Ifa: telling the fortunes of animals and humans

Divination, or Ifa, occupies a central place in Yoruba religion. My understanding of the Ifa system is basic in the extreme; I lack the two essential English-language studies, both by Wande Abimbola: Ifa: An Exposition of Ifa Literary Corpus and Sixteen Great Poems of Ifa. As the titles of these works suggest, a large canon has grown up around the practice, which is all the more impressive for being entirely oral in its transmission until modern times.

There are several different methods of Ifa divination (casting of kola shells, casting of cowries, etc.) and as with any divinatory practice the interpretation and application of lessons arise from a kind of three-way negotiation between client, priest/therapist and divinities (orishas). (I would speculate in passing that the main difference between secular and religious forms of therapy is that the latter, by acknowledging the divine as a third party, may be more able to zero in on the problem through triangulation)

It’s during the interpretive stage that traditional Ifa poems may be recited if appropriate. English translations display much more affinity to the Hebrew Bible than to the I Qing; this should not surprise us, since many Hebrew religious concepts (including henotheism/monotheism) appear to be African in origin. Indeed, despite the passionate and eloquent arguments of the great A. J. Heschel (in The Prophets) I remain unpersuaded that the ancient Hebrew nebiim (prophets) were fundamentally different from West African diviners in their understanding of the relationship between revelation and response. In both cases, what matters is not predictive accuracy but moral transformation.
One might ask, Why not call the Ifa diviner a prophet rather than a priest? Yoruba priests and scholars like Abimbole prefer to reserve the term “prophet” to translate the role of the orisha Orunmila, who is second in the divine hierarchy after Oludumare, the High God who is not only beyond all supplication but can’t even be characterized in words or concepts. (It should not surprise us that Ifa recognizes the via negativa as explicitly as the other ‘world religions,’ for Yoruba religion too is a universalizing system, and thus needs to spell out speculative details that would be left largely unspoken in more particularistic or ‘tribal’ traditions.).

Ifa diviners are also called priests rather than prophets because they direct the sacrifice. In his essay in Evil and the Response of World Religion (W. Cenkner, ed., Paragon House, 1997) Abimbola translates what he says is a ‘very difficult verse’ explicating the power of sacrifice to maintain – or correct – the balance between benevolent and malevolent forces in the world. Like many Ifa psalms, it tells a story – here about the King of Epe (Elepe) who managed to appease death (Iku) for a little while. It begins in the praise-proverb mode familiar from West African poetry from almost all languages and genres. This mode typically uses metaphor and, especially, apparent non-sequitor to inject magic potency into the overall poem/utterance/act.

[from Osu Meji]

The old man who strolls gracefully like an elephant.
The old man who gallops like a buffalo.
When a wooden pestle falls on the ground, it makes the sound ogbonrangandan.
Help me catch my chicken with broken wings.
One room cannot adequately contain two sick people with different diseases.
Exchange-exchange, Ifa priest of the household of the king of Epe.
Ifa divination was performed for Elepe
When he was told to use an animal for sacrifice
As an exchange for his own life
Because of imminent death.
He listened to the prescription of sacrifice.
And he performed the sacrifice.
He was told to offer sacrifice to Eshu
And he complied.
He then heard the Ifa priests tell him that his sacrifice was accepted.
He praised his Ifa priests,
And his Ifa priests praised Ifa.
Death then left Elepe untouched
But took away the head of the animal.
Exchange-exchange, Ifa priest of the household of Elepe.
Loss left Elepe untouched,
But took away the head of the animal.
Exchange-exchange, Ifa priest of the household of Elepe.


Back near the beginning of this weblog I wrote a couple short pieces “for” and “against” sacrifice expressing my own ambivalence about this word, which still pervades discussions of ethical behavior – especially during wartime. In the essay about my television shrine I quoted Abimbola’s own thoughts on sacrifice; to recap, he says “sacrifice is an act of exchange. When one makes sacrifice, one exchanges something dear, or something purchased with one’s own money, in order to sustain personal happiness. Sacrifice involves human beings in a process of exchange or denial of oneself, or giving of one’s time, forsaking one’s pleasure, food, etc., in order to be at peace with both the benevolent and malevolent supernatural powers as well as to be at peace with one’s neighbors, family, the entire environment and ultimately to be at peace with oneself.”

It is Eshu who mediates between the 400 malevolent ajogan and the 401 benevolent orisha; thus it is to him that sacrifices are performed. As the straddler of worlds he is the master of paradox, which makes his praise-poems especially interesting in translation.

But – asks the sensitive postmodern reader, recoiling from the very notion of blood sacrifice – what about the animals? “Animal rights” propaganda to the contrary, traditional earth-based religions in which animal sacrifice is practiced (which could include all shamanistic systems, give a sufficiently broad definition of ‘sacrifice’) generally seem to inculcate more respect for the natural world in all its loving cruelty and complexity than many supposedly more advanced religious or philosophical systems. You can search the canons of European Romantic poetry in vain for a poem that deals as tenderly with a predator as the following excerpt from an Ifa psalm. (Though Blake’s “Tyger” comes close.) This was translated originally by B. King for Introduction to Nigerian Literature and is included in The Penguin Book of Oral Poetry, edited by Ruth Finnegan (whence also the remaining examples, except where noted). However, I have modified the translation of “tiger” to “leopard,” based on a strong resemblance to a briefer piece translated by Ulli Beier, not to mention the fact that tigers do not live in Africa! I am also not sure which orisha is meant by King’s “Oosa,” Orunmila or Oludumare.


