More Ink Drawings!

Finishing the drawings for An Alphabet of Place: The Little Snake River Valley by my blogging pal, Sharon O’Toole of Ladder Ranch, I felt a little bereft. I’d done some ink drawings before I began Sharon’s project, but never 30+ of them over a concentrated period of time. They were — once I got over my initial nervousness — meditative, challenging and fun. In the back of my mind something else was percolating. When I got an email from Louise, who runs the Rio Grande County Museum, I knew what it was.

A similar little book about Rio Grande County Colorado — my county! No one knows more about it than Louise Colville, and she and I seem to work well together. I suggested it to her and sent her a PDF of Sharon’s book. She loved it. Yesterday I drove to Del Norte to collect my riches (I sold a sign and two packs of note cards) and we chatted about it for a while. It’s a go. She’s going to present the idea to the museum board on Tuesday so I’ve had to ask Li Bai and Tu Fu to share some space on my drawing table. They’re very cooperative beans and said it was fine as long as I kept taking them outside to catch the sun every morning. They also promised to be clean and keep their dirt in the pot.

The board meeting is this coming Tuesday and my job is to come up with a few drawings for which Louise will write the text. Hopefully, we’ll get a grant and some money.

It’s cool to have shouldered another drawing project. A writer inspired Sharon, who in turn inspired me and now Louise. It’s weird. I used to be a famous writer, but now I don’t want the job. Thinking about that, I remembered being in Chicago so long ago when there was an irrational marriage proposal on the table. I was walking through the garden of my erstwhile boyfriend’s parents with his dad, Frank. The relationship with his son was over and his dad knew it, the boyfriend knew it, I knew it but I was stuck there for another 30 some hours. Back at home, in Denver, I had been painting and drawing and pondering the possibility of showing my work. I talked about this with Frank. He said, “I thought you were a writer. Now you’re an artist? What’s the deal there? Why not a writer?”

I told him that visual art was more rewarding. I could SEE it and its effects even as I worked, and it didn’t take so much effort for others to see it. At the time I was writing what I thought was a novel (it was a journal) and sometimes poetry. But then, as now, I don’t think there’s any valid law that says a person can be and do only ONE thing.

Anyway, it’s nice to have more drawings to do. I think my biggest discovery during this pandemic is how much I love making art, just for itself. However, I must now carry Li Bai, Tu Fu, Li Ho, Bai Juyi and Szu-ma Chien out to the garden of the Thousand Aspiring Iris.

Featured photo: Adobe Potato Barn, first “letter” in the little book

Szu-ma Chien, Scarlet Emperor Bean

I’m finally learning “who” these beans are. Four poets and a historian. Since plants are not ego-driven by identity and originality, welcome the return of Li Bai, Tu Fu, Bai Juyi, and Li Ho. The fifth is the great historian, Szu-ma Chien. Wang Wei is still in the house as are his compatriots who are 20th century Chinese writers, including Pearl S. Buck. Why? you ask — reasons will unfold soon enough.

So who is Szu-ma Chien and why is he included now?

Sometimes when you’re involved in learning things you find a hero and as I was trying to figure out where in the world I’d been for a year in the People’s Republic of China, and reading all the history I could, I hit on Ssu-ma Chien and found him to be one of the most amazing, brave and noble men I’d ever “met.” So, what was his story?

I bought Selections from Records of the Historian on September 4, 1982, soon after my arrival in Guangzhou, probably at the Youyi Bingguan or Friendship Store. I don’t think I read it, though, until I got back to Colorado the next year. I bought it because the introduction said, “The Records of the Historian, written two-thousand years ago by Szuma Chien of the Han Dynasty, is the greatest historical work China has produced. Thanks to Szuma Chien’s rich experience of life, his enlightened approach to history and his brilliance as a man of letters, he was able to make a discriminating selection of material and to write a new form of history.”

So what happened to him that made him “noble” “brave” and so on? He offended the Emperor by defending a general who had “been defeated in battle and had surrendered to the Huns. For this he was punished by imprisonment and castration.” In Chinese culture castration was worse than death and most men would have taken their own lives rather than suffer the shame of castration; face was everything and a man without, uh, you know, male parts had no “face”. So why didn’t he kill himself? Because his recording of history was more important than his pride. Stopping work? No. He continued writing while he was imprisoned. The humiliation didn’t end there but in a paradoxical honor. In 96 BCE he “…was pardoned and appointed palace secretary, a post slightly higher than grand historian (his former post) but one usually held by eunuchs. Humiliated and distressed, he nevertheless went on writing the history and completed the work in 91 BCE when he was 55.” (Records of the Historian, preface by Wang Po-hsiang)

Szu-ma Chien inspired me to think about my own work seriously, to consider if I would accept such a horrible punishment and humiliation just to keep writing. Szu-ma Chien “told” me I should, that true history told with a living voice, is THAT important.

