You’re invited…

Quarters_poster3 … to a reading by the contributors to Four Quarters to a Section, the South Dakota State Poetry Society’s publication of the winners of their annual chapbook anthology. The reading will be on October 29th at 7 p.m. in the Archives and Special Collections on the South Dakota State University campus in Brookings, S.D. The archives is located on the upper level of the Hilton M. Briggs Library.

Christine Stewart-Nuñez, Professor of English at South Dakota State University, edited this year’s volume and will also speak at Thursday evening’s event. The contest was judged by Heidi Czerwiec, a poet, essayist, translator and critic who coordinates creative writing at the University of North Dakota. The cover image of the 2014 chapbook anthology is “Autumn Dance,” artwork by Betty L. Beer of Brookings, South Dakota.

Books will be available for purchasing and signing, and refreshments will be served. If you know of anyone else who may be interested in attending, please pass on the information. Hope to see you there!

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A Flag Story For Flag Day

A year ago this month, textile conservator Terri Schindel led a group of local volunteers in a “living exhibit,” the conservation of the 38-star flag that was the last to fly over Fort Sisseton in northern South Dakota. The flag was rediscovered during a conservation workshop that I attended at the fort in 2012, and I was surprised and delighted to be asked by Terri to help with the project. I told her that I wasn’t an expert with needle and thread, but would be happy to help in any way that I could.

DSC_0676It turned out that I would have needed a lot of practice to learn the required stitches to work on the flag, and the team had only 30 days to complete the project. Thankfully, many of the other volunteers were gifted needleworkers. I thought that I could help the most by doing the documentation, writing down the decisions made and steps taken to conserve the flag and taking pictures of the conservation in progress. I had never done anything like this before and there was no template to follow. I decided to document the process in much the same way as I journal every day. I had to learn a whole new vocabulary in order to describe the work being done. I learned about the parts of the flag such as the canton, the fly end, and the pole end. I also learned sewing and fabric terms like applique and back stitch, warp, and weft, and I learned conservation terms like humidification, and the difference between conservation and restoration. Of course, as a writer I love to learn new words so the task fit right in with my strengths and interests. P1070565

You may wonder what a “living exhibit” is. The work on the flag took place on site at Fort Sisseton, and people visiting the fort could watch the conservation in progress. Some of the volunteers were designated as “interpreters” to explain the conservation process and tell about the history of the flag to the people who stopped by to look at the flag. Many of the visitors were surprised at how large the flag is, about nine by sixteen feet. Three feet of the fly end were removed at some point in its history, probably because it had gotten tattered in the wind when it flew above the fort over 100 years ago.

The best part of the project for me was learning the story of the flag. The most common question we had from visitors was whether we were going to restore the flag. I think our human nature is to want to fix things that are damaged, to make them perfect again, like new. That is what we would do if we restored the flag. Conservation means that we clean and stabilize the flag to keep more damage from happening to it, but not “fix” or repair it. The first rule of conservation is to do no damage, and the second rule is to do nothing that can’t be undone.

P1070613I began to realize how much of the flag’s story was contained in the things that made it imperfect. The tattered fly end meant that the flag had been flown. The repairs to it and the types of stitches used told other stories about the life of the flag. A large piece of the canton had been patched and we tried to figure out why and how it had been replaced. Some of the questions we had will probably never be answered — they will remain mysteries.

Last week, two other volunteers and I were asked to speak at the flag dedication ceremony about our experiences conserving the flag. The event took place during this year’s annual Fort Sisseton Historical Festival. We tried to decide what to speak about as we prepared before the ceremony, and realized that the story of the flag is as big, or bigger than the flag itself. You can read more about its history here, in the South Dakota Conservation Digest January/February 2014 issue.

Happy Flag Day!

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A Poinsettia Story in the Springtime?

