In the Path of Totality

September 28th, 2017

eclipse-12

 

 

My dear sister, Tanya Bohlke, was one of the lucky millions who witnessed last month’s total eclipse of the sun.  She experienced it as a profound natural event, so I asked her to write about it here:

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     When I first read the phrase “in the path of totality,” I thought it sounded thrilling but perhaps a bit over the top.  However, I discovered that witnessing the total eclipse was so much more thrilling and amazing than even that phrase could describe.

     My daughter and I traveled from Virginia to Columbia, South Carolina, to view the eclipse on Saturday, August 19, two days before The Event.  We fell in love with the town, which sponsored so many different eclipse-related activities.  We went to the Science Museum with its IMAX show and Planetarium laser show, on the river, and a street festival featuring trees decorated with colorful yarn art, known as “yarn bombs.”

     There were no hotels available in Columbia after Saturday, so on Sunday we journeyed to  Orangeburg, also in the direct path of the eclipse and a community that welcomed us with its spectacular marching band.  There, on the stadium grounds of South Carolina State University, we awaited the eclipse.

     The grounds around the stadium were large enough so that even though there were many people, we found a lovely, quiet spot in the shade of a tree.  We could duck out, don our glasses to view the disappearing sun, and then move back to the shade  It took longer than we had anticipated to begin to see darkness and shadows, but soon there was an eerie quality in the air. . . .

     When totality arrived, people first cheered, then were stunned into an awed silence.  

     It was one of the most surreal things I have ever seen–the eerie shadows, then total dark, except for the brilliant corona, and in the background the croak of crickets, thinking it was nighttime!  

     It is easy to understand why ancient peoples thought a total eclipse meant the world was ending.  Totality lasted 2+ minutes, but it seemed like 30 seconds.  We wanted it to never end.–Tanya Bohlke

 

 

Mad for Orchids

August 27th, 2017

    Who knew that orchids are the world’s largest plant family?  Ten percent of all plant species are orchids!  

    I had always thought of orchids as exotic, even rare plants.  Until recently, that is, when my friend Laura invited me to watch a fascinating nature show with her, PLANTS BEHAVING BADLY.  What a title!  How can a plant behave badly? 

     Well, according to David Attenborough, the show’s host and one of my heroes, the title alludes to tricks some orchid species employ to lure the pollinators they need.  Certain conniving orchids draw in their pollinating insects with a promise of sex or food, and then fail to deliver.  

     A plant that promises sex?  

     Attenborough introduces us to the bee orchid flower.  The flower structure of this orchid greatly resembles a female bee.  So when male bees emerge from the ground after hibernation, eager to mate, many of them think they’ve spotted what they’re looking for in the orchids nearby.  

     Clasping the flower in a passionate embrace, the male bee is disappointed when he realizes that this is not a female bee after all.  When one or two more attempts to mate with flowers on the same plant result in failure, he flies off to try his luck with another orchid plant nearby.  

     So the bee’s disappointment is the orchid’s success.   When the bee gives up on an individual orchid plant and tries other orchid plants nearby, he spreads pollen more widely, a practice known as cross-pollination.  Cross-pollinations makes for greater genetic diversity   than does self-pollination, where the pollen remains on the same plant.  That clever orchid!

     And false promises of food?  Unlike most orchid species, which draw pollinators by producing nectar that they love, some orchids only appear to offer nectar.  Certain orchid species have evolved shape and coloring that strongly resemble the shape and coloring of orchid species that do offer nectar.   These trickster orchids fool insects into thinking they have found a source of nectar.  

     Not finding any nectar in the orchid flower, the insects quickly move on to another nearby plant.  This orchid strategy of disappointment again results in success for the plant!  It has tricked the insect into cross-pollinating.  What a trick to play on unsuspecting insects.

     While about a third of orchid species practice some form of deception to bend pollinators to their will, says Attenborough, most orchid species do deliver the nectar (but maybe not the sex) their pollinators are after. These thousands of orchid species have developed a vast range of features that include hairs, tails, horns, fans, crests, even teeth and warts–that are very attractive to the particular pollinators who have evolved with them.

