Today, Some Trees

March 22, 2005 @ 4:28 am | Filed under: ,

Jane and I went on a “Tree Walk” at our favorite local nature center on Sunday afternoon. A botanist and a natural historian, a wonderful husband-and-wife team, led us through a quiet wood, identifying trees and waxing eloquent about turtles sunning themselves on a log. Jane took some great pictures. This one, portraying a beaver’s handiwork, is my favorite.

And this one reminded me of a John Ashbery poem.


Some Trees
by John Ashbery

These are amazing: each
Joining a neighbor, as though speech
Were a still performance.
Arranging by chance

To meet as far this morning
From the world as agreeing
With it, you and I
Are suddenly what the trees try

To tell us we are:
That their merely being there
Means something; that soon
We may touch, love, explain.

And glad not to have invented
Some comeliness, we are surrounded:
A silence already filled with noises,
A canvas on which emerges

A chorus of smiles, a winter morning.
Place in a puzzling light, and moving,
Our days put on such reticence
These accents seem their own defense.

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A Tiger in Algebra?

March 21, 2005 @ 2:05 pm | Filed under: ,

Maybe not, but there is a Snark there. I was reading Lewis Carroll’s poem, “The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits,” to the girls, when suddenly Jane leapt to her feet and dashed out of the room. This is a fairly common occurrence. She is a visual learner, and when she has made a connection, her urge is to SHOW it.

She hurtled back to the breakfast table bearing her (and this is going to sound like a joke, but I’m quite serious) beloved Jacobs Algebra book. I have to explain about Jacobs Algebra. For years I’ve been hearing on the homeschooling lists that Harold Jacobs’s mathematics textbooks are “living books” in the Charlotte Mason sense, books written by a man passionate about his subject matter, whose zest for the subject comes through loud and clear in his writing.

Curious as to how a math textbook could convey passion and zest, I checked one of Jacobs’s books out of the library. I can’t testify as to what exactly makes that book “live” because I never got hold of it long enough. Jane whisked it away from me and pored over it for the entire six weeks the library allowed us to keep it. I kid you not. During those weeks, it became de rigeur for our nice, peaceful bedtime-prayer time to be shattered by Important and Fascinating Math Discoveries Jane Forgot to Mention Earlier.

“Mom! I forgot to show you this logarithm chart I made today! See, there was an example in Mathematics-a-Human-Endeavor….” (Apparently this book is too dignified to suffer truncation of its name. It was always the full title, breathlessly hyphenated or earnestly run together: Mathematicsahumanendeavor.)

Eventually the precious book had to go back to the library. Calamity! Despair! This was shortly before Christmas, and consolation arrived to soothe bereft Jane. Mathematicsahumanendeavor’s sequel: Elementary Algebra, its very title poetic in its simplicity. O joy! O rapture! O bewildered but accomodating parents!

And so Jacobs Algebra became Jane’s distraction-from-chores book of choice. Which explains, I guess, her abrupt departure from the table during my riveting (or so I thought) recitation of “The Hunting of the Snark.” The Snark was in Algebra, and Jane had to show us. What do you know, there it was! It’s because of the Butcher, of course.

From “Fit the Fifth: The Beaver’s Lesson”:

So engrossed was the Butcher, he heeded them not,
As he wrote with a pen in each hand,
And explained all the while in a popular style
Which the Beaver could well understand.

“Taking Three as the subject to reason about—
A convenient number to state—
We add Seven, and Ten, and then multiply out
By One Thousand diminished by Eight.

“The result we proceed to divide, as you see,
By Nine Hundred and Ninety Two:
Then subtract Seventeen, and the answer must be
Exactly and perfectly true.

“The method employed I would gladly explain,
While I have it so clear in my head,
If I had but the time and you had but the brain—
But much yet remains to be said.

It does indeed. But the rest of the poem remained unsaid that morning. Jacobs Algebra had entered the building and taken center stage. Poor Lewis Carroll; how can he compete with a masterwork of living mathematics?

I would gladly explain—had you but the time and I but the brain.

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May as Well Thoreau This in Just for Fun

March 21, 2005 @ 5:53 am | Filed under: , ,

In light of our Henry Hikes to Fitchburg discussion, I thought I’d share this happy find from another forum: The Blog of Henry David Thoreau. Hee!

From today’s entry (Thoreau’s Journal: 21-Mar-1856)—

I left home at ten and got back before twelve with two and three quarters pints of sap, in addition to the one and three quarters I found collected.

I put in saleratus and a little milk while boiling, the former to neutralize the acid, and the latter to collect the impurities in a skum. After boiling it till I burned it a little, and my small quantity would not flow when cool, but was as hard as half-done candy, I put it on again, and in a minute it was softened and turned to sugar.

While collecting sap, the little of yesterday’s lodging snow that was left, dropping from the high pines in Trillium Wood and striking the brittle twigs in its descent, makes me think that the squirrels are running there.