Ifa divination was performed for Leopard,
That one with lovely and shining skin.

Could he possibly have honour?
That was the reason Leopard performed Ifa divination.

He was told there was much prospect of honour for him,
but he should perform sacrifice.

And he performed it.
He performed sacrifice with ten knives
And one lovely and shining cloth.

The ten knives which he used for sacrifice
Were fixed to his fingers by his Ifa priests,
And with it he does havoc to all other animals.
That lovely and shining cloth which he also uses for sacrifice
Was used to cover his body
And it made him a beautiful animal.

He was dancing,
He was rejoicing;
He was praising his Ifa priests
And his Ifa priests praised Ifa.
He opened his mouth,
And the song of Ifa entered therein.
As he stretched his feet,
Dance caught them.

He said: O! Animal created to have honour.
Animal created to have honour.
It is Oosa who gave honour to Leopard,
Animal created to have honour.


For a fuller sense of traditional Yoruba attitudes toward animals, some translations of non-Ifa poems might help:

(translated by Ulli Beier)

Swaggering prince
Giant among snakes.
They say python has no house.
I heard it a long time ago
and I laughed and laughed and laughed.
For who owns the ground under the lemon grass?
Who owns the ground under the elephant grass?
Who owns the swamp – father of rivers?
Who owns the stagnant pool – father of waters?

Because they never walk hand in hand
People say that snakes walk only singly.
But just imagine
Suppose the viper walks in front
The green mamba follows
And the python creeps rumbling behind –
Who will be brave enough to wait for them?


What’s remarkable about this poem from a Western perspective is not simply the reverential attitude toward snakes, but the recognition of swamps and stagnant pools as “fathers of rivers.” In this respect, traditional Yoruba knowledge is more advanced than was environmental science in the 1970s when the Clean Water Act was written: its supposition that such a thing as “isolated wetlands” can exist continues to bedevil conservation efforts in the U.S.

Beier also translates a praise poem for the viper. This comes from his African Poetry (Cambridge, 1966).


The viper lives in the forest.
Not even the Ogun worshipper can pick it up.
Viper’s child is beautiful in its nest.
But Nini is the most beautiful of snakes.
It is better for Nini to change its colour
and go home and bring some colour for Viper.
Viper owns all the rats in the forest.
Viper owns all the bush in the forest.
Viper owns all the snakes in the forest.
If there is no rat, what will snake eat?
If there is no rat, it will eat mouse;
if there is no mouse it will eat a shrew.
Poisonous death,
Poisonous viper,
Beautiful viper.


And here are two more from the same volume, which I use simply because I don’t have a copy of Beier’s Yoruba Poetry on hand. As with poems about people, in Ifa psalms or otherwise, the praise-proverb mode is above all designed to instruct and inspire.

Kob Antelope

A creature to pet and spoil
An animal with a smooth neck.
You live in the bush without getting lean.
You are plump like a newly wedded wife.
You have more brass rings about your neck
than any woman.
When you run you spread fine dust
like a butterfly shaking its wings.
You are beautiful like carved wood.
Your eyes are gentle like a dove’s.
Your neck seems long, long
to the covetous eyes of the hunter.


Colobus Monkey

We ask him to come and die – he sulks.
He dies at last – his cheeks are full of laughter.
Two rows of neat white teeth.
Death always follows war.
Those who wake early must sweep the ground.
Colobus says: the eagle sweeps the sky;
let me sweep the top of the tree.
Abuse me – and I will follow you home.
Praise me – and I will stay away from you.
Colobus is friend of the man in rags,
and a friend of the man in the embroidered gown.
He kills lice with black nails.
Deep-set eyes.
A mighty tail.
Don’t hold my tail,
don’t play with my face.
Death always follows war.


I don’t understand all the references in this last one, but the lines about praise and abuse could almost be my own motto! (A friend with whom I sometimes exchange poems, on the condition that we each be unsparing in our critique of the other, once accused me of not being able to take compliments.) Perhaps if Ifa divination were performed for me, some lines about the Colobus would crop up! For Ifa does possess a sense of humor, it seems:

(translated by J. A. Adediji)

Ifa speaks in parables,
A wise man is he who understands it.
When we say understand it –
The wise man always understands it.
But when we do not understand it –
We say it is of no account.


Wisdom is the finest beauty of a person . . .
an Ifa oracle poem

(translated by Ulli Beier)

Wisdom is the finest beauty of a person.
Money does not prevent you from becoming blind.
Money does not prevent you from becoming mad,
Money does not prevent you from becoming lame.
You may be ill in any part of your body,
So it is better for you to go and think again
And to select wisdom.
Come and sacrifice, that you may have rest in your body,
Inside and outside.


