Archive for March, 2013

Two Poems: What Nature Can Learn and Teach


©1995 By Bob Litton


“The first land animal was probably looking for water.”
— from an old college first year biology textbook

The Flood subsides:  Its dropping sheet reveals
Islands, peaks, then a mass of steaming land;
Baked by the sun, thick mud cracks and peels,
While rivulets wind seaward through the sand.
A drenched palm, twitching in the heat, up-springs;
In the crux of its fronds two gills expand
Where a half-stuck sea beast half clings.

Dazed in the noontide broil, the lost one,
Bereft of water, lolls his tongue athwart
His jaw and blinks eyes red with exhaustion.

No longer can his dizzied brain impart
Commands to his limbs. In spasms they flap,
Like the witless muscles of his heart,
Until, sneezing by chance, he falls from the trap.

He stares, astonished at what he’s wrought.
Unused to freedom, scudding all about,
He bumps a rock and wonders what he’s caught.
The collision stuns him into reflective doubt.
At last, darting his tongue, he recalls the sea:
It’s not in sight, but as he turns his snout,
Delusion makes a wave of every tree.

While all sea and no sea on every hand appear,
Encroaching night compounds his rueful fix;
A pall of darkness, ignorance and fear
Hovers above, whichever way he picks.
Yet, so needful is conviction to evolving minds,
Forbidding that doubt with hope commix,
The certain pilgrim ever inland winds.

That’s not the only error he will make,
And, though the first, he’s not the last of fools;
For look! Some female’s made the same mistake!
Thinks she, “Though my pond’s dry, there’re deeper pools!”
And sets to work on her optimistic plan,
Unwitting how Chance their intentions over-rules,
She meets him on the dusty road to man.

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Old grey owl perched on a pole
Against the dark winter night
His blinking face moved from left to right
And back again, seeming more full of knowing

Than he had need to use.

In time a crow alighted nearby
On one of the pendent lines.
He critically eyed the owl,
Then preened his own sable wing and breast,
Much as humans will file their nails,
Not from any need of nature,
But rather in feigned indifference
To something too desirable or abstruse.

“Caw!” croaked the crow. “What a chump!
Haven’t you seen the boy with his gun?
He’s still out, though the hour’s late,
And he’d love to put pellets through a perching owl.
Could you but see yourself! Stark against the black’ning sky,
Like birch bark on lake water,
Such an easy mark you are!
You’d wisely hide among those poplar boughs
‘Cross field. Keep here and you’re a proper fool!”
After speaking thus, the crow bowed his head
And his eyes’ dark pupils leaned in their corners
Like landladies against doorjambs.

“Tu whit! Tu whoo!” the owl responded.
“You’re very clever, Crow, to detect
So smartly the youngster’s aim before he appears.
Thank you for your considerateness.”
Then, winking goodbye with one wide blink,
He swooshed into the air like little Miss Muffet.

“Caw! Caw!” guffawed the crow. “What a chump!
I wanted Owl’s place; Boy was my lever;
And slick, here I sit at the peak of the pole!”

It started to snow, slowly at first
Then faster and faster until it draped
The lines, the pole, and the crow.
The once black bird was now so white
He hardly looked like a crow at all…
But, mmmm, more like an owl, I’d say.
Still, the crow pridefully roosted on his pinnacle.

It just so happened (though the crow didn’t know)
Boy did come out that night to watch the falling flakes.
And, as always, for fun he carried his gun —
To shoot cans, signs, the neighbor’s cat, and birds.
Of course, he saw the crow, though he thought it was an owl.
Had he known it was a crow he would have let it go —
He’d shot so many of those already.
But an owl was rare and thus a prize.
Boy took aim; “ping” went gun; down dropped crow.

Next morning, Owl was hooting in a creviced poplar
When chattering Chickadee told him of Brother Crow
And what had befallen him over by the phone pole.
Owl blinked his left eye slowly and said,
“How odd he didn’t follow his own advice!”




