Programmed courtesy

This incident happened, not coincidentally, in the middle of my last hitchhiking trip. There were two more incidents this same trip, each as potentially harmful as this one, so the handwriting was clearly on the wall. And I proved to be quite literate in deciphering the message.

 

He wore this jacket:

black leather with half sleeves,

studded with metal.

 

One hundred twenty

pounds if he’d been soaking wet.

When I walked past him

 

and 30 buddies

— Hell’s Angels with Harley hogs —

he spoke to me.

 

Programmed courtesy

prompted me to say “Howdy,”

while walking briskly

 

through this little knot

beside Interstate 35

in Central Texas.

 

Once I got past him

I realized what he said:

It rhymed with “truck too,”

 

and I thanked God

my mama had raised me right,

taught me my manners.

 

 

 

 

 

“My Creek! My Hills!” (with emphatic emotion, a la Shakespeare’s “Mid-Summer Night’s Dream”)

One poor woman who recklessly referred to the creek as a ditch got the full brunt of my anger at her presumptuous, careless reference. It’s not that I prefer nature and wildlife to people, but failing to acknowledge the value of our natural surroundings, well, that’s just insufferable.

 

I’ve gotten defensive

about the shallow stream

that flows behind

the place where I work.

 

So now every time

someone casually

(or derisively)

refers to it as a ditch,

I inform them

— more or less heatedly,

depending on my mood —

that the ditch is a creek,

that it was here before us and

shaped the low hills

that surround us.

 

Most respond with stunned silence,

and my mini-sermons

are of no purpose, I suppose.

 

But somehow, it makes

me feel I’ve taken on the role

of gamekeeper or naturalist

for these scant few acres

where our building sits,

backed up to this creek,

nestled between

limestone hills

that nurture

fiery fields of

Texas wildflowers

each spring.

 

Land on which

I’ve seen possums, skunks, cottontails,

jackrabbits, raccoons, field mice,

owls, titmice, slate-gray juncos,

skunks, red-tailed hawks,

prairie falcons, and coyotes,

working these rolling hills

that drain into this creek

that’s home to crawdads,

bullfrogs, perch,

and great blue herons.

 

This creek is mine,

and with these words,

I stake my squatter’s claim.

 

 

My Lady of the Ozarks in the flesh

Truly Jesus walks with the poor, and this dear woman was as poor as they come. More than 40 years later I still remember her beatific presence, her warm smile, her peaceful countenance. None of that could be explained in human terms. Nothing in her life could explain it. Only the presence of God in her heart in a special way.

 

She was poor, holy,

My Lady of the Ozarks.

She’d been married to

 

an alcoholic

for at least 20 long years.

But there was no sign

 

of excessive wear.

She bore no lined countenance,

in fact no wrinkles

 

desecrated her

beautiful, smooth-skinned face.

A true hill person.

 

I’ve become certain,

looking back across the years,

one explanation

 

alone can explain

the glow that lit her bright face

each day she performed

 

her chores within

the walls of her small frame house

set back in the hills

 

with its newsprint

wallpapered walls, its cookstove

burning wood he cut,

 

gathering berries

as each came into season,

tending her garden.

 

Only her focus

on love from the living God,

only focus on

 

a God who loved and

walked alongside her each day

could explain her glow.

 

Ozark hill woman.

My Lady of the Ozarks.

Jesus her companion.

 

 

And the clown hands you a flower

There’s always a point at which the only sensible thing to do is to send in the clowns. But you begin to worry that it might be you with the seltzer bottle.

 

My old red Camry

only draws a crowd one place

— my car repair shop.

 

The odometer

is well into its second

time through the numbers.

 

So when I fetched it

after a big repair job

— a new compressor

 

so the AC worked,

a new window crank handle,

and bending the frame

 

of the driver’s door

so the window would seal tight —

at a time dealers

 

weren’t charging interest,

practically begging people

to take their new cars,

 

everyone came out

— the mechanics, their helpers,

everybody

 

who works at the place

had to see what kind of guy

fixes an old car,

 

keeps it on the road

at a time when brand new cars

are practically free.

 

I could read their smiles.

They were all quite transparent.

If I’d only had

 

a seltzer bottle,

a big bright orange fright wig,

enormous black shoes,

 

then the picture

would have been complete

— the clown and his crowd.

*******

But please keep in mind

this is the same small garage

where I brought a woman

 

with bad car problems,

a lady in a wheelchair.

They fixed her car.

 

She had brought the part,

and they installed it for free,

not letting me pay,

 

though I offered to.

I’ve never experienced

generosity

 

offered to strangers,

unsolicited giving,

from an auto shop.

 

No clowning around,

just guys who work with their hands

and offer their hearts.

 

 

Front porch life

We had just experienced what we didn’t know at the time, was one of the last chances for three generations of my wife’s dad’s extended family to gather for a holiday meal. The memories of our daughter, Amy, and her cousins playing with Barbie and Ken and a house and pool to scale were fresh in my head. Little in life tops such family gatherings and the warmth of shared food, long-remembered conversations, and children’s play.

 

Gunmetal gray planks

floor the porches of houses

of a certain age.

 

My wife’s grandmother’s;

her aunt and uncle’s big house

in Meridian.

