A walk in the fog

What I love about language
is what I love about fog:
what comes between us and things
grants them their shine.

Mark Doty, “Fog Suite” (See V.N. Dec. 28, “Deeply Superficial”)

Too much happens to ever get it all down. The writer has a running bet with God that he can turn any base metals into gold. I will sacrifice my health and even my privacy; I will bare my soul to the world. Sometimes I even long for a device that would read my thoughts and automatically convert them into text. How many of us who blog wouldn’t jump at the chance to have a computer chip implanted in our brains? Something that would convert every verbalized thought into digital form for eventual download and editing.

Walking in the fog, I can’t help thinking about editing. As every Chinese landscape painter knows, there’s nothing like a little blank space in the middle of the canvas to make the romantic heart go pitter-pat. No wonder lovers feel as if they’re walking in a cloud. Without such selective vision, how could anyone fall in love?

The mountain sounds different in the fog. Nearby noises may be muffled or echo strangely; distant sounds may be amplified. Red-winged blackbirds fly over, invisible but for their calls. On the road to the Far Field, a pileated woodpecker lets me pass within a few feet of the snag where he beats out his baritone ostinato. I can hear two men talking in the valley, dogs and cars and quarry trucks, a ruffed grouse drumming off in the laurel. When I get back to the house the juvenile red-tailed hawk takes off from the vicinity of my front porch, setting off a chorus of alarm calls from all the gray squirrels in the vicinity. Although it’s 7:00 a.m., a screech owl is still trilling – an odd addition to the chorus of song sparrows, cardinals, bluebirds and juncos. A single blackbird seems to have alighted in a nearby treetop. The call of this most common of birds is unusual enough on a dry mountaintop to excite my admiration.

Things look different inside a cloud, too, and not just because of the loss of distance, the sudden drawing-near of the horizon. This morning, for example, I noticed that the distinction between vines and tree trunks had suddenly grown much more arbitrary. A tall skinny sapling can have as many crooks and bends as a wild grapevine. No longer even did they appear as different ways of reaching for the sky, since the sky was now here. My gaze was drawn to the pure form; the illusion of individual purpose had dissolved. It’s too early for spiders, but you know what fog can do to their webs, right? It felt like that: everything glistened. Touch one part and everything will vibrate.

In the dawn light, trees turned deep blue at a little distance. Up close, the trunks shone in a half-dozen shades of green and grayish blue, as lichens threw open all their doors and windows. The trail gleamed, a bright ribbon of yellow-green moss. I was reminded of descriptions of the jeweled buddhaverse of Amida, as in the Pure Land Sutra: “And on every side of these lotus ponds jeweled trees are growing, lovely and radiant with the seven precious gems: gold, silver, beryl, crystal, red pearl, diamond and coral. In the lotus ponds the lotuses grow: blue, bluish, with a blue radiance, blue to behold . . . “

This briefest of excerpts narrowly avoids the endless repetitions that make Buddhist scriptures so tedious to read. I remind myself that they were written for a largely illiterate audience, and were intended to be committed to memory. Absolute novelty is not as memorable as we may think. Indeed, the mind has difficulty even interpreting – let alone memorizing – things too far outside its experience. Thus for the supremely strange Pure Land, created to provide a short-cut to enlightenment for the non-intellectual and the illiterate, only a very repetitive description can permit its assimilation by the habit-bound imagination.

In Japanese, as in Chinese, the ancient Sanskrit invocation Namo Amitabha Buddha became an almost unintelligible spell, na-mu-a-mi-da-boots. Namu does sound like a Japanese verb, and is typically interpreted as such – “I invoke,” “I trust/depend upon,” or even “I become.” Given that verbs bring up the rear in ordinary Japanese sentences, however, the effect would be something like, “I become, Amida Buddha.” But at the same time, the whole phrase is thought of as Amida’s Name. Most Pure Land Buddhists repeat this mantra hundreds of thousands of times over the course of their lives. But theoretically, at least for members of the largest Japanese Pure Land sect, Jodoshinshu, it only takes one, completely heartfelt repetition of the spell to guarantee rebirth among the gem-trees and lotuses, where all ordinary impediments to enlightenment are removed.


I’m currently reading Walter J. Ong’s ground-breaking book Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (Routledge, 1982), about which I’m sure I will have much more to say in the coming days and months. Ong summarizes a vast amount of material, much of which is new to me and almost all of which has bearing on the sorts of questions I’ve been concerned with here at Via Negativa. Today, I want to consider his analysis of how the world is understood by illiterate people and by people in mostly or entirely oral cultures.

“Without writing, words as such have no visual presence . . . They are sounds . . . To learn what a primary oral culture is and what the nature of our problem is regarding such a culture, it helps first to reflect on the nature of sound as sound. All sensation takes place in time, but sound has a special relationship to time unlike that of the other fields that register human sensation. Sound exists only when it is going out of existence. It is not simply perishable but essentially evanescent, and it is sensed as evanescent. When I pronounce the word ‘permanence’, by the time I get to the ‘-nence’, the ‘perma-‘ is gone, and has to be gone.

“There is no way to stop sound and have sound. I can stop a moving picture camera and hold one frame fixed on the screen. If I stop the movement of sound, I have nothing – only silence, no sound at all. All sensation takes place in time, but no other sensory field totally resists a holding action, stabilization, in quite this way. Vision can register motion, but it can also register immobility. Indeed, it favors immobility, for to examine something closely by vision, we prefer to have it quiet. . . .

