August 2007

This entry is part 29 of 29 in the series Wildflower Poems

common ragweed

By the open window

clogged sinuses

eyes rimmed in red

after wind pollination

the female flower develops into

a prickly ovoid burr

one arrowhead-shaped seed.

__________

In response to the very last Poetry Thursday prompt, “an open window.” Italicized lines lifted from the Wikipedia entry. Yes, “Ambrosia” really is the scientific name for ragweed.

If you’ve ever looked at one of my mother’s Appalachian Seasons books, you’ll see where I got my love of epigraphs. Each section of every book begins with a quote from one of her favorite authors, and each inclusion represents an exchange of letters with a copyright holder and the payment of some small fee. That’s because the “fair use” provision of U.S. copyright law only covers quotations when they are used as citations or for review purposes; an epigraph clearly represents a higher order of appropriation.

For one of my mom’s books — neither of us can remember which one now — she wanted to use four or five lines from her favorite poet, Mary Oliver. This was some fifteen or twenty years ago, before Oliver had become quite as widely known as she is now. The publisher directed her to Oliver’s agent, and the agent demanded $500 — roughly five times what the other authors or heirs, many of them more prominent than Oliver, were then asking. My mother is fiercely protective of her own rights as an author and a self-employed person, and always resents it when people imply she should share her expertise as a naturalist for nothing. But $500 for a few lines of poetry struck her as ridiculous, and she quickly found something else to go in its place.

I couldn’t help thinking that the real loss was Oliver’s. Poets don’t often get the chance to reach a receptive audience of nonspecialist readers — people who are not poetry nerds or graduate students in English. Of course, I have no idea whether this agent truly represented the poet’s own attitudes. It’s kind of a moot point, now, not only because Oliver’s work has achieved wide renown, but because her copyright is regularly violated by hundreds, perhaps thousands of bloggers doing precisely what my mother couldn’t get away with in print. It would hardly be worth a lawyer’s time to track down these violators and ask them to remove the lengthy quotes and reproductions of entire poems by Oliver that dot the internet. And I suspect this free, if illegal, exposure has earned the poet a good deal of revenue in book sales than she wouldn’t otherwise enjoy. (Not that the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award didn’t help, too. Something had to bring Oliver to all those bloggers’ attention in the first place.)

I’ve been thinking about this lately in the course of mulling over my own relationship with copyright law. I find the whole concept of intellectual property a little disturbing, especially the way it is now being extended to cover things like genetic sequences of naturally occurring organisms or certain combinations of common words. For years I’ve been content to license my work for reproduction under the popular Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivatives license from Creative Commons, which I sort of vaguely figured would provide others the kind of freedoms that I would like to have to reprint their own stuff.

But over the past year and a half, my involvement in the WordPress user community has exposed me to a lot of discussion about the closely related open source and free software movements. I’ve always admired the idealism of the WordPress core and plugin developers, people giving away their own works based on a simple and pragmatic faith that greater good will come from collaborative efforts. I started thinking, shouldn’t poetry be open-source as well? Don’t I treat it as such every time I post a translation or a stand-alone quote here at Via Negativa? What would my epic poem Cibola have been like without all those montages of epigrams preceding every section? The freedom to borrow and remix others’ creative works seems vital, even intrinsic to the creative process. What does the original creator lose by this?

I do want credit, of course — and I don’t want some bastard taking my works and claiming them as his own, preventing other people from making free with them as he did. To some people, the most selfless thing to do is to release one’s works from copyright protection altogether — put them in the public domain, or at most require attribution only. But I’m not interested in a quest for moral purity, and I think that any serious writer or artist who wants to pursue selflessness is in the wrong business: it takes a hell of a lot of ego to create. You really have to believe in the value of what you’re doing. The challenge is to let go of your children once they’re fully mature, and let them have their own lives. I found the GNU Project‘s argument for copyleft persuasive. (“Copyleft” is what Creative Commons refers to as “share alike”: the stipulation that anyone who distributes software or creative works, modified or otherwise, must pass along the freedom to copy or change them.)

