I loaded a roll of black and white film into my old Pentax K1000 and headed out to walk to the grocery store, bringing back images from around my neighborhood along with my groceries.
Though this is a photo essay I also describe the process and reason for taking my camera on mundane walks to find extraordinary things, including story and poetry ideas. In fact, there will be at least one story out of this walk, and it’s in there among the photos. I can’t wait to see where it starts and where it goes!
One of the reasons for using black and white film is that removing the distraction of color permits other interesting elements to shine and become the story, and using film slows me down, makes me think a little harder about using one more frame on this roll. When I’m out with my digital DSLR I just let go and photograph anything I darned well please, and I need to do that too, let go and just be part of the scene and record it as I feel it.
But sometimes, just as with writing, to get to the core of something, you need to slow down, tighten up and focus, search yourself and funnel down to exactly what it is you want to say. Going “old school” with black and white film in the old (but still beloved) Pentax K1000 is like writing your stuff on a tablet with your favorite writing implement: pencil, ballpoint pen, marker, fountain pen. I love my gel pen on a legal pad, but when a poem comes along any scrap of writable material and any writing implement will do for a draft.
The illustration above is a sampler of all the shades of pastel I’ve used while painting portraits and sketches of people of all different “colors”, skin tones and ethnicities. Tell me, who is “black” and who is “white”? And what does “colored” mean?
In truth, we are all “colored”. Each of our faces has the darkest and lightest tones and all those in between, and even some colors we’d be surprised to find in skin tones. I can tell you that all the colors I smudged there have appeared in the highlights and shadows and mid-tones of every face. It largely depends on where you are standing in relation to the light.
Some people have suggested that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream of black children and white children going forward hand in hand, the ideal of seeing a person not for the color of their skin but for the content of their character, had the goal of a “colorblind” society. That’s a noble ideal on one hand, where we just don’t notice the color of a person’s skin in any situation and go on from there.
But does that truly bring justice to wrongdoing and change society in a way that makes the injustice people have suffered because of that color unacceptable? To suddenly begin to ignore the color of a person’s skin and jump immediately to integration is to jump right over the injustices done to people because of the color of their skin. It’s also ignoring an essential part of another person, shutting the door on a section of their life, a part that makes them distinctive. King did not use the term “colorblind” in any speech or written document, but his point is described by historians as a more “color aware” society where we recognize our differences, celebrate them and thereby heal through those very differences among ourselves.
When I create a piece of visual artwork I look for what makes the subject inspiring to me, what makes it distinctive, what makes me excited to share it with you. I like contrasts, I find what makes my subject different in its class, what makes it stand out from its surroundings. It’s my joy to find and share “the extraordinary in the ordinary”. If everything I painted looked the same, what need would there be for artwork?
Looking at people has always been like looking at a field of flowers for me—I find it hard to settle on one before I skip to another while I enjoy the visually exciting effect of all those different colors and shapes and heights and structures. Then I can can pause on each one and get to know each in its own unique detail.
When I rode the bus, long before I painted anything let alone a human portrait, I quietly studied all the faces around me for color and shape and texture, eye color, the hair that framed it, accessories and jewelry, and was often started by a stern expression of someone who didn’t understand why I studied them so intently. I was just looking for the things that made them unique and beautiful—not in the classic sense of beauty but in the classical sense, in that beauty is truth, in being true to who we are inside showing that on the outside, like the flower in the field that can’t help but be what it is.
If we are colorblind, we intentionally ignore some of the fundamental differences that make each of us irreplaceable. That denies a basic part of our personal existence and of human existence as a species; it denies a portion of our very identity as an individual.
That takes an awful lot of effort. Why not admit to our differences and get to know each other in full, and find the beauty in each of us. We have always been and will always be different from each other and might as well get used to it.
I’m not one to think everything happens for a reason, that things align through time to lead one to an epiphany of some sort, but that we are the ones who choose that alignment in the moment, and a moment later, or a different poem in that book, could lead to an entirely different epiphany.
I moved the furniture around in my bedroom yesterday to better accommodate the overflow from my studio while still giving me space to walk in both rooms. I’ve also realized that, with my guardian tree gone from the front of the house, I no longer want to sleep under the window where I can hear her whisper on summer mornings and watch the stars held in her branches on cold winter nights. This is something I’ve wanted to do for months and can finally accomplish, slowly and carefully, with my hip healing more each day.
