Stories and understories

Another clear, cold morning. The leaves of the red maples across the driveway are beginning to turn, and up in the woods the black gum understory glows yellow and orange, a foretaste of glory soon to come. The water in the stream has finally returned to normal after last Friday’s thirty-year flood, revealing newly carved, raw banks, sand and gravel bars, and even some new waterfalls.

This morning I am afflicted with a kind of restlessness I rarely feel at other times of year, a sort of map hunger. It is not specifically a travel bug, though certainly hopping in a car – if I had one – and following back roads all day would be one way to assuage it. Exploring more intimate landscapes – if I had a significant other – would be another way. Instead, I shall attempt to distract myself with the usual mixture of busyness and woolgathering.

It has always struck me as a bit sad that the coloring of the understory doesn’t play a bigger part in most peoples’ autumnal narratives. In another couple of weeks, those who can spare the time will drive north, perhaps to Pine Creek Gorge (a.k.a. the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania), to goggle at maples and birches in their fall plumage. But in my view, the obvious colors of those young forests can’t hold a candle to the range and subtlety of black gum, found widely as a sub-canopy tree here in the oak forests of central Pennsylvania. Whether or not the oaks themselves will color up properly is always impossible to predict; when they do, the deep, earth-toned reds and oranges provide a pleasing contrast with the incandescent sugar maple and dependably yellow tulip trees and elms. But by then the black gums will have shed their leaves, opening up the understory just in time for the witch hazel to show off their pale yellow blossoms against the year-round green of mountain laurel.

For many of the forest’s most charismatic inhabitants, of course, “the story is the understory,” as the title of a local conference for forest landowners put it a few years ago. Though foresters shudder at the thought of a future forest dominated by commercially useless species like black gum, the fact is that their many lateral branches, abundant fruit and (eventually) generous hollows provide numerous benefits to many species of songbirds and mammals. The dominance of black gum is of course unnatural – like virtually every aspect of present forest composition. Or, to put it differently, it represents a natural response to highly unnatural conditions, especially the regeneration of an even-age forest following the virtually complete clearcutting of the state a hundred years ago, and the absence of top predators and other keystone species and processes (especially wildfire and the passenger pigeon). Severe overbrowsing by white-tailed deer has created unnaturally open, park-like woods throughout much of Pennsylvania; ridgetop oak-heath forests are among the few communities where some sort of understory and even limited regeneration of canopy species has continued, thanks largely to the protection that mountain laurel thickets afford to tree seedlings.

I have dwelt on these themes here only once before that I can remember. That’s one of the most prominent ways in which Via Negativa does not fairly represent my day-to-day thinking, which is haunted by specters of environmental degradation on a daily if not hourly basis. An amusing – and, I thought, highly flattering – comment yesterday prompted the realization that, yes, this blog functions as a refuge of sorts for my most handicapped, maladapted and ill-begotten musings. An asylum, you might say. In response to yesterday’s brain fart about calla lilies, Leslee wrote, “You are completely insane, ya know. And the weird thing is, after reading your blog I sometimes start to think in a similarly warped way. But just for a few minutes. I don’t know if this is good or bad. Probably both.”

But I’m not like this in real life, honest! Or am I?


I wrote up our September 11 “Poets for Peace” reading for a local, alternative newspaper yesterday at the urging a friend, who is helping them get through a difficult transition period between editors. It would have been a little awkward, I felt, for the moderator to try and write a piece of objective journalism, so I cast it instead as an editorial. I had planned to try and quote a few lines from almost everyone who read, but that didn’t work out. The first few paragraphs described the rationale and modus operandi, which will be familiar to readers of my original blog post about it. I went on to quote from a couple of the readers whose work I thought would most resonate with a general audience. But for y’all, let me just quote from the conclusion:

Two different readers opened with poems by Jalal al-Din Rumi, the great 13th century Afghani-Persian poet and mystic. But possibly the most haunting of the afternoon’s poems were those of Lee Peterson, the “Emerging Poet-in-Residence” at Penn State’s Altoona College, from her just-published Rooms and Fields: Dramatic Monologues from the War in Bosnia (Kent State University Press, 2004). Reading in a quiet voice, barely above a whisper, Peterson channeled voices like that of Sabiha, in “The National Library”:

I had decided to study history at university
the day the library started burning.
I was loaded down with books on my way to my parents’ home.

People darted. They jerked like fish
caught on a huge, dry stone. . . .

