Thursday, March 25, 2010

Freaks and Folks and Flannery

unknown photographer

Here in Oakland, California it's still March 25 so I can wish Flannery O'Connor a blessed birthday.

Today's short biography from A Writer's Almanac ... another good chicken story too ...
It's the birthday of Flannery O'Connor, born 85 years ago today in Savannah, Georgia (1925), who wrote two novels and 32 short stories and who said: "I come from a family where the only emotion respectable to show is irritation. In some this tendency produces hives, in others literature, in me both." When she was six, she and a chicken that she taught to walk backward appeared on the news. She later said: "I was just there to assist the chicken but it was the high point in my life. Everything since has been anticlimax."

After college, she went to the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and then spent time at the Yaddo Writers' Colony. At the age of 26, she was diagnosed with lupus, the disease that had killed her father when she was a teenager. At the time, doctors told her she would live for another five years, but she survived for nearly 14 years. She moved back to Georgia so that her mom could take care of her, to a 500-acre family farm in Milledgeville where she raised chickens, ducks, hens, geese, and peacocks, her favorite. She arose every morning when the chickens first cackled, went to 7:00 a.m. Mass in town at Sacred Heart, returned home and wrote for a couple of hours each day, until she felt too weak or tired.

As she herself put it, she wrote about "freaks and folks." She said, "Whenever I'm asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one."

In her sickly 14 years on the farm with her mother, O'Connor wrote two dozen short stories and two novels filled with her freakish, obsessive characters, crazy preachers, murderers, outcasts. Her most famous stories include "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," about a silly, annoying old woman whose entire family gets murdered by a man called The Misfit, and "Good Country People," about a pretentious young woman whose wooden leg is stolen by a Bible salesman.

Many of Flannery O'Connor's letters are collected in a volume calledThe Habit of Being (1979), edited by her friend Sally Fitzgerald. And despite O'Connor's premonition that "there won't be any biographies of me, because lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy," a new book about her life came out just last year, written by Brad Gooch and entitled Flannery (2009).

Flannery O'Connor said, "The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that does not require his attention."

Yes. Life's joys. The cheapest of thrills. Watching.

I love this quote: "Whenever I'm asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one."

There's something in me that relates to Southern writers ... I am from the South too ... No? Whaddya mean? Just take a look at the map of Canada. Now place your finger on Winnipeg, Manitoba. Why, I would call that the Deep South ... of Canada.

[go here to see my last chicken story]

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Irish Me

irish me
i need irishing
it's that time of year
but i don't want
leprechauns promising pots of gold
shiny shamrocks
kiss me pins
green beer

in my blood
both ancient and new
the bodhrán beats

tell me about
the Picts, Gaels, and Druids
Bridget, the Book of Kells, and the Tara Brooch
the Viking tyranny fought by Mahon and Brian Boru
and, from the time of the Normans,
tell me about Gaelic Ireland
home of the wild Irish
oh, yes, tell me of them,
defiant, from which I come

tell me about how
the Irish saved civilization
but couldn't save themselves

the bodhrán
in the center of my chest
beats the blood around

and can you explain so I understand:
how did the Great Starvation happen?
didn’t the English have any food to share?
I’ve heard rumors about those English warehouses …
full of food

talk to me of the Black and Tans,
the Ku Klux Klan of Eire
brought into Ireland
by the British government
to make Ireland
a hell

tell me about my grandfather
born in Galway
buried in Mayo
didn't like him much
but eventually I had a tribal respect
he ran the village's
cooperative grocery
living above it with my grandmother

tell the true true story
about how the Black and Tans
held him at gunpoint many times
to steal gasoline, coffee, sugar
then, as they got desperate
from losing
they gasolined and torched his home
my mother, a baby at the time

(c) 2006 k. smokey cormier

bodhrán = ancient Irish drum still used by musicians; pronounced BOW-RAN;

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Broods and Breeding, Excerpt from Our Life in Gardens by Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd

Chickens at the Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, California
(c) 2006 K. Smokey Cormier

I want to share an excerpt from Our Life in Gardens by Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd. They are a queer couple and have written a couple of books about their experiences with their farm and nursery in Vermont. The excerpt is about chickens.

(Also, there's a wonderful piece in the NYTimes that you might want to read. It's called "It came. It clucked. It conquered.")

I have a special connection with chickens. I don’t remember if I have written about it before ... but here you go ... one of my first jobs as a child was to gather chicken eggs in the morning. (I know this will surprise those of you who think of me as nothing but a city slicker ... but, as I keep trying to remind people: I am old as dirt. I have had many experiences ... and a million jobs!)