A parade of surprised felines joined me in the evening as they awoke from their extra-long afternoon naps on a cold rainy day. As I took a break to let them explore the mess I’d made I picked up a small book that had fallen on the floor behind a bookcase I had moved, The Oxford Book of English Verse. A digest of oft-quoted poetry I’d picked up somewhere and tucked in a random small space wherever it fit and forgot about, I had never actually read through it because I’ve already read just about every poem likely contained in it. I have several dozen small and large books of poetry but can’t seem to pass one up, especially free in the library’s shelf of donated books.
I held it in my right hand and slid my thumbnail between the gold-tinged edges of the pages, letting it fall open to see what arbitrary verse I’d find.
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:…
…the poem for which, as a junior in college majoring in English, I’d named Kublai, my first black cat, back in 1981. Not because of his bravery in battle and exploration though this was true of him, but what cat doesn’t look around and decree this space to be a stately pleasure-dome for himself? Of course, the poem lists human pleasures, which bring no real pleasures to cats, so I stopped there.
I looked at the multitude of black cats walking over the tops of piled clothing, exploring cardboard boxes full of picture frames and having a quick bath in cool new spots they’d discovered. Twenty-nine years ago I moved into this house, and Kublai came with me in the weeks before I moved in while I repaired and patched and readied it for me and my household of six felines, my first rescues. October will always remind me of that time, first the bright empty rooms with him as we felt the potential of our own home, then with boxes piled in every room as I’d moved from a rented house twice the size, and that family of felines climbing over and creeping around them, finding cool places to have a quick bath to relieve the stress of the change.
I also remember another October overhaul of this room, in 1997 preparing for Namir and Kelly’s arrival when I’d found several black whiskers in the carpet I pulled up prior to painting the floor. Only Kublai had had black whiskers, and as that family of cats swirled around me as I worked I paused to remember, the grief still fresh just a year past.
Those cats are gone, of course, as are many others come and gone who spent their lives with us in this little house. The memories are bright but the moment is bittersweet because I know that at some later date I will stand somewhere in reflection and all these felines I now watch will be memories in that future moment. I am reminded to be in this moment with them, but not frightened of that future moment:
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well, which thou must leave ‘ere long.
From Shakespeare’s seventy-third sonnet, speaking to his love the truth that while we see the loss of those we love even as we look into their eyes with love, that very knowledge of loss makes our love even stronger, to realize the love in each moment before it’s gone.
Perhaps I picked up that free book just to find it in this particular moment and have it fall open to that exact poem and remind me of this lineage of memory, little fragments that become a whole, the lives of all these individual cats and their roles in my life, my role in their lives, and that role of mine in life itself, in the world around me. I’m not one to think everything happens for a reason, that things align through time to lead one to an epiphany of some sort, but that we are the ones who choose that alignment in the moment, and a moment later, or a different poem in that book, could lead to an entirely different epiphany.
But beside the loss and potential loss each of those fragments represents, and the associated pain thereof, is a moment of love and beauty, then, now, and tomorrow, that we hold and have shared, forever a part of our spirit. We are made of these fragments.
This essay was first posted on The Creative Cat on October 27, 2019. Visit The Creative Cat for more essays and articles on pet loss.
More intelligent than many people I’ve met, friends of mine will remember Kulai as the cat who opened the refrigerator door, took out a container, opened it, and helped himself to the contents. I finally decided that the best depiction of his personality is of him being silly, rolling around in the sun and making sure I noticed how handsome he was. Read more and order.
The mornings this September have had that particular autumnal cool with a little mist and I thought the spell might have been broken. But the morning this September 11 is sunny, blue, and hot, and eerily quiet, so much like that morning 18 years ago.
Aside from being in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States, I am nowhere near New York or Washington DC. I am, however, barely an hour away from Shanksville. On the hot sunny morning of September 11, 2001 I was just finishing work outdoors in my back yard when the first plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Thinking it was an unfortunate accident I continued listening to the radio for details and 20 minutes later heard that a second plane had hit the South Tower and knew instinctively, as I’m sure we all did, that it was no accident.
My radar for tragedy was sensitized; just a few months before my mother had unexpectedly nearly died after lung cancer surgery, held on for six weeks then miraculously awakened from a near-coma one day and gone on to recover, rehabilitate and return home, though weak and fragile. The previous year my brother had suffered a traumatic brain injury in an accident. I was integral to their recoveries and care, and my carefully-planned self-employment was unraveling.