“For anyone who has a sense of what sound means in a primary oral culture, or in a culture not far removed from primary orality, it is not surprising that the Hebrew term dabar means ‘word’ and ‘event’. Malinowski has made the point that among ‘primitive’ (oral) people generally language is a mode of action and not just a countersign of thought . . . Neither is it surprising that oral peoples commonly, and perhaps universally, consider words to have great power. A hunter can see a buffalo, smell, taste and touch a buffalo when the buffalo is completely inert, even dead, but if he hears a buffalo, he better watch out: something is going on. In this sense, all sound, and especially all oral utterance, which comes from inside living organisms, is ‘dynamic.’

“The fact that oral peoples commonly and in all likelihood universally consider words to have magical potency is clearly tied in, at least unconsciously, with the sense of the word as necessarily spoken, sounded, and hence power-driven. Deeply typographic folk forget to think of words as primarily oral, as events, and hence as necessarily powered: for them, words tend rather to be assimilated to things, ‘out there’ on a flat surface.”

Toward the end of the same chapter (“Some psychodynamics of orality”), Ong mentions that, in addition to its evanescence, “Other characteristics of sound also determine or influence oral psychodynamics. The principal one . . . is the unique relationship of sound to interiority when sound is compared to the rest of the senses. This relationship is important because of the interiority of human consciousness and of human communication itself.”

What might we make of using sound, in the form of charged words, to try and actualize a highly visual and essentially static buddhaverse – the inverse of our own “impure” world? Ong’s treatment seems to shed a little light, if you’ll pardon the expression. “To test the physical interior of an object as interior,” he continues, “no sense works so directly as sound. The human sense of sight is adapted best to light diffusely reflected from surfaces . . . A source of light, such as a fire, may be intriguing but it is optically baffling: the eye cannot get a ‘fix’ on anything within the fire. Similarly, a translucent object, such as alabaster, is intriguing because, although it is not a source of light, the eye cannot get a ‘fix’ on it either.”

Thus the radiant and gem-studded Pure Land is designed to baffle and intrigue, to lure and refuse hold. Without the sound of bells and the cries of birds of paradise, it might refuse all entrance to the mind. For our visual perception of depth, Ong says, is limited. “Depth can be perceived by the eye, but most satisfactorily as a series of surfaces: the trunks of trees in a grove, for example, or chairs in an auditorium. The eye does not perceive an interior strictly as an interior: inside a room, the walls it perceives are still surfaces, outsides.” Here I am reminded of Mark Doty’s eloquent defense of light-diffusing surfaces as containing a kind of depth of their own. (Has anyone ever thought to compare Doty’s notion of the salvific effects of shimmer, glitter and radiance with the visualization-based soteriology of Pure Land texts?)

“Taste and smell are not much help in registering interiority or exteriority. Touch is. But touch partly destroys interiority in the process of perceiving it. If I wish to discover by touch whether a box is empty or full, I have to make a hole in the box to insert a hand or finger: this means that the box is to that extent open, to that extent less an interior.

“Hearing can register interiority without violating it. I can rap a box to find out whether it is empty or full or a wall to find out whether it is hollow or solid inside. Or I can ring a coin to find out if it is silver or lead.

“Sounds all register the interior structure of whatever it is that produces them . . .

“Sight isolates, sound incorporates. Whereas sight situates the observer outside what he views, at a distance, sound pours into the hearer. Vision dissects, as Merleau-Ponty has observed. Vision comes to a human being from one direction at a time: to look at a room or at a landscape, I must move my eyes around from one part to another. When I hear, however, I gather sound from every direction at once: I am at the center of my auditory world, which envelops me, establishing me at a kind of core of sensation and existence . . .You can immerse yourself in hearing, in sound. There is no way to immerse yourself in vision.” Now, of course, I picture myself back among the trees, immersed in sound-filled cloud.

Whereas vision dissects, Ong maintains, “The auditory ideal . . . is harmony, a putting together.” To avoid undue Western bias, I would add here that “harmony” might be understood to include all forms of musical coherence. Phenomenologically speaking, syncopation may be more fundamental than harmony per se.

“Interiority and harmony are characteristics of human consciousness . . . What is ‘I’ to me is only ‘you’ to you. And this ‘I’ incorporates experience into itself by ‘getting it all together.’ Knowledge is ultimately not a fractioning but a unifying phenomenon, a striving for harmony. Without harmony, an interior condition, the psyche is in bad health.”

Now to return to the question of how pre-literate people may receive the religious or magical word – and what those of us who are immersed in the garden of the text might be missing. “In a primary oral culture, where the word has its existence only in sound . . . the phenomenology of sound enters deeply into human beings’ feel for existence, as possessed by the spoken word. For the way in which the word is experienced is always momentous in psychic life. The centering aspect of sound . . . affects man’s sense of the cosmos. For oral cultures, the cosmos is an ongoing event with man at its center. Man is the umbilicus mundi, the navel of the world.” Namo Amitabha Buddha!


