The red menace

Overcast at dawn. The backing-up beeping of distant quarry trucks mingles with the cheeps and chirps of finches in the yard. A Carolina wren’s inquisitive trill. Qui vive? Not who lives but who goes. Who goes there?

Last night listening to Henry Thomas, strange East Texas bluesman with a penny whistle: “I’m going where I never get hoodooed.” Is there really such a place? If someone walks on the site of your future grave, they say, you’ll feel the chill regardless of the miles in between.

The aspen leaves have reached their peak of color, that incandescent red-tinged gold. Yesterday afternoon I sat on my porch watching them make conversation with the wind and realized I didn’t have any better words for it than that. The aspens shimmered – or shimmied – and dive-bombing ladybugs filled the air.

It was the first day of the annual Asian ladybug invasion. This forced to me to become unusually attentive to my person, brushing the beetles from beard, hair or rim of glasses several times a minute. I was agog – as I always am at first – by the tremendous variation in size, color and number of spots exhibited by this one species. They run the gamut from light orange to deep red, and from no spots to more than twenty. Here’s one on my leg that’s twice the diameter of a pencil eraser; that one on the porch railing is barely as big as a drop of blood.

But it seems that the price for such variability – surely an index of the species’ tremendous adaptability – has been a precipitous drop in native ladybug diversity here in the east. Out-competed by the hordes of aliens, which have been temporarily freed from the checks of their native parasites and diseases, our own ladybug species are disappearing. There are (or were) something like 450 species of ladybug beetles native to the U.S. east of the Mississippi. How many will survive?

I try to recall the last time I saw one of those classic, two-spot ladybugs that used to be so common when I was a kid. Those were the ones we most often sang the morbid little nursery rhyme to: Your house is on fire, your children are gone! They flew away, all right, and they might never come back.

The red maple trees next to the driveway colored up and dropped their leaves in the space of only a few days, all of which were foggy and rainy. This is turning into one of those autumns where the best foliage displays are under one’s feet. I find myself craving the glossy sound of a banjo.

Yesterday I was listening to Public Enemy’s 1991 album Fear of a Black Planet. Like the Bible, their lyrics admit of multiple readings, and seem eerily prophetic. Brain game, intellectual Vietnam . . . Welcome to the terrordome.

When the temperature drops below 57 degrees F., the ladybugs stop flying. Late in the afternoon, a couple field crickets start up – I had just been wondering if I’d hear any more from their tribe this year. The air is heavy: good for carrying odors, bad for sounds. The train whistle blowing the Plummer’s Hollow crossing sounds as if it could be five miles away. The knocking of the rails as the freight cars pass over could be anything, I think – even the mountain’s own, faint pulse.

A pileated woodpecker calls from one of the trees in the yard, that mechanical laughter, a prehistoric sound. I catch a glimpse of his flaming crest as he circles a tall locust, probing for ants.

Gray November looms. This could be one of the last warm afternoons of the year. Feeling at peace with myself and the world, whence this sudden urge to get out the rifle and look for something, anything to shoot?

The anatomy of perception (2)

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Anatomy of Perception


For this section, I borrowed a story from Dale, who was responding in turn to Susan’s question about the senses. Once again, the epigraph is from Pascal, and the subject, as in Dale’s story, is the late critic Cleanth Brooks.

UPDATE: Lines 5-8 of second stanza rewritten (10/31) in response to an objection from Dale (see comments).


Having assurance only because we see with our whole sight, it puts us into surprise and suspense when another with his whole sight sees the opposite . . . For we must prefer our own lights to those of so many others, and that is bold and difficult.

When the scholar’s eyesight fades,
what good are his books?
His library turns as unreadable
as Lascaux: scriptless drama of shapes
on the walls of a cave, the artifice
unglossed within the viscera
where the quarry – tissue
of allusions
– still bristles
with bookmarks. That flux of the world
of becoming:
to capture is
to kill it. Decipherment leads to loss.
The dance must be primary, he wrote.

I acted briefly as amanuensis,
lent him my eyes for a paper he had to give.
Bending to my task, I felt
of little use, a cheap fiction.
My West Coast accent flattened
the words he loved, robbed them
of shadows – like trading embossed
leather covers for a paperback spine.
Perhaps he sensed, even then, the germ
I carried on my youthful breath,
insidious as any misty paraphrase,
corrosive as hope.

