IRFD: Saints edition

September 2, 2007


Today is International Rock-Flipping Day! I’m looking forward to seeing all the great photos people take of things and creatures found under rocks. I also know that there are a lot of smart folks out there who know considerable and wonderful things about bugs and other under-rock denizens. I thought I’d try to tailor my participation in IRFD to my own particular area of interest: Catholic saints and the protections they offer.

In a few days, September 7, will be the feast day of Saint Gratus of Aosta. Gratus is said to have been born in Greece but later relocated to Aosta in the Italian Alps. Around the middle of the 5th century he became the bishop of that region and died of natural causes later that century, not necessarily the best way to go if you’re planning on sainthood. As with many saints, a popular devotion to him developed much after his death; in Gratus’s case, his cult really got rolling in the 12th and 13th centuries. This included using his relics as powerful talismans against certain natural events including storms, floods, droughts–and of particular interest for IRFD–a plague of insects.

Not all of us are as intrepid about the monsters-in-miniature that we might find under our rocks. But take heart! Saint Gratus of Aosta is the patron saint against the fear of insects!

The rocks we flipped are arranged in circular pattern in the garden behind our house. The rocks themselves are angular and thick with fossils and crystals and are certainly not naturally-occurring in this precise spot. They were put here by the devout previous owners of our home, Catholics given to statuary. In fact, in the center of this center of stones was a large cement pedestal upon which stood the BVM, her hand raised in benediction on the hostas, roses, and other ground-cover that grew here. When they moved out, they took Mary with them and pushed the pedestal off to one side thus leaving a circle of stones with a palpable absence of holiness and presence in the center.


Protestants, we planted a hill of jack-o-lantern pumpkins in the circle, and now in September, large vines and leaves are beginning to brown around the big, orange pumpkins. I imagine that the etched face of St. Gratus is one of all the souls hovering right below the surface skin of the pumpkins, waiting to be revealed on Halloween. Gratus, according to legend, went to the Holy Land after receiving a vision that he should do so. When there, he discovered the head of John the Baptist in Herod’s decaying palace. He carried the head to Rome to present it to the Holy Father, but the head had apparently not improved with age. It fell to pieces, and Gratus was left holding the jawbone. My desire is that Gratus wield the prophet’s jaw, the jaw which ground many locusts in sweet honey, and bless our encounter. May the fear of insects be made holy among us and under our rocks, may the Gratus-o-lanterns of our garden look upon us with benevolence and subtle warning, and may all of you be blessed again and again.

Gratus was with us as we flipped our rocks. We found only veiny roots, dirt and a couple of roly-poly relics, rolled tightly in their own chitin reliquaries.



Happy International Rock-Flipping Day to all!

Update: Dave Bonta, convener of this event, has compiled a list of participants with their blogposts. Check ’em out!



August 26, 2007

Our outside cat has not been eating her food lately. She may have worms, or she may be totally grossed out by the colossal slugs that have been dragging themselves in and around her food dish.

In the few months we have lived in southern Illinois, I have had more–and more varied–slug experiences than ever before. First of all, they are slug giants. These are antediluvian monster slugs who also have pituitary problems. Second, they are fiends for dry catfood. In searching for ways to keep them out of my cat’s food dish, we discovered that some people use catfood to lure slugs out of their vegetables. What is to be done?

One morning last week before the sunrise, I went outside to feed the cat. Hanging from a ropy cord of slime directly above the catfood dish were two slugs in the throes of slug passion. It was acrobatic, and they were oblivious of me. They twined around each other like DNA covered in ectoplasm. Slugs are hermaphroditic and are perfectly capability of mating with themselves (there once was a slug from Nantucket…) but prefer to seek out partners supposedly for greater genetic variety, but these two seemed to be going at it out of simple lust. I left them alone; I guess they dropped into the catfood after their carnal relations and just rolled in food. Pituitary problems and no self-control. When I cleaned up after them, I found that the cord they hung from was eerily similar to the gummy strips of booger-like material that advertisers use to hold their ads into magazines.

I suppose it is cruel, but I have a taken to hunting slugs in the evening hours and pouring salt on their broad backs. I’m worried about the effect they are having on my cat’s appetite, and it is also not unknown that my 2-year-old daughter scoop up a handful of catfood to keep her energy levels up while playing. I’d prefer she not eat slug slime. While we wait for the first cold snap (or whatever it is that sends the slugs packing), our cat will most likely be meeting the Illinois vet. I don’t know what they’ll prescribe for feline slug disgust.


