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THE FARTHERMOST VIEW

Selected Podpieces

MASS-PRODUCED MILKWEED

I stepped out of my office in downtown Orleans one day in September and headed out for a walk. I like having an office in town, and being able to stroll along the street staring into store windows, pretending I'm seeking inspiration for a brilliant essay or best-selling poem, and not having to stop every nine seconds for a short companion to sniff at a suspicious piece of grass or water an ornamental azalea.

 

I walked past some stores and some restaurants and an office or two and then cut through the Christmas Tree Shop parking lot to head back to work. But as I was passing the front door, I stopped dead at the sight of a great big rack full of potted plants. It was Asclepias tuberosa. Butterfly weed. $9.99 for a gallon pot.

 

Now, that's exactly what shop window and outdoor displays are designed to do: stop potential customers in their tracks. A customer may stop because the display's beautiful or surprising, or it's just what the customer has been looking for, though she didn't realize it until this very instant. I myself stopped because I was astonished that Butterfly weed was being sold at the Christmas Tree Shop.

 

All you Monarch butterfly fans out there know that Butterfly weed is part of the milkweed family, which is the only thing in the world that baby monarch butterflies, aka caterpillars, can eat. They die without milkweed. If you're gardeners, you also know that butterfly weed and its cousin milkweeds have, until very recently, been difficult to find at traditional nurseries. And they've been unheard of at the big box stores.

 

That's changing, of course, as people have become more aware of the disappearance of milkweed in the wild and the butterflies' resulting drop in population. More nurseries and garden shops are carrying milkweed and other native plants. And I shouldn't have been too surprised, since Asclepias tuberosa was the 2017 Perennial Plant of the Year and therefore was produced by the millions. And the Christmas Tree Shops are no slackers when it comes to selling things that are mass produced.

 

It's a good thing, I guess, that the lifeblood of the monarch butterfly is being sold in vast numbers to even the clueless. I worry, of course, that plants that are mass produced are more likely to have been treated with neonicotinoids and other pesticides that might actually harm, or even kill, their primary consumers.

 

You can parse these things so far down into the details. Is it good? Is it bad? Is the good part good enough to outweigh the bad? Will the bad last longer than the good? Should we encourage people who don't know, and don't want to know, the gory details, to buy the plants that will save the butterflies, when in fact it could hasten their collective demise?

 

I kept my own wallet in my pocket and strolled back to the office, pondering the difficulties of being a monarch amid the uncertainties of the commercial world, and sat down to write this brilliant essay. Tomorrow I'll write the best-selling poem.

 

 

 

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A SPRINGSTEEN LIFE

 

 

Once upon a time, when I was a Young Person, I had the opportunity to see Bruce Springsteen on one of his first tours. Through one connection or another it transpired that if I showed up at the perfume counter of Meier and Frank in downtown Portland at a certain time, a friend of a friend would meet me there and sell me tickets to a Springsteen concert that he was unable to go to.

 

I was never a very With It person, and I probably couldn't have told you quite who Springsteen was, though if he'd had any hits on a.m. radio by then I'd probably heard them. But I knew enough to know that these were special tickets, and I was tremendously lucky to score them.


Except, of course, that I didn't.

 

I was supposed to meet this stranger at, maybe, 4:00, when I got off work at the library; but the bus was late, and then it was stuck in traffic, and then it turned out that the perfume counter was in fact half a dozen counters, each with its own fragrant, belipsticked saleslady. Arriving late, I rushed from counter to counter, looking for a concert-going sort of person – who in those days would definitely not have been belipsticked, and whose fragrance would not have been obtained at any of the counters. But I saw no one who looked the least bit scruffy lurking among the cosmetics; no one was waiting to give a shy, frantic, bespectacled librarian her first big break into the world of rock culture.

 

And so my life did not veer off onto that particular alternate route. I have often wondered what might have happened if it had. If I had started spending money on concert tickets, and become a rock concert-goer. If I had become familiar with Bruce Springsteen, and followed his career. Or, on another branch of the road, what if I had fallen into conversation with one of the cosmetics ladies, and maybe tried some perfume, or gotten a makeover, and learned how to apply lipstick so that it didn't rub off on my teeth? And dyed my hair blonde, and used an expensive shampoo that made it smooth and shiny instead of lumpy and frizzled?