There remains the matter of editing, of the Pure Land apart from this present, impure one. I have written elsewhere, from an environmental and aesthetic perspective, on the emptiness of the very idea of garbage. (See The Art of Living.) To produce garbage is to sin against the original wholeness and purity of mind. If words are, as Ong suggests, fundamentally evanescent, perhaps our Quixotic attempts to freeze and isolate them are precisely where waste is generated? Recall the possibility I threw out at the beginning of this post: a “bug” that could read and record our verbalized thoughts, the ones we speak silently with perhaps only the faintest motion of lips and tongue. Imagine how much would have to be discarded to make any of it cohere (or harmonize, as Mr. Ong would say)!

But imagine that I could do this editing as I walked, using a completely verbal computer language. This too – all the instructions to the computer – would be discarded or invisible in the eventual (or nearly simultaneous) text. Indeed, from the writer’s vantagepoint all hypertext (as in html) is waste material, is it not? Not for nothing did “garbage in, garbage out” become the mantra of the technorati.

To read to oneself is to become isolated – to edit out the world. “Because in its physical constitution as sound, the spoken word proceeds from the human interior and manifests human beings to one another as conscious interiors, as persons, the spoken word forms human beings into close-knit groups. When a speaker is addressing an audience, the members of the audience normally become a unity, with themselves and with the speaker . . .

“The interiorizing force of the oral word relates in a special way to the sacral, to the ultimate concerns of existence. In most religions the spoken [or sung, or chanted] word functions integrally in ceremonial and devotional life. Eventually in the larger world religions sacred texts develop too, in which the sense of the sacral is attached also to the written word. Still, a textually supported religious tradition can continue to authenticate the primacy of the oral in many ways. In Christianity, for example, the Bible is read aloud at liturgical services. For God is thought of always as ‘speaking’ to human beings, not as writing to them. The orality of the mindset in the Biblical text, even in the epistolary sections, is overwhelming . . . ‘Faith comes through hearing,’ we read in the Letter to the Romans (10:17). ‘The letter kills, the spirit [breath, on which rides the spoken word] gives life’ (2 Corinthians 3:6).” (The parenthetical interpretation is Ong’s.)

The letter kills, the spoken word revives. Hmmm, I don’t know. The fog is thickening . . .

Diogenes’ Tub (10)

“I like the idea of making films about ostensibly nothing,” [Errol] Morris told The New Yorker’s Mark Singer. “That’s what all my movies are about. That and the idea that we’re in a position of certainty, truth, infallible knowledge, when actually we’re just a bunch of apes running around.”

He may say he’s a filmmaker, but he smells like a lawyer to me. Check out his rationalizations for Why It Makes Sense to Beat a Dead Horse.
(Via Brokentype.)

The mutter of all bums

Must. Must really. Should. Ought to. It would be nice if. The procrastinator’s diminuendo, a rolling stop. Over the landscape of his imagination hangs a heavy haze. The distant peaks are invisible, buildings and monuments vanish rapidly from view. Memory does not speak, it yawns. Monday through Friday, most of its teeth are missing. Ah me!

Now here comes a fine funny fellow to shake things up a bit. A street-corner tin whistler with a nose for rats. What about the children? They must be saved and served up later, wrapped in the flags of monumental abstractions, over the hills and far away. The stage mother of all bombs sits in a storage facility at an undisclosed location in the Middle East. While the pilot who will deliver it to the theater of operations for the opening night performance dips his toast in his eggs at a truck stop somewhere in the Middle West. He is – need it be said? – a decent fellow. He doesn’t daydream much. He reads the papers.

In Hamelin the Rotarians are listening to a presentation by a retired colonel on the promising new frontier of non-lethal weapons. Tomorrow’s battlefield is the urban ghetto, we must be prepared. We can fire short bursts of microwave beams, high-frequency sound, souped-up tear gas. The agony will be selective and of short duration. Special agents will peel the graffiti right off the walls. Property values will soar. The rat-faced children of the working poor can be given uniforms, gas masks, clubs and shields. That way they’ll feel empowered and will avoid drugs, which they can’t really afford anyway.

It’s morning in America. The dreamers have been rounded up and given jobs in the public relations industry. At a certain point three years ago every public-private partnership in the country had the same boast: We Build Solutions. But what was this solution that everyone was working on? Something caustic, no doubt. What ever happened to civility? Penmanship and proper diction must be taught again in the schools.

Do you remember where you were when the news hit about the extinction of the golden toad of Monteverde? How about when they flooded out the snail darter? Do you remember all those bad-smelling black hippies in Philadelphia who wouldn’t MOVE? That’s exactly what I’m talking about this morning. With better planning, we can avoid all that. The news shouldn’t have to be so depressing. Our brave pilot dipping his toast into his eggs shouldn’t be subjected to the incivility and mudslinging of negative political ads and columns by liberals. Democracy is all about trust.

The carrot and the nightstick, muses the copyeditor. Who the hell eats carrots any more? There are plenty of night-vision goggles to go around. Some use them to play weekend warrior, chase down UFOs or illegal aliens, live out their fantasies. Me, I don’t go in for that screwy stuff. I’m just going to get myself a pair so I can see what my neighbors do in bed. Make sure none of them are secret perverts. This is a nice neighborhood. On a really clear day, you can see the mountains.