     Perhaps the most astonishing orchid-pollinator match known, Attenborough tells us, has quite a history:  In 1862, Charles Darwin was sent an orchid from Madagascar.  Called Angraecum sesquipedale, this beautiful, star-shaped orchid had a nectary a foot long!  (The nectary is a tube, at the bottom of which is the nectar the pollinator wants, along with pollen the orchid wants the pollinator to take).

     Darwin was incredulous!  What insect could possibly have a proboscis long enough to pollinate such an orchid! Darwin surmised that there must be a moth that does have such an absurdly long proboscis.  But he never found the orchid’s pollinator. 

     Twenty years after Darwin’s death, in 1907, a moth was discovered in Madagascar that had a proboscis about as long as the Angraecum sesquipedale‘s nectary!  But it was not until 1992, 85 years later, that this moth, Xanthopan marginii praedicta was actually observed pollinating the orchid.  Attenborough treats us to thrilling night-time footage of the giant moth unfurling its incredibly long proboscis and inserting it into the orchid’s foot-long nectary!  Also wonderful, we see the photographer, the first to catch the action on film, dancing in joy!–April Moore

 

Stink Bugs 101

July 28th, 2017

stink-bug-1_wide-26d7617b282911366218978fd09f025a765c9dd9-s900-c85     

     It’s summer now.  But fall will be here soon, and with it the dreaded annual stink bug invasion.  

     Not very many years ago I had no idea what a brown marmorated stink bug was.  Now I am all too familiar with these hard-shelled, shield-shaped, repulsive little critters.

     I believe it was 2010 or 2011 when I first heard of stink bugs, of their voracious attacks on fruit and vegetable crops, of their intrusion into homes in our mid-Atlantic region.  And not long after that my husband and I began to experience for ourselves these bugs’ noisy buzzing, noxious odor, and the stains they left on curtains and lamp shades.  Gross.

     I decided recently to find out more about our unwanted, ugly little house guests.  Why do stink bugs show up every fall now, when they were unknown before?  How serious a problem are they, and will we have to put up with them forever?  

     I found that the brown marmorated stink bug is native to Asia.  It was first observed in the U.S. in eastern Pennsylvania in 1998.  The bug had apparently entered our country accidentally in packing material or machinery that had been shipped to the U.S. from Asia.

     While the U.S. is home to more than 250 stink bug species, these natives have never posed much of a problem because predators have evolved as well, and those predators keep native stink bugs’ numbers in check.  Likewise, the brown marmorated stink bug is not a problem in Asia, thanks to predatory wasps that have evolved there to eat stink bugs’ eggs.

     But the unwelcome Asian stowaway has no predators at all in the U.S.  So once introduced, the bug spread rapidly.  By 2009 the brown marmorated stink bug could be found throughout Pennsylvania, and had also reached Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, and Illinois.  By 2012, brown marmorated stink bugs could be found in 40 states.  And that year, there were 60% more of these invasive stink bugs in the U.S. than there had been in 2011, just one year earlier! 

     While my own experience with the stink bug is at the level of annoyance, the major impact of the stink bug’s  rapid spread and huge population growth is on agriculture.  Especially in the eastern U.S., stink bugs are going after a wide range of crops.  They start eating in the late spring, and proceed to feast on  peaches, apples, green beans, soybeans, cherries, raspberries, pears, and many more fruits and vegetables.  They are also very fond of ornamental trees and shrubs.

     The stink bug possesses mouth parts that enable it to pierce plant parts and suck out the juice.  The loss of plant fluid leads to deformed or destroyed seeds, destruction of fruiting structures, delayed plant maturation, and increased vulnerability to plant pathogens.  

     For good reason, stink bug control has become a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) priority.  But the brown marmorated stink bug is a formidable foe.  Not only does the lack of predators allow the bugs to spread and multiply, but they are very mobile.  A new generation of stink bugs can fly in after a resident population has been killed, making permanent removal almost impossible.

