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MARY A. HOOD is Professor Emerita at the University of West Florida. She is the author of The Strangler Fig and Other Tales: Field Notes of a Conservationist and Rivertime: Ecotravel on the World’s Rivers and Walking Seasonal Roads. She has published poems, articles on conservation and the environment as well as numerous scientific articles in the field of microbial ecology.
River pebble smooth
larger than prayer beads, smaller
than a talismanthey tell stories. In
the Finnish creation myth the earth is made
from the shards of a duck egg. In our own modern
story which is no myth, pesticides make them thin and
fragile. Is this what we know of life on this thin egg-shell
of an earth. And why as delicate as it is it keeps going, is a
mystery. Yellow-eyed, their centers see our nature, good
egg or rotten, hardboiled or soft. With all our questions
of what came first, my vote goes to the chicken. Then
there’s their placement, all in one basket or all over
ones’ own face, occasionally one lays one
in public or caches them away in a nest.
If one is too brainy he’s quickly labeled
an egg head and best of all in an act
of contrition they offer themselves
up to be sacrificially
hurled at offending
Rescuing the Turtle
The middle of the road is not a good place to be so I stop
pick up what could be mistaken for a muddy rock
take it to the roadside and point it in the direction of the pond.
It stretches its rubbery legs out swimming in air
and when grounded begins a slow deliberate crawl
to who knows where.
What must it be like to live on the tongue of the earth-
in those soft mushy places where the words
of the wind always blow high overhead
Where with only a little effort you can burrow
into ground’s spongy quilts and pillows
and sleep on and on like a Sunday morning
Where the sky is a physicist’s world
full of dark matter or a monk’s world full of god
never really seeing it but knowing it’s there
Where time is not measured
except in the taste of dandelion leaves
and chicory sprouts and by the way
shadows take form and dissolve into liquidity
Where no matter where your feet take you
Connie Wilson was drum majorette
in white Nancy boots, baton and tall hat.
Like Delacroix’s Liberty she led the school band.
Varsity all-state, dating the most popular boys
she held the leading role in all the school plays
and as featured soloist in the choir
sang the best parts. She drove a red convertible
Mustang, had a full scholarship to L.S.U. and
from a leading family she lived in a house
columned and prominent on the town square.
Sometimes it is easy to know why we love
and why rejection comes as no surprise.
Today Connie would be in her 80’s.
Maybe she’s dead, in a nursing home
wheel-chaired, disabled, with Alzheimer’s.
Because time diminishes the differences
among us, takes away all the yearnings
you would think the lesson
would be to stop wanting.
Sue Walker Interviews Mary A. Hood
SBW: I love the way that the Paris Review situates their interviews, and I know that you have traveled the world – Florida and Mississippi and New York – ventured along the Nile, Ganges, and Yangtze rivers – so suppose we are, this morning, in your favorite place, so tell me, Mary, where are we?
MAH: We would be in my home, Watch Hill Cottage, in the Finger Lakes of New York on a spring morning with the lilacs blooming and the grape vines just beginning to leafing out and down by the creek, the trillium at their peak. In all my travels, I think the most beautiful place on earth is my home in these lakes and hills.
SBW: Mary, you make me think of Thoreau – and of the importance of walking. The following is one of my favorite Thoreau passages – care to comment?
"... in the distant woods or fields, in unpretending sprout-lands or pastures tracked by rabbits, even in a bleak and, to most, cheerless day, like this, when a villager would be thinking of his inn, I come to myself, I once more feel myself grandly related, and that cold and solitude are friends of mine. I suppose that this value, in my case, is equivalent to what others get by churchgoing and prayer. I come home to my solitary woodland walk as the homesick go home. I thus dispose of the superfluous and see things as they are, grand and beautiful. I have told many that I walk every day about half the daylight, but I think they do not believe it. I wish to get the Concord, the Massachusetts, the America, out of my head and be sane a part of every day." Thoreau on walking.
