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The Twenty-Acre Wood

The Twenty-Acre Wood    —by Jinny Batterson

Town with an aging population—not unusual
For one of the “boomburgs” that began ringing
Older cities in the latter twentieth century.
Its housing stock shows signs of wear, too.
The supply of previous farmland and woodland
Available for new development dwindles. What to do?

Infill is the latest mantra. Clean up that brownfield
And put a mid-rise apartment building on it.
The natural buffers around some streams and lakes
Can surely support a hotel complex to boost revenue.

Our condo development is one of those showing
Its age. We’ve known for a while that the
Twenty-acre wood just across the adjacent commuter
Artery would some day disappear. The latest plan:
A senior living community–how apt.

I’ve recently taken to walking around and through the wood,
While it’s still there. Before the latest zoning change, an owner’s
Representative took a group of us to see a “champion tree”
Near the woods’ heart: a white oak.

The 36-inch diameter champ, broad at its base, later split
Into a trio of still-stately trunks branching skyward.
Curious, I checked online for the maximum lifespan
Of a white oak–over five hundred years.

The owner rep had relocated to North Carolina for a new assignment
With the development company that had long employed him.
A diversified outfit, it purchased the acreage years ago, back when
Land was more readily available. He hadn’t walked the property before.

“The surveyors tied a yellow ribbon around the champion
Tree,” he said. “Otherwise I never would have found it.”
Although town zoning makes special note of champion trees,
It’s possible to get permission to replace one with younger plantings.

Turns out, the land has likely not been a wood
All that long. Aside from the champion oak, which
May at some time have shaded an early farmhouse,
Most of the trees are younger–pines, gums, a few
Hickories, sassafras and maples.
.

Area residents have used the undulating terrain
As a convenient dumping ground for unwanted
Yard debris. One dying oak, smaller than the champ,
Has planks nailed to its trunk, a basic treehouse
Nestled into a crook about a dozen feet up.

Earlier, the town installed a culvert at a low point in the
Woodland, to divert run-off into a nearby containment pond.
Its rock-lined approach has sprouted a pine, now thirty feet high.
The spindly tree strains for light, drinks in the available moisture.

Upland, there’s a surprising amount of briar-free space between trees.
Here and there a cache of beer bottles, a discarded car seat,
A rusted old lawn chair, bald tires, an excavation that perhaps
Once was a more extensive dumping ground.

Lest my aging flower child self get overly sentimental,
Moodily humming “Big Yellow Taxi” as I wander, I remember the
Resilience of woodlands. Untended, farmsteads or meadows
Take only a human generation or so to return to young forest.

Once the seniors housed in the new complex have died,
And the development has fallen into disarray along with them,
The woods will take back over, planned or unplanned.

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Quilted Dreams

Quilted Dreams    —by Jinny Batterson

There’ve been times, since I outgrew visions of sugarplums,
When I’ve dreaded the coming of winter. Short days, short tempers, cold,
Damp, sniffles, indoor confinement. Winter’s had little to recommend it.

This year’s cold weather was late arriving. Days shortened, but it was
Nearly Thanksgiving before there was frost on the pumpkins. Our schedules
Got disrupted: when to test the furnace, bring houseplants indoors?

Finally, the evening arrived when a blanket was insufficient warmth.
The quilt could be brought out from the linen closet, shaken vigorously,
Then inserted between a fresh sheet and the all-season bedspread.

As my life has grown less hectic, I’ve come to relish the longer
Darkness of late autumn: a chance to sip cocoa before snuggling down
Early, perhaps to drift into episodes of remembered dreams.

I cannot guarantee that the quilt is the cause, but cold weather
Seems to bring more comforting visions: brilliant landscapes visited
Earlier in person or in imagination, peopled with friends and warm welcomes. 

Often I visit cities new to me, revel in explorations and travel that
Can be more pleasant in dreams than in reality–no crowded
Rail cars, no plugged toilets, no mewling youngsters in the seat behind.

The details no longer matter as much. It’s the comfort that counts.
Even when my mind and body are saddest, my waking
Anxieties will sometimes give way to quilted dreams.

