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Unmarked Crossings: a poet and her journeys

Connemara, Carl Sandburg, and Me

March 17, 2010

Today is Saint Patrick’s Day, but I refuse to wear green. Let me explain. When I was younger, I thought I was part Irish because that is what I was told. My maternal grandfather, Sylvanus Mitchell was Irish, or so I thought. In the past few years I’ve learned that Sylvanus had a multi-national geneaology, but from his father’s side of the family, was primarily Scots-Irish or Ulster Scot. I won’t go into the history of the Ulster Scots here. Suffice it to say, their presence in Northern Ireland was and has been a thorn in the side of the native Irish and was the cause of several bloody rebellions. I remember reading of one in particular in which Catholic priests told their parishioners that it was God’s will to kill the interlopers. Whether or not that is true, thousands of Ulster Scots were murdered in an attempt to eradicate them from Irish soil. Knowing the bellicose reputation of the Scots-Irish, I'm sure they gave as good as they got.

The more recent “troubles” in Ireland are almost certainly related to England’s desire to control the Irish by sending thousands of Scots to Ireland more than three hundred years ago. So, regardless of which side was right in this centuries-old struggle between Protestants and Catholics, James and William, in solidarity with my ancestors, I am foregoing the bit of green today (unless it is in a bit of beer). So pinch me if you must...

Yesterday was a lovely, sunny day for a change (today is not, by the way). I’ve learned that this area has a very high annual rainfall, most likely due to the topography (which may account for the high winds a few days ago, as well). I learned that Western North Carolina is only a few inches short of the amount necessary to be considered a rain forest. I learned this fact from Leon, one of the two maintenance men (Mark being the other) who came to investigate the cranky oven on the stove in the cottage.

They were able to get the large burner operating immediately (the connection had become unseated), but saw that the lower element in the electric stove was burned out and, in fact, had a place that was burned through. We had a nice chat about the economy and other topics in which maintenance men are well-versed. Nice fellows. And, lo and behold, within an hour and a half they returned with the correct part for the stove, having gone on a quest for the part (another activity enjoyed by maintenance men) in town and had found it. Within minutes, the stove was up and running again. I may try another frozen pizza next weekend!

I was privileged to be able to attend the annual meeting of the Friends of Carl Sandburg at Connemara at the charming Flat Rock Town Hall. It’s not that I was all that interested in their business meeting, although I was pleased to see that they are financially sound and have plans for another “Hobo Ball” this fall (their primary fund raiser). I attended because I wanted to hear the speaker, Dr. Jim Nations, who is National Parks Conservation Association Center for State of the Parks. The Conservation Association was created to be a separate entity by the National Parks Service, in order for the public to lobby for help and money to maintain the park system.

It was a fascinating presentation. In particular, I was interested in the way the parks are evaluated (natural resources, cultural resources, etc.). What was most startling to me was that probably the three most dangerous threats to our national parks relate to what we humans have done to our environment: water quality, air quality, and invasive non-native plants and animals. A startling fact: over seven million acres of national park land are infested with invasive non-native plants and animals, including those that attack hemlock trees and other endangered species.

Perhaps the most interesting part of Dr. Nations talk came near the end when he described what the introduction of native species can do to the very topography of the land. He related how when the large number of elk had become a threat to the environment, native wolves were reintroduced into the park. When the wolves had disappeared and the elk had few enemies, their usual places to live, high on the mountainsides, had been replaced with the lusher, lower valleys along the river there. After a time, the elk had eaten all the aspen and other young trees that were destined to grow and keep the river slowed and at bay, causing the river to rush in a straight line through the park. When the wolves came back, the elk retreated to their haunts higher up, the trees were free to grow, and the river returned to its slower, meandering pace. What struck me about this one, small attempt by man is that there may still be hope. I’ve always felt that if man suddenly disappeared, the earth would heal itself. Wouldn’t it be better if, armed with the intelligence and knowledge we have, we could help her heal?

I’ve reading about another type of interaction, not between man and nature, but between writers and their friends. I began by reading a few chapters in The Company They Kept: Writers on Unforgettable Friendships that relate to poets. I’ve read Robert Lowell’s account of his friendship with a young Randell Jarrell and conversely, Derek Walcott’s account of a living (then deceased) Robert Lowell, as well as Stanley Kunitz’s writings about his friendship with Theodore Roethke. I’ve read work by all these poets, but to read how they interacted with each other and the frustrations, along with the camaraderie, is new to me. It makes me wonder what my friends would write about me, should I ever be deemed worthy of writing about (not likely, as I am now already older than Lowell was when he died!).

I have had few friends with whom I have actively corresponded about poetry. My Kentucky friend, James Pope, and I occasionally send poems back and forth. Kathleen Fagley and Jay Thompson, both of whom I met while an MFA student at New England College, will sometimes trade work with me. Then, I have my writing group in Berea--Kristin Johannsen, Susan King, Normandie Ellis, and Janie Welker—but of those, only Normandie considers herself a poet (the others write fiction and/or memoir) and even she is working more on prose at the moment.

When an article about my residency here at Connemara ran in my hometown newspaper, The Galesburg Register Mail, I received emails from relatives I hadn’t seen or heard from in years. I also received an email from a stranger a few years older than me, but who also grew up in Galesburg. It turns out that Peter and I have my cousin (and my only blood relative who has any fame) artist Lonnie Stewart in common. Peter has been friends with Lonnie for thirty years or more, but other than that had no connection. Until now.

Although I have not met Peter and only a few days ago saw a photo of him (with Lonnie), we have begun a correspondence based on our mutual hometown and upbringings, and writing. At some point we may meet, but for now, it’s wonderful to have what I imagine will become an “Unforgettable Friendship.” Thank you, Peter, for your kind words about my work and your willingness to share your own work with me.

And to my students who are reading my blog: back to work!
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