In the GNU Project we usually recommend people use copyleft licenses like GNU GPL, rather than permissive non-copyleft free software licenses. We don’t argue harshly against the non-copyleft licenses — in fact, we occasionally recommend them in special circumstances — but the advocates of those licenses show a pattern of arguing harshly against the GPL.

In one such argument, a person stated that his use of one of the BSD licenses was an “act of humility”: “I ask nothing of those who use my code, except to credit me.” It is rather a stretch to describe a legal demand for credit as “humility”, but there is a deeper point to be considered here.

Humility is abnegating your own self interest, but you and the one who uses your code are not the only ones affected by your choice of which free software license to use for your code. Someone who uses your code in a non-free program is trying to deny freedom to others, and if you let him do it, you’re failing to defend their freedom. When it comes to defending the freedom of others, to lie down and do nothing is an act of weakness, not humility.

One morning a couple of years ago, I clicked onto a friend’s blog to find that he had appropriated the text from my most recent post and rearranged the lines into a poem, with a link back to the original. It was a clear violation of the Creative Commons license I had at the time. If he’d asked permission, I would’ve granted it, but he hadn’t, and it bothered me. It didn’t occur to me that he’d meant it as a surprise. When I challenged him about it, he reacted with umbrage, and implied that I should have been flattered — that his intent had been to pay homage and bring more readers to a great post. A couple of mutual blogging friends weighed in on my side, as I recall, and he took the post down shortly thereafter. We remained friends, rarely alluding to the incident thereafter.

Now I wonder, what the hell was I so bothered about? It seems like exactly the sort of thing that artists and poets should welcome. I love the notion of free cultural works — again derived from the open source/free software movement. The struggle over proprietary software reflects the desire of Microsoft and other developers not only to prevent copying and modification, but even to prevent access to the source code — hence “open source,” and hence the second basic freedom in the Free Cultural Works definition, “the freedom to study the work and to apply knowledge acquired from it.” There isn’t anything precisely analogous to source code in poetry; the creative process is a mystery to all of us. A lot of poets make a living from trying to teach the tools of the trade to others, and that’s excellent — there’s nothing in all of this open-source idealism that says people shouldn’t make money off it (as WordPress.com founder Matt Mullenweg was recently at pains to make clear).

But if I’m honest with myself, I must admit that my every-morning deep reading of several poems by another poet or poets often has a direct influence on whatever I then sit down and write, and not just in the vague sense of giving rise to a poetic mood. Quite often a specific image or turn of phrase will catch fire, and I’ll take that ember and light my own kindling with it. It’s usually too small a thing even to require crediting the author, and my use of it falls entirely outside the boundaries of their own conception, but I still feel indebted in some way. And the only way to repay that debt, I feel, is to write the best poem I can. Of course, sometimes the ember comes from something I observe, or a dream the night before, or an overheard snatch of conversation, but in every case it’s coming from outside. I’ve talked to plenty of other artists and poets, and read many more interviews, and they all tend to say something pretty similar: authentic inspiration comes from an encounter with the other. I guess that’s why it seems so absurd to me to try and assert ownership and control over ideas. The source code of the imagination is existentially open.

What does it mean for me as an author, though, to surrender the right to make money off of every appearance of my works? Because I can hardly hardly call my works free if I don’t let others market their remixes or translations. Initially I retained a noncommercial-use stipulation for all Via Negativa posts not marked as “Poems and poem-like things,” but that seemed too confusing, and besides, what’s the difference? If someone wants to reprint one of my essays or stories, as long as they give me credit and indicate if they’ve modified it, what the hell do I care? I suppose there’s always a remote chance that some musician will turn one of my poems into song lyrics, have a global hit, and make millions, but again I don’t see how that makes me any worse off than I would have been otherwise, without that recognition. And in most cases, I think, reputable commercial publishers do pay the originator of a work. Nothing in all of this stops me from peddling my work, if I have a mind to.

