Seascape by Stephen Spender


Seascape
In memoriam M.A.S

There are some days the happy ocean lies
Like an unfingered harp, below the land.
Afternoon gilds all the silent wires
Into a burning music for the eyes
On mirrors flashing between fine-strung fires
The shore, heaped up with roses, horses, spires
Wanders on water tall above ribbed sand.

The motionlessness of the hot sky tires
And a sigh, like a woman's from inland,
Brushes the instrument with shadowy hand
Drawing across those wires some gull's sharp cry
Or bell, or shout, from distant, hedged-in, shires;
These, deep as anchors, the hushing wave buries.

Then from the shore, two zig-zag butterflies
Like errant dog-roses cross the bright strand
Spiralling over waves in dizzy gyres
Until the fall in wet reflected skies.
They drown. Fishermen understand
Such wings sunk in such ritual sacrifice.

Remembering legends of undersea, drowned cities.
What voyagers, oh what heroes, flamed like pyres
With helmets plumed have set forth from some island
And them the seas engulfed. Their eyes
Distorted to the cruel waves desires,
Glitter with coins through the tide scarcely scanned,
While, far above, that harp assumes their sighs.
--Stephen Spender

Observing Trees

One fall an unexpected snowstorm weighted the trees with more snow than some could handle.  There were a lot of downed trees!  Happily, this meant a friend was able to get me these different wood rounds for observing in Natural History.  This was good for seeing the inner parts of the tree--the cambium is bright orange on that bottom white birch slice, while the top slice of red oak has heartwood tinged pink in comparison to the paler sapwood.  I had the students observe and try to guess what trees had yielded these.  They were using past observations and what they had read in Charles Fergus' Trees of New England.  Since these slices were fresh (less than a year old), the colors are still bright.  In time that yellow slice (pin cherry) will fade, as will the others.

Life Itself Is a Vocation from God



Preparing lectures for my upcoming class on the Social Teaching of Benedict XVI, I came across this stunning sentence from Verbum Domini. This class is going to be amazing; register at the Augustine Institute and enjoy five days exploring the world of Benedict XVI. This is not assigned reading, but I'm kind of coveting Benedict's autobiographical Last Testament: In His Own Words and wondering if it is as good or better than Milestones.

Outdoor Classroom

I once enjoyed the use of an outdoor classroom for Natural History (aka Science).  A path along the woods led to a clearing where a number of seats were arranged--yes, just the weathered stumps of some old trees with a diameter of 24" or more.  Nearby there was a statue of St. Francis and a bird feeder which drew titmice, nuthatches, finches, jays and chickadees (and squirrels, sigh).  The braver birds would come even when the students were gathered.  The students had to come on their own for observations, but I wish we had done more silent observation as a class.  This place was great; even if the birds didn't come, you could listen for their different calls.  Anybody could set this up who had a little copse nearby or even just a quiet outdoor space that could be made to feel separate with a hedge or fence. It just needs to feel slightly enclosed so the birds are brave enough to come and the students less easily distracted by passing cars, foot traffic, etc.

Over the summer we did not fill the bird-feeder.  Look how the woods attempted to take over!

French Camp

A friend of mine once ran a week long morning "French Camp" for the young girls in her area.  They learned new vocabulary every day and ate steak frites and cherry clafoutis.  They learned, memorized, sang, and performed french songs--with accents so good I was envious.  They asked me to come over and teach them how to embroider Sacred Heart Badges and tell them about the Vendee.  What a great idea! And how about an Italian Camp or Latin/Roman/Greek camp?  Or a Spanish camp?  It is so much fun for the children attending, and a very easy way to tell wonderful stories, try new dishes, teach a little history and language.  At a young age, learning vocabulary and the proper accent are so much easier--take advantage! The more they take pleasure in French or Latin, etc., the more likely they are to attempt these languages in depth.  That will serve them and others in countless ways.

Beloved, Let Us Once More Praise the Rain

Let us discover some new alphabet,
For this, the often praised; and be ourselves,
The rain, the chickweed, and the burdock leaf,
The green-white privet flower, the spotted stone,
And all that welcomes the rain; the sparrow too,—
Who watches with a hard eye from seclusion,
Beneath the elm-tree bough, till rain is done.
There is an oriole who, upside down,
Hangs at his nest, and flicks an orange wing,—
Under a tree as dead and still as lead;
There is a single leaf, in all this heaven
Of leaves, which rain has loosened from its twig:
The stem breaks, and it falls, but it is caught
Upon a sister leaf, and thus she hangs;
There is an acorn cup, beside a mushroom
Which catches three drops from the stooping cloud.
The timid bee goes back to the hive; the fly
Under the broad leaf of the hollyhock
Perpends stupid with cold; the raindark snail
Surveys the wet world from a watery stone...
And still the syllables of water whisper:
The wheel of cloud whirs slowly: while we wait
In the dark room; and in your heart I find
One silver raindrop,—on a hawthorn leaf,—
Orion in a cobweb, and the World.
--Conrad Aiken

May Watts teaches Tree Identification with Socratic Questions!