I apologize to my regular readers for yesterday’s lapse. I took a brief, impromptu vacation less than thirty miles from home, the highlight of which was witnessing the annual mating frenzy of the wood frogs. Yesterday in particular was an unusual day, beginning as it did in a strange house with none of my accustomed morning rituals to get me going. The sky suddenly cleared around 11:00 a.m. and I found myself in excellent company for an afternoon of leisurely exploration in an unfamiliar part of the state forest, driving slowly along the gravel roads looking and listening and most of all smelling the glorious odors of thawing earth and burgeoning life. We chanced upon some ephemeral ponds and puddles right alongside the road that were aswarm with wood frogs. Thus we were able to use the car for a blind, sitting in awestruck silence as hundreds of frogs called and swam and fought and waited for females. The day ended with a free showing of the movie “American Splendor” and a solitary walk in the moonlight when I finally got home.

This morning I’m all tired out and feeling terribly uninspired, so I’ll simply link to one of my favorite nature essays, Some Thoughts on the Common Toad, by George Orwell. Who but Orwell with his no-bullshit, common-man realism could say so clearly why humans need contact with wild Nature? And almost everything he wrote about the British toad applies equally well to the North American wood frog. After the usual false starts, spring has finally arrived in all its glory – a glory that is, as Orwell noted, unofficial, illicit and more than a bit subversive.

Finding Ox Mountain

But what of my own mountain, the one I’m a tenant on? I’m afraid I know it too well to idealize it as Li Bo or Du Fu might have done. Besides, its very status as a mountain can be debated – though the long, low ridgelines of the folded Appalachians and Ouachitas are globally unique and nothing to sniff at. My exact topographical circumstances here can be tricky to put into words. My house sits near the head of a transverse hollow (Plummer’s Hollow) in the end of a ridge (Brush Mountain) that the hollow divides in two. Thus with equal justice I could consider myself the inhabitant of a mountaintop or of a high valley.

What’s certain is that, biologically speaking, this mountain has seen better days. In the first half of the 19th century, all the steep hollows and ridge sides in what used to be called the Upper Juniata Valley were ravaged repeatedly by charcoal makers. For those few short decades, Juniata Iron underwrote the Industrial Revolution. Plummer’s Hollow must’ve been clearcut for the first time around 1815; the river-powered Upper Tyrone Forge was founded at its mouth in 1813. It probably would’ve been clearcut again a mere 30 years later. Merely by counting the charcoal hearths that still remain in our 3rd- and 4th-growth forest, I can get a glimpse of the tremendous size and number of trees that must once have stood here.

The loss of soil due to erosion would’ve been tremendous – by some estimates, possibly as much as 15 inches’ worth. The work of millennia, gone in a few short years. The character of the forest has changed dramatically since the early 19th century, not only in the obvious species composition of canopy-height trees, but in the loss of entire biological communities whose richness and complexity we can only guess at. To pick one example, the northern flying squirrel-old growth hemlock-micorrhizal fungus-bacteria association depends on the presence of all four components (and possibly more we don’t know about); when one is gone, the rest will follow. Species dependent on moist, cool, forest interior habitat or with other more specialized requirements are long gone. In fact, I just learned a few days ago that the westernmost ridges in this part of Pennsylvania are unique for the virtual absence of a lungless salamander species, the red-backed salamander, which has been found in such abundance on identical-looking ridges to our east as to equal in biomass all other vertebrate species combined. Why don’t we have it? Was it once present, wiped out by the frequency and intensity of clearcutting in the 19th century? We’ll probably never know.

Repeated clearcutting is far from the only ecological wound this mountain has suffered. At least one fire, probably triggered by a charcoal fire that got out of control, burned well over a hundred acres, destroying seeds and seedlings that might otherwise have regenerated. The loss of the passenger pigeon and the American chestnut had huge consequences for forest composition throughout the East. The extirpation of the two top carnivores, gray wolf and cougar, had complex ripple effects, including what ecologists call mesopredator release – the unnatural abundance of mid-sized predators such as raccoons, skunks and bobcats, with severe repercussions for their own prey species.

The loss of top carnivores in combination with the unnatural proliferation of young forests and edge habitats has led to catastrophic overbrowsing by white-tailed deer for most of the last 80 years. Forest succession has been radically altered and in some cases curtailed altogether. These and other impacts work in concert. For example, severe air pollution – chiefly ground-level ozone and acid precipitation – is changing soil chemistry, in turn favoring a few deer-resistant, invasive species such as New York and hayscented ferns and the non-native Japanese barberry and stiltgrass. These latter species have been found to further alter soil chemistry and composition on their own. This process is greatly abetted by the actions of non-native earthworms, introduced deliberately or accidentally to forest soils in this region over the past 200 years. For at least the past 20,000 years, forests as far as 200 miles south of the glacial line have been free of earthworms. The forest communities native to Central Pennsylvania were thus dependent on a chemical balance and depth of leaf litter that may never return.

One final impact, out of many more I could describe, remains largely unknown: the cumulative effects of global climate change. We are already seeing an increased frequency of natural disturbance events that makes us agonize more than ever about the extent to which anything we now observe can be called natural. Icestorms, hurricanes, wildfires and native insect outbreaks are all part of natural disturbance regimes. They are elements of native biological diversity as critical as the presence of native communities, species and genomes. But the other impacts I’ve listed are already straining the natural resilience of the ecosystem. Add global warming to the mix, and the radical simplification or complete collapse of entire ecosystems looms on the horizon. Much of Penn’s Woods may turn to savanna within my lifetime. Already on the mountain one can find open patches as large as several acres each that haven’t supported a closed-canopy woods in decades. This phenomenon can be observed throughout the state.