I don’t presume to imply that the way I’ve decided to free up my own work should be the rule for everyone. Many writers and artists see full copyright protection as a matter of basic respect, and lord knows freelancers have been exploited by publishers for a long time — in part because there are so many people willing to write for nothing, just for the thrill of seeing their names in print. The blogging revolution might change the equation a little, because now all of those wanna-be authors can simply start blogs, and find readers and affirmation that way. But I do wonder whether the sorts of people who see publication as a balm for their insecurities would be so desperate to get their names in print if artists and writers became a little less godlike, less inclined to continue to exercise control over their creations once they are loosed on the world. Collaborative efforts might take center stage. We might see the growth of a poetry culture similar to that of classical China, where lines were traded back and forth and poems were exchanged like letters, or Edo-period Japan, where poems we now regard as stand-alone haiku were actually written for communally composed linked verse sequences (in theory if not in fact). Given the unique opportunities for interaction that the internet provides, who knows would might happen if only the author’s name lay a little less heavily on the page?

American chestnut burr

One morning this past May, on the second of our two annual point counts for the Bald Eagle Ridge Important Bird Area, I was pleased to run across a couple of these brown, porcupiney things in the middle of our Laurel Ridge Trail. American chestnut husks! We looked around for the tree of origin, but we were in a hurry, and I had to return the next day and find it. It wasn’t more than fifteen feet off the trail — a forty-foot-tall tree, to all appearances still healthy, about five inches in diameter at breast height. The ground around it was littered with the tell-tale husks.

dying American chestnut with root sprouts

The day before yesterday I went for another look. Despite the absence of obvious lesions on its bark, it clearly had the blight; all the leaves had turned brown with the exception of those on the new sprouts that were already clustered around its base. (You can see the lowest branch in the above photo; none of my photos of the crown of the tree were worth sharing.) Like every other American chestnut on our mountain — and well over 99.9 percent of all native chestnuts in the eastern United States — this individual will never again be able to grow an above-ground stem for more than a couple of decades before succumbing to the introduced Asian fungus, Cryphonectria parasitica.

But unlike most of the other spindly chestnuts on our ridges, this stem lived long enough to produce one crop of nuts before it died. There’s a slight — very slight — chance that they were fertile, cross-pollinated with some other rare tree that happened to flower in the spring of 2006 somewhere in the vicinity. And there’s an even slighter chance that one of those fertile nuts was spared by the squirrels and managed to sprout in a favorable location. Do you believe in miracles? But it is upon just such miracles — and/or the intervention of geneticists — that the future of this totemic species depends, because it is only through sexual reproduction that the American chestnut will be able to evolve resistance to the blight.

I know: you thought the purpose of sex was reproduction, didn’t you? But many plants can reproduce vegetatively, too; Castanea dentata is a great example. “King of the coppice,” biologist Joe Schibig calls it. Who knows how the hell old some of these ridgetop rootstocks might be? It’s eerie to stand among the twisted chestnut oaks and the mountain laurel (now also dying en masse due to a blight of unknown origin) and realize that 100 years ago, the woods here would have been dominated by straight, soaring trunks, and that 200 years ago — before the first clear-cutting of Plummer’s Hollow around 1815 — the forest primeval would’ve been an almost unimaginably full cornucopia, with a deep carpet of chestnut burrs every fall. Even on years when the acorn and hickory crops failed, chestnuts, having bloomed well after the last frost, were still available to fill the bellies of squirrels, deer, raccoons, mice, chipmunks, and a host of other creatures. Evolution called the vast flocks of passenger pigeons into existence in part as a response to this superabundance of chestnut mast. One out of every four trees in the Appalachians was an American chestnut. Its wood was straight-grained, easy to split, rock-hard, and virtually impervious to rot.