Hot raccoon sex

Raccoons tend to have either a polygynous or a promiscuous mating system, or some combination of the two. In a polygynous system, a male mates with at least two females. Various forms of polygyny exist, ranging from relatively loose arrangements in which males mate with a number of females seemingly at random, to more organized structures such as those in which a male actively defends a harem within a defined space. Certainly, the raccoon engages in a loose form of this mating system. In fact, its social structure seems so loosely organized in some populations that it has been described as promiscuous. In promiscuous mating, males and females may each couple with various partners throughout the breeding system. This often happens in such a haphazard manner that it is difficult to even characterize this behavior as belonging to a particular system. Again, the raccoon’s mating arrangements may vary between the two systems, even concurrently within the same area, depending on the degree to which a male, or perhaps a group of males, has exclusive mating rights to the females in its home range. –Samuel I. Zeveloff, Raccoons: A Natural History, Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002

Dontcha just love the way animal behaviorists describe behaviors they don’t understand as “haphazard”? And what’s up with “mating rights”? One would have thought only humans were so unevolved as to regard females as property!

Though a naturalist should always beware of excessive anthropomorphizing, I think it’s worth remembering that, in many ways, raccoons do resemble human beings. They are highly adaptive and omnivorous. They have binocular vision and an exceedingly well-developed sense of touch. Though their forepaws are not quite as sensitive and dexterous as the hands of primates, they do come close – to the consternation of humans who find themselves limited in their ability to lock coons out of something they want access to. They have highly developed vocabularies, as one would expect for creatures with strong social bonds between mothers and offspring. Some researchers feel they are right behind primates in the complexity and flexibility of their associations. They use communal latrines, and they love garbage.

Although some males commonly mate with several females each spring, pair bonds between individuals may still occur in some areas. On the other hand, though a male and female may even den together throughout the winter and bond with one another a month before mating, the female may still breed with several males.


After the mating period, no associations between males and females are apparent, and the males provide no assistance in rearing the cubs.


As is true of many carnivores, including canids and pinnipeds, the erectile tissue of the penis is reduced and its function supplanted by a penis bone, the baculum. In the raccoon, the baculum is long and curved, which helps the male maintain vaginal penetration. Mating, which occurs between January and March, immediately after emergence from winter sleep, may last an hour or more.
–John O. Whitaker, Jr., and William J. Hamilton, Jr., Mammals of the Eastern United States, Cornell University Press, 1998

Eyewitness accounts of raccoons fucking are rare, due to their human-like preference for the privacy of a den. Here’s one description I found:

A pair of copulating raccoons was observed on February 26, 1954, at the Campbell Farm from 9:05 a.m. to 10:01 a.m. The morning was cloudy (five-tenths [i.e., half?] of sky covered), chilly (estimated to be between 35 and 40 F.), and with a breeze of approximately 15 miles per hour. A young female weighing approximately 10 pounds, and an older male weighing approximately 15 pounds, were in a small grove of saplings on the south bank of the Wakarusa River.

Shrill cries uttered by the female were heard first at 9:05 a.m.; the animals were seen first at 9:09 a.m. when the male, mounted on the female, was tightly holding her in a semi-crouched position with his forelegs immediately in front of her hind legs, and his hind feet were on the ground between hers. He was making rhythmic copulatory movements, consisting of a slow inward motion (requiring three or four seconds) in which he seemed to thrust his penis deeply into the female’s vagina, and a faster outward motion (less than one second) as the penis was withdrawn partway and at which time the male’s pelvis was elevated and the forepart of his body brought forward and downward. The penis is inserted in the vagina in such a way that the baculum is hooked over the pelvic bone of the female, probably assuring his position on the female [reference omitted]. At each of the quick withdrawing motions the female uttered a sharp rattling cry and often attempted to bite the male by turning her head upward. Her actions frequently caused the pair to lose their footing and fall, the male always holding his position.

