September 2007

Language is the house of Being. In its home man dwells. Those who think and those who create with words are the guardians of this home.
–Martin Heidegger

Today I don’t want to write,
don’t want to crowd the cat-house of being
with any more sentences of ill repute.
I want to have that teeming heat
behind me, fretwork at rest
like a sagging porch with one rocking chair
& a view of the woods.

grooming pileateds 1

View the slideshow.

Autumn has come to Margaret’s Woods: to the sawhorse and the stump, the tangled beds of hayscented fern and Japanese stiltgrass. The blood-colored Japanese barberry bushes are festooned with rows of scarlet berries and a scattering of fallen maple leaves impaled on their thorns. Feathered migrants learn the way to the best fruit from the early colors: wild gravevines are turning yellow, and the Virginia creepers are red flames against the pale trunks of white oaks. Hercules’-club trees are bowing under the weight of their monstrous purple heads, and their three-foot-long, triply-compound leaves fall nearly intact in the rush to bare their goods.

It’s a cool morning. A cranefly sits motionless on a blackberry leaf, too cold to fly. A pair of pileated woodpeckers, year-round residents too young to remember when this 100-acre deer-ravaged savanna was a mature forest, sun themselves at the top of an oak snag already dead when the loggers came through, one dry, beautiful autumn just like this. Their red crests blaze as they groom themselves, finding insect nourishment under their own black bark. This morning, a new autumn color — hunter’s orange — has entered the woods, and with luck, the first arrows will find their targets and water the parched ground with fresh blood.

If only the far corner of the world were some place we could retreat to. Those were the words running through my head when I woke up this morning. I’m not sure what preceded them in my dream, who said them or why. But half an hour later I came across a poem by John Haines, “Circles and Squares,” which admonishes, “A square world can’t be true,” and celebrates all things round:

[T]he tipi sewn in a circle,
the cave a mouth blown hollow
in a skull of sand,
as the cliff swallow shapes
to its body a globe
of earth, saliva, and straw.

When I logged onto the Internet an hour later, I saw that a brutal crackdown was underway in Burma.

*

The fat green globes that are ripe black walnuts have been raining down all week, going thump on the lawn, splat on the driveway, bam on the roof. Yesterday in my parents’ kitchen, a walnut falling on the electric line where it comes into the house reverberated like thunder. And when walnuts hit the drainpipes just right, they sound like rifle shots.

Both houses are ringed with the trees, which are also busy shedding their leaves. It’s astonishing that trees which leaf out so late in the spring and shed so early in the fall can gather enough solar energy to produce such dependably heavy crops of nuts. There’s something about black walnuts that defies reason. Gray squirrels in the winter often expend more energy excavating and shelling black walnuts than they get from the meat inside, according to the authoritative North American Tree Squirrels.

Currently, the squirrels are hard at work husking and burying, leaving little piles of walnut husks all over the farm. But much as the squirrels love them, for most humans black walnuts are more of an acquired taste. I find their pungency makes them better as a condiment than a main ingredient in most stews and pasta sauces. These days, I must admit we buy them pre-shelled and chopped fine from a local Amish store, which sells them so cheaply that it wouldn’t make sense to husk and shell them ourselves unless we valued our labor at only fifty cents an hour. But when I was a kid — and earning a 25-cent allowance a week — shelling walnuts was a yearly chore that I came to dread. The shells must be cracked open with a sledge hammer, and then one has to sift slowly through the meat to pick out small pieces of shell, which are hard enough to break a tooth on. And the husks quickly stain one’s hands a rich yellow-brown that can last up to a week. You can imagine the kind of teasing I came in for from my schoolmates: “Hey, Bonta! Did you’ns run out of toilet paper?” Har har.

