toni mcnaron's garden

Serena and Tiger

In the August 14th New York Times, there’s an article by Karen Crouse, a sports reporter for the paper, entitled “Tiger and Serena Confront Twilight and Aching Backs.”  Crouse clearly admires both stellar athletes, even saying they achieved unique status in their respective sports of golf and tennis, winning trophies by the handsful and avid fans by the tens of thousands.  She goes on to point to the reality of their ages and to the fact that both have had to withdraw from recent tournaments due to back problems that aren’t getting better.  

I’m delighted to have learned from Crouse that Serena and Tiger have become good friends in recent years, living quite close to each other in Florida, and following each other’s amazing stamina in the face of being “older” in terms of each sport’s definition of who might rise to stardom.  This pleases me because it tells me they understand something key about each other:  Not only is each perhaps one of the finest players ever to grace a tennis court or a golf course, but they do that as black players in two sports still heavily dominated by white athletes.  Yet Crouse, a white reporter who began her work as a sports writer for the Savannah News-Press, never mentions this germinal fact.  This seems to me a serious omission of something that has surely shadowed both of these amazing players from early stages of their development, adding stress elements absent for people like Ernie Els or Steffi Graff.

As I finished the article, grateful to Ms. Crouse for highlighting Williams and. Woods as the giants they so clearly are, I heard in the back of my mind voices currently arguing about just how engrained racism continues to be in our culture.  Regardless of their slant on this vexing and vexed subject, most such thinkers insist on a cardinal truth they voice this way:  “If you don’t see race, you don’t see me.”  So let’s keep their awards lists in full context of who they are and what that has meant as they have fought to achieve and maintain their positions at the very apex of their sports.  

And, let’s not be too quick to place them in any “twilight” zone, please, even if they do now perform certain PT exercises in their “new normal” routines.

Toni Morrison

A cherished friend just called me to be the one to tell me that Toni Morrison has died.  

For half a century she has given us book after book after book filled with characters who don’t always succeed but who never lose humanity.

For half a century she has helped me understand what being enslaved FEELS LIKE because her enormous talent in putting one word in union with another word makes it impossible for me get away.  

For half a century she has refused to blink at what has and has not happened to make life different for black Americans trying to figure out how to manage the legacy of enslavement by whites who continued to participate directly and indirectly in the systematic denial of full humanity to other humans.  

For half a century she has persisted in asserting the powerful resilience of black women, men, and children by creating characters who do not always behave beautifully but who never become two-dimensional stereotypes.

For half a century she has assumed that I as a devoted reader of her work will expend however much mental and emotional effort it takes to comprehend as much of her subject matter and affect as I can.

For half a century she has helped younger writers of all stripes but particularly writers of color find places to put their own words and people to support them as they do that, always making them feel that they matter, that she, the literary giant, still has to struggle to get the next sentence or scene to be closer and closer to how she originally conceives of it.


I am bereft and yet I understand that Toni Morrison doesn’t want me to stagnate in my grief, since like other privileged emotions grief finally paralyzes me.  I can’t take down one of her treasured books if I’m weeping inconsolably.  So I will let myself weep and then begin to feel a gratitude that surely will grow as I come to grasp more fully that this incredibly important woman is no longer sitting somewhere breathing the same basic air I am breathing today.  That gratitude is for the work that can only continue to enliven my life.


Social Attraction

A friend and I are just back from a magical trip to Eastern Egg Rock in Maine.  That’s where a lively colony of puffins now lives, though 40 years ago, almost all the little brightly colored shore birds had essentially vanished from their home.  Between using feathers for ladies’ hats and gentlemen’s fishing lures and eating the birds, the population was down to single digits.  Meanwhile a young graduate student named Steve Kress was at Cornell working in their famous ornithology program.  One of his professors was helping try to restore the peregrine falcon, so young Steve had a dream:  if his professor could try with the falcons, maybe he could work to restore puffins to Maine’s coastal region.  Now, forty summers later, there are over 150 banded mating pairs on Eastern Egg Rock, located about eight off shore from New Harbor, a quiet fishing village along the coast.  

