phanaerozoic

Musings about life on Earth in all its aspects…

Category: Memoir

Skies Scattered with Stars

Living in a large, well-lit city means losing sight of the stupendous night sky. I think something fundamentally wrong with our worldview comes with that absence. We no longer see ourselves as part of something so much bigger than we and our dazzling civilization. We no longer see ourselves and all we have built as minuscule specks in the midst of a seemingly infinite world; we and our lives become all too important, become foremost in importance.

I grew up in a small town, back in the days when the dark was complete: black velvet, deep and light-absorbing, with stars that crystallized out of the depths of that absence of light, that sparked and glistened, that led you to believe you could never count them all. And in summer, our home galaxy arched up from the southern sky across the bowl of the heavens, waves of phosphorescence, stars and star systems dense with color and brightness. Small wonder that we spent so much time outdoors, our eyes directed skyward.

Back when our son and daughter were in elementary and high school, we spent most of our summer vacations backpacking in various mountain ranges in the western United States. We loved to hike above tree line, and camping up there always left us awestruck at the immensity of the sky, at the unparalleled clarity. The whole night sky took on a three-dimensional feel. Those vacations were healing for many reasons, the night sky one of them.

Our kids and their kids are now well along on their live’s trajectories. It has been many years since my wife and I experienced the night sky; with old age and infirmity and absent-mindedness we let things go, complained to one another about not having seen the stars for so long. The acceleration of our perception of time contributes to that feeling of something valuable escaping us, I believe, and we finally made our minds up to find a dark place and enjoy the sky, buoyed on by the prediction of clear skies (except for the smoke from the California fires), a recent new moon, and the waning days of the Perseid meteor showers.

We drove thirty miles out of town, found a place to park (too close to the highway, but traffic was sparse enough that it worked out), and reclined on a blanket beneath the starry night. It was good for our souls. We gasped to one another about how magnificently the Milky Way wound its bright swath across the sky, identified barely remembered constellations and planets (Venus, Jupiter, Saturn and Mars were arrayed along the ecliptic like beads on a necklace), and felt how we are certainly all too finite (an idea acknowledged recently by an untimely death in the family), felt blessed that we could still take this all in through these old and less than perfect eyes.

Here are two less than wonderful images I took with my camera. Both show the southern sky, the Milky Way. In the first, Mars is the bright spot of red light to the left. Saturn is visible over toward the right, a little higher in the sky than Mars, and located just at the right edge of the brightest patch of galactic light. The second is cropped in on a tighter portion of the sky, Mars out of view, Saturn now the brightest object visible, and there are two faint meteor tracks visible well over to the right of Saturn and nearly directly above the telephone pole. These, of course, do not capture reality very well. I only hope that they inspire you to stay up late some night soon, drive out beyond the lights of your city, town, or homestead, park, find a grassy spot to loll on and recapture your childlike awe at the wonder of skies scattered with stars.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

~Roy Beckemeyer, August 12, 2018

 

Konza Journal 2017 Issue Now Online

The 2017 issue of the Kansas Area Watershed (KAW) Council annual publication, Konza Journal, is now online. I was fortunate to be asked by editors Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg and Ken Lassman to participate as a contributing editor and also as a featured photographer (photo essays on Birds, Insects, South Africa, the Changing Faces of Water, and Landscapes). Please check it out. Essays on Climate Change by Ken Lassman, the Cretaceous oceans of Kansas by Mike Everhart, poems by Annette Hope Billings, April Pameticky, Dennis Etzel, Jr.Victoria Sherry, and Janet Jenkins-Stotts, Olive Sullivan, and Kansas Poets Laureate Kevin Rabas, Denise Low, Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, Eric McHenry, and Wyatt Townley.  Videos by Stephen Locke, and a marvelous essay on language and sense of place as it relates to the prairie by Cindy Crosby.

There is so much more I can’t fit all the links here, so just go to the Konza Journal page, browse, and enjoy.

-Roy Beckemeyer, September 28, 2017

September Segue

A week into September and fall sneaks in a hint: small yellowed leaves drifting from trees in ones and twos and threes so intermittently that they almost don’t register.

They might as well be the sulphur butterflies, flitting goldfinches.

Everything else, after all, is still vibrantly verdant; the shades of green multitudinous, the number of leaves converging on infinity. Then comes the morning when you step out the door into a new 5:00 a.m., one that is bracing, the air still yet brisk, the world suddenly sharper, more clear; Venus hovers in the east, honed to brilliance.

