Forest Fire Haiku

Canada forest fires sent smoke south into Washington state

When Canada burns,
smoke paints the sky with color.
But we’re all coughing.


REPORT: More than a dozen wildfires burning across British Columbia have produced enough smoke to cover much of Western Washington, delaying flights into Sea-Tac and creating a white haze hanging in the sky.

Midsummer Haiku, Again


Midsummer sunset over the Olympics

The pasture is brown,
and snow has left the mountains.
But the sky. The sky!


NOTES:  Late summer signs are coming early to the Pacific Northwest this year.  This past winter we broke a 122 year record for rainfall in Seattle.  We got 44.67 inches of rain from October through April.  Which was the wettest such stretch since record-keeping began in 1895. (We rack up almost 9 inches in February alone.)

So, of course, we’re now working on a rainless record.   Nothing since June 17.

But not to worry.  This is the Pacific Northwest.  No matter how dry it gets this summer, we know that the rains will return in the fall and remain with us for what seems like forever.  So we can relax and appreciate the beauty around us.

Haiku Haiku

The haiku master
explicated his own work.
So I could do worse.


NOTES:  You could get the idea in sophisticated poetry circles, that it’s low-rent to indulge in writing poetry about yourself or discussing your own work.

You can almost hear a schoolmarmish voice laying out the ground rules.

“Best to write about concept and ideas, and always with an ironic detachment lest you should be accused of wallowing in sentimentality.

“Do not indulge in personal poetry. And, whatever you do, be sure to let the poem speak for itself. Don’t commit the sin of talking about your work or trying to explain what it means. The work is what it is, and it means what it means to the reader.”

Well, I say hogwash to all that.

And my first expert witness is none other than Matsuo Basho, the 17th century haiku master.

Like every fan of haiku, I had read Basho’s poems, but I couldn’t say that I had really gotten to know Basho until I stumbled across his travel diaries.

If I have some free time on a weekend, one of my favorite pastimes is to duck into our local used bookstore to see what new poetry books have trickled in. A couple of weeks ago, I spotted “The Essential Basho” translated by Sam Hamill.

After thumbing through a few pages, I knew I had to have it.

What I learned was that Basho made several walking journeys around Japan in the 1600s. Often accompanied by a student, he walked from town to town seeking out shrines and temples, natural landmarks, and other artistic souls along the way.

And as he went he not only wrote haiku, but he kept a journal. He would explain where he was and what he was seeing as he wrote his poetry.

Sometimes he would quote an ancient poem written about the same view he was seeing.  Sometimes he would write his own poem.  But sometimes he would humbly decline to add anymore.

Basho hired a boat at a town called Yoshizaki so he could sail out to see the famous pine trees at Shiogoshi.  He was well aware of the poem written some 500 years before by Saigyo.

All the long night
salt-winds drive
storm-tossed waves
and moonlight drips
through Shiogoshi pines.

Basho declined to write a poem of his own.

“This one poem says enough,” Basho wrote. “To add another would be like adding a sixth finger to a hand.”

But, when he does write his own poems, Basho often provides the setting to give the reader enough context to better understand the meaning.

For example, when he writes this haiku, it is possible to get a feel for what is going on from just the text itself:

If’ I’d walked Walking-
stick Pass, I’d not have fallen
from my horse.

But it means much more when you read Basho’s explanation.

“They say the ancient poet Sogi nearly starved to death in the high village of Hinaga,” Basho wrote. “I hired a horse to help me over Walking-stick Pass. Unfamiliar with horses and tack, both saddle and rider took a tumble.”

In other cases, without the poet’s explanation, you won’t really understand the poem at all.

On the second day,
I’ll rise early to welcome
the oncoming spring.

On the surface, this seems like a sentimental, but shallow little seasonal poem.  But when you read Basho’s context, it becomes a much more interesting and humorous glimpse into his soul.

“Reluctant to see the year-end,” Basho wrote, “I drank until well past midnight on New Year’s Eve, only to sleep through the morning on New Year’s Day.”

It turns out Basho missed the first morning of the new year because he was hung-over.

If he had been alive today, I’m pretty sure Basho would have been a blogger. I’m happy he left behind his journals to help us understand his work.

With such an illustrious example as his, I resolve to be less sheepish about providing commentary on my own poetry.

Father haiku

Dad's last bottle of Old Spice

Amidst the clutter,
Dad’s last bottle of Old Spice.
I’ll wear some today.


NOTES:  One of the most precious mementos I found as we prepared my parents’ home to be sold a couple of years ago was a bottle of my father’s after shave lotion tucked away in a bathroom cabinet.  He must have purchased this particular bottle just before he went into the nursing home because it was still nearly full.

Dad had been an Old Spice man as far back as I could remember, and the rich fragrance stirred up a host of memories.  You see, this last bottle dates back to the 1980s and it smells completely different from today’s weak sauce sold under the Old Spice brand.

Proctor & Gamble bought the Shulton company in 1990 and started changing things.  I noticed that the glass bottles gave way to plastic.  The grey stopper changed to red.  But worst of all, the new owners messed with the formula of the lotion itself.

When I found that old bottle of my Dad’s and took my first whiff, I was shocked at how much stronger and complex it was compared to the modern recipe.

I hadn’t smelled that classic fragrance for decades, and there is something powerful about the olfactory sense that connects us with the past.

Dad had taught me how to shave lathering up his Old Spice shaving mug and soap and brush.  I scratched off my thickening peach fuzz using his heavy-duty razor, the kind that took the old style disposable blades.