Veterans of Domestic Elections

Veterans of Domestic Elections    —by Jinny Batterson

Last Tuesday, I got up before 5 a.m., put on multiple layers of clothes, grabbed a hurried breakfast, packed water and snacks, then headed for a nearby precinct where I was assigned to work during this year’s municipal elections. This year was the third year I’ve served as a non-partisan precinct officer during early voting and/or on election days, after receiving initial training and participating in annual refresher courses.

A touchstone of our training is to do everything in our power to allow a prospective voter to cast a ballot. As our political process has become more divisive and hyper-partisan, this can be complicated. Successive gerrymanders and court challenges have sometimes moved voters from one jurisdiction to another, even when they have not physically changed address. Economic downturns and regional disparities have caused other voters to relocate, often without the will or the resources to become aware of issues, candidates, or election dates and procedures in their new locales. Identification requirements have changed frequently and can be confusing, even to precinct workers. Some prospective voters are homeless, making address verification especially difficult.

Luckily for me, the precinct where I worked in this year’s election was relatively stable. Interest in the election was high, with contested races for town mayor and several town council seats. During the nearly thirteen hours from the time our doors opened for voting until the final voter revved his car into the parking lot and panted his way through the precinct entrance a minute before closing, we were rarely idle. Seven of us combined our efforts to perform needed precinct tasks: we verified names and addresses, authorized voting for those properly registered, handed out ballots, answered questions, redirected those who’d showed up at the wrong precinct, gently dissuaded those who’d showed up on the wrong date, provided advice and provisional ballots for those whose voting status was in question, thanked citizens for voting and gave them “I voted” stickers, checked and cross-checked voting tallies to make sure our manual and automated counts stayed reconciled.

A few days after the election came Veterans’ Day. Originally established as a holiday to commemorate the armistice that ended the “war to end all wars” on November 11, 1918 at 11 a.m. and later expanded to include all U.S. veterans, we’ve sometimes degraded the day’s significance. Rather than a reflection on the tragedies and sacrifices of war, we’ve sometimes substituted a jingoistic, commercial-laden extravaganza of pious political sloganeering and holiday sales. The original meaning of Veterans’ Day came home to me more clearly the following day, a Sunday, when our religious congregation honored the living veterans in our community of worshipers and seekers. Some in this varied lot of men and women, ranging from oldsters to those barely out of their teens, had endured hardships and dangers much more severe than the uncomfortable chairs and brief days’ spells of disrupted eating I’d experienced. Yet their sacrifices were partly in service to the work I’d recently participated in. The values we hold dear—fairness, humility, compassion, inclusion—have been fought for at the ballot box as courageously as on any battlefield.

One of our oldest and largest veterans’ rights organizations, Veterans of Foreign Wars, states its mission as honoring veterans’ service, plus making sure veterans get the full benefits they deserve. To ensure this, the group lobbies as an organization, but much of its strength comes from members’ capacity and willingness to vote.

Helping preserve our values and our democracy requires free and fair elections in which as many of us as possible participate. My election-assistance services are episodic and short-lived, but important nevertheless. I’m glad to be among the veterans of domestic elections.

Mr. Whirligig

Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park in Wilson, NC

Mister Whirligig     —by Jinny Batterson

Recently, on my way to a weekend conference along North Carolina’s coast, I made a slight detour to stop in the former tobacco auction center of Wilson, North Carolina.  It was my third visit to this once-thriving, then derelict bastion of the tobacco industry, struggling to be reborn in a post-industrial, post-tobacco-auction age. 

Brick mansions with Greek-revival columns testify to Wilson’s former wealth. Vacant warehouses and storefronts bear witness to its doldrums. The town is about fifty miles east of Raleigh, at the far edge of commuting distance, but near major interstates. Its status as the county seat of a county by the same name brings some enduring activity—court cases, law offices, merchants of bail bonds. Population has stabilized at about 50,000 people, by far the largest town in this county named for a childless military man whose 1840’s exploits in a war with Mexico were ended by a fatal bout of yellow fever.

