Trash Pick-Up Haibun by Michael G. Smith

During long minutes at home in the early stage of the Covid-19 pandemic and being a materials chemist with few real-world skills, I found myself wondering what I could do to help others while minimizing contact. I recalled walking past a wetland behind a chain of stores and seeing its reeds and willows full of trash. Home to ducks, pheasants, Redwing blackbirds and others, the wetland is the sort of landscape migrating Sandhill cranes will stop to rest and feed.

in the brown reeds
a tattered Bible
opened to Genesis

Materials – plastic, chemically-treated wood products, styrofoam – decompose slowly, if at all, within a human lifetime. The decomposition products pollute lands and waters. Overtime an increasing concentration of harmful chemicals threaten all – people, waterfowl and countless unseen beings. A Zen Buddhist, my definition of others including all non-human species, I chose to help the wetland and created a self-volunteer project spending a few hours each week ridding the reeds and willows of human garbage.

told to stay home
I take refuge
beneath evergreens

Behind the Home Depot store bordering a pond I anticipate much of the debris will be that from the construction retailer. And I do find some – pieces of two-by-fours, foam packing, plastic sheets and straps, crumbling sheetrock. But there is also consumer debris – potato chip bags, beer and soda cans, a picture of a young couple in a broken frame, take-out coffee cups and lids, deflated bubble wrap. Surprises too – a $5 bill and picture puzzle pieces.

Sun Face Buddha
Moon Face Buddha
what merit in picking up trash?

My not-knowing if the wetland birds appreciate my efforts does not matter. Instead, as I place each piece in a large plastic bag I think of the many connections between the Covid-19 pandemic and an overpopulated human species whose resource consumption and pollution exceeds the carrying capacity of the Earth. I also think about the uncountable acts of charity and unselfishness happening globally during the pandemic. Humanity’s growing recognition it has very little time to change its behaviors to save itself and all other beings matters now more than we can imagine.

budding willows –
nests of last years’ grasses
take shape

Ask A Historian: People & Plague–Fear of the unknown profoundly derails people, individually and collectively, and easily leads to anger and a wish to vent. By Lawrence G. Duggan.