When I lived with my grandparents in Ireland for five months, when I was almost nine years old, my job first thing in the morning was to go out to the chicken house and gather the freshly-laid eggs. It took some courage because some of those hens would try to peck you. Oh, they’re nowhere near as bad as geese ... but that’s another story. Some hens weren’t sitting in their straw hollow of a nest so I could easily pluck their eggs out. But, some ... the type A’s of the coop? ... would be sitting there. And they would watch me approach with fierce eyes. Remember, I was only a child ... a short one at that ... always second shortest of my class. When I got close to the hen on her nest, my face was just a bit higher than hers. Do you think she wanted me to rob her of her son and heir? ("son and heir"? ... There were few feminists in rural Ireland in those days.) I carried a cardboard shield with me. Quick! Up with it! Shielding my face, I would simultaneously reach my hand in under her and grab the egg. Such squawking! Flapping!

If too many of the hens were sitting on their babbies, they’d be alerted. I’d have to go and take a break, come back, and try again. It’s too bad. After all the effort, I didn’t like eggs in those days. Those fresh eggs were wasted on me. I would feel nauseous as I ate eggs. But, I had to clean me plate, after all.

By the way, did you know that the earliest evidence of human writing was found on ... what material? Dunno? Eggshells. Pieces of ostrich eggshells were found in South Africa, dating back 60,000 years!! Ostrich eggshells are very hard and durable. You can read about it here.

The excerpt from Our Life in Gardens by Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd:

We lived at 89 Beacon Street for three months short of a year. The plant collections grew larger, and at one point included a ten-foot-tall weeping willow tree forced in the high windows of the bedroom. But in the end, it was not plants that sent us to the country. It was chickens.

We can no longer remember how we came to visit a chicken show, but it must have been the venerable Boston Poultry Show, now in its 158th year. In any case, we came home with a trio of Mille Fleur bantams, a sturdy little red rooster all spangled over with white and black dots, and two meek little hens. The hens were of an age to lay, and so, shortly thereafter, on Beacon Street, we began to produce our own eggs, generally two every other day.

Even then it was probably quite illegal to keep poultry in a Boston apartment. At first we wondered how our landlord would react, and so we quickly fashioned a pen for our chickens in keeping -- we felt -- with the grand circumstances to which they had been elevated. It was a large cage, roughly six feet long and four feet wide, with a deep tray in the bottom for sweet-smelling cedar shavings. Tucked behind the Kentia palm at the sunny end of the great ballroom, it also had Chinese export-ware feed and water bowls, and was of course kept immaculately clean. Our landlord seemed, if anything, amused. We gave him some fresh-laid eggs.

But as all chicken fanciers know, chickens are addictive, and one can never stop at three. So many of our Saturday mornings were spent driving to the breeders of fancy chickens around Boston, our favorite of whom was Marjorie George, just over the Massachusetts line in Nashua, New Hampshire. Around Easter, she sold us a tiny cochin hen we named Emma. She was hardly the size of a cantaloupe, though her body was a cloud of soft, almost furry snow-white feathers. (We kept them that way, by weekly shampoos and fluffing out with the hair dryer.) She was the only chicken who had full run of the apartment, though she mostly favored the kitchen, where she had a nest box tucked privately in one corner. Soon, she became broody, a skill for which chochins are famous, being generally considered the best of chicken mothers. Or foster mothers. For as Emma had no mate, her eggs were sterile. So we bought a dozen assorted fertile ones from Mrs. George, and twenty-one days later every one hatched.

Shortly thereafter, we had a morning visit from the chairman of the English department at Tufts, who lived in a beautiful house around the corner on Chestnut Street. Just at the moment he was lifting his cup of tea, Emma decided to show her brood the world. Perhaps seventy feet of dark, waxed oak parquet floor lay between the kitchen door and the couch where he sat. Emma proceeded that length, leading a stately procession of tiny, chirping chicks. She observed our guest skeptically, found nothing special in him, turned, and proceeded with her train the long way back. Good breeding kept him, we presume, from saying a single word about the extraordinary sight that had passed before him. But we wondered what Emma's perspective had been. Perhaps good breeding of her own caused her so politely to withdraw.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

From the Album of K. Smokey Cormier

San Francisco Bay, looking North from Berkeley

all photos (c) 2010 K. Smokey Cormier

Last Saturday around 5:30pm I was at the intersection of Gilman St. and Buchanan in Berkeley ... right near the Eastshore Freeway. Near the Gilman St. turf fields. My oldest daughter was playing rugby.

The sky was beautiful. I had to take out my trusty camera and shoot. I just love the sky when it's like this. C.L. is absolutely right -- who wants sunny days! (Although, of course, the sun plays a big part in most photography.)

looking South

more South

What is this structure? (I kept thinking ... might be my future home if I get the chop ... like so many at my place of employment.) It's a beautiful structure ... I took several photos. I couldn't really get at the angle I wanted because there was a huge puddle there and I didn't have my Wellies on.