In the month of small flies and the sharp & bitter leaves of wild mustard, a hair fell from heaven & flipped & spun & turned by stages into the first hornbeam tree. But not right away: for a time it slipped in & out of small clearings, walking with a bit of a limp. The people at that time were living in lean-tos made from hemlock boughs & old, yellowed newpapers. Easy come, easy go, they used to whisper whenever a hard rain brought the roof down on their heads. Half-forgetful of his origins, the old man took to carrying stones from the creek, mixing grayish mud with sand. He had fallen in love with the song of a sparrow no one had ever noticed before, and had decided to devote the rest of his life to its study. Meanwhile, pink lady’s slipper orchids in mossy thickets exposed themselves to deluded bees. Black cherries bloomed with a scent as cloying as prom queens. Wherever one stepped, something hopped out of the way & looked back over its shoulder with a reproachful gaze. One heard the peepers down by the pond, the toads around the spring & up on the hill the solitary tree frogs, trilling as if it meant something.

Around this time somebody noticed that none of the calendars showed the days of the week the way they always had. It was as if a long-ago ramp festival-cum-revival meeting took off like a hundred helicopters and swept every last Monday into the forgotten corners where only children playing hide-and-seek ever go. Unless, in fact, the calendars had simply begun to look a great deal like weathered boulders, all decked out in clubmoss and rock tripe. The old man’s skinny arms grew hard as antlers, and his skin turned gray because he shunned direct sunlight. The sparrow – if that’s what it was – had taken to nesting behind his left ear, because it was warm there & out of the wind. There was an almost inaudible rhythm, a pulse that could’ve been the sound of the surf or a woodpecker thinking about his next composition.

Ultimately, the decision to put down roots is more than mere decision, said the hornbeam tree as its nondescript buds unfurled nondescript leaves. We would all do well to heed such a sense of urgency more wordless than love. A true spirit guide never says what you want to hear, & sooner or later leaves you on the lurch. That night, they say, will be a dark one. But is it too much to ask for, this feeling of intimate involvement in the unfolding of others’ destinies? You wake up from a dream in which the only two women you have ever loved have found each other, lose themselves like mirrors turned face to face with nothing, not a speck of dust to come between them: that bottomless ocean.

You wake up & it’s all true, tears of joy – if that’s the word – run down your cheeks. And you remember how every hundred years a mischievous bodhisattva brushes the side of the mountain with a fly whisk, anticipating its ultimate disintegration into the everythingness of Nevermind. We might well expect a different kind of measure to drive the mountain’s own slow symphonies.

The old man’s unfinished house should serve in the meantime – not that anyone needs very much where founding myths are concerned. A sharp digging stick & the ears of a night watchman, little else. But this day that used to be a day of rest has brought the finest weather we’ve seen in a month of Sundays. There’s no time, no time for this foolishness! The pancakes will be on in two minutes!

Submitted for the Ecotone Wiki topic, “Time and Place”

Last night I went for a walk around 10:00, and kept pausing to notice how the branches of various trees seemed to stretch caressing or imploring arms toward the second-quarter moon. A very thin cloud cover meant that the moon was virtually alone in the sky – Venus was just setting behind the ridge – and there were no shadows. I stood on the little wooden bridge down at the forks and listened to the stream for a few minutes, enjoying as always the braiding together of so many watery voices.

When I got back to the house, emerging from the trees I saw for the first time the dark hoop of the moon’s halo. It was difficult to escape the impression of a monstrous celestial eye. The pupil was small and bleary-yellow; it was almost unsettling. I found myself unconsciously reaching for my fly. What do I do with this? Oh, right – time for another leak.

Female readers might find this a little hard to understand, but most of us men have a deeply instinctual response to the threatening, the awe-inspiring or the liminal: we mark territory. (Ideally while whistling, or pondering baseball statistics.) I suppose I could have mooned the moon, but that would’ve made me feel utterly ridiculous. Well, I was ridiculous, of course – but that’s simply an existential condition. I pee, therefore I am. Or am I?

translation of “No existe el hombre,” by Vicente Aleixandre

Only the moon guesses the truth.
And it’s that man doesn’t exist.

