After Desert Rain


My back yard is mostly sand.  At least twice previous owners have tried to grow grass there and given up, leaving the strings which once held sod together.  The ground is a pale yellow color.

Until the summer rains come.  Then all manner of weeds sprout up, providing a cover of green.  It is said that a weed is simply a plant in the wrong place, but I find the situation is more complicated than that.  Some weeds I pull as fast as I can: the lanky grass that goes to seed so quickly, and the pretty, spreading plant called goathead, whose yellow flowers turn into nasty pronged seeds that stick to cloth and hurt bare feet.

Purple Mat

Other weeds I have reclassified as wildflowers.  One of these is purple mat (Nama hispidum).  When we have a wet winter, which we did not this year, this low plant shows up across the desert where I walk.  In my yard, it likes the shady spots where moisture lasts a little longer.  I had to go out early to get a picture of it in the sun.  And even so, you can hardly make out the purple flowers.

Another native flower I’m fond of is limoncillo ((Pectis angustifolia).


Its English name, lemonweed, may reflect what most people think of it, but I think it’s lovely, with its thin leaves and yellow flowers.  I usually get a scattering of this.  This year, it has sprouted all around our small pool, as if it had been planted there.  How very nice of it!  I happily pull out all the competing weeds so that it can shine.

In this harsh desert climate I’ve had little luck at the kind of gardening I did in Pennsylvania. Even when I focus on heat-hardy plants, my seedlings fail to take hold and my vegetables die off before producing.  I’m dependent on nature and native plants to fill my yard.  After the poppies of early spring there were “wire lettuce” with its wee pink flowers, and stickweed, currently called “Velcro plant,” whose pale yellow flowers are best appreciated from a distance.  Then things got hot and dry.  After the rains come, purple mat and limoncillo arrive to give me joy.  They are a gift I did nothing to earn.


John Emerson Roberts Begins to Think for Himself: Excerpts from the Biography


John Emerson Roberts had a good Baptist education and became a successful Baptist preacher.  He was called to the First Baptist Church in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1881.  He was about 28 years old and three years out of school.  However, Roberts continued to read and to think.  By the summer of 1883 he was not preaching the same gospel his father had preached.  Here is a description of one sermon from that year, entitled “Co-laborers with God.”

He begins by saying, “What God has designed for humanity and how He will accomplish it, have been questions that have ever been discussed and never fully settled.” He blames the lack of an answer largely on a focus on secondary doctrines. He singles out Catholics for claiming none can be saved outside their communion. He then points out that Christ’s call was to action, not theories. He concludes this section by saying, “My faith is simple enough to believe that this round world will yet be won by the gospel of the Son of Man, but it will never be done by dogma and controversy, and the bitter strife of words.” Instead, it will be won by those who “have imbibed the spirit of the Nazarene, and who, like him, go down among men to teach them charity and forgiveness, and purity, and faith, and love.”

It’s no surprise that a Baptist would find fault with Catholics in Roberts’s time.  And to dismiss theories of the fall of man as a case of people “reasoning about things that are beyond them” was also common in churches that focused on individual commitment to Christ.  But Roberts went further:

Any doctrine of hell or of election (that only some will be saved) he puts in this category of doctrines which have gone astray. They contradict the biblical record: “Jesus Christ said he died for the world.” He calls attention then to an opposite error: the idea that it is entirely a man’s choice to accept or refuse salvation. Roberts interprets Paul’s claim “for we are laborers together with God” to mean that the work of redemption involves both God and man.

In August, 1883, when Roberts gave this sermon, the members of First Baptist Church seemed to be very pleased with their pastor.  Fourteen months later, in October, 1884, the attitude had changed.

            Roberts was asked to preach two sermons stating his beliefs, in particular concerning the existence of hell. He did this on the evenings of October 25 and November 2. In one sermon, he argued that the idea of “endless punishment” is an inaccurate reading of scripture, contrary to reason and the sense of justice, and offensive to moral sentiment. In the other, he offered a contemporary understanding of hell: “Hell begins where sin begins, and is where sin is. Hell is no postponed catastrophe: it is here now.”
Following his November 2 sermon, the congregation voted to dismiss Roberts.

