The State of My Backyard

The regular Friday blog took a week off for meanderings in the Oregon outback. This week we return with Virginia based visual artist and writer Betty Plevney musing on her backyard through prose, sketching and haiku.


I moved to Richmond, Virginia, four years ago. It was an economically wise but sad decision as I uprooted my wife from the only place she had ever called home, the San Francisco Bay area, and we left our close friends behind. Slowly, over time, we made this little spot of land, just south of the James River, into a beautiful outdoor room.

Our Place

A lot of living happens in this backyard that has nothing to do with Lee and me. Squirrels race along the fence tops. Starlings root in the grass for worms. Mosquitoes search for ankles, legs and arms. The oak tree sheds its catkins, littering the lawn and deck. Grass gracefully accepts another load from the Boston Terriers and keeps growing. Each year, these scenes unfold as days lengthen, humidity rises and the sun warms the land. I just need to stop long enough to observe.

The State of My Backyard

Spring cleaning the yard,
wind laughs and spits crepe myrtle
seeds across the sand

Crepe myrtle casts shade,
terriers wait silently,
a baby bird falls

Ants hurry, laying
down a line of red footprints,
spring’s first barbecue

The State of My “Backyard”

Old rusty fish hooks,
tangled monofilament,
new barbs snag my fears

Sweat beads in my eyes,
wet hands pull spinning clay up,
dreams collapse again

Black snake winds down the
middle of my road asking
for new ideas

Betty Plevney is a writer, mixed-media artist and graphic facilitator living in Richmond, Virginia. She explores transparency, layering and the juxtaposition of words, ideas, color and texture in her work. She graduated from the University of San Francisco with a Masters in Writing. You can follow her musings on Twitter @BettyPlevney.

On Nikita Khrushchev, Boy Scouts, the Cold War, and Graduation

Yesterday, walking along the sidewalks that wind through the subdivision where we live, Betty and I admired the fulsome blossoms of ornamental trees that line the streets and walkways. Dogs barked . . . Dachshunds, Springer Spaniels, yellow Labrador Retrievers, German Shorthairs, black mutts with gray and wizened mugs.

The sound of a plane engine cut the afternoon air. Without thinking, I looked up. A single engine plane flew out of a cloudless northwest. I asked myself, why do I always look up, or want to look up, when a plane or helicopter flies over? And I immediately had an answer. I won’t say The Answer, but it was an answer.

I was raised in the 50s and 60s when the United States grappled with the Soviet Union in what we called the Cold War. Not that it was cold; it was plenty hot in Korea and Vietnam and Laos and Nicaragua and Angola. We just called it cold. The threat of annihilation via nuclear armaments hung across the planet like a giant shroud. We had bomb drills in school, watched Walter Cronkite broadcast Cold War info nightly from CBS News. It blared at us from the newspapers and Time Magazine and US News and World Report. We talked about it at school and at Boy Scouts. I was a rabid Boy Scout back then. The semi-militarism of it all draped on me like a French general’s tunic. It was heady, wearing war-tinted uniforms, talking about survival and battle. Dreaming of killing krauts like Audie Murphy in To Hell and Back.

One of my Boy Scout projects was to work with Civil Defense on some type of project designed to teach me the value of public service. One of my good friends, “P,” who was also my fiercest competitor on the march to be an Eagle Boy Scout, decided he would spend some time at the local airport watching for enemy aircraft. This was in the time when missile technology was new, so the standard method of nuclear armament delivery was the airplane. “P’s” father, “Mr. S,” was a Civil Defense volunteer and knew all the skinny on planes and weapons and the politics of Anglo-Russian enmity. If “P” was going to spend his weekends helping defend America, then in the spirit of competition, so was I.

We rode out to the airport on Saturday mornings in “Mr. S’s” green Chevy Suburban. Back then a Suburban was more utility van than sport vehicle. The airport was a sand-and-clay-particled mess that sat on a big flat stretch of desert surrounded by creosote and saguaro cacti. In the 1800s it had been part of the Santa Cruz Riverbed, but now it was just a flat spot where when the wind blew it created a dust storm that browned out the sun, the moon, the stars, the blacktop, the honky-tonk on the side of the airstrip, Little Mountain to the west and everything within an arms length of the viewer.

We climbed up the stairs to the observation tower and inside, sets of binoculars were strewn on plywood tables and posters of airplanes papered the sheet rock walls: side views, top views, bottom views, numerical enumerations, plane manufacturers, what ordnance they were capable of delivering, the names we knew them by, most prominently the Tupolev T-95, or “Bear,” as we called it. We stood most of those mornings with binocular straps cutting into the flesh around our necks as we watched the sky over Picacho Peak, and Newman Peak, and San Tan, and Silver Reef, Table Top, the Vai Vo Hills, and the Sierra Estrella. All we ever saw were buzzards and red tailed hawks, the pigeons that nested in the date palms that grew along the highway to Phoenix.

We were obsessed with the Soviets back then, or our parents were, as were our politicians. Nuclear attack was so imminent it was not a question of “if,” but “when.” But I must admit, other than a chance to get another merit badge on the road to my Eagle Scout goal, or a chance to play Army, I, and most of the kids I knew, paid very little attention to the Soviet threat.