I really enjoy gardening, and the large bay window of my home is filled with plants year-round. For the most part, this is a good thing, except that I have a really hard time throwing out living plants that I’ve nurtured, even when they get spindly, tip over, or grow too large to be inside. I often plant them outside, and let the frost take them in the fall. The same is true for Christmas poinsettias that I’ve bought or received as gifts. I water them all winter, and then in the spring I move them outside. I had two poinsettias in the house for Christmas over a year ago, one red and one white. I kept them in the bay window after they finished blooming, watered them until spring, and then planted them outside in the flower bed. Dsc_01232008-06-01

Last fall, one of them was still doing really well so I thought, what the heck, I’ll put it in a pot, bring it inside, and see if I can get it to bloom for Christmas. I’ve done that before by putting the plant in the guest bedroom and making sure that it gets no more than 10 to 12 hours of sunlight a day for about ten weeks. Even light from indoor bulbs can affect the bud set, so I move it into a closet if guests need to use the room. This time, however, I didn’t start limiting the light exposure to the plant until early November, and that wasn’t enough time for it to set flower buds. The flowers didn’t appear by Christmas, so I moved it back into the window with my other plants after the holidays.

We’ve been really busy the last few weeks, and I neglected to water the poinsettia before we left on a weekend trip. When we came back, all of the leaves were brown and shriveled and I was sure that it was a goner. I decided to water it anyway, just in case there was a little life left in the stems. A few days later,small green leaves started to appear on the tips of the stems. This weekend while watering the plants in the window, I picked up the poinsettia and took it outside to brush off all of the dead leaves. When I looked at it closely, I saw that the new leaves appearing at the top were not leaves at all, they were actually the flowers opening, and I could see that this poinsettia was the white one.

PoinsettiaI went through all kinds of theories about how this could have happened when I was making no attempt whatever to limit the light exposure to the plant. The spring equinox was about a month before the plant began to bloom, and during the time before the equinox, we would have had less than 12 hours of light every day. However the plant was in the living room the whole time, and the room lights would often have been on when it was dark outside. Besides that, I started some herb seeds in pots about a month ago, and have grow lights in a plant stand next to the window that are governed by a timer to be turned on for over twelve hours every day.

I’ve decided to just think of it as one of those little miracles that can happen when we keep watering, keep trying even when things may appear hopeless. Most of the deciduous trees outside are still bare, but the branches are beginning to look like the stems of this spunky little poinsettia. New green leaves are uncurling from the tips of the branches, and many of the trees and bushes have begun sprouting delicate, aromatic blossoms.

Happy spring!

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Winter is Knocking

After a couple of weeks of beautiful, mild, autumn weather, a cold breath of air has moved in from the north and is sending the cottonwood and poplar leaves skittering across the deck and clattering against the window. Dsc_04122008-11-07Winter is knocking at our door, and many of us may dread the snow, cold, and bleak gray days that are coming.

I am reading Ted Kooser’s memoir, Local Wonders, during my morning reading and journaling time. The book is organized around the seasons of the year and I’m in the last section set in the wintertime. This morning I read about Kooser receiving a cancer diagnosis earlier in the year. He was unable to write for months afterward. He “began to heal” as he put it, near the beginning of winter when he started going for walks. Much to his surprise and delight he was able to write a poem after one of the walks. He continued writing a poem after each daily walk, scribbled them on a postcard, and sent them to a friend. He eventually put them together in a collection titled Winter Morning Walks: 100 Postcards to Jim Harrison.

I loved learning that Kooser regained his poetic voice and began to recover his health in the winter, a season that we often associate with death and endings. The trees look barren and dead, most of the birds have left for more temperate climates, and the lush plants that thrived in the summer gardens are twisted and shriveled. The ferocity of the winter weather also reminds me of how small I am compared to the power of nature. I feel much the same way when I gaze at the night sky and the mysterious, infinite spaces between the stars. I find it oddly comforting that I am not in control.

Winter is a time for slowing down, enjoying the silence and the crisp contrast between light and dark. There is very little color in the landscape, but that serves to help us appreciate the more subtle hues created by the winter light: the blue at the bottom of a footstep in the snow, the rainbows that the sunlight creates inside the crumbs of frost scattered on the tree branches. The abundant life that surrounds us in summer seems to have disappeared, but actually it has just gone to a deeper place, a safe place to rest and build up its stores of energy to burst to life again in the springtime.

Living things need both the light and the dark, summer and winter, moisture and drought, cold and warmth. The dead plants in the garden will be tilled under and nourish the garden next year. They will be reborn in a new way. Nothing is wasted. The same is true for us. If we feel tapped out, exhausted, lifeless, we can take that old dead material and mulch it to create something entirely different.

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