As Aldo Leopold famously noted, “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds . . . An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”

If it were only the allegedly uninformed masses who persist in whistling in the dark, our task as conservationists wouldn’t seem so daunting. But over the years I’ve encountered all too many foresters and wildlife professionals who refuse to recognize the numerous elisions in their own view of what is natural and what isn’t. Especially in the last couple of years, as I’ve become a vocal advocate on behalf of the fledgling Pennsylvania Wildlands Recovery Project, I have encountered widespread, sometimes willful ignorance of the problem of shifting baselines for ecological recovery. That is to say, the vast majority of professional conservationists speak in terms of sustainability, which seems to imply simply accepting the status quo as a baseline for evaluating the future health of the ecosystem.

I don’t know which human characteristic has had more disastrous effects over the millennia – our natural acquisitiveness, our limited imaginations, or our short and highly selective memories. Over a thousand years before Li Bo and Du Fu sought mystical oneness with the mountains, a Chinese philosopher named Mengzi (a.k.a. Mencius) penned the following parable. This captures the whole problem of shifting ecological baselines as well as anything I’ve ever read:

Ox Mountain once was covered by trees. But it had the misfortune of standing too close to a city. People came with their axes and their hatchets; they climbed all over the mountain. They cut down the trees, stripped the mountain of all vegetation.

Nevertheless, the night breeze wafted over its slopes. Rain and dew fell; everywhere sprouts of green began to show. But cattle and sheep had been let loose to pasture on the mountain. Before too many years had passed, it stood gaunt and bare. Today, people see its barrenness and can’t believe the mountain wasn’t always that way.

Who can tell when forests have been altered, cut down with axes, demolished with hatchets? Day after day the trees are cut down. How will the mountain ever recover?

It’s just as Confucius said: “Preserve it and it will remain. Let it go and it’s gone forever. One can never be sure what one has, and when it’s enough. Afterwards one can never tell just where it went.”

It seems these words of the master were aimed straight at the heart.

Mysterious mountains

(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!

Diogenes’ Tub (9)

From the Toronto Sun, via Unknown News: “U.S. security agents have a master list of five million people worldwide thought to be potential terrorists or criminals, officials say.”

Make that five billion and I think they’d be a little closer to the truth.

Poem for the heroes

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.

How to make an egg salad sandwich

As Via Negativa goes into its fourth month, I’ve decided to introduce a new, semi-regular feature: favorite recipes. And I’d like to encourage other bloggers in the “spirit, place and ideas” end of the blogosphere to do the same. Here’s why.

A few weeks back, my cyber-friend and fellow blogger Tom Montag left a comment to the effect of, “There you go again tackling the BIG questions!” Although I’m sure he meant this as a kind of teasing compliment, it set me to wondering (being opposed to hierarchical thinking as I am): just what would constitute a little question? I couldn’t think of any examples. And I began to worry that my love of abstract thinking was turning me into a caricature – something like the Muskrat in the children’s book Finn Family Moomintroll. While Snufkin, Moomintroll and company spend their days making lots of wild, improbable discoveries and having fun, the Muskrat lies in a hammock reading and re-reading a book called On the Uselessness of Everything. He is a grump and a scold, but Moominpappa insists he be treated with the utmost deference. Somewhere along the line the book gets lost, and at the great end-of-summer party, when the Hobgoblin is granting everybody’s wishes, the Muskrat asks for another copy. His wish is granted, but the Hobgoblin’s magic inadvertently alters it just a hair: the new copy is entitled On the Usefulness of Everything. This leaves the Muskrat extremely disgruntled, of course; his youthful critics can barely disguise their glee.

Thinking along these lines, I typed out the following mea culpa:

I ask the big questions because I am too intellectually lazy to study the details. I seek out the exotic and the occult because my own life is a godawful bore. I speak with conviction partly to sound authoritative, and partly to convince myself. Who am I? I don’t have the foggiest notion. What do I do? I bullshit my way though life. It could always be worse. I could be working in advertising or public relations. But as things stand, I have an obvious and compelling reason to want to write at least one true thing. Poetry is the by-product of that Quixotic attempt. Everything else is footnotes.

Harsh, dude! And – like all breast-beating confessions – self-centered and false.

The truth is, I produce essential artworks everyday – not invariably great works, mind you, but undeniably essential. That is to say, I cook. I feed myself and others.

I hasten to add that I am neither a gourmand nor a highly skilled chef. I specialize in a whole grain, vegetarian-except-when-we’re-eating-meat version of what they now call “comfort food.” In Plummer’s Hollow, the stew and the casserole reign supreme. I don’t give a rat’s ass about presentation (though I do appreciate it when eating out) and I’m afraid I eat way too quickly to pay attention to subtle nuances of flavor most of the time. If eating alone, I will distract myself by reading or listening to the radio while I eat. If eating with others, the art of conversation takes precedence. A little more mindfulness around here might be in order.

Actually, the last-named habit may not be entirely negative. Rabelais maintained that great thoughts could only emerge from dialogue, and then only under the influence of good eating and drinking – the typical Renaissance view, according to Bakhtin and Illich. But here too I may be in trouble: 90 percent of the content of this weblog has been written before breakfast!