Of course, I nicked myself and he had to show me how to staunch the bleeding with an alum stick.  Thank goodness he didn’t use a straight razor.  I probably would have bled to death.

Dad taught me how to change oil and change a tire.  And though he was a master mechanic, he never was able to get me beyond the most basic level of automobile repair.  My fault, not his.

Dad taught me more important things, as well.  Things like keeping your word and doing an honest day’s work.  Things like owning up to your mistakes and saying you’re sorry.

Although the Great Depression short-circuited his education and forced him to drop out of high school to earn a living, he never stopped learning.  He left behind a robust collection of books including the writings of ancient historians and early church fathers.

He took his faith seriously, and didn’t make it too complicated.  The most worn of all his books was his Bible.  It was literally falling apart from use, held together with duct tape.

Of course, as a teenager, I was much too smart to go for my father’s myths and legends.  It was only after pursuing my own path and hitting some rough dead ends that I wound up pretty much where he had been all along.

It was amazing how much wiser the Old Man seemed to me when I was 28 than he did when I was 18.

He taught me perseverance in hard times.  When his one foray into business failed when I was in grade school, he swallowed his pride, got up the next day and went to work for someone else to support his family.

When my brother Bill died in a scuba-diving accident leaving a wife and 3 young kids, my Dad flew halfway across the country to handle matters.  In the midst of what must have been his own inconceivable grief, brought that little family back with him and took care of them until they could get back on their feet.

The most poignant lesson Dad taught me was about faithfulness as demonstrated by how he treated my Mother.  Theirs was not fairytale romance.  When they got married in the depths of the Great Depression, Dad was working on a farm crew for a dollar a day.  He had to talk his boss into giving him Saturday off so he could have the whole weekend for a honeymoon.

They started out dirt poor, and only very gradually worked their way into what might be called the lower middle class.  It was a great day when we moved to town and got central heat and indoor plumbing!

But, to me, theirs was a great love story.   Dad always treated Mom with affection and respect.  There was never any question about his loyalty to her.  And, when Mom eventually began her long slide into dementia, Dad cared for her personally.  And when she finally had to enter a nursing home, he visited her every day and spoon fed her lunch.

So, a couple of times a year, I pull out that grey stopper from Dad’s last bottle of Old Spice and splash some on my face in his honor.  All day long I catch whiffs of bay leaf and clove and cinnamon, and I’m reminded of what it means to be a good man.

 

Spring haiku

Sparrow in the woods
Photo courtesy of John Marquand

When the sparrow sings
deep in the woods all alone,
is it still lovely?


NOTES:  My old friend and schoolmate, John Marquand is a bird whisperer.  He rises early in his Colorado home and gets out when the light is good to stalk and take amazing photos of birds.

John shoots other beautiful photos as well, but he’s got a thing for birds.  They seem to pose for him.  He shares a lot of his photos on his Facebook page.  If he ever puts out a nature calendar, I’d buy one.

Hometown haiku

 

Minuteman missile silo, Saline County, Missouri
Photo courtesy of Susumu Wakana

Just miles south of town
missiles waited in silos,
hell in a cornfield.


NOTES:  In the early 1960s, we began hearing talk of the government planning to put missiles in underground silos in our part of the country.  Sure enough, Minuteman sites began to appear in fields across west-central Missouri.

The silos weren’t advertised, but they were not hidden either.  There was one clearly visible from the main highway south of town.  Many others were scattered about the surrounding countryside, both in our Saline County and in neighboring counties.

The Minutemen were intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads.  They burned solid fuel, which allowed for much faster launches than the older, liquid-fuel missiles.

The idea was deterrence.  Our missiles were able to target Soviet cities, which would discourage them from initiating an attack on the United States. They had missiles pointing at us.  We hoped nobody blinked.

It was vaguely unsettling to know that we had nuclear missiles located so close.  But, I was just a grade school kid, and didn’t think too much about such things.

A few years later, when I was in high school, talk started about upping the ante and locating anti-ballistic missiles (ABMs) nearby.  These were defensive weapons, designed to shoot down incoming ICBMs from the other side.

I read a couple of articles, believed myself to be an expert, and declared my opposition to the ABMs.  If I remember correctly, the nationwide high school debate topic was about the ABM issue.

I really didn’t know what I was talking about.  My big argument was that having ABMs located close to our homes would make us a primary target.  I remember having no real answer when a classmate’s big brother, who attended the Naval Academy, pointed out that we were already targets because of the Minuteman missile installations. Having ABMs nearby, he said, would at least give us a chance to shoot down the Russian missiles headed for us.

The Minuteman missiles stood on guard until 1991, when then President George H.W. Bush ordered them off alert status.  Under the terms of the START I treaty, the missiles were removed and the silos destroyed a few years later.

In hindsight, the Minutemen seemed to have done their job.  The Russians never attacked.   The inherent weakness of the Soviet Communist system gradually became more and more evident as their economy crumbled.

In 1989, Mr. Gorbachev did indeed “tear down this wall,” as Ronald Reagan demanded.  Or at least the Soviet leader allowed East Germans to tear down the Berlin Wall themselves.  And then we saw the Soviet empire collapse.

China essentially gave up on Communism around the same time, when its leaders realized that if  they wanted to make money, they had to harness the power of markets.

Today we see Venezuela teetering on chaos as its experiment with socialism goes up in smoke.  Cuba still soldiers on under the heel of the second-string Castro, yearning for the day when real freedom returns.

Of course North Korea continues to keeps the flame alive for all those who dream of establishing a world-wide Worker’s Paradise. It’s our best example of what happens when Communism reaches full flower.

It seems fitting on May Day to pause and think on these things.