By afternoon and on into evening the cicadas will continue to have their monotonous say, squelching all our preconceived notions about the harmonies of Eros. And so we balance here for a while, in this time both of and between summer and fall: the harvest moon still weeks away, baking-hot afternoons still a distinct possibility; yet the world is winding down, turning summer’s abundant and almost astounding fecundity down from a full boil to a slow simmer.

~ Roy Beckemeyer, September 8, 2017

 

My Interview by Miranda Erickson Kendall of the Topeka Shawnee County Public Library

Thanks to Miranda for her interviewing skills.

Here is a link to the interview:

https://tscpl.org/books-movies-music/roy-beckemeyer

Please join me and Leah Sewell on April 26, 2017 at the Topeka Shawnee County Public Library’s Poetry Month event.

 

Roy Beckemeyer, April, 2017

Two “In Depth” Pieces for Whispering Prairie Press’s Blog

Pleased to kick off Whispering Prairie Press‘s “In Depth” blog series with two items on aspects of the craft of poetry: One on the use of epigraphs (http://www.wppress.org/theme-and-variations-epigraphs-and-poems/) and the other on Poetry and Memoir (http://www.wppress.org/poetry-memoir-and-biomythography/).

Hope you link, read and enjoy.

 

  • Roy Beckemeyer, 23 September, 2016

Three Short Non-fiction Articles in KONZA: A Bioregional Journal

Here are links to three non-fiction articles that appear in the 2016 issue of KONZA: A Bioregional Journal.

https://konzajournaldotcom.files.wordpress.com/2016/07/nature-journal.pdf

https://konzajournaldotcom.files.wordpress.com/2016/07/wilsons-phalarope-feminist-shorebird.pdf

https://konzajournaldotcom.files.wordpress.com/2016/07/roy-beckemeyer-dainty-dancers-corrected.pdf

  • Roy Beckemeyer, July, 2016

A Christmas Memory in Poetry – “Christmas Interregnum”

Thanks to Nancy Julien Kopp for her reminder to us all to write down our Christmas memories for our children and grandchildren. Here is my 2010 poem, “Christmas Interregnum.”

Looking like the last
Of the three Magi
My brother trudges through snow
Behind our two sisters.
His left mitten
Trails behind,
Tethered to him
By yarn the color
Of the cedars of Lebanon.

A rookery of nuns
Awaits us in the schoolyard,
The black of their
Black and white habits
Stark against the white,
The white blending with the snow.
Black veils over white wimples
Make them look like
The penguins in our geography books.

Morning Mass is full of the smells
Of evergreen boughs and beeswax,
Incense and wet wool,
And the lemony oil our mothers used
To wax the pews.
We stand, sit and kneel
With our hands folded
While the snowflakes
Studding our caps and coats
Slump and melt,
Beading our clothes with droplets
That briefly encapsulate
The warm light of Christmas candles
In their round cold wetness
Before dripping off
To puddle on the slate floor.

Through ice-sparkled
Schoolroom windows,
We watch the wasted brilliance
Of winter’s first snow;
Having to go to school
A whole half-day
Before the holiday vacation
Is penance enough
Without this purgatory.
But the wait for morning recess
Is just a small preview,
A preparation,
A prediction
Of the longer wait awaiting us
On Christmas Eve.

At last Sister Michael takes up
The hand bell.
Holding it in both hands,
She fills the hall
With its brass reverberations
And we are rescued,
Reclaimed,
Resuscitated by recess.

The ceremony of pulling on
Still-wet coats and mittens,
Ear-flapped hats
That tie under our chins,
And squeaky-wet galoshes,
Is completed in record time.
We all know that
Snow down the neck
Awaits any slowpoke straggler.

Facing an untrodden school yard
In black rubber boots
Is like having
A clean white page of paper
And a newly sharpened
Ticonderoga # 2 pencil in your hand.

The pent-up pressure
Of seventy-three kids
In single-file best-behavior
In the nun-lined hallways
Propels us out the door
And down the steps
Into a jostling chaos
Of splendid, snowy exuberance.
Soon snow angels
And snow-tag wheels
And names written in snow
Are everywhere and the snow
That isn’t packed down by feet
Is filling up boots,
Being rubbed in faces,
Rolled into balls
Or flung into the air.

By the time Father Schoen arrives.
Smelling of cigars and mothballs,
With the cold outside air still clinging
To his black clothes,
Our splotchy red cheeks,
Still cold as snowballs,
Are the only sign of recess
Remaining in the classroom.

He will quiz us on the Catechism,
Twisting the cheeks of those
Who can’t answer correctly,
Or quickly enough,
Between his thumb and index finger,
Marking them as the reddest
Of the red cheeked students
Of St. Anthony’s Parochial School.