Community Journalism as Ministry

By Bob Litton

As a teenager I was what some might call “religious”. I even declared in a formal vow before our small Methodist congregation my intention to go into the ministry. It didn’t take long for me to realize, however, that my understanding of the minister’s role and of my own motives were off base.

I learned that the minister is as much or more a business manager as a preacher of sermons and comforter of the ill and bereaved. One day I received a letter from some organization addressed to “Rev. Robert Litton”, and I hadn’t even completed the course for a preacher’s license yet, much less been ordained! Nor would I have liked to be addressed as “Reverend” had I been ordained. Then there was the day our pastor terminated the colored custodian, whom I liked very much, because he was “unreliable”.  I could add more, but enough is enough.

It also occurred to me that what I really wanted to do was stand at a pulpit, explicate the Bible verse, and tell people how to live their lives in accordance with Christian values.  All of a sudden I saw such a self-image as self-glorification. I dropped the notion of ministry.  I also dropped my association with the church and, I thought, my spirituality.

However, I found out that it’s not that easy to drop one’s spirituality — one’s spiritual seeking or yearning as I much later came to view it. But that is another subject that I might develop one day; right now I just want to concentrate on the broader sense of ministry.

Also while I was a teenager a wise lady told me, “Any honest work is honorable work”. And it is a commonplace within our society to speak of an honest trade or profession as a “calling”; it is not only ministers who are “called” to perform certain tasks.

Eventually, after stumbling around through various fields — school teaching, social work, carpet sales — I settled into community journalism, i.e., working as a reporter for small town newspapers and a radio station. I was editor at two newspapers, reporter for two others, and contributing correspondent for two more. And now I have this blog; because, you see, I’ve got what the old-time journalists used to call “ink in my veins”.

During all those 20 years of reporting for various news media, I came to realize that I was, after all, involved in a ministry — a ministry that needn’t cause me to blush, assuming that I pursued it honestly and humbly. At first I just wanted to write because I enjoy “word-smithing” in a fashion that is clear, concise and convincing.  I just wanted to describe the people and the country around me much as was formerly done by writers for the New Yorker magazine in the informal essays under the “Talk of the Town” column.

It didn’t take long, however, for me to discover that the citizens of those towns expected more of me.  They didn’t want me to just describe the happenings at county commissioners’ court meetings and city council meetings; they expected me to spotlight my subjects, either through exposé or through simple background education. All of a sudden, I was in fact telling people how to live their lives according to civic values, if not specifically Christian values.

A self-change like that can easily go to one’s head. Hanging onto one’s humility or modesty can become a struggle. Also, the reporter/editor, if he has any values, will become aware that his/her editor or publisher may not share those values. Like the church, a news medium is not just a servant of the people: it’s a business.  The publisher, especially, has his eye more focused on advertising revenue than he does on editorial content.  When the latter negatively affects the former, the publisher will sit down on his editors and reporters. Take the weekly full-page ad from the local grocer, for instance. If the grocer’s daughter’s name shows up on the police blotter for DWI or shoplifting, many a publisher is going to erase any mention of the incident in the reporter’s police log. The publisher doesn’t want to jeopardize his biggest advertiser’s account just for the sake of “fair and balanced” reporting.

But let’s return to the “ministry” aspect of community journalism.

The reporter and the editor can find a thrill in laying out before their neighbors full and clear accounts of local governmental meetings. It is largely through those reports, usually read by more than a thousand eyes, that the American ideal of self-governing continues. The best reporters and editors will concentrate on developing that completeness and clarity, not primarily to bolster their egos but to support their fellow citizens — at least the ones who care — in their efforts to govern themselves. In other words, the small-town editor/reporter can become immersed in and enjoy the many facets of grass-roots democracy.

