Joseph E Bird

Let's talk about reading, writing and the arts.



almost heaven

tree for web

Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River.

Take Me Home, Country Roads, the signature hit of John Denver, was adopted by my home state, in part because of the first line of the song, Almost Heaven, West Virginia, but also because the spirit of the song is about coming home to the country roads we all love so much.  West Virginians are scattered all over the world, but the mountains seem to have an irresistible pull that tells us we should have been home yesterday.

But let’s talk about the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah River.  In truth, both of those geographic features, even though they cross the border into West Virginia, are better known as Virginia landmarks. But let’s call it the songwriter’s artistic license.

It’s easy to understand how the Blue Ridge Mountains could inspire Denver and his co-songwriters.  It’s a relatively short drive from my home to the Blue Ridge Parkway, one of the most beautifully scenic highways in America.

Overlooks are everywhere.  It’s an incredible sight to see the mountains fade into the horizon miles and miles away.  Picturesque trees are works of art waiting to be painted. Rustic barns, quaint cottages, and chairs on the hillside make you want to slow down and take it all in.  And at the end of every day is the perfect sunset.

blueridge sunset

Here’s another truth.

Though the Blue Ridge Mountains are part of Virginia, there are places just as spectacular all over West Virginia.  So much so, that we tend to take them for granted. The sunset picture above could have been taken in my back yard. A mountain top view is minutes away.  Babbling brooks and rivers winding through the forest are within an easy bike ride.  It’s the stuff that inspires artists and poets.

Almost heaven, West Virginia.


Acoustic Jimi Hendrix

I’ve never been a hardcore Jimi Hendrix fan, but when I was a kid, somehow I came to possess a copy of the album of the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, featuring the music of Hendrix and Otis Redding. Like all the records I had back then, I wore the grooves thin. Those were two cool dudes. Here’s a relaxed Hendrix playing some 12-string blues.

Crazy cats, man.

No, not kittens. Crazy cool cats. So cool they don’t care that they look like a bunch of accountants. Not that’s there’s anything wrong with that. Some of my best friends are accountants. But they’re so square they’re cool. And they play that jazz, baby. They probably really talked liked that. They probably invented talk like that.

Take Five.

The Dave Brubeck Quartet.

Do your thing.

Eugene Bird at work

This young man is my father.
The photo was taken in the early days of his career as an electrical engineer.

In many ways, he is the stereotypical engineer.  He’s analytical.  He’s a logical problem solver.  He pays attention to detail.  He would be considered a left-brain thinker.  Creative types – your artists, musicians, actors, dancers – are generally considered right-brian thinkers.  If you think with the left side of your brain, you’d make a good engineer.  If you think with the right side, you might be a good writer.  And for much of what I remember about my father, this would seem to hold true.

When I was growing up, I don’t remember him doing anything very creative.  He was very much an engineer, and was a great (if sometimes intimidating) teacher of math and science to me and my sisters.

Most of his career he worked for Union Carbide and when they began to build new production facilities in Texas, he was transferred to Houston.  My family moved to Texas twice, and when he was sent to Houston for a third time, he opted to go it alone and not put the family through another move. So what does an engineer living by himself do in his spare time?

Golf?  Maybe jigsaw puzzles?  No.  He took up painting.  When he returned home we were astounded by what he had done. Among other things, he painted this scene of the old Morgan homestead near Winfield (WV), across from what is now the John Amos power plant.

eugene painting for web

As far as I know, he had never painted anything before.  There were other paintings, including a very lifelike portrait of Pittsburgh Steeler great, Mean Joe Green.

But when he came back home, he was done with painting.

In the 4o-some years since, he’s completed home improvement projects and done some woodworking, but not much that would label him as a creative type.

Then last year, my sister suggested to our then 86-year-old father that he should do pencil sketches of his great-grandchildren. He agreed.  Here’s one of the twins, Bear.

bear for web

For most of his life, my father has played the role of engineer.  He is still very practical and analytical, and his fondness for logic would make Mr. Spock proud. And then he’ll surprise us with those sparks of creativity that seem to come forth every forty years or so.

Lessons in all of this?

Don’t sell yourself short. You may not even realize the potential within.  Do your thing.

Too old? Nope. That just doesn’t cut it. Do your thing.

It will make your life better.