The moon gropes its way across the plains, fords the rivers,
penetrates the woods.
It fleshes out the still warm mountains,
runs into the heat from erect cities.
It forges a shadow, slays a dark corner,
drowns in shimmering roses
the mystery of caves where no scent can be found.

The moon keeps moving, seeing, singing, going on and on without a pause.
A sea is not a mattress where the body of a man can stretch out all by itself.
A sea isn’t a shroud for an otherwise shining death.
The moon keeps going; it soaks, sinks into, gullies out the beaches.
It sets the calm green murmurs to rocking crazily.
The standing carcass of a man sways for a moment, wavers,
lurches forward – green – stays put – stiff.
The moon takes note of its broken-down arms,
its disapproving glare at a couple of cuddling fish.
The moon sets fire to sunken cities where one can still hear
(how enchanting!) the clear bells,
where the last echoes of the surf still ripple over sexless breasts,
over soft breasts some octopus has worshipped.

But the moon stays forever pure and dry.
It comes from a sea that remains forever a box,
a block whose limits no one, no one can measure,
a sea that isn’t a hunk of rock glowing on top of a mountain.

The moon comes out and chases what once had been a skeleton,
what once had been the blood vessels of a human being,
once had been its resonant blood, its tuneful jail,
its distinct waist that splits life in two,
or its light head bobbing on the breeze, facing east.

But man doesn’t exist.
Never has existed, never.
But man doesn’t live, just as the day doesn’t live.
But the moon makes up his furious metals.

I have always loved this poem, one of several by Aleixandre that I’ve almost memorized despite my very imperfect Spanish. However, I have always relied on the crutch of Lewis Hyde’s translation (in the bilingual A Longing for the Light: Selected Poems of Vicente Aleixandre, Harper & Row, 1979). Only this morning, when I decided to try and come up with my own version, pondering every word with the help of my trusty Spanish-English dictionary, did I discover just how inadequate Hyde’s translation really is. What seems to have happened is that Hyde assumes more randomness in choice of words and images than the poem in fact possesses – an understandable error for a translator of a surrealist poet, to be sure, but I have always felt Aleixandre to be among the most logical of surrealists. For example, Hyde’s version doesn’t really bring out what seemed to me to be fairly obvious sexual imagery in the second stanza. At one level, this is a song of sex and death, like so many poems from that brilliant generation that came of age around the time of the Spanish Civil War; the moon is like a witness or an accessory to a crime whose face we scrutinize for signs about what really happened.

There were some delightful surprises: “stiff,” which translates “inmóvil,” also of course means “corpse” or “person” (as in “working stiff”) – precisely the right nuance for an English version, I thought. The image of a block of immeasurable dimensions evokes, intentionally or not, the Daoist image of the uncarved block that symbolizes original purity. I also wonder why Hyde chose to translate “mar” as “ocean” throughout, considering that the moon has so-called seas, but not oceans.

I welcome corrections and suggestions for improvement. I’ve no great ego wrapped up in this. You can find the original Spanish on the web. Click on “escuchar la poema” to listen to a recording of Aleixandre himself reading the poem. (His reading doesn’t get very animated until the next-to-last stanza.)

I don’t want to analyze this poem any more than I’ve done already, but it does occur to me all of a sudden that my mission here at Via Negativa is to make unknowability as comprehensible as possible. Does that make any sense? I ask you!

Oops, gotta go take a leak . . .

I said: No earth, no plow.
No beaten sword to sway hip-
deep in some
dark wound. Forget
the slit where the rolling
coulter rides. Surely,
she asked, you will admit
the moon’s disc?
But I was still uneasy,
thinking, only if
the values were reversed.
Shining field, breast
of smooth obsidian.

The common words
are worse than inadequate:
they’re wrong. The male parts
scatter pollen; seeds
are eggs that have been – what?
Not fertilized, but transformed.
Shining field of the body,
opaque mirror in which
both sexes preen.
If you need
a fable, I said,
try this: You are
the storm
my tree bends
against. Graceful
as a twister, moving
ladder to let the fanatic
angels down
& down. Ground
or figure, earth
or firmament?
Each yields to each,
gets stronger by giving
way: we are water, no less.
The words float at first
& then dissolve.
Voices merge,
eddy, plunge, seek
the level. All of it
a prelude to silence,
the tantalizing peaks
suspended upside-down
in – ah – this
clear lake.

