Thursday, June 28, 2012

Reading in Camden

I'll be part of a celebration for the 100th anniversary of the discovery of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay at the Whitehall Inn in Camden, Maine.  There will be events all summer with readings, films, guided walks, and more.

I'm on Wednesday, July 11 at 7 p.m. with fellow poets Ellen Goldsmith, Leonore Hildebrandt, Richard Miles, and Elizabeth Garber. We'll each be reading from Millay's work and some of our own. I'll be reading a couple of her sonnets.

If you haven't read Millay since high school, she's worth taking a new look at. Here is the whole list of events:

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Longleaf and Palmettos

Speaking of indy bookstores, another of my local favorites, Left Bank Books ( is moving to Belfast. Hooray! That brings to four the number of independent bookstores located in downtown Belfast—not bad for a city of 6,692.

Marsha, Lindsay, and Barb at Left Bank have been my go-to folks for ordering special books for my writing project. The latest is Ecology of a Cracker Childhood by Janisse Ray (Milkweed Editions, 1999). Ray grew up in a junkyard owned by her family in southern Georgia in longleaf pine country. (The term “cracker” has lots of stories attached to its genealogy and has come to mean poor white country folk in Georgia and interior Florida.)

Longleaf pine, or Georgia pine, ecosystems stretch into northern Florida. Like so many ecosystems, this one has been destroyed so that today its remaining 10,000 acres of virgin forest are less than 0.001 of what was once there. Ray is an ecologist who writes like a poet. Although the pine-y woods of north Florida are much different than palmettos—the dominant ecosystem where I grew up—I can relate to her love of the flat, open land with lots of sky. As she writes of an approaching thunderstorm: “Everything that comes you see coming. That’s because the land is so wide . . . flat as a book, vulnerable as a child.”

Although they don’t seem vulnerable, palmettos are.  I can’t imagine how many hundreds of thousands of acres of that landscape have been bulldozed over the past fifty years to make way for the Florida of the tourist brochure. Ubiquitous as memory from the Everglades to South Carolina, palmettos are commonly viewed as trash plants, but they function to stitch and hold the thin sandy soil in place. I write:
Like an open palm of remembrance with many thin waving fingers, the palmetto’s fan-shaped leaves spread three feet across. Its leathery fronds rustle and smack each other in any little breeze, quick to bend and move. The serrated edges and massing habit make a walk through a stand without a trail a painful experience. Impenetrable for humans except by machete, palmettos’  dominance in the natural landscape is what makes an area wild, whether it’s an empty lot or the Canaveral National Seashore.” 

(Italicized excerpt from “Prologue: Palmettos” in Hullabaloo on the Space Coast: A Memoir of Place by Linda S. Buckmaster, copyright 2012.)

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Sandspurs and Metaphors

I’m learning the names for things from my childhood—plants, clouds, the shifting of sands. I didn’t know most of these even though I was an outdoors girl. My parents weren’t naturalists, and neither was I, really. I just took in but didn’t name. But now with my trusty National Audubon Society Field Guide to Florida, among other books, I’m educating myself. 

I know much more about Maine, the common names and something of the habits of most of what surrounds me. Maybe it’s because I moved to Maine when I was twenty-three, and here is where I grew into adulthood and the next level of consciousness. 

Bu now as I “return” in memory to my growing up in Florida, I need to learn the names of things. As Gary Snyder says in “What You Should Know to be a Poet:”
            all you can about animals as persons.
            the names of trees and flowers and weeds.
            names of stars, and the movements of the planets
                                                            and the moon.

            your own six senses, with a watchful and elegant mind
For me, it means using something as “the best kind of metaphor,” as poet Constance Hunting once said, “the kind that springs directly from the subject matter.” A “daisy” can be one kind of metaphor, a “prickled-stem rose” another, and  “rambling roadside vetch” still another. Specificity counts.

Take what we kids called stickerburrs, for example. Stickerburrs were the bane of a barefoot Florida childhood. I find the photo of one, close-up, in Audubon, and it tells me they are properly called “sandspurs,” or locally, “coastal sandspurs.” 

Of course--sandspurs! As in Sandspur Motel, Sandspur Bar & Lounge, Sandspur Apartments, Sandspur Drive. How could I have missed the connection? The “tiny, roundish, greenish to beige burrs enclose minute flowers in 4” clusters” and are “often sprawling.” 

That’s how we kids knew them—sprawling—low-growing enough to be half hidden from young eyes in the rough St. Augustine grass that passed for lawns in Florida or almost buried under the sand in an open area. A joyful, heedless dash through the dune down to the beach or across the lawn could end in a dead stop, then a hobble to a place to sit to examine your foot. You had to curl your foot as you limped so you didn’t put your weight on the burred part. (“CAUTION: Burrs sharp,” Audubon says.) I never noticed the minute flower, although Audubon has sandspurs filed under the wildflower section.