About 30 years ago, my then partner and I began vacationing in Maine most summers, staying at a lovely old lodge built early in the 20th century.  Among its brochures of things to do while in Northeast Harbor was an invitation to go see puffins.  Attracted to the famous image of an adult puffin holding four or five tiny fish in its bill, I suggested we make the trip.  It involved arising about 4:30 and my partner was a late sleeper, so we didn’t pursue the option.  But I carried the little picture back to Minneapolis and decided to sign up for a program conducted through the Maine Audubon Society.  Called “Adopt a Puffin,” it meant I sent them $100 a year to take care of a puffin assigned to me.  She had a number though I called her “Priscilla.”  Every summer I received a new photograph of her and it was “my” puffin because I could see the band on her leg.  Eventually she died (they life span can easily get into the 30s if nothing happens at sea) and I now am sponsoring a new female.  Over the years I’ve learned that they only lay one egg per season, so if the egg doesn’t hatch and survive, they miss a year of reproduction. Both my puffins have been successful except for 2 or 3 times, so I feel happy to have helped carry on two family lines. 

About eight years ago I traveled to Iceland, hired a marvelous guide who knew all about puffins and geology.  Mike drove me up the western edge of the island to the fjords where there is a large puffin colony with burrows dug under the ground at cliff’s edge.  Arriving just at dawn, I saw for well over an hour, alone with my binoculars, watching one after another adult puffin peek out from her/his burrow, preen or flap wings, fly in a wide circle just to stretch before returning to move slowly into another day of going out to get fish for their young safely tucked inside the burrows.  That was a soul-feeding experience, so when the Project Puffin staff offered me a chance to be in a blind on Eastern Egg Rock where I could observe individual puffins quite close to home, I accepted.  Happily my friend, a serious birder, eagerly agreed to accompany me.

The night before out trip out to the rock, Steve Kress, the graduate student now in his 60s, gave an illustrated talk about the history or the project ending with his deep concerns about the potentially disastrous effect of ocean warming.  It seems the tiny fish essential to pufflings (the name for baby puffins) are sinking deeper to get to cooler water and some larger fishes are too big for tiny stomachs to digest.  But parents seem intent on finding slightly larger varieties so they can continue to produce new generations, at least into the near future.   Time on the rock was like entering another world:  there are no human inhabitants on this small island, though from May to late August several students planning to become shore bird scientists or naturalists live in tiny tents and bathe in the Atlantic Ocean while doing the essential and daily charting of life patterns among the puffin pairs.  In addition to puffins, there are hundreds of terns and various kinds of gulls, all of whom make a loud racket all the time, with the terns diving for our heads because we were very near their chicks still inside or just outside of their eggs.  Once it was our turn in a blind, we nestled into a tiny wooden box, sitting on 2 large overturned plastic buckets softened a little by very old cushions doled out before we set off for our roost.  For about half an hour we were shut inside, disturbing terns and gulls just a little, and able to watch adult puffins going about their mid-morning lives, singly or in pairs/triplets or large gatherings.  

Puffins are exceptionally social birds it seems, so when Steve Kress first was trying to attract adults from Canada, he figured out to have a Maine – make wooden puffins that he installed strategically around the barren rocks of the island.  This worked well and fairly quickly, so he began thinking of it as a possible strategy for restoration efforts for other endangered populations.  The term has stuck and become known through the entire world of ornithologists.  We heard that just recently Project Puffin was visited by Japanese naturalists eager to restore colonies of birds equally decimated over the years.  So this kindly man not only has brought his beloved puffins back to the Maine coast but he has taught others a highly successful way to do the same in their own environments.  I was moved by the name he chose:  SOCIAL ATTRACTION.  It tells me nature depends on what we humans too often refuse to acknowledge, i.e., it really does take a village to sustain individual lives, and none of us makes it “alone,” never mind various myths of individualism foisted upon us by philosophers or politicians.  Communities are our safeguards against all sorts of ills–internal and external.  We’d be wise to watch the puffins as my friend and I did the other morning.  Even if they spent some time in the sun just fluffing their own feathers, eventually they hooked up with others and seemed more active for doing so.