 

I would have worn contact lenses. And now I would have progressive lenses rather than trifocals.

 

So who would I be? Could I ever have become that person? Would I have liked it?

 

When I ask My Companion about this sort of thing -- "What if," I begin – he invariably stares at me and says, "I don't think about things like that. It wouldn't occur to me to think about things like that."


"Think about it now," I say.


But he is constitutionally unable to imagine how things might be if they weren't the way they are. He doesn't want to imagine himself as another person, leading another life.

 

I like to think that that's because the thought of never having met ME, of living somewhere else with an entirely different woman, is terrifying to him. It would give him nightmares.

 

And what about me? What if I had a scruffy-looking Companion who was forever hanging around public places dreaming of going to rock concerts with young blonde librarians wearing lipstick and smelling of Evening in Paris?

 

I do not believe in Soul Mates, nor that some things were meant to be, nor that there's a reason for everything. But I'm plenty happy with My Companion, Chanel Number Five makes me sneeze, and when Born to Run comes on the car radio I turn up the volume and step on the gas.

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THE WINDSHIELD PHENOMENON

Driving is not the pleasure it used to be. Once you could pour down long stretches of highway at ninety miles an hour, with the occasional semi roaring past at maybe a hundred and ten. Then on the next hill the truck would be huffing and puffing in the far right lane, and you'd soar ahead, rounding some curve or peeling out on a straightaway past houses farms and fields.

 

I was a younger person then, and although I dare say I had an aching back and stiff knees after those cross-country trips my girlfriends and I took, I recovered quickly. Maybe after walking a few feet, like into the gas station bathroom. Now the fingers stiffen, the hands start to go numb, the knees begin to radiate sharp little pains into my shins after only a couple of hours, and the next morning I feel as if I've hoed the back forty by hand.

 

Of course, it could be that out there in the West, where much of my hard-driving youth was spent, there are still long stretches of highway in the valleys between mountains, between the fields of corn and the ranges of the bovines, curving along the side of a river brilliant with white foam and stones.

 

But the loss of speed is not my lament here. What bothers me is what you find at the end of the drive, which is nothing. Even if you've been tearing at top speed down the road, too fast for anything in your path to escape, there are no yellow smears on the glass. Nothing dead smashed into the grille. Nary a butterfly wing trapped under the windshield wiper. No sign of life, or former life, at all.

 

It was a rite of passage in my childhood, when I was old enough – make that big enough – to get out of the car when we stopped for gas and clean the windshield. Out of the car into the smell of gasoline, my frail skin and bones vulnerable among the steel and rubber and the filth on the hot asphalt. The brush sticking out of the well of dark water, and on the other end, submerged, the squeegee. The brown paper towels for the requisite wiping of the rubber blade between swipes. The brush end, for scraping away at exoskeletons glued by body fluids to the glass. Lunging over the hood to reach the middle of the windshield. Bending down to scrub clean the headlights. Gingerly wiping at the grille, afraid of getting water into the engine, where it would certainly stop the car from running.

 

Was it wonderful then? or is this a view through a deep rose tint of the spectacles? Diesel fumes, a tank of water dipped into again and again with a brush coated with dead bugs?

 

It turns out that I'm not the only person who has noticed the paucity of insects on the windshield. Their absence is so well-recognized that Entomologists call it the Windshield Phenomenon. Scott Black, executive director of the Xerces Society, says that the Windshield Phenomenon causes "a visceral reaction when you realize you don't see that mess any more."

 

There have been many studies documenting the disappearance of the charismatic insects – honeybees, fireflies, monarch butterflies. But of the tinies that get mashed against the windshield – and are also the main food items for millions of birds and other creatures – fewer formal studies have been funded. Their disappearance has been noted mostly in anecdote. Not as many chiggers in the grass. Not many June bugs ramming into window screens on July nights.