As I conceive of it, the Ifa valuation of social and aesthetic balance bears a strong resemblance to that of the Diné (Navajo). The word usually translated “beauty” – as in the famous Nightway chant – for the Diné includes notions of harmony, symmetry, justice. A deep participation in this beauty promotes both wisdom and healing (“rest in your body, inside and outside.”) I’m also reminded a bit (again, perhaps erroneously) of the Japanese word kirei, commonly translated as “pretty” or “beautiful” but carrying also strong connotations of cleanliness, purity and order.

This ethos is on display in my final selection, one more translation of an Ifa psalm by Ulli Beier. It treats a theme that is truly pan-African in scope: the idea that, by sharing in the glory of others (through praise-singing or otherwise) our own selfhood is expanded: from the little bundle of urges and impulses familiar to us from western psychology, to the Self of Atman and Whitman’s Song of Myself. This psalm interprets the throw called Iwori wotura, which Beier uses for a title:

Oracle: Iwori Wotura

Iwori wotura.
Anybody who sees beauty and does not look at it
Will soon be poor.
Red feathers are the pride of the forest.
Young leaves are the pride of the palm tree.
Iwori wotura.
White flowers are the pride of the leaves.
A swept veranda is the pride of the landlord.
Iwori wotura.
A straight tree is the pride of the forest.
A fast deer is the pride of the bush.
Iwori wotura.
The rainbow is the pride of heaven.
A beautiful woman is the pride of her husband.
Iwori wotura.
Children are the pride of their mother.
Moon and stars are the pride of the sun.
Ifa says,
‘Beauty and all sorts of good fortunes arrive.’

The shape of the journey

I’m reading The Shape of the Journey: New and Collected Poems by Jim Harrison (Copper Canyon, 1998), following Tom Montag’s recommendation. This is my first exposure to Harrison’s work aside from the collection of epigrams he co-authored with Ted Kooser, Braided Creek, which I quoted from a few weeks back. I am impressed by the distinctiveness of each of Harrison’s books. He strikes me as comparable to Neruda in his ability to change style and mood to suit the concept, as well as in his boundless enthusiasm, detailed knowledge of the natural world and evident connoisseur’s appreciation of the finer things in life.

And as I discovered with Braided Creek, Harrison is eminently quotable. Here’s a very Via Negativa-compatible, extended quote from the book-length poem “Returning to Earth,” first published in 1977:

I no longer believe in the idea of magic,
christs, the self, metal buddhas, bibles.
A horse is only the space his horseness requires.
If I pissed in the woods would a tree see my ear
fall off and would the ear return to the body
on the morning of the third day? Do bo trees
ever remember the buddhas who’ve slept beneath them?
I admit that yesterday I built an exploratory altar.
Who can squash his delight in incomprehension?
So on a piece of old newspaper I put an earthworm
on a maple leaf, the remains of a bluebird after
the cat was finished – head and feet, some dog hair,
shavings from when we trimmed the horses’ hooves,
a snakeskin, a stalk of ragweed, a gourd,
a lemon, a cedar splinter, a nonsymbolic doorknob,
a bumblebee with his juice sucked out by a wasp.
Before this altar I invented a doggerel mantra
it is this    it is this    it is this


In 1996 Harrison came out with After Ikkyu and Other Poems. The 53-part title sequence is not a translation but an attempt to evoke the spirit and approach of the pre-modern Japanese poet and Zen roshi Ikkyu, famous even in Rinzai Zen circles for his nonconformity. Ikkyu not only celebrated his mistress in a series of erotic poems (imbued with deep religious meaning, we are led to believe), but scorned many elements of hallowed Zen tradition such as the convenient fiction of mind-to-mind transmission that had licensed, in his view, a proliferation of unenlightened bean-counters and power-mongers throughout the religious hierarchy of his day. He briefly accepted a prestigious appointment as abbot of one of the Big Five Zen temples in Kyoto, only to return to his little county temple in disgust after a couple of years. (I’m writing this portrait from memory; forgive me if I am a little fuzzy on the details).

I haven’t been able to get too far into this sequence without succumbing to nostalgia and other feelings that I don’t think Harrison intended to evoke. When I lived in Japan back in 1985-86 I roomed in a boarding house that was only a couple miles from Ikkyu’s country monastery. After one regular, daytime visit I returned often at night – it made a convenient destination for a roundabout ramble of about five miles through hills and rice fields. (It never occurred to me that I might be doing something wrong by slipping in without paying admission, just as it never occurred to the monks to post guards or install a burglar alarm.) Needless to say, for me and the other Zen-crazy American college students who shared that house, Ikkyu was something of a hero. Unfortunately, I didn’t keep a journal during most of my stay, so I’m unable now to fashion decent poems about Ikkyu or much else that occupied my otherwise sex- and alcohol-obsessed imagination at that time.