At long last noon arrives,
And with it St. Nicholas,
Appropriately announced
By Sister Michael’s bell.
His red vestments and red mitre
And golden crosier
Light the classroom
Like a blazing Yule-log.

He gives us each a gift:
A brown paper bag
Holding a juicy fresh orange,
A polished red apple,
A candy cane,
And a picture of the Nativity scene,
Blessed by St. Nicholas himself.
Then he makes the Sign of the Cross
Over our heads with his
Ringed right hand,
Blessing us as well.

Going home, we can no longer tell
The street from the sidewalk,
The sidewalk from the yards,
And after a block
It is so cold
That the snow does not melt
As it falls thickly onto our treat bags.
Children drift off
In all directions,
Bundles of dark wool,
Against the bright whiteness.

My brother calls out
“Wait for me”
To my sisters;
His mitten is again
Tobogganing behind him
As he catches snowflake
After snowflake
In his small bare hand,
Delighting in each unique,
Ephemeral,
Christmas treasure.

The air is full of snowflakes,
Full of the smell
Of the freshly broken orange in my hand,
Full at last of the promise,
The certainty,
The familiar and longed-for
Reign of Christmastime.

by Roy Beckemeyer, December, 2010

Posted December, 2015

 

Prayer Card Poems – In Loving Memory

In Loving Memory

In Loving Memory

Size seems about right. It’ll fit in anyone’s shirt pocket so they will be able to carry it around, run it through the laundry by accident, and then finally forget me, wash off any residual grief. Symbol has me stumped. Jayhawk, WuShock, Flying Billikin, maybe an airplane or a dragonfly or a corkscrew. Yeah, let’s go with the dragonly. It looks sort of like a cross and will be both natural, fitting, and as close to religious as I got. Should the photo be studious or serious or happy? I don’t know, but I think I would like a shit-eating grin (forgive me, Father) so everyone who looks at it wonders what I was up to. I would like to write the poem, and since I don’t know when I will be needing the card, let me do the custom text now:

Small town boy met small town girl raised
small town kids hiked and travelled and
moved to the city and built airplanes and
made wine and square danced and acted
pretty much like an adult most of the time
and then like a kid for the rest of the time
and was in love for nearly the whole time
and right up to the end for sure and went
to church as a kid and young man and hopes
and prays that won’t keep him out of heaven
since he did try to be and do good but that
doesn’t work according to some theologists
and so pray for him if you think it might do
some good, ya’ll, if you want to and have
the time, otherwise don’t worry. Amen.

And please look through those 1500 images in 20 different categories and find a nice picture of the sky. I always liked sky pictures, and there was sky everywhere I ever went.

 

– Roy Beckemeyer

Maybe you had to go…

Maybe you had to go, finally. Those months hadn’t been easy. You would tell us how your toes curled when the nurse took bone marrow from your ribs with a needle and syringe. It was just like you to make light of the most dreaded but commonplace part of your days. I remember reading you articles I had written for my high school newspaper, sitting in the waiting room waiting for them to bring you back from a lab, looking out your window at the factory-like austerity of the hospital building while you napped. St. Louis was not a place for any of us. We belonged to the small towns we lived in and the farm fields that surrounded us. We should have been out running trot lines, cleaning catfish, hoeing weeds from rows of beets, picking peaches with juice running down our chins.

We had just finished up sawing the slab ends we had hauled from the sawmill and stacked them in the shed the day you got the call. We had cut enough wood to get us through the winter, and we should have felt content, confident ready for the cold wind and snow. Then Doctor Wilson on the phone. I remember you and mom going into your bedroom for a long time after you had talked to him. You came out and tried to explain what was happening to us, but we had never even heard the word leukemia before. And no encyclopedia entry could have prepared us for what the word really, truly meant: Mom’s red-rimmed eyes; the both of you gone for weeks on end, you in St. Louis, the three of us at home with grandma; the nights we would spend hours on the phone calling your friends and asking if they would go to St. Louis and give blood for you.

By spring everyone was exhausted, you of course, most of all. The slightest sense of optimism was in mom’s face the day she came home and told us the hospital staff felt you had improved enough for her to spend the weekend with us. I had fallen asleep sooner than I usually did, the comfort of mom’s presence downstairs bringing peace that had been missing. So although uncle Bud’s knock and voice outside our door in the middle of the night woke me up, it was her crying that brought me out of bed, shaking, with tears already clouding my eyes.