Two of the most famous descriptions of human responses to the ”plague” (aka the “Black Death”), arguably the most devastating of all forms of epidemic, are literary. A celebrated depiction of the Great Plague of London of 1665 was published in 1722 by Daniel Defoe; although fictional, it seemed eerily accurate, then and now. The other was composed by an eyewitness of the outbreak of plague in Florence in 1348, Giovanni Boccaccio, in his Decameron. The long introduction (c. 25 pages) not only describes in detail the onset of this seemingly unprecedented catastrophe and its death-toll (30+%), but also the range of responses to it. Although Boccaccio acknowledges that some people (both clerical and lay) came forth to help their friends and neighbors, the picture he paints is otherwise unrelentingly gloomy, in which the plague brought out the worst in most people, especially their selfishness and greed. This prologue provides the setting for the book, the telling of one-hundred amusing and often bawdy stories by ten young rich Florentines, who wait out the course of the plague by progressing each day from one villa to another outside the city, passing the time in storytelling while the poorer urban population is decimated. Significantly, Boccaccio does not provide a full picture of European reactions to the plague, for in much of northern Europe there occurred widespread scapegoating and slaughters of the Jews, blamed for introducing and spreading this novel disease, the culmination of 250 years of vilification of the Jews from the First Crusade onward, resulting in their killing, pillaging, mulcting, and expulsion. Little of this happened in Italy, and so Boccaccio says nothing about it. He is, however, typical of chroniclers and historians across the ages in strongly emphasizing mostly negative human reactions to epidemics, even if there are few patterns across the board. The blaming of the Jews for the plague in the 14th century occurred in much, but not all, of Europe, and in fact is somewhat unusual in the annals of epidemics. Thus, the Jews weren’t blamed for the influenza of 1918-19, but they most certainly were for Germany’s defeat in WWI, which led to their systematic extermination in the Holocaust a few decades later.
Fear of the unknown profoundly derails people, individually and collectively, and easily leads to anger and a wish to vent. Epidemics can and do prompt these and other forms of bad, sometimes even evil behavior, as well as self-absorption and greed (time to review the list of seven deadly sins!). But in this history there are no clear patterns, much less repetition, and this is hardly the full picture in any event. Nevertheless, in presenting the ‘news’ of today and of yesterday, we tend altogether too readily to emphasize the negative. It is this tendency among historians that recently prompted Samuel K. Cohn, Jr, a distinguished historian of the plague in late medieval and early modern Europe, to publish a riposte to all this negativity in his Epidemics: Hate and Compassion from the Plague of Athens to AIDS (Oxford, 2018), in which he argues that human beings have also responded with great compassion and selflessness to such catastrophes across the ages, along with scapegoating of Jews in the 14th century and of gays and drug-users during the outbreak of AIDS in the 1980s. In the present crisis, while there is plenty of stupid behavior (with potentially ghastly consequences), it is worth stressing is that, perhaps more than ever, we see again and again people reacting compassionately at many levels. Why? Partly because, a century after 1918-19, we have a vastly superior array of knowledge and weapons with which to fight such epidemics (as discussed in the first blog) and allay our primal fears; but it is also partly because of the internet itself, which instantaneously communicates across the world not only epidemiological knowledge, but also awareness of great, loving responses of fellow human beings, which impels others to compassionate action as well. In short, knowledge of divers sorts is helping us live up to the better angels of our human nature in this present crisis, even if many of us in the end neglect our knowing and choose to behave badly anyway. (The following useful maxim has recently been offered online: Imagine that you might be carrying this virus, and behave accordingly toward everyone else.)
P.S. Speaking of good behavior, Oxford University Press, publisher of Sam Cohn’s book, has this week been prevailed upon to slash the price of his book from around $140 to $30. Get it while there are still copies!


I’ve known the author for over forty years–and he has said some very memorable and fascinating things over these decades. I asked him to share some of his insights with readers of this blog. This is the first of three posts.
Lawrence G. Duggan is professor of history at the University of Delaware. He teaches and works on later medieval, Renaissance, Reformation, and church history. He received his A.B. from the College of the Holy Cross (like Anthony Fauci) and his Ph.D. from Harvard.

Stay’in Alive: Interview with Myself

Interview with Myself

Me: Hi Mir, as I’m sure you are aware, we’ve been in pandemic lockdown for about two weeks here in New Mexico. How are you holding up?

Me: I’ve been pretty stressed out, worried about everyone and the neighborhood, more weepy than usual, but there are some bright spots.

Me: Well, I know you are pretty annoyed at parts of humanity. Care to elaborate?

Me: I hate fake medical news. Things like—put such-and-such up your nose or behind your ears to prevent the virus. I’ve always found putting things up noses pretty amusing—but no more.

Me: Any other pet peeves?

Me: Anyone who bad mouths millennials, or “the young” in general.

Me: Are you practicing good deeds in the tradition of Maimonides?

Me: Yes. On the level of ordinary kindness, I’m checking in with a person a day, even if I’d previously voted them off my island. Seems I am a foul weather friend.

Me: Volunteering?

Me: Yes, we’re cooking for St. Elizabeth’s Shelter—by the way, they could use more help here in Santa Fe. Just call them. You cook at home and drop off.

Me: I’m concerned—do you have enough turquoise jewelry to make it through to the end of the pandemic?

Me: Yes, thanks for asking.

Me: Thoughts on hoarding?

Me: I’ve given up toilet paper.

Me: Umm…too much information. Let’s move on to our last question for today. Why are you always wearing that dorky purple coat that got trashed out two years ago on the Japan trip and is now faded and worn?

Me: I like it.

Me: OK! Thanks for checking in.