When I heard the news just before 9:00 a.m. that a plane had hit the World Trade Center, I was out on my garden patio by the basement door, putting another coat of paint on some vintage wooden chairs I used on my deck before winter would peel the last of it off. I always worked in my garden and did small projects early in the day to make sure they got done before I hit my computer, and to make sure I didn’t hit the computer as soon as I got up and stayed on it all day long. It was a hot, sticky late summer morning, my verdant garden a green jungle, birds twittering everywhere stocking up for migration and winter, and work waiting for me indoors. The first report was that it was likely an accident, planes had hit buildings in the past. Then the second plane hit the other tower, and even though we had no proof it seems we all knew it was intentional. Everyone in Manhattan was looking at the towers at that point and saw the direction, the turn, the increase in speed prior to hitting the tower, and suddenly a perfect morning had turned unreal.
After the plane hit the Pentagon, I put Moses, my garden cat, inside the basement, much to her consternation, as if she needed to be protected from what might be happening, and as the story grew I thought of my mother and brother and if I should get them and put them somewhere just to make sure they were safe too. Everything seemed suddenly slightly askew.
Jets fly overhead all the time. I have lived in the flight path for Pittsburgh International Airport all my life, and just as close to an Air Force base, and not only do they fly overhead, they circle and slow down and make noise and fly at crazy angles as they come in for a landing. A noisy plane flying low overhead is something I didn’t even notice. But two planes had just hit the two towers of the World Trade Center and a third had hit the Pentagon. I suddenly noticed that the sky was very quiet for that time of the morning.
Then in the growing quiet as traffic cleared the roads, in that empty perfect clear blue September sky, a single plane went overhead and my hackles rose, a cold tingle running to my fingers on that warm morning as I watched it seeming to struggle through the sky overhead. Shortly thereafter we heard about the crash in Shanksville and I imagined the comforting familiarity of perfect green rolling hills of my Western Pennsylvania home bathed in morning sun, now wrenched open and strewn with the wreckage of violence.
I hurried inside, no longer feeling safe under that warm blue sky. I thought of my mother in her home about a mile and a half away, just back from several months in various hospitals after lung cancer surgery that unexpectedly nearly killed her. She was still weak and needed daily assistance for most activities, many prescriptions and home oxygen. If all this was suddenly disrupted, what would I do? Should I go to her house now? Should I try to get her to a more secure place, like a hospital?
And my brother was in a nursing home 30 miles north of me, continuing his recovery from a traumatic brain injury the previous year, also requiring a lot of daily care, medications and supervision. Should I try to move him closer? What if I couldn’t get to him?
And my sister a few miles away with her younger daughter and grandchild? And my niece and her three babies, one of them just six days old, a few miles in the other direction? Should we all find a place to go?
Anyone else would have run for the television, but I didn’t have one then, and I don’t have one now, so I never got to see the very first images that showed up on CNN that morning, heard the fear in the newscasters’ voices. I listened to the familiar voices of the local and NPR reporters describing the events on my radio, feeling calmer listening to their words and being able to move around my house than I would have being trapped in front of a television. I called my mother and later went to her house and watched there.
Did any of us know what to do in those first hours and days, even those of us so far from the terrible scenes of death and destruction more horrible than we could imagine?
It wasn’t until the gentle, perfect beauty of September 12 that the effects of what had happened became reality for me. Not only do I live very near Pittsburgh International Airport, I am also at the intersection of two interstates right outside of Pittsburgh and hear the noises of all this traffic every day, especially in the morning. The next day, with travel restricted on land and in the air, was so eerily quiet. The beauty of the warm sun and clear blue sky, the peaceful twitters of birds and hum of bees we could rarely hear with traffic and daily noises, the clear views of the tree-covered hills made the morning seem like paradise at first, as if everything would be okay after all. But the clear stillness became unnerving as the hours of daylight passed and we had no more of our questions answered, nor knew the extent of the damage and death as it was still unfolding in all three areas.
Perhaps those perfect September days were given to calm us before we learned how our lives had changed.
Today looks no different from yesterday but forever against the backdrop of a blue September sky we will now remember the loss of our innocence.
September 11 was a blur of images and fears and unknowns, and for me it wasn’t until September 12 dawned and brightened into another seemingly perfect September day, blue sky and all, that what had happened, and the permanent change it brought, really settled in.
Last year I determined I should search paying publishing markets for my essays and poetry which I have, and for the short stories and other fiction I have been writing. This constituted a lot of research into markets and publications, looking for the ones that I fit into.
One of my greatest inspirations is the natural world, whether it’s my back yard or the woods or an overgrown field, the shapes and textures, color and scents, flora and fauna seen and unseen, the wind and sun, all create an almost overwhelming experience for me. Creating art to capture the moments I treasured was a natural move as a painter and photographer.