    What I came to see was a new park near the center of Wilson’s downtown: the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park. Mr. Simpson, who died in 2013 at the age of 94, had for much of his life made fanciful sculptures out of scrap metal and pieces left over from the heavy equipment repair business that he ran from a small shop a few miles out of Wilson. After he closed his repair business, he turned his attention more fully to the sculptures he began to call windmills. Although his efforts sometimes drew the derision of his neighbors, Simpson continued to fashion larger and larger windmills with more and more moving parts, installing many of them around a small lake on his family’s property.

I first became aware of them when an acquaintance with ties to Wilson led a small group of us to view Simpson’s pond and the windmills planted along its edges. Mr. Simpson, then in his late 80’s, was working in his open-air shop at the far side of the pond. We saw him in profile at a distance, but an abundance of no trespassing signs made it clear that he did not welcome casual visitors.

Over time, Simpson’s “whirligigs” became a local, then regional tourist attraction. His variety of folk art drew the attention of art collectors and museums. A Whirligig graces the grounds of the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. Others have been purchased by museums and private collectors in many parts of the U.S.

Before Mr. Simpson died, local movers and shakers approached him about making his sculptures into an outdoor exhibition. According to Simpson’s obituary in the New York Times, Simpson relished the thought that some of his artworks would be preserved. He helped consult on the beginnings of removal and refurbishment of the pieces that eventually became the park. Vollis Simpson died before the park became a reality. Vagaries of weather, funding, and politics delayed the park’s opening for several years. The 2017 autumn day when I got to visit was gloriously clear and crisp, with just enough breeze to set most of the whirligigs to whirling.  Though I’d missed the park’s grand opening by a day, the vision I got of Mr. Simpson’s legacy brightened my outlook. It also lit up the faces of other visitors of all ages who viewed the park in person or via modern internet links.

It’s much too easy these days to get caught up in the political crises and name-calling of the moment. I like to think that Vollis Simpson’s spirit would be gratified at the way his creations beckon us toward less bluster and more whimsy. Thank you, Mr. Whirligig!    

About Squat Toilets…

About Squat Toilets…       —by Jinny Batterson

The first time I remember encountering a squat toilet was in rural Europe, during an early 1970’s trip with my husband. We were taking a deferred honeymoon about a year into our marriage. To prolong our travels given limited funds, we had chosen budget-conscious transportation and lodging. I don’t recall our location, but remember that I was bicycling along a minor road in beautiful but very open countryside when I felt the need to pee. For a good while, there didn’t seem to be anywhere I could discretely relieve myself. Finally, I came upon a small roadside shack, a bit like the outhouses I’d gotten used to on some earlier American camping trips. If nothing else, I thought, I could at least duck behind this shack to get out of sight of the road. Curious, though, I at first tried the door to this single-story roofed wooden enclosure that was maybe four feet to a side. It opened easily, with an inside latch so I could close it behind me. A slatted opening high up along one wall let in enough light so that once my eyes adjusted, I could see outlines of two shoe prints painted onto a graveled floor. In between them was a dark hole.  I was grateful for the privacy, if not quite sure how to assume an appropriate position. My experimental posture worked well enough so I soon emerged with lighter heart and lighter bladder, ready to pedal onward.       

Most of the squat toilets I’ve encountered since then have been in Hong Kong or mainland China, starting with a 1980 tourist trip. Over time, I came to realize that average Chinese were more likely to use squat than sit toilets. Almost immediately, I realized that my leg and back muscles were not accustomed to squatting for long periods; they were especially unaccustomed to getting up unassisted from a squatting position. In subsequent travels and stays in China, I got exposed to a wide variety of squat facilities. Except in the most impoverished rural areas, squat toilets came with individual stalls, sometimes in single-person outhouse-like buildings, at other times in larger restrooms with multiple stalls.

In most apartments, schools, restaurants, and shopping areas, squat toilet stalls had tile floors, with the toilet area raised about eight to twelve inches above the base of the floor. In the middle of the raised area was a saucer-sized hole or bowl. Within easy reach to one side there was often, though not always, a toilet paper roll or dispenser. (Carrying a small packet of tissues can be useful in a variety of ways in overseas travel.) Also along one side of the enclosure was a receptacle for gently used toilet paper, so less refuse went down the toilet hole, avoiding potential clogs.