We are all next. — Lucille Clifton

The first word reinvents the world – and vice versa.

This never fails to astonish me, how we cannot think apart from the blossoming shadbush & the grouse exploding from cover.

The ancient analogy between word & seed still seems to hold. What happens to turn a cry into a carrier of specific import? An egg gains direction without & differentiation within. To set seed is to gain polarity, to separate up from down & one wing from the other. (You can call them cotyledons if you like.)

Thus, the very first word is next.

He needs walking the way a carpenter needs a hammer and wood, but the walks are growing shorter.
“It’s terribly hard,” his wife Kitty observes.
“So frustrating. He thinks best when his legs are moving. He believes to have an idea, it’s got to come from something tangible, something he is a part of, something he sees.”

Thanks to my brother Steve for alerting me to this great portrait of the Welsh poet Leslie Norris, a long-time resident of Orem, Utah. I’m ashamed to admit I had nothing on my shelf by Norris – had never even read him, in fact. A visit to my favorite local used bookstore yesterday remedied this situation, though the book I picked up – Walking the White Fields: Poems 1967-1980 – is too brief, besides being two decades behind in its selection. Reading through it this morning, I was reminded most strongly of the Pennsylvania poet Harry Humes. There’s the same love of winter themes, the vision of the wild within the pastoral/domestic, the understated sense of dramatic occasion.

So for Earth Day, here’s a Norris poem about megaliths, which I’ll follow with one of Paul Zweig’s deathbed poems (from Selected and Last Poems, Wesleyan, 1989) on a similar theme.

by Leslie Norris

The wind
Over my shoulder
Blows from the cold of time.

It has
Shaped the hill,
It has honed the rock outcrops

With the
Granules of its
Rasping. When the old ones

Were born
They dropped in dark-
ness, like sheep, and hot animals

Howled for
The afterbirths.
I watched the great stones of

Faith they
Moved in the flickering
Mountains of their nameless

Lives, and
See once more the
Points of adjusted rock, taller

Than any
Man who will ever
Stand where I stand, lifting their hope

In still,
Huge stone, pointed
To the flying wind. The sea ebbs again,

And round
The endless brevity
Of the seasons the old men’s cromlech

Its hard shadows.
The four great stones, elate and springing,

And the
Smaller stones, big
As a man, leaning in, supporting.


by Paul Zweig

White furrow on the sky for the seed that will not grow,
The laborious skywriting, like a child
Tracing his name in stabbing lines of letters:
Graffiti, pyramid, stone cross, footprint, haystack;
Or the farmer wielding the shoulder-bone of an ox,
Who first shoveled up the earth and planted
Barley, half-wild wheat; who let fall the seed
Of his cock, and sucked the black wound
Where the earth bled food. And the shell-heaps;
The fifty-ton stones turned on end;
The mounds to keep the dead from getting loose:
All those acts to keep life from getting out of hand,
The dead shells of deeds forming another kind of life.
The 120-foot-high earthen nipple of Silsbery
Took a hundred years to erect out of chalk blocks,
Rubble, and a fine skin of earth.
What a job for a handful of shepherds
Who also ploughed the soil in their season:
A laborious outcry, meaning here! Or a curse.
Curse the intractable earth, death, blindness, rotten teeth,
Arthritis, dead babies; curse winter, curse summer!
Can you hear me, heaven? Am I making enough noise
For you? Suck on this teat of dust and rock.
I’m dying down here, and I want you to hear
The sound of it. It is called scream in the night,
It is called earth tit and Stone Henge,
It is called language,
It is called the sleeplessness of the gods.

Right before I woke up
I was having the time of my life.
One for the cutworm & one for the crow,
I told the bartender.


The sky got light without me.
I was in the shower, & then
I had a thought that hurt
& I had to suck on it for awhile.
Four years after my last cigarette
& I’m still a smoker.


All the while I sip my coffee
a tom turkey up on the ridge
recites with great enthusiasm
from the endless list of his virtues.


