Shoebox

The other day I was out on the route and I had a mission. I needed to find out where a new subscriber to the newspaper lives; this in a rural area where only about half of the mailboxes have numbers painted on them.

Extrapolating from the boxes which did have numbers, I gradually narrowed down the prospects and pulled into the driveway of an elaborate and large steel-sided barn. Vehicles were parked there, so I walked into a large drive-through bay which was open.

A young woman in a horsey outfit popped out of a stall; there appeared to be some large brown beast in there. She asked me, “Can I help you?”

I explained my quest and the woman said, “The owner is out in the arena — she’s exercising a couple of the horses.”

I walked on through the barn, glancing through the slats of the stalls at large, slow-moving horses who peered at me inquisitively. The mingled odors of horse, manure, and straw bedding formed a rich amalgam which I sniffed at appreciatively.

The “arena” was a fenced circle about one hundred feet in diameter. Two women were encouraging two horse on long leads to circle around. A man with a digital camera lounged against the fence and occasionally snapped a photo.

I asked him, “Is that the proprietor out there?”

“Yeah, just give her a wave and she’ll come over in a bit.”

It was an intriguing scene and I’ll return one of these days to snap some photos of my own.

The owner was a weatherbeaten gray-haired woman in her sixties. She certainly looked as if she spent much of her time outdoors! I established that I was at the right place and walked on back to my car.

My attention was caught by a unique mailbox-post out by the gravel road. It was welded together from presumably worn-out horseshoes. An overall view, followed by a detail shot of one of the welds:

I could imagine the scene of that post being put together. It’s a snowy winter day and the horses have all been fed. The proprietor enters a shop room in the barn, chafing her hands and stomping snow from her boots. She drags a white plastic bucket from beneath a workbench and empties dozens of rusted old horseshoes onto the concrete floor. She fires up a stick welder, dons a face-mask, and goes to work…

Larry

Cedar Stump Lichens

Wouldn’t that be a good name for a progressive acoustic band playing improvisations based upon natural scenes and old fiddle tunes? That’s a rhetorical question, by the way!

A couple of days ago I was stranded. My truck was in the driveway of a rural newspaper subscriber and my battery wasn’t wanting to take a charge. The subscriber, an elderly school-bus driver, was letting me use his charger, but the engine of the truck just wouldn’t fire off.

The bus-driver was getting antsy, as he had to leave to drive his bus, and I could tell that he felt a bit uneasy about leaving me there alone with access to his garage full of tools. He finally decided that he could trust me. After all, I come to his place every single day! He said, “Well, Larry, I’d better go tell the wife what’s goin’ on. Get your battery all charged, and I’ll see you later!”

He drove away in a minivan.

I was restless; time passes slowly when you are waiting on invisible electrical processes. I wandered around the side of the garage and found a cedar stump with its root system intact; it had probably washed out of a creek bank. The stump was in a pleasing phase of deterioration; if only people deteriorated so pleasantly when we die!

The lichens growing on the blocky rotting sapwood of the stump were pleasing to me and I shot some photos. Here are three of them:

In the past lichens of various species have been used to make fabric dyes. If I had my druthers (unlikely, but one can hope!) I’d wear clothing dyed with these shades, as they are singularly pleasing to my eye.

Larry

Big Honkin’ Maclura

Just a quickie here… I wanted you all to see an overall photo of the giant Osage orange tree I wrote about on Halloween, in this post:

Spooky Halloween Tree

It was cloudy and drizzly the other day and I tried again. Getting a good photo of an entire tree isn’t easy! I might try again at dawn or dusk, but here’s what I brought home:

Larry

Sic transit gloria mundi

I’ve always liked that phrase, which unfortunately has been co-opted numerous times by religious zealots. It expresses well the oft-made observation that “this too shall pass”.

Emily Dickinson, another of those enigmatic introverts, once wrote a valentine using the phrase, a mocking send-up of the learned Latinisms of the day:

Sic transit gloria mundi
How doth the busy bee,
Dum vivimus vivamus,
I stay my enemy!

That woman did have spirit!

I’d had a rough couple of days trying to complete my rural motor route. An expired car, followed by an abortive attempt to use a pick-up truck which had grown cranky and lazy from sitting unused for too long; just a lot of energy expended in order to bring bored rural folks the latest obits and sports scores!

On Tuesday, as the day went on, it gradually became apparent that the truck’s alternator had decided to retire early and live out its days as a core, rebuild reincarnation! It took the kindly help of nine people that day to complete my route, from my elderly neighbor Beulah to various passers-by with jumper cables, ending after dark with my boss, who reluctantly rescued me from the wilds of Adams County and helped me finish the route.

