Rules of Thumb, 30x30, and the Laws of Nature

Spring Landscape (Rain), A. Krehbiel My mother had a commonplace book in which she recorded, by hand, in beautiful cursive, proverbs, sayings, and quotes that struck her as interesting, thought provoking, or wise. I also love sayings, and quotes, and mantras, but mostly I’ve collected rules of thumb, those short pithy statements that condense ways of dealing with life on earth in the same way that proverbs give advice on how to behave in prudent, trouble-avoiding ways.  Rules of thumb exist for every field of human endeavor. There are the general ones, such as the 80% rule, or Pareto Principle, that gets applied in sometimes surprising ways—"eighty percent of every thing is trash,” someone will say, or another will say that “80% of your output comes from 20% of your efforts,” for example. The 80/20 ratio is useful in all sorts of contexts. For example, in a perennial garden, the general rule (backed up by scientific evidence) is that about 75-80% of the plants should be native (lo

April is Poetry Month 2014: Kumin's "The Brown Mountain"


Maxine Kumin
This past year, we have lost fine poets that I grew up reading. Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott and Maxine Kumin all made nature their poetic home and the source of their word-hoards.  Each was from a different home ecosystem and thus utilized different language and imagery. Yet their subject matter carried in common the themes of beauty, death, love, and life with others that great lyric poetry entails. Walcott’s high-flown eloquence, Heaney’s stubborn earthiness, Kumin’s plain speech; all are worth reading and savoring.

Just recently I was out in the backyard stirring my still-frozen compost heap, muttering incantations--imprecations--under my breath as I endeavored to wake it up for spring.  Maxine Kumin lived on a horse farm, and her compost heap was of another order entirely. For Poetry Month this year I present her meditation on compost.

The Brown Mountain

What dies out of us and our creatures,
out of our fields and gardens,
comes slowly back to improve us:
the entire mat of nasturtiums
after frost has blackened them,
sunflower heads the birds have picked clean, the still
sticky stalks of milkweed
torn from the pasture, coffee grounds,
eggshells, moldy potatoes,
the tough little trees that once 
were crowded with brussels sprouts,
tomatoes cat-faced or bitten into
by inquisitive chipmunks,
gargantuan cucumbers gone soft
from repose. Not the corn stalks and shucks,
not windfall apples. These
are sanctified by the horses.
The lettuces are revised
as rabbit pellets, holy with nitrogen.
Whatever fodder is offered the sheep
comes back to us as raisins
of useful dung.

Compost is our future.
The turgid brown mountain
steams, releasing
the devil's own methane vapor,
cooking our castoffs so that from
our spatterings and embarrassments--
cat vomit, macerated mice,
rotten squash, burst berries,
a mare's placenta, failed melons,
dog hair, hoof parings--arises
a rapture of blackest humus.
Dirt to top-dress, dig in. Dirt fit
for the gardens of commoner and king.
 (From Where I Live: New and Selected Poems 1990-2010)

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