Despite this, I remain a stalwart believer in memory as an alembic for the distillation of experience. If I wrote everything down, how would I know what was really important as opposed to what merely seemed that way at the time? Doesn’t the act of writing stuff down make it important in a way it might not otherwise become? And in that case, wouldn’t the compulsive diarist find himself living to write – subtly or not so subtly letting his experience be shaped by his need to get a poem out of it – rather than vice versa? Not that that’s invariably problematic. But one suspects, you know, that a poet like Ikkyu (not to mention Rumi or Shakespeare) would’ve been far more interested in the “vice versa”!

In any case, when years later I came to write a poem about those nighttime walks, it wasn’t the temple I remembered, but a tiny Shinto shrine that had fallen into disrepair, as well as a great big golf course – which together seem more emblematic of what Japan has become in the modern era. My fascination with all things Zen and Buddhist had come to feel faintly absurd, part and parcel of the ridiculousness of choosing to live as an outsider in Japan – a zenophiliac in a country of xenophobics, as it were. I made it the lead poem in my small assemblage of poems about Japan, which, while not great literature, express somewhat more disenchantment with the culture than you will find in any number of dharma-besotted volumes by other American poets who have made the pilgrimage to the land of Basho and Murasaki.


I remember the quick flies
& the slow spiders, webs everywhere
in the woods that weren’t woods
but bamboo: nearly impenetrable palisades
that kept the trails narrow, if never straight.
You could go walking after dark
& not worry about getting lost.

In the hills where three prefectures joined
there was a small Inari shrine
I never saw by daylight. The moon there
was the moon of Saigyo & Charlie Chaplin.
One night I came across a tilted lake,
the kind of thing you only see in dreams.

I scaled the chainlink fence, stepped
cautiously onto the unrippled surface
of a putting green. Even so, I sank
into the sand trap, one more strange rock
in the garden of the Ryoanji.
How could I have missed
the absence of any reflection?
By now, even my own memories
have grown inscrutable.

Plummer’s Hollow, 2002

How could I? Over time, we forget our motives until we become like strangers to ourselves. It’s at that point that I become interested enough to want to attempt autobiographical poems.

(See Spoil for the rest of the poems in this sequence, which is called “Anything with Teeth.” This isn’t necessarily a plug. I feel I did my duty by putting the stuff out there. For some people these poems will seem necessary, to a few maybe even intoxicating, but to many more they will seem mostly meaningless or even downright harmful. And that’s as it should be. I will never forget the reaction an alcoholic I once worked with had to my first chapbook: “I thought it encouraged suicide. I took it out to the dumpster and burned it.” He took what he needed, as they say in recovery circles, and he left – or rather burned – the rest.)

Gimme some sugar

From a culinary perspective, reducing means more than simply boiling down, removing liquid, thickening a sauce. Chemical changes happen as well. My most significant discovery in 20-some years of cooking concerns onions that have been fried at the lowest possible heat: rather than the sturdy, flexible, translucent bits or ribbons familiar to us from omelets and pizza toppings, slow-fried onions turn to yellow-orange sugar.

This is called caramelization. It represents but one way of making sugar through the reductive process. Homebrewers know two or more other ways of splitting long chains of starch into shorter sugar molecules; all involve the application of fairly precise temperatures for periods of 45 minutes or more. The essential art of brewing lies not in fermentation – even vintners can manage that – but in the various methods of extracting fermentable sugar from starchy grains and other plant parts.

I bring this up to remind myself that reductionism can be a wonderful thing. Usually I focus on its negative aspects, and not without reason – the results are all around us. I was struck yesterday afternoon by the absurdity of an AP story comparing The Passion of the Christ with a remake of Dawn of the Dead based on the wholly arbitrary measure of last weekend’s North American box office ticket sales. (I tried to turn this into a Diogenes post, which I subsequently removed for being out of character.) The humorous, Jesus-versus-flesh-eating-zombies story line irritated me more than it should’ve, setting off a chain of associations with bestseller lists and the hit system that has so distorted the evolution of so-called ‘popular’ music. Several things stick in my craw here: the reduction of value to sales or profit; the fake populism used to disguise elite control and manipulation of tastes and opinions; and most of all the very notion that different things can and should be ranked according to their positions on meaningless continua or axes of our own invention.

This last impulse is the most deeply rooted and difficult to challenge. We invent, for example, the category ‘poetry’ to encompass various distinct and unrelated forms of intensified linguistic expression – everything from light verse to song lyrics to elaborate puns, riddles, metaphysical mazes, transcriptions of dreams, rhythmic narrations, and so on. Having invented the category, the next impulse is to decide which among its various components is best, purest, most representative of the category. Then one must try and rank individual poems or poets according to some scale, be it economic, scholarly or purely personal. But what does it mean to have a favorite poet? Favorite for all seasons and moods, or simply evocative of one’s favorite season and mood? Top ten lists seem fairly harmless as long as they remain light-hearted, purely personal and subject to constant revision, but what makes us so fond of them in the first place?