Black walnut wood is famously dark, close-grained and beautiful, and farmers used to plant the slow-growing trees as an inheritance for their grandchildren. But they aren’t necessarily the best choice for landscaping, because their roots release a chemical that’s toxic to many other woody and herbacecous plants. Nevertheless, my mother says she’s tempted to write an essay for one of the birding magazines on black walnuts as an ideal yard tree for birders. How many other trees are virtually leafless for both spring and fall migrations? We eat supper out on the front porch whenever the weather permits, and Mom usually has her binoculars at the ready. Lately she’s been able to watch large numbers of black-throated green warblers flitting through the yard while we eat — all the while the walnuts are going bam on the flat roof above us. “If you want to see the birds, plant black walnuts!” she enthuses. And digging for the nuts keeps the squirrels away from the birdfeeders in the winter, too, to some extent. Unlike many birders, we don’t have to spend our winters at war with the squirrels.

*

There’s almost always a squirrel or two residing in our barn, which also has a few black walnut trees adjoining it. If you know where to look, you can find middens of empty walnuts that have been eviscerated by strong rodent teeth scooping out each hemisphere. These make excellent but thoroughly unpredictable projectiles, owing to their odd shapes. When we were kids, we used to turn the upstairs of the barn into a battlefield. Low walls separated the two hay mows from the central threshing floor, and we crouched behind them and hurled the squirrel-chewed walnuts back and forth at each other until most of our ammunition was spent. Then it was time to dash out onto the threshing floor and gather up as many fallen walnuts as we could before the fusillade became too heavy, using trash can lids as shields. The walnuts weren’t quite big enough to leave bruises, but they definitely stung.

Eventually the supply would run out entirely as walnuts disappeared into a thousand odd corners. Decades later we’re still finding them nestled behind stacks of old doors or at the bottom of dusty milk jars. I pick them up and remember for a few moments the violence my brothers and I used to perpetrate on each other, even without television or video games to show us how. I remember the constant apprehension we felt, growing up during the Cold War, that someday soon this round world would be blown open by a nuclear confrontation. Even then we understood that were no far corners to hide in; for better or worse, we were all in this together.

*

If it weren’t for Burma, I might not be here. My parents were both students at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, and they first met at Burma-Bucknell Weekend in 1960. Bucknell had been founded as a Baptist university in the 1850s, and owing I believe to missionary contacts, was the first American university to accept Burmese students, within a year or two of its founding. In the century that followed, it remained the preeminent destination for Burmese students studying abroad, including, when my parents were there, a handful of saffron-robed Buddhist monks. Burma-Bucknell Weekend was an annual event attended by Burmese exchange students from all over the eastern U.S., and was also one of the biggest events of Bucknell’s social calendar. American students volunteered to act as guides for visiting Burmese, and that’s how my parents met: they were the last two volunteers left waiting for their charges. One of them struck up a conversation, and they’ve been talking ever since.

By 1961, they were — in the parlance of the day — going steady. Once again they had both volunteered for Burma-Bucknell Weekend, and were in the banquet hall when the Burmese ambassador to the U.S. suddenly turned pale, got up and left. Someone stood up and announced that a military coup had been attempted. The Burmese reacted with shock and horror, and the banquet quickly dissolved into knots of agitated discussion. Worried about their families, I suppose, most of the Burmese students returned to their home institutions in the following days. A few months later, another coup occurred, and Burma has been under military rule ever since. “We’ve always assumed that most of the students we knew were killed,” my mother says. Burma-Bucknell Weekend was no more.

*

So many buried disasters
built squarely,
their cities were walls
underfoot or climbing.

My feeling for you
goes out and returns,
even the shot from a rifle
falls in an arc at last.

So many boxes; the windows
don’t break soon enough,
and the doors never fail to shut.

(from The Owl in the Mask of the Dreamer: Collected Poems by John Haines)

When I was in Honduras back in 1996 for my brother’s wedding, I remember one day in the market how a military helicopter flew low overhead, and I realized I was the only one who wasn’t cowering.