Over time, more and more facilities came with flush buttons or pedals. Where there was not a mechanized flush, a water-bearing attendant made regular rounds to ensure that facilities stayed clean. On trains, squat toilets were metal, with foot pads to either side of a bowl-shaped receptacle that also flushed. When I most recently took Chinese trains earlier in 2017, most squat facilities had a grab bar at about waist height, enhancing stability as train cars swayed back and forth, and making it easier to get back up. Still, no matter how much I try to stay flexible, some aspects of using a Chinese squat toilet remain difficult for this Westerner with aging leg muscles unaccustomed to lengthy squats.

On a recent walk on one of the less-used trails in the area of the U.S. where I now live, I was reminded of some of my Chinese adventures. Early on a sunny autumn morning, I met up with a group for one of our weekly rambles. When everyone had gathered and it was time to set out, the restrooms at the trailhead were still locked up tight. Even though I’d made sure to use the bathroom at home to pee just before I left, my morning coffee began demanding further release as we followed the path into the woods. I scanned the area for a possible side trail with a port-a-potty, or even an offshoot that might lead to a street-side set of shops not too far off the trail. No luck. After a while, I spied a thicket that could provide enough cover for a privacy stop. As the rest of the group went further ahead, I contemplated the wisdom of learning to squat.  

Pizzlies and Grolars–Climate-Mediated Combinations?

Pizzlies and Grolars—Climate-Mediated Combinations?   –by Jinny Batterson

During the summer of 2017, I vacationed for two weeks in parts of Alaska. One of the naturalists who guided a bus tour I took in Denali National Park in central Alaska mentioned some new “hybrid” bears that are starting to show up in the far north of Alaska and Canada. As Arctic polar sea ice shrinks, the traditional ice floe habitat of polar bears is shrinking along with it. As temperatures in interior Alaska warm, some grizzlies are moving further north. One result is that the two sub-species of bears, who rarely encountered each other in the past, now have more overlap in their ranges. Sometimes they fight; at other times they interact in different ways. Offspring of polar-grizzly matings are called pizzly or grolar bears. Pizzlies and grolars typically have the coloring of polar bears, with the large head that is more characteristic of a grizzly. A picture of a pizzly that had been killed by a hunter was posted on a National Geographic site (https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/12/photogalleries/101215-pizzly-grolar-bear-polar-grizzly-hybrids-nature-arctic-global-warming-pictures/) in 2010.  Only a few of the hybrid bears have been encountered so far, but biologists expect that more matings will likely occur as climate change accelerates. Perhaps, as our planet continues to warm, there may someday be pizzlies and grolars as far south as Denali park. 

My direct knowledge of Alaska’s longer-term weather is nil. However, a friend in Fairbanks who has spent most of his adult life in the now-less-frozen north, told me that the previous year’s winter was exceptionally mild—with overall temperatures about 6 degrees Fahrenheit about average. His back yard developed a lawn-chair sized sinkhole when part of its permafrost melted. Statistics from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a U.S. governmental weather agency, bear out that the entire year 2016 was of record-breaking warmth in all reporting stations of our northernmost state (https://www.climate.gov/news-features/features/2016-shatters-record-alaskas-warmest-year). Climate change in Alaska has been more rapid than in the lower forty-eight states. 

About three years ago, I participated in the People’s Climate March in New York City. For me, part of the event’s inspiration came from seeing so many people of so many different backgrounds engaged in demonstrating for the good of our planet. Even more inspiring to me was the interfaith service held the evening after the march at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. Many of the speakers at the service came from areas already experiencing disruptions due to climate change— more intense downpours, longer droughts, stronger typhoons and hurricanes, sea level rise.

The indigenous elders who participated in the service were alarmed and dismayed at the damage we are doing to our planet (the environment that sustains the lives of all species, including humans), but they were not without hope. At the conclusion of an interfaith conference that ran concurrently with the march and its preparations, they issued a call to action:     

“Know that you yourself are essential to this World. Each of us is put here in this time and this place to personally decide the future of humankind. We must sacrifice and move beyond our own comforts and pleasures. We must stop the damaging activities and begin working on restoring the natural environment for the future of All Life.”