Robert Ingersoll was in Kansas City shortly after this event.  It was his custom to notice local religious events, which might provide local color for his lectures.  In this case it was not in a lecture but in conversation with a reporter for the Kansas City Journal that Ingersoll commented on what the First Baptist congregation had done:

I see that the Rev. Mr. Roberts of your city has the courage to say that the reason of each man is his highest standard of truth.  Of course, this is absolutely true, but the members of his church, holding their own reason in contempt, justly it may be, proceeded to vote (in order to be consistent) against their reason and turned him out.

Roberts and Ingersoll were not yet acquainted when Ingersoll made this statement.  Roberts had more thinking to do before he came to agree fully with Ingersoll’s point of view.

Excerpts are from Chapters 3 and 4 of John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher.  See the Books page for more information.

Archimedes, Aristotle and Earthquakes


I’ve been thinking about the Greeks and their science, as I try to pull together a chapbook of poems on themes related to Archimedes and his lever.  Archimedes is not the only Greek scientist who intrigues me.  Aristotle is one whom I like first for his ideas on rhetoric, still the basis of many classifications on that subject, but also for the ideas described in the middle stanza of the following poem.

The Search for Order

The ancient model,
in polished brass, expressed
proportions undisturbed
by motion.  Harmonic
spheres keep turning.
Had the world such music
there would be no static
on the FM radio.

Aristotle understood:
the world beneath
the moon is set apart
from celestial, perfectly
governed spheres.
We are the spoiled core
of an ideal cosmos,
its worm-eaten pit.

Aristotle stood at
the center.  My universe
runs away at light speed,
while beneath me tectonic
plates shift, collide.
I long for balance: spheres
encircling the stillness
of mere decay.

The idea that the ground beneath our feet is unstable is not new.  I grew up in California, where earthquakes are a fact of life.  I used that as an image in an earlier poem:

Fire At The Center

My mother came home
from a course on personality
with a slip of paper:
“Your dominant emotion
is rage.”  She went on being good
and dull as plowed dirt.
Where is sure footing
when ground shifts?
The San Andreas fault
did not run under the house,
but whether it lay east
or west I could not say.
Which way would the earth tilt?

When she muttered
“Death and transfiguration!”
I heard a danger
no “Damn!” could hold.
The fluid at her core
lay ready, like crayon
melting under an iron,
to stain us both.  Her fire
never broke the surface.

And I?  The astrologer
finds Mars at the nadir,
“fire in the depth of your being.”
Eighteen years we spent
adjacent, distanced
by unacknowledged fire.
It is safer not to ask
where the fault lies.

In this poem, the shifting ground is largely metaphoric.  Although I knew about earthquakes, it was more an idea than experience: I only recall one small quake from my childhood.  I missed the big ones that later toppled the Oakland freeway and broke the walls of my cousins’ home in the mountains.  My awareness of shifting ground was not in the body.

By the time I wrote “The Search for Order” I was in a more unsteady place psychologically, a more mature understanding of grounding and groundlessness.

I decided this was a theme worth exploring further.

“The Search for Order” was published in Bibliophilos, which has published several of my poems on Greek themes.
“Fire at the Center,” first appeared in Metis, August, 1995, and is included in my chapbook, Accidents, described on the Books page.

Rationalist And Revivalist: More on Robert Ingersoll

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Excerpts from an essay I’ve posted on the American Society of Church History blog.

Robert G. Ingersoll and Dwight L. Moody were two of the best known speakers of their generation, from roughly 1875 to 1899, the year both died.  They represented two poles on the religious spectrum, the rationalist debunker of orthodoxy, and the orthodox evangelist.

In my blog post of August 11, I described Ingersoll’s career and beliefs.  Dwight L. Moody’s development took the opposite trajectory.  Born into a Unitarian family, he converted to orthodox Christianity at age 18, after he had left home.  He worked as a salesman until he felt the compulsion to teach and to preach the Gospel.  He first was a teacher, moving into evangelism after 1871.  A tour of Britain in 1875 began the period of his peak success, in his famous collaboration with the musician Ira Sankey.   Moody’s focus was on immigrants in the cities.  He was supported by coalitions of churches and by business leaders.  He introduced many businesslike aspects in his revivals, including advance men and rooms where volunteers could meet with those who answered the altar call.  Moody himself came to recognize that the revivals were not having the effects desired and turned his focus back to education, though he continued to preach extensively.