Because of that, each painting has a story, and I love to tell it: how the painting came to be, the chance finding of a special place, the perfect moment of a season, the discovery in the milieu of my life. The whole process is a part of my experience in nature, and often the reason I’m there.
I’ve written the story of several of my paintings. As I perused speculative markets for my writing I not only looked for markets but what I had that was unique in those markets. In creative writing about nature, I didn’t see anything like this, yet I thought this audience might best appreciate the story of me out in nature, finding an inspiration, and creating a painting that didn’t just capture the physical moment, but a lot more sensory and emotional details. As I always say, that’s why we have art.
I found or ordered copies of the publications I thought might be most receptive—printed magazines, daily blogs, websites, anthologies—read the content, and if it felt right I sent them a pitch for my idea with sample art and essay. That was the end of last year, 2018.
Then I waited. Some will tell you how soon they’ll respond, some don’t. You never really know if they don’t like it, or they just haven’t gotten it yet, or it got lost in email or fell off someone’s desk. It’s all on faith that someone will see your idea and fall in love with it.
About a month later I thought I was seeing things when I saw an email from the editor of Woods Reader magazine, published in Minnesota. I had been pretty hopeful about that one, and here it was a good guess, the editor loved the idea and wanted to publish what I’d sent.
The sample I’d sent was not “The Rope Swing”, but another painting and essay which they’d planned to publish in the summer issue. About a month after we’d agreed to publish that one the editor sent an email saying she’d rather wait for a winter issue to publish that one, and did I have any summer art? She’d been to my art website and seen “The Rope Swing”, and wondered if that had a story as well.
Yes, it did, all wound up in my annual art exhibit on the Panhandle Trail, and I also had another favorite summer painting, “Running Through the Woods”, becoming reacquainted with my great-niece and great-nephew by taking them for a walk on the trail and in the woods.
In the end the editorial staff chose “The Rope Swing”, and not only do the essay and painting appear on the inside, but the painting is also their cover image for the summer 2019 issue.
It’s the first thing I’ve ever had published “cold”, not through a referral or an organization or any other means than digging through listings and doing research. I am over the moon. And looking forward to publishing another with Woods Reader. And looking forward to hear from other publishers to whom I’ve sent essays and short stories and poetry.
I have a degree in writing. I love my art and all the other things I do, but I’ve been wanting to get back to that dream of just writing for writing’s sake. I hope I’m on my way.
Because they’ve paid me to publish this essay, I can’t share it here until well after this issue of the magazine has been published. I will tell you that, if you enjoy reading creative writing and essays about the experience of being in the woods, you would love every story, essay, poem and photo that’s published in this quarterly magazine. It’s available on the Woods Reader website for $7.95, and I’ll also have a dozen or more copies here in my shop and at my events for the same price.
And I hope I have another “published” story to tell soon!
The wounds of trauma,
the sin of killing,
the witness of unspeakable acts
against the bodies and minds of others
the leaving behind of others held more dear than lovers
another world, all too real,
all came home in the duffel
unpacked into the house
worn like unwanted medals
that could not be removed
but with your hands you made this lasting monument
to prove to yourself you could still build, create, give
to start your new life,
not the one you left behind.
Several poems I’ve written are about or refer to things that I’d…found in the trash, and the stories they told me, mixed with the experiences of my own life.
Seventy-five years ago today, “D-Day”, one of the bloodiest and most critical days of WWII, 160,000 superheroes changed the course of history. Nineteen years ago more or less today, I saw this cabinet in a trash pile and it began to tell me its story. It was the story of a WWII veteran just returned home with his own memories, mixed with memories of my father and mother whose lives were both forever changed by that war.
Many homes around town had been owned and occupied by only one family from the 1930s or 1940s to today, and contain a lot of things people kept for various reasons, things that tell a story about life in that house, and the eras the house was occupied, typical of Carnegie and towns like it.
The Cabinet is so named for a cabinet I saw one evening out of the corner of my eye as I hurried off through my day. The cabinet looked to be in good shape, the drawers stacked on top, and I’d take it just to look it over, maybe I’d stop later, maybe I could pass on this one, but then I saw the little scalloped and curved decoration at the bottom. It reminded me of things around the house my father had made of wood that had just such decorations: awnings outdoors, cornices above the drapes, room dividers in our little post-war ranch house. My mother had designed the idea, my father had designed the item and made it by hand.