It’s cold. The sun is trying to shine
through the bare April trees.
The high ceiling of clouds
begins to thin; dim
shadows form. But
the winter wren couldn’t sound
more delighted with
the upturned butternut tree
above the creek, the grotto
where its roots had been.
Troglodytes troglodytes, how
you dance! Bob & bow
& pump the tiny teapot of your body
up & down. Then let
the song spill out: one half
a rush of mountain air, the other
a trickle under the rocks, silver & thin
like an exposed root. I lean
breathless over the porch railing.
Friend, I murmur, spelunker,
little poet, you got it right.


I spotted something I can’t describe.
I’m not even sure I saw
what I think I saw.
But I remember what had been
rattling around in my head
at that very moment:
from the Book of Exodus, that phrase
the bone of the day.


O.K., snakes. All in a ball. The common eastern garter snake. You know what it looks like, right? Only, picture twelve of them (as it turned out), tying & retying an endless knot. There’s one at the center that’s larger than all the others; we’ll assume she’s female. Only she remains calm & relatively still. The others writhe and enwreath her, sliding, trembling, intertwining yellow stripes & green & bluish brown & the pale bellies.

We stood watching as this thing, this mass of snakes rolled slowly down the lawn, fell apart, reformed. It made us dizzy to try & count the heads. Tongues in constant flicker: what an elixir must that pheromone be, we thought, almost jealous, noting no sign of aggression among all those squirming males. Once we saw the female stretch her jaws wide in an apparent yawn.

It was late morning. The sun by this time had broken through the clouds & the temperature had risen from the 20s to nearly 60 degrees Fahrenheit. There was still a bit of shiver in the breeze. It seemed to me as if the whole air trembled, & the titles of books from my poetry collection began to haunt my tongue: The Arrangement of Space. Figures of Speech. The Laws of Falling Bodies.* I thought of clocks and Eden and the fabled ouroborus, the Appalachian hoop snake that’s said to take its tail between its teeth & roll down hills.

At length the female made a break for it, sliding smoothly out & racing off toward the stream. She managed to lose all but one who, perhaps according to plan, caught up with her in a little pit outside the wind. There they made what seemed at last to be the definitive braid. The lawn was full of snakes gliding in all directions, their little pink flames trying to pick up the scent. First two, then three others found the couple & insinuated themselves into the braid as best they could. Another tangle formed, but this time two heads remained still, the smaller male’s resting behind the larger female’s, the tongues quiet in their mouths. For close to an hour those two pairs of nearly sightless eyes stayed pointed in the same direction, gazing toward the maple tree. But who knows what they really saw? A world of pure sensation, I suppose. I remember the sound of Japanese temple bells: not a clang – far from it! But a low & resonant boom you hear with your entire body & it just goes on and on until the hills soak it up & gradually the day returns to its dailiness, with only some minor, barely perceptible shift from what it had been.


Clutch, muse: hold
this tremolo note. Sing
of the cargo cult, the blazing
egg-shaped sun, the long
parturition. Multiple
paternity is common
says the field guide, though
each male deposits a so-called
copulatory plug. The wetter
the summer, it seems,
the larger the clutch.
Dozens of young are possible.
In goldenrod time
the shells will dissolve inside
her oviduct &
the bright-striped
birthlings pass whole
through their mother’s cloaca
& into another dark crack
in the earth or under a rock.
They ball together then, reform
the ball they formed in her body,
ontogeny recapitulating erogeny:
oh beautiful cluster
fuck, oh holy clutch.

*The authors are Martha Collins, Enrique Linh and Kate Light, respectively.

Incidentally, this all happened last Wednesday; I’ve been brooding on it since then.

(Cue up Alan Hovhaness)

The search for universal themes in human psychology and culture tends to focus either on the most basic elements (sex, security) or the most abstract (hero-worship, fear of death). But I wonder if we wouldn’t do better to look at how humans relate to the landscape? Seeing how people of different times and places have related to forests or to mountains, for example, seems to reveal more similarities than differences. But even if this were not the case, the exercise strikes me as much more worthwhile than cross-cultural comparisons that focus on purely human realities. Hell, the latter approach probably does violence to most indigenous ways of understanding, according to which humans are far from the only sentient beings.