Some of my parents’ friends created makeshift bomb shelters in their basements, stocked with fifty-gallon drums of flour and raw sugar and pasta and cans of beans and tuna fish. Lots of water. One of them, “Mr.B,” even had a lot of games for his kids to play. At night, we used to raid his air raid shelter and drink the soda pops he kept in the refrigerator as we played Chess, and Clue and Checkers, and if we could get some girls down there, strip poker. For us, girls were a whole lot more dangerous than Nikita Khrushchev and Anastas Mikoyan.

One of the physicians in our town actually had a real bomb shelter built to specifications with a special system for filtering the fallout from the air that targets would breathe in the aftermath of a hydrogen bomb attack. Anecdotally, we called that possibility Nuclear Winter.

In 1964, at the close of my junior in High School, I went with my neighbor to his high school graduation party. I got drunk, not once, but three times that night, spent some hours fandangoing around a big mesquite wood bonfire as Sputniks passed overhead every hour-and-a-half, watching us, or so I imagined, and sending signals back to Moscow about our whereabouts. Later, we unstuck someone from the caliché muck of an irrigated cotton field, and then we went to the physician’s house for a graduation breakfast. His eldest daughter was graduating, too. She slinked around in her white shorts and blue top, the most dangerous thing I’d been near all night.

The sun was barely up and the Sonoran Desert heat not yet steaming off the paved streets and the concrete sidewalks. We all wanted to go into the bomb shelter, but the doctor’s dangerous daughter kept telling us no. I wanted to see what an air filter for nuclear fallout looked like. I wanted to see if they had ice cold Cokes down there, and maybe some more Vodka so I wouldn’t lose the buzz I worked on. I wanted to get close to the dangerous daughter.

One of the graduating seniors, “L,” kept sneaking down the steps and then we’d have to go down, led by the dauntless daughter, and capture him. At first it was funny, all of us laughing, but then it turned surly. “L” was drunker than I was, than anyone was and he grew violent, his face purple, his glare like a drill instructor’s. He wore a new gray graduation suit and was walking around with a bottle of Gilbey’s Gin which he sucked on now and then as he bellowed about going off to San Diego to US Navy Boot Camp later that day. Soon, he clunked someone in the noggin with the gin bottle and we had to gang him down in the green Bermuda grass that stained his new gray suit. We thought nothing of going to battle with him. That’s what we did, we Americans, we did battle with whomever: Dominicans, Lebanese, Laotians, North Koreans, Chinese, Russians, our next-door neighbor. We did battle. We wrestled “L” into the bed of a new Ford pickup and eight of us sat on him as he bucked and scrabbled and screamed obscenities about our mothers. He lived outside of town down a dirt road. We pulled into the gate and turned the truck around and threw him out into the dust and gravel. He staggered up and chased us down the highway, stumbling and falling, lurching in his now ruined new gray graduation suit as he picked up large rocks and tossed them at us. We laughed and headed home for sleep.

And soon enough most of us were in the Army, the Navy, the Marines, fighting too, or preparing to fight, each in our little parts of the Cold War, Germany, Korea, and for me Vietnam where we often looked into the skies for signs of North Vietnamese MIGS and Russian Bears. And then, years later, of course the sound of those September wings of 2001. How they haunt our lives now. The memory caught up in the dreams we sleep, the way we exist. Wary now. Striking out at what frightens. Looking into the sky at the sound of planes. Keeping a close eye on our new neighbors. We live uneasy.

On Beowulf, William Safire, Old English and the Constitution.

“Do not put statements in the negative form.
And don’t start sentences with a conjunction.
If you reread your work, you will find on rereading that a
great deal of repetition can be avoided by rereading and editing.
Never use a long word when a diminutive one will do.
Unqualified superlatives are the worst of all.
If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.
Last, but not least, avoid clichés like the plague.”
— William Safire

William Safire, the late columnist for the New York Times, a delightful mind and fearsome writer, described himself as a “libertarian conservative.” I have professed conservative credentials from time to time myself and have also been accused of being libertarian and rightly so. Neither label has caused me shame, nor has the moniker, “liberal.” I have held and still clutch close important beliefs from all three of those approaches to life and how it should be communally experienced.

I have often agreed with things Safire said about the world, but one of the places we have veered off mutually inclusive paths is with the subject of language. I began this blog with a semi-tongue-in-cheek quote from Safire about how one should write, and I suppose, as a continuance of his notion, how one should speak. I think Safire was interested in keeping language, especially written language, consistent within itself and within its history. And I would expect him to feel that way, given his conservative bent.

But I have a bone to pick with that notion.

Above, Safire says “Don’t and don’t and never and unqualified, and improper and avoid.” Although he semi-toys with us, Safire held an underlying belief in strict rules for English. All through school we had rules, and in the world of editing we have rules. So with all the rules we have one would think that English today might look like it did one hundred years ago, five hundred years ago, a thousand years ago, since no right-minded writer or speaker would break the rules. But that is not the case. Below I have quoted the first four lines of the epic poem, “Beowulf,” composed in Anglo-Saxon, which, in the year 800 AD was English. Below it I have given a rendition of those same four lines from an early twentieth century translation by Francis Grummere. Both are written in the English of their times. Note the difference between our ability to understand the words in terms of the English that we spoke and read twelve hundred years ago and the English we speak and read now.

