be “the place where eagles used to be.”
Brenda Jones’ Eagle - lifting off into a healthy future, or oblivion?
At this rate, our planet is going to be the place where life used to be. At best, our state and our planet are the walking wounded. Remember, EXTINCTION IS FOREVER.
The Eco Barons in Humes’ mighty book were chosen because “They do not flinch.” “They are willing to be hated because they are certain they are right.” Whether it’s plug-in cars or sea turtles or grasslands or stopping developers/road-builders/tree-cutters in OUR public lands - his eco barons and baronesses step up to the plate, although far worse than baseballs are aimed at them. They do not flinch.
Humes’ heroes spend decades reversing the fate of net-suffocated sea turtles.
Humes’ heroes, like our splendid photographer, Brenda Jones, are “unwilling to sit by and watch society casually lay waste to the natural world.” Carole Allen’s was a quarter-century battle, with children as her crusading soldiers, finally managing to save the Kemp’s ridley turtle from the Texas Gulf Coast Shrimping Industry.
Eco barons share Richard Louv’s intense concern about children and grown-ups left indoors. Because, as with Germans boys bombing Coventry Cathedral; the Japanese destroying Pearl Harbor fleet and men in WWII; and yes, American boys over Dresden and so forth: “DISTANCE MAKES DESECRATION POSSIBLE.”
Distance from nature, not knowing nature’s names, makes destroying her a matter of indifference. Humes’ eco barons are particularly concerned about the destruction of language - over-simplifications, slang, street talk — facets of the deliberate dumbing down of our country.
It used to be that everyone recognized the trees - they would refer to the oak, ash, maple, fir, dogwood… 21st-Century children know brand names beyond number, but barely a bird, let alone a tree. What is not known won’t be missed as the greed-mongers take over.
Humes’ eco barons were chosen because they “are game-changers.”
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger made many enemies in his determination to heal his state: “I say the debate is over. We know the science. We see the threat. The time for ACTION is NOW.” Hated, yes - yet he instituted healthy change where everyone said it was impossible.
And as one who cares about art as well as science to a very high degree, I rejoice that the Governor saved beauty in the process. Saved rivers and bays and coves and hills and forests where art can happen.
Eco barons know that science in general and climate in particular should never have been politicized. We ALL live in this climate. Climate doesn’t belong to states of one color over another. Concern over its fate is not that of a certain hue on a television map!
Humes asserts that “Federal leadership has languished since Carter left office.” Did you know that President Carter was way out there re climate change, that he’d installed solar panels on the White House roof? did you know Reagan tore them off? I just learned this, this weekend. Within the hour, a very aware and savvy friend from Idaho called to tell me she’d just learned it for the first time also, from a 500-page tome on climate and other changes through which she is ‘tearing’ with disbelief and shock and some hope: Hot, Flat, and Crowded 2.0: Why We Need a Green Revolution–and How It Can Renew America by Thomas L. Friedman.
Humes’ eco barons include Ted Turner, a man of memorable quotes.
“Fossil fuel’s day is over. We are poisoning our children and ourselves.”
“We are destroying Paradise - one plot, one fence, one tree at a time.”
“Life can adapt to gradual change. But this is not gradual change - this is abrupt.”
“We are living in the RED ZONE.”
Sweden took warnings to heart in the 1990’s. That country proves the lie in the all-too-prevalent agreement that green change will harm jobs and productivity. Sweden produced an easily read and easily understood explication of the dangers of uncontrolled emissions, The Natural Step, proposing solutions. It was mailed to every household and school in 1990. Sweden is now the most sustainable country. Its emissions are below 1990 levels — everyone else has gone on accelerating. Their determination is to remove oil from their lives by 2020. And what has happened, financially, in the wake of these ‘green’ changes? Sweden’s economy expanded 47% between 1990 and 2008.
America, meanwhile, has willingly knuckled under to those whom Humes dares to term “craven leaders.” He particularly deplores the fact that we are providing massive subsidies for polluters and destroyers, for the inefficient and the misleaders, the river- and salmon-killers, the oil-leakers and sewage-spillers. the loggers of forests and scrapers of mountains.
One aspect Humes does not address is the lack of Pete Seegers of today’s musical world- those who sing us into consciousness, as they carry us aboard their splendid schooners, painstakingly restored, sailing us on the Clearwater toward the impossible dream - the clearing of the waters of the Hudson, which came about because one person cared enough to take a stand. The focus of Eco Barons is that level of courage.
Ted Turner is only one of a brave new breed, the Conservation Philanthropists. Ted Turner and his peers, men and women, (and with regard to the turtles, CHILDREN) do not knuckle under.
Neither must we: In Turner’s phrase, “IT SHOULD NEVER BE TOO LATE FOR AMERICA!”