What is genius? Does it cohere to a creator or to the creation? To say that a work is a thing of genius is to emphasize its uniqueness, its originality – its resistance to comparison with anything else. Originality: never to be confused with novelty (though the hit makers and bestseller listers have long since forgotten the distinction). A unique work, thing or being originates in unrepeatable circumstances. Such particularities of time and place are reflected in the etymology of the word genius, as I mentioned last week. The Latin word refers to the tutelary spirit of a place or person; according to my dictionary, it derives from the verb gignere, to beget.

It may be that an inclination toward hierarchical thinking is in some way innate for humans. No doubt our social structures closely resemble the strictly hierarchical societies of dogs and crows, though the overwhelming power of culture in determining the shape of human societies makes hash of such appeals to biological determinism without the addition of a great number of qualifiers and caveats.

In Nature herself there are no hierarchies. No component of a natural system is trivial; greatness is a trick of perspective, a matter of the eye only. Those of us involved in translating the language of ecology for professional conservationists must be careful to remember that notions of “top-down trophic regulation” must never be reified, however well they seem to capture realities of predation and the way in which the loss of one species can have rippling effects throughout an ecosystem. The top-down arrangement was designed by humans for the convenience of other humans. It is a cognitive crutch made necessary by the inadequacy of human imagination: because “Nature is not only more complex than we know, but more complex than we can know,” as the ecologist Frank Engler is reputed to have said.

Scientists themselves of course remain very aware that their maps and models are provisional and imaginary constructs, valued for their predictive power and their elegance. “Elegance,” to a scientist, seems to include notions of utility and efficiency: Ockham’s razor rules supreme. The great power of reductionism is nowhere more in evidence than in the discoveries of Western science – discoveries that rest upon inventions, but are no less real for that. To pick the most obvious and fundamental example: all of mathematics rests upon unprovable assumptions, such as the convention that dissimilar things have an essence that is in some way comparable, capable of reduction to a cipher. This apple and that apple and the other apple: any one of them is one, their numerical value is interchangeable. Together they are three. What a terrible and impious lie if we take it for the whole truth – but what a useful fiction it is, the sine qua non of all “higher” civilization.

Every abstraction is a reduction, a step away from original wholeness. But is the return necessarily better than the journey outward? The Daoist, dogmatic in his preference for the uncarved block, rejects all flavor – literally. From a diet of unflavored grains the Daoist aspires to subsistence on air alone.

I say, to hell with that! Whole grains aspire not to bread but to beer, just as the caterpillar’s cells say butterfly – regardless of how often its doom may be spelled by killer fungus or ichneumon. So gimme some sugar! And give me the dance from suchness to symbol, from mystery to imagination and back again. The genius is in the dance.

Sparing the rod

Since I don’t have any children of my own, I’m reluctant to criticize the way others bring up their kids. Yesterday I was struck, however, by the contrast between the relatively permissive style of Eva’s parents and constantly scolding style of Morgan’s. For what it’s worth, I should note that I am not unsympathetic to the old-fashioned idea that children should be expected to conform to the realities of the adult world to some extent. I am uncomfortable with the approach taken by many more liberal parents my age who are reluctant to punish their offspring at all, and who try hard never to raise their voices. But I realize that, in feeling that way, I’m ignoring not only abundant evidence from ethnography but even the ideals of the political tradition with which I most identify, both strongly suggesting that, if children can be “spoiled,” it is not by permissiveness per se.

One of the most valuable contributions of the 150 year-old tradition of anarchism in the West has been to draw attention to the fundamental importance of child-rearing practices. How else to engineer social acceptance of dominance hierarchies, coercion, inequality, punitive “justice,” etc., except through the thorough indoctrination of children? To this day, church, school and family, joined by the ever-more-powerful mass media, share the burden of inculcating obedience to authority. Studies show, for instance, that around 80% of the time spent in public schools is consumed by activities unrelated to actual learning – unless one takes the cynical view that learning to follow arbitrary orders and to internalize a strong sense of inferiority are necessary to the development of citizenship.

The anarchist critique didn’t come out of a void. My geographer-brother Mark (Eva’s dad) is fond of pointing out that two of the founding figures of modern anarchism, Peter Kropotkin and Elisée Reclus, were geographers who drew numerous lessons from the study of non-Western cultures. More generally, strong circumstantial evidence suggests that 17th- and 18th-century European constitutionalist theory was at least inspired, if not actively shaped, by the example of the Iroquois and other Eastern Woodland Indian confederations.

Be that as it may, there’s little doubt that over the last five hundred years, travelers’ and missionaries’ accounts of American Indians have provided the strongest counter-example to the rigid social patterns of northern Europeans. However romanticized or distorted these accounts, I can’t help thinking that the knowledge that “another world is possible” played an essential role in the growth of the Western liberal and radical traditions. In 18th-century Pennsylvania and New Jersey, two peripatetic missionaries from the radical Pietist sect the Moravians, John Heckewelder and David Zeisberger, were open-minded enough to observe and describe the customs of Indians in great detail. Historical anthropologist and psychologist Anthony F. C. Wallace drew heavily on their accounts in the introductory chapter of his book King of the Delawares: Teedyuscung, 1700-1763 (Syracuse University Press, 1990 [1949]):

“The normal personality in the undamaged, aboriginal Delaware [i.e., Lenape] society seems, like that of most Indians of the northeastern woodlands, to have been remarkable for equanimity in the face of physical misfortune and for superficial equability in face-to-face social relationships. This throttling of overt signs of dissatisfaction and hostility stood in striking contrast to the bumptious, rough-and-ready aggressiveness of the invading whites.