     And, unfortunately, the United States is proving an ideal environment for the brown marmorated stink bug.  There is no part of the U.S. where this stink bug cannot produce at least one new generation a year.  And in  warmer states like California, Arizona, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas, these bugs can produce as many as six generations in a single year! With overall temperatures rising as a result of climate change, reproductive conditions are becoming increasingly favorable throughout the country.  And the stink bug can survive long periods of cold as well as heat.

     Efforts to combat the brown marmorated stink bug have included the use of pesticides, but they have proven ineffective.  Scientists have looked at importing the stink bug’s natural predators from Asia as a way to keep their numbers in check here.  But introducing these wasps might result in yet another infestation.  Scientists hope that birds and other animals will eventually begin preying on stink bugs.

     Sadly, there is currently no known way to stem the increase of the brown marmorated stink bug in the U.S.  

     But at least there are steps we individuals can take to keep these bugs out of our homes in the fall, when the weather cools and the bugs are looking for a warm place to overwinter.

     Since insecticides have proven ineffective against the bugs, and may be harmful to humans besides, scientists recommend prevention.  Before fall arrives, cracks in walls, holes in screens, and spaces around air conditioners and utility boxes should be sealed.

     Despite one’s best efforts, some stink bugs will make it into the house.  And during a warm, sunny patch of winter, those who got into the house in the fall may awaken and start buzzing around.  ’Catch and release’ works okay, although if the bug is squad  a smelly emission can result.       

     Like many people, I throw stink bugs into the toilet.  That approach is less than satisfactory, since stink bugs are good swimmers, and some can make it to the side of the toilet bowl, where they crawl up to the rim.  Some people recommend keeping a bucket of soapy water at the ready and throwing bugs in.  I have not yet tried that approach.

     Sometimes during stink bug season, when I am reading on the couch in the evening, I keep a bowl of water, covered by a plate, on the end table beside me.  When I hear a loud buzz or spot one of those ugly critters on the lamp shade next to me, I grab it (not too tightly), lift the plate, plunge the bug into the water, and put the plate back on top.  The plate protects me from having to look at the bugs in the water, and it also ensures they can’t escape.  The next morning, without looking too closely at my catch, I toss the water and the dead bugs outside.

A FEW STINK BUG FACTS

  • The brown marmorated stink bug can be distinguished from other, noninvasive, stink bugs by dark and light bands on their antennae and by dark and light bands on the top outer edges of their abdomens. 
  • Between May and August, female stink bugs lay 20-30 eggs at a time under a leaf or on a plant stem.  
  • The bug’s stink glands are located on the bug’s underside, between the first and second pair of legs.
  • Adult stink bugs live from several months to a year.
  • While stink bugs are more annoying than harmful to humans, the odor can produce an allergic reaction in some individuals who are sensitive to the odors of cockroaches and ladybugs.  If a stink bug is smashed against exposed skin, dermatitis may result at the point of contact.–April Moore

 

 

 

 

When the Catbird’s Seat is the Bird Bath

June 24th, 2017

 

the bird bath awaits its next visitor

the bird bath awaits its next visitor

   There I sat, at a little table on our balcony, sipping wine and pondering stinkbugs.  Yes, stinkbugs.  Thinking others might share my curiosity about what the infestation of these annoying creatures is all about, I planned to do some research and then publish it on THE EARTH CONNECTION.  

     Then a solitary, distinctive ‘sploosh’ emerged from the late afternoon quiet.  Happy to set aside my joyless research, I craned my neck to see what was going on in the bird bath across the driveway from my perch.  

     Peering around balcony railing slats and between holly branches, I smiled to see an actual bird in the small, stone pool that rests in the grass just yards away.  

     There, in the nest-shaped bath a catbird stood up tall, his bearing almost kingly.  He nearly filled the bath, his private pool for the moment.  Then the dark grey bird’s wings became a blur, stirring up a summery spray of water.   He rose up even taller then, fluttered those wings again, and kicked up more spray.