As this, the lead poem in Peterson’s book, reminds us, written words are among the first casualties of war. Even in the United States, it is becoming increasingly easy to imagine a future in which certain forms of expression are banned; under the so-called Patriot Act, libraries and librarians have already witnessed government-sanctioned assaults on our constitutional rights. I don’t think any of us who organized the “Poets for Peace” reading expected that it would be controversial, and we sent out press releases in good faith. Thus, for me, one of the biggest surprises of the afternoon – aside from the high quality of the readings – was the complete lack of coverage by the local press. That evening, I perused the September 11 edition of the Centre Daily Times. It contained a special feature on “What the Flag Means to Me.”

I worry that the meaning of September 11 will be increasingly confined to themes of patriotic martyrdom and wounded pride. In the future, will American schoolchildren remember the World Trade Center attacks the way Serbian schoolchildren remember the disastrous Battle of Kosovo in the 14th century? As poets, I feel we have a special responsibility to honor all points off view and give voice to all perspectives in order to forestall the tyranny of a single, acceptable interpretation. Lee Peterson’s “Kosovo Polje: The Field of Blackbirds,” imagines what such a reduction has meant for this archetypal battlefield, the ground zero of Serbian epic poetry:

. . . even the worms found new homes.

Now only crows play in the weeds
or watch from the swinging heads of pines
while men root the dust

for the one thing they claim
will take them back and back and back.


And let me finish up here by saying what I didn’t have space for in the editorial: Serbian epic poetry, for all its focus on violence and nationalism, is great stuff! Check out the translation of The Battle of Kosovo by John Matthias and Vladeta Vuckovic (Ohio University Press, 1987). The complete text, which includes a preface by Charles Simic, is available on-line.

Simic describes what a performance of the oral epic was like:

One day in school, in what must have been my fifth or sixth grade, they announced that a guslar would perform for us. This was unexpected. Most city people in those days had never heard a gusle being played, and as for us kids, brought up as we were on American popular music, the prospect meant next to nothing. In any case, at the appointed time we were herded into the gym where an old peasant, sitting stiffly in a chair and holding a one-stringed instrument, awaited us. When we had quieted down, he started to play the gusle.

I still remember my astonishment at what I heard. I suppose I expected the old instrument to sound beautiful, the singing to be inspiring as our history books told us was the case. Gusle, however, can hardly be heard in a large room. The sound of that one string is faint, rasping, screechy, tentative. The chanting that goes with it is toneless, monotonous, and unrelieved by vocal flourishes of any kind. The singer simply doesn’t show off. There’s nothing to do but pay close attention to the words which the guslar enunciates with great emphasis and clarity. We heard The Death of the Mother of the Jugovici that day and a couple of others. After a while, the poem and the archaic, other-worldly-sounding instrument began to get to me and everybody else. Our anonymous ancestor poet knew what he was doing. This stubborn drone combined with the sublime lyricism of the poem touched the rawest spot in our psyche. The old wounds were reopened.

The early modernist Serbian poet and critic, Stanislav Vinaver, says that the sound of gusle is the sound of defeat. That, of course, is what the poems in the Kosovo Cycle are all about. Serbs are possibly unique among peoples in that in their national epic poetry they celebrate defeat. Other people sing of the triumphs of their conquering heroes while the Serbs sing of the tragic sense of life. In the eyes of the universe, the poems tell us, the most cherished tribal ambitions are nothing. Even the idea of statehood is tragic. Poor Turks, the poet is suggesting, look what’s in store for them.


Yes, and from Jerusalem, O from that holy place,
A great gray bird, a taloned falcon flew!
And in his beak he held a gentle swallow.
But wait! it’s not a falcon, this gray bird,
It is a saint, Holy Saint Eliyah:
And he bears with him no gentle swallow
But a letter from the Blessed Mother.
He brings it to the Tsar at Kosovo
And places it upon his trembling knees.
And thus the letter itself speaks to the Tsar:
“Lazar! Lazar! Tsar of noble family,
Which kingdom is it that you long for most?
Will you choose a heavenly crown today?
Or will you choose an earthly crown?
If you choose the earth then saddle horses,
Tighten girths- have your knights put on
Their swords and make a dawn attack against
The Turks: your enemy will be destroyed.
But if you choose the skies then build a church-
O, not of stone but out of silk and velvet-
Gather up your forces take the bread and wine,
For all shall perish, perish utterly,
And you, O Tsar, shall perish with them.”

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