I noticed that my fingers were purpled, evidently from the sap on my auger.

Had a dispute with Father about the use of my making this sugar when I knew it could be done and might have bought sugar cheaper at Holden’s. He said it took me from my studies. I said I made it my study; I felt as if I had been to a university.

Related posts here and here.

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The Monarchs Are on the Move!

March 18, 2005 @ 10:26 am | Filed under:

MonarchJourney North reports today that the monarch butterflies are beginning to leave their wintering ground in Mexico. Here they come!

Read about the migration here.

Our milkweed plants are still in dormancy, here in central Virginia. Milkweed is the only host plant for monarch caterpillars, so if you want to attract the butterflies to your yard, be sure to plant some. is a good source.

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Guest Blogger: My Husband Scott

March 17, 2005 @ 10:06 am | Filed under: ,

Scott wrote this for his own blog today, but I enjoyed it so much I’m hijacking it for mine. Credit where credit is due, of course: if you want to read it in its natural habitat, visit his site.

Disclaimer: As with any website linked to from here, the opinions expressed therein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect my own.

Note: Scott and I both use aliases for our children on our blogs. His are slightly different from mine; his “Max” is my “Jane,” our nine-and-a-half-year-old. Max was one of her baby nicknames, because she growled like a little Wild Thing. Jane is the title character of her favorite non-Redwall book, L.M. Montgomery’s Jane of Lantern Hill.

My Philosopher

by The Bean’s father

So it’s Thursday, which means it’s The Bean’s music class. She’s one of only three students and just loves the class—no big surprise there. Being the kind of oh so on top of everything parents that we are, we remembered that she was supposed to make a sculpture to bring into class today. No sweat—we’ve had a week to work on it and the class isn’t for nearly an hour yet. We can whip something fantastic up. Piece o’ cake.

And so with twenty minutes ‘til class, the girls sit down with some Sculpey clay and begin working. The Rose makes a Hershey’s Kiss. Max makes…I don’t even know what, but it’s mighty impressive. The Bean decides on an animal of some sort. I suggest an alligator, figuring there aren’t many animals as recognizable and yet easy to pound together in less than half an hour. But no. She wants an elephant. She doesn’t shoot small.

Being less than worthless in these matters, I retire to the office for my (first) cup o’ morning joe and to read the New York Times editorials and get irate—what better way to start your day? I come upstairs in time to take The Bean to her class, and Top Management’s just popping the sculpture into the toaster oven to fire it.

Their creation is a thing of magnificence: light brown body, dark brown ears and tail, bright orange feet, fiery red eyes and the crowning achievement, lime green tusks, presumably in honor of St. Patrick’s Day. One suspects the Lord above looked down and wondered why He hadn’t thought of this color scheme when making the originals in the first place.

We scurry around getting shoes on and coats ready and I look up to see Top Management with an expression of utter panic and horror on her face. Alarmed, I rush over but she quickly shushes me and turns around. Peering over her shoulder, I see she’s cradling the elephant, which has been burnt by our apparently infernally powerful toaster oven.

It’s not fatal for the poor beast: his ears are pretty toasty, but they were already a dark enough brown that it’s not terribly noticeable. Ah, but those wondrous green tusks aren’t looking so chipper anymore: the tops of each are a decidedly smoky brown. If one were honest, one might even say they were approaching a blackish kind of color. Like, say, black.

Ever resourceful, Top Management sends The Bean to go get a hairbrush for her weekly brushing of hair, and quickly slaps some fresh green clay atop the defiled tusks. Presto! Good as new. Not exactly rock hard, but hey, there’s a rock-hard interior hidden beneath those externally squishy tusks. Don’t mess with ‘em.

All this makes us late for class. We rush in, take off her coat and sneakers, toss her backpack and run over to where the teacher and the other two students are sitting in a circle. The Bean notices that they’ve each got their sculptures so she gasps, “Oh!” and runs back to get hers and add it to the collection. Obviously her fellow scholars have already explained their creations because the teacher asks The Bean to tell them about her sculpture.

This seems to throw The Bean a bit. She just stares down at the thing in her hands for a few seconds and I’m suddenly worried that she’s noticing it’s a tad singed.

But no. She finally says, very simply, “It’s an elephant.”

She pauses, then adds, “It’s got a bwown body, and bwown ears and a bwown tail and a bwown twunk, but the ears and tail are a DIFFEWENT bwown, and wed eyes and look! It’s got owange feet!”

The other children seem to be appropriately appreciative of the orange feet.

“And,” The Bean says meaningfully, “It’s got gween tusks.”

One of the kids nodded at that—clearly a fellow connoisseur—while the other said quietly, “Whoa.”

I stood about fifteen feet away, off to the side. All the other parents had left already—we come back for the last ten minutes of class—so I was only waiting for her to notice me so I could say goodbye. But she never turned. The teacher smiled at me happily—she adores The Bean—and I figured that was my cue to exit.