     But the catbird did not linger in the bath.  After those two flurryings of wings, he hopped onto the pool’s rough stone rim, wiggled his tail feathers, turned, and hopped back into the water.  After another whirring or two of wings, he hopped onto the opposite rim, shook water from his tail, turned, and jumped back into the water.  Then he actually did linger for a bit before darting up to a maple branch, where he completed his ablutions–shaking wings, tail feathers, wings again, until satisfied that he was adequately dry.

     Since that serendipitous moment, I have been watching the bird bath for other visitors.  I have since seen shows put on by chickadees and robins.

     So why do birds visit bird baths?  Do birds need to bathe?  Is it for fun?  Do all birds like bird baths?

     It wasn’t hard to find answers to my questions.  Apparently, all birds need a source of clean water for bathing and drinking.  Hawks, warblers, owls, hummingbirds, and many other species will take advantage of a clean, fresh bird bath.

     I was surprised to learn that a shallow bath is much better for birds than a deep one.  Two to three inches at the deepest is recommended to ensure that birds do not drown.

     I was also surprised to learn about the importance of keeping a bird bath clean.  Stagnant water can harbor an unhealthy concentration of bacteria, which can cause avian diseases.  Thus, an improperly maintained bird bath can be a greater harm than a benefit to birds.

     Here are a few tips for keeping the bird bath clean and healthful for birds:

  • Dump out the old water before refilling.
  • Use the pressure of a hose to help remove slimy build-up.
  • A frequent scrubbing with a scrub brush helps keep the water clean.

    I am going to be paying attention to the bird bath this summer.  And I’ll be keeping it clean in order to entice more birds to come and entertain me.—April Moore

 

 


 

 

Namaste, Wood Thrush

May 24th, 2017
photo by Blaine Rothauser

photo by Blaine Rothauser

     Oh, wood thrush, how I love you.  

     To my ears, your song is the sweetest of all forest sounds.   Yet I almost never see you;  you hide yourself so well, deep among the leaves.  That gorgeous trilling music of yours is the only way I know you are near.  

     Although it is not yet June, you have already broken my heart–both with joy and with grief–this spring.  First, the joy of your arrival, when early on a morning in late April, I heard the clear, trilling notes of your song wafting through the open bathroom window.  ”You’re back!” I thought.  ”I’m so glad you’re here!” What pleasure to stand at that window, eyes closed, taking in the sweet song I had not heard since last summer.

     You weren’t the only wood thrush who had returned from the distant south, for later that very day I heard one of your relatives, musically trilling, as my  friend Leslie and I savored a rare opportunity to meet up and walk together along a forest trail.   Those pure, sweet notes added to the day’s pleasure.

     That day, when I knew the wood thrush was back, reminded of the time their forest music startled me and made me gasp.  It was January.  My husband and I were in Costa Rica, and I heard the wood thrush warbling in the dense tropical forest.  Oh yes, I suddenly realized.  Costa Rica is the ‘south’ where wood thrushes go when our temperate Virginia forest gets too chilly for them in the fall.

     And then there is the grief part of the story I mentioned.  I actually did see one of these elusive birds recently.  But the reason I could see it was a sad one;  it was dead.  I discovered the small spotted body about a foot outside the sliding glass door to our deck.  The little fellow must have been killed by flying into that  invisible yet unforgiving glass door, another casualty of our human desire to enjoy the view.

     The little bird must have died just a short time earlier because it lay so soft and pliant in my hand, not at all stiff.  I placed him gently on the ground, in the lee of a tree trunk.  And since I so seldom see a wood thrush, I took his picture.

photo

     If you would like to hear–and see–a wood thrush singing in the forest, you will find this YouTube video a treat.  Especially fascinating to me is the way the lower part of the beak vibrates up and down to make the trilling sounds.

     And so I say to every wood thrush I hear, in honor of the divine spark that animates it–and all of us– “namaste.”–April Moore

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stopped in My Tracks

April 22nd, 2017

IMG_1211 - Copy

     A few weeks ago, on one of my wanderings in the forest down the slope from our house, I saw a sight that stopped me in my tracks.  There, just inches above the ground were what looked for all the world like a pair of tiny breasts!  The two cream-colored globes, complete with perfectly placed, protruding nipples, seemed to have burst proudly from some gauzy-looking material.

