Beach Houses, Big Sky

Although it’s still summer, the first of September feels like a turning of the year, a return to school and schedules, and a farewell to cicadas and the least possible clothing. In parting I celebrate the day with a watercolor of Duck, NC, where the family just spent an idyllic week, and, attesting to the season’s ambivalence, a poem by A.E. Housman.


XXXIX (from Last Poems)

When summer’s end is nighing
And skies at evening cloud,
I muse on change and fortune
And all the feats I vowed
When I was young and proud.

The weathercock at sunset
Would lose the slanted ray,
And I would climb the beacon
That looked to Wales away
And saw the last of day.

From hill and cloud and heaven
The hues of evening died;
Night welled through lane and hollow
And hushed the countryside,
But I had youth and pride.

And I with earth and nightfall
In converse high would stand,
Late, till the west was ashen
And darkness hard at hand,
And the eye lost the land.

The year might age, and cloudy
The lessening day might close,
But air of other summers
Breathed from beyond the snows,
And I had hope of those.

They came and were and are not
And come no more anew;
And all the years and seasons
That ever can ensue
Must now be worse and few.

So here’s an end of roaming
On eves when autumn nighs:
The ear too fondly listens
For summer’s parting sighs,
And then the heart replies.

—A.E. Housman



Moon Over Orcas Island


Keep your fingers crossed for clear skies tonight so you can see the Blue Moon: that is, the second full moon in a single month, which will not happen again until 2015. I post a watercolor of this month’s first full moon (which my daughter and I admired from Orcas Island), on August 2nd, in its honor.

It is a celestial event that seems especially significant in light of the passing on August 25th of Earth’s moonwalker Neil Armstrong—the first human being who could gaze up at the full moon and say, “I was there.”



Over the Moon/s

Last night at about 9pm my son and I went outside with a pair of ordinary bird-watching binoculars and trained them on a bright starry object we’d been noticing in the western sky during the last dog walks of the evening. And this is what we saw (as best I can recall):


According to the NASA website (whose picture is much better than mine), this is no star, but our giant neighbor Jupiter, with four of its 62 moons: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto, called the Galilean moons, after Galileo Galilei, who first spotted them in 1610.

Jupiter appears especially bright to us right now because it is both in opposition (directly opposite the sun from Earth, peaking on Oct. 29th Universal Time) and closer to Earth than it will be again until 2022. I don’t know about you, but I find it wondrous that without the aid of observatory or telescope we can see these heavenly bodies from our city street corner. In fact, if Jupiter weren’t itself so bright, we could probably see the Galilean moons without binoculars.

Their appearance left us starry-eyed, and dwarfed the importance of political squabbling, and getting that last load of laundry done, and pretty much anything else.


Rain on Deep Creek Lake


We had a few days’ long-anticipated and most welcome end-of-summer R&R at the peaceful lakeside house of dear Martha. Our vacation was baptized with days and nights of amazing and nearly unceasing rain. I took advantage of a brief lull to paint this from the dock—until the rain resumed, adding its own washes.

CakeWeddingWalter & Seska




This year, the evening of August 12th is the peak viewing time for the Perseid meteor shower. Congratulations, you lucky folk who happen to be in the mountains, on the prairie, at the beach, or in any location far from city lights! Set your alarm clock for midnight (if you are not still awake at this time), spread a blanket outside, lie down facing the northeast, and watch for shooting stars. Unfortunately this year the Perseids coincide with the nearly-full moon (of August 13th), so you may miss the faint ones. But even lying under a big golden moon at midnight is a treat.

For a larger picture and a little more about the Perseid meteor shower, please see Night of the Shooting Stars.


Spring Moon


Wherever you are on this last day of winter, cross your fingers for a clear evening sky, and at sunset climb onto your roof or a tree or a nearby hill to await the moonrise. Because this is the night of the Perigee Moon (from the Greek peri, “around” + ge, “earth”), an unusually large and bright full moon that occurs only about every twenty years.

The moon’s elliptical orbit around the earth means that sometimes it’s closer, sometimes further away from us; and tonight the full moon coincides almost perfectly with the moment of its shortest distance to earth. The apparent increase in size is about 14%, which is enough to make a visible difference. After all, if your weight suddenly increased by 14%, wouldn’t your family notice your unusually large full moon?

Accompanying the large lovely moon will be a noticeable but not alarming rise in the tides, and perhaps an increase in howling. Also, this morning at breakfast we discovered that last night everyone in the family had slept very badly. Was it the dinner? Or, because we earthlings are composed mostly of salt water, could the nearness of the moon affect our inner tides, and therefore our sleep?

See you out there! In the meantime, here are two moon poems suitable for the Eve of Spring.

For another eve-of-spring picture, please see Dream of Spring.

Face of the spring moon–
about twelve years old,
I’d say.

