By Devin Johnston
Under the Sinclair's brontosaurus sign,
three men collect around a coffee pot
on metal folding chairs. One talks
of rust on a spring-tooth harrow, matters
of cultivation, while the others
ruminate on plastic mugs. Down Route M,
the lek returns to a low ridge
of soy and hissing fescue, booming grounds
abandoned to the long nose of a tractor
where only roans had cast a shadow.
Tympanuchus cupido taught Lakotas
how to dance, its throat patch yellow
as egg yokes, its booming glug
of a low tone swallowed, head feathers erect
in practiced threat. Desire's kettle drum.
Theirs is a culture more intractable
than forbs or Scottish fiddle tunes.
A county south, at Adam-ondi-Ahman,
Mormons wait in a canvas blind
as fog lifts from combed furrows
for a Clovis Christ to come. If he does,
they'll send him up a tree to scout
what's rushing across the low ridge,
whether prairie chicken or machine.
Both live forever until they die.
"In Harrison County, Mo., a remnant of grassland supports a population of greater prairie chickens (Tympanuchus cupido), a bird on the verge of extinction," writes Johnston in Poet's Choice. "In spring, during mating season, the males stomp their feet in dance, emitting low-pitched calls. I had the good fortune to witness this strange spectacle...as I sat in a canvas blind in the pre-dawn cold, this poem began to take shape."
Our plan for Saturday was to go to the Maryland Sheep & Wool Festival in the afternoon, but we ended up diverted in various directions. Older son, who had the math SAT in the morning, ran later than we expected; Paul and I had to be at the temple to usher for a Bar Mitzvah, required of all parents whose children have upcoming mitzvahs; and younger son was invited by a friend to go to Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary, where they did volunteer work that not only counts for school SSL hours but made him very, very happy -- they got to retrieve eggs from chicken nests and brush a horse and pet sheep (and clean cow manure from a field, but apparently that did not bother him since there were cows). Then he went back to the friend's house and got to play on his trampoline. We did not end up reuniting with both children until after 2 p.m., at which point it was too late to drive the hour to the festival.
So instead we went to nearby McCrillis Gardens, on the grounds of a former private home, now managed by Wheaton's Brookside Gardens. This is supposedly one of the best places in the area to see azaleas, and while it's not as big as the National Arboretum, there was a phenomenal collection -- it was a bit like walking through a Thomas Kinkade painting, with tall evergreens and a couple of garden pavilions set among dozens of flowering bushes and trees. We even saw a rabbit, though it hopped away too quickly for me to get a photo. The former home houses the Brookside Gardens School of Botanical Art and the Montgomery Parks Foundation, and while it's usually closed to the public, they were having an open house for the art school with cookies and excellent homemade peanut brittle plus an overview of the school programs.
Even though we've all been very turned off by horse racing since the disasters of the past few Triple Crown seasons, we ended up watching the Kentucky Derby in the late afternoon because Paul got in the mood to make hot browns, Derby pie and mint juleps (with modified alcohol content since I really don't drink). And, really, there's no way not to be excited when a 50-1 shot wins (and I must admit I was happy it was a Canada-bred, New Mexico-trained gelding rather than one of the Dubai-owned multi-million-dollar horses). The kids did homework before and after dinner, then we watched Hornblower: The Wrong War (or The Frogs and the Lobsters, depending on where you live), which I think is my favorite of the first four -- I love seeing Archie come into his own, I love seeing Pellew in such a panic about Horatio, I like the scenes in England and while I wish Mariette was given more to do, I find her much more interesting than the caricatured Frenchmen of both Royalist and Republican persuasion.