Jnana's Red Barn

A Space for Work and Reflection


One of our first harvests each spring is the peas. The sugar snaps and snow peas, especially, soon after the asparagus kicks in. It’s a challenge, keeping up: you need to pick the vines every day or two, while racing the first heat wave. Then it’s a matter of removing the pea vines so the cosmos and cabbage coming up underneath can breathe a bit more.

What we don’t eat now or prepare for the freezer will wind up in the compost, a sorry alternative.

Do you have any idea how delightful it is to serve the survivors on a cold day in February? Priceless, as they say.


Somehow I avoided most of the usual traffic tie-ups and wound up with some extra time to kill in the Boston area on what turned out to be the first afternoon with real spring in the air. Given the time to kill, I headed off, camera in hand, for a walk along the Charles River.

At one point, I looked down along the riverbank and saw a limb draped out into the water. Five turtles were sunning on it in a wonderful composition. The camera was in focus and I needed one more step before I aimed and clicked. Just as I did, they slipped one by one into the water.

Maybe next time.

On the way back, I came up on a couple, hand in hand, as they strolled along the pathway. Another great shot, this time of street fashion. They were in matching all black, except for his shorts, which were black with great swirls of yellow and orange. I should have taken a shot but wanted to respect their privacy.

Now I’m wishing I’d gone ahead anyway.

Two nights before, as I was heading off to a committee meeting, I saw the perfect shot of the tower on City Hall, its gold-leaf dome and golden weathervane brightly lighted by the setting sun against a slate-gray background. Unfortunately, I wasn’t carrying my camera.

That has me thinking how many great photos turn out to be like those turtles, just slipping out of sight.

Maybe it provides all the more respect for the good photos we have.


The attraction to powerful animals is universal, a response to the mystery of who we are, as humans, as well. To perceive and honor their presence – in the wild, especially – places us within an ecological harmony and health.

But what characteristics essentially define animal life, as distinct from plants? The reliance on oxygen, rather than carbon dioxide, for one, and self-locomotion, for another. At our core existence, each of us may proclaim: “I breathe; therefore, I am.” Thought and emotion come only later. To inhale, moreover, sparks an associative leap – from air to spirit, with its dimensions of inspiration, literally, “breathing in.” Or God, breathing into the muddy nostrils of the first human in Eden.

In general, the animals in these poems move through places where I’ve lived or visited repeatedly – sometimes surfacing through Native stories, sometimes as chance encounters, sometimes by evidence they’ve left behind. (Once, while handling a what I thought was a large, striated rock on a friend’s fireplace mantel, I was told it was a mastodon tooth he’d found on a mountain many years earlier.) Who will regard these creatures intently and not marvel at their distinct intelligence and grace? (Let me confess some others defy any admiration I can muster; who has heard wondrous tales of garden slugs, for instance?)

Bears and whales – giants of the forest and ocean – appear early in one sequence of my poems, along with the sense of awe they instill. In her book, Fishcamp: Life on an Alaskan Shore, Nancy Lord argues, based on her own neighbors, “The bear is like us yet is not us. Perhaps the bear is our connection back to something lost and still treasured, another way of knowing. The bear is nature and culture, together.” The whale, on the other hand, reminds us of deep mysteries we may never penetrate and places we cannot venture unassisted.

We cross over from a commonplace understanding of animal – “pertaining to the physical rather than the spiritual nature of man; carnal; sensual; animal appetites” – and move instead into meetings in which the other creatures sometimes enlighten humans. Here, then, nature fits both the heart and fundamental qualities of each sentient mobile organism. Observe their movement closely, and periods of play and even unrestrained exuberance, as well as caring, become evident. The word nature itself arises in the concept of “giving birth” or “being born,” and easily extends to the working of natural law as well.

We will recognize that animal nature is always complex, and always holds more to discover – around and within us.



when Megan
(age seven)
claimed to hear

whales singing
who was I
to argue?

*   *   *

a pilgrim
indeed, on
this ocean

a sand eel
baiting this

 poem copyright by Jnana Hodson
(originally appeared in the journal Concrete Wolf)


Humpback, launching a deep dive.

Humpback, launching a deep dive.

Often, several whale watch tours will circle in the same vacinity.

Often, several whale watch tours will circle in the same vicinity.

One of the traditions I established after moving to New England meant venturing out for a whale watch each year. You never know what you’ll encounter. Sometimes it’s only a minke whale or two – the smallest of the ones we have. Or, at times, it becomes more than you can count.

The whales have the most beautiful light blue underbellies, visible if you get close enough.

The whales have the most beautiful light blue underbellies, visible if you get close enough.

In the past dozen years, though, the custom’s fallen by the wayside. Just too much else to do – and the ticket price has gone up. But as a way of getting out to sea, it’s still a cheap cruise … and it can be very peaceful, if you don’t get seasick on the way.


Got a rejection letter last week. All authors, and especially poets, are used to them. What was striking for me was that I hadn’t sent off any hard-copy submissions in the last three years. Repeat, THREE years.

As I’ve explained, a while ago I shifted over to online-only submissions as a consequence of much higher acceptances that way and of simplifying the difficulties of trying to maintain duplicate sets of files. (One for online, and a duplicate for hardcopy.)

So it took the editors of this particular journal more than three years to decide? What’s their problem? No wonder they’re feeling swamped!

This also touches on the issue of exclusivity in sending out work for publication. In the old days, meaning when I started, you didn’t dare send your work simultaneously to different periodicals. It was more a kind of serial monogamy. Or serious business.

