Considering Anna Atkins and the Brown Algae of Britain

This post is a response to an April Poetry Month challenge issued by Mary Lee Hahn at her blog, Poetrepository. She found some family photos this summer at her home place and thought it would be fun to write poems about them this month. Carol Wilcox (Carol’s Corner) and Kevin Hodgson, (Kevin’s Meandering Mind) are writing some awesome poetry this month (as always) along with Mary Lee.

nypl.digitalcollections.510d47d9-4b47-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.v (1)
Public Domain via the New York Public Library

 

Considering Anna Atkins and the Brown Algae of Britain

Who will remember all of
the small things, the odd little things?
I imagine you crawling
over a slippery beach at low tide
collecting your specimens,
ripping dripping samples of seaweed –
the brown algae of Great Britain –
from the rocks. Even before Darwin,
you were a searcher,
one who saw pattern
in a world of difference,
change hidden beneath
the relentless waves.

No one walks through
mud anymore. None
collect things – the variety
of the finches’ beaks; the sex life
of barnacles – these
are beneath our notice. Worms.
Who slogs through the fecund swamps
of the Malay Archipelago
to bring home beetles? Who
climbs the Andes,
or scuffs among the tundra plants,
swatting at mosquitoes? Or listens
for the seabirds lost
to the fog of the Pribilof Islands?

When did this change? Was
it gradual, this forgetting how to see,
did we lose it slowly
like the light leaves
the sky at the end
of the day, when suddenly,
we look up from our work
and notice the darkness
surrounds us.

– Steve Peterson

167.tif
Public Domain via the New York Public Library

 


I’m using images from the New York Public Library’s digital collection, in this case, a set of photos from the digital collection of Anna Atkins’ book, Photographs of British Algae. You can read more about her here. I was intrigued that she was an early believer in evolution, albeit of the Lamarckian kind.

I write this on Earth Day, a day I usually do not celebrate since, as my partner says, “everyday needs to be Earth Day.” This poem is probably more harsh than I really believe, although, these days, it is easy for a person to despair. Recently, I read about how some are thinking that this newest “epoch” should be called the “Anthropocene“, since we humans have made quite a mess of things.

Glimpse

This post is a response to an April Poetry Month challenge issued by Mary Lee Hahn at her blog, Poetrepository. She found some family photos this summer at her home place and thought it would be fun to write poems about them this month. Carol Wilcox (Carol’s Corner) and Kevin Hodgson, (Kevin’s Meandering Mind) are writing some awesome poetry this month (as always) along with Mary Lee.

 

nypl.digitalcollections.0e42ce50-00af-0133-b934-58d385a7bbd0.001.v

 

Glimpse

Do you ever
catch sight of yourself
in a photo, say, one
from long ago
that you never could have
been in? You get a glimpse
of a life you never
got to live. So it was
you were flipping through some photos and,
like when the hall mirror
captures your image momentarily,
there you are. You’re not
the one in the background
jumping up to be noticed,
or the one striding
to meet the camera,
broad, confident smile on his face.

No, you’re the one standing,
head slightly tilted, curious,
apart from the others,
on the edge of the gathering noise.
You’re the absent one,
fondling a stone,
the one you picked up
alongside the road because
the sun lit up its mossy green streaks
and the black was deep
and mysterious.
You delight
in the smooth, cool
weight in your hand.

– Steve Peterson

 

Notes


I’m using images from the New York Public Library’s digital collection, in this case, another photo taken by Ben Shahn.1 Click on the image and you can learn more about where and when it was taken.

It has been fun to look through these old photos. When I came across this photo of kids loading onto the school bus in a small town in West Virginia in 1935, I did a double take. The expression on the face of the boy in the foreground is like so many on my face in photos from my past. I began to imagine a connection across the years.