THEN: Ða wæs on burgum Beowulf Scyldinga,
leof leodcyning, longe þrage
folcum gefræge (fæder ellor hwearf,
aldor of earde), oþþæt him eft onwoc

NOW: Beowulf bode in the burg of the Scyldings,
leader beloved, and long he ruled
in fame with all folk, since his father had gone
away from the world, till awoke an heir,

Beowulf is a Danish-Viking story but it has come to us in Old English, which was the Anglo-Saxon lingo of the late first millennium. About the time that Beowulf was being written in Old English, Danes and Vikings were raiding, plundering and then settling the British Isles. With them, they brought some words that we have added to our language. Words like: Mink, flounder, cog, lug, spry, nudge, wicker.

If we had obeyed all the rules for keeping Old English pure, then those words would not have been added to our panoply of utterance. English would not have changed. Our language would be poorer, in my estimation.
In 1066, William the Bastard led an invasion of England that changed the history of our language some more. French became the official language of England, and of course the number of words that came into our language was quite large. An example of some follow: Archer, bacon, embezzle, gutter, salary, venison, vicar.

A couple hundred years after William’s Norman troops pacified the Anglo-Saxons, the diplomat and poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, wrote his famous narrative poem titled, “The Canterbury Tales.” I have included a four-line segment so you can see how much our language changed in a five hundred year period. Although Chaucer’s lines are hard to read, you can see that there are quite a number of recognizable words. Right below Chaucer I have included a translation that illuminates the full gist of his words.

Whilom, as olde stories tellen us,
There was a duc that highte Theseus,
Of Athenes he was lord and governour,
And in his tyme swich a conquerour.

Once upon a time, as old tales tell to us,
There was a duke whose name was Theseus:
Of Athens he was lord and governor,
And in his time was such a conqueror,

You can guess where I am headed. If we listened to thinkers like William Safire, our language would still look like it did when that first monk in an English abbey wrote Beowulf in the native tongue of the land. About three hundred years after Chaucer wrote, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes composed the following words in his famous philosophical work, Leviathan.

Nature (the art whereby God hath made and governes the world) is by the art of man, as in many other things, so in this also imitated, that it can make an Artificial Animal. For seeing life is but a motion of Limbs, the begining whereof is in some principall part within; why may we not say, that all Automata (Engines that move themselves by springs and wheeles as doth a watch) have an artificiall life? For what is the Heart, but a Spring; and the Nerves, but so many Strings; and the Joynts, but so many Wheeles, giving motion to the whole Body, such as was intended by the Artificer?

Again, you can see how our language changed over a three hundred year period and now, after another three-hundred-fifty years, our language has changed a lot more. Today, we have a large number of words that were not in the original Anglo-Saxon: Rodeo, raccoon, substitution, constitution. That word, “constitution,” comes from Latin, and also exists in French and very likely came to us with the Normans.

It is fascinating to me that although we have an old and famous language, one spoken world-wide, we still are subject to the necessities of time and change. What was said and written in the time of Beowulf is not how we write and speak today.

Before I quit, I want to go back to this word, “constitution.” Right now, our notion of that word as it regards our country’s “Constitution” is subject to a lot of argument regarding what it is and what it is not, what it means and does not mean, what was originally meant by its framers. I suppose I come down on this subject sort of like I do with language. Constitutions change. The meanings of words change. Times have changed. A lot of my good conservative friends believe that what the framers wrote, literally, is how the constitution should be interpreted today.

But I wonder about that. The Constitution, although it did not mention slavery, did say that Congress could not prohibit the importation of people held to service or labor. We had to fight a war to get rid of that “peculiar institution.” Yet, prior to our Civil War, no amount of argument, legislation, legal activity could get rid of slavery. So I wonder, is that the original Constitution my conservative friends want to go back to? (I think I just broke one of Safire’s grammar rules here.) Or the one that said you could not vote if you were a woman? Or the one that said you could not vote unless you were a property owner? Or the one that said that when counting population for purposes of districting congressional representation and distributing taxes that African-Americans only counted for three-fifths of a person? Are we to believe that the language we speak and write now is exactly the same language written by Franklin and Adams and Jefferson? Do the words and their intent mean the same thing now as they did then? And besides, the Constitution exists to regulate the behavior of men, and does not stand on its own above and beyond that purpose. No people…no need for a constitution. And people and their necessities change over time.

I guess the point I am trying to make is that the Constitution we had two-hundred-thirty years ago has changed, mostly for the better, and having said that, it seems evident that it is a changeable document that has modified over the years to meet the times and the trials of our country. So, to me, like language, the Constitution has evolved to match the age we live in, and is not some immovable object that cannot deal with the crises we face today, tomorrow and the next day.

1. “Beowulf, from the website
2. Francis Grummere, , from the website:
3. Geoffrey Chaucer, from the website:
4. ibid
5.Thomas Hobbes, from Leviathan,