     I stood and stared.  Then I noticed another one of these ‘breasts’ a few feet farther down the hill.  Then another and another, all within a small area.

     How could this be?  I have walked in this forest many, many times, in all seasons for 20 years, but have never seen anything like this!  Wouldn’t I have noticed?  Or could these ‘breasts’ have developed only this year, and not before?

     Of course I took pictures of them.  And since I had no idea what they could be, I sent a photo to my friend Chris, who knows far more about forest flora than I do.  She wrote me back, saying that they are likely ‘lattice puffballs,’ or, in Latin, colostoma lutescens.

     Now that I had a name to go on, I decided to do a little research. Chris was right.  These little ‘breasts’ are indeed a kind of puffball.  And puffballs are a type of fungus.  But unlike other forest fungi, such as mushrooms, whose spores are located on the outside of the fruiting body, puffballs’ spores are contained inside the fruiting body, in this case the little breast.

     When the spores inside this puffball mature, all that is needed is a little rain.  The drops exert sufficient pressure on the puffball to force the white powdery spores out through the ostiole, or what looks like the nipple.  Hence, the flecks of white powder I noticed here and there on the dead leaves surrounding the colostoma lutescens.  How I would love to be on hand sometime to see spores spewing from a puffball in the rain!

     I learned that these breast-like puffballs are mycorrizal, meaning they have a symbiotic relationship with plants.  In this case, the puffballs colonize the root system of the nearby oaks, increasing the trees’ absorption of water and nutrients.  The trees, in turn, provide the puffballs with carbohydrates the trees create during photosynthesis.

     A few days later, I went outside to see how the colostoma lutescens might have changed since I’d seen them.  Well, I could find no trace of them at all!  They had completely vanished.  I assumed they had completed their life cycle and dried up.  Still, I was surprised to see not even a hint of the previously fulsome little beings.  

     I wonder if I will ever see their like again!–April Moore 

 

Tiny Odes to Our Earth

March 18th, 2017

    I am greatly pleased to offer here several very short–and lovely– poems composed by my friend Fred Andrle.  

Hairpin Curve in the River Saar

the slow river
forks around the tiny island
forever

 

 

 

rain against window

thunder
slams against my window
spring obstreporous

 

 

dogs in park

new spring morning
park wide-greening
dog after dog after dog

 

 

too hot too cold

too hot, too cold
too damp, too dry
the seasons humanized

 

sun and fields

everywhere I go
mother sun
brethren fields

 

Fred is a poet, playwright, and journalist living in Columbus, Ohio. His most recent poetry collection is “What Counts,”  (XOXOX Press, Gambier, Ohio, 2012).  Fred’s poetry was featured in the anthology “Prayers to Protest: Poems that Center and Bless Us”  (Pudding House Press), and his poem “The Book”, was read by Garrison Keillor on his public radio series “The Writer’s Almanac.” 

Fred has received Ohio Public Broadcasting and Regional Emmy awards for his radio and television programs. He currently writes as an independent journalist. His opinion columns have appeared in newspapers nationwide.

 

Paradise for Birds and People

February 17th, 2017
photo by Andy Schmookler

photo by Andy Schmookler

 

Greetings from Israel!  My husband and I are exploring this fascinating and beautiful country.  Here is a short piece I wrote recently:

It is late afternoon now.  Andy and I just spent the last few hours glorying in the sights and sounds of thousands and thousands and thousands of cranes.  These graceful birds, with their long and very slender necks, made quite a scene in an agricultural field in the Hula Valley in the northern Galilee.

This field is part of a broad, green, marshy area called the Agamon HaHula. “A Paradise for Birds and People” reads the sign at the entrance, and that certainly is the case.

Clearly, the birds were in paradise.  As we stood watching, open-mouthed, thousands of cranes whirled around and around in the sky a few hundred meters from us.  And the object of this hubbub was a plain, simple-looking red tractor.  We watched it inch along a dirt road, stirring up thousands of squawking, flapping cranes as it went.  The giant mass of birds moved slowly along, continually mobbing the tractor.