Provided the editor/reporter is a gregarious person, he or she can also gain much from gathering stories from individuals about their conditions and adventures. For some of us, it is a thrill to walk down Main Street the day a paper is published or a radio story broadcast and receive either kudos or railleries…or damnings…from our neighbors and readers. (Even the damnings inform you that the people are at least reading your stuff.) And to interview most of those people for either a hard news story or a feature article can enlighten the journalist in surprising ways and degrees about the varieties of human nature. It’s as if those folks magically changed from two-dimensional beings to three-dimensional persons.

But enough for now of sweetness and light.  There are the harsher aspects of chronicling a small town or county’s life.  I’ve already mentioned one: the economic pressure on the publisher to earn a living and the ethical compromises to which he can succumb. But there is another side of the publisher’s personality that is vulnerable: his or her view of the sensational. This publisher here might be so timid and ignorant of, or indifferent to, journalism’s highest purposes that he will block any story that reflects badly on the community, regardless of the non-existence of any danger to advertising revenue. That publisher there might be so hysterically addicted to sensationalism that he will fabricate a story just to see tempers (and his subscription level) rise: Recall the famous anecdote about how “yellow journalism” publisher William Randolph Hearst told Frederic Remington to just provide the pictures, he (Hearst) would provide the (Spanish American) war.

Even the idealistic reporter or editor is not immune to imbalance in his/her work. Regardless of  how much a writer may struggle to write a fair account of some person or event, there will be readers who perceive a “slant” in the article. And, no doubt, we all do have subconscious drives that cause us to depict a subject in an imperfect manner, often simply by the choice of some particular verb, adjective or noun. That can’t be entirely forestalled, only striven against.

Then there is the factor of compensation. I assume that the national news media folks are well-paid; certainly they are when compared to community journalists out in the hinterland. In this regard, community journalists can be compared to school teachers, the majority of whom receive deplorably low wages because their employers assume that they derive much compensatory enjoyment through their creative jobs. Also, after Watergate and the glory-lift that episode gave to reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, there was a huge influx of students into journalism schools. And there are many hacks now with indifferent skills who are willing to report on a meeting or a ball game just to see their name published as a byline.

Perhaps I have concentrated too much on the “harsher aspects” of community journalism. After all, no occupation that I know of is free of its downsides, especially the downside of office politics.  As one former publisher said to me, “If you have three people working together, you have office politics.” That, in fact, was my Achilles heel: I couldn’t cope with the office jealousies and sniping.

In spite of all that, I treasure the memories of my days covering news stories and helping my communities develop their democratic muscles. That’s why I hate to see similar opportunities fall out of this new generation’s hands. The “newspaper of record” seems to be fading into oblivion in many communities, along with the competition among two or more papers in a single town. News print is continually becoming more expensive. Many major dailies closed down forever last century, and the smaller papers who depended on those dailies’ presses to publish their own issues have fewer and fewer places to turn for their own survival.

The Internet is to a large extent responsible for these major turnovers. Cyberspace has become crammed with periodicals, both large and small; and, just as anybody can now “publish” his or her own book online, so can any bubblehead with an opinion (rational or not), who knows how to spell and punctuate, turn out a deceptively attractive “newspaper” on the Internet. It’s a veritable Tower of Babel.

And Facebook-style “social media” notwithstanding, where’s the “community” in that?


Selected Journal Notes

By Bob Litton

Summer 1990

People who want too much to communicate — intense people, I suppose — are ironically the most alienated.  Perhaps that is because the majority of people are more satisfied with the briefest, most superficial, and even untrue talk

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The curse of the Human Being is his/her ability to anticipate pain and a tomorrow.  I wonder if any experiments have been done to determine lower animals’ sense of futurity.  After all, birds build nests; and a dog, from past experience, knows you intend to throw a stick or a Frisbee for him to catch.  But, anticipating probable immediate events is not the same as expecting another tomorrow, another sunrise.

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In previous decades it was common enough for scholars to relate of someone that he or she “flourished” between such and such years.  I like that word; it is sympathetic of flowers and it doesn’t have the terminal connotation of “lived”.

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We have several terms for an habitually angry woman: virago, harridan, shrew, and vixen; but we have not even one term, that I know of, that specifies an habitually angry man.