  1. I talked more about his work in the an earlier post.

Past Time

This post is a response to an April Poetry Month challenge issued by Mary Lee Hahn at her blog, Poetrepository. She found some family photos this summer at her home place and thought it would be fun to write poems about them this month. Carol Wilcox (Carol’s Corner) and Kevin Hodgson, (Kevin’s Meandering Mind) are writing some awesome poetry this month (as always) along with Mary Lee.

Public Domain via the New York Public Library
Public Domain via the New York Public Library

Past Time

After the corn failed
he finally gave up the farm
and moved to town having known
for a while that it was long past time
to go work alongside the others
in the factory that banged out
nails for the coffin maker
on the edge of town.

After the whistle blew,
they’d head for the bar
and remember those hard days,
how after they’d cultivated the field
all day under that hot June sun
they’d still have to milk the cows
by the light of the kerosene lamp.

This bar’s better’n that, they’d say,
and then a silence grew as,
heads turned down, they’d watch
memories float and burst
like foam on the beer in front of them,
knowing that soon it would
be past time for them to leave again.

– Steve Peterson

 

Notes


I’m using images from the New York Public Library’s digital collection, in this case, another photo taken by Ben Shahn.1 Click on the image and you can learn more about where and when it was taken.

As far as the theme? I think I’m working out some of the ways that the rural landscape has changed, my own particular family’s experience with that, and what all that history means for the people who live here. While my grandfather would only rarely be seen in a bar, I do know from family stories of the hardscrabble life so many farmers faced during the Great Depression and, really, through most of the 20th century. The story of the constraints of that farm life and the factory alternative (when there actually were factories to work at!) are pretty deep in the rural Midwest. I guess I’m trying to work out what this all means given the agrarian mythology that you’ll often hear.

PS. There really was a coffin maker on the edge of a town I lived in at one time in my life. And I once did work in a factory that made nails. I spent lunch talking to the men and women that worked there. In the 1970s when I joined them in the factory, many were from the farm at one time, or had relatives struggling through the ’70s on the farm.

  1. I talked more about his work in the an earlier post.

Pa

 

Public Domain via New York Public Library
Public Domain via New York Public Library

Pa

There were times I didn’t really like him.
Heck. I hated him sometimes. The chores.
Hot days in the sun pitching loads of hay.
Cold winter mornings in the barn with the cows.

But there were some days I recall, now
that he’s gone, some days when the sun hung low,
and the hay lay mowed and stacked,
sweet green in the late afternoon sun,
on those days we leaned up against the wheel of
the empty wagon, shoulders practically touching.

We listened to the meadowlarks
trill from the fence posts.
Yup.
Maybe these times are all the water a guy needs
to put down roots and
grow into the rest of his life. Maybe
he don’t need no more.

— Steve Peterson

 


Notes

This post is a response to an April Poetry Month challenge issued by Mary Lee Hahn at her blog, Poetrepository. She found some family photos this summer at her home place and thought it would be fun to write poems about them this month.

Here’s another photo from the New York Public Library’s digital collection. Another photo taken by Ben Shahn.1 Click on the image and you can learn more about where and when it was taken.

I was struck by the two younger men and the older man partly done with the chores; I say partly done because in the background you can see that there is still some mowing left to do. I began to imagine them as family members and what emerged was a poem about the inevitable conflicts that fathers and sons sometimes feel as they work together, but how much gets passed down despite these conflicts. I tried to write in the voice I imagined for the younger man on the right, at a later time in his life.

 

 

  1. I talked more about his work in the last post.

When the threshing crew arrived

Public Domain via New York Public Library
Public Domain via New York Public Library

When the threshing crew arrived

she’d add in some leaves,
then cover the table
with a stiff white cloth,
dust off the plated silver
and the serving bowls
which she’d heap full
of mashed potatoes,
boats full of gravy.

They’d spoon sugar
into tiny coffee cups
held by rough hands,
scrubbed red but stained
with grease from tinkering
with the power train belt
that broke in the field.