Ten years earlier, I spent a semester in Taiwan when it was still under martial law. We foreigners habituated a couple of bars that operated illegally, in defiance of the law against gatherings of more than a dozen (?) unrelated people. I remember when the mafia started showing up and occupying tables in the corner, how all us Yanks, Aussies and Kiwis treated it as a big joke. Why were the Taiwanese owners so frightened? Couldn’t they see that these would-be gangsters had come straight from central casting?

*

The houseplants sit awkwardly in the garden,
like tourists at some raffish foreign port.

A gust of wind is enough to tip them over
in their ceramic pots.

It rains,
& they hardly know how to drip.

Insects avoid their glossy, odorless leaves.

After dark, under the stars,
they are the only things still shining.

They send up flower stalks
one week before the frost.

noticePlease do not feed the rocks. They can lose their fear of human beings and become dangerous. Yes, I know they look cute and cuddly, but they are wild creatures, not pet rocks. And if you feed one rock today, there will be ten rocks waiting to be fed tomorrow. It may seem as if you’re doing a good thing, but it’s not healthy for rocks to become dependent on human handouts. They are not like birds, who can simply fly away to another bird feeder when you tire of them.

*

falling rockI’m sure you’ve all seen the signs warning motorists about falling rocks ahead. Have you ever wondered how the highway department, which needs help just to get across the street, can predict the future so accurately? The answer is, these rocks have fallen before. They’re repeat offenders. But rather than get tough on them and lock them away, where tougher criminals have been known to actually break rocks to pass the time, we continue to let them terrorize our nation’s highways. This permissive, rocks-will-be-rocks mentality is emblematic of a culture of tolerance run amok. Today it’s falling rocks, but tomorrow it may be legalized necro-bestial butt sex. You can say “it’s gravity’s fault” all you want, but explaining behavior isn’t the same as excusing it. Plenty of other rocks grew up in the same circumstances, but somehow they managed to avoid the temptations of gravity and become solid, moss-gathering citizens.

*

Do Not Touch RockAre you a rock addict? It’s never too late to quit and turn to the true Rock, who is ourlordandsaviorjesuschristamen. Some people will tell you that once the crack starts, falling is inevitable, and then nobody will want you. But the rejected stoner is to be the cornerstone of the temple, says the Bible. Peter means “rock” and Saint Peter guards the pearly gates, and once you penetrate that you’re pretty much free to rock in the bosom of Abraham, as I understand it. So Rock is a touchstone of sorts, only you mustn’t touch it if you can possibly help it, because it will lead you into sin and hellfire instead of into the arms of ourlordandsaviorjesuschristamen.

mast

I haven’t been in much of a mood for writing this past week. But when I took my camera out for a walk yesterday afternoon, everything I looked at reminded me of pen marks on paper, beginning with the mast where the electric wires connect to my house in swirly Gothic serifs.

aspens

The clear air made for sharp contrasts. A runic pair of aspen trunks at the edge of the woods stood out as clearly against the dark background as any light font on a stylishly dark webpage. (Click on photos to view at larger sizes.)

smartweed

What does it mean to see the world not merely as something created — a work of art — but as text? The origins of most writing systems are closely linked to divination, I believe: the world itself was read long before humans devised their own glyphs. And as phenomenologist David Abram noted in The Spell of the Sensuous, reading connects us to a form of absorption virtually indistinguishable from a shamanic trance.

cursive cattails

How to pronounce them, these new letters hidden in the cattails? The wind has one idea, and the wren another.

In the bottom corner of the field I found some wild mint, which I picked, brought home, and made tea out of. I found the mint because I stopped to admire a garden spider’s web. She too had correctly read the tea leaves, though what they said to her wasn’t tea but flowers — and insect pollinators. And sure enough, the purple blooms were abuzz.

vernal pond

Much as I want to find significance in the world, I don’t want to limit it to a single interpretation. This is where poets and omen-readers part company. The former insist on retaining a large element of mystery and nuance — even out-right confusion. In the same way that the perception of music depends upon the recognition of noise, the part of the world that eludes easy interpretation brings the rest into sharp relief: for every figure there must be a ground. Science now treats DNA as a kind of programming language, but so-called junk DNA accounts for up to 90 percent of a genetic sequence. I don’t know if that’s directly analogous or not, but I’m a poet, so I’ll just throw it out there.