My errand on that evening was my daily visit to my mother in a critical care hospital. She’d had lung cancer surgery two months previous but her hypertension had caused her to unexpectedly slip into a state of dementia from which she was not expected to recover. I visited her twice each day, about mid-day and evening, and I knew I did not need to take on a stray wooden cabinet. Driving through the evening to see her the cabinet had led me to remember those projects the two had created before I was born, that I saw in the house each day when I stopped to pick up the mail and check things over; if her recovery had been as normal, she would have been back in the house, but this strange netherworld of waiting, and the quiet calm of the house with no one in it followed me as well.
So of course I swung past that cabinet on the way home from my visit to my mother, took a closer look and saw that indeed it was a sturdy cabinet, handmade with a birch wood top and red Bakelite handles very common and popular just after WWII, all the drawers were solid, and I crouched down to run my finger along that simple decorative curve, the only decoration at all added to the bottom to span from foot to foot of the cabinet just below the door with the thumb latch that held it closed.
So I struggled to fit it all into my little wagon and drive about a half mile home with the wagon door open, unloaded it and carried it into my basement for inspection. The paint was older, that shade of warm white that older oil-based paint became after years of sitting on the surface. The birch wood top was partially covered with real “linoleum” in a distinctly late-40s pattern, faded, dirty from probably motor oil, and more than half scraped away.
My parents lives had been marked by WWII, and all the indications that this had been made or at least updated at that time were pulling on those stories. My father had served in the Asia-Pacific theater from 1942 to 1945 and come home not knowing he had developed Parkinson Syndrome from a malarial fever that had nearly killed him. My mother had graduated high school in 1942, and all her memories of late high school, her early working career and life as a young adult were bound up in the American homefront experience during the war. I only heard the good stories, but in time I determined there was much sadness and pain underneath the shiny surfaces.
As I walked around the back of the cabinet, a single bare, unpainted panel darkened by age, I saw handwriting at the top. There, in pencil, was written:
MADE BY R.O.M.
And the story began to write itself of the person who’d returned from overseas with all the pain and trauma and trying to get back to “normal” life, creating this cabinet by hand, and letting this simple creative activity help to start the healing.
The story was always intended to be a short story. My mother actually recovered and lived 10 more years though she was ill and needed constant care, and many stories never came to be during that time. I still have the cabinet in my kitchen, see it, touch it, use it every day, and had to share something of it in my own creative efforts, so I wrote the poem for my 2014 poetry reading at Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall, “In This Valley”, commemorating the 110th anniversary of the merge and founding of the town of Carnegie because my parents were so much of this town, and the town itself, like so many others, was marked by that war. I read it again in my recent reading, “Walking Around”, because this finding and the inspiration for my own creation perfectly illustrate things you find when you carefully observe your surroundings, and how things we need sometimes magically appear when we need them.
I have not matched anyone from our town’s history with those initials—yet, but I hope to find a clue someday. But for the story it told me, lending its own magic to my memories and experiences, this will always be the tale.
Below is the introductory information for the event, and below that is a link to the exhibit Portraits of Animals including all the essays and poetry and galleries of images. Please enjoy reading through it.
the poetry and art of
Bernadette E. Kazmarski
Thursday, February 18, 2010, 7:00 PM
Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall, Reception Hall, 2nd Floor
ON THE POST CARD (above): “Spring Thaw”, pastel, 2003, preparatory sketch for “Spring Comes to a Bend in the Creek”
Below is information about the poetry reading from the post card, and then after the event. In 2010 I was still building a static web page for each reading. This page will give you the basic information about the event, and the static page contains all the featured images and poems.
I really enjoyed designing and building those static pages so there is a link to the page for “Coming Spring” below. enjoy!
The Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall (ACFL&MH) is hosting a poetry reading and art exhibit on Thursday, February 18, 2010 at 7 p.m. in its Reception Hall. “Coming Spring” will feature 12 new poems and the fourth and final installment of the “Art of the Watershed” series, “Spring Morning at a Bend in the Creek”, and an exhibit of other works by Carnegie’s Bernadette Kazmarski. This local artist and poet finds the beauty and rhythms of Carnegie’s local landscapes, the Chartiers Creek and surrounding environs a source of ongoing inspiration.
The poetry reading will be followed by a dessert and coffee reception, and is free and open to the public.
Featured Painting: Spring Morning at a Bend in the Creek
Thank you for either joining me at my fourth annual poetry reading and art show or visiting me here on the page for the event.
