January 2007

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sun through falling snow

Just like its mythological namesake, this January had two faces. It started out warm, on the heels of a virtually snow-free December. Throughout the northeast, lakes and ponds remained unfrozen, temperatures soared into the high 50s on a few days, and we thought that winter would never come. But then, just past the middle of the month, the mercury fell. Those of us who care about forest health cheered — at last, a good cold snap to knock back some of the more virulent insect pests! And we started getting snow: a half-inch one day, two inches a couple days later, and with just one day above freezing, much of it is still on the ground.

The cold air is great for walking in — the dryness is easier on the lungs. “It’s just like hiking in Arizona!” my mother exults.

cold rhododendron leaves

In the woods, the rhododendron leaves curl up, turning one, uniform face toward the frigid air.

When the temperature drops below 35F, rhododendron leaves begin to cup and curl at the edges. At 25F, the leaves have curled so tight that half the leaf surface has disappeared and the leaves droop. When temperatures hit the teens, leaves shrivel even tighter, turn brownish-green and dangle like stiff string beans. This response to temperature changes is a rhododendron’s method of preventing loss of moisture through the leaves.

The upper side of a rhododendron leaf is leathery. The bottom side is dappled with tiny air valves that control the flow of air in and out of a leaf. Cold air contains less moisture than warm air. So when low temperatures and high winds arrive, the leaf valves close. By looking out a window on a winter day, one can determine roughly how cold it is by the degree the rhododendron leaves have curled and drooped. When temperatures rise, the leaves open again.

The species in question here is Rhododendron maximum, which grows throughout the eastern U.S. in the colder, damper parts of the forest, often along streams under hemlock cover, or on north-facing slopes. This is because its leaves are sensitive to sun-scald, unlike its cousin mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), which, though also evergreen, does not curl its leaves in the cold.

The Cherokee used to use rhododendron leaves in weather magic. They would “throw clumps of leaves into a fire and dance around it to bring cold weather,” according to this compendium. They also made rhododendron-leaf decoctions for external and internal use against headaches, heart trouble, and other aches and pains, and carved the wood into pipes and spoons. I imagine some still do.

coyote tracks

The day before yesterday, I found coyote tracks in the woods above my house, about a hundred feet from my front porch. There was a skim of snow in the tracks, so I knew when the tracks had been made: around midnight, just before the snow stopped. I was inside reading blogs at the time.

That evening, when I was having supper with my parents, the subject of Second Life came up. I mentioned reading that Sweden was establishing the first official embassy in the cyber world. Dad had been reading about Second Life in the business press, and we began talking about virtual real estate, and how you can get people to buy anything if you can just figure out a way to stake a claim.

Mom was baffled. “What? WHAT? That doesn’t make sense!” It really bothered her that people would devote so much time and energy to creating a simulated world when the real world is so little known and appreciated. We agreed that it might be more interesting if the game’s creators had attempted to set up some kind of rudimentary ecosystem, with real ecological costs to any major disruption or development – a kind of Biosphere 3. Right now, apparently, the “place” has few non-human inhabitants, and ecosystem creation is left up to the owner-gods of autonomous parcels of Second Life real estate, such as Svarga, or the new Terminous.

But apparently ecosystem creation was part of the original plan. The CEO of the parent company, Linden Lab, said in a recent interview that

We were very interested in simulating things like physics and weather as a starting point, with the goal of creating enormous complexity that would be very beautiful. We used to imagine that SL, or parts of it, could become vast forests, full of little evolving plants made of code, and you could wander in that forest and find things that no one else had ever seen. What a thought! Builds like Svarga are going exactly in that direction now. I can’t wait to be able to walk in those forests.

I’m of two minds about Second Life. It does seem to have some real-world utility as a space for people to share their artworks, perform original music, or grill their congressional representatives. I’ve always been interested in communal creation (and community creation). But at this point, Second Life sounds more like a shopping mall than a true town square. Its owners could pull the plug at any time, and they are under no obligation to tolerate dissent. And let’s remember: building those artificial forests does have real-world ecological costs in terms of the energy needed to build and power computers and computer networks. The wood-based economy of the high Middle Ages destroyed Europe’s forests in order to build (among other things) cathedrals, those timeless evocations of forest space in glass and stone.