—Kobayashi Issa

who knows if the moon’s
a balloon,coming out of a keen city
in the sky–filled with pretty people?
(and if you and i should
get into it,if they
should take me and take you into their balloon,
why then
we’d go up higher with all the pretty people
than houses and steeples and clouds:
go sailing
away and away sailing into a keen
city which nobody’s ever visited,where
Spring)and everyone’s
in love and flowers pick themselves

—E. E. Cummings


An Hymn to Phillis

I post this painting and verse (“An Hymn to the Morning”) in honor of poet Phillis Wheatley (circa 1753-1784). Her birth date, and in fact her birth year, are unknown, but today is the anniversary of the day that she was emancipated from slavery. So we might think of that as a kind of birthday.

I chose this image to accompany her poem partly because of its depiction of dawn, but also because it was, unhappily, across the sea that Wheatley came to these shores, kidnapped in West Africa by slavers and sold in Boston. Her age was estimated at around seven or eight, because she had “already lost her front teeth,” a fact that clutches at the heart of any parent reading this unembellished observation. Or of anyone who knows a child… or remembers being a child. No tooth fairy for her, though. Her birth name went unrecorded, and her new owners blithely and undoubtedly without irony gave her the name Phillis, the name of the slave ship that had brought her to Boston, adding their own surname.

Phillis was a thin, sickly child (unsurprising, after such a voyage), and although she was nursed and raised more as a child of the house than a slave, she remained delicate all her short life. Her owners soon recognized that Phillis was bright and precocious and put her education into the hands of their grown daughter Mary. Within sixteen months Phillis was fluent in English and could read even difficult passages in the Bible. Her education included Classical and English literature, geography, history, and Latin, as well as the ubiquitous Bible, and volumes of poetry—an unusual education for a woman of the day, let alone an African slave. (Mary had probably been given the same education.)

At around age twelve, Wheatley began writing her own poetry, and her first published work appeared in a Newport newspaper when she was fourteen. She felt a powerful drive to create poetry, and her owners encouraged her and assisted in its publication in journals in the colonies and in England. Much of the subject matter was quite somber, consisting of tributes to noteworthy personages of the day and elegies composed upon the death of someone’s spouse or child. They are complex in their use of language, employing ambiguity and subtle understatement, and allusions to Greek and Roman history and mythology as well as to the Bible. Wheatley was obviously assuming similar education on the part of her audience, and it’s pretty rough sledding for the 21st century reader. I liked this particular poem because of the rare note of humor in the closing lines, and was glad to imagine her having a small chuckle.

It wasn’t long before Wheatley’s poetry brought her attention. Her owners, unable to find a colonial backer to publish a book of her work, found a publisher in London, who agreed to the project if the work could be prefaced by a statement signed by respectable Bostonians testifying to its authenticity! Phillis was questioned by Boston’s judges, and the required document was procured (one of its 18 signers was John Hancock).

So off she went to England, accompanied by her owners’ grown son, where she spent several months overseeing the publication of her book and meeting both members of the nobility and free Britons of African descent. She was a celebrity. In England there was public criticism of Phillis’ American enslavement, which embarrassed her owners. It probably would have been possible for her to refuse to return to America, and to stay where she would have been free; nevertheless, on hearing of her mistress’ illness, she boarded ship for home, missing an upcoming opportunity to be presented at court. And shortly after her return, her owner signed her emancipation papers.

She was free. What did that mean? Well, that her books belonged to her, and thus she attempted to sell them to help support herself. She authored a tribute to George Washington, who invited her to come call on him, as he wished to meet “the little black poetess.” Phillis had hopes for the Revolution—that the new country, once freed from Britain’s yoke, would turn around and free its own yoked people. Her poetry, which had been ambiguous in its references to slavery, grew more clearly critical. Although she continued to write, while struggling to earn a living as a cleaning woman, she died young, ill and destitute.

Happy Emancipation Day, Phillis. With your gifts and your drive to create, what would you have become in another era? Undoubtedly a published author of many works, interviewed by journalists, embarking on author tours, launching podcasts.

Attend my lays, ye ever honour’d nine,
Assist my labours, and my strains refine;
In smoothest numbers pour the notes along,
For bright Aurora now demands my song.
Aurora hail, and all the thousand dies,
Which deck thy progress through the vaulted skies:
The morn awakes, and wide extends her rays,
On ev’ry leaf the gentle zephyr plays;
Harmonious lays the feather’d race resume,
Dart the bright eye, and shake the painted plume.
Ye shady groves, your verdant gloom display
To shield your poet from the burning day:
Calliope awake the sacred lyre,
While thy fair sisters fan the pleasing fire:
The bow’rs, the gales, the variegated skies
In all their pleasures in my bosom rise.
See in the east th’ illustrious king of day!
His rising radiance drives the shades away–
But Oh! I feel his fervid beams too strong,
And scarce begun, concludes th’ abortive song.

Phillis Wheatley