The Paper Bag Poet Rhymes Again

An example of the paper bag poet’s creativity is seen in a park on Mercer Island

April is National Poetry Month. However, I celebrate poetry every month of the year. I have a rhyme for most every reason. I’ve written four books of poetry. I have a syndicated poetry blog for which I publish verses weekly. And truth be told, I write a rhyme of some kind most every day. Someone once suggested that my mind thinks in iambic pentameter.

The first poem I remember composing was for Mrs. Hendricks’ second grade class at Liberty Elementary School in Marysville. But my fascination with poetry really took off in high school and college. I wrote romantic lyrics for the girls I was dating. And I wrote parodies of classic poems in an attempt to impress my literature professor. Prior to Dr. Erickson’s lectures, I would arrive early to write a poem on the blackboard that would greet my classmates when they arrived. I gained a reputation for my wit and creativity. While escorting tours to Alaska and the Canadian Rockies during summer vacations, my penchant for writing humorous lyrics served me well. I wrote poetry for our farewell dinners.

Fast-forward 50 years. When COVID altered our lifestyles, new phrases like “sheltering in place” and “socially distancing” became incorporated into our daily parlance. We masked up before going out in addition to learning the importance of applying hand-sanitizing gel throughout the day. Lockdowns limited our normal activities. But gratefully, walking outside was never forbidden. As a result, my wife and I walked several times a week. In addition to being good for our hearts, it was good for our minds.

Enter Pioneer Park. Near to where Wendy and I live is an expansive forest of evergreen trees and well-maintained trails. When COVID first invaded, I would discover beautifully hand-painted rocks hidden on our walking path. It was like going on an Easter egg hunt. The stones were barely visible in the hollow of a decaying tree, at the base of a tree trunk or perched on a bench.

These commemorative stones typically included slogans like “Keep calm and socially distance!” “Breathe!” “You are loved!” and “Hope!” They were brief sentiments that invited passersby to walk on and look up. Sometimes the rocks offered a miniature portrait of a sunset or happy face.

And then it hit me. Even though I am not artistic with a brush, I love to paint word pictures. Why not pen a brief rhyme or an upbeat slogan on a brown paper bag and tack it to a tree on the trail? Hearing no objections, that’s exactly what I started to do. That was three years ago. And I am still doing it.

My most recent paper bag poem looks back on the pandemic in past tense. It simply says “What COVID stole left us sick but didn’t leave us poor.” Like many of my lunch bag offerings, it doesn’t actually rhyme. So, I guess you’d call them blank verse. All the same they are portraits on what is known as the poet tree.

Although I have attempted to keep my contributions anonymous, I’ve been caught a few times tacking a new poem to the tree. And now I’ve decided to publish the past three years of poems in a volume. Since my name will be on the cover, the bard of the forest won’t be anonymous any longer. The book’s rather unimaginative title is “Paper Bag Poems in Pioneer Park.” But the subtitle offers a clue to its practical use: “An Interactive Walking Journal.”

My hope is that the photos of the poems will inspire personal contemplation about how the message is applicable to those who read them. A blank page adjacent to each photo will provide space for the intended purpose of journaling ideas, resolutions, goals or tracking miles walked on any given day. Copies will be available at Island Books this summer as well as online.

Arbor Day: The Rest of the Story

The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois celebrates Arbor Day year-round

Johnny Cash used to sing about “A Boy Named Sue,” but one of Chicagoland’s most celebrated citizens was a boy named Joy. But who would name their son Joy? A man named Julius. A pioneer in the world of nature conservation, Julius established Arbor Day 150 years ago this month.

Julius, a young newspaper reporter in Michigan, followed opportunity’s call and became Nebraska’s territorial governor more than a century ago. When he and his wife, Carrie, settled in Nebraska City, they were dismayed by the treeless prairie. He’d grown up near trees and forests, and his merchant father had fostered an appreciation for God’s creation.

When the couple built a four-room home on their 160 acres, they started planting trees like they’d had in Michigan. They added shade trees, shrubs and flowers. Within a few years, they added an apple orchard of 300 trees, then another orchard of 1,000. Julius wasn’t content to keep this love of trees to himself. In 1872, he suggested Nebraskans set aside a day to honor the earth and plant a tree. More than a million trees were planted in the windswept prairie that April day. Within a decade, the day became a national observance known as Arbor Day. The April date was chosen to honor Julius’ birthday.