The book consists of reports and anecdotes of people important both to Chinese history in a large sense and in the smaller sense, to Szu-ma Chien’s time. Szu-ma Chien’s writing (translated by Gladys Yang and Yang Hsien-yi) is energetic, very alive and I think you’ll like it when you finally get to meet the heroic bean who bears his name. I’m going to enjoy looking into this book again!

The Beans

I planted the Scarlet Emperor Beans in peat pots on St. Patrick’s day, a few days earlier than in years past but not many. I don’t know if it’s all the love and care I bestowed upon their parents or because they are the progeny of the survivors of the Great Snow of September 2020, but these beans are challenging the infrastructure. I’ve never had beans grow so fast.

Four of them are already living in large pots and have had to go live in my studio where they only get afternoon light. Not enough, so they just get taller hoping to find some somewhere. The other seven are clinging to the east window but will soon outgrow their pots (featured photo). Today the large ones and I will begin the daily pilgrimages to the various gardens of the outside world but that’s not going to last long, either.

It’s been an unusually warm April and that’s part of the story here. But San Luis Valley spring is a tease and we can have a killing frost at any time. Two years ago on this day we got 12 inches of snow. And I still don’t know who they are, poets, bandits or beans. Anyway, in today’s Facebook memories was a photo of these beans grandparents, Hong Li.

Hong Li, my current beans’ grandparents, taking the sun in the garden of the 10,000 Iris and Johnny Jump-ups, 2018

Andrea, whose blog is One Letter Up, sent me an article sometime back about bean intelligence. It’s a fascinating article that discusses research that shows that beans have “intent,” in other words, they look for ways to support themselves. French Bean Plants Show Signs of Intent It made me think that my beans, particularly last year when I spent a lot of time with them, understood that I was helping them in their quest for altitude and the opportunity to make seeds. These current beans grew up with that awareness. It probably seems crazy but these beans just seem JOYFUL!

That said, I’d better start hauling them all outside to enjoy the morning sun.

My Song List from 2020

Yesterday while I was working on the book, I was thinking of writing a blog post about “my” songs of the past year but then thought, “Nah. Who really likes to chase around Youtube listening to someone else’s playlist?” But today’s prompt — music — has given me permission.

Here we go, starting with the Avett Brothers, “Victory.” I love this song. Good poetry, wise words and cute footwork. It’s kind of “folkish” for my usual taste, but the truth is I hear words more than music a lot of the time.

Then this beautiful exuberant thing, also with good lyrics (IMO) by The Killers

And finally THE BEST SONG, a song I waited my whole life for. It’s got a lot going for it — irony, poetry, visual imagery, humor, a certain level of appropriate darkness, social commentary, and, though most people will not hear it, Denver. I even wrote the band a fan email. It’s an 80s/90s band that had one hit “88 lines about 44 Women”. When a member of the band answered my email he said, “Yeah ‘Home of the Brave’ only has a life on WXRT in Chicago” which is the radio station I listen to at home. Oddly enough, The Nails are from Boulder, and the lead singer now lives in Taos, but you know, small world.

I listen to music almost all day. And, of course, my car radio has prophetic powers maybe shared by all car radios. This past year the Eagles — with Glenn Frey’s son — put out an album. It happened that I heard it during the week it got air time in Bella’s XM radio. Oddly, Teddy loves the Eagles. Driving out to the Refuge with Teddy strapped into the passenger seat on a summer evening gave me a peaceful easy feeling so I developed a little fondness for that band.

You just never know.

In other news, 11 of the 12 I planted beans have stretched their little arms into the light of the day. One of them had a hard time — I guess I’d put the bean in the dirt upside down — but even it is righting itself. (Featured image). The wondrous thing about this is that these beans didn’t have a lot of time to ripen because we got a heavy snow on the 9th of September 2020 and I was out there covering 8 foot tall bean plants to protect them to give them a chance to ripen a few pods for this year. The beans growing now are the fruit of that effort.

Last year’s beans (and tomatoes) on September 9, 2020

Yesterday I also dug up half the bed in front and dug out the iris who were too crowded together and various other weird stuff that was growing in there (mostly grass). I will probably put the iris back and plant sunflowers. It is a job that should have been done three times by now and this is the first time I’ve done it.

The book is nearing completion which is pretty cool. AND I realized why I’m reluctant to leave the Covid lifestyle behind. For the past year I have been doing things I have never done with this much focus, dedication and commitment. I’ve done some things I’ve never done before. I have enjoyed that incredibly and don’t really want to let go of that. THAT’S why “normal” doesn’t have so much appeal to me and why I feel this sense of ambivalence. I’ve liked being an artist 24/7. I’ve actually never been happier. Today, a comment from a reader gave me more light on this. The world “out there” still doesn’t look that good so maybe I’m just going to keep this up to a large extent for another year. Maybe people will calm down, maybe the variants will wear themselves out.