All this is simply by way of introducing a couple of translations from the classical Chinese. Poems celebrating cosmic mountains aren’t hard to find in the Chinese tradition. Both Li Bo and Du Fu – revered as the two greatest Chinese poets of all time – wrote poems in which mountains teach us how to see. In Du Fu’s poem, the first four lines of the second stanza of my translation (lines 5 and 6 in the original) have given scholars headaches for centuries. A totally unprecedented expression is, in the Chinese tradition, a very rare thing. Surely the poet couldn’t have meant what he wrote?

Gazing at Tai Shan
by Du Fu (712-770 CE)

This mountain of mountains – how
to put it in words?
Throughout Qi and Lu, a blue
that never fades. The Maker fills it
with power, unearthly beauty.
North face, south face divide
the dark from the dawn.

Heaving lungs
give birth to layered clouds,
straining eyes join the birds
returning to the peak.
Someday I swear I’ll climb
clear to the summit,
watch all other mountains
shrink into
a single


Jing Ting Mountain, Sitting Alone
by Li Bo (701-762)

Flocks of birds climb out of sight.

The single cloud journeys on alone.

Absorbed in each other’s gaze, never tiring,

now there’s nothing left but Jing Ting Mountain!

The following poem is in the expected voice of the 50 year-old Afghan woman Kairulnisah, from the farming village of Haji Bai Nazar. My source is a New York Times story by Carlotta Gall, archived at Common Dreams. Suggestions for improvement are, as always, welcome.


Two years after the fact & they pretend
we’re heroes. The infidels crowd around
waving microphones, snapping pictures.
Why weren’t we afraid, they want to know.

My son, 18 now & full of fight, tells them
we just didn’t understand the danger. Says
only men know war. But when we saw
those children die, we knew enough.
You can’t tell boys anything.
As long as those bright plastic toys
littered our yards and streets, it was clear
no mother’s son would be safe.

My husband tells the foreigners how
when the bombs were falling
I climbed up on the roof and shook
my fist at the American jets.
I wanted the pilots to see me, a mother
just like their own. I wanted to show them
where real fighters come from.
Only God can scare me.

Sometimes when we picked up the yellow cans
we could feel something shift inside.
As gingerly as we carried them,
they vibrated until our arms grew numb.
Sometimes they turned too hot to touch
and we had to put them in water.
Sometimes they made little noises
like the claws of rats. Could anyone
but a mother know how to carry
something so delicate?

Nasreen was the first to try it,
but she knows my heart.
We’ve been neighbors all our lives. So
that night we started cleaning them up.
Some lay half-buried in the dirt as if
they’d been dropped by a forgetful hen.
One by one we took them out to the ravine
and nestled them gently in a bed of straw
behind an old wall. Each needed
a little space. When the bed was full
we’d duck around the corner of the wall
& toss a match.

The explosions woke the village
and all the men came running
with guns at the ready. Come on
and lend a hand, we said, but they refused.
My husband was frantic, threatened me
with the word of the Prophet: no honor
to a suicide. I am a woman, what do I care
about honor? You’ll go to hell, he wept.

The bombs burned with a smell far worse
than rotten eggs. Nasreen must’ve held
her breath, but I got sick – a nine-
day illness. I lay on the roof
thinking my own thoughts. Foreigner,
you can tell the world: the Americans
are children. When I die & where
I go is up to God. Only a little boy
or an unbeliever should marvel
at something so plain.

The art museum’s smallest room
is filled with miniature landscapes.
We stop in front of each,
& my 8-year-old niece waits for me
to hoist her up by the armpits
for a five-second look.


I learn a new word from the exhibit’s title: purlieu. “A frequently visited place, an outlying district,” says Merriam-Webster’s New Collegiate. In the plural, “Confines, bounds” as well as “Neighborhood, environs.” From the French, “to go through,” it came into use in the Middle Ages, when it had a fairly specific denotation: “ME purlewe land severed from an English royal forest by perambulation.”


Later, she watches from
the back seat of the car as
a ten-dollar bill change hands. Giggles.
“They hold the money
as if it were fragile!
she whispers in my ear.


Eva and I go for a ramble in the new snow, me with the big plastic saucer under my arm. She discovers tracking: “If you follow an animal’s tracks, you can tell where it went!” But the squirrels elude pursuit on the ground for longer than the distance between two trees. Then it’s time to re-examine our own tracks. Walking forward, craning around to see what we would see if we were tracking ourselves. We’re detectives now, she decides.