It’s a bit of an irony, I guess, that trees so resistant to the common agents of decay would fall victim to a fungus. First spotted at the Bronx Zoo in 1904, the airborne disease spread at a rate of about fifty miles a year, wiping out in excess of three billion trees over the next half-century. A half-century after that, what’s the prognosis for the species? As Schibig notes,

Some chestnuts have repeatedly died and sprouted again from their root collars for the past 70 years, but the vigor and number of these sprouts have been declining. After all, they can’t be expected to forever battle the blight, other diseases such as root rot, ravenous insects, browsing by deer, competition from other trees, unfavorable weather conditions and habitat destruction by humans. It was hoped that in some parts of its natural range there would be pockets of chestnuts that would have resistance to the disease and would be reproducing successfully from their nuts, not just by sprouting. To my knowledge, such populations, sometimes called the “holy grail” by American chestnut fans, have never been found. It appears that human intervention will be necessary to restore the American chestnut to the forests of the eastern U. S.

The remainder of Schibig’s brief essay describes the effort to resurrect the American chestnut. I’m most familiar with the efforts of the American Chestnut Foundation, whose quarter-century-long experiment began by crossing American chestnuts with blight-resistant Chinese chestnuts, then crossing the resulting hybrids with more American Chestnuts, and so on: crossing each new generation with pure C. dentata stock until they get a tree that has all the attributes of an American chestnut, but with the disease resistance of its scrubbier East Asian ancestor. The main site for this research in Pennsylvania is at the Penn State Experimental Forest in Stone Valley, less than 25 miles away from our mountain as the pigeon flies.

American chestnut sprouts

The passenger pigeon and the American chestnut were almost certainly both examples of what ecologists call keystone species: species without which basic ecosystem functions such as carbon cycling and nutrient storage are fundamentally altered. Without a steady supply of chestnut mast, many wildlife populations have probably become a great deal more unstable, with repercussions up and down the food chain. Without passenger pigeons — which were on the way out well before the introduction of the chestnut blight, due to market hunting and widespread clear-cutting — our forests have lost a major, periodic source of fertilizer and a disturbance regime as natural and necessary as the once-in-a-century wildfire.

It’ll be great if the American Chestnut Foundation’s back-crossing scheme works and we can restore at least one of these two species. But in order to do so, we will also have to be mindful of a third keystone species: the white-tailed deer. Here in Plummer’s Hollow, as I’ve noted before, a number of years of good hunting have brought the deer herd down to reasonable levels, allowing a few of the chestnut sprouts to survive. But we can never quite relax: one year of poor hunting combined with a mild winter could change all that. Eternal vigilance, it seems, is the price not only of liberty but of healthy forests as well.

I know I will never see a fully mature American chestnut tree in my own lifetime — just as I will never see a large, old-growth mixed-deciduous landscape in the East outside of the Porcupine Mountains, way over on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. A recent article from the Christian Science Monitor on the American Chestnut Foundation’s research sounds a hopeful note, projecting enough nuts for a large-scale replanting effort to commence by 2015. Hope is good. But I do think a consciousness of just how much we’ve lost is also important if we really want to overcome public complacency and rally support for protecting and restoring what we have left.
__________

Don’t forget to submit links for the upcoming Festival of the Trees #15 by Thursday at the latest. See the details here.