This morning was an exception, mostly because I slept in until 7:00, then had to start in on laundry before I did anything else. I ate what I eat every morning: two fried eggs, sunny side up, with tarragon. I won’t give the recipe, because everyone reading this probably has equally strong, individualistic preferences for breakfast in general and how to fix their eggs in particular.

Instead, I would like to attempt to give the recipe for another egg product: egg salad sandwiches. My mother whipped up a batch of egg salad just yesterday that was superlative. I asked for the recipe, and found she had followed a decades-old clipping from Woman’s Day magazine, with one or two alterations. However, I want to go a little bit beyond the mere instructions and consider the whole recipe. If I ever write a cookbook (which would probably have to be a collaborative effort with my mom), here’s what the recipes would look like.


Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Wrong question! First comes the zoning ordinance that says you can’t raise chickens in your backyard or in your rooftop garden! Well, why the hell not? So step number one in the making of a good egg salad sandwich is to talk to your neighbors. Chances are good that they, too, would like to keep a few hens, maybe a goat or two, not to mention enjoy the right to plant herbs and vegetables instead of grass in their front yards, as the French do. My friend the Sylph rallied the folks in her village and they managed to get the zoning ordinance amended. She now raises chicken. That’s right, just one chicken. She doesn’t eat very many eggs, I guess.

Be willing to compromise: no neighborhood should have to endure crowing roosters or screeching guinea fowl. Guineas have just about the best-tasting flesh of any domesticated bird, but if you value peace and quiet, don’t fall prey to the disingenuous claim that “they make great watch dogs!” Well, they do – if you want to be alerted every time a cricket looks at them cross-eyed. But I digress.

Don’t have a yard? More sophisticated political organizing may be required to start up community gardens. You’ll need local or state government assistance to get land – or else take the risk that some crazed capitalist running-dog mayor like Giuliani will call in the bulldozers and destroy years of work. Community gardens sound to me like a great reason to live in towns and cities, giving folks of different ethnicities, who would otherwise probably never talk to each other, the chance to trade seeds, gardening tips and (of course) recipes. Finding enough area for a small, cooperatively managed chicken coop with a large fenced run might be tricky, however.

There are other options for getting good eggs. You could visit/help start a local food co-op and/or farmer’s market; become a shareholder in a CSA farm, or simply find a local farmer or gardener who raises chickens right.

The important thing is this: the best-tasting eggs come from free-range chickens, period. The difference in taste between factory-raised and free-range or “scratch” eggs is roughly equivalent to the difference in taste between white bread vs. whole wheat, or Miller Lite vs. a microbrewed IPA. Whether or not the chickens are fed organic, non-GMO mash isn’t nearly as important in determining taste. The eggs don’t need to be fertilized. And the color of the shell is irrelevant: yes, Leghorns are the Holsteins of the chicken industry, but they are still bright enough to be able to do what all chickens (and very few humans) will do if given half the chance: balance their own diet. Left to their own devices, chickens like to eat a whole lot of weeds, worms and insects. They also stay healthier if they have an area where they can regularly take dust baths to keep ectoparasites under control, and the less confined they are, the less often they resort to cannibalism.

The yolks of free-range chickens should be bright orange, not the sickly yellow of supermarket eggs. Another thing to look for is shit on the shells. I’m serious. In any given dozen, at least a few eggs should appear fairly filthy. This is desirable because it shows that the eggs haven’t been washed. Chickens produce a thin, invisible film on the outside of the shell that helps extend the shelf life of the egg. As far as I know, it’s impossible to wash the eggs without removing that film – though I suppose the egg factories might have some way of dry-cleaning the eggs.

This brings us to another important ingredient: consumer education. In The One-Straw Revolution (one of this weblog’s foundational texts), Masanobu Fukuoka discusses the difficulty of selling organic fruit: not only will its skin or rind have some blemishes, but a fully ripe mandarin orange, for example, should be slightly shriveled. “Speaking biologically, fruit in a slightly shriveled state is holding down to the lowest possible level. It is like a person in meditation: his metabolism, respiration, and calorie consumption reach an extremely low level. Even if he fasts, the energy within the body will be conserved. In the same way, when mandarin oranges grow wrinkled, when fruit shrivels, when vegetables wilt, they are in the state that will preserve their food value for the longest possible time.”

In a chapter entitled “Commercial Agriculture Will Fail,” Fukuoka discusses eggs and chickens from an economic point-of-view. “I have been thinking lately about white leghorns,” he says. “Because the improved variety of white leghorn lays over 200 days a year, raising them for profit is considered good business. When raised commercially these chickens are cooped up in long rows of small cages not unlike cells in a penitentiary, and through their entire lives their feet are never allowed to touch the ground. Disease is common and the birds are pumped full of antibiotics and fed a formula diet of vitamins and hormones.

“It is said that the local chickens that have been kept since ancient times [in Shikoku], the brown and black shamo and chabo, have only half the egg-laying capacity. As a result these birds have all but disappeared in Japan. I let two hens and one rooster loose to run wild on the mountainside and after one year there were twenty-four. When it seemed that few eggs were being laid, the local birds were busy raising chickens.

“In the first year, the leghorn has a greater egg-laying capacity than the local chickens, but after one year the white leghorn is exhausted and cast aside, whereas the shamo we started with has become ten healthy birds running about beneath the orchard trees [and fertilizing the mandarin oranges] . . .