cinnamon ferns 1

Genetic code and computer languages should serve to remind us, though, that language doesn’t simply mean; it transforms. This is the point that academic disquisitions on hermeneutics so often miss. We read for the same reason that our Paleolithic ancestors went into shamanic trances: to feel ourselves a part of a larger whole. The rightness that one senses in natural surroundings — even in a badly damaged ecosystem — is far more than a matter of interpretation. It is our body remembering how to listen.

The tea was delicious. And I think my dry spell is almost over.

Driving up the mountain after dark, at the edge of the cone of light one catches fleeting glimpses of pale fungi that might also be faces, shadows shaped like bodies, the upraised arms of trees deciding to hold back at the last moment. Small white moths weave drunkenly across the road in front of us, and once in a while, the sleek translucent skin of a bat’s wing dips into view. Lumpy shadows in the road must be approached with caution: sometimes they belong to a fat toad that must be herded off to the side, yellow eyes blinking much too slowly for a highway warning sign. A long silvery creature leaps out of the left-hand track and clears the bank in two bounds, and too late I realize it couldn’t possibly have been a squirrel. We know so little about some of our neighbors here. Riding in the passenger seat, I roll the window down and turn my face toward the darkness where the forest I knew as a child — a forest without gypsy moth caterpillars, hemlock wooly adelgids, barberry, stiltgrass, ailanthus — retreats a little farther every day.

*

Last Sunday, I walked up the road right at dusk. The hollow was full of the wicka wicka calls of wood thrushes — a migrant flock must’ve stopped here for the night. Another two or three thrushes flew up at every bend, and I kept hoping one of them would sing.

Some birds do sing on migration; on recent mornings I’ve heard phoebes, a common yellowthroat, and a couple of back-throated green warblers. Usually they’ve been flying all night, and touch down at dawn for a few hours of foraging in the company of local birds. Some haunt the surfaces of leaves, gleaning insects, while others flutter below the leaves, gleaning the hidden fruit. Many species of warblers have molted out of their distinctive breeding plumage in favor of a generic yellowish green — the bane of serious birders, who moan about the confusing fall warblers. But I imagine the duller colors are designed to give them better camouflage in the tropics, where they spend the greater part of every year darting through the underbrush and emitting sounds that few of us northerners would recognize.

*

sander

I have been taking down the living room floor, going back and forth with a short, heavy, and very loud dancing partner: a Silver Line sanding machine, fitted with a Baldor industrial motor that blew a couple of fuses yesterday morning before I plugged it into another circuit. The floor, which had been painted in a patchwork of colors and covered most recently by a tattered green carpet, is very soft and rough, and I’m guessing it’s hemlock. A pine floor would be much more desirable for refinishing purposes, but part of me wants it to be hemlock, milled from trees that grew right here on the mountain, perhaps. In a few more years, all the mature hemlocks in the hollow will be dead, due to the woolly adelgid invasion, so the floor could serve as a memorial of sorts. It’s fitting, I suppose, because the all-but-vanished American chestnut is probably responsible for much of the exterior planking. This 150-year-old house is becoming haunted in a way few people would expect.
__________

Don’t forget to submit tree-reated links to the Festival of the Trees. The deadline for the next edition, in trees, if you please, is September 28. Email submission to festival (dot) trees (at) gmail (dot) com, or use the handy blog carnival submission form.

black gum leaves

Poets are popularly supposed to have their heads in the clouds, but not me. Some days, I rarely look up. Why bother? There’s so much to see right at my feet.

glass 2

Even still, I can’t avoid the occasional view of the clouds. I’m not sure what this shard of glass is doing in the middle of a well-used trail. I had a bit of a Chicken Little moment before I figured out what the hell it was.