They made a desolation and called it peace.
–Tacitus

In a urine-soaked military bedroll under the bridge
the wino lapses into an uneasy slumber,
twitching & curling up
like a caterpillar in its final instar
when the wasp’s hungry children
start in at last on the nerve centers, having made
a desolation of the rest,

& that warm feeling one had taken for love
turns out to have been nothing but the fires of corrosion —
the wrong kind of digestion in the gut

or the wrong kind of metamorphosis, in which
the very cells are changed, yes,
but no chrysalis will ever be spun

& the light spreads like a chemical spill
above the river,
blotting out the stars.

giant swallowtail 4

Jean has been blogging about pilgrimage — beautiful, moving posts. They are especially interesting to me because my family also went to Santiago de Compostela on a vacation back in 1978, traveling the old Pilgrim Road by car from Paris, with lengthy detours to take in sections of the other branches before they all converged south of the Pyrenees. We didn’t do it for religious reasons, but simply as a way to try and experience the world of the high Middle Ages. Aside from Dad, who planned the trip, most of the rest of the family grew quite tired of musty Romanesque churches, except me. I’ve always loved dark, quiet, cave-like places. Throw in stone carvings of monsters, yet, and I’m in heaven.

Heaven: where the wild things are.

I can’t say the experience changed me in any profound, spiritual way, though I know I wanted it to. It’s hard to get all spiritual when you’re crammed into the back seat of a Renault with both your brothers. I remember one stop in the mountains — one of those small sierras in northern Spain — where we all exploded from the car the moment Dad pulled over, everyone heading off in a different direction. My father came close to losing his temper, I think.

I was twelve years old, just hitting puberty. I had recently started my own vegetable garden, and missed it terribly. It was perfectly circular, and consisted of a single, three-foot-wide, double-dug bed in the shape of a spiral. At the center of the spiral stood a tepee of locust poles covered with Kentucky Wonder pole beans. My dream was to sit there, under the beans, and be content, but I don’t think that ever actually happened.

Our trip lasted six weeks, beginning in late April. Freshly plowed fields and gardens were everywhere. I remember the longing I felt — especially in the French Massif Central — and the promises I made to myself that I would come back someday and sink my spade into that soil and never leave.

giant swallowtail 1

I’ve been working on a think piece, but it’s hard to think in 80 percent humidity. So instead I fritter away at minor tasks, and the crickets outside my door chirp faster and faster as the afternoon wears on. I gulp a cold beer and get the hiccups. Chirp hic chirp hic chirp hic chirp

giant swallowtail 2

The first two lines of the second stanza of Confession were a translation from the Shakespearean, “Hoist by [one’s] own petard.” I figured that, familiar though the phrase is, no one would actually know what a petard is. I didn’t. The dictionary said,

Etymology: Middle French, from peter to break wind, from pet expulsion of intestinal gas, from Latin peditum, from neuter of peditus, past participle of pedere to break wind; akin to Greek bdein to break wind
1 : a case containing an explosive to break down a door or gate or breach a wall
2 : a firework that explodes with a loud report

Or (3) an IED, I’m thinking.

giant swallowtail 5

In my cellarless house, one of the few cool places in which to store bottled homebrew is on the concrete floor of the bathroom, right beside the toilet. The beer doesn’t have far to travel.

Or rather, it goes out and comes back, much transformed.

giant swallowtail 6

What do you do when you reach the goal of the pilgrimage? Continue to the Cape of the End of the Earth: restless ocean, yellow flowers bobbing in the wind. Then south into northern Portugal, the best forests of the whole trip. I hear they’re burning now, every summer, thanks to global warming. And a couple years ago, Cabo Finisterre was awash in oil after a tanker crashed offshore. I wish I remembered more, so I could eulogize it better.

giant swallowtail 3

Yesterday afternoon around 5:30, a very tattered giant swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes) appeared on the butterfly bush in my front garden. This was a new record for the mountain. I signalled my mother on the intercom and she came down from the other house to watch it, too. Its yellow-and-black wings were in constant motion, backlit by the low sun and glorious despite their bedraggled state.

After about ten minutes, Mom said, “Listen! I think it’s making noises!”

“What kind of noises?”

Tch-tch. Chrrrrrr!

“Uh, no. That’s my camera, Mom.”