I know that she wished she had been there to hold you at the end. But I think that you knew what was coming, and had seen so much of her love those last months together that you wanted to spare her from seeing your final pain. I think that you wanted at the end to be by yourself, knowing that we who loved you were together in the home you had made for us, the place you longed to be but could no longer share. I think when you finally had to go, you knew you weren’t really alone at all.

– Roy Beckemeyer, 9 July 2013, Memoir Essay written as an exercise for an on-line class, “Seasons and Cycles: Sense of Place, Writing and Healing,” taught by Kansas Poet Laureate Emerita, Caryn Mirriam Goldberg. My father died of leukemia in 1958 at the age of 43, when I was 16 years old.
(http://www.tlanetwork.org/online-courses/seasons-and-cycles-sense-of-place-writing-and-healing/ )

ANTARCTIC JOURNAL – 1998 – DECEPTION ISLAND

In the Antarctic, krill, which means ‘whale food’ in Norwegian, sustain not only whales, but also penguins, seals, squid, fish, albatross, and other seabirds. These small, shrimp-like creatures represent the very cornerstone of the Antarctic ecosystem — processing the energy of the sun stored in phytoplankton (microscopic free-floating plants) and breeding by the thousands to provide an abundant source of nourishment for higher-order predators. Virtually all the larger animals of the Antarctic are either directly or indirectly dependent on krill.” – from Krill: Cornerstone of the Antarctic, PBS.org

From my journal:

“Chinstrap Penguins at Bailey Head stream up the slopes in a continuous river of movement: swirls of penguins, freshets of penguins, long sweeping arcs of penguins, occasional eddies of penguins that hesitate briefly before continuing on.

Chinstrap 1

I point the viewfinder of my video camera into this chaos of penguins, then zoom in to focus on a square meter of black sand. I can cope with this small patch, analyze it just as I would a fluid flow problem. Establish a fixed reference volume and measure what goes in, what goes out. Thirty-eight penguins pass through my little box in two minutes. That’s nineteen penguins per minute per meter. The penguin stream here is about six meters wide. One hundred and fourteen penguins per minute passing this point, flowing uphill, uphill. Uphill to the chicks.

I change experimental techniques. One can also study flowing fluids by tracking the path of individual particles within the flow. I pan the camera back to the source of penguins, the rolling swells at the beach. Catch a knot of penguins at the water’s edge. Choose one. Watch the swell sweep it up onto the beach. It stands erect and steps. Step, step, step. Halt. Shake. Joins the flow: step, step, step. The penguin particle traces a path, a penguin streamline, up the beach toward the colony.

At this time of day, the net flow of penguins is uphill. Occasionally individuals or small groups can be found bucking the tide, going down toward the sea. Perhaps one in forty, one in fifty. Also going down the hill is a small stream of fresh water. The sea below penguin colonies seems always to be tinted, muddy, reddish, murky with suspended sediments of earth and guano: guano dyed pink with krill colors, organic krill dyes.

krill

Krill fuel this system, provide the energy that pushes this flow of penguins uphill in defiance of gravity. Step, step, step. Each footstep like a meshing gear tooth in a machine. Lifting krill soup, krill stew. Kilocalories of krill being carried up in discrete penguin packets, levered up the hill step by step.

I first sit on the sand, then move to a rock further up the slope. I use my brain as a signal processor, filtering out the squawks, creaks and groans of penguin vocal cords. Filter out the rolling swish of water onto the beach. I focus on the background sound, the stepping sounds, the almost sibilant slapping of feet onto the ground. Step, step, step. The quiet, insistent background sound of energy going uphill, always uphill.

Chinstrap 2

I go with the flow. Climb the hill myself. The stream of penguins opens, parting to form a tear-drop shape of penguin-less space around me, as if I were a boulder in the stream. As I top the hill the stream begins to lose its identity, to diffuse, to disappear into the melee of the colony. Here raucous groups stand in the sun on the rounded slopes above the beach. Chicks beg for food, insistently pecking at adult bills. The chicks are of course the reason for all the commotion, all the movement, all the flowing river of black and white that stretches back across the sand into the distance. The penguins in the distance are barely distinguishable, but their rocking, pendulum-like motion looks like ripples on water, like the fine-grained capillary waves that dapple otherwise calm seas. Each roll, each bob represents a step. Step, step, step. Nearly countless feet taking nearly countless steps, right, left, right, left, a sound like light rainfall. As time passes and my memories of Antarctica fade, I know that it will be the memory of these soft sounds of penguins stepping slowly, steadily up the slopes of Bailey Head that will make this precious moment real for me once again.”

– Roy Beckemeyer, Deception Island, South Shetlands, January 31, 1998.