Me: Bueno bye.


Bio note: Miriam Sagan used to divide her time between Tune-Up and Counterculture cafes, but now she is home.

Pop Up Poetry Party by Nina Bjornsson

Night rising, stealing
away from winter.
The closed, blue
Atlantic Ocean and
I am silent.
It’s always different
awakening to the
razor sky, silent
sheep, soft earth,
the me of
bone and moon.

The author says–This poem came about because I was missing the colors of Iceland in this brown landscape. It was fun to do and hang in a tree in my neighborhood.

3 Questions for Poet Lynn Levin

1. What is your personal/aesthetic relationship to the poetic line? That is, how do you understand it, use it, etc.?

I like to establish one thought or half a thought per line. When a line is not end-stopped, I sometimes like to leave an idea hanging so that I can create a surprise or mild surprise pay-off in the following line. This is true whether I am writing free verse or formal verse. I don’t try to force enjambments, though.

2. Do you find a relationship between words and writing and the human body? Or between your writing and your body?

Writing reminds me of exercising: I put it off and find a bunch of other things to do, but when I apply myself to the page, as when I make myself go to Zumba or Pilates class, I eventually get into the zone. Getting a poem started, then using self-discipline to forge ahead is a big part of that idea of writing as physical endeavor. Once you get started and the words and ideas flow, it is as if the heart is pumping and the muscles working, and you feel alive. I am not an athlete, far from it, in but I think the comparison between writing and physical body is apt. Then after hitting the desk for an hour or two, you get that pleasant sense of exhaustion for time well spent.

3. Is there anything you dislike about being a poet?

I dislike being a poet when I am not being a poet, that is, when I do not have a work in progress.

LYNN LEVIN’s most recent poetry collection, The Minor Virtues, is listed as one of Spring 2020’s best books by The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her previous collections include Miss Plastique, Fair Creatures of an Hour, and Imaginarium. She is the translator, from the Spanish, of Birds on the Kiswar Tree by Odi Gonzales and co-author of Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets. Her poems have appeared in Boulevard, Artful Dodge, on Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac, and other places.

Pop Up Poetry Party from Bill Waters

The first installation! To join us, drop me a note at

Cooped up by COVID-19, many people are taking to streets, sidewalks, trails, and paths for exercise, fresh air, and a sense of (socially distanced) community. To make being outside a little more interesting, the Poetry in Public Places Project (Poetry in Public Places Project) and the blog Miriam’s Well ( are throwing a Pop-Up Poetry Party!

Here is my first contribution, placed in a shrub bed by the street.


Ask A Historian: 1918 and 2020 Pandemics by Lawrence G. Duggan. “And even when there is progress, it’s usually three steps forward, two steps back.”

I’ve known the author for over forty years–and he has said some very memorable and fascinating things over these decades. I asked him to share some of his insights with readers of this blog. This is the first of three posts.
Lawrence G. Duggan is professor of history at the University of Delaware. He teaches and works on later medieval, Renaissance, Reformation, and church history. He received his A.B. from the College of the Holy Cross (like Anthony Fauci) and his Ph.D. from Harvard.