She follows tracks to where they disappear in a hole or under a log, wants to begin excavating on the spot. I remember this fascination with burrows going back to when she was four, if not earlier. “What lives here?” was one of her first intelligible questions. Now more and more this question comes accompanied by a wish: to live there too. At any given charismatic opening in the woods: “This would be a great place for a kind of a house. Well, not with walls or anything. Just to sleep in. This summer we could camp here. We can bring blankets and make tea.”

We follow a deer trail through the woods, pause to inspect weasel and mouse trails. “How far is the spruce grove?” “We’re not heading for the spruce grove. In fact, we’re going in the opposite direction.” “Are we ever going to find these deer?” “Probably not. These prints were made before last night’s additional snow.”

So it seems animal tracks can’t be trusted to take you where you want to go. The chief detective looks for something else to investigate. Thirsty, makes a discovery: the snow right here doesn’t quite taste quite the same as the snow over there. Or so she says. We thread though the laurel to the woods road and make our way to the top of the field, stopping every ten feet to sample the snow.

“Can’t you taste the difference?” “Um, no. See, you lose your sense of taste when you grow up. That’s one of the great things about being a kid.” “This one tastes like cotton candy!” “I’ve never had cotton candy. What does it taste like?” “I don’t know. I’ve never had it either.”

At the edge of the field, a new wish: to walk without leaving any footprints. “What if you just ran really, really fast?” She tries it: no luck. I reason with her. “You saw all the squirrel tracks. Squirrels weigh less than a pound! Think about it – even the mice leave tracks. The only things that don’t are the ones with wings.”

At last, the spruce grove at the top of the field: the ultimate outdoor living room. Destination of countless picnic excursions with her Nanna. With me she plays tour guide, gets exasperated at my evident familiarity with the spot. Our footprints cross paths with a pair of turkey tracks, a lone coyote. We cut back into the field just soon enough to avoid the deer carcass, which neither of us mentions. “I love the view from up here,” she says. Ridge after ridge stretching away to the east.

Time to put the saucer to use. We go to the edge of the steepest hill and my heart sinks. I grew up with sleds you could steer; with the saucer, gravity has almost the only say over where you end up. But determined to cut a good trail I sit down in the thing and lie back, trusting in my outstretched legs to keep me pointed downhill. Bump bump bump, a half-turn and I’m at the bottom looking up. I shout something cheerful, trying hard to keep the shakiness out of my voice. On the brow of the hill a small red figure jumps up and down with glee.

I would’ve been terrified at her age, but I don’t tell her that. “Now hold on tight and be careful!” “Give me a push!” A quarter of my weight, she goes airborne at each bump. At the second one her hat flies off. Spinning around, going backwards or forwards, it’s one continuous shriek all the way down. Then here she comes charging back up the hill, half-unbuttoned coat flapping, stopping to examine the places where the saucer left the ground. “Did you see me flying?”


Snow in March
brings marvels:
a phoebe diving for snow fleas,
the track of a chipmunk,
a turkey vulture flapping its wings.

the bad penny
the wooden nickle & one
lousy dime
met up in
my pocket & tried
a trio gig

but as
you might expect
the penny kept returning
to the same tired riff
the nickle was dread-
fully flat
the dime couldn’t
keep time &
they all struggled
to make the changes

it’s sad
when these bit
players get big
without paying their dues

What happens in the meantime has nothing to do with us. The wide-eyed stories about angelic visitations are all beside the point, and here’s why. All day Tuesday the tundra swans streamed north, great “V”s each some fifty birds strong, with two, three, sometimes as many as four flocks strung out across the sky at the same time. You hear them first, high notes from a tuneless music of the soul, as if all the klezmer clarinets in the world had decided to start talking at the same time.

Hearing the first few distant notes you scan the sky, clear but for a scrim of cloud along the horizon. There! Bring the binoculars up: my god. Long white tireless wings going wft wft wft, outstretched necks tipped in a black you can’t quite see against the blue, bodies white, so white the contrast with the sky almost hurts the eyes. They’re rowing, you think. They’re singing as they go, like all good boatmen. Flotillas of kayaks in the sky’s unending lake.