Of course, what’s really caught the media’s attention is the amount of commercial activity that goes on now in Second Life. Real U.S. dollars (converted into an artificial currency) are being spent there… which means that SL’s ecological footprint is growing. Corporations are eagerly buying up advertizing space, and some long-time participants are beginning to complain that there’s less and less to distinguish it from the real world they’re trying to escape.

But let’s not be too hard on the Second Life enthusiasts. It seems to me that people who long to fully inhabit a virtual world are little different from those who regard heaven, or some spiritual plane, as their true home, and their earthly bodies as temporary houses for an immortal soul. (It’s not for nothing that we call our online visual counterparts “avatars”!) I’ve read exactly one cyberpunk novel — William Gibson’s Neuromancer — and was repelled by its vision of an all-encompassing cyberspace. But who among us doesn’t live in a fantasy world to some extent? Why else do we enjoy novels?

snow nest

The anthropological and paleontological evidence strongly suggests that humans are, at root, gatherer-hunters who evolved in seasonally nomadic, small-band societies. As a result, our sense of home ground is fluid and highly adaptable. Like migratory birds, we have a strong homing instinct precisely because we are prone to wandering. And we are not just wayfarers but way-makers, always trying to convert routes into destinations and the Way into something that can be spoken about. Part of us longs to travel; the other part longs to nest. While some mark territory, others are content just to explore.

Either way, home is a circle of stones with a fire in the middle. If you sit facing the fire too long, your back gets cold and you turn as two-sided as Janus.

cress 1

So get up and dance!

Three months after their October debut,
the spring fashions have arrived,
as mysterious as ever.
A store-window mannequin
clutches the hem of her cocktail dress,
an expression of frightened vulnerability
painted on her bone-white face.
Out here, it’s hard to tell women
from men in January’s unisex garb:
dark parkas, hats covering half
their heads. They walk briskly,
no time for window-shopping.
I pull my fingers out of
the finger-holes in my gloves
& ball them into fists for warmth.
I think of my gardener friends
starting their flats of tomato seeds,
filling their houses with the smell
of baked earth.
__________

the smell of baked earth – Actually, most gardeners these days probably just buy sterilized potting soil, but when I was a kid we always used to get soil from the garden during a thaw and bake it in the oven to kill the weed seeds.

Don’t forget to check out the growing collection of posts for the theme “Come Outside” at the always-fashionable qarrtsiluni.


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An old song about a female moonshiner. I had to stand way back from the cheap mike to avoid distortion during the hollerin’ parts. I’m far from satisfied with this version, but it’s probably the best I can do for now.

I learned this song from a Pete Seeger record; can’t remember which (it wasn’t this one). I was really sad when I heard that Pete gave away his banjo last year because he was too old to play it any more. Not only was he a great singer, banjo player and entertainer, he probably had a bigger hand in the creation of what they now call the DIY (do it yourself) ethic than anyone else. Blogging, ‘zines, basement shows, drum circles — it all goes back to Pete and Sing Out magazine, founded in 1950: the dangerous idea that anyone can, and everyone should, bypass corporate channels and create culture themselves. Pete was also famous for getting the audience to sing along, treating them as an equal partner in the performance. You won’t see that at a Bob Dylan concert.

I also recorded a new piece on the bamboo jaw harp, or kubing: Waterbound.


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I like this instrument because it has an even narrower range than my voice! I like to see just how much it’s capable of. (I probably could have cut out the one really buzzy part, though.)

feral cat

snow tree

 
While we sat inside eating supper,
the snow came down & filled in all the tracks.
Vole & sparrow tracks on the back steps,
squirrel & feral cat on the lawn,
the wingprints of a hawk. Even
my own tracks from an hour before:
the snow’s feet grew to fit them all.

After supper, I switched on the spotlight
under the gable, went out into the storm
& stood looking up.
Here in between these seeming absolutes —
black above, white below — the mix
is anything but gray.
Black pepper from the islands.
Salt from the encircling sea.

 
snow falling on camera

Archives are a funny thing. As I mentioned back on January 3rd, Via Negativa does get occasional comments on older posts. And despite the likelihood that web searches account for the largest single group of visitors to this or any blog, it’s always a bit of a shock to realize that posts one thinks of as existing in the past are still quite present.

