The iconic American poet whose ‘Leaves of Grass’ transformed American literature also wrote letters and prose pieces. I learned this the day I bought ‘Specimen Days, Democratic Vistas, and Other Prose’, a collection of Whitman’s writings.
Whitman himself explains the fragmented nature of ‘Specimen Days’ as it is taken from irregular journals at various locations. But here you read him observing Great Nature and commenting on his walks, the skies and clouds, weather changes, wildlife, etc. After the Civil War — during which Whitman gave so much of himself as a nurse in the hospitals of Washington D.C. that his own health never recuperated — a series of fortunate events saw him earn money through small government jobs that ultimately allowed him to leave the city to find restoration in the rural wilds. One long entry describes his summertime days at a small pond, where he would sunbathe naked, hike and swim, to which he attributed his slow return to ‘health’.
Today I am posting a favorite section from ‘Specimen Days’ about my favorite bird, my ally bird, the Western Meadowlark. I heard this bird throughout my childhood in the deserts around Elko, Nevada and have loved hearing it since in travels all over the West. I would try to describe what I hear when the meadowlark sings and how it soothes me but Walt does it so much better.
A Meadowlark | March 16, 1878 | Fine, clear, dazzling morning, the sun an hour high, the air just tart enough. What a stamp in advance my whole day receives from the song of that meadowlark perch’d on a fence stake twenty rods distant! Two or three liquid-simple notes repeated at intervals, full of careless happiness and hope. With its shimmering-slow progress and rapid-noiseless action of the wings, it flies on a ways, lights on another stake, and so on to another, shimmering and singing many minutes.
Family values — we know that phrase now. It is meant to evoke a variety of symbolic abstractions related to our biological family and all the extensions of it. Looking back on my childhood, my experience is that I was taught these family values, whatever each of us define that as. Ironically, though it might grate on my conservative friends’ ears, Elko back in the day really embodied what Hillary Clinton said much later “It takes a village to raise a child.” Because I knew first I was in a family, and that nothing I did should besmirch the Name of the family. I also knew I was surrounded by a circle of families. So if I visited my friend Les’s house and did something uncool, when I walked in the door back home, my mother said, “I just got a call from Rosie, would you like to talk about it?” Ouch! But such were the boundaries of small-town America, not a lot of wiggle room for bad behavior in the 1950s and 1960s.
So in celebration of my own family, today I’m saying that I welcome, not fear, Friday the 13th and in fact everything about the number 13. I learned it is the Lopez family number, based on the heraldic designs of former times (when royalty and important families, and then everyone, had shields (Spanish, escudos) celebrating their family. Below I’m posting a discussion of the Lopez family escudo that I sent around to my family members with my interpretation of it.
Then, a few years back we were asked by Adam and Chris Starr, the sons of my cousin Elaine Goicoechea Lopez Starr and Jim Starr, to participate in a surprise 30th Anniversary Party for them. We were asked to contribute something, and again, the lucky number 13 helped inspire me, as I recalled from high school and college literature studies the great poet Wallace Stevens and his famous poem ’13 Ways of Looking At a Blackbird’. That became my launching point, and I created my own alternate poem ’13 Ways of Looking at a BasqueBird etc.’ in honor of my cousin, her husband, their Anniversary, and their two thoughtful sons.
The holiday we love because it is set aside to recognize love and those we love and who love us. First among my many blessings is My Love and Bride and life partner, Nancy. In the sweet photo below, you see her standing in our front yard on Liberty Street holding her latest creation — a constellation of heart luminarias. She created these last weekend, starting with a prototype and some ideas. She then made 29! of them in two days, using heavy watercolor paper she painted then cut, then glued on delicate rice paper which she carefully trimmed and also painted. A paper heart that glows with the light of the sun, just as our real hearts do. To see more of Nancy’s fantastic paper art creations, visit her website by clicking here.
The concept of country, homeland, dwelling place becomes simplified as “the environment”—that is, what surrounds us. Once we see our place, our part of the world as surrounding us, we have already made a profound division between it and ourselves. We have given up the understanding—dropped it out of our language and so out of our thought—that we and our country create one another, depend on one another, are literally part of one another, that our land passes in and out of our bodies just as our bodies pass in and out of our land; that as we and our land are part of one another, so all who are living as neighbors here, human and plant and animal, are part of one another and so cannot possibly flourish alone; that, therefore, our culture must be our response to our place, our culture and our place are images of each other and inseparable from each other, and so neither can be better than the other.
— from The Unsettling of America
The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land. This sounds simple: do we not already sing our love for and obligation to the land of the free and the home of the brave? Yes, but just what and whom do we love? Certainly not the soil, which we are sending helter-skelter downriver. Certainly not the waters, which we assume have no function except to turn turbines, float barges, and carry off sewage. Certainly not the plants, of which we exterminate whole communities without batting an eye. Certainly not the animals, of which we have already extirpated many of the largest and most beautiful species. A land ethic of course cannot prevent the alteration, management, and use of these ‘resources,’ but it does affirm their right to continued existence, and, at least in spots, their continued existence in a natural state.
All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. His instincts prompt him to compete for his place in the community, but his ethics prompt him also to cooperate (perhaps in order that there may be a place to compete for).
In short, a land ethic changes the role of homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.
— excerpts from A Sand County Almanac
“What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think.
This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder, because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”
“Live no longer to the expectation of these deceived and deceiving people with whom we converse. Say to them, O father, O mother, O wife, O brother, O friend, I have lived with you after appearances hitherto. Henceforward I am the truth’s. Be it known unto you that henceforward I obey no law less than the eternal law. I will have no covenants but proximities. I shall endeavour to nourish my parents, to support my family, to be the chaste husband of one wife—but these relations I must fill after a new and unprecedented way. I appeal from your customs. I must be myself. I cannot break myself any longer for you, or you. If you can love me for what I am, we shall be the happier. If you cannot, I will still seek to deserve that you should. I will not hide my tastes or aversions. I will so trust that what is deep is holy, that I will do strongly before the sun and moon whatever inly rejoices me, and the heart appoints. If you are noble, I will love you; if you are not, I will not hurt you and myself by hypocritical attentions. If you are true, but not in the same truth with me, cleave to your companions; I will seek my own. I do not do this selfishly, but humbly and truly. It is alike your interest and mine, and all men’s, however long we have dwelt in lies, to live in truth.”
“Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life’s cultivation . . .”
“Nature always wears the colors of the spirit.”
is a more potent Instrument
than any other,
because rhythm and harmony
find their way into
the inward places of the Soul,
on which they mightily fasten,