puffballs

Some people are obsessed with the idea of a sky-father watching over them. But the ground has eyes, too. Finding these puffballs right after the shard of glass, I’m reminded of the Aztec kenning for the earth: mirror that smokes.

leaf nut

Views of autumn foliage from a moving car quickly grow tiresome. It’s much more rewarding to do your leaf-peeping one leaf at a time, I find. And again, the ground is the best place to look — you don’t need binoculars.

birch leaf with fly

With the temperature in the mid-50s, every pool of sunlight has its sunbathing flies. I almost expect to see them rubbing their front legs together to get warm.

muddy spring

A little farther along the trail, I find another piece of misplaced sky: a patch of mud from an almost dried-up spring shining blue from animal excrement. A Google search of “blue mud” turns up the idiomatic phrase “full of blue mud,” meaning “full of shit.”

tiny cup fungi

A log-end down by the stream bristles with white polypores. But when I bend close, it’s these pinhead-sized cup fungi that catch my eye instead. They remind me of spider mites, seemingly trying to compensate for their diminutive size by being as red as possible.

water strider

The stream has been reduced in many places to a series of large puddles. The only ripples on the surface come when the water strider changes position, which it does twice a minute or so. I watch it for a while, fascinated as always by the saucer-shaped dimples under its feet, like a literal demonstration of Einstein’s discovery that gravity bends space.

white wood asters and white pine

On the way back up the road, I’m charmed by the view of a white wood aster against a large pine tree. Whatever the rest of the tree might be doing against the sky almost doesn’t matter. I’ll have all winter to look at things like that.

Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828) is generally counted as one of the four greatest haiku poets, along with Basho, Buson and Shiki. Issa was a devout, if irreverent, Buddhist of the True Pure Land sect whose pen-name means “one cup of tea.” His haiku are extremely down-to-earth, making ample use of vernacular speech and often taking insects or other invertebrates for their subject matter. He wrote at least fifteen haiku about excrement and excretory functions, in which I believe he was not only riffing on the Buddhist doctrine about the essential oneness of nirvana and samsara, but also trying to challenge traditional Japanese concepts of beauty and purity. Japan is a purity-obsessed culture, in which cleanliness and beauty are closely linked. Foreign visitors to Japan are often surprised to discover that, in this otherwise extremely clean and tidy country, public restrooms, especially in train stations, can be unspeakably filthy. Since such places are considered inherently impure, little effort is expended to keep them clean. But to Issa, any place where people or animals pause to take a shit seems worthy of a second look. After all, anything that breaks us loose from our ordinary mental habits might lead to rebirth in the Pure Land.

For a more comprehensive sample of Issa’s work, see David G. Lanoue’s massive online archive (to which I am indebted for the Japanese texts below). The following are my own translations.

*

ta no hito no kasa ni hako shite kaeru kari

The wild geese take wing
from the flooded fields,
shitting on the farmers’ hats.

*

sôjô ga no-guso asobasu higasa kana

In the middle of the field,
the high priest takes a shit —
that parasol.

*

no setchin no ushiro wo kakou yanagi kana

An impromptu outhouse,
screening bare asses from view:
the lone willow.

*

musashi no ya no-guso no togi ni naku hibari

On Musashi Plain,
I listened to the song of a skylark
while I took a shit.

*

nichi-nichi no kuso darake nari hana no yama

The mountain in cherry blossom time:
each day a deeper layer
of excrement.

*

kado-gado ni aoshi kaiko no kuso no yama

At every gate,
a blue-green mountain
of silkworm frass.

*

uguisu ya kuso shi nagara mo hokkekyô

The bush warbler
intones the Lotus Sutra
even as it shits.

*

kasugano ya dagashi ni majiru shika no kuso

In Kasuga Field, between the temples,
cheap candy mingles
with the deer pellets.

*

hatsu yuki ya furi ni mo kakurenu inu no kuso

First snow:
not even enough to hide
all the dogshit.