Now that the WHO has declared the coronavirus to be a worldwide epidemic, we can perhaps understand it better by juxtaposing it to something comparable in the past, not necessarily a recent one (like SARS in 2002-04 or ‘swine’ flu in 2009), but an epidemic farther back both similar and different in revealing ways. I would suggest comparison with what has been called the Great Influenza of 1918-19, precisely a century ago. A great deal of what we know (or, more precisely, think we know) about this catastrophe can be found online in an article on Wikipedia. Yes, I said Wikipedia and online, which many teachers and professors cavalierly dismiss out of hand. The fact is that using these resources, nearly everyone has instantaneous access to almost all of human knowledge. The present excellent article in Wikipedia is misleadingly entitled “Spanish flu,” a rubric that is being openly debated and will probably be soon replaced by something like “1918 influenza pandemic” (a debate that takes years to resolve in print media). In the space of about two years (some place the beginning in 1917, the end in 1920), a particularly virulent form of influenza spread throughout the world, killing at least 20 million people, more probably something like 50 million, and (a few say) possibly 100 million. More tellingly, it seems to have infected at least 500 million people out of an estimated world population of 1.8-1.9 billion. If we accept the reasonable estimate of 50 million dead, that would make a morbidity rate of around 27% (those sickened) and a mortality rate of 2.7% (those killed). These are interesting disparities, especially if one accepts a current view that the 1918-19 and present influenzas are variations on H1N1. But even if they’re not, such figures invite comparison. Although it’s early days yet with the corona virus (and no one knows how long this will go on), this morning I read on the very accurate John Hopkins website that about 285,000 people worldwide have been officially diagnosed with it thus far, 90,000 have recovered, and 12,000 have died. More specifically, in Massachusetts, of 410 diagnosed cases, one person has died, an 87-year-old man with many preexisting conditions.
What’s changed in the interim? A great deal, none of which is to be taken for granted. The idea of vaccination, for example, began with smallpox around 1800, took over a century to become a widespread practice, and smallpox was brought under worldwide control only in the 1970s. The virus causing the influenza of 1918 was identified only in the 1920s, an effective vaccine only in the 1930s. Vaccination against other diseases then became more and more common (e.g. polio in 1956, measles in 1963, chickenpox in the 1970s), but still arouses passionate opposition in some quarters. Penicillin was discovered around 1930, antibiotics from the 1940s onward, antivirals since the 1970s. We all too easily take for granted these and other great advances in science, medicine, and public health and policy like sanitation, clean water, and sterilization, which cumulatively led from an average lifespan in the US of around 47/48 a hundred years ago to around 78/79 today. We are also more recently the beneficiaries of inventions like computers and the internet, glorious inventions for the instantaneous dissemination of knowledge and truth (but also, as we have ruefully come to realize, fake news, previously known as lies, and a curiously widespread indifference to easily determinable facts). And what does this (hopefully) teach us? Change is inevitable, but progress is an option and never to be taken for granted. And even when there is progress, it’s usually three steps forward, two steps back.

PS. Questions welcome–just post in comments section.

You Are Invited: Call For Pop-Up Poetry Party

Call For Pop-Up Poetry Party

Bill Waters the of Poetry in Public Places Project says:

Isolation, to a greater or lesser extent, has suddenly become the new normal, and open spaces — parks, trails, paths, sidewalks — are surging in popularity as places where people can get out of the house for a while to stretch their legs, alone or with a friend or two.

At this time of uncertainty and worry, poetry in public places can be more than something to enrich the hustle-bustle of everyday life. It can serve as a point of connection to something bigger than even a pandemic: the universal human experience, of which illness is only one part.


Bill Waters and Miriam Sagan of the blog Miriam’s Well (http://miriaswell.wrdpresscom) invite you to participate in a far flung poetry pop-up project.

The aim: Pick a site in any location you can access. Write a poem about or suited to that place, your feelings and observations, etc. Please do not limit yourself to current news or virus concerns—be expansive.

Installation: This is essentially ephemeral or guerrilla art as we are’t installing in a group (maybe later!) with permission from something like a sculpture garden. Figure out how you want to place the poem in the site—tied to a tree, hidden in a box, written on earth or sand, attached to yarn bombing…the options are endless.

Proviso: Be respectful of the site—don’t litter or obstruct anything.

Documentation: Take some photos, type the poem up, and send to us. We will create an on-line way of showcasing your work.

Maintenance: Some pieces will be documented and come down immediately. Some work is meant to weather away. Some is meant to be pocketed by a passer-by. Figure out how long you want to keep the poem “up”—are you re-writing it in the sand every day? Or not.

Contact: Miriam at
Bill at

We’d also love to hear from you if you just want to share your preliminary idea.