“The formation of this type of equable personality can be traced to the treatment and education of the child. Eighteenth-century observers agree that punishment of any kind was avoided. The children, said Zeisberger, ‘follow their own inclinations, do what they like and no one prevents them, except it be that they do harm to others; but even in that case they are not punished, being only reproved with gentle words. Parents had rather make good the damage than punish the children, for the reason that they think the children might remember it against them and avenge themselves when they have attained maturity.’ Heckewelder agreed that the instruction of the young was never ‘done in an authoritative or forbidding tone, but, on the contrary, in the gentlest and most persuasive manner; nor is the parent’s authority ever supported by harsh or compulsive means; no whips, no punishments, no threats are ever used to enforce commands or compel obedience.’

“The attitudes thus described do not suggest an intense feeling of emotional interdependence among the members of the family, so much as a discreet care not to antagonize one another. Under such conditions, it seems that the individual would not be likely to develop the sort of punishing conscience demanded by European society. Social cooperation would be achieved by an individual’s calculating avoidance of antagonizing his opponents, rather than by any powerful inner sanctions of conscience.

“This attitude of wary politeness was generalized by the Delawares into a Weltanschauung that included the world of animals as well as of men. Toward the brute creation the Delawares preserved a respectful mien; animals valued for their flesh or skins, like the bear, were not treated with casual brutality but were killed with ceremony and in some cases addressed by the hunter as noble enemies . . .

“Among a people who did not have much experience of punishment in childhood, there was little opportunity for the development of a Jehovah-like god who dispenses favors to the good and chastises the wicked. There was, certainly, a Great Spirit who was the creator and maintainer of the natural system of the world. But the individual Delawares reckoned not with him but with a personal guardian, who was usually an animal spirit, like the Bear, who watched over and helped the Indian in the manifold crises of life. This Guardian Spirit revealed himself to the Indian youth in a dream or vision; and to him the Indian sang a sacred song describing the vision. The various ceremonies of the annual calendar consisted largely of the recitations of these visions.”

In a later book on the Iroquois, The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca (Random House, 1969), Wallace elaborates upon many of these themes in his portrait of a closely related (though linguistically distinct) people:

“The cultivation of the ideal of autonomous responsibility – and the suppression of its antimony, dependency – began early in life. Iroquois children were carefully trained to think for themselves but to act for others. Parents were protective, permissive, and sparing of punishment; they encouraged children to play at imitating adult behavior but did not criticize or condemn fumbling early efforts; they maintained a cool detachment, both physically and verbally, avoiding the intense confrontations of love and anger between parent and child to which Europeans were accustomed. Children did not so much live in a child’s world as grow up freely in the interstices of an adult culture. The gain was an early self-reliance and enjoyment of responsibility; the cost, perhaps, was a life long difficulty in handling feelings of dependency . . .

“The mother’s feeling for her children was intense; indeed, to one early observer it appeared that ‘Parental Tenderness’ was carried to a ‘dangerous Indulgence.’ Another early writer remarked, ‘The mothers love their children with an extreme passion, and although they do not reveal this in caresses, it is nonetheless real.’ Mothers were quick to express resentment of any restraint or injury or insult offered to the child by an outsider. During the first few years the child stayed almost constantly with the mother, in the house, in the fields, or on the trail, playing and performing small tasks under her direction. The mother’s chief concern during this time was to provide for the child and to protect it, to ‘harden’ it by baths in cold water, but not to punish. Weaning was normally not attempted until the age of three or four, and such control as the child obtained over its excretory functions was achieved voluntarily, not as a result of consistent punishment for mistakes. Early sexual curiosity and experimentation were regarded as a natural childish way of behaving, out of which it would, in time, grow. Grandparents might complain that small children got into everything, but the small child was free to romp, to pry into things, to demand what it wanted, and to assault its parents, without more hazard than the exasperated mother’s occasionally blowing water in its face or dunking it in a convenient river.”

Child-rearing practices vary enormously from one society to the next. Even among societies we may consider peaceful (including the early Moravians and, if not the Iroquois or Delaware, certainly the Algonquian-speaking Montagnais-Naskapi of Labrador) it is impossible to generalize, for example, about the relative valuation of individual autonomy vs. social dependence. But I think one can say about a great many village societies around the world what Anthony Wallace writes about the Iroquois, that “Behavior [is] governed not by published laws enforced by police, courts, and jails, but by oral tradition supported by a sense of duty, a fear of gossip, and a dread of retaliatory witchcraft.” Maintaining a peaceful, just and harmonious society without any social constraints whatsoever will probably always remain an unrealizable ideal.