The year 2017 has had its share of weather extremes in U.S. states and territories: inhabitants of Houston, Florida, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and northern California have now experienced firsthand some of the effects of human-induced climate change. We will all need to adapt. The interbreeding option available to polar bears and grizzlies is not in our future—we have become too differentiated from other animals for that. What can be in our future, if we choose, is increasing cooperation across cultures and religions to reduce our damage to our Earth, and to start to help heal her and ourselves.

Falling into Grace

Falling into Grace    —by Jinny Batterson

Grace Church, the church of my childhood,
Smelled of furniture polish, dust, and old masonry.
It sat squat, tucked into a hillside above a graveyard
Where my mother, at twelve, had sledded into a
Headstone, chipping both front teeth.

From behind the altar, stained-glass-filtered light
Shone on the choir stall where I sat, searching in the
Back of the Book of Common Prayer for my springtime
Birth date in the schedule for each year’s Easter.

My cousin, Grace, came for a week’s visit
As we both teetered at the edge of adolescence.
She had an athletic build, a mane of blond hair.
Not self-conscious about her body like I was,
She shed her day clothes before bed, revealing
The beginnings of breasts and pubes where
I was still flat and hairless.

During college jaunts to the small Shenandoah
Valley town where my boyfriend studied, I walked
Past a different church. Early in the 20th century, it
Was renamed to honor a fallen general with a mixed
Legacy that has become increasingly problematic
In our post-Charlottesville polarizations. 
.

My childhood church is still there, if little used.
My cousin Grace died after a horse riding accident.
Reverting to its original name, Grace Episcopal
In Lexington, Virginia struggles for reconciliation.
Nostalgia renders all more graceful.

It’s the season of falling—leaves blush, then let go.
We notice lengthening darkness, tremble at dark events.
When we pay attention, though, we still have access to
Qualities of bearing, blessing, benediction:
There’s still the possibility of falling into grace.

 

The Other One Percent: Puerto Rico

The Other One Percent: Puerto Rico     —by Jinny Batterson

Like many mainland Americans, I’ve been watching a fair amount of television reporting these days about the unfolding humanitarian tragedy in Puerto Rico in the wake of hurricanes Irma and Maria. Nearly all the island’s electric, transportation, and communications infrastructure was decimated by the back-to-back hurricanes. Maria was the strongest hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in nearly a century, and pummeled the island only thirteen days after a lesser blow from Irma had disrupted power for up to a million residents. 

The news coverage sent me to the Internet to try to get some additional background on factors that contributed to this disaster impacting the estimated 3.4 million Puerto Ricans—about 1% of the total U.S. population.

Of course, the immediate causes are the hurricanes themselves—two of the most powerful storms ever seen over land. But there is also a backstory of decades of neglect, indifference, and discrimination that contributed. It seems somewhat cruel in the current circumstances to note that 2017 marks the centennial of Puerto Ricans’ American citizenship—on March 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Jones-Shafroth Act, establishing limited U.S. citizenship for all islanders born during or after 1898, when the island was acquired by the United States at the conclusion of the Spanish-American War.

At the time of the U.S. takeover, Puerto Rico was primarily an agricultural economy. Its principal exports were coffee and sugar. That began to change after World War II. In 1950, the U.S. initiated an “operation bootstrap” program to encourage industrialization and economic growth, and for a while the economy boomed.  Puerto Rico’s economy began a long-term decline in the late 1990’s after a change in the U.S. tax code phased out a provision that had allowed mainland-based companies to avoid corporate taxes on profits made in U.S. territories, including Puerto Rico. During the decade of 1996-2006, as the phase-out program took effect, manufacturing jobs declined from about 160,000 to about 110,000. More and more Puerto Ricans left for the mainland, where job prospects might be better. By 2016, over 4.6 million Puerto Ricans resided on the mainland, with the greatest concentrations in metropolitan New York City and in Florida.     

