The column appeared in today’s Concord Monitor and is online as well. I’ve pasted it below for those who face technical issues with accessing it at their website:
Sunday, December 8, 2013
(Published in print: Sunday, December 8, 2013)
Richard Blanco’s quiet life in Bethel, Maine, changed forever when he learned he’d been chosen inaugural poet. For All of Us, One Today: an Inaugural Poet’s Journey is both his personal story – Latino immigrant, gay man, engineer who felt called to study creative writing – and also the story of his public role. Blanco invites readers into his process as he considers the meaning of being American, writes three poems, “One Today,” “Mother Country” and “What We Know of Country,” revises them, consults family and colleagues, and prepares for the big day. We share Blanco’s awe and wonder as he goes to the podium to read “One Today,” and as he receives an outpouring of public and professional responses to his work, including invitations to write other occasional poems.
It’s a lovely memoir, melodic and rich in imagery. For example, he describes sitting in the airport after the inauguration when everything felt “like those few minutes some mornings in bed with half my life still in a dream and the other half of me being born anew into the miracle of yet another morning.”
The book is not only a poignant look at Blanco’s experiences over the past year but also at America’s, from Sandy Hook to the Boston Marathon, from the inauguration to historic advances in marriage equality. And it’s a meditation on loving one’s country, through good times and bad.
In “What We Know of Country,” Blanco describes this kind of mature patriotism, beyond the flag-waving admiration we’re taught as children. It’s like a relationship, one in which we forgive mistakes and stay together through disagreements, because “to know a country takes all we know of love.” The line is powerful because it’s true in a deeply humane way.
Blanco sees poetry as “a great big mirror, for all of us to look into, together.” Reading For All of Us, One Today, I was filled with a renewed hope that what binds us is greater than what separates us, and a profound admiration for Blanco as a champion of poetry. When he goes into classrooms, he teaches kids “the beauty, power, and purpose of poetry,” which for Blanco is “connecting to people – and having them connect emotionally to their own lives.” Poetry is relevant, Blanco believes, because a shared emotional experience – like hearing a moving poem – breaks down barriers and helps people relate to each other. His memoir is a tribute to all that inspires him to write and share poetry.
Sheep, goats, llamas and bears
If you or someone you know dreams of owning a small farm, knits or loves the New England countryside, Barbara Parry’s Adventures in Yarn Farming: Four Seasons on a New England Fiber Farm will be a treat. Parry explains the intricacies and hard work of raising sheep for their wool in detail. “The barn is my vessel; we set a course for a new year. Shearing, skirting fleeces, and lambing are now visible points on the horizon. The yearly rituals are the same, but no two years are alike.” This book is part memoir, part farm journal, part how-to manual, with recipes, instructions for dying and spinning, and patterns for knitting and weaving.
Photographer Ben Barnhart captures each season in all its glory and many of the farm’s sheep, goats and llamas. I would have preferred less farming jargon and a slightly more streamlined narrative, but Parry provides a window into small farming and skilled craftsmanship, which are part of New England’s heritage, and does so beautifully.
Ben Kilham’s work studying black bears and his pioneering methods of raising orphaned bears and successfully releasing them into the wild are well known in New Hampshire. Out On a Limb: What Black Bears Have Taught Me About Intelligence and Intuition reveals how his unique studies have influenced bear science worldwide.
Kilham never imagined this would happen, nor that he’d be invited to translate his years of experience into a Ph.D. As he writes: “Being self-taught, it was difficult not to be intimidated by the extensive literature in the behavioral sciences that clearly states that none of the behavior I had been witnessing actually existed in animals. . . . I’m over that now.”
Kilham himself is as interesting as his research, and passages in which he describes his life and studies are delightful. The last part of the book, in which Kilham lays out his hypotheses that “a close look at the primitive social systems of black bears provide(s) an alternative explanation for the development of human cooperative behavior, altruism, and morality,” is especially intriguing.
Kilham’s work may affect science in ways not yet fully understood, which makes his autodidactic methods even more remarkable. His book is thoroughly engaging, accessible and practical, too – he ends with an appendix outlining how humans and black bears can coexist peacefully, and how to behave with a bear if you inadvertently attract one to food sources in your yard.