This was a species we only knew from books and blogs, so neither of us could place it right away. When it finally flew off after fifteen minutes of nectaring, Mom dug out her butterfly guides and identified it almost immediately; there’s nothing else like it. I found the following on eNature:

Known as the “Orange Dog” by citrus growers, the Giant Swallowtail is sometimes considered a citrus pest and is subjected to massive spraying. It is capable of flying long distances and often strays into northern and midwestern districts.

“Orange,” my foot! It’s as yellow as orange juice. But a brave traveller, nonetheless.

Chilling to consider the beautiful things that are murdered for our breakfast.

      after the waterboarding

When a promise broke me
I was ready to confess
to the darkest thoughts
just to clear my head

I was ready to be lifted
by my own explosive charges
simply for the rush
of air back into my lungs

I was ready to hang
by my own rope
if only to feel the steadying
pull of the earth again

& I confess
their promise was nothing other
than that the atrocious weather
would change

& it did
I have been changed
into something
I do not know
__________

[Poetry Thursday – dead link]

The challenge this week was to begin a poem with the last line of another poem. I used the last line from today’s poem at Poetry Daily, Promise, by Judson Mitcham.

September 2 is International Rock-Flipping Day. Mark your calendars.

How is it possible — I said to myself on Monday afternoon when I was putting together my post about flipping over rocks — that I don’t have a single good photo of the rocks in our woods? Even more unforgivable, I don’t have any photos of the creatures that live underneath them: no ant colonies, no salamanders, no caddis fly larvae from underneath the rocks in our creek. Nada. So I was very receptive when Fred Garber suggested in a comment that we pick a day for everybody to go outside — go as far as you have to — and flip over a rock (or two, or three). We could bring our cameras and take photos, film, sketch, paint, or write descriptions of whatever we find. It could be fun for the whole family!

I emailed Bev Wigney, the doyenne of invertebrate bloggers, and discovered that she shared my enthusiasm. But we thought we’d better act fast, for the benefit of folks here in the northern hemisphere, and go with September 2. Any later and things start dying off or going down below frost line.

Fred had suggested trying to get everyone to flip over a rock at the same moment, but that would end up being the middle of the night for some people, so let’s just stick to a calendar date. I would like to restrict it to rocks, though they wouldn’t have to be on dry land — they could be on the bottom of the sea if you have a way to get down there.

The point is simply to have fun, and hopefully learn something at the same time. We don’t want to over-determine what that something should be: those of a more scientific frame of mind might focus on i.d.s or ecological interactions, while those of an artistic or poetic bent could go in a different direction entirely. Pictures alone would suffice, of course. But whatever you do, please be sure to replace all rocks that you flip as soon as possible, so as not to disrupt the natives’ lives unduly. (Unless, that is, you plan on incorporating some of what you find into your next meal — crawdads? escargots? — which would also make a interesting subject for an International Rock-Flipping Day blog post, I’m thinking.)

We want to try and keep this as decentralized as possible. Everyone who blogs about it can link to everyone else at the bottom of their post, or in a subsequent post if they prefer. I’m willing to act as coordinator and send out a list of links that evening or the next morning, with all the HTML tags in place for people to copy and paste. Send your links to me as soon as you post: bontasaurus (at) yahoo (dot) com, with “Rock Flipping” in the subject line.

No blog? No problem. I’ve also set up a Flickr group, www.flickr.com/groups/rockflippingday, anticipating that bloggers and non-bloggers alike might want to share photos that way. We’re interested mainly in pictures of whatever you find under the rocks, but pictures of people flipping rocks are also permissible. The grand prize goes to anyone who can get a picture of a non-human critter, such as a bear or a raccoon, flipping a rock on September 2. (I don’t know what the grand prize will be yet, but trust me, it’ll be good.)

For those who would rather not bother with Flickr, Bev has volunteered to create a gallery within her Pbase photo site: simply send your images as email attachments to her, bev (at) magickcanoe (dot) com, again with “Rock Flipping” in the subject line.