The Green Box

green box for web

I guess I was around fifteen. Maybe eighth grade. Back then that meant that I attended St. Albans Junior High, the old high school of my mother and father. Some of their teachers still taught there. Like Mr. Jordan, a science teacher, I think. Gordon T. Jordon, to be precise. In my mother’s time, they called him Gordon Tordon Jordon.

The old school is now a warehouse for old commercial kitchen equipment. Broken windows everywhere. Who knows what living inside. And a few ghosts from the past. Not literal ghosts, just haunting memories.

Like the first time I danced in front of people. Before I learned not to care what people thought. Bad memory.

Eating popcorn while watching a basketball game up on the mezzanine of the gym. Good memory.

Dodge ball. Crab ball. Climbing ropes. Does anybody really have a good memory of gym class?

We had a really good auditorium for its time. Like an old theater. Lots of good productions and student talent shows. Jack Lyons singing Mr. Bojangles. Good memory.

Almost getting beat up after school for mouthing off to an upper classman and being saved at the last minute by a teacher who saw the guy pull his fist back and yelled out the window just in time.

And then there was Shop Class. I was not a shop class kind of guy. In fact, I was still trying to figure out what kind of guy I was. I was dabbling in music, but was never really very good. Likewise with sports. Not super smart. Not super cool. Pretty much just another extra on the great movie set of life.

But Shop Class was required, so I spent a semester learning how to not cut off my fingers with a power saw, lessons I value to this day. Mr. Bass, one of the school’s coaches, also taught Shop Class. Scary guy. Big. Stern. Never smiled.

Steve Bailey was in my class. His family lived high on the hill in St. Albans. He was somewhat of a free spirit, but cut from a different cloth. His hair was long, all the way to his shoulders, which was not that unusual for the time, but he wore shirts with French cuffs and cuff links.  Nobody did that. So there he is in Shop Class with his fancy shirts. But he could be intimidating. Nobody made fun.

At the end of the semester, we had to put all of our newly learned skills to the test and actually make something. Anything. Other guys were making cool stuff. Maybe a gun rack. Or a table. I made a box. Roughly 12” x 12” with a lid. Painted green. A plain green box. Even at the time, I was embarrassed by my lack of creativity.

That was, what, 45 years ago? The box is still in my garage.

Today, I’m in the middle of a remodeling project in the basement. Over the years, the occasional water infiltration had caused mold to grow at the bottom of a built-in bookcase and the wood paneling behind it.  So I took out the bookcase. The rest of the paneling was still good and I didn’t want to rip out everything so I decided to cut off the bottom and rebuild with a new wainscot.

I drew a line on the paneling and five minutes later, the offending moldy panels were gone. A nice, clean cut.

It was satisfying. Even though it was really demolition, it felt creative. Like I was doing something positive. Something that few people would ever see. But it felt good.

I think that’s how it is with anything creative that we do. Whether anyone else appreciates it doesn’t really matter. We were born with that creative urge.

For some people, it’s masterpieces of woodworking or pottery or fantastic art or life-changing music or stories that take us to another world.

For some people, it’s children and families and making those around them feel loved and welcome.

For some people, it’s leading others to find greater truths.

And for some of us, it’s building a green box and cutting out the mold.

Simple creativity.

Not for the rewards. Not for the riches. Not for the accolades.

Just because we can.

A young woman lies on the cobblestone.

A young woman
lies on the cobblestone.
Her body is twisted.
She is bleeding.
She has left us.

A young woman
is supposed to live.
And laugh.
And love.
No, not this.

Such a young woman.
Such a young woman.

Others have gone too soon.
A cousin.
A brother.
A son.
A mother.

A young woman
lies on the cobblestone.
Yesterday I saw her.
Today she is here.
She has left us.

copyright 2017, joseph e bird

A word of explanation.  The other day, I was listening to Dvorak’s Requiem while I was working at the office.  I was listening via YouTube, and whoever posted the video used the painting of the late nineteenth century German painter, Jakub Schikaneder as the sole image in the video.  It inspired this fourth poem in my Young Woman series.  The painting is called Murder in the House.  Yes, it’s disturbing.  Life is fragile.

The garage.

I recently attended the Design and Equipment Expo in Charleston and met a local photographer, Emily Shafer, who specializes in industrial photography. She has a creative sensibility and transforms ordinary images from the blue collar world in to works of art. Like a set of greasy Craftsman tools.

