A Southwestern Turning

When we were visiting in Las Cruces, New Mexico, in February, I got to know Rich Spellenberg, who is a fine woodturner as well as renowned botanist. Indeed, if I may put in a plug for his latest book, his  Trees of Western North America (Princeton Field Guide), one of two volumes (the other is Trees of Eastern North America, natch) written in collaboration with several colleagues, is a stunning companion for those of us who like to walk in the woods but are embarrassed by our ignorance of the trees we meet. In spite of its compendious coverage and depth, it is easy to find your way around in it, even if all you can see is a winter twig.

But this is about woodturning, once you know the trees. Rich generously gave me two bowl blanks—a small one of honey mesquite, and a large piece of redwood. Needless to say, I can’t find these on a walk in the Smokies! He also set me up with some crushed turquoise and instructions for inlaying it, southwestern style, in the wood.

Honey Mesquite Bowl

Honey Mesquite Bowl

Sylvia followed his instructions to buy an old coffee grinder ($2 at a resale shop) and loaned me her kitchen sieves to strain it into varying grades of fineness.

So here are the results. With the honey mesquite, I found out once again that you have to respect the weakness radiating from the pith of the tree. So about a half inch came off the rim. This improved the smell of my grill smoke. What was left became a nice little nut bowl. With the redwood, I capped it with a piece of walnut for contrast and then set a groove for the inlay where the two woods met. As Rich told me, it was putzy and required considerable care in sanding, but the work was rewarded with a fairly attractive embellishment. It was enough to entice me to future efforts. Right now, Sylvia has a place to put the dried flowers of autumn and I have a place for my cashews. Thought I’d share them for your eyes.

Redwood and Walnut Vase

Redwood and Walnut Vase


Posted in Woodworking | Tagged | 1 Comment

Mining Memories on Cyprus

My co-author John de Gruchy and I have sent off our book Sawdust and Soul to our publisher (to the “typesetter,” our editor said!). If all goes well it will appear this winter and you’ll hear more about it then. And so I can return to my work about the mine in Cyprus and the life there of my mother’s family. We visited in 2012 (you can check out the blogs under “Travel”) and are now set to return in February of 2015. At the same time we will take a once-in-a-lifetime trip to visit the ancient wonders of Egypt. There will be more about that later. Right now I want to reflect on the Cyprus work, which I am calling “Mining Memories on Cyprus.”

This phrase has stuck in my mind because I am indeed going thru the work of digging out memories that have moldered on paper and photographs for almost a century. Some have been extended to me by relatives, some have been hidden in materials I already had. Not only is this book about mining at the world’s oldest copper mine, it is about mining my memory. It is archaeology of the heart.

I recently discovered that a plain black journal book that I thought was one of my great-grandfather’s diaries was in actuality a daily log by my grandfather, who was the mining engineer at Skouriotissa mine. Indeed, it records in terse, matter-of-fact entries, the decisive and traumatic conclusion of his work there in 1925. On page six I find this set of entries for March:

18.            Fall of ground N. C Blk- C.D. stopes between 9:15 + 9:30 a.m. 10 killed

19.            Ervin Ali taken out dead on night shift

20.            Salih Imbrahim taken out 10:00 am.

Ahmed Shiali out 3:00 pm.

Behardin Niazi out on night shift

Hassan Mulla Ramoding “            “            “

22.            Moustafa Hussein taken out 1:00 am.

25.            Andreas Vassilia out in afternoon last body.

While accidental death has plagued mining throughout the ages and still does today, this catastrophe pointed to major issues in the whole operation that led to my grandfather’s departure as well as of the director of the mine 09 Alexander Gnoutoffin the ensuing months. These people — both the dead and the living — were not just names in a book. We have several pictures of the miners he worked with, complete with their names. They spoke Cypriot Greek, Turkish, Russian, Cornish, and English – at least those are the ones I know – but they were engaged in a common work that brought out their best and their worst.

In a later entry about his day of departure he records that one of his employees, a “White Russian” named Alexander Gnoutoff, by that time sporting a full beard, came into his office and smacked his cheek with a kiss to express his thanks and high regard. My grandfather, a very buttoned-down and self-disciplined ramrod of an engineer, was moved to record this little human incident.

Like the ancient bottles, flasks, jugs, and lamps they dug up at the mine, this little jewel spoke to me of the humanity of what occurred in this sweaty, dirty, and very dangerous work. So here’s just one little piece, based on his own words, that will find its way into the book.

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Alexander Gnoutoff

            prickly whiskery

            smacked me

            on the cheek.

It nearly took me

            off my feet

            in the office

            at the mine

            where we had worked and

            seen ten men in death

            dug from the stopes like Roman artifacts

            re-buried wet with mourners’ tears.