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We do not try to hear the worms; we never see our backs.

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I feel something approaching comfort when I stand before a sign which says “You Are Here.”

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I did not want to grow up to become a businessman; I couldn’t stomach the image of myself in suit coat, tie and jowls.

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I’ve  kept this old body company a hell of a long time.  Following, when considered in increments of time, appears like torture.  Fortunately for us perhaps, we cannot remember increments of time.  Or maybe those whom we call crazy became so because they had that ability.  Have I led my body or has my body led me this half-century?

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Young mother and her two-year-old daughter are eating in a cafeteria.  Daughter in a high chair, with food on tray in front of her, reaches for portion of roll her mother is about to bite into.  “No!” her mother says, “You have your own food there.”  The little girl begins to squeal.  The mother puts a palm to the girl’s cheek as though pondering whether to slap or to squeeze the girl’s mouth shut.  “Mommy has to eat, too,” the woman says.  The girl continues to fuss.

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I have talked and talked to women — perhaps overly much about serious subjects — but always with the purpose in mind that I might eventually understand one of them and then loving her would be much more comfortable for me; I could be ardent in my love-making.  But, invariably I angered them or gave up the task shortly after beginning it.  I don’t really know why.  In some cases, I believe, it was because they developed a kind of chameleon appearance for me, at times attracting me, and at other times repelling me, physically.  But, that doesn’t explain all instances.  Perhaps I couldn’t clearly conceive what I was trying to accomplish.

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Why do we want a god?

(1)    To explain the duality of Good and Evil

(2)    To offer an abiding place after death.

(3)    To alter the future in our behalf.

(4)    To console us in our grief and to reassure us during our anxiety attacks.

(5)    To explain the existence of intelligence.

(6)    To serve us as an image on which to pattern ourselves: the created creating the creator.

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When tragic events occur, is it because God wants them to happen; accepts and thus abets their happening; cannot prevent their happening (either because the events are too many or too powerful); does not know they are happening; or is actually preventing them from having worse effects?

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The Alcoholics Anonymous’ “Serenity Prayer” asks for the ability to accept what we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.  Our group always talks about acceptance, but never about courage and wisdom, at least not in the context of the Prayer.  To be called “wise” makes most people blush; to be called “commonsensical” is more easily swallowed.  And if one is characterized as “courageous”, he has reason to fear that he might have to substantiate it someday.

O that the “Serenity Prayer” used the term “discernment” rather than “wisdom” and “equanimity” rather than “serenity”!  Also, that it said “change the things that should be changed” rather than “change the things we can”.

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Don’t feel guilty when happiness strikes.

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9/29/90 – We never question the necessity for sleep; we only quibble over how much sleep is appropriate.  The fact that we sleep roughly a third of our life away does not carry over in our consciousness as a comment on the worth or urgency of waking activities.

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10/17/90 – We human beings are very slow-witted creatures, really.  We have to smell our eyebrows singeing before we will recognize that our house is on fire.

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 12/04/90 – With God’s will clearly before us we have no freedom; without it at least “at hand” we have no meaning.

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12/31/90 – I feel that I have so exhausted my friends that they must have an after-image of me when I leave them.

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1/15/91 – Spiritual Over-ride: A friend of mine recently gave up chewing tobacco. That reminded me of my only experience of the stuff.  My mouth burnt for a long while after I spat the tobacco out, which was shortly after taking it in.

Our bodies tell us when we’re doing something wrong, but we can over-ride their warnings with enough practice.

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2/05/91 – The Next Right Thing:  Usually, when we (in AA) talk about doing the “next right thing” we are talking about long-term goals, or steps that are anticipatory of long-term goals.  And we want to know that what we want to do is also what God wants for us.  The problem with knowing God’s will is that, were we to know it definitively, we would not be acting out of faith, but out of dictation — off a blueprint, so to speak.  We would no longer be free.