Sandspurs  were inescapable. “Habitat: Beaches, pinelands, sandhills, fields, disturbed areas”—that pretty much described most of coastal Florida. As you got older, you developed a keen sense of watchfulness for the thin linear stalk rising out of its surroundings and the nasty hard ball, no bigger than a toenail, armored with spurs tough enough to stick into a car tire.

Even after you pulled the ball of burr out, there could be a couple of “prickers” left embedded that might take a mother or tweezers to get out. And sometimes even they failed. 

So where’s the metaphor here? Perhaps it’s the burrs of family dynamics, the alcoholic disappointments that seemed to jump onto you and embed in young skin no matter how watchful you might be.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Getting here from there

“So how did you get to Maine after growing up in Florida?” I frequently get asked this question even after these thirty-eight years living here. Well, it’s a long story. Here’s the beginning:

       “The girl was to drop me off in New London to catch a ferry to the island. It was 1969, the summer after my first year of college, and I had landed a job waitressing at the country club on Fishers Island in Long Island Sound. Through a friend of a friend, I connected with her, a girl whose name I will never remember, who was driving back home in her red Karmann Ghia. We were all “girls” back then veering either into motherhood, the typing pool, or being a “chick,” a newly liberated woman who was supposed to be equally comfortable with flower power and revolutionary politics.

       "Growing up in Florida, I knew very little about “up North.” To me, New London and New England sounded very far and exotic, kind of like the olden days I’d read about. My impressions came from “The House of The Seven Gables,” and descriptions of fog. I didn’t know about ferries or summer seasons bookended by Memorial Day and Labor Day.  I didn’t know about old money and summer homes opened by caretakers.  I didn’t know there still were houses with wooden floors and third floor dormers looking out on oak trees, where the hired girls like me were boarded.  I thought such things only existed in the books I read lying on the terrazzo floor of our Florida room barely shaded by a solitary palm.

       "What I did know as the girl and I left my parents’ house in Satellite Beach was that Fishers Island was in New York State with an 18-year-old drinking age. I also knew that we two chicks turning north onto A1A in that red Ghia, top down, short shorts and hippie hair, looked really good.”

That turned out to be a pretty big summer, what with Woodstock and Neil Armstrong landing on the moon. I went to the former and ignored the latter, even though it was the culmination of President Kennedy’s vision of putting a man on the moon before the close of the sixties. That vision, of course, was the guiding light of the entire Space Coast when I was growing up (not to mention by father’s brief career as a rocket engineer). By 1969, I couldn’t have cared less, to use a favorite expression of my father’s.

(Italicized excerpt from “On Our Own Road” in Hullaballoo on the Space Coast: A Memoir of Place by Linda S. Buckmaster, copyright 2012.)


Friday, June 8, 2012

On the road

I just finished Isabella L. Bird's A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains. This is a book I read a good thirty-five years ago, lost my copy, and was able to pick up recently at one of my favorite indy bookstores, hello hello books in Rockland, Maine ( Isabella Bird was one of those intrepid Victorian lady travelers who made their way to the far-flung corners of the Empire and beyond. In 1873, on her way back from the Hawaiian Islands, she landed in San Francisco and went east to explore the Rockies. I was sorry to see her journey end.

In this memoir, she rode 800 miles, alone, on various steads, but mostly a trusty Indian pony named Birdie--"a little beauty with legs of iron, fast, enduring, gentle, and wise; and with luggage for some weeks, including a black silk dress, behind my saddle, I am tolerably independent" (p. 134-135). Wow. Despite being a white woman of privilege (the "lady" part), she definitely roughed it out of necessity as there just weren't any other options, and fell in with all kinds of 19th Century American Western "types."

Her heartthrob, "Mountain Jim," with whom she rode many miles and who courted her, is a very familiar figure to those of us who watched 20th century "Westerns"-- an old guide, more than handy with a gun, an outlaw with a reputation, wearing buckskins and the parts of various other animals and sporting 16 long blond curls falling over his chest. At the same time, of course, he has also a gentle, "cultivated" side quoting poetry as he and Isabella make their way over almost impassable mountain trails. I don't need to add that his forehead was "like sculpted marble."