Planning some outdoor classes for this spring, maybe next fall? I cannot recommend too highly this series of books by May Watts.  The Tree Finder comes in a handy size, about 3"x5" with good pen and ink illustrations, and a series of careful questions to help you identify what you are looking at.  To read this book is to gain an education in noticing.  Watts asks:  Does this tree have alternate branching or opposite?  If alternate, turn to page . . . Does this tree have simple or compound leaves?  If simple, turn to page . . .  Are the leaves smooth or toothed? . . .  It is like a Socratic Choose-Your-Own-Adventure in botany. She asks the right questions and teaches you to ask the right questions.  These books are a pleasure to use.  Try also the Desert Tree Finder, the Flower Finder, and the Winter Tree Finder.

The Nature Study Guild also has others like the Winter Weed Finder and the Track Finder.

Magnanimity, Mistakes, and Improvisation

If we turn from self towards God, our understanding and our will become nobler and readier to embrace all that is good: if we never rise above the slough of our own miseries we do ourselves a great disservice. . . . buried in the wretchedness of our earthly nature these streams of ours will never disengage themselves from the slough of cowardice, pusillanimity and fear. We shall always be glancing around and saying: “Are people looking at me or not?” “If I take a certain path shall I come to any harm?” “Dare I begin such and such a task?” “Is it pride that is impelling me to do so?” “Can anyone as wretched as I engage in so lofty an exercise as prayer?” “Will people think better of me if I refrain from following the crowd?” “For extremes are not good,” they say, “even in virtue; and I am such a sinner that if I were to fail I should only have farther to fall; perhaps I shall make no progress and in that case I shall only be doing good people harm. (Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, I, Chapter 2, 19, trans. E. Allison Peers)
These words from Teresa of Avila set the stage for a talk I gave at Theology on Tap this February. Starting with these words from Teresa of Avila, I asked, "What's holding us back from that 'life to the full' Christ wants to give us?" Telling about the mercies of God in my own recent past, I made a pitch for trusting in God and not letting fear of the future, mistakes, or mixed motives hold you back.
 

Songs about Your Home

Everyone needs a song (or a few songs) about where they are from.  Here are mine, starting with "Back to Indiana" by the Elms . . .



Hoagy Carmichael's "Moon Country" is lovely. You can tell he talking about his home state (sycamores, possums, and he LIKES that stuff.  I mean, I do, too.)  While I like Eddie Condon's version best, here is a great version of "Back Home in Indiana" in a version with Kay Thompson (yes, the one who played that wonderful Miss Prescott, fashion guru in Funny Face with Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire).  The best song is The Samples' "I Remember the First Time I Drove Through Indiana."  Relish your own songs . . . sing them and love your home!

For Theater or Dance: Easy Starry Sky Backdrop

Once when staging Pedro Calderon de la Barca's Life is a Dream, I wanted to have a backdrop of stars, maybe even moving stars.  The plot of this play turns heavily on the king's fascination with astrology, and many speeches refer to the stars and the sky.  Have you ever priced a real starry sky theater backdrop?  Yikes.  Real ones, while spectacular, can run in the thousands.  But do you have a projector?  These can run from $300 to more than $2000.  If you don't have access to one, then you are still stuck.  But if you do, then try projecting a free planetarium via Stellarium onto a backdrop of white sheets.  When the stage lights were on, the stars were almost invisible.  Turn the lights off, and the entire room was plunged into a starry night.  We set Stellarium to simulate the passing of time, so the night sky shifted in the background during the play, not enough to be distracting, just enough to give a sense of what the play tries to capture--time is running out, we will all one day awake from this dream!  You can see the drawback, which is that the stars will be cast on anything before them.  The projector cast stars on the actors, on the backs of the heads in the audience.  And the audience members cast silhouettes on the stars.  I personally think this was cool.

Later, we hosted a waltz/swing dance and projected the stars again.  What a magical effect and very little setup!

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