My biggest inspiration for poetry, prose and artwork is the world right around me, and I enjoy the opportunity to share it from the perspective of one who walks and hikes and bikes and carries a camera, art materials and journal everywhere—even around the house—so the inspirations are fresh.
Many thanks to Maggie Forbes, executive director of Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall, who invites me each year to read my poetry and show my artwork. I love that building, every inch of it, and the opportunity to bring people in to visit is an honor. What a pleasure, every year, to be able to share the collected thoughts, inspirations and images of my past year.
My Garden Waits Under a Blanket of Spring inspired by my garden under 27 inches of snow
Pawprints and Raindrops published and award-winning
Taking My Shift memories upon visiting Eat ‘n Park
Inventing the Wheel where inspiration leads to
All Our Foundations are Gone old neighborhoods demolished for new development
The Bean-Picking Lesson pick those opportunities as soon as you see them
The Last Red Berries a poisonous and reviled plant is beautiful
Each day in the 29 years I’ve awakened in this house I’ve tilted my head back to look up through the branches of a silver maple right outside the window to see the morning sky. Many a night I’ve looked up at the stars before I’ve settled into sleep.
This silver maple took seriously her role as guardian of my cats and I and all who would be here, steadfast in front of my bedroom upstairs and my office downstairs, providing a screen from the outside world, the street outside a little too close for privacy, an aviary to observe the birds. She cast a cool green shadow in summer, a bright yellow glaze in autumn, permitted winter’s cool afternoon light to illuminate generations of cats sleeping, safe and warm, on the bed.
She even made an appearance in two of my paintings. “Biding Time” was inspired by seeing the mourning doves just sitting for hours in their places on the gnarled branches, and all the different textures of individual branches, sketched in pencil with a tiny bit of a watercolor wash for the cool and warm colors and the green of moss.
“Snowy Morning” shows rescued former feral Bella in her first winter indoors intently watching a heavy snow shower outside the window, watching it from the inside instead of trying to survive in it while living outdoors, an emotional moment for me.
I had three of my trees taken down today, including this beloved silver maple. These were in the sextet of trees that greeted me the first time I came to see this house, whose leaves I happily raked that first autumn in my new home, whose presence made my little house on a medium lot seem like a cottage glimpsed through an enchanted forest, as many people commented.
They whispered through the summer as they kept me cool, flashed their colors in autumn, and stood sentinel through winter storms, providing visual inspiration on snowy days and frosted moonlit nights, then emerging once again in spring with a haze of green.
I hated the thought of it, but knew, as the maples dropped large branches often enough, and especially after my wild black cherry tree fell on its own on a hot summer afternoon three years ago, that it was only a matter of time before one of the new style of wild storms would toss one of the trees over onto my house or a neighbors’. One was largely leafless with peeling bark, the other two were sparse, but with a twisted, battered beauty, like a bent and wizened old human. While I know birds and squirrels and insects use dead trees for life, endangering them and humans within the trees’ reach was too much risk.
Before this morning’s work…
I had noticed that birds had still roosted in the trees but had stopped nesting there a few years ago, perhaps a sign they felt the trees were too fragile to entrust their family’s future there. The maple by the driveway had dropped a large branch representing almost half of the tree’s canopy on top of my car in a windstorm in 2011. My Escort survived with a dented roof and a busted out rear window, but the tree had not only lost half its canopy but also a large portion of the side of its trunk, revealing a hollow interior with lots of squirrel treasures. I would stand and look at that and wonder if it would topple over onto the sparse blue spruce that never had a chance to grow much without enough light.
After this morning’s work…
The silver maple in front of the house was hollow too, I knew. When generations of raccoon families had squealed their way across the back yard to the front and scratched their way up the trunk of that maple tree they would stop and look at my cats and me looking right at them from the bedroom window, then disappear into the center of the trunk of the tree, either hiding goodies or finding them in there. Once I climbed the tree and shone a flashlight inside, and saw that it was even more hollow than the other silver maple. The tree’s diameter was roughly 24”, and when it was cut down today the wood of the trunk was only four to five inches thick around the tree’s circumference, and it was hollow not only all the way down the trunk but down into the tree’s root system at least 18” under the surface of the soil.
I plan to plant another tree in its place, and when I saw the hollow trunk I decided I’d fill that trunk with soil and plant the tree right inside it and the old maple could nourish it as her roots became part of the soil once again. Maybe a crabapple, so I’d see the flowers and reddish leaves and twisted branches and the birds could have the fruits (except for the ones I’d use for pies and jelly), or perhaps a magnolia, which would provide a good bit of shade and privacy without endangering the house.