Moody’s message addressed behavior as well as conversion.  This is evident in a sermon variously called “Sowing and Reaping” or “Reaping Whatsoever We Sow.”  It is based on the text from Galatians 6:7-8:  “Be not deceived.  God is not mocked.  For whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.  For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting.” Moody begins by stressing that God cannot be deceived and giving examples, from individuals to nations, of consequences arising from sin.  In the version I have seen of this sermon Moody intertwines consequences in this world, confession and making amends in this world, and confession to God, repentance and the promise of eternal life.  The free grace of God is almost lost: “He will forgive you the sin, though He will make you reap what you sow.”  God forgives, but society does not.

Robert Ingersoll responded to this sermon with a lecture in which he pointed out that Moody was contradicting himself.  Most of the lecture laments the fact that Moody has not read some useful books, such as Darwin and Spencer.  Ingersoll’s climax points out the inconsistency: that a man can convert just before death and be forgiven, but when a man appears before God moments after death, God sends his soul to hell.  (Moody, of course, avoided the death-bed conversion scenario entirely, calling for conversion at the time he spoke.)  Ingersoll concludes with the idea that Moody is behind the times. “Yes, the people are becoming civilized, and so they are putting out the fires of hell.  They are ceasing to believe in a God who seeks eternal revenge.”

Was Moody behind the times?  Would reason win out over revivals?  For the complete essay, go to:


Happy Birthday, Mr. Ingersoll!


Robert Green Ingersoll was born August 11, 1833, in New York State.  His father was a minister whose calling meant that the family moved frequently to different places.  Robert’s mother died when he was young, leaving two older sisters to “mother” him.

After service in the Civil War, which earned him the nickname “Colonel Bob,” Ingersoll became a successful lawyer, first in Peoria, Illinois, later in Washington, DC and then in New York City.  He first came to national attention as a speaker in 1876 when he made the nomination speech for James G. Blaine at the Republican National Convention.  Blaine lost out to Rutherford B. Hayes, but Ingersoll’s fame as a speaker was set.

Although he was involved with some headline trials, and gave many speeches in support of Republican candidates, Ingersoll’s real contribution to society was in his effort to bring reason to bear on the religious doctrines that flourished in his day.  Ingersoll’s father’s faith had been Calvinist, believing in the fallenness of humanity and God’s election of certain persons while condemning others to an eternal hell.  This strict orthodoxy was being challenged by the time Ingersoll began speaking out, as the churches struggled with developments in science, Biblical criticism, and other research.  In spite of the growing questions, an orthodoxy that focused on the hope of heaven and the fear of hell dominated popular thinking in the second half of the nineteenth century.

A lecture called “What Must We Do To Be Saved” was one of Ingersoll’s successful and repeated challenges to orthodox Christianity.  In this lecture, Ingersoll uses a review of the gospels in the New Testament to make his case.

He focuses first on the Gospel of Matthew.  He finds there the beatitudes (“Blessed are the merciful . . .”), the explanation of the Lord’s Prayer (“For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you.”), and several other passages which support the idea that it is right behavior, not belief, that God asks of us.  Given the current state of Biblical criticism, however, he felt free to mark as an interpolation anything that did not fit with this developing picture.

Ingersoll went on to review the Gospel of Mark, where he found one text he found offensive; current Biblical scholarship agrees that it is a late addition.  The King James Version of the Bible includes without question the ending to Mark now seen as a pastiche of later interpretation, which includes the statement: “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.”

Dismissing this selection as interpolation, Ingersoll finds Mark and also Luke basically in agreement with Matthew.  He dismisses the whole Gospel of John as written not by those who knew Jesus, but “by the church” and therefore not relevant to his argument.   From this survey Ingersoll concludes that the God of Jesus is merciful to those who show mercy, forgives those who forgive, operates according to the Golden Rule, and would in no circumstances send anyone to everlasting suffering in hell.  He closes the lecture by saying:

The honest man, the good woman, the happy child, have nothing to fear, either in this world or the world to come.
Upon that rock I stand.

“What Must We Do To Be Saved” is one of Ingersoll’s more gentle attacks on orthodoxy.  Sometimes he enlivened it with an introduction on the horrible deeds ascribed to the deity in the Old Testament.  In other lectures he focused on the books of Moses or on the crimes of the church in medieval times.  As he became better known he could expect to fill the largest hall in every city he visited.  He did not always speak on these issues.  People were eager to hear him on topics like Shakespeare, Robert Burns or Lincoln as well.