 

These sheltered porches

supported much visiting

and small children’s play,

 

gray not limiting

their rich imaginations.

These were battlefields;

 

dusty Western streets

where kids’ silver six guns blazed,

cattle stampeded.

 

This is where cousins

played with dolls while their elders

watched through lace curtains

 

remembering, longing

for the lost innocence

of front porch childhoods.

 

 

Starlings on the road to Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge

I’ve not come across a term for this multi-faceted approach to describing a sight in multiple haikus,  but I call them haiku strings. If you come away thinking it must have been a dramatic sight, you’ve got the idea. It was a big tree, and there were hundreds of starlings, not one out of place — and it was six days before Christmas.

 

Tree beside the road

decked with widely spaced starlings

like a Christmas tree.

*******

Starlings on branches

so evenly spaced they seem

to have been hung there.

*******

Roadside Christmas tree

hung with globes of black starlings,

sparse decorations.

*******

These starlings placed here

by a decorator’s hand

have been spaced just so.

*******

When the starlings lit,

strewn among these tree branches,

they each hit their mark.

*******

Orderly starlings

must have touched others’ wing tips

as they filled this tree.

*******

Fussy old starlings

thought they’d decorate this tree,

making selves globes.

*******

These artful old birds

have decorated the tree

with feathered black balls.

*******

Ornaments well spaced,

starlings dot the roadside tree

decked out for Christmas.

 

 

 

Blue and snow geese and grasshoppers

Parts of Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge on Lake Texoma have working oil wells with grasshopper pumps drawing fuel from the earth. A network of limestone roads leading to wells near the shore of the lake crisscrosses this area providing ponds and pools lined with cattails and reeds. All this makes an ideal habitat for geese, ducks, and other migratory water birds attracted by hundreds of acres of planted grains a half mile away on the refuge.

 

Three thousand snow geese

ranging from gray to all white,

gathered in a pond,

 

squawking and raucous,

a muted, persistent sound,

rising and falling

 

as these rafts of geese

find sustenance upside down

raking the bottom

 

of this near shore marsh

created by oilfield roads,

drilling rig access

 

integrated with

national wildlife refuge

on Lake Texoma,

 

a contradiction

I’ve learned to take for granted,

one that seems to work.

 

Geese don’t seem to know

grasshopper pumps and wildlife

aren’t go-togethers.

 

 

A December afternoon’s catch

Sunday’s walk on the Trinity River brought me a view of three pair of hooded mergansers, just at sunset. When the males raise their crowns, a white stripe running from the front to the back near the tops of their heads becomes a fan of white feathers. The females have swept back crowns of brown-gold feathers that have the look of an empress’s coiffure. Apparently three royal families were present on the Trinity.

Five kinds of ducks,

three dozen seagulls,

and a lone kingfisher

chattering in his straight,

but lilting flight.

 

Each rush of swift wings

followed by a gentle

drop

before the next staccato

burst of feathers

and voice.

 

A lone great blue heron,

its twin-curved wings

mirrored in the

calm surface of

the river

as it flies,

suspended above

the water at

the same consistent height,

as though the occasional

sweep of those

great wings was

not really necessary,

so effortless

his

glide.

 

Rocky Mountain valley in the dead of night

Dan and I had done a day trip from Denver to Rocky Mountain National Park. After a day of viewing mountain peaks, driving through 14-foot walls of snow banking the park road, and viewing wildlife, we had headed back along the twisting road that connects the park to I-75.

 

Pushing along

a narrow highway,

threading its way

down the course of

a valley

in the Rocky Mountain

foothills.

 

Crossing and re-crossing

the slender river

that formed

the valley,

my friend and I

talked of a thousand things

long since forgotten,

both of us aware

the valley was a

place of beauty

that would take

our breaths away,

if we were traveling

in daylight.

 

Both of us content to

talk of the day’s

hiking among elk

and hummingbirds,

viewing a hundred-yard

long beaver dam,

avoiding  getting caught

by a snowstorm

the other side

of the Continental

Divide.

 

And glad that the

weaving of the headlights

over bridges and past

villages would

knit us a path

back to Denver

and a night’s rest

before heading home.

 

 

Frenzied shorebird flight

Late each spring, horseshoe crabs gather by the thousands to lay their eggs where the Delaware River empties into Delaware Bay. Then tens of thousands of shorebirds gather to harvest their eggs, so they can continue their amazingly long flights to the Arctic where they will nest. It’s an avian circus like nothing I’ve ever seen.

 

Horseshoe crab bodies

scattered along the river,

spread across the sand,

 

drawing the thousands

of skittering, diving shorebirds

lusting for crabs’ eggs,

 

a grand assembly

of bright birds in migration,

chattering and crying,

 

gliding and cycling

through, one species following

the other by turns,

 

ruddy turnstones and

red knots, normally seen

in their ones and twos

 

now flocked by hundreds

while I lay on my right side

on the submerged deck

 

of a sand-buried

sailing sloop of 40 feet,

trying to blend in.

 

But these writhing flights

of birds bound for the Arctic,

so famished, starving

 

for the calories

to fuel their flight furnaces

ignore me much more

 

than they would if not

gripped by this frenzy,

this hunger for eggs.