As I was leaving it occurred to me that my little girl had done what I always try to do and usually fail. She managed to see both the Big Picture and the vital details. She pulled back for the forest first: it’s an elephant. And yet she was still was able to focus in on each individual tree: it’s got wed eyes and owange feet and gween tusks. No bunch of blind philosophers, my Bean.

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Today is the Feast of St. Patrick

March 17, 2005 @ 9:43 am | Filed under:

I love the ancient prayer known as the Breastplate of St. Patrick. Here is an excerpt:

I bind to myself today
The power of Heaven,
The brightness of the Sun,
The whiteness of Snow,
The splendor of Fire,
The speed of Lightning,
The swiftness of the Wind,
The depth of the Sea,
The stability of the Earth,
The firmness of Rocks.

I bind to myself today
God’s Power to pilot me,
God’s Might to uphold me,
God’s Wisdom to guide me,
God’s Eye to look before me,
God’s Ear to hear me,
God’s Word to speak for me,
God’s Hand to guard me,
God’s Way to lie before me,
God’s Shield to shelter me,
God’s Host to secure me.

I will never forget the chill that went up my spine the first time I, as an adult, came across this prayer. It called up an immediate echo from one of my favorite books as a teenager: Madeleine L’Engle’s A Swiftly Tilting Planet. The first stanza, above, is the substance of the “rune” quoted by Calvin’s mother and later used by Charles Wallace. I haven’t read the novel in some twenty years, but I can still remember part of that powerful poem: “In this fateful hour/ I call upon all heaven with its power,/ The sun with its brightness,/The snow with its whiteness,/The lightning with its rapid wrath,/The fire with all the strength it hath…” I can almost recall the rest. At the end there is, I think, “the rocks with their starkness;/ All this I place,/ with God’s almighty help and grace,/ Between myself and the powers of darkness.”

I am sixteen again, shivering at the majesty and faith in those words.

Three Ways to Get More Poetry into Your Day

March 16, 2005 @ 1:37 pm | Filed under:

If you read this blog regularly, you probably know I’ve got a passion for poetry. Actually, I talk about it a lot less here than I could if I gave myself free rein. Maybe when I finish up this (overdue) novel I’m working on, I’ll loosen the reins for a while…we’ll see.

But for now, I’ll keep it brief. Three suggestions:

• Get a copy of Favorite Poems Old and New, edited by Helen Ferris. This excellent anthology is arranged thematically, so it’s easy to find a perfect poem to fit your day. There’s a happy mix of serious classics and whimsical children’s verse. My pal Sarah just scored a copy at our local library sale for $1.50—lucky woman! I keep our copy beside the kitchen table for our breakfast poetry readings.

• Look for books in the Poetry for Young People series. I mentioned the Emily Dickinson edition the other day. We have several of these lovely books, because Scott gives the kids one book for every holiday. This series has been a consistent hit. The William Butler Yeats edition is breathtaking. The volumes are picture-book-sized, with lovely art and brief, helpful glosses on the poems.

• Sign up to receive PoemHunter’s “Poem of the Day.” This free email service sends a poem to your mailbox every morning. In the past week I’ve enjoyed poems by James Whitcomb Riley, Paul Laurence Dunbar, my beloved Robert Burns, and—what lovely timing (see previous post)—Henry David Thoreau.

Jane’s addendum to my Henry Hikes post

March 15, 2005 @ 2:15 pm | Filed under: , ,

She was reading Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, which I posted about the other day, and pointed out several connections:

• Thoreau is mentioned in the novel The Fledgling, by Jane Langton, which I have not read but Jane loved.

• As I noted in my review last week, among the neighbors for whom Henry’s friend does odd jobs are Mr. Hawthorne, Mrs. Alcott, and Mr. Emerson. I knew Jane would recognize the name “Alcott”—Little Women and Little Men are two of her favorite books— after reading the author’s note in the back of Henry Hikes, which briefly mentions Bronson Alcott (Louisa May’s father) and his unique ideas about education, Jane said, “Well, that explains Eight Cousins, doesn’t it?” Indeed, the heroine of this Louisa May Alcott novel comes to live with an uncle who has unorthodox (for his time) notions about how young girls should be raised and educated. “Simple clothes, plenty of fresh air and exercise, few parties, no fripperies, and lots of oatmeal,” Jane summarized. (“What are fwippawies?” Beanie wanted to know.)

• I was surprised the kids recognized Nathaniel Hawthorne’s name, but I forgot that Jim Weiss retells Hawthorne’s short story, “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” on his Spooky Classics for Children collection.

• And finally—one might say: last and most certainly least—Jane tells me that she knows about Emerson “because Nancy Drew’s boyfriend, Ned Nickerson, went to Emerson College.” All righty, then. Certainly wouldn’t want to omit that important piece of information.