She cut the cake while
they ate in silence –
this gathering of men
bound by blood and common need
and by the desire for
just one more slice
of that lemon cake before I go,
if it wouldn’t be too much trouble.

– Steve Peterson


Notes

This post is a response to an April Poetry Month challenge issued by Mary Lee Hahn at her blog, Poetrepository. She found some family photos this summer at her home place and thought it would be fun to write poems about them this month.

The photo above is one of several I will use from a fantastic collection of historic photos in the New York Public Library digital collections. This is from the Farm Security Administration and was taken by Ben Shahn in 1938 in central Ohio. I discovered a lot of photos taken by Shahn, a favorite artist of mine, in the collection.

This photo struck me because I grew up with many stories about the threshing crew’s visits to my dad’s farm in north central Minnesota during the late ’30 and 40’s. If I remember right, the relatives and neighbors had various pieces of equipment that they would cobble together for the harvest season. Then they’d go around from place to place helping each other “bring in the sheaves.” At dinner time, they’d sit around the table, usually decked out all fancy and filled with food, then eat in silence: men in rough clothes straight from the field, grandmother’s labors greatly appreciated. (She cooked all that stuff in a wood burning oven. No electricity at the home place until the early 1950s!)

One year, my father gave me the dining room table from the home place as a present. It’s a distinctly un-fancy red oak oval pedestal table. There are nicks and scratches on the legs and table top. Some of the leaves are made of poorer quality wood that contains worm holes, for instance, but it extends out very far and holds a lot of history, in a Swedish wabi-sabi sort of way. The table was a wedding present for my grandparents in 1920; it was already used by the time they were given it by some long-forgotten relatives. For a time it disappeared and no one really remembered it until Dad found it languishing in the basement of a relative several years ago. He stripped the ubiquitous green paint off it and repaired and refinished it. When I sit down to eat, I often think of the threshing crew that once gathered around that table.

One Brilliant Day

Via the Vesterheim Museum, Decorah, IA
Via the Vesterheim Museum, Decorah, IA

One Brilliant Day

A stolid Lutheran, in the photo she was
strapped into those boxy black shoes,
practical armor for the day ahead,
and for most of her life, until she began
to see things that others could not,
Anna leaned into her life, every day, as
she leaned into that well pump handle.

There was Anton, shot up as he waded ashore at Tarawa,
the gathering of uniforms, the knock at the door;
and the sale of the horses after the bank foreclosed,
the neighbors gathered in the barnyard, the move to town;
the slow loss of Emil’s mind as his heart gave out.

But now, as the shutter snapped,
on one brilliant day in March,
she was there, once again,
at the well pump. Capable hands
grasped the cool handle as she leaned in
to draw from the depths
her daily ration of the living water.

– Steve Peterson

Notes

This post is a response to a challenge issued by Mary Lee Hahn at her blog, Poetrepository. She found some family photos this summer at her home place and thought it would be fun to write poems about them in April.

Since I don’t have a flock of family photos handy right now, I’m using historical photos from various places. I spent the last several weeks exploring and finding a group of photos to think and write about.

The photograph in this post comes from the Vesterheim Museum, our local Norwegian-American museum. At school we’ve worked with them (they are excellent!) on some immigration and history projects. This photo comes from some of that work.

I have no direct connection to the person in this photo, although it could easily have been my grandmother on my father’s side of the family. Through the 1950s she lived on the farmstead, a hardscrabble farm in north central Minnesota. During all the time they lived there, they hand-pumped water from a well, kept animals of many types, raised some row crops as well as oats and hay for the horses. They barely got by. When grandfather died, grandma sold the animals, tools, and machinery and moved from the farm.

The events in the poem are not from my family’s story. As the son of a teacher and a Lutheran preacher in small town Illinois, I spent a lot of time during my youth in church basements talking to people. I got a real appreciation for the lives of those who lived in the rural midwest.