It would be interesting, as an experiment, to design a blog with no time and date stamps at all, and a completely randomixed archive. The links from post to post would work the same way as those “Next Blog” links on the top bar of Blogspot blogs. Instead of a “Recent Posts” link list, the sidebar would feature a random list of “Other Posts,” and the front page would display a single post from the archives that would change every time the page was renewed. When you wrote a new post, it wouldn’t be singled out in any way; there’d be no pinging, no feed. The search bar would be the only way to find a particular post.

That is, in fact, the kind of website I used to fantasize about creating back in 2003, during the nine-month gestation period for Via Negativa, when all I had was a lousy Geocities site. I still think it would be a neat way to share a large collection of poems: curiosity would keep people clicking, and the inevitable repetitions of some poems would encourage re-reading.

This would also be a good way to display a sacred text, wouldn’t it? There are already those who treat Google as an oracle, or who use random selection software for a cyber version of stichomancy. So the internet is already a source of revelation for some. I figure it’s only a matter of time until some whacked-out newage prophet decides to try and harness that vatic power for some revolutionary new covenant between humanity and the spider-god of the web.

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Yesterday, my post on mushrooms from last July received this delightful comment from Anonymous:

Shrooms are the best shit u can have. Thanks to them I am able to see the future and know what lies a head. I have seen humanity rise and fall many times but in the end it does not matter for what reasons that we face now and things that we ignore will haunt us for our lives, for there will be consequences for every action done or word said. There is no hope but only hell to come all to have fallen victims to the ways of the path that was never ment to be tooken, those that sleep for eternity will once rise and except whats coming to them for they know but did not act, all is well that ends well, for those that ment good.

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Silly image of a scrolling marquee, hosted by ImageShack.us

snow on base of oakI’m still reading the new translation of the collected works of Tomas Tranströmer, the great contemporary Swedish poet — a good companion on cold winter mornings. Tranströmer isn’t a very prolific poet, so it’s possible to fit his complete poetic output, as well as a prose memoir, into one volume of a little over 250 pages. But these poems really bear re-reading, so one doesn’t feel in the least bit cheated. In fact, as the back-cover blurb points out, Tranströmer has been translated into fifty languages, and “perhaps no other poet since Pablo Neruda has had such an international presence in his own lifetime.” The comparison is an interesting one, though, since Neruda sometimes wrote as much in one year as Tranströmer has written in a lifetime!

The worldviews of the two poets also differ tremendously: contrast Neruda’s hatred of religion with Tranströmer’s great (albeit reticent) respect for spiritual experience. But one thing their poetry does have in common is a rich vocabulary of images from the natural world. Both are or were competent amateur naturalists; in the work of both, non-human beings are presences worthy of poetic treatment in their own right; and both men spent part of their lives on islands, which they seemed to regard as their truest homes — Isla Negra for Neruda, and Runmarö for Tranströmer. But whereas I tend to think of Neruda as a poet of the ocean and the shore who sometimes also wrote about forests, I’m beginning to think of Tranströmer as a forest poet, whether or not that forest is surrounded, as in a few of his poems, by the Baltic Sea.

I don’t feel I’ve spent enough time with this new translation to be able to engage in serious literary criticism — and in any case, one ought to know the source language if one wants to make any sort of authoritative pronouncements about a work of literature. This is just one reader’s appreciation, an excuse to share some of my favorite finds from the book so far. My copy of The Great Enigma bristles with bookmarks — a veritable forest of little white slips.

Both the first and the last poems in the book, spanning fifty years, pivot on tree or forest imagery. Here’s how Tranströmer began “Prelude,” from 17 Poems, originally published in 1954:

Waking up is a parachute jump from dreams.
Free of the suffocating turbulence the traveler
sinks toward the green zone of morning.
Things flare up. From the viewpoint of the quivering lark
he is aware of the huge root systems of the trees,
their swaying underground lamps. But aboveground
there’s greenery — a tropical flood of it — with
lifted arms, listening
to the beat of an invisible pump.

The last poem in the book, from 2004, is a haiku:

Birds in human shape.
The apple trees in blossom.
The great enigma.

Between those two poems, arboreal imagery takes many different forms. In “Solitary Swedish Houses,” the forest is both context and content of human dwellings: “Farther off, the new building/ stands steaming … in the middle of a dying wood,” while in “The house on an island in the river … they’re burning/ the forest’s secret papers.”