Yesterday I was using my mother’s car, a seventeen-year-old Honda with just 23,000 miles on it. I was feeling rather put upon by fate. I was running late and customers were calling the newspaper office: “Where’s my paper?”

As I drove down winding roads the gravel surface of the road began to glow faintly, highlighted with blue-tinged light reflected from the sky, as dusk began to ooze from the low wooded patches and obscure the details of the world.

I glanced at the horizon, which was serrated with the spiky silhouettes of leafless trees. I simultaneously braked the car in the middle of the road and reached for my camera, as it seemed that one of the dozen or so spectacular sunsets we are granted every year was beginning. A gift from the elusive lords of the atmosphere!

I squatted in the road and took this photo:

Take note of the faint adumbrations of ray-like structures spoking out from the molten core.

(note to self: turn off this ignorant spell-checker, which seems to have the vocabulary of a ten-year-old!)

Less than a minute later the scene had evolved:

A cropped detail from the above photo; such an elaborately beautiful layered structure of light!

A hastily-assembled visual souffle had been offered to me, it seemed.

Within a very few minutes the scene began to collapse into embers glowing on the horizon. The show was over. I wondered who else had witnessed this scene? Perhaps a few farmers doing late chores, or perhaps some commuters on their way home. I felt blessed to have had the opportunity to make these visual and verbal comments! I do have the luck now and then…

Larry

Spooky Halloween Tree

Since it is a pagan holiday, allow me to begin this post with a quote from that neurotic and paranoid racist, H.P. Lovecraft. He may have been a bit distasteful and loony, but his prose lives on for anyone interested in melodramatic over-the-top writing. This is from the short story “The Colour Out of Space”:

West of Arkham the hills rise wild, and there are valleys with deep woods that no axe has ever cut. There are dark narrow glens where the trees slope fantastically, and where thin brooklets trickle without ever having caught the glint of sunlight. ….

The trees grew too thickly, and their trunks were too big for any healthy New England wood.

Today I drove down a boring stretch of rural gravel road for perhaps the hundredth time. I had written off this stretch of road, which was featureless, bordered on either side by fields of genetically altered corn, now just stubble. As usual while driving along such roads, I let my imagination wander freely.

My attention was caught, though, by an array of Osage orange seed-balls in the road. Must be a hedge tree nearby, I thought. Then I encountered the grand-daddy of all Osage orange trees, probably the oldest and largest representative of the species for many miles around. I pulled over and got out my camera. Conditions weren’t ideal for photography, as the sun was bright in a cloudless sky, but I had to record images of this remarkable tree. This tree was a keeper, and I’ll be back to take better photos, but these are what I have now:

I stuck my billed cap into a snarl of thorny branchlets to give a sense of scale. The cap wasn’t happy:

“Larry, why did you do this! I can’t get out! Please rescue me from these thorny clutches!”

“Just a moment, I’ll be right there after I snap some photos, cap.”

“I just want to be back on your head where I’m safe!”

Why do I always end up with cowardly caps?

Here’s a view of the thoroughly uncivilized upper branches. The tan and furrowed bark seems barely able to contain the orange cambium, which seems to be wanting to escape out into the world and wreak havoc among lesser beings:

I’ll return to this tree, as it seems to offer a variety of photographic opportunities. If I don’t return one of these days the tree will most likely have devoured me, the only evidence being a white cap on the ground and a suspicious bulge in the tree’s trunk!

Larry

The Sunflower Box

Friday morning I was loading papers into my car at the Herald-Whig loading dock. My route boss approached me and said, “Larry, I hear that you’ve been forgetting to deliver in the Sunflower Box, out on North 244th St.”

A vague memory surfaced of my predecessor on the route showing me such a box. I had completely forgotten about it! I had been delivering into the customer’s regular mailbox.

I looked around while on that street Friday but didn’t see that particular box. Early Saturday morning I made another attempt. It was difficult, because many boxes don’t have the street address printed on them. It was also dark, which didn’t help. By a process of elimination I determined that one particular driveway must be the one.

The driveway looped around, and then the Sunflower Box was illuminated by my headlights. How could I have missed it! It was eight feet tall and featured a monstrous sunflower blossom at the top, along with several painted sheet-metal leaves.

During the decades following WWII there a was a flowering of rural metal folk art. Once rural electrification was complete, farmers and other rural people quickly acquired stick welding equipment, some of it fashioned from army surplus components. Scrap is always plentiful on a farm and a generation of farmers grew up welding, both to fix farm equipment and just for fun. This mailbox is a great example of such folk art. I can picture the scene in a farm kitchen. An adolescent boy is explaining his idea to his father:

“We need a new mailbox, Dad! The old post is falling over and using steel the new one will last forever!”

“I don’t know, son. A sunflower? Wouldn’t it be putting on airs to set such a box out by the road?”