And he a refugee

            from Bolsheviks

            fled to this haven of heartache

            of sulphurous gas

            and copper ore.

And me an engineer

            my work now ended

            with his kiss


Posted in Personal Events, Poetry and Songs, Travel Journal | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Darkness and Light

We have suffered the loss and slow dying of friends and relatives in the last few months. Death has been smoking up our life like a prairie fire, inching close before retreating before the cool breath of life. It’s easy to personify Death, this non-life, because it seems to reach in and snatch away the breath of those we love, leading them away. Some go in a flash, some inch away from us neuron by neuron, word by word. And if the fire hasn’t burned our own flesh, we need only glimpse the news from Gaza, Israel, Syria, Ukraine—you name the place.

The fire taunts us to run, to hide, erase it from our consciousness. But we can also speak into it, sing out of it, and dance, paint, and play all around it. In poetry there is mourning as well as praise, gratitude as well as pain, for it is words composed to fill the darkness beyond words, the Light beyond the Word. So I share a couple of poems today through which I have tried to see through the smoke, discern the cooling water, walk into the light. These are walking sticks, if you will, that I have used to climb some steeper paths. Feel free to share your thoughts about your own in the Comments below.

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Preparing for death

it might be instructive

to go to some funerals,

see how they do

with a best friend,

feel how he’s washed

in a bath of words and music and tears

clean of the earth

ready for new clothes.

Death ruptures the life-lines of love. It cuts off our race, even when it looks like we have reached the finish line. If it is love that leads us through life, then it is also true this love takes many forms, even in the run of a beloved fish.

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            from the hidden pool

            the Salmon

            glides into the stream,

            takes the ribbon of waters

            hard against the rounded rocks,

            in turmoiled foam

            finds an opening

            into the broadening river.

Leaping in the roiling flood

            the Salmon swims

            with millions

            as with one

            to reach the cascade spume


            the Salmon

            to the ocean’s waiting arms,



            to life

            among the songs

            within God’s sea.

Astronomers have led us into an incomprehensible mystery that easily becomes a metaphor for what confronts each one of us. Each life we live is like an expanding universe of accomplishment and possibility. I’ve written poems like this before. This one is the latest permutation.

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They say the earth

            is slowing down

            perhaps a nano-


            every century


            by the asteroid dust

            the oncoming solar light

            the nothingness,

And it will fall

            in ten thousand million years

            into the sputtering sun

            reaching out to swallow it.

The say the suns

            in our entire galaxy

            will fall

            as sparks and cinders

            into the darkness

            at the center

            where all the light

            will gather

            and explode

            into another universe.

I contemplate and wonder

            as I ask

            “What did you say?”

            and mutter

            “Excuse me, I forgot your name,”

            and stumble on the curb,

            if I will fall

            in such a  cataclysm

            of rebirth.


Posted in Poetry and Songs | 3 Comments

I Really Do

I once entered a poem in a contest and received in reply (a contest that actually gave feedback!) the comment “Don’t use made-up words.” Well, that was, I thought, the point of poetry—to explore beyond the boundaries of our ordinary speech, whether by image, word arrangement, or, yes, making up a new word that reaches beyond the ordinary grasp of language. That’s why poetry is linked to song and dance, theater, and the visual arts. And, of course, if we didn’t constantly make up new words, the dictionary minders could close up shop, turn off their computers, and go home, their work completed for all time.

Making up new words like this is a kind of worldly glossolalia, a Pentecostal outpouring that communicates at levels deeper than accepted signs or meanings. It’s rooted in the deep experiential base, the “magma,” of poetic inspiration. In a time when our deepest emotions are fanned and manipulated by demagogues, corporations, and fanatics bent on violence, the poetic effort to link ecstasy and lively community is a perilous but crucial task.

So, undeterred by kindly admonitions or dangers, I sometimes have to reach beyond the dictionary. The risky effort to put our deepest loves in words is something that we have to give ourselves to every once in a while, like an annual feast. My sister’s 50th wedding anniversary allowed me to give voice to this little outburst. For after 50 years, hasn’t it all been said? Isn’t a little lift of the eyebrow, a gesture of the hand, enough? If it isn’t, you have to struggle with a poem. So here it is. And if you don’t like these words, you can make up your own!

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I murgle you,

            I really do.

I want to lahmi in your lindermoos,

            leggle in your indelgon,

Lay my head within your smawn,

            my hands around your gentle sming,

And in that lovely swellenam

            I long to touch your elt,

            to smell the sweet palloosit of your palt,

            and wrap us round with soft mallootin.

My happiness would soar to song

            if I had some better words to say

I murgle you,

            I really do.


Posted in On Writing, Poetry and Songs | 3 Comments