Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Lightning and Ashes

When I started doing this blog, I never intended it to be just about the swamp fires. I wanted to have a place to talk about a lot of things, including my writing.

I've gotten side tracked some.

In fact, I saw Mary Biddinger's blog about her book Prairie Fever, and I thought, "I should do a blog on Lightning and Ashes!" So I started a blog on my new book.

But now I'm starting to think I should be talking about it here too. So I will.

For my Lightning and Ashes blog, I wrote a piece called "How I came to Write It."

Here's the beginning of that article along with a link to the other site:

I started working on the poems for Lightning and Ashes after my father died in 1997.

Before he died, I thought I was finished with writing about him and my mom. I had started writing about them in 1979, and now I had written about all the poems I thought I was going to write about them and their experiences in the Nazi slave labor camps. I had written about how he and my mother were taken separately from their homes in Poland, about what their experiences in Germany were like, and about what life was like when my parents and my sister and I came to America.

I felt I had said all I had to say about that part of my parents' life and what it meant to me. After he died, I gathered all of these poems together and started thinking about publishing them in a chapbook, Language of Mules.


That's the beginning of the piece on Lightning and Ashes. Here's the link to the rest:

Smoking Swamps, Part 6

I got a note from our daughter Lillian this morning.

Here's what she said:

I read an article the other day about how a blue moon is technically the second full moon within a month, which isn't all that rare. However, they say that you can actually get a real blue moon, one that actually looks blue, if there is a lot of smoke and ash in the air.

So you two should put on your masks on Thursday night and go look at the blue moon.



Sunday, May 27, 2007

Smoking Swamps, Part 5

This is my latest posting about living under the smoke cloud that hangs over south Georgia. The smoke is from the fire that has been burning in the Okefenokee Swamp for the last 2 months:

My friend Pat owns a bunch of chickens, and they live outdoors in a coop. I asked Pat how they were doing in the smoke. She lives about 3-4 miles closer to the Okefenokee than we do, and I've seen how hard the cardinals and the morning doves around my house are doing with the fires, so I was curious about her chickens.

Pat said that they seem to be doing fine. They don't seem bothered by the smoke, and she promised to take some photos of the chickens in the smoke. The chickens are beautiful, and Pat is right: the smoke doesn't seem to be bothering them.

When I saw these chickens, I said to Pat's husband, "Consider the chickens in the coop."

He's a prof at Valdosta State University, and he smiled and replied, "They neither toil, nor spin."

Then, we all looked at him and laughed.

Smoking Swamps, Part 4

Someone wrote asking for some more pictures, so I put on my blue face mask and went outside this Sunday morning about 6:30 to walk around the neighborhood and take pictures.

The above photo looks east toward downtown Valdosta. The spire belongs to the Baptist church. In a couple of hours, there will be a service there, and cars will be driving down River Street toward the church.

We're looking west on River Street. About a couple blocks away is the new funeral home, beyond that is Walmart and the Sam's Club and the Interstate, I-75.

Periodically, during the last month, it's been closed. The day we drove to Jacksonville, Fl, interstate I-75 was closed from Tifton, about 40 miles north of us, to Lake City, Fl, about 70 miles south. I-10, the other interstate we take to Jacksonville, was closed for about 60 miles.

We drove back roads. Some of these roads were also closed because of the fire, so we zig-zagged most of the way to Jacksonville through smoky little towns in south Georgia and North Florida, like Lake Park, Jaspar, and White Oaks.

The sun starts coming up. It's rising over Okefenokee Swamp where the fires are still burning. There may be some rain next Saturday. They're praying for it at the Baptist church and in all of the churches in Valdosta. They're probably praying for rain in the supermarkets and the gas stations and the homes and the movie theaters too.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Smoking Swamps, Part 3

My friend Lisa Childress from Charleston, Illinois, read my blog about the smoke and asked if they had evacuated people around here.

I told her they evacuated people closer to the swamp where houses were burning, but we're about 45 miles from the swamp. 45 miles away we're getting smoke and ash but people are surprisingly living with this. Adults sit on their porches or talk to neighbors across fences, kids run around in masks shooting water guns at each other, people drive around with their windows open. Some friends of ours whose house backs onto the swamp are having a Memorial Day barbecue tomorrow.