Ingersoll quickly became a favorite of freethinkers around the country.  He was giving popular credence to their claims and ideas.  After he died in 1899, one follower called Ingersoll “a prophet of the future, the light-bringing herald of the dawn.”  Ingersoll was placed alongside Thomas Paine as a second American freethought hero.

He’s one of my heroes because he did wonderful things with language.  His lectures are fun to read, with their rolling phrases and sly jabs.

For a full description of Ingersoll’s life and lectures, I recommend Frank Smith, Robert G. Ingersoll: A Life (Prometheus, 1990).

Recommendation: Sean Hill’s “Blood Ties and Brown Liquor”


I “discovered” Sean Hill through a poem published in Poetry magazine this past April.  Titled “Bemidji Blues,” it describes snow, shadow, cold and music in the city in which Hill now lives, Bemidji, MN.  The craft of this poem is wonderful―particularly its shape and the way in which he repeats words (in different meanings) as end rhymes―so I went looking for other work by him.

Hill’s first – and so far only – book, Blood Ties and Brown Liquor, (University of Georgia Press, 2008) describes a totally different world, the world in which Hill grew up, the town of Milledgeville, Georgia.  The craft is equally good, involving many different forms, and there are a variety of experiments.  The combination of this craftiness with the serious subject of what it was to be African American in earlier generations, is powerful.

This is the only book of poetry I have read which includes a genealogical chart – of a fictitious family.  Silas Wright and his forebears are a major subject of the book.  However, some of Hill’s actual family are also included, such as his grandmothers and their stories.

A series of six poems titled “b. Nov. 14, 1926: Grandmother poems” appears to draw on actual remembered stories.  Here is one of them:

#1: Ernest and the Plowing Bull

On the farm we growed cotton for sale and corn
greens potatoes peas sweet potatoes and okra to eat―
three milk cows a mule and chickens for eggs and meat.
I had two brothers, in 1921, ’22 and ’26 we was born.
Phineas the oldest Ernest next and I was the baby.
Lived with my mother and father, Inez and Charlie―we called
her Nin―and grandmother and grandfather, Eva and Sam.  Y’all’d
liked Ma Eva. She and Nin they’d go out for the cows and bring em
up to the house so we’d have milk fresh from the teat.
Ernest had a bull.  He broke him to the plow.  Bull named Pete.
He would plow and Ernest could even ride him.
They’d tromp through the yard―Ernest on top―looking to get cool
walk down to the pond and wade into that green brown pool.

I find the contrast of the sonnet form, with full rhyme scheme, the diction and the homey story-telling makes a great combination.  Only a few of the poems have such precise structure, but all combine skill in the form chosen with rich narrative.

One poem which is widely available on the internet, with good reason, is this short poem about Silas Wright learning to write his name.  It is balanced by a poem later in the book about the widowed Silas actually fishing and remembering his wife.

Silas Wright at Age Seven 1914

Silas Wright follows a fish’s wriggle
In the shallows between reeds. He scribes the
Line in his tablet—as much pride in that line
As a man in his son. He almost giggles—
Still he goes on. The next letters come easy.
With this he’ll have more than a mark to bind.
Rambling across the page again and again
In messy rows on it flows until he
Goes a little off the page’s edge. He smiles.
He’s surprised to hear when his mouth opens—
That’s mine.

Silas Fishing 1967

That heron yonder’s
a good fisherman―
patient―will wade
and wait.  But it ain’t
a good day for fishing―
neither of us having
no luck―just minnows
nibbling my bait.
There he goes―up and off
to another pond I suppose―
trailing those long legs, flapping
slow and steady.  I cried and cried
the day Mama died.  And it hurt
me deep when my wife . . . when
Devorah passed.  But I didn’t
shed a tear.  Been near ten years
and here they come
like the drops from
that heron’s feet.

There are many other characters in this book, vividly and gently presented.  They are a delight to know.  But Hill will not let the reader be too comfortable.  He starts the book with a reminder of how much was not right with this world in a brief preview poem titled “Southampton County, Virginia Aubade1831,” which refers to Nat Turner’s insurrection:

Some whites don’t rise with the sun
having departed in the night,
man woman and child, leaving behind none.
The sigh of a broadax mingled
with cricket and frog song.
The mockingbird greets the morning
with many tongues.

I highly recommend this book and will watch for new work by Sean Hill.

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