And why do the cranes love this tractor so much?  It is the Corn Tractor.  As the Corn Tractor makes its regular rounds, it dispenses corn, which the birds love to eat.  The Corn Tractor feeds these birds well, dispensing 13,000-15,000 pounds of corn for them every day!  

Certainly the Agamon is a paradise for people too.  Smiling, excited tourists like us walked, biked, and drove golf carts around the 8.5 kilometer paved trail  that surrounds the fields, enjoying not only the cranes, but the many water fowl and small birds who are also attracted to the reserve.

Since the only moving object that evokes no fear in the cranes is the Corn Tractor, our LONELY PLANET book tells us, some clever person came up with a way to use a tractor to offer tourists a great way to watch the birds.  We saw several tractors pulling long trailers that were open on one side.  These trailers were filled with auditorium-style seating–three rows, with the back row highest and the front row lowest.  This mobile auditorium faced sideways.  The people riding in it  could get a close-up view of the cranes, who were not at all disturbed by their friend The Tractor rolling past.

The corn tractor is actually at the heart of what makes Agamon a grand and creative experiment.  In providing regular and abundant food for the cranes, the corn tractor is working hand in glove with the humans growing peanuts in the fields.  By devoting one field to the cranes and feeding them plenty of corn every day, the birds leave the nearby peanut fields alone.  The birds are happy, and so are the farmers.

This successful experiment, sponsored by the Jewish National Fund, represents an important restoration.  The Hula Valley was once a vast wetlands, far, far larger than it is today.  It was vital to the lives of millions of birds who migrate between Europe and Africa every year.  With the development of Israel as a nation in the 1950s, the Hula Valley wetlands were rapidly drained to make way for agriculture.

But the dramatic loss of wetland habitat proved devastating to the cranes and the many other birds who depended on the Hula Valley to provide nourishment and a safe resting place during migration.   In the late 1950s, conservationists sounded the alarm.  Efforts were launched to protect the remaining Hula Valley wetlands and the birds who depend on them.  And in 1964 Israel’s first national nature reserve was established, here in the Hula Valley.

This is a wonderful win-win-win story—for the birds, for agriculture, and for all of us who love birds.–April Moore

 

A January Swim for our Climate

January 16th, 2017
photo by Ira Shorr

photo by Ira Shorr

Everyone who knows me understands that I am passionate about climate change.  I truly believe it is the greatest crisis humanity has ever faced.  And we must deal with it for the sake of all we hold dear–our children and grandchildren, all the other species with whom we share our earth, even for the sake of civilization itself.

This month’s posting is different from what I normally post, in that I am asking  for your help.  In a few days I will dunk myself in the Mediterranean Sea at Tel Aviv, Israel!  And I will be doing so to raise needed funds for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN).

Every January, CCAN gathers dozens of crazy, committed climate activists at National Harbor, outside Washington, DC, for a plunge into the cold, cold Potomac River.   All of the ‘plungers’ raise money for CCAN’s climate change-fighting work by inviting friends and family to sponsor their plunge with a donation to CCAN.

I have participated in CCAN’s Polar Bear Plunge five times before and have been able to raise well over $10,000 to fund CCAN’s work throughout Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, DC.  

But this year my husband and I will be in Israel on the day of CCAN’s Plunge, so I assumed I would have to miss out.  And while I didn’t exactly mind missing a dip in numbingly cold water, I did mind foregoing a chance to raise money for the organization called by international climate leader Bill McKibben “the most effective regional climate action group in the world.

Then it occurred to me that I could still participate!  I’ll just jump into a different body of water on a different continent!  The CCAN staff is up for my participating at a distance, so I am planning to take my plunge into the–I hope–warmer waters of the Mediterranean.  

I can honestly think of no better way to address climate change than to raise money for CCAN.  With Trump poised to undo the progress we’ve made on climate at the federal level, many climate activists believe we must redouble our efforts at the state and regional levels.  I agree.