Seeing the slices of the trunk I also decided to keep several to fill with soil and plant flowers inside, like the half barrels I had when I moved here. I’m really excited about that idea.
The silver maples had always had an odd shape, or shapelessness, in the way that trees carelessly trimmed back too far grow sprouting branches up at all angles from one spot in the trunk, rather than spaced out up the trunk. Though the area where I live is not known for tornadoes, though they happen all around us, a tornado came through town in 1963. I was only two, but I’ve heard the story, especially from my realtor, who told me that the tornado had gone up this street but rolled backward when it couldn’t rise up the hill right outside my house, snapping the tops off of both trees. They stood there branchless for a few years, then started sprouting branches, developing their unique shapes.
There is a hand-drawn map of my town from 1897 in our library, borough building and historical society. Seeing a map of my town I always need to find my house, but my house didn’t exist yet in that year. There were in the empty lot where my house would one day be, however, two trees in the approximate place where my two silver maples would stand along the street, protecting the front of the house and shading the driveway. The map has many trees on it, and I had thought they were general representations of tree-covered areas in our early neighborhoods.
But these two trees, one on the level of the street just before it began to grow steep, and one higher, partway up the hill, are so specific, just those two, and grass all around, that I think they must have represented two very real trees. They correspond with the tree that had stood by my driveway, on the level, and the one in front of my house, guarding and shading the front. I’m not sure if those two trees were my maples because silver maples are notoriously weak and messy trees, easily damaged in storms and, as mine did, dropping branches regularly. Their lifespan is usually about 70 years, though some can live twice that long. The trees on the map are not saplings, but don’t look like mature trees, so possibly 10 years old at the time. That would make them 132 years old now. That’s entirely possible. I’m so glad I had the chance to live in the shade of such august trees.
Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall in Carnegie is a place I’ve visited my entire life and is also one of my customers for commercial art and design. In 2018, as part of the plan for Library Park, the community was invited to help create a mosaic that would be mounted on two low seating walls in the park. The design included features of the Library & Music Hall, around Carnegie, and the Pittsburgh area. Rachel Carson, because of her impact on our local environment and green space, of which the park is a part, was included in the design.
While I typically design the Library & Music Hall’s newsletter, the executive director asked me to also write an article about Rachel Carson’s work, explaining science in everyday terms but in an evocative, poetic style that made her work very popular to scientists and everyday people alike, her findings leading eventually to the environmental legislation in the 1960s and 70s that changed our lives here in Pittsburgh, and many other cities in this country. That was my pleasure entirely. When I read A Sense of Wonder I was proud, as an adult, to still be picking up neat rocks and identifying wildflowers, interpreting it all in my own way.
Rachel Carson’s name may immediately bring to mind “Silent Spring”. Though that is her best-known work she was an award-winning writer long before its 1962 publication, and found her way to that subject and international fame from a distant starting point—a log cabin in a rural community near Pittsburgh.
Born in 1907 in a 50-year-old log cabin with no utilities on a farm north of Pittsburgh, she was a pioneer in her education and practice as a female scientist who brought her understanding of the natural world to readers with her graceful and descriptive prose, and stepped from there to conservation with writing that inspired the environmental movements and legislation of the 1960s and 70s.
She was born in Springdale, 18 miles north of Pittsburgh. You can still visit the house, now managed by the Rachel Carson Homestead Association, which preserves her legacy in the place where she began. The family’s 65-acre farm on which she explored her surroundings is much reduced, but this was the place where she first met and fell in love with the natural world, finding her own “sense of wonder” in her adventures on the land with her mother and later on her own.
A brilliant student, publishing her first story about the natural world at age 10, she graduated high school at the top of her class in 1925 and went to what was then the Pennsylvania College for Women, now Chatham University. Originally majoring in English with the goal of being a writer she changed her major to biology but continued submitting to the school’s literary publications. After graduation her next stop was Johns Hopkins University for graduate study in zoology and genetics. Working her way through financial setbacks she graduated with a master’s degree in zoology in 1935.
Her father’s death in 1935 prevented her from moving on to doctoral studies as she sought a job to help support her family. In the midst of the Great Depression jobs were few but she was encouraged by a mentor to take a part-time position writing radio copy for the US Bureau of Fisheries, today the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Her manner of translating the science into literature that was not overly simplified nor pedantic was so popular that she rose through the ranks to become editor of publications, and stayed with the bureau until 1952.