But the book isn't corny at all. Miss Bird is a wonderful traveling companion--stalwart, curious, and tolerant. I have always been enamored of the independent women traveler, something I started thinking about in my teens as this excerpt shows:

"It had been an emerging itch over time that became a question: Why only them? I wondered.  Why should the boys have all the fun? Keroauc,  Kesey, Ginsberg, Snyder, Theroux, and before them, in high school English: Byron, Whitman, Wordsworth. Our surfer boyfriends would pack up their boards and fly to Eleuthera in the Bahamas in search of the perfect wave; the ones who had saved more money from their summer jobs could go to Southern California and slip over the Border for underage beer.  Why not me, I thought, why not us?  Young white women in the 1960s with the Pill and driver’s licenses, we could go on the road, too.

After all, we were Americans, and it was our birthright. Packing up and taking off just for the hell of it was in our chromosomes. Rock and roll and the literature of the Beats spawned the restlessness of hippies, and although I couldn’t find the character that was “me” in the tales of male adventures, I knew the itch that floated from the pages of books and acid rock airwaves. 

The men in those books, boozers or dopers though they might have been, were cool, the pain they might have caused others flying by as the wheels ate up the miles. I bought it all. I wanted to go with them—across the country, hopping a steamer to the Far East, slipping over the border to farout Mexico, hiking to a fire lookout with a pack full of books.   

But most of all, I wanted to
be them. I wanted to go whenever and wherever I wanted. Sure, there had been women on some of the trips in those books, even babies sometimes. But that wasn’t the same. That wasn’t doing it yourself, calling the shots. It wasn’t driving."

My own subsequent late 20th Century adventures seem to pale compared to Isabella's riding 40 miles alone in a trackless blizzard, although in retrospect, I probably did expose myself to comparable dangers. I think I might re-read the book again.

(Except from "On Our Own Road" in Hullabaloo on the Space Coast: A Memoir of Place, copyright Linda S. Buckmaster, 2012.)

Tuesday, June 5, 2012


Launching my new blog with an excerpt from the opening essay in my book-in-progress, Hullabaloo on the Space Coast: A Memoir of Place:

“In July 1950, Bumper V-2 blasted off a tiny hand-poured cement pad in the middle of the palmettos to become the first rocket launched from Cape Canaveral. As my mother waited out the sticky final months of her pregnancy with me in Miami, neither she nor my father realized this event would have anything to do with us. My father was on the GI Bill at the time studying electrical engineering, but “rocket engineer” wasn’t a common profession back then. Eight years later, our family was among the eighty-eight thousand people who moved to Brevard County, home of Cape Canaveral, to become part of the space industry, a population increase of three hundred and seventy-one percent for that humid backwater.”

Now, over sixty years have passed since then and I’m surprised to discover that I am suddenly interested in my growing up years during the early days of the space industry. When I left Florida for good in 1969 to go “on the road” like so many in my generation, rocket launches were something rather childish seeming, another massive waste in the “military industrial complex.” Florida itself was just one big  shallow, Disneyfied theme park, rootless and materialistic, and I couldn’t get far enough away from it.

But now I find myself not only interested, but researching and writing about those early days of the Mercury program that put the first Americans into space and which my father worked on. Not only researching but accumulating around my house lots of books with pictures of rockets blasting off their covers. Books on the sociological effects of the go-go Wild West atmosphere of what was called “the space coast.” Books about the people of Florida—Native Americans, Cubans, plantation owners, African Americans, and the white people known as either “Mosquito Beaters” (the crackers) or “snow birds.”  And, of course, books about the natural history of the area and shifting coastal sands.

And now a blog?

“At the time of the Bumper launch, the area was nothing but fifteen thousand acres of scrub and palmettos in the middle of nowhere on the sleepy Florida midcoast. Conditions were so primitive that those working on the launch received hazardous duty pay to compensate for the swamps, four species of poisonous snakes, and alligators. The aggressive salt marsh mosquitoes that attacked them could reproduce up to a million mosquitoes per square yard in one day. Directions to the launch site along the sandy road included the admonition, ‘Don’t stop or you’ll bog down.’”

I’ve known I carried that ecosystem inside me ever since I left. My girlhood “woods” were the palmettos I wandered and the undeveloped beach at the end of my road. Once a bookish, imaginative child who grew up in the fifties, came of age in the sixties, went “back to the land” in the seventies, became a mother and a professional in the eighties, a widow in the nineties, and a published poet during the first decade of the 21st century,  I can see now that I never really left behind  the place that created who I am.

And now, a blog., a blog about my book-in-progress, Hullaballoo on the Space Coast: A Memoir of Place.  I’ll be posting a couple of times a week on the book’s progress (with excerpts), the juxtaposition of Maine and Florida, travels, and whatever else may cross my path, or mind. 

(Italicized xcerpts from “Launched” in Hullabaloo on the Space Coast: A Memoir of Place, copyright 2012 by Linda S. Buckmaster.)