Our prime option is to act out of instinct, to trust our instinct grounded in honesty, especially honesty to ourselves.  For short-term issues, this is easier to do than for long-term ones; because the latter require, usually, more steps, more sustained effort.

A preacher on the radio one morning said, “God provides food for the birds, but he doesn’t put it in their nests.”

Then there’s the anecdote of the man whose house was situated on a hill.  A flood came into the valley below.  When one of the townspeople called to warn this man that the waters were rising, he replied, “The Lord will take care of me.”  The water level got higher, and a boat with a rescue team came to the man’s house.  “You’d better come with us,” one of them said.  “The Lord will provide” was the man’s response.  Just as the water was washing away the man’s house, a police helicopter appeared overhead.  The pilot signaled for the man to climb into a pontoon attached to one of the copter’s runners, but the man shook his head and yelled out through cupped hands, “The Lord will watch out for me.”

Finally, the man stood alone on the roof of his house with the water swirling at his feet.  He cried, “Lord, Lord, why aren’t you helping me?”

Suddenly a voice like thunder roared down from Heaven, “What do you mean?  I had somebody call you and I sent a rescue team in a boat and another in a helicopter.”

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2/15/91 – Intellect can get you far provided you don’t become prideful of intellect.  It can carry you only to the highest point of Purgatory.

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3/10/91 – Which of us recalls the effort, mental or physical, he expended on his own behalf in being born into the world?  How many of us can plan our own leaving it?  Why then do we insist on controlling our day-to-day experience?

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3/12/91 – Contact with God:  We naturally desire that this contact be constant.  Yet, how many of us are constantly aware of our own heart beat, although nothing in the world is more constant, more regular?  Moreover, we little realize that we can have too much of God.  If we had the experience of Him in anything like His fullness we would go insane.  In this regard, look at Samuel Rutherford’s letter, dated 1637, to Lady Gaitgirth: “He could not let out His rivers of love upon His own, [for] these rivers would be in hazard of loosening a young plant at the root, and He [knows] this of you.”

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5/08/91 – Cattle in a meadow, mooing, munching, moving with the shade.  What a mercy!

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6/13/91 – On this day, a clear, warm day, when I had thirty minutes to wait before entering the Kelly Temps office to pick up my check, I sat on the grass with my book about Euripides, a very pleasant situation.  After reading a brief while, I noticed the sound of what seemed like many hands clapping.  Curious, I looked up and across the vast lawn toward the expressway, where several cottonwoods stood by the highway’s high substructure.  The clapping I was hearing was the sound the trees’ leaves were making, very much like human hands clapping!

Sometime later (can’t recall if it was weeks or months), I was reading in Isaiah, preparing for a Bible study class, when I was startled by coming upon this verse (55:12):

You will go out with joy
and be led forth in peace.
Before you mountains and hills will break into cries of joy,
and all the trees in the countryside will clap their hands.

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7/03/91 — Getting into “dire straits” is an excellent way to weed your friendship patch.

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9/01/92 – Just completed reading John Wesley’s Journal, which gave me encouragement to return to this, my own.  Much has happened to me and through me since I left off, a fact which has heretofore hampered me from writing.  Another hindering influence is the overwhelming impact of time.  I am so conscious — so exceedingly conscious — of how much time I have wasted in my 52 years that a sort of horrifying burden of guilt blocks me from what little I could be doing now.

We in the city don’t simply kill time; we murder it.  We are surrounded with movement and clocks, and it seems we are constantly matching one against the other.  Our self-esteem, even the very value of our life, is determined by how we fit the clock.  I am a very slow person, and so I am a misfit at work and in the social whirl, for even in the latter quickness of “wit” is a prime factor.

How different out in the Big Bend country! And that is why the land of mesas and cacti is in its way terrifying.  Just imagine how many sunrises and sunsets, how many thunderstorms and sandstorms, those huge rocky cliffs have experienced; and yet they just stand there, dumb and still.  It is awesome and strangely depressing: that sublime prospect.