The next day I walked across the street to the mall and saw signs outside the Sears store announcing its closing. I went in and browsed a little, but there wasn’t much left. Empty shelves where the Craftsman tools used to be. With all of that, I couldn’t help but think of a scene I had written in my novel, Heather Girl.

Heather is traveling to Texas to see her father, who has just been paroled. She stops for gas in Montgomery, Alabama and has car trouble. A man and his son are watching (and eventually offer to help). As she’s trying to figure out what the problem is, she remembers learning about cars in her father’s garage.

She turned the key and the engine turned slowly a couple of times but didn’t start. She turned the key again. Same thing. And again.

She popped the latch on the hood and got out of the car. The boy looked up, then looked away. She opened the hood and looked at the battery.

Always start with the battery.

Her father’s voice. What was it now, thirty years ago?

Easiest thing to check, easiest thing to fix.

The smells of the garage came back to her. Warm, oily smells. There was a gas heater on the back wall and in the winter, there was always a hint of unburned fumes, but most of the time it was tools and parts and greasy rags that made the garage feel heavy and comfortable. The same garage that now is more of a storage locker. Her father’s tools went with him when her parents moved across town, then were sold when they moved south to escape the cold winters of the mountains. She and Robert bought the family home.  Robert took over the garage as his own workshop, complete with a table saw and other carpentry tools. His tools are still there, but are never used. Boxes of boys’ forgotten toys and yard sale finds make it nearly impossible to even see them. She keeps the lawnmower by the door, along with a few garden tools, and every spring makes the same promise that she’ll never keep to throw out the junk and put some order to the mess.

Despite everything, she found it hard not to think back to when the garage was truly a place for parking the family car, and for the weekend project of rebuilding the brakes or cleaning the carburetor or putting in a new radiator. Her dad had a natural genius for such things, part of the reason he was a good engineer. She loved being around him when he was working. It was when he seemed most content. Anything could be fixed.

She learned by watching, and when it became apparent that her brother Wayne had more interest in music than cars, she became her father’s tomboy grease monkey. She never learned enough to really diagnose a car’s problem, but she could change the oil, put in new spark plugs, and even tinker with the timing. She also learned why he enjoyed that kind of work so much, aside from the peace of the garage. Parts that didn’t work properly were thrown out, never to be seen again. Repair manuals didn’t lie. And the tools were always faithful.

If she had one of those old crescent wrenches, maybe the big one that had been used so much that the brand imprinted on the handle had worn away, she could tighten the nuts on the battery terminal. Though she knew that wasn’t the cause of the problem. She looked at the engine and tugged at the battery cables. They seemed tight. Not much corrosion. More than likely the battery was dead.

copyright 2017, joseph e bird

Painting with a different palette.

Stone Bridge in a park setting
Cherokee Park, Louisville, Kentucky – Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted

He paints with lakes and wooded slopes;
with lawns and banks and forest-covered hills;
with mountain sides and ocean views.

Daniel Burnham, speaking of Frederick Law Olmsted

In 1893, Chicago architect Daniel Burnham was working hard to finish the design of the Chicago World’s Fair, also known as the Columbian Exposition. It spread over 600 acres with more than 200 buildings and attracted some 26 million visitors in its first six months. Working with Burnham was Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of modern landscape architecture.

By the time they collaborated on the World’s Fair, Olmsted had already designed New York’s Central Park and thousands of other projects around the country.

In the mid-19th century, industrialization sparked dramatic growth and cities became crowded and generally unpleasant places to live. In 1857, Harper’s Weekly called New York “a huge semi-barbarous metropolis…with filthy and unlighted streets, no practical or efficient security for either life or property.”

With this as the backdrop, it’s no wonder that Olmsted’s designs, focusing on pastoral and picturesque scenery, became so popular. Olmsted was all about giving people a natural, restorative landscape. It’s not as easy as it looks, and it’s why his work is still relevant today and why his principles of design are so revered.

Landscape architecture has evolved as the needs of the world have changed. Even so, landscape architects today would do well to paint scenes in the landscape with lakes and lawns and wooded slopes. And though our cities are not the semi-barbarous metropolises of the past, our need for restoration is greater than ever. Good landscape architecture can give us a place where our spirits find rest.

art + music

Luke Otley makes a habit of doing a sketch every day.  I love the discipline and I love his work.  Check out this sketch: Luke Otley

And then go here and check out Takuya Kuroda.  Reminds me of the old BS&T I used to listen to years ago.



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