“We could put it by the house, Dad! The mailman could just circle around to deliver to us. He’d like that — no more parking alongside the road, don’t ya think?”

“Well, okay… Knock yourself out, boy!”

Larry

Sunrise Sequence

This morning I was keeping an eye out for the appearance of the sun as I drove down deserted gravel roads. The sky was disappointingly clear but it looked like a few clouds might gather in the east to greet the new day; there’s just no predicting the vagaries of the atmosphere!

I drove up a hill and found myself on what used to be upland prairie, a broad expanse of plain with a good view of the eastern horizon. Ah! Clouds had appeared and the sunrise was beginning. I parked right in the middle of the road, got out of the car, and positioned myself next to a frosty hedge corner-post, a handy steady-rest for the camera. This is a sequence which took just a few minutes to unfold:

I wonder if anyone else saw it?

Larry

Nature Calls

Yesterday I was driving down a winding gravel road in rural Adams County, Illinois. I was lost in thought; the route I was following is thoroughly embedded in my mind these days and miles can go by without leaving a trace in my memory.

The mental state known as “being lost in thought” is a peculiarly human trait. Is it a good thing? Sometimes it can be, but the state can also lead to a disconnect from that Real World out there, a messy and disorganized set of places which fortunately contains those unrepeatable and beautiful alignments of time and location which are all too easy to miss.

Being lost in thought can have a malign effect upon the world. When those thoughts become entangled in endless loops of striving, ambition, and exploitation of both other people and places on earth they can lead to irreversible damage leavened by financial profit. The common mode of “business-like” practical thinking, in other words.

For better or worse, I’m not afflicted much by that particular mode of thought, tending more towards the aesthetic as a general rule. Head in the clouds? Not really that, it’s more that I try to stay aware of the cresting wave of the present moment — except when I become lost in thought!

I take refuge in the excuse that all of us are bundles of contradictions, some of us being more aware of that universal human condition than others.

Back to the gravel road: I gradually became uncomfortably aware that I had to take a piss. I kept my eye out for a secluded dip in the road, out of sight of farm-houses or farmers on tractors. I was trying to be reasonably discreet, you see!

I found a spot, got out of the car,stretched my legs a bit, and did my business, a golden stream of urine making pockmarks and small puddles in the dry white limestone dust. Certain butterflies will appreciate my liquid contribution to that stretch of road! There are worse roles to play than being, for a short time, a benefactor to the lepidopteran tribes.

Certain readers will be wrinkling up their noses and thinking, “I don’t want to hear about such icky reminders of human animality! Yuck! Go back to pretending to be a pristine soul inhabiting a body that is best ignored!”

There are two different ways of regarding our inescapable status as organisms, creatures inhabiting the earth along with the worms, reptiles, and birds. You can try to deny biological reality or you can acknowledge it as a necessary part of our existence.

Denial results in such intellectual aberrations as a belief in Heaven or a desire to be downloaded into a silicon matrix, both of which involve fantasy and willful ignorance of the power of Occam’s Razor, a keen blade which effectively deals with ideas with no repeatable proofs or any evidence other than words.

I have an optimistic nature and in general try to see advantages and benefits in circumstances beyond my control, such as the fact that I inhabit a body which periodically exudes a variety of substances, most of which are not appealing at first sight or smell.

So what are the good points of urination, you might well ask. There is the oft-ignored, or at least not talked about, feeling of well-being which follows such voiding of the bladder. You no longer are carrying around a sack of fluid waste. That insistent pressure is gone.

More pertinent, though, is that you are forced out of the mental world of day-to-day duties and activities. You have a bit of a time-out when nature calls. You can take advantage of this forced interlude and take stock of your life and environment. Of course this works better when you are outside, rather than in a marginally clean room with a hexagonally-tiled floor, surrounded my white porcelain structures with chromed handles.

I’ve made my point, such as it is, and I sense a certain restiveness in my readers.

“Okay, Larry, so you took a piss! I didn’t come here for this! Where are the photographs, the amusing dialogs and scenarios? Maybe a book review or a cool video?”

During my time-out period, standing by the side of the road heeding a nasty and unmentionable biological urge (I can’t resist a bit of irony here!), I saw a young Black Oak sapling, a tree which may never have had the privilege or (more commonly) bad luck of being observed closely by a human being. Quercus velutina is a coarse member of the oak tribe, a tree with crudely-designed but effective leaves and black and furrowed bark. The leaves look as if they were designed by children, the master designer looking on indulgently as they practice their craft. This particular tree had the abnormally large leaves common to very young trees fighting for whatever light they can glean from what its elders had let slip by. Like a scrawny dog, its ribs showing through mangy fur, lurking beneath a kitchen table and hoping for fragments of tossed or dropped food.