Human Beans

Sometimes I wonder about being human. It’s all I’ve ever been or will be, and yet it seems strange to me. The convolutions of human development — body mind and spirit — often conflict with each other and the mores of our times — whatever they are — add another dimension.

Being human is an immense responsibility, and I don’t always feel up to it. First of all, we have to take care of ourselves which demands choices that we, ideally, make in our own best interest. Then, we make choices that affect others; same dilemma only worse. Then, we have to negotiate with others about these choices. Argh. Then, we make mistakes and have to mitigate the damage. One of the human things that irks me most is the tendency we have to judge the past by the present. I don’t know who said, “The past is another country,” but they were right. Even our own individual past is, in many respects, “another country.” Our only option is forward.

In bean news (which is the most important news) things are growing well so far. Farming is a day-to-day thing in many respects. There is no way to know what’s going to happen tomorrow, so you do your best in the present moment. Out of twelve beans I have (so far) gotten ten plants. One isn’t doing great but I haven’t given up and neither has he. I still don’t know if they’re poets or bandits, but they’re acting a lot more like poets than bandits. Please excuse the dirty windows. I hate them, but they have old-style storm windows on them, screwed on outside (no way in hell am I getting on a ladder to take them down) and someone did worse than paint the inside windows shut; they have been sealed with adhesive foam to keep out the cold. I can only wash the inside and the outside: the glass in the middle? One of my goals for this summer is figuring that out. If I had a lot of money, I’d replace all these old windows, but I don’t.


Looking out into the garden where they will live. The other pots have tomato and Genovese basil seeds, just planted, and scabiosa or pin cushion flower.

Chinese Fiction and Scarlet Emperor Beans?

It wasn’t junk, and I wouldn’t have thrown it out, but somehow Pearl Buck’s translation of Shui Hu Chuan has vanished from my library. I hope it hasn’t really vanished, but instead that in the rush to move books from one place to another when I got my Chinese cabinets a month or so ago, I just didn’t move it. Shui Hu Chuan or The Water Margin or The Men of the Marshes or All Men Are Brothers (Pearl Bucks title of the book) was written in the 14th century but if you were to google it, you’d find films, TV series, comic books pretty much every pop culture genre reflecting that title.

The author is Shi Nai An, but the book was added to by other writers over the course of time. Generally, Chinese writers of the old days didn’t care about authorship with the ferocity writers in the West have/do, possibly because, much of the time, it was illegal to write novels.

Shui Hu Chuan has been called “a Chinese Robinhood” but it really isn’t. Very, very, very generally it’s about a gang of insurrectionists who fight the corruption of the government.

As the Scarlet Emperor Beans continue to raise their heads to the light, I have thought about naming them for the heroes in Shui Hu Chuan which would mean reading it again. It really has everything. Magic, mystery, derring-do, cannibalism, tigers, seduction, idealism — it’s really the ultimate book which is one reason it’s more popular now than ever. Chairman Mao (bless his heart) used it as a propaganda tool, a way to enforce the idea that popular revolt could (once more) cleanse China of corruption. Eerily resonant now, but the difference between Song Jiang (the leader of the Men of the Marshes) and anyone attempting an insurrection in the US is that he was intelligent, a good leader, and could write wonderful poetry.

The ability to write poetry was a serious thing in Chinese culture.

One of the cool things about Chinese fiction is that a story in one novel can lead to a whole ‘nother novel and one of the stories in Shui Hu Chuan led to another novel, a pornographic novel, Chin Ping Mei. Sadly, no translation I found in English renders the juicy parts readable to me. They are all in Latin. The Chin Ping Mei has the reputation of being deadly to whomever reads it because once, allegedly, the corners of the pages were poisoned and the man who read the book licked his finger to make turning the pages easier. Definitely a cautionary tale.

I wrote this post some time ago, but it’s a fit addition to this one. A Confucian Parable

Life’ll Kill Ya’

Everything is dangerous. Dire consequences lurk around every corner, every decision, every smile, every footstep. I remember the very first 20 minutes of my very first college class. Mr. Michael J. Preston stood up there, a lanky red-haired man dressed in chicken-feather laden black jeans and black turtleneck, holding a cup of coffee, soon to perch on the BACK of a chair with his feet on the seat. He passionately introduced his little coven of Colorado Women’s College students to Medieval Verse Romances.

“You can’t imagine life in those days,” he said. “Everything was dangerous. The dark held mysteries and monsters you would never believe in, but these people did. Their houses were dark, except for a fire, if they were lucky. They were surrounded by forests filled with wolves and monsters. Ignorant people resort to superstition and very few were educated in those days.”