Turkies in the Straw? No, on TV and Elsewhere

Turkey in the Straw blog post

When I was spending time in England almost every year, I realized that many of their television ads were incredibly clever as opposed to most of ours that simply tried to sell you something you probably didn’t need or want.  Lately, however, I have seen a few current ads that genuinely amuse me.  One of the best is for a product named Chantix, something a person takes who is trying to end an addiction to cigarettes.  It focuses on an older Tom Turkey who is either keeping warm in his apartment or hiking in the woods or relaxing at a campfire.  The words tell me that it’s too hard to stop smoking “cold turkey”–hence the AC unit’s being turned off or the bird’s draping himself in a shawl.  Then we’re told Chantix will help a person stop smoking “slow turkey.”  The created Tom then occupies himself while still having the occasional cigarette until the voice over assures us a time will come when Chantix will have lessened the desire enough to make it easy to stop.  Our turkey then either throws his last butt into the campfire or into his apartment’s trash can and starts doing constructive and healthy things:  he feeds goldfish in his apartment; he makes s’mores over the dwindling coals outdoors; he dusts off his beach shoes so he can go for a brisk swim; he dons a backpack and sets off for a hike with his trusty water bottle.  Just before the ad ends as we watch him walking away from the camera, the turkey jumps up and clicks his feet as a final sign of having “kicked” the bad habit.  Whereas I usually just go get a glass of water during ads or check my e-mail, I watch these Chantix ads with genuine pleasure.  The idea is smart, the images are engaging, and the Tom Turkey seems so sincerely pleased to have stopped hurting himself that I am drawn into the script just as the Madison Avenue gurus want me to be.  And, were I an addicted smoker (are there any other kind?), I’d certainly be inclined to try Chantix.

Three days ago, I walked out my front door to see what parts of my front garden needed watering first and was momentarily thrown a little off kilter to see a very tall wild turkey walking slowly in just the part of my side yard where the dry flowers live.  I spoke softly to him (coloring suggested this was “Tom”) asking if he lives at the cemetery a half block from my house.  I also welcomed him to my yard, stood a moment or two watching his majestic strut before going back inside.  Almost as soon as I got inside the phone rang.  It was my next door neighbor saying in a rushed voice “Toni, look out your kitchen window–there’s a TURKEY in your back garden.  When I first saw it, it scared me, so go look.”  I do go look and of course it was the same fellow I’d just seen.  He’d jumped over the fence and found my big back yard graced by two large and well-stocked feeding stations.  The wild turkey was happily pecking up fallen seeds, perhaps thinking he’s won a small lottery just designed for creatures like him.  Again, I stepped quietly out onto my little back stoop and welcomed my new friend to have as much bird food as he liked before finding his way back into what I assume is his home–that cemetery a few stones’ throws away. 

Melanie then sent me three wonderful photographs taken with her smart phone.  Of course I dont’ know how either to take photographs with a phone or send them to anyone else.  But once I had them in an e-mail, I could send them to a couple of friends who were as pleased as I to see them so close to my back door.  I thank my blog manager for including one of those here, so those of you reading this can get a better scale of this unexpected visitation.  And, while I really do welcome any wild turkey who wanders into my yards to spend some moments there, part of me worries because surely wild turkeys are not entirely safe on residential streets of busy neighborhood full of cars and trucks.  But into my little world Tom Turkey came, so hospitality directed me to welcome him.  And should he or relatives or friends ever grace me with their presence, similar welcomes will be sent towards their subtly and beautifully colored feathers and necks and underbellies.