At 9:17, the male ceased the thrusting movements, and at 9:19 he began jerking movements, from one side to the other, roughly pulling the hindquarters of the female with him, causing her to utter a short cry. This activity caused the pair to move in a circle with heads toward its center. The vigorous thrusting movements were resumed at 9:29, and at 9:42, the cries of the female diminished except for an occasional whimper. Copulatory movements ceased at 9:46, at which time the pair settled slowly to the ground. The forepart of the male was down with his head over the left side of the female and his hindquarters conspicuously high. Less than two minutes later, the male again was dragging the female in a space approximately ten feet in diameter. At 9:51, thrusting movements, slower than those previously noted, were resumed. The rate of these movements was soon doubled but this time the withdrawing motion of the male was less vigorous and the female was not crying out. These movements were interrupted three times by the male by short circular movements. At 10:01, the male suddenly slipped away from the female and ran rapidly southward. The female hesitated a few seconds, then slowly walked eastward, and entered a ground den.
–Howard J. Stains, The Raccoon in Kansas, State Biological Survey [Lawrence, KS], 1956

Despite the humorously clinical language, in the absence of fuller information on the emotional lives of these animals, it is almost impossible to avoid bias in a description like this. Does the female utter “cries” and “whimpers,” or are they really “screams” and “moans”? Stains said the female “often attempted to bite the male,” but what did he actually observe? Was this behavior agonistic, as he seems to imply, or playful?

But the observer can hardly help it if he reflects the unconscious biases of his culture. The perception of the male as active, aggressive initiator and female as largely passive responder is built right into the language and mental imagery we use for sex: we tend to picture the vagina as a hole, an empty space waiting to be filled, rather than (for example) a powerful ring of muscles, or a dense matrix (Latin for “womb”) of interlocking, life-giving organs and tissues. One can only wonder how a scientifically trained observer from, say, Borneo – where sex practices strongly emphasize female pleasure, and favor plateaus rather than climactic peaks – would have interpreted this same copulation.

Needless to say, the term “promiscuous” is also far from neutral in its connotations. But there’s no doubt male raccoons get around. I got this nifty snapshot from my neighbor a while back; I’m not sure where it originated.

Free Image Hosting at

This survey wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the many cultural uses of raccoon penis bones: as amulets, as jewelry – even as pipe cleaners. This seems to go back to the Indians.

[In 1649, Finnish naturalist Peter Kalm wrote] that the raccoon’s oddly curved penis bone – which Linnaeus had noticed while dissecting his pet – was hailed by the Indians as the perfect tool for cleaning their tobacco pipes.
–Virginia C. Holmgren, Raccoons: In Folklore, History, and Today’s Backyards, Capra Press [Santa Barbara], 1990

According to my brother Mark, a cultural geographer and Latin Americanist, the use of raccoon baculums as love charms occurs as far south as Central America. The commercial Lucky Mojo website includes a brief essay (or extended catalog copy) on the subject. The author, catherine yronwode, cites her own experience in the Ozarks, and offers a helpful list of vernacular names: love bone, pecker bone, coon dong, possum prick, Texas toothpick and mountain man toothpick. Yronwode stresses their use as love charms and good-luck charms – but of course, part of her aim is to sell the things. To me, the most interesting anecdote was this one:

Early in 1996, my co-worker Susie Bosselmann came into my office and saw my stuff and — to my surprise, as she is a very “fussy” person who abhors bugs and spiders — she said, “Ooh, lookie! You’ve got coon dongs!” She was pointing to the penis bones Larry and Barry had sent to me.

Susie is in her 60s and she grew up in Oklahoma, an area contiguous with Missouri and Texas. I had thought that the wearing of raccoon penis bones was limited to the Midwest, but she expanded my horizons when she said that she and her husband had recently been at a gun show in Kentucky and had seen “a beautiful coon dong necklace, with hundreds of ’em strung together, just like a Cherokee Indian ceremonial necklace.” She would have bought it but it was too expensive, she said. I asked her why someone would make a coon dong necklace, and she said, “Well, what ELSE can ya do with ’em?”

I think the raccoons might have a few ideas about that.