And I know if I had a kid, sooner or later she would get her butt whacked.

Doll beings

Today I’m visiting my cousins in Gloucester township, New Jersey – part of Lenapehoking, the traditional homeland of the Lenape Indians. We’re gathering for a joint birthday celebration for Eva and her second cousin Morgan, who is four. As I sipped my morning coffee, Morgan entertained me with impromptu narratives about her play castles and her Barbie dolls – a fascination that her mother Heidi, an erstwhile tomboy, can’t quite comprehend. Heidi worries that Morgan might be learning unhealthy gender stereotypes from Barbie, but has decided she can’t forbid her from playing with the dolls altogether, since they were gifts and since her playmates are also into Barbie.

“In earlier times the Lenape Indians enjoyed their social dances. But not wishing to be distracted by their children, they placed them with a baby sitter. On one such occasion the assembled children decided to hold a dance of their own. For this purpose a boy carved a stick in the shape of a doll and carried it throughout the twelve dances. This childish event went unnoticed until the boy became inexplicably ill. A meteinu (or medicine man of great power) was consulted. He perceived that the boy had some possession and demanded special attention. After questioning, the boy acknowledged making the miniature doll that he and the others had included in their dances. The meteinu realized that this was no ordinary doll but a spirit of considerable power. . . . The meteinu advised the boy’s parents to make a better doll with which to appease the offended spirit and to continue the dances until the boy got well. He further advised them to hold an Ohtas Kentkan (Doll Dance) every year, through which the family and the whole tribe would prosper and remain in good health.

“Thereafter, such dolls were carved from a piece of wood about twelve inches long. They were given human hair and were dressed in miniature sets of Lenape clothing. It was believed that such Doll Beings possessed life and could understand what was said to them. They had the power to protect their owner’s health, and they enjoyed offerings and dances and resented ill-treatment. . . . It was believed that failure to perform [ritual] obligations would make the doll’s spirit angry and would surely cause evil to befall the owners and their relatives.”

– Herbert C. Kraft, The Lenape: Archaeology, History and Ethnography (New Jersey Historical Society, 1986).

Diogenes’ Tub (7)

From the AP: White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Bush was framing the shadow of terrorism as ‘a time of testing.’

As in education, so in foreign policy and domestic rule: teach to the test.


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.

Diogenes’ Tub (6)

From the LA Times: “‘If you are intellectual and have a lot of book learning and talk in ways that make that clear, then you are feminized,’ said Messner, who researches gender stereotypes. ‘You are seen as someone who could waffle when it comes time to make a big decision. All of that is code for not being masculine enough.’ . . . Polls indicate more women remain preoccupied with so-called ‘soft’ issues such as jobs, education and healthcare.”

Actually, all issues of any kind are now clearly “soft.” Seeing who’s hardest isn’t about issues, it’s about guns. Desperate times require desperate measures, say the manly men. I agree. For the health of the republic, the time has clearly come for male suffrage to be revoked.

One-hit wonders

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

The calculus of luck

Ungrateful keyboard! I wake myself up two hours early to write and all you can do is sit there. Your so-called keys stay locked. My brain says write, my heart says hum to yourself.

The new snow stopped falling sometime in the night and a few stars were blinking in and out of the clouds by 5:00. Every snowfall has its own properties; this one brings the trains closer and drives the gurgle of the stream farther away. As I sat out on the porch with my coffee I was admiring as I do so often the unique pitch of each eastbound locomotive whistling the crossings: Bellwood, Tipton, Grazierville, Tyrone, Plummer’s Hollow, Birmingham. Now all I can do is sit here and hum, writing about writing about nothing. Because important things have been happening too fast for me to record, unless I were to turn myself into a writing machine with no time left over to experience anything except in retrospect. So I guess I’ll have to break an unwritten rule here and resort to bullet points, so as not to forgo all mention of:

~ The courtship flights of the woodcock at dusk almost every evening for the past week – the way it can slip in and out of sight against the almost-dark clouds, the sudden transition from strange nasal peent to the rapid piccolo it makes somehow with its wings, rushing across the sky in wide arcs like a released balloon

~ The week-long Visit of the Beloved Granddaughter (my niece Eva) from Mississippi, and her 8th birthday celebration yesterday in the snow she welcomed as “a present from God – I mean from Santa!”

~ The scavenger hunt for birthday presents, and the riddles my dad and I had dreamed up for clues leading from one present to the next all over the farm

~ Some of the things collected before the snow fell: ruffed grouse feathers; jawbones from winter-killed deer; bird’s nests; a large handful of wild grape tendrils, each one an eloquent restatement of the beauty in clinging, the unique possibilities of attachment

~ My mother saying yesterday morning as the birds mobbed the strewn seeds: “I wonder if a fox sparrow will show up today?” and a fox sparrow showing up two hours later, obligingly digging his trademark holes in the snow, the song sparrows and juncos giving him a wide wake

~ The very punctual return of the eastern phoebe in the middle of the snowstorm. I was attending to e-mail yesterday afternoon when he landed on a branch of the mulberry sapling right outside the window where I type and flicked his tail up and down three times.