A number of the poems from The Half-Finished Heaven (1962) include tree or forest imagery. “In February living stood still,” begins the poem “Face to Face,” adding a few lines later: “The trees stood with their backs turned to me./ The deep snow was measured with dead straws.” A four-stanza poem called “Through the Wood” describes (ostensibly, at least) a forested marsh. Here are the middle two stanzas:

The feeble giants stand entangled
closely — so nothing can fall.
The cracked birch molders there
in an upright position like a dogma.

From the bottom of the wood I rise.
It grows light between the trunks.
It is raining over my roofs.
I am a waterspout for impressions.

Immediately preceding that poem is one that begins with the song of a thrush, which may refer to something more like an American robin than a wood thrush or hermit thrush (perhaps my British readers can tell me?), but I prefer to imagine something like the latter birds’ ethereal melancholia. Here’s the poem in its entirety.

Ringing

And the thrush blew its song on the bones of the dead.
We stood under a tree and felt time sinking and sinking.
The churchyard and the schoolyard met and widened into each other like two streams into the sea.

The ringing of the church bells rose to the four winds borne by the gentle leverage of gliders.
It left behind a mightier silence on earth
and a tree’s calm steps, a tree’s calm steps.

Tranströmer’s next collection, Bells and Tracks (1966) includes a marvelous poem called “Winter’s Formulae,” which is in five numbered parts. Here’s Part 4:

Three dark oaks sticking out of the snow.
So gross, but nimble-fingered.
Out of their giant bottles
the greenery will bubble in spring.

(I wish the translator had picked another word than “gross.” The slang meaning, “disgusting,” drowns out for me the older, and I think intended, meaning: “large and bulky.”) Part 5 begins with another great image, one that really evokes Scandinavia for me:

The bus crawls through the winter evening.
It glimmers like a ship in the spruce forest
where the road is a narrow deep dead canal.

Seeing in the Dark, first published in 1970, begins with a similar theme: the disorientation the narrator feels when he wakes up in his car, parked alongside the road “in under the trees.” “Where am I? WHO am I? I am something that awakens in a back seat, twists about in panic like a cat in a sack.” To me, this echoes an ancient European belief about forests as places native to the god of panic.

In the two succeeding poems, however, arboreal imagery has a more benign, even salvific thrust. “A Few Minutes” reminds us that the crown of a “squat pine in the swamp” is “nothing/ compared to the roots, the widespread, secretly creeping, immortal or half-mortal/ root system.” It is an insurgent force such as we must also become if we are to survive:

I you she he also branch out.
Outside what one wills.
Outside the metropolis.

In “Breathing Space July,”

The man lying on his back under the high trees
is up there too. He rills out in thousands of twigs,
sways to and fro,
sits in an ejector seat that releases in slow motion.

“Further In,” from Tranströmer’s 1973 collection Paths, makes the most explicit contrast between city and forest so far. Stuck in rush-hour traffic, the narrator says,

I know I must get far away
straight through the city and then
further until it is time to go out
and walk far into the forest.
Walk in the footprints of the badger.
It gets dark, difficult to see.

And accordingly, in the very next poem, “The Outpost,” the narrator is out tent-camping with some unnamed companions. Here’s a sample, beginning — as with the previous quote — a few lines past the mid-point:

Mission: to be where I am.
Even in that ridiculous, deadly serious
role — I am the place
where creation is working itself out.

Daybreak, the sparse tree trunks
are colored now, the frostbitten
spring flowers form a silent search party
for someone who has vanished in the dark.

The Truthbarrier, first published in 1978, includes two prose poems set in forests. I know I said I wasn’t going to indulge in any literary criticism here, but I can’t help pointing out that in all these poems, being in the forest seems to connote a sort of existential lostness — a perhaps necessary precondition to authentic discovery or salvation. “The Clearing” begins:

Deep in the forest there’s an unexpected clearing that can be reached only by someone who has lost his way.

The clearing is enclosed in a forest that is choking itself. Black trunks with the ashy beard stubble of lichen. The trees are tangled tightly together and are dead right up to the tops, where a few solitary green twigs touch the light. Beneath them: shadow brooding on shadow, and the swamp growing.

The poem goes on to describe the clearing, which appears to be a long-ago house site, but I’m struck by how well Tranströmer and his translator, Robin Fulton, evoke an old-growth spruce forest — something one can experience in a few places in the northeastern United States, too. They are indeed very dark and damp, with little growing beneath the canopy aside from a profusion of arboreal lichens.