MAH: “There is probably no other activity that affords us the ease of connecting mind, body, spirit and place” (from Walking Seasonal Roads). In the craziness of today’s world, it seems walking in nature brings a certain peace found nowhere else. But Thoreau did not see nature as an escape from the real world but as a rejuvenating force that might allow not only enlightenment but the energy of activism to make the world a better place.
SBW: You are variously described as a biologist, botanist, ecologist, poet, historian, humorist, conservationist, grand story teller – and you are also Professor Emerita at the University of West Florida. How do all of these aspects of Being define who you are?
MAH: The qualities of a scientist are to clarify, to understand the inner connections and to find and express truth. In my roles as scientist, ecologist and poet, I think those are the qualities that characterize my work.
SBW: What poets / writers have been of particular import to you?
MAH: My favorite poets are Sylvia Plath and Mary Oliver, plus my friends, Edward Dougherty and Margaret Reed. Ithaca writer, Diane Ackermann, and Iowa writer, Mary Swander are some of my favorite writers. Of course, they all write in very different styles about different things but what they all do is write with clarity, craft and skill.
SBW: What are you currently reading?
MAH: I am currently rereading Chris Authors essays. His Words of the Grey Wind and several other collections (Irish Nocturnes, Irish Elegies, Irish Haiku, On the Shoreline of Knowledge) contain some of the finest essays written today. Some of his passages raise goosebumps, some make me want to weep and some bring such deep pleasure.
SBW: Where did you grow up and where did you go to High School, College, Grad School?
MAH: I grew up in a small town near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, went to school at Southeastern Louisiana College and LSU, did post-doctoral work at Harvard Medical School and Cornell University. My roots are in the south, the deep south, the Louisiana south but my intellect and sense of ethics probably comes from the northeast.
SBW: In one of your poems, “High School,” you contrast youth and old age. Connie Wilson had everything – but old age is the ultimate robber. I think that the diminishment that age brings is one of the more difficult adjustments—and you make me think of Shakespeare’s
Last scene of all, That ends this strange eventful history, Is second childishness, and mere oblivion, Sans eyes, sans teeth, sans taste, sans everything. Since a true “fountain of youth” has not yet been found, how do we make the most of what we have while we have it—instead of “wanting” – what was and what we cannot have?
MAH: How beautifully expressed! In Buddhist philosophy, it is believed that desire is what makes us suffer. While diminishment certainly comes with old age (and it is so very challenging), I hope the poem also raises the issue of how hard it is to control desire and how foolish many of our desires are.
SBW: I love your poem titled “Egg” in which you bring together all aspects of “egginess.” The poem is a concrete poem. Comment, if you will, about form in poetry? Free verse seems to be more prevalent than formal verse – sonnets, sestinas, villanelles, etc. Should poets be learning and mastering craft?
MAH: I try to write formal verse as often as I can. Free verse is easy, the formal forms are not but they provide disciple and open the mind to a sense of the complexity of language. Some of my favorites are Elizabeth Bishop’s villanelle, “One Art;” Theodore Roethke’s quatrain, “My Papa’s Waltz,” and Marie Ponsot’s tritina, “Living Room.”
SBW: I love the poem, “Rescuing the Turtle,” especially the final lines: “Where no matter where your feet take you / it’s home.” Having travelled the world—and having lived in Florida and upper New York, how do we make wherever we are a definitive home?
MAH: I think to make Home requires effort. It doesn’t just happen without understanding our need for safety, love, beauty, connections, i.e., all those qualities that make us good people; then to go about creating that kind of environment. I have traveled in some very poor grimy places in the world and discovered that community and connections can make up for the worst poverty.
In my latest book, Sanctuaries: Parks Preserves and Places of Refuge in the World (still looking for a press) I write about protected lands (over 60 refuges) in 20 countries where people have made Home (or habitat as the term for home is in the biological language) for rare, endangered or threatened species in an effort to protect earth’s biodiversity.
Thank you very much for being one of Negative Capability’s featured poets.