Politically, Puerto Rico chafed under near-colonial rule that seesawed between periods of development support by mainland politicians and periods of repression. Successive votes by islanders to change their status generally supported some variation of the status quo until 2012, when a majority of islanders voted to become a state. The referendum was controversial—opponents had tried to get people to abstain from voting altogether and later argued that the vote was invalid.

Once immediate crises ease and redevelopment plans begin to be developed, it might be wise to consult extensively with this “other 1%” to learn what Puerto Ricans, those with the most at stake, want their still-proud island to become.    

Cycling Toward Resilience

Cycling Toward Resilience    —by Jinny Batterson

bicycling for fun–Jinny fords a small stream in New Zealand

September 22, 2017, according to my wall calendar, marks this year’s equinox, ushering in autumn in the northern hemisphere and spring in the southern. It’s the day when the sun’s arc passes directly over the earth’s equator, when day and night are of nearly equal length. It would seem to indicate a sort of balance. For many of us, balance right now is in somewhat short supply.

Broadcast news these days carries stories and images of catastrophic damage to the U.S. Southeast and American territories in the Caribbean from three different hurricanes so far this season. Parts of Texas and Florida, all of Puerto Rico and most of the U.S. Virgin Islands may never again be the same after Harvey, Irma, and Maria. And hurricane season isn’t even over yet. Meanwhile, swaths of eastern North Carolina have yet to recover from last year’s Hurricane Matthew damage. Parts of New Orleans have atrophied since Katrina’s 2005 onslaught. Five years after superstorm Sandy, houses in New York and New Jersey are still boarded up.

Locally, our town is balancing on the cusp of another municipal election, with multiple candidates in each race this time around. Last night I attended a candidate’s forum co-sponsored by  several non-partisan volunteer groups. The crowd was standing room only, the tone civil, the questions and answers thoughtful and generally restrained—no promises to hold the line on taxes, no shirking from admissions that both infrastructure and population in our community are aging, that revenues since the 2008 recession have not kept up with population growth, that we face challenges.  A couple of incumbents emphasized the need to move away from our current high dependence on private vehicles toward a greater use of walking, cycling, and public transit. 

So I got to thinking about bicycles. A pre-hurricane posting to a San Juan, Puerto Rico website extolled the pleasures of bicycling on recently completed trails around that city. One post-hurricane-Maria clip of the initial stirrings of movement in Puerto Rico showed a few bicycles pedaling the still-watery streets among the cars, trucks, and earthmoving machines. 

Bicycles are an efficient means of transportation, especially in relatively flat terrain. Per an Exploratorium website: “In fact cycling is more efficient than any other method of travel–including walking! The one billion bicycles in the world are a testament to its effectiveness.” (see https://www.exploratorium.edu/cycling/humanpower1.html)   

Unfortunately, persuading the world’s more affluent citizens to give up our cars and use bicycles exclusively is probably not practical. Yet in the Texas city of Houston, Hurricane Harvey damaged or destroyed over a million cars. Houston has been one of the nation’s most car-dependent cities, with nearly 95% of households possessing at least one car. We may not be able to coax ourselves out of our car habits entirely and use bikes as our primary means of transportation, but we can at least make cycling more attractive with bike-share programs, good trails and signage, incentives to bike rather than take the car on shorter trips.

As severe weather events impact more and more of our land area, as densely populated urban centers house higher and higher proportions of humanity, many cities are establishing resilience strategies, often with coordinators that reach across traditional departmental boundaries to integrate efforts. Cycling can be a worthwhile part of such strategies. Before the next big storm hits, let’s start cycling toward resilience.

I Am (Aging)…

I Am…

(This short set of 10 lines was a response to a prompt in a poetry journal a few months after I first became a grandmother. As parts of the Caribbean and the U.S. Southeast continue the slow, hard work of cleaning up after back-to-back hurricanes, maybe remembering past challenges met and present strengths in play can help boost spirits, however slightly…)

I am a grandmother,
I am an idealist,
I am a cancer survivor,
I am a realist.
I am peace loving;
I am a dreamer.
I am an activist;
I am a schemer.
I am aging and learning to thrive–
I am alive.