The anatomy of perception (1)

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Anatomy of Perception


This begins a brief series on the anatomy and phenomenology of perception, using quotes from Blaise Pascal, Pensées: Thoughts on Religion and other subjects, translated by William Finlayson Trotter. The original suggestion to discuss the senses (which I refuse to try and enumerate, by the way) came from a post at Susan’s blog, so it seems only appropriate that I begin there, with all due apologies for this attempt to speak in her voice. (Susan has shown herself to be a quite competent poet in her own right.)

I expect the series to last the rest of the week. The final sections are at present still in a very rough state.


Let us imagine a body full of thinking members.

The uterus knew what I
& the doctor did not.
It threatened mutiny.

The mind is more than brain,
I’d say, the body’s
a net of nerves,

which makes the womb a net
within a net. Mine wasn’t
about to let its catch be killed

when the baby still sat
ass-downward & they talked
about turning it. Something,

everything said NO.
I chose the Caesarian.
When they went in, they found me

so deformed, they took
pictures. The baby had sat
the only way she could fit

& turning her would’ve killed her,
ruptured the uterus. Call it
instinct, sixth sense.

I opted for mild sedation,
& if they’d let me
I would’ve watched. I was

that detached. Only
the thought of the turning
made my insides flip.

Appalachian ghosts

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Blogging the Appalachians


If I had to choose one word to describe the Appalachian region, it would be haunted. The mountains are full of ghosts. Gone are most of the Indians, their languages and oral literatures with them – unique and irreplaceable ways of looking at the world. Gone from the east are the bison and the wolves, except for a tiny pack of inbred red wolves in North Carolina. Gone forever are the heath hen, the ivory-billed woodpecker and the passenger pigeon, a single flock of which could once darken the sky for three days with its passage. The mighty American chestnut, source of the strongest timber and some of the best wildlife food in the mountains, has disappeared except for the runty sprouts that live ten or twenty years before succumbing to the blight.

Gone is the great eastern forest, and most of the soil with it. People tend to think of a forest chiefly as a conglomeration of trees, but that’s not the half of it. The few remaining tracts of eastern old growth are qualitatively different from the surrounding woods, most noticeably in the depth of the humus, which teems with fungal and microbial life two thirds of which probably belongs on the endangered species list – not that anyone has ever bothered to study and classify it. Only in the last couple of decades have ecologists begun to appreciate the extent to which trees depend upon their fungal associates to perform such basic tasks as nutrient and water uptake. Some of these fungi only produce fruiting bodies underground, depending on animals such red-backed voles and northern flying squirrels to disperse their spores. What happens when one corner of this three-legged stool is removed?

Erosion following repeated clearcutting and associated fires removed 11,000 years’ worth of accumulated humus on many steep mountain slopes. Now, non-native, invasive earthworms are rapidly colonizing soils throughout the eastern forest, preventing the formation of new humus and changing the soil chemistry in the process. The Southern Appalachians contain the most biodiverse temperate forest in the world. They are, for example, a major center of terrestrial salamander endemicity; absent a humus layer, it’s difficult to believe that very many of these forest floor denizens will survive.

Another familiar and cherished measure of Appalachian biodiversity is the wealth of spring ephemeral wildflowers, slow-growing perennials whose very names are magic: ginseng, Jack-in-the-pulpit, Solomon’s seal, wild sarsaparilla, wake robin, may apple, foam-flower, spotted mandarin, trailing arbutus, yellow lady’s-slipper, goldenseal . . . These plants are rapidly becoming scarce throughout their ranges, threatened by a seemingly endless litany of threats: acid rain from coal burning power plants; an overabundance of deer; competition with invasive plants better adapted to an earthworm-infested soil; clearcutting; suburban and exurban sprawl; the conversion of hundreds of thousands of acres of rich, moist, mixed-species forests into red pine plantations; and – most horrifying of all – mountaintop removal, a new, more extreme form of strip mining in which vast portions of mountainous West Virginia and Kentucky are being turned into rolling, grassy uplands drained by dead streams and unlikely to support true forests ever again.

The violence of the frontier never really subsided. It merely grew less personal, more institutionalized. While the people who lived here before Europeans came were not exactly peaceful, the idea of conquest was largely unknown to them. Intertribal wars, where children of the enemy were kidnapped and raised as full members of the tribe to replace slain warriors, resembled the low-intensity ground fires the Indians set every few years to promote the growth of deer