They’ve spent the winter in the inland waterways of the mid-Atlantic coast and now the tundra is calling them from two thousand miles away. Get a map and draw a straight line between the huge impoundment at Middle Creek in southeastern Pennsylvania and Lake Erie: it’ll go right over our mountaintop farm. And when the swans go they all go together, lifting off from Middle Creek in a dizzying rush of thousands all at once, I’m told. Some spring I will have to go there with our birder friends who make the pilgrimage every year – not to watch so much as to listen. I want to hear how such liquid fluting gets transformed all of a sudden into a rhythmless symphony for brushes on still air.

I went for a walk in the starlight around 8:00 p.m., stood in the woods for a while and listened as the flocks kept going over, straining my eyes, focusing on one part of the sky to try and catch the blink of stars crossed by wings. A great-horned owl was booming from just over the ridge: odd juxtaposition, but of course in Nature there’s no such thing as dissonance (though no harmony, either, except in retrospect).

Wednesday morning when I sat outside at 5 a.m. the swans were still going over. I thought about the day ahead in which I would go off to a conference held by and for biologists and bureaucrats from the state and federal wildlife agencies. Long talks filled with acronyms and plastic words like develop, manage, enhance. Language like a cold fog. Power that points, projected toward horizons that can by definition never be reached. If we could only leap – just for a moment! – into the unimaginable waters of the mind of a swan! I am reminded of the title of a book I once looked at, on the history of Buddhism in America: How the White Swans Came to the Lake. Does Buddhism tell us anything useful about the minds of animals, I wonder? I think it merely repeats that old rumor, the one so many wildlife managers regard as the most dangerous heresy: that animal minds are no different from ours in their original clarity, their wildness.

So all night while we slept there were swans going over the house, way up over everything. This thought is beyond humbling. I think of some of what they have to cross in the course of their journey and it makes me weep, right there on the porch, clutching my coffee cup.


The evening before, during a lull in the music I had walked on up to the top of the ridge and looked at the lights for a while. It’s a farm valley; the lights are yard lights put up supposedly to discourage burglars and vandals. Over the past 10 years as the Amish have moved in these lights have dwindled, at the same time that the town on the other side of the ridge has installed street lights so bright the whole northern portion of the night sky is lost. The spreading darkness in this valley seems especially friendly to me because we’ve gotten to know these new neighbors better than we ever knew our old ones, whom we never had much reason to know because their only thought is cows. The Amish, by contrast, have dozens of different ventures going on at every farm. The ultimate conservatives, they are, paradoxically, among the most imaginative of farmers.

I can easily picture one of the maiden aunts
at the farm across the valley walking
back to her cottage from the main house
and hearing the swans. She pauses
long enough to wipe the last of the dish soap
from her hands onto her apron, smiling to
herself, not bothering to look up because
what’s to see? And after a moment
goes back to tell the others, who will also
want to come listen.

I will keep their names out of this, but
respect still permits I hope a sketch –
unadorned, of course – employing
only shades of black and navy blue
and saying nothing of the white strands
tucked primly under the bonnet.
The constellations all have names
in German. Venus would’ve already set
behind the horizon, which for them
is this very ridge where I stand, busy
with my embroidering.

This lady I’m telling you about keeps a store
stocked with wholegrains, kitchenware
and quilts, quilts. She and the others
have spent all winter at them: in March
they bulge from the shelves. But
her store has in addition a rack of books;
the books include field guides to the birds.
She knows plenty about swans, I’ll bet –
as much as anyone.

But about some things she knows a bit less,
and at times I suspect she feels that lack
as a sadness, maybe a hurt. Think of it:
even a radio is off-limits. Spring
comes unheralded except by signs
like this. What has she heard
in the course of her fifty years?
Her faith forbids all music made
by the too-clever hand of man.
Teenaged boys can run wild until
they get married and baptized – thus
some of the men may once
have corrupted their hearing
with instruments beyond the plain voice.

But for an Amish woman, standing outside
in early evening with her tired eyes
grateful for the darkness, pausing
for a long moment to be
alone with it, this
swan music must sound
like the purest praise.