At the same time her writing also caught the attention of magazine and book publishers and soon she was publishing articles and working on her first books, not about conservation, but about the life of the sea. The Sea Around Us published in 1951 was on the best seller list for 86 weeks. Also in 1951, in a crossover with science and art, she was invited to write liner notes for the RCA Victor Recording of Claude Debussy’s La Mer with the National Symphony Orchestra. Chapters of her books were published as freestanding stories or serialized in The New Yorker and TheYale Review among others, she won prestigious literary awards, received honorary doctorate degrees, other book proposals were accepted, and in 1952 she could have her career as a full-time science writer.
And then came Silent Spring.
Carson will always be remembered for the message and legacy of Silent Spring, that the way the pesticide DDT was overused in the 1950s would cause irreversible damage not only to wildlife and the environment in which it was used, but its carcinogenic effect would also sicken and kill many people. Synthetic pesticides were new then, developed along with many other chemical agents with funding from the military after WWII. Not much study had been done about their effects outside of killing target insects, but along with other uses DDT was liberally sprayed aerially, mixed with fuel oil, to kill the gypsy moths that chewed their way through any forest they populated, including onto private land.
Begun in 1958 the book was four years of research with government and private scientists and doctors, writing that proved with scientific evidence the detrimental effects of overuse of such chemicals, and a recommendation to use them in appropriate, targeted amounts. She was refuted as “hysterical” and her abilities as a scientist were questioned in part because of her sex, but in the end, after hearings and reports, it was her science that held firm and convinced the US government that DDT and other synthetic pesticides should be regulated for public health and safety.
The general public agreed and through the 1960s, on the back of the science and impact of Silent Spring, a slew of environmental pollution control regulations of air, water and land were passed along with the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.
But Rachel Carson never saw the final impact of her work. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1960 and even with surgery and radiation it metastasized and she died in April 1964.
She was only 57 years old. Imagine what she could have carried forward if she had been around for the next decade and the spread of environmental awareness both for public health and safety and for land conservation.
We stand now where two roads diverge . . . The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road—the one “less traveled”—offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of our earth.
My mother died on January 25, 2011, and each year around that date I remember her in a post and share the poem I wrote for her the day she died.
She had been ill for years, and this last time she’d gone to the hospital in congestive heart failure it was clear she would not recover. Kept comfortable by the hospital staff, we waited around her bed for her last breaths.
Later, after clearing out her room at the nursing home, all the necessary phone calls, a visit from a friend and more calls, I had my time alone and was up quite late. As I sat outside in the quiet of the January night watching the snow gently fill the air and fall whispering in a soft blanket on all around me, the poem came to me in nearly one complete piece. So that I would not distract myself from the flowing words in my head I carefully went inside and tiptoed to my desk for a tablet and pen, quietly went back outside to the swing and wrote it down slowly, line for line, all as if I was afraid I’d scare it away, all the beautiful words I’d been thinking, or maybe I’d break it, like a bubble. I changed very little in a rewrite.
I read this poem at her memorial. And I had decided I would go through with my poetry reading scheduled for just two days after my mother died, because it was an opportunity to share her with others and to read the new poem.
I could never encapsulate 86 years of a life into one blog post or one photo or one poem. The photo above is the one we placed in our mother’s casket, her wedding photo from 1946 when she was 21 years old. The little scrap of red in the lower left corner is the red blouse she wore, the one she loved best, and I knew she’d want to be remembered in it; our mother was one who could wear a red chiffon blouse in her casket and be proud.
About My Mother
Regardless of the many outstanding qualities any person may have
we are essentially remembered for only one of them.
In my mother, all would agree
this one would be her remarkable beauty.
All through her life the compliments trailed her
as she carefully maintained “the look”, her look, so glamorous,
from tailored suits to taffeta dresses to palazzo pants,
hair perfectly styled, nails manicured and painted
a collar set just so, cuffs casually turned back,
hair worn long, past the age of 50,
a dark, even tan and shorts into her 80s,
lipstick always perfectly applied,
and even at 84
people marveled on her perfect skin,
dark curly hair,
and big bright smile.
I see that smile
when I see my sister smile,
and I see my mother’s active, athletic bearing
when I look at my brother,
and her gray eyes are mine.
In each of her grandchildren
I see her round face,
graceful hands, pert nose,
proud upright posture
and a million other of her features and habits
and in all of us
her wild curly hair
is part of her legacy to us.
When we look at each other from now on
we will see the part of her she gave to each of us,
this little cluster of people who came from her
and who were her greatest treasure,
and when she looks at us from wherever she is
she will know that
she cannot be forgotten.