“Commercial chicken eggs (you can call them eggs if you like) are nothing more than a mixture of synthetic feed, chemicals and hormones . . . The farmer who produces . . . eggs of this kind, I call a manufacturer.

“Now if it is manufacturing you are talking about, you will have to do some fancy figuring if you want to make a profit. Since the commercial farmer is not making any money, he is like a merchant who cannot handle the abacus. This sort of fellow is regarded as a fool by other people and his profits are soaked up by politicians and salesmen.”

Fukuoka and many other organic farmers, ecologists, and prophets of the new “slow food” movement stress three main points: buy locally, eat seasonally and use fresh ingredients whenever possible. For eggs, that may mean cutting back in the winter, when most breeds (other than leghorns) slow down their laying considerably. I must admit we compromise on this point and buy some commercial eggs during the winter months, due partly to my two-eggs-a-day habit and partly to the pragmatic reality that, absent fresh vegetables, egg-based dishes are an important option for an otherwise fairly bland winter diet.

But eight or nine months of the year we can count on being able to stop once a week and pick up several dozen from a small back-to-the-land-type farmer named Carol. Her house is right off the small highway that also runs past the orchard where we buy much of our fruit, so it’s convenient. She puts out a funky little sign with a painting of a chicken right beside a little table with a picnic cooler on it. You take out as many eggs as you want and put your money (or an IOU if you’re short) in the cash box. Competition is fierce, and Carol’s response has been not to raise prices (bizarrely, she charges less than the supermarket) but to try and prevent her institutional customers from cleaning her out – there are any number of local restaurants who would buy her entire supply every day, but she won’t let them. Last year, as we got more friendly with her, she agreed to let my mother call and leave a message on her answering machine the night before our weekly shopping trip, and to set aside as many dozen as we request. They’ll be wrapped up in a plastic bag, stapled shut with a note often containing some personal message.

The message here is simple: know your farmer!

We raised chickens for many years when I was a kid, and one time I even plowed through a hundred years’ worth of USDA pamphlets on poultry farming for a project in history class. So as you can readily imagine there’s a lot more I could say on this subject. But recipes should be fairly brief, so I’ll confine myself to one final observation before moving on to the other ingredients: expect variation in taste from one egg to another. I think it’s fair to say that the demand for uniformity in taste grows out of – and helps reinforce – the industrial mindset.

I believe strongly that as eaters, as creators, as thinkers and as citizens we must resist mass production in every way possible. If you’re able to get eggs from a farmer like Carol, or to raise your own, you’ll notice an amazing thing: they come in all sizes and several shapes! In the spring, new layers commonly lay eggs with two yolks. Hence the imprecision of this and all true recipes. Hard-boil somewhere between five and eight eggs, preferably not fresh, but aged at least one week. This will make them much easier to shell. Also, be sure to plunge them into cold water immediately after removing them from the heat. Finely chop the shelled eggs using whatever tools and implements you like.

The other fundamental ingredient can take the form of either cream cheese or mayonnaise – preferably the former. The problem with mayonnaise is that to get it really good you have to make it yourself. That’s not at all difficult, but it means you will be eating raw eggs. We used raw eggs regularly, for eggnog as well as for mayonnaise, as long as we raised our own chickens. But with the growing proliferation of salmonella (due to industrial farming techniques, of course) we’ve been unwilling to risk it since, even with Carol’s eggs.

Everything I’ve said about obtaining decent eggs applies to other dairy products as well. Again, we happen to be fortunate in having access to a great local dairy which, while not organic, avoids hormones and other excesses of industrialized farming. Do your best. You’ll need about eight ounces of cream cheese, softened – otherwise use roughly a quarter cup of mayonnaise.

Almost as critical is the addition of one small onion (also approximately 1/4 cup), also finely chopped. A sweet onion or mild leek might seem like a good idea here – try it if you like. But I really feel that the bite of a regular onion gives the best results. I should add that if you have space for a garden, onions are supremely easy to grow from sets. Any container will do – you can grow them in your window sill. I must admit we don’t bother, however, preferring to support the local Amish truck farmers (some of whom even follow organic methods, though they’re not business-savvy enough to advertise the fact). The Amish are exemplary farmers because they put land and community ahead of personal profit (which is not to say they are communists – far from it). When we can’t get eggs from Carol, we’ll try and get them from the local Amish, even thought they’re not from free range chickens. It just makes one feel good to support people who don’t buy insurance, borrow money from banks, fight in wars or hire lawyers, who keep institutions to a minimum and who choose their leaders by lot. And needless to say, one rarely has to worry that something from the Amish was made by mass production techniques.

Salt and black pepper round out the list of essential ingredients. A whole treatise could easily be written about either one, but as I said, I’d like to keep this brief. Iodized salt? Sea salt? Kosher salt? Fresh-ground black pepper? I must admit, the last phrase immediately raises my blood pressure, conjuring up visions of snooty waitresses in absurdly overpriced chain restaurants with terrible food. Rants, however, have no place in a good recipe. Like any essential art, cooking should ennoble rather than degrade, nourish rather than produce indigestion. This sounds old-fashioned – I don’t mean to downplay the occasional usefulness of shock value (but how many “Piss Christs” does the world really need?). I simply feel that, in order to strike a proper balance between process and product, the maker should cultivate a playful attitude, consisting of about one handful each of equanimity and dynamic tension, seasoned with a dash or two of irresponsible pleasure (substitute joy if not available) and accompanied by a sizeable helping of temporal awareness. (Few other arts are as time-limited; if any culinary creation could be said to be immortal, it would have to be through recollection alone.)