The other prose poem, “A Place in the Forest,” is more enigmatic. Where other poems might use arboreal metaphors to describe humans or human landscapes, here something opposite appears to be taking place. I find the result extraordinarily effective both as ecological description and as emotional/spiritual evocation. It’s short enough to quote in full.

On the way there a pair of startled wings clattered up — that was all. You go alone. A tall building that consists entirely of cracks, a building that is perpetually toppling but can never collapse. The thousandfold sun floats in through the cracks. In this play of light an inverted law of gravity prevails: the house is anchored in the sky and whatever falls, falls upward. There you can turn around. There you are allowed to grieve. You can dare to face certain old truths kept packed, in storage. The roles I have, deep down, float up, hang like dried skulls in the ancestral cabin on some out-of-the-way Melanesian islet. A childlike aura circles the gruesome trophies. So mild it is, in the forest.

In a prose poem from Tranströmer’s next collection, The Wild Market Square, by contrast, house and forest are at opposite poles of an axis.

It is a night of radiant sun. I stand in the dense forest and look away toward my house with its haze-blue walls. As if I had just died and was seeing the house from a new angle.
(“The Blue House”)

The last poem in that collection, “Molokai,” describes looking down at the roofs of a leper colony from the edge of a montane forest, with no time to make the descent and return before nightfall.

So we turn back through the forest, walk among trees with long blue needles.
It’s silent here, like the silence when the hawk nears.
These are woods that forgive everything but forget nothing.

All along I’ve been talking about the forest, in the classic lit-crit manner, but poets like Tranströmer insist on the particular: this forest, that is choking itself. In this play of light. These woods. Let’s end with one more prose poem that distinguishes between two different kinds of forest. This is from the 1989 collection, The Living and the Dead.

Madrigal

I inherited a dark wood where I seldom go. But a day will come when the dead and the living trade places. The wood will be set in motion. We are not without hope. The most serious crimes will remain unsolved in spite of the efforts of many policemen. In the same way there is somewhere in our lives a great unsolved love. I inherited a dark wood, but today I’m walking in the other wood, the light one. All the living creatures that sing, wriggle, wag, and crawl! It’s spring and the air is very strong. I have graduated from the university of oblivion and am as empty-handed as the shirt on the clothesline.

Ah, the university of oblivion! I think I might’ve taken a few classes there myself.

pine snag with doorway
__________

Don’t forget to email tree-related links to kelly [at] ginkgodreams [dot] com for the upcoming Festival of the Trees. The deadline is January 29.

bird tracks

It’s beginning to look and feel like January at last. We’re getting snow in small increments, here — ideal for preserving the tracks of small birds and mammals. The above tracks were probably made by a slate-colored junco, AKA snowbird. Juncos forage extensively on the ground, looking for seeds and insects, and in breeding season they nest on or very near the ground as well. The Wikipedia claims that juncos will sometimes eat their own droppings, then eat the droppings that result from that, and so on — an ouroborus-like exercise in self-consumption. It’s the rare being that can eliminate elimination altogether, like the mites that live in your eyelashes. Demodex mites lack an excretory orifice of any kind. They spend most of their lives head-down inside hair follicles, like shy woodland creatures living in hollow trees. Sometimes they emerge at night and walk around on your skin while you’re asleep.

frozen pond (small)
Click on photo for larger view

Much as I like looking for tracks, what I’m really attracted to is untracked snow, which offers a vision of the world free of mark or blemish. Maybe that’s what motivates the coprophagous slate-colored junco, too: an aesthetic preference for a clean slate. Or at least a clean plate.

__________

Thanks to Ambivablog for originally bringing demodex mites to my attention.

harmonica

The following song is the last thing I recorded before the harmonica went bad. All it takes is for one note to go flat or sharp and the damn thing’s useless. This makes an even ten in my collection of dead harmonicas.


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A few housekeeping notes: I’ve chosen what I consider my best photos of 2006 and included the link in the “Best of Via Negativa” section of the sidebar. Note that you can also view these as a slideshow.

Along the same lines, I found a dandy widget that lets me place a Flickr slideshow right on the bottom of the sidebar (homepage only). Dial-up folks, please let me know if this makes the download time too long, and I’ll take it off.

Another change I just made was to restrict the sidebar display of Smorgasblog to the home page. For the curious, this involved simply copying the PHP code used to restrict the links (“Other Places”) to the main page, and using it to bracket the Smorgasblog entries — which I still code by hand.