I think that about covers it, but if other ideas occur to you, leave a comment and I’ll update this post if need be. If you like the idea, please help spread the word. And if anyone feels like designing a logo, be my guest.

Friend me

  • To be whole.
  • To be a part.
  • To be apart.
  • To be wholly present.
  • To be a present.
  • To be free.
  • To be treasured.
  • To be changeless.
  • To be infinitely malleable.
  • To be indescribable.
  • To be given multiple terms of endearment.
  • To be at rest.
  • To be in motion.
  • To be emptied.
  • To be filled.
  • To be sovereign.
  • To be of service.
  • To be amusing.
  • To be amazing.
  • To be amazed.
  • To be wildered.
  • To be lost.
  • To be last.
  • To be all things.
  • To be no thing.
  • To be not.
  • To be.

tree on University Park campus
__________

Thanks to SB for posing the question on her Facebook profile.

It didn’t take my mother very long to figure out how to engage her five-year-old grand-niece Katrina‘s attention during a walk in the woods last week. “See where that rock has been flipped over? That’s because a bear walked through here!” We explained briefly how bears love to eat insect larvae. Then came the magic moment of lifting a rock and exposing an ant colony: workers running helter skelter, some of them picking up their babies in their mandibles, others retreating along well-worn pathways and tunnels. Katrina’s two-year-old second cousin Elanor, who was stumping along with a large white teddy bear under one arm — in a jealous funk over this brash new competitor for her grandparents’ affections — started to show interest after the third or fourth rock, all but one of which sheltered an ant colony. Before we knew it, the walk had slowed to a standstill. There were rocks everywhere! Who knew what each might hide?

Oddly enough, I don’t think I’ve ever really described the rocks here — a rather appalling oversight, considering the extent to which they define the mountain landscape. I have been accused of living under a rock myself, and while that’s not quite true, one of the first things a new visitor will notice is the three-foot-high, dry stone wall that shores up two sides of my terraced front garden. Another stone wall runs along the side of the house, and on up the driveway at the top of the hill, the barn rests on a sturdy foundation of reddish-brown sandstone. Go for a walk on any of our trails, and you’ll see an abundance of flat stones among the moss and leaves, ranging in size from smaller than a hand to larger than a serving platter. Depending on where you go on the mountain, the rocks range in color from whitish gray to rose pink and in age from 488 to 417 million years old. Some of the rocks down in the hollow are a bit shaley, and the rocks on the higher of the two ridges and the associated talus slopes are very quartzitic, but all the rocks on our property are sandstone of one kind or another, and virtually all, therefore, are flat-sided. (For the curious, I’m talking about the Bald Eagle, Juniata, and Tuscarora formations.) The only truly round rock we’ve found here was a concretion about the size of a large, slightly squashed orange. My parents discovered it one day lying in the driveway, where it had tumbled out of the road bank.

I’ll skip over the complicated part about why so many rocks are exposed on the surface in the first place — basically, the result of periglacial and normal weathering of vertical strata combined with various human land-use practices (clearcutting, burning, plowing, and the introduction of earthworms) whose exact influence we can only guess at. The simple point I want to make here is how easily a resident can overlook what may be, for some of our visitors, one of the mountain’s most intriguing features. “Open this one, Aunt Marcia! Open this one,” Katrina kept saying, with the characteristic originality of someone still learning the language. Evidently to her, these big flat rocks half-buried in the humus were like doors opening on a literally parallel, miniaturized world.

A few days later, we played host to another set of visitors — a tour group of academics from a landscape architecture conference at Penn State. At one point, during a rest on the higher of the two ridgetops, which affords a fairly impressive view of the Allegheny Front, my mother mentioned how much kids love to look under rocks. falling rockShe quickly discovered, however, that it wasn’t just kids. “Oh my god, look at them all!” exclaimed the fellow from New Zealand. Moments later, all six landscape afficionados were clustered around, peering into the earth.