It was the range of colors which attracted my attention, rooted as I was for a minute or so to the spot. The green of the leaves’ centers was darkened with admixtures of black and blue. The rims of the leaves were changing first, a border of a deep red slowly spreading inwards. The colors were muted by the diffuse light from an overcast fall sky.

I shook off golden droplets and went back to the car to fetch my camera for a couple of quick shots. These colors and textures became the backdrop of my thoughts for the remainder of the day.

Larry

Garage Beetle

Yesterday afternoon the weather was truly splendid, one of those prime fall days which Nature cruelly gives us; I know we are being lulled into complacency before the dire Hammer of Winter falls!

My friend Jeff and I were over at the garden plot, cleaning up old plants and putting the garden to rest for the winter. There is an old garage on the property in which we store garden paraphernalia. Jeff and I were standing by the old structure, imbibing heavily caffeinated Mountain Dew from cans as we prepared to tackle the overgrown tomato vines. They had done their solanaceous thing and outlived their welcome.

I noticed a lone beetle slowly making its way up the wall of the garage, engaged in some inscrutable buggy business. I fetched my camera from the car and leaned as close to the insect as I could. The beetle tried to ignore this intrusion by an inconceivably monstrous denizen of a larger realm.

I liked this shot, which inadvertently included one of my finger tips which was helping to steady me as I focused:

The beetle was phlegmatic, but betrayed a slight sense of alarm by loosening its wing-covers, perhaps in preparation for a sudden departure, if such became necessary.

In this next shot notice how the focal plane intersects the body of the beetle in just two areas, the wing covers and one of the clawed front feet. I suspect that the insect is some sort of predatory beetle.

Notice also the orange color of the bug’s body revealed beneath the wing-coverts. Perhaps the bright color is intended to startle and dissuade predators?

I left the beetle alone; it heaved multiple sighs of relief through its spiracles as Jeff and I walked towards the garden.

Larry

An Early Morning Quincy Scene

“It was a dark night in a city that knows how to keep its secrets…” oops, wrong station! Allow me to twiddle the dial — [whee-oop, beep-de-beep-beep, beep-beep-de-beep, schwaaa-squork]

“… in Quincy, downtown at one AM, early Saturday morning. The scene is a poorly-lit loading dock behind the Quincy Herald-Whig newspaper building. Motor route drivers are lounging around, smoking cigarettes and engaging in fitful bursts of desultory conversation. The papers are late.

I’m leaning against someone’s battered route car and listening to Roger tell a gruesome tale of road-kills the previous day. We talk about the likelihood of seeing a cougar cross the road.

A small and skinny black man maneuvers his motorized wheelchair between the car and a pickup truck. The man is wearing a leather cap and seems to be trying to get our attention. I approach him and lean towards the man and try to make out what he is saying. I think that perhaps he wants to bum a cigarette. I notice an invisible haze of wine fumes emanating from him.

The old man mumbles and I really can’t understand him, but he seems to want me to come with him. Something about opening a car door — can this guy drive? He beckons me onward and before I know it I’m accompanying him across the street.

He says, “Oh, my hands are cold! I can’t work the door, but I bet you can!”

The mystery is cleared up when the man wheels his chair up a switch-backed ramp and pauses before a security door. The two-story brick building seems to be some sort of government-subsidized apartment block.

He says, “The numbers are [mumble mumble]”

The door has a panel with six buttons arranged vertically and a turn-lever. I peer at it; the light is dim and I can’t make out the numbers.

“Here, lemme try again.”, he says, and leans forward from the wheelchair and attempts to push the buttons.

The man fails, and says, “You try, okay? One… three… six!”

I push the buttons but the lever isn’t working.

“It’s kinda tricky! Ya just have to be quick and turn it towards the right.”

I finally get it and the door swings open.

The man says, “Hey, couldja help me get my leg outa the stirrup? I have trouble liftin’ it.”

I lean over, grasp the man’s spindly calf, and lift it up and over so that his foot reaches a footrest.

“Aw, thanks, man!”, he says.

“Have a good night!”, I say, and return to the loading dock.

“Hey, Larry, didja get him in? He was kinda stinko, right?”

There is some more good-natured raillery, and then the bundles of newspapers are sliding down the rollers and we all begin to prepare for our routes.”

[squee-awk… squee-awk… squee-awk]

We interrupt this radio drama to bring you an emergency announcement. An alien spacecraft has landed in Washington Park and the tentacled occupants are demanding blood sacrifice. We ask that public-spirited volunteers report to the park immediately… oh, no! What’s that coming through the ceiling?

[crashing noises and the sound of ripping sheet-metal, then nothing but ominous static interrupted by faint Morse code]

Larry, who turns off the radio with a frown.