July 2, 2007

The cicadas are in full song. Today I saw my first molted cicada skin clinging to the fence.


My boy Tom is learning to identify such things as insect noises. He is fascinated by crickets and is tuned in to the cicadas’ drone as well–though he does not agree with me on their name.

Tom: “I hear a potato.”

Brett: “It’s called a cicada. Can you say ‘cicada’?”

Tom: “No. It’s a potato.”

The summer before my mother died, I came home to help her get to her radiation therapy. In the years I had been gone, the space in the house that I had previously occupied filled up with other things and projects, so I lived in a pickup camper trailer on blocks in the yard. I worked the night shift at a factory so as to be available to drive her to the hospital in the morning. That summer, the dark and the trees spread over the camper, and when I arrived home at 4am and climbed into the bunk over where the cab would be, the cicadas’ two-tone glissando often kept me up until the sun rose.

Before we moved here, friends gave me a CD by Sufjan Stevens entitled “Illinois.” I have obsessed over this CD in a way that I thought I had left behind in my teenage years. I listen to it over and over. The lyrics are fine and narrative, with honest and sometimes cerebral introspection about events and place. The music is varied, soft, and accessible. Stevens’s voice is better than mine, but not so much better; his voice is inviting to me because it suggests simplicity and intimacy.  “Illinois” is the second of Stevens’s proposed CD series on all fifty states (the first was entitled “Michigan”). 

Apparently, two radio producers invited Stevens to Brinkley, Arkansas, to explore how he would write music about the people and events that are unique to that place. As you may know, Brinkley is where the ivory-billed woodpecker was sighted after years of being considered extinct. It was first seen on my son’s first birthday, February 11, 2004.

Sufjan Stevens wrote a song and appropriately entitled it “The Lord God Bird,” a common nickname for the ivory-billed woodpecker. The song is available online for free–click here to listen, right-click and save to download. As a semi-Arkansan, I hope this means that Stevens is planning an “Arkansas” follow-up to “Illinois” very soon.


May 26, 2007

A little bourgeois dream of mine has been to have a house with a backyard on a street with other houses with backyards. For most of my life I have lived in trailer houses, apartments, or condos, and so I have been immensely pleased with our suburban house and yard. I’ve mowed twice, trimmed the hedges, and pulled weeds. I’ve got a garage with a remote door opener. I have a big black trash toter and recycling bins that I put out once a week on the curb. I have met our neighbors; one brought us treats our first week here while the other brought a stack of touristy information and a couple of phone books. I suppose it’s shallow to want these things, and transparent as to why I want them, but so be it. I continue to work out my salvation with fear and trembling–but now I have a yard!

For family and interested friends, I thought I would share some photos I took early this evening of flora and fauna in the backyard.

Here’s my cat, Bev. She is new to outdoor living and seems to enjoy it.

bev in roses




And a couple others.


backyard sky

Hope you like these. If you need me, I’ll be out in the garage listening to Beethoven in my Toyota.



Orange blossoms

March 11, 2007

In the Phoenix area, the citrus has begun to bloom. In the early morning and at dusk, the perfume of these blossoms infuses the atmosphere with sweetness. The scent lacks the acidity of the oranges, lemons, and grapefruit themselves; it is lighter yet not exactly delicate.

All of us have the sniffles. Many people claim that they are allergic to the orange pollen, but this is not so–the pollen is generally not allergenic. But other things are blooming now, too. These are what have us sneezing.

One of my favorite authors is John McPhee. He wrote a magistral book called Oranges in 1967. In it, he writes:

An orange grown in Florida usually has a thin and tightly fitting skin, and it is also heavy with juice. Californians say that if you want to eat a Florida orange you have to get into a bathtub first. California oranges are light in weight and have thick skins that break easily and come off in hunks. The flesh inside is marvelously sweet, and the segments almost separate themselves. In Florida, it is said that you can run over a California orange with a 10-ton truck and not even wet the pavement.

I can’t really compare Arizona oranges, except to say that their blossoms are heavenly.

Tin Tabernacles

February 2, 2007

Via I came across these beautiful photographs of corrugated metal buildings in Great Britain. Very appealing.

primitive methodist