Or something like that.

Mr. Preston was my favorite teacher back in the day. Now, having read (on my own) a LOT of medieval verse romances I’m not so sure about what he said being the truth about the lives and times. Considering that they used wood with a wild abandon we can only imagine (fires, housing, sometime fences) I don’t think the forests were dark and overgrown. The air would have been pretty bad, too, with all the smoke from all the fires. I think what frightened medieval people most was Hell which they could reach through monsters, wolves and scary things in the forest.

In Scarlet Emperor Bean news (which is what everyone wants to know this fine snowy morning) 9 of the 12 have emerged and Tu Fu is already leaning toward the light. I will have to do a little work to find more Tang Dynasty poets than those I know of already. So far we have Tu Fu, Li Bai, Wang Wei, Li Ho and Bai Juyi. Maybe I’ll move forward in time and take names from the fantastic Chinese novel, Shui Hu Chuan or The Men of the Marshes. Now that I think about it, that would be fun.

First Bean Morning of 2021

I was surprised last evening to see three (now four!) of the Scarlet Emperor beans had already emerged. This time I eschewed the fancy little seed starter things and put the beans in dirt in large peat pots. I think sometimes we get “over-fancy,” and I’ve learned my beans like leg room. The pots they’re in should be big enough to hold them until, gasp, June. Because they are so sensitive to frost, they will be indoor beans for two full months.

It’s fine with me. I’m not sure they’re plants in my subjective universe as much as they are pets or allies or friends or something. On the advice of a reader, I’ve decided that they are reincarnations of previous bean iterations and will remain Tang Dynasty Chinese poets (anyone reading this feeling concerned about my mental health, really, it’s OK. I’m harmless). These three are Li Bai, Tu Fu and Wang Wei. Last year Wang Wei didn’t have a prayer. He got a late start and was planted in the front yard. He writes beautiful poetry and deserved better.

I named the first “generation” of Scarlet Emperor beans for Chinese emperors, but I figure it’s OK because I hadn’t grown those beans. They came from a packet. The three (now four!) succeeding generations came from beans that sprouted in my house, grew, bloomed and fruited in my back yard.

So, in honor of their emergence, here is a poem from the new collection of Tu Fu‘s poems I recently got.

After audience each day, I take
Some spring clothing to pawn: evening
And I return home drunk, now having
Debts for wine all over the place:
Few men ever reach seventy, and I watch
Butterflies going deeper and deeper
In amongst the flowers, dragon-flies
Skimming and flickering over the water;
Wind, light and time ever revolve;
Let us then enjoy life as best we can.

I have a little statue of Tu Fu here with me. He’s my favorite of this group of poets because he wrote two of the most beautiful lines of poetry I have ever read. In China, when I was so homesick for the Rocky Mountains, someone brought me a reproduction of a Chinese painting of Huang Shan, Yellow Mountain, so I could see mountains in my apartment. There were two lines printed on it in Chinese and I, of course, couldn’t read them. My friend Fu read them to me. They were the closing couplet from Tu Fu’s poem to Mt. Tai. Hearing them in Mandarin and then in English left a deep impression on me. I felt that long ago Chinese writer knew exactly how I felt.

When I left China, my friend presented two strips of rice paper on which he’d written these lines in his own beautiful calligraphy. The papers are long gone, but the image remains. And, by then, I could read most of the characters. Anyway, I’ll save that for another day. 😉

Ragtag Daily Prompt

Li Bai, Tu Fu and Wang Wei – Welcome to the 2021 Iteration!

Five days after they were put lovingly in the soil, Li Bai, Tu Fu and Wang Wei have emerged into the light of day. Another summer in the Saga of the Scarlet Emperor Beans. This part of their lives is so much fun. By the time they go outside, they will already be climbing something and probably sharing poetry. I will be planting squash with them again. ❤

Li Bai, Tu Fu and Bai Juyi last July

The Last Bean Report of 2020

After surrendering momentarily to frost, Bai Juyi and Tu Fu came back up from the 6 inch plants I left. Li Bai succumbed. Li Ho — who grows closer to a sun-warmed wall — has been growing this whole time, but tonight the temps will be below freezing and tomorrow as well, and then? I’m not fighting it any more.

I just went out to tell them goodbye and thank them for everything. They didn’t leave me empty-handed, either. I have 43 beans for next year (yes, I counted them). Though some don’t seem fully matured, I’m grateful for all the green beans of the summer, these beautiful purple and black beans for next year, and the company my beans gave me during this strange year.

Night Snow
Tu Fu

I was surprised my quilt and pillow were cold,
I see that now the window’s bright again.
Deep in the night, I know the snow is thick,
I sometimes hear the sound as bamboo snaps.