Tag Archives: The Rural Life by Verlyn Klinkenborg

The Triumphs of April

In 1922, T.S. Eliot began his monumental modern poem “The Waste Land” with the words “April is the cruelest month.” Eliot, of course, was not looking ahead to our pandemic a century later, but his words resonate with me during this epic and alarmingly cruel month of April 2020.

“The Waste Land” contains exhaustive literary allusions. It is generally agreed that Eliot’s opening was a somber response to the opening lines of Chaucer in “The Canterbury Tales”: “When that April with his showers sweet / The drought of March hath pierced to the root …” It’s probably also worth mentioning that Eliot was in an unhappy marriage and suffered from severe depression.

Eliot, who lived his life in climates more northerly than my Alabama, was most directly evoking the struggle of plants to come forth from the frozen ground of a winter recently passed. He was writing soon after the end of World War I – “the war to end all wars,” they thought – and, even more recently for him, the 1918-20 flu pandemic, which claimed anywhere from 17-100 million lives world-wide (record-keeping then, as now, is shockingly unreliable).

My maternal grandfather in Cullman County, Alabama, lost his mother and a sister to the 1918 pandemic; I, of course, knew that bit of family history but, until now, it seemed so very distant.

In these days of being housebound, I have gone back to the contemplative writings of Verlyn Klinkenborg, whose meditations on “The Rural Life” were a regular column in The New York Times a decade or so ago. Klinkenborg’s knack for quietly observing the sublime in the common occurrences of nature every day is wise and comforting.

The natural triumphs of April 2020 are overshadowed by the medical challenges, but they are abundant still. A humble backyard project, begun a year ago, has finally achieved my goals. A decade ago, I harvested cuttings from a wild and unruly rose bush off the shore of a small lake across from the house of friends. Most of the cuttings died. The few that survived, however, are prolific and now live in a somewhat stressed piece of pottery outside my back gate. “Stressed” means this Mexican pot, which was once red, I think, is bursting at its seams and may not last another year.

Inspired by English cottage gardens and a house in my mother’s neighborhood, my goal was to train my wild rose over the back fence and across the gate. When it blooms, the blooms only last a few weeks in mid-spring but I carefully trimmed and trained last summer in anticipation of when those fleeting moments might occur.

In this beautiful but cruel April, my mission is accomplished; the bush began to blossom and bloom a couple of weeks ago and today it appears to be near its peak. It has become my habit to take my morning cup of tea at the table in the back yard and admire the tiny flowers as I prepare for another day of remote teaching from the dining room table.

When I went out this morning, a neighborhood cat was calmly balanced atop my back fence, preening among the roses, undeterred by the threat of thorns all around.

Springtime and Verlyn Klinkenborg: An Appreciation

DSCN0329 Over the past year, it has been hard to keep the stress and my journal separate and the reader has had a share in what has been going on with my family and me. Yet, even at the darkest moments, I have tried to keep the journal as upbeat and positive as possible.

As spring makes its way into the summer and temperatures in northern Alabama are starting to hit the 90s, I am spending more time out of doors – my favorite place to be – and once again watching nature around my small patch of suburban life. In the past week, for the first time this season, I have noticed the fireflies emerging at dusk. My plants in pots and in the ground are doing okay but it has been dry and daily watering has become a necessity. The robins are playful and cagey, seeing how close they can get to me as they hunt worms and forage before they scamper away if I make a move to pick up a glass or rub my leg.

The magnolias are blooming, I don’t have a magnolia tree but there is one across the street. When I was growing up we occasionally had magnolias in the yard and there was a time when Mother would use the large sturdy leaves for Christmas decorations, often highlighting them with gold paint. The magnolias this year haven’t peaked yet but the trees are full and will be magnificent soon.

Many years ago my family decided to spend Memorial Day at my house and I was determined to have magnolia blossoms on my table. I spotted a gigantic untended magnolia tree in my neighborhood and knocked on the door to ask permission to clip a few blossoms. The lady that opened the door had deeply etched skin the color of old coffee grounds. When I asked her for permission to take some magnolia blossoms from her tree she said, “Is that what that is? A magnolia?”

I confirmed that it was and she said, “I never knew what that tree was called. Take all the flowers you want.”

Last night, as I was watering the backyard plants, I spotted a pot in bloom behind the schefflera. The schefflera spends the cool months inside the house and I didn’t realize something was growing behind it in the corner of the yard. When I pulled the pot forward, there was a healthy hydrangea beginning to bloom. Here’s the rub: the two hydrangeas I have planted and tended to over the past few years are healthy but refuse to blossom for me; this one, which I don’t even remember planting, seems to be doing just fine on its own, thank you very much. There’s a lesson there, but I’m not sure what it is. DSCN0321

Perhaps the most consistent comment I receive about “Professional Southerner” is that the reader finds a calm and relaxation in reading what I wrote. That is a good thing to hear since I began the online journal in 2013 at a time when there was much turmoil going on around me and I wanted these essays to be a break from the stresses of work and everyday life.

Meditating and observing in the yard put me in mind of the journalist and writer Verlyn Klinkenborg whose essays on “The Rural Life” were just about the most satisfying things to hit the pages of The New York Times for close to sixteen years from 1997 to 2013. Klinkenborg lives on a farm in upstate New York and his essays for the Times are meditations on the day-to-day life of the farm in a calm and pensive manner. His observations on the simple matters of everyday life always leave an impression of welcome solitude and the profundity of things which are all around us.

Klinkenborg came to mind when I revisited a collection of his essays in the book The Rural Life (hardcover: Little Brown and Company, 2002: paperback: Back Bay Publishing, 2004) which is a compilation of his Times essays. I gave the book to my Mother for Mother’s Day several years ago, hoping it would be as comforting to her as it is to me.

Reading the essays after several years, it occurs to me that I may be attempting in my recent writing to capture some of the tranquility and spirit that I get while reading Klinkenborg’s minimal and essential meditations in The Rural Life and its sequel, More Scenes from the Rural Life (Princeton Architectural Press, 2013).

In Klinkenborg’s final “Rural Life” essay for the Times on Christmas 2013 he addressed the ways in which his readers’ imaginations embellished the scope and reality of his modest farm. He wrote:

I am more human for all the animals I’ve lived with since I moved to this farm. Here, I’ve learned almost everything I know about the kinship of all life. The only crops on this farm have been thoughts and feelings and perceptions, which I know you’re raising on your farm, too. Some are annual, some perennial and some are invasive – no question about it

But perhaps the most important thing I learned here, on these rocky, tree-bound acres, was to look up from my work in the sure knowledge that there was always something worth noticing and that there were nearly always words to suit it.

Thanks, Klinkenborg. May your imagination forever notice and embellish. DSCN0336