And this morning, when we went to Sam’s Club looking to buy another air purifier, the first person Linda and I saw in the parking lot was pushing a cart and smoking a cigarette. We looked at each and shrugged.

But the birds seem heavier, especially the cardinals. Usually, the ones in the back yard tend to sit high in the crepe myrtle trees when they aren't flitting around, but now they sit low, close to the ground. When we put on our face masks and went out this morning, there was a cardinal perched on one of the white Adirondack chairs by the pool, two other cardinals were on the deck, a fourth was standing on the ground.

That cardinal didn't move when we passed it to get to the garage. It just stood there, maybe waiting for the smoke to clear so it could breathe. I thought about the way birds work, their hearts beating at a 1000 beats a minute when they are flying. I thought about the way their lungs would have to work to breathe fast enough and hard enough to get that heart beat up so that they could fly away through the smoke and the ash here.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Smoking Swamps, part 2

It's 1:45 in the afternoon, and the sky is pink, and it's raining ashes. There are ashes falling on my house and car and deck.

It's so dry that the wood on the deck has cracked, the nails have separated from the wood, the boards are curling up like old shoes.

Linda and I have bought face masks.

She sits in her dean's office with her blue mask on.

Tomorrow, she is taking another mask in to give to her secretary who has lost the ability to speak because of the smoke and ash in the air.

We have four air purifiers running all the time--and it's not enough.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Smoking Swamps

I was feeling better despite my ears ringing until the swamp started burning about 2 months ago.

This sounds like the beginning of a great story, but it's not. The swamp's lost about 60,000 acres, and the animals in the okefenokee are going deep into the swamp. Toward the center where there is still some moisture, some dampness and humidity, and swampiness. Everything that hasn't been boiled or burned is moving toward that center, and fighting for any kind of space it can find. Imagine the bear and the alligator and the peregrine chipmunk all in the same place. Eyeball to eyeball, nostril to nostril. Eating from the same blade of grass, hoping as only dumb animals can hope for the delivering miracle around the corner.

And here I am 60 miles from the burning center of the fire. For a week the winds were from the east, and we woke in the mornings to the smell of the swamp burning, the tall georgia swamp pines burning, the high dry grass, and the low dry wire grass, all burning. And the smell of pre-fab homes and trailers in Astoria burning.

Clouds coming over Valdosta from the east, first they were a light yellow, and then got darker, pink, brown. Soon there was a haze outside the house, and we stood in the house and looked out the windows at it, and thought, well, we're okay, then after a day or two, it started coming into the house. And you start thinking how this secure old house with its insulation, and dry walls, and rehabbed ceilings and doors and windows is really porous. These old walls are like window screens.

And people start worrying about--what happens next. What if the winds are from the east tomorrow too. And they were. And people start wondering about what if the winds are from the east for two days, or a week, and they are.

Mercy, Jesus.

And the churches start filling up, and people stand on their back porches and talk to their neighbors about the end of the world, and what is it we're doing to the environment. And somebody mentions Cormac McCarthy's great new novel The Road, about a world where every living leaf and blade of grass has lost the will to live, and has turned to ash because of the chemicals the world is dumping on them. And everybody thinks that maybe it is too late, because we all know what the world has been doing to itself for 60 years at least, and that the jig of the world is up.

But it's getting better -- the swamp fire. At least, we think that.

But it will turn worse I reckon. It's the end of the rainy part of the year, and it hasn't rained here in 3 months, not really. So it will probably be burning in the swamps again. Much nearer in fact too. South Georgia is not agricultural. It's timber and logging. Really. You drive from Valdosta to the Atlantic and its 120 miles of forests that get logged. Same thing from here west and north and south.

All we can hope for is really biblical hurricanes that take the great flooding waters of the huge gulf of mexico and send those waters down upon our heads, for a hard and long time.

And those hurricanes?

They will wreck us like a semi rolling over a crate of eggs. Soft boiled, hard boiled, or uncooked.