In fact, I’ve been thinking recently that the most important ingredient in the creative process and/or product might be simply an enhanced quality of attention. This seems nowhere more true than of the culinary arts, oriented as they are to the daily alteration of consciousness through eating and drinking.

Now for the fun part. My mom’s old Woman’s Day recipe includes, in addition to the foregoing, 1/4 cup finely chopped green pepper, 3 tablespoons chili sauce (for which she substitutes a good tomato salsa) and two thirds of a cup of chopped English walnuts. The result, as I said, is delicious. I don’t know if she has tried substituting pecans or black walnuts for all or part of the English walnuts, but that strikes me as one interesting possibility.

Bell peppers are a standard egg salad ingredient. A mix of colors would improve not only the presentation but the taste as well. It’s a surprisingly little known fact that a green pepper is simply an unripe pepper, and hence has not reached optimal sweetness. I suspect that the popularity of green peppers among 20th century cooks was a by-product of their easy availability, related to the invention of the refrigerator car and the consequent destruction of local and regional farmer’s markets. (How many East Coast residents still remember why New Jersey is nicknamed the Garden State?)

We use a lot of frozen peppers in the winter. If you’re concerned about taste (which is, of course, a direct index of nutritive value), freezing and drying are in general much better than canning. Bell peppers of all colors are supremely easy to freeze if you have the freezer space. No blanching is required. Simply spread out the strips or bits on cookie trays, stack them up and stick ’em in the freezer for a day or two, then stuff them into ziplock bags.

If you have access to fresh peppers, the additional crispiness will change the character of the egg salad quite a bit. Otherwise, you could try substituting celery for part of the pepper. Or, given fresh peppers, you could take the opposite tack and roast all or part of them. Roasting peppers, garlic, etc. is a Mediterranean technique gaining favor among North American cooks. I’ve tried it, and I can vouch that it certainly does concentrate flavor in a unique way. It’s also fun to pull off the blackened outer skin. (Who knew bell peppers even had skins?) But oven-roasting seems wasteful to me unless: A) you’re using the oven for something else anyway; B) your oven is attached to the woodstove that heats your house (though it’s unlikely you’d be using it much during pepper season); or C) you have a toaster oven. Toaster ovens use quite a bit less electricity than their full-sized cousins.

I hasten to add that I have never tried putting oven-roasted peppers in egg salad, and I have my doubts about how well it would work. I simply raise the possibility. Of course, if you follow my mother’s lead and add some tomato salsa, you can use that as a way to introduce roasted peppers, both hot and sweet – and roasted garlic as well.

In my opinion, one of the keys to good salsa is cilantro, a.k.a. Chinese parsley. I know there are some people who object to the flavor. But I love the stuff and use it as often as possible, either directly or by adding salsa to recipes. I bring this up because some egg salad recipes call for Italian parsley. Why not substitute cilantro? You’ll thank me for it.

Two other possible, exotic ingredients have a Mediterranean provenance: kalamata olives and capers (both finely chopped, of course). We get our olives directly from Turkey, via the husband of the owner of a local natural foods store who is an importer of Turkish carpets. Buying them in bulk like this makes the olives affordable enough to use in many dishes where we might otherwise leave them out: another way to jazz up a boring winter diet! I realize that some high-end supermarkets now include olive bars where one can select from dozens of different varieties. If that’s a priority for you, fine. But wherever possible we try to limit our weekly supermarket shopping to one stop, and to patronize a chain based in central Pennsylvania that relies heavily on PA farmers for its store brands (canned tomatoes, frozen vegetables, etc.). We haven’t yet found a better source of capers than the canned Goya brand carried in this supermarket. I should mention that one recipe for egg salad with black olives and capers I’m looking at right now also calls for two teaspoons of prepared mustard.

So much for the egg salad part of the sandwich. Now, what about the bread? I’m afraid that in the interest of brevity I’ll have to leave that side of the equation unsolved for, at least for the time being. Use whatever bread you want. But for my money there’s nothing like egg salad on rye. And a good rye bread is worth a considerable quantity of blood, sweat and tears . . .

With this easy-to-follow recipe, I hope I have redeemed myself a little from the charge of being preoccupied with Big Questions to the detriment of truly useful subjects. Perhaps I have even managed to convince one or two readers that thinking and living need not be mutually exclusive activities. But what does it have to do with the via negativa, ostensible subject of this weblog?

In a word: everything. What could be more mysterious, farther beyond the reach of language than taste? Long gone are the days when scientists thought that flavor could be dissolved into a simple trinity, like light. Food scientists now recognize thousands of unique flavors, each indescribable except through comparisons with other flavors.

Eating, it seems to me, is the ultimate encounter with suchness. “O taste and see . . . “

Diogenes’ Tub (8)

From the AP: “Everyone is in our sights,” Internal Security Minister Tsahi Hanegbi told reporters. “There is no immunity to anyone.”

Let me get this straight: the guy charged with making people feel safe announces that no one is safe. Am I missing something here?