I capture the castle!

Pollard Memorial Library in Lowell, Mass. I'll be doing a reading and book-signing there on March 22 at 7 p.m.

Well, not really. It isn’t really a castle. I haven’t captured anything, except (I hope) your attention. And that phrase has just been on my mind because of several recent conversations about the classic book of that name by British author Dodie Smith.

In any event, captured castle or not, I love this building — and I’ve just been invited to do a “Rip” reading and book-signing there!

Please spread the word:

Author Nicholas DiGiovanni will read from his novella “Rip,” a modern-day parody of Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” on Thursday, March 22, from 7 to 8 p.m., at the Pollard Memorial Library, 401 Merrimack St., Lowell, Mass., Admission is free. The author will discuss how he came to write his spoof on Irving’s tale. After reading excerpts from the book, he will answer audience questions and sign copies of the book.


A wellspring of poetry

I admire her. I like her. I know her. And I’ve never met her. She’s Ann Hutt Browning. And she’s just published a book of poetry – her first book-length collection – titled “Deep Landscape Turning.”

Here’s a brief biography:

Ann Hutt Browning has two master’s degrees, one in psychology and one in architecture, four grown children, five grandchildren, and one husband of 50 years. Born in England, raised in southern California, she attended Radcliffe College and has lived in Missouri, Kentucky, France, Macedonia, Chicago, Virginia and now Massachusetts. She and her husband, Preston, a retired English professor, operate Wellspring House in Ashfield, Massachusetts, a retreat center for writers and artists. Some of her poetry has appeared in The Carolina Quarterly, The Southern Humanities Review, The Dalhousie Review, The Ecozoic Reader, Dogwood, Peregrine, Out of Line, Salamander, and several on-line poetry journals.

Here are two of her poems:


When she awoke in the morning
She threw back her all cotton sheet,
Cotton woven in a far off country
By a dark skinned girl chained to her large loom.
When she went into her kitchen
She ground beans to brew her coffee,
Beans grown, roasted in a far off country
Where the tall trees were cleared off the land
For the coffee bushes to be planted
And tended by boys not in school and men
Old before their time and where all the waste
From treating the beans is flushed and dumped
In the river, adding that detritus
To the human waste and chemical run
Off already there in the gray water
And where downstream others used the water,
That dark water, for cooking and bathing.

After her children boarded the school bus,
Wearing clothing made in the Philippines,
Mauritania, Taiwan, a hodge-podge
Of imports from other worlds, far off countries,
Where sweat shops flourished,
Filled with child workers,
She went shopping:
Guatemalan cantaloupes, Mexican tomatoes,
Chilean oranges, California lettuce,
Carolina rice, Michigan peaches,
Blueberries from Maine, all bought because
In her garden she grew hybrid tea roses,
Siberian iris, cross-bred daylilies in six colors,
Held down by pine bark, chipped in Oregon.

Then she roamed the market aisle marked
“Special,” and bought a basket, its colors
Imitative of Mexican folk art, made in China,
The price suggesting child or prison labor
Dyed the fronds of grass, wove the basket
And attached the label.

She ate a quick lunch of a hamburger,
The ground beef from a far off country
Where the virgin forest was burned off
So cattle could graze on tropical grass,
The bun made from Canadian wheat
And the ketchup, again those Mexican tomatoes.
She drove home to prop up her feet
On the foam cushioned sofa, turn on the TV,
Assembled in Nicaragua,
In a maquiladora by a woman
Who rose at five a.m. to walk three kilometers
To the bus, who then rode twenty-five miles
To the factory in the tax free zone,
Who worked from eight to five
With a quarter of an hour to eat
Or use the toilet,
Who got home at eight o’clock
To bathe and feed her three children,
With eighteen cents an hour in her pocket
On good days.

The woman on the sofa
Watched two soap operas
As usual on a week day,
And ate ice cream,
American ice cream.
She liked American ice cream.
She lived an ordinary life.


What happens now,
In the moments of our nights,
In the continuity of our days,
Shall be written in blood lines
Of darkened hearts, in the liquid
Gold plate of our broken souls,
In the long ligaments of naked limbs,
In the marrow of our fractured bones.
We stumble on with hesitant bodies;
We fall back, floundering.
How many are victims,
How many witnesses?
Can reason comprehend
The horror of explosions,
Lost lives of ordinary persons
Going about their ordinary work.
Hands touch and grip fast,
We embrace for soul’s sake.
Bond now and breathe together.
Breathe in, breathe out.
Take breath from autumn trees,
From ripe tomatoes on brown vines,
Grown old now, just as we
Are grown old
Before our time.


I encountered Ann Hutt Browning’s poetry through her husband Preston, who has worked long and hard to gain his wife’s poetry the attention it deserves — and to publish “Deep Landscape Turning.”

I heard all about Ann — and came to feel like I know her — during a week-long stay in spring of 2009 at Wellspring House a writers and artists retreat Preston and Ann started in Ashfield, Mass., in the eastern foothills of the Berkshires, in the neighborhood of Northampton and Amherst. It’s a beautiful dream-come-true, and the spirit behind it — the vision shared by the Brownings — permeates the place.  During my stay, I joined a few others in an informal readings of our works, five of us gathered around the hearth in Wellspring House’s cozy downstairs living room/library. Preston, a writer and scholar in his own right, chose not to  read some of his work, but instead to read some of Ann’s poetry – and she was there in the room with us, even though she couldn’t be there, as Preston’s beautiful reading of his wife’s writing made it clear that his effort to get “Deep Landscape Turning” into print was nothing less than a true labor of love.