Although the hard-and-fast requirement started melting, I stayed with exclusivity more as a matter of keeping track of what was out where – but I did keep an unmentioned caveat: after six months, if I’d heard nothing, it was fair game to send out again. In more than a thousand acceptances, I don’t recall more than a half-dozen cases where this became a problem.

Suppose I could look up the five poems to see if they’ve been published elsewhere in the interim, but frankly it’s not worth it.

You might have even seen them here, at the Barn.


As I relate in my Northwest Passion novels, much of that corner of the continental United States is desert – not the endless wet that envelops Seattle. All of Washington state’s renowned apples, for instance – and that’s 40 percent of what’s sold in this country – require irrigation to grow.

The Southwest, including California, with its extensive agricultural output, is no different.

So the issue of climate change is far from theoretical – for me or for the average shopper. Nor am I alone in feeling the consequences – and fears – of abnormalities in weather patterns.

Last week’s declaration of a statewide drought emergency for the year 2015 by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is well worth watching. It’s not just the orchards (peaches, pears, cherries, apricots in addition to the famed apples) that are in peril. Think of the region’s wines, too. Or hops for brewing.

If that’s not convincing, think of what’s about to happen to grocery prices.

Across the state, Washington’s snowpack is a mere 15 percent of normal. Remember, snowmelt is the source of the irrigation water. It’s water in reserve, hoarded in reservoirs as it trickles out before release downstream.

Dire measures are expected.

For perspective, the latest New Yorker (May 25) puts the focus on the Southwest: David Owen’s “Where the River Runs Dry: The Colorado and America’s Water Crisis.” It’s well worth reading, especially for folks who have no idea of the complications of allocating scarce water in the American West.

No easy relief is expected, either – north or south. The Southwest is in its 16th year of drought, for instance. How do you catch up from that?

If only the already hard-pressed farmers weren’t on the front lines of this battle. They’re too much like the canaries in a coal mine for comfort.


One of my favorite spots on Earth, longer ago than I care to admit.

One of my favorite spots on Earth, longer ago than I care to admit.


already, I’ve plucked hundreds of maple seedlings

planted mountain laurel and two roses
two new blueberry bushes and a patchouli plant
tied up the raspberries
put stakes in for the peas
clipped grass and weeds

on a newly stretched line
between the kitchen and the barn
Tibetan prayer flags proclaim warming
as much as a line of laundry

while Memorial Day brings hail
thunderstorm, noon

the woodland touches
the earlier lovers of springtime
everything as lush as it was then

at least the beds are turned
and four covered in wet newspaper and straw
are strewn with “cutting flower” mixture

each step of the progression appears slowly
but passes too quickly

my potato bed has green shoots appearing
(this was the year before we began experimenting
growing potatoes in barrels)

feed the acid-loving plants
it’s hard not to become compulsive

our Asiatic lilies fall to beetles
another foreign import
with no natural predators here

crucially, to make room for the parties

and second, strawberries coming on
and my wife’s elated by the profusion of berries
to give them away, to friends and colleagues, or freeze
for later
the joys of a summer GLUT OUT

two days turning of soil and tall weeds to make room for buckwheat
natural fertilization

the lawnmower anxiety
regarding a jungle between the kitchen garden and hedge

just look at the weeds

poem copyright 2015 by Jnana Hodson



Some of the best art museums in the country are found at New England’s universities and colleges. In other parts of the country, the larger ones would be the region’s jewel. But here they often sit in the shadow of some pretty powerful competition. Some, like Harvard, charge admission, but others are blessedly free.

A crown jewel at Harvard.

A crown jewel at Harvard.

Here’s a sampling from our travels and travel plans:

  • Yale University Art Museum, New Haven, Connecticut: Reopened after extensive renovations, this is quite simply the best university art museum in America; possibly, the world. And admission is free.
  • Fogg Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts: This newly renovated jewel delivers a fine array of Old Masters, although I’ll emphasize its Turner, Blake, and Whistler for variety. Admission ($15) includes the Sackler and Busch-Reisinger boutique galleries, now under one roof for the first time, thanks to a contemporary, glass-pyramid roofed addition by Renzo Piano Building Workshop.
  • Smith College Art Museum, Northampton, Massachusetts: I wasn’t braced for the magnitude of this collection when I zipped out for an hour lunch break during committee meetings just down the street. I’d run into examples from its collection in art books (it has five Childe Hassam paintings on display), but its range of Impressionists and outstanding regional and American landscapes is worth the whirlwind, even before getting to the old European masterpieces. Am I off-base in thinking this display nearly rivals Harvard’s?
  • RISD Museum, Providence, Rhode Island: As the collection for the Rhode Island School of Design, New England’s premier art school, the museum is smaller than one might expect, with a respectable sampling of earlier eras, often masterworks by lesser known artists.
  • Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown, Massachusetts: An unanticipated but celebrated gem in the western part of the state. We’re told it’s worth the trip.
  • Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire: Wonderfully diverse, with uncommon awareness of the Americas and Africa, it mounts an impressive array of special shows and is part of the Hopkins Center for the Arts.
  • Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine: Small, with some emphasis on the regional past and the founders’ roots in its permanent collection. Renovations unveiled in 2007 more than doubled the exhibition space, moving the entrance to a glass cube to one side of the building and opening the basement level, where visitors now begin their tour. The special exhibits make for some exciting use of the facility — a recent trip for me included a focus on Marcel Duchamp and his influence, downstairs, as well as prints by Dutch master Hendrick Goltzius, upstairs.

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