It’s light now and I can see what the night brought: just the barest additional skim of snow on top of yesterday’s five inches. Today, we’re off to Penn State to visit museums – always a fun thing to do in the company of a bright and inquisitive 8-year-old.

I don’t get to enjoy the company of children very often – especially children who love nature, poetry and all the other things that exercise the imagination. So naturally I’ve been enjoying the excuse to relive my childhood for a few days (who knew that tinkertoys could still be so much fun?!). Fueling my enthusiasm, too, is the marvelous, multi-authored literary experiment unfolding over at Commonbeauty, “The Archaeology of Childhood.” The entries are in the form of personal letters between participants, describing an illness or an affliction suffered during the writer’s childhood and what it meant to him or her. The results have been very moving – not a dud yet. As Tom Montag observed a couple days ago, this is an experiment that takes advantage of the unique possibilities of the blogosphere for spontaneity and immediacy.

I believe today will see the seventh and final installment of this unique experiment, so if you have the time to stop over you can read the whole series from start to finish.


When I began thinking about luck yesterday it was with a specific destination in mind, but I ended up somewhere else instead. I’ll start again, with the “reprint” of an essay off my other website that’s also in the spirit of the archaeology of childhood. This was written in January of last year, as the chorus of harpies calling for “shock and awe” in Baghdad was rising to a crescendo.



There were always rats in the barn when I was a kid. We kept the chicken feed in wooden bins reinforced with sheet metal but they still managed to chew through. My father said that a Norway rat could chew a hole in a lead pipe in twelve hours, and I believed him. He put out d-con rat poison, but it never got them all. We tried not to think about how it worked: slow death by dehydration.

Then when we cleaned out the shed, we found dozens of mummified rats hidden in the scrapwood pile. My brothers and I kept the most gruesome examples for a long time, bringing them out to show visitors. The mummies were completely hairless, and their tough yellow-brown hides made them seem less animal than vegetable, dried seed husks or corn stalks in winter. Except, that is, for their heads, the place where their eyes had been. “Look at this one! It’s still got all its teeth!” “Why is it grinning like that?”

The rats had excavated an extensive subway system connecting barn, shed, and compost heap. The only way to catch more than a glimpse was to sit very still in the basement of the barn for a while, for instance with a loaded .22. They were part of the natural order of things, and it never occurred to me that they could die out. But one day a few years after we stopped keeping chickens and the raccoons killed the last of our Muscovy ducks, I realized there weren’t any more rats around. Their major tunnel entrances were all grown up with weeds.

My niece Eva comes to visit at least once a year, at Christmas. Two years ago, when she was four, she and her Uncle Steve discovered a mummified duck under the hay in the barn basement. Something had eaten half its face, but otherwise it was in pretty good shape. Eva was fascinated. Every day for the rest of her visit she would beg to be taken down to the barn to see the dead duck. Nor was it a passing fancy–a year later she was still visiting it faithfully at its resting-place on the hay of the next-to-last stall.

Had I been thinking, I probably could have predicted that Eva’s first poem would include a duck–very much alive, with ducklings in tow. In my family, we’re fond of attempting such auguries about people, about the weather, about world affairs, though we never bet any money on them. For major events, like elections or impending wars, everyone will predict a different outcome.

These days, there’s fierce competition for the worst-case scenario. No one actually wants it to come true, of course–in fact, some of us cling to the notion that a bad thing can’t happen if it has been fully exposed in advance. But even if it does come to pass, someone at least can enjoy the brief frisson of its discovery. “Why is it grinning like that?”


This brings me to what I wanted to mention in yesterday’s post: the role of luck/grace in the birthing of any truly original poem or work of art. I don’t mean to discount the importance of practice, practice, practice. In fact, I think that Pasteur’s dictum, “Chance favors the prepared mind,” perfectly captures the relationship of preparation to inspired discovery. All I’m saying is that such discovery is utterly chancey – as my experience this morning with the mute keyboard reconfirms. And that it comes from some specific place, some spot in the in-between of earth and sky: all genius was originally of place. The word applied to the production of an artist only by the once-conventional presumption that inspiration is (as its eymology still implies) a species of possession.

I had been invited to participate in a poetry reading for State College’s First Night celebration a year ago, and as usual I brought my audience with me in the form of the extended family. Eva was then six going on seven and wanted to know what kind of tree was this “poetry” I was going to read about. She sat with me in the front row throughout the entire two-hour reading – a fairly hyper, high-energy kid who is also blessed with the ability to concentrate. A month or two later, her daddy helped her type her very first poem and I proudly e-mailed it around to all my friends. She hasn’t written anything like it since, and I have no intention of pushing her.

by Eva Bonta (6 going on 7 years old)

How would it be to smell
like a flower and the petals
fall off from cold wet breeze
pink and silver yellow.

The birds fly up to
their nest as hot as the
sun with their hot smooth
egg. The frog at the
pond croaked once more
as the Duck with her
Duck-lings go silently to
bed when the moon is