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10/27/92 – Playing God:  I sat on my front porch step, drinking coffee and watching a beetle as it tried to bring itself upright.  The black creature’s legs flailed impotently in the air.  Once, having moved itself against a dry, brown magnolia leaf, it managed to get halfway on its feet again, but quickly fell back over.  I pondered whether I should intervene and set him upright.  That would be interfering with Nature’s course, I reasoned, but I am part of Nature, too, and perhaps my intervention would be part of “Nature’s course” simply from the fact that I happen to be here witnessing this event.  Then I imagined a god who studied such a problem all day, from dawn until he could no longer see the beetle in the twilight’s deepening shadows.  Perhaps this god would seek to help the beetle, using a twig time after time, to set the creature on its feet; and immediately after each “help” the beetle would collapse right onto its back again.  Finally, at the end of the day, no longer able to see the beetle, the god would surrender his notion in disgust.  Then, suddenly, an insight would strike the god.  “Perhaps,” the god might say to himself, “…perhaps the beetle was not to die because he fell, but rather his falls were due to the fact that he was dying.”

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11/09/92 – Sunday:  Ken Shamblin’s sermon today dealt with the problem of God’s non-intervention.  Does God play favorites?  Rev. Shamblin quoted biologist J.S.B. Haldane as responding to a query as to why one-fourth of the creatures on this planet are species of beetles: “I don’t know,” said Haldane, “I suppose the Good Lord has an inordinate fondness for beetles.”

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2/23/93 — Clear Tuesday, cold but clear and no excuse for not taking my constitutional around Winfrey Point.  As I came around the western bend I noticed a pair of mallards calmly cruising near the shore at my right.  Suddenly, out of some rushes a male mallard came, skimming the water.  As the couple turned away and were taking off in an effort to elude him, the rogue caught the female’s tail feathers in his beak, detaining her so that he could mount her.  The cuckolded “husband” circled on the water and came up to the coital scene, where he pecked at the rapist’s face.  As the two males engaged in a brief wing-flapping altercation, the female took off in the air eastward.  The males likewise became airborne, the injured husband in pursuit of the Lothario.  Initially following the female, they circled off to the right and back toward me…and the rushes.  The assaulter dove into his hideout in the rushes, while the husband winged overhead and went off to find his mate.

Later, I wondered whether he ever found her, how their communications went afterwards, whether the rogue had had time to impregnate the female, and whether the cuckold would accept any of her ducklings as his own.

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6/09/93 — A Parable In The Making:  Walked around Winfrey Point this morning for the first time in a week.  Was rewarded with some fresh observations.  First, there was the long-necked, white water bird — a tern, I suppose — who stood in the shallow water near shore.  The water level, probably actual, was just above the bird’s “ankles”.  However, the wind was making waves, and as each wave came up to the bird, the result was that he seemed to be squatting.

Next, I heard a whole variety of birds chorusing up in a single tree, and nearby — aloof as usual — a mockingbird, perched on a utility line, gave out notes that sounded like nothing so much as the clatter of a telegraph key.  Was that his own song?

A squirrel sat on his haunches in the shade of an old cottonwood.  He watched me with cautious but not unfriendly eyes as I strolled past.

Leaving the jogger/cyclist path, I crossed a natural drainage ditch toward the alley leading to my apartment.  On the farther bank of the ditch I saw a fish head — more truly the upper half of the fish.  He might have been brought there as a water fowl’s repast which was interrupted for some reason.

Then, noticing a tree that looked like a young fruit tree, I thought of a parable about a garden, a very large garden dedicated to a community of urbanites by a wealthy landowner who felt that his city needed some place to which neighbors could resort.  He has fruit trees planted in the garden and in other ways prepares the spot — “tames” it — so that the citizens would want to go there.  Some people dig up the fruit trees and carry them off to their private yards.  Some people pee and throw fast food leftovers in a pond and the stream that feeds it.  Dope dealers transact business there at all hours of the day.  Eventually, the police have to close the garden.


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