Now for the rest of the story…

Julius, whose middle name was Sterling, had a last name, too – Morton. Besides originating Arbor Day, he became President Grover Cleveland’s Secretary of agriculture. He was an original environmental advocate. It stands to reason his family motto was “Plant trees!” When Carrie presented Julius with his first son, he named the boy Joy. Though it was an unusual name, it was a way of honoring his wife. Joy was Carrie’s middle name. I’m inclined to think there was more to it. What better name might a man give the new growth of his family tree?

Unashamed of his name, Joy Morton grew up and moved near Chicago. There, he proved he was worth his salt. Literally! He became a successful and well-seasoned businessman. Joy Morton, you see, was the founder of the Morton Salt Company. He eventually made millions. But establishing a nature conservatory on his suburban Chicago estate (in Lisle) allowed him to leave his legacy. Creating the Morton Arboretum in 1922, Joy found a tangible way to perpetuate the family motto his father had instilled. It’s one of our most valued treasures and one of DuPage county’s most visited tourist spots.

Nearly 500,000 visitors explore the arboretum each year. That’s a lot of nature lovers, but  having lived in DuPage County for more than a decade before moving to Mercer Island, I think I know why they visit. The Morton Arboretum (like the arboretums in Greater Seattle) is the mortar of the community where busy lives and families find a common bond of peace every season.

In a frantic age, it’s a summer sanctuary of serenity where time ticks at a slower, saner pace. It’s a place of grace, where towering trees acknowledge their Creator as they bend and bow in the breeze and bid us to follow their lead. It’s a fall paradise of kaleidoscopic color where parking lots are limited so dying leaves can be given their much-due respect. It’s a winter wonderland of light where frozen trees spread naked limbs against a cloudless sky and dance before a setting sun in silhouetted majesty. It’s a spring garden of flowering shrubs that blush with beauty as nature lovers admire what they see and watch the Easter miracle re-enacted as death gives way to life.

The Morton Arboretum is an Eden-like setting in a less-than- perfect world where, amid the sorrow and heartache of life, Joy will always live on. Underlying the story of our arboretum’s ancestry is a simple, but profound, reminder.

Joy Morton’s expansive garden of trees, at Route 53 and the Interstate 88, bears witness that the core values that parents embrace need not die with them. The natural and supernatural realities we cherish can be passed to our children. Love for God and what He has created can be instilled in those who grow in our shade. The arboretum is a memorial to the joy of Mother Nature that Joy Morton’s father bequeathed him. It will silently preach “sermons” extolling the good earth for a good long time to come.

Next time you’re in the Windy City, why not plan a day trip a half hour west of Lake Michigan to explore the legacy of Julius and his son Joy?

Greg’s book,
Sheltering Grace
is listed on the
BOOKS menu
at $15.00 from
Lulu Books.

A Poetic Month

April is National Poetry Month

April is that awesome month
when dogwoods start to bark.
It’s when our Uncle Sam collects his due.
It is the time we hear “play ball”
from umps behind the plate.
It is the month that poets write haiku.

It is the month we celebrate
that winter’s finally gone.
We marvel at spring flowers in full bloom.
And it’s the month we recognize
our planet on Earth Day
as butterflies emerge from their cocoons.

But most of all this month is known
for what God did for us
upon a cross and in an empty grave…
a Holy Week that culminates
in resurrection praise
as Christians ‘round the world sing Jesus Saves.

And so I aim to “seize the day”
to live what I profess
embracing hope when darkness hides the sun.
This month invites us to believe
there’s more than meets the eye
with growing clues that new life has begun.

Let’s Hear it for Spring!

The beauty of spring is indescribable

Trapped in the drizzle of dark dreary days
we often are sad and depressed.
Held hostage by winter, we plead for release
while stir-crazy, housebound and stressed.

The long nights of winter have taken their toll.
We dream of the day we’re set free
to dance with spring flowers and bathe in the sun
and shade ‘neath a blossoming tree.

As Tevye the dairyman hoisted his cup,
he toasted L’chaim (“to life”).
With praise for the sunlight and springtime rebirth,
I join him with clarinet and fife.

The Gospel According to a Hummingbird

A Lesson in Trust

Hummingbird in leafless tree,
I know you aren’t aware of me
or of the fact that I can see
how delicate you are.

So why should I think it absurd 
that to the Lord, I’m like a bird?
God sees my actions, hears each word
and knows my anxious thoughts.

Remind me, Jesus, (like You said)
that just as birds are daily fed,
I need not fret but trust instead 
that You will care for me.

* Matthew 6:25-34