And even for people who do not live in the mid-Atlantic region, a donation to CCAN makes sense.  CCAN has helped expand renewable energy, has stood up to those who want to build fracked-gas pipelines, and has educated many, many people throughout the region.  Besides, given the global nature of climate change, effective action anywhere benefits all of us everywhere.

So.  I earnestly invite you to sponsor my upcoming march into the Mediterranean!  Please help make CCAN’s work even more effective.  If you  click on my fundraising page below, you can donate to CCAN, easily and quickly.

https://www.crowdrise.com/aprilmoore-CCANPolarPlunge2017/fundraiser/aprilmoore

And I promise to send photos from Israel to all who sponsor my plunge.  Thanks!–April Moore

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Tribute to Basho

December 28th, 2016

BashoMatsuo

One of my truly sweet memories from a mostly unhappy year of teaching fourth grade was when I taught my students about a Japanese poet who wrote beautifully about nature.

Basho, the seventeenth century master of haiku, is beloved in Japan still, more than 300 years after he lived.

I had long taken pleasure in Basho’s haikus, these 17-syllable slivers of nature, lovingly and creatively wrought.  But only when I found myself enchanted by the description of him in the fourth grade literature book did it occur to me to share him with my students.

Through tender story-telling and rich illustrations, the lit book portrayed Basho as a kind and gentle soul.  He deeply loved nature and took long sojourns, on foot, all over the Japanese countryside.  And in these woodland wanderings he found inspiration for his poems.

Although Basho did not invent haiku–the three-line poem with five syllables in the first line, seven in the second, and five in the third–it is fair to say that he popularized it.  And in addition to his many nature-themed haikus, Basho also wrote humorous ones, some gently poking fun at himself.

My students responded wonderfully to Basho!  They were fascinated by his peripatetic life, and they delighted in the immediacy of his tiny poems.  We read many of them and talked about how they made us feel, about the pictures they evoked in our minds.  And we had fun writing our own haikus.

I know that much of why I found sharing Basho with my students so rewarding is that I was giving them something I truly love.  And they received it in the same spirit.  Kids can readily tell when their teacher’s enthusiasm for a subject is real, when he or she is coming from the heart.

Recalling this experience from more than a decade ago made me decide to learn more about the nature-loving Basho.  So I was surprised, although I probably shouldn’t have been, to learn that the real Basho’s life was not as ideal as that portrayed in an elementary school literature book!

While Basho was famous and revered in his lifetime, he was often lonely and dissatisfied. A star in fashionable literary circles, he later renounced the social, urban, literary life to live instead as a recluse.  But the solitary life did not make him happy either.

It was after his little hut that some disciples had built for him burned down and his mother died, that Basho decided to take to the road.  This was considered a very dangerous act in medieval Japan.  Basho himself expected to die in the middle of nowhere or to be killed by bandits.

To the poet’s great surprise, the wandering life brightened his mood; his depression lifted.  Basho enjoyed his days spent walking, taking pleasure in the changing scenery and seasons.  His poems took on a less introspective tone, as he observed—and delighted in—the natural world around him.

But historians tell us that Basho never found lasting happiness.  He could never feel at peace with himself and was constantly in the throes of mental turmoil.  At one point, he wrote a friend, “ I am disturbed by others.  I have no peace of mind.”

I was surprised to learn of Basho’s deep discontent.  I wondered if his idealized wanderings were actually attempts to escape his inner torment.  Perhaps like me, and many others, he was able to lose himself in nature, there to live in the moment, not plagued by the worries and obsessions that plagued him at other times.

Here are a few of Basho’s poems.  (note that, in translation, haiku can lose its 5-7-5 structure)

About nature:

A cicada shell;
it sang itself utterly away.

An ancient pond…
a frog leaps in
the splash of water.

A little irreverent:

Bush warbler
shits on the rice cakes
on the porch rail.

A little self-deprecating:

Now then, let’s go out
To enjoy the snow. . . .until
I slip and fall.

Finally, I love this line from Basho’s final work, his masterpiece, THE NARROW ROAD TO THE INTERIOR.  “Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise.  Seek what they sought.”April Moore

 

 

 

 

 

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