“Deep Landscape Turning” was just published by Ibbetson Street Press in Somerville, Mass. Here’s how to order the book. Ann’s poetry is lovely and intelligent, lyric and insightful, both personal and universal. Her book costs just $15. And how can you go wrong spending just $15 on a new book by a fine poet named Browning?

The cultivation of grapes

You ask when I’m going to get around to writing about my visit to Concord.

You would think, when I finally did get around to it, that I’d write about visiting the graves of Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne and Louisa May and all the other Alcotts, all of whom sleep their endless sleep within the green lawns and wooded paths of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, a few blocks from the village green.

The Thoreau family's plot at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord
The Thoreau family's plot at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord

Or maybe I’d write about staying at the venerable Colonial Inn, part of which was occupied for several years by his transcendental eminence Henry David and members of the Thoreau clan.

Concord's Colonial Inn
Concord's Colonial Inn

Perhaps I’d dwell a little on the pivotal events at Concord and Lexington which spawned a revolution.

You’d think I’d write about the delicate white flowers you photographed along the shore and the celestial light I saw shimmering on the holy waters of Walden.

Blossoms at Walden Pond
Blossoms at Walden Pond
Or, speaking of transcendence, maybe I’d write about thoughts that arose as I sat on a bench in downtown Concord and watched as transcendental tourists floated past like wispy wistful ghosts who whispered  of glowing and translucent love.
Downtown Concord
Downtown Concord

But I choose to speak of Concord and its grapes, which were first cultivated by Ephraim Wales Bull,  and whose grave at Sleepy Hollow gripes to the very end and beyond that he realized no gain from his carefully cultivated breed of grape – the real fortune was made by a man from New Jersey, name of Welch,  who took those grapes and turned them into jam and jelly.

And so on Bull’s headstone are etched these words:  “He sowed, others reaped.”

Ephraim Wales Bull and his Concord grapes
Ephraim Wales Bull and his Concord grapes

I did not know when I came home from kindergarten to the Mulford Garden projects in Yonkers, and waiting for me were a glass of milk and a peanut butter-and-jelly on Wonder Bread made for me every day by my mother, that my mother and I were connecting to and becoming as one with the transcendentalists as I sat and ate my sandwich.

As I sat on that park bench I was thinking about many things, including old Bull and his grapes, and how his hard work yielded fruit that did not bear fruit for himself, about the careful nurturing and pruning and guidance and patience – call it the labor of love – required to allow something to take root and spread its vines and provide sweetness and beauty.

As I sat on that park bench, I thought of an arbor I have in my own back yard. The grapes are, in fact, Concord grapes. Sometimes I’ve cut back the vines or cleared away weeds but mostly now I leave the vines to their own devices.

Some years, when the weather is not conducive to the growth of grapes, they shrivel into raisins on the vine. Other years, when the warmth and light are dealt in proper doses , the vines cascade down the arbor, and thousands of grapes threaten to pull down the old wooden posts with their weight, and birds built nests amid the vines on the top of the arbor, and the birds eat the sweet grapes, and deer come at night, and they reach to the higher realms of that arbor, and there’s plenty of grapes on the arbor for everyone.

As grapes grow so, too, can love grow, when storm clouds pass and the sun warms the vines right down to their roots, and sitting on that park bench,  I thought of Concord and Mr. Bull’s grapes, and I decided I just didn’t agree with that bitter viticulturist – I believe that those who take time to sow seeds, and let them take root, then nurture the vines, then wait patiently for the weather to freshen, these sowers will reap the sweetest fruits from the labors of their love.

The depth of our own natures

A friend who lives in the wilds of transcendentalism, in the land of Thoreau and Emerson, told me not too long ago that his daily run sometimes took him on the path that circles Walden Pond. This same friend and his older brother were with me when I visited that pond for the very first time.

Here’s what I remember. I was disappointed to find a public beach at Walden Pond. I enjoyed the stroll around the pond. I saw the marker at the site where Thoreau’s hut once stood. I think I even remember seeing the railroad tracks mentioned by Thoreau, and being surprised that they were so close to the pond and to Thoreau’s retreat — come to think of it, I remember being surprised that this symbol of blessed solitude was so close to the town of Concord itself.

But what I remember most of all was when my friend’s brother took off his shirt and shoes, then leaped with a great splash into the pond, which great splash was followed by a great scream as his foot landed on a broken beer bottle.

A broken bottle — trash — tossed into the last place in the world where trash should be tossed — tossed into the holy waters of Walden Pond.

Flash forward a few decades — plenty of time for my friend’s brother’s foot to have healed — but also plenty of time for man to do even more permanent damage to Walden and the woods around it. According to a Harvard University research team,  climate change is the likely culprit in the disappearance of more than 25 percent of the flowers and plants documented by Thoreau in the mid-1800s; another 36 percent “exist there in such small numbers that their disappearance may be imminent.” According to the study, the mean temperature in Thoreau’s old neighborhood has risen more than 4 degrees Fahrenheit in the past century.

Here’s the bathing beach at Walden Pond:

Here’s what the pond and its surroundings looked like around 1900:

Thoreau declared: “In wilderness is the preservation of the world.” But Thoreau, if he still “traveled extensively” in Concord and its environs, would now have to look long and hard to find the violets, wild orchids, lilies, buttercups, anemones and wild roses once so prolific around Walden, into which waters the great philosopher and naturalist gazed long and hard in order to measure “the depth of his own nature.”