Clean windshields.

 

Nostalgia for what was not so terrific is a strange exercise. Whoever thought that one day I'd wax wistful about cleaning the mess of mashed insects off a car's windshield?

 

One more thing you don't know you've got till it's gone.

 

 

 

 

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ANOTHER MILESTONE BIRTHDAY

This year I had one of those milestone birthdays that seem to crop up with more and more frequency as you get older, and to celebrate, My Companion took me and a few friends out for a sunset cruise on Pleasant Bay. Well, he hired a Captain Bob, who had a boat to take us out on. If we owned our own boat, we'd go out on Pleasant Bay more than once a year, and then a birthday cruise wouldn't be such a treat, would it?

 

But a treat it was. The temperature that day had been something like 90 degrees Fahrenheit in South Orleans, and the percentage of humidity in the air had felt the same. But out on the water – in which I suspect the humidity was close to 100% – there was a merry little breeze, and as the sun sank below the fringe of trees behind us, the temperature dropped to a pleasant 76. We putted along through the channel, past little green buoys marking our way and sailboats bobbing gently at anchor, cormorants balancing atop their masts. Captain Bob told us the water was six feet deep, and its temperature was 84 degrees. Fahrenheit.

 

We broke out the Prosecco – poor Captain Bob had to decline a plastic cupful, since he was driving – and toasted me, for being another year older. Then we toasted all of us, including Captain Bob, for being alive in the world and out on a sunset cruise.

 

We ate little segments of the giant Italian sandwich I had made that morning and that had sat in the refrigerator under a cast iron pot and a sixpack of beer the rest of the day. It had turned out okay, all mashed down into a flat thing that held together pretty well with the help of toothpicks. I had found several recipes for these mashed sandwiches on the Interweb; I liked the looks of Martha Stewart's recipe, but she insisted it wouldn't be good enough unless I roasted my own red peppers, so I went for a recipe that said red peppers out of a jar would work perfectly well. I stopped roasting my own a couple of milestones ago.

 

Captain Bob kept up an informative commentary on the homes of the wealthy we saw along the shore, and pointed out the conservation land where I have monitored Kemp's Ridley terrapin nests, and Paw Wah Point, where I walk my dogs after the summer people have departed in the fall. Now and then a sleek wet head would rise out of the water in front of us, then disappear underwater again: gray seals, checking us out.

 

The sun sank behind the trees, and after a while we turned back toward the dock, having gotten what we'd paid for. A flock of tiny sharp-silhouetted birds skimmed the surface of the water nearby. "Red knots!" Captain Bob said. Then, higher in the air, there was a flock of terns. We broke out the birthday cake, which I had made myself, as is my custom, and carved up into little squares suitable for dining aboard a boat.

 

I put a couple of little squares of cake into a cup for Captain Bob to enjoy later. I would have poured him a cup of Prosecco, too, but there wasn't any left.

 

Afterwards, My Companion told me he'd thought it was kind of boring. But I told him that even though we saw no sharks it was the Best Birthday Ever. I tell him that every year, and it's always true.

 

 

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Poetry Sunday, WCAI

 

 

ABOVE WRIGHT'S FIELD, IN WINTER

 

Two red-tails fly together in the broken light
that strikes the white oaks gold this wind-scoured winter day.
It is the dive toward earth that drives their joyous flight.

 

As afternoon sinks swiftly toward the ragged night
and sharper, meaner winds begin to mock the way
the red-tails fly together in the broken light,

 

a raven rasps above the pallid field where Wright's
three cows trudge single-minded toward a yellow spill of hay.
It is the dive toward earth that drives their joyous flight.

 

They cruise in synchrony, then crack their wings back tight
and plummet toward the indifferent cows; but always
kite at last, to fly together in the broken light.

 

Above the western hogback, lofting clouds ignite
with shards of sun that drape the fading hills in gray.
It is the dive toward earth that drives joy into flight.

 

To plunge, then suddenly erupt, must be the height
of rapture when passion is the prey.
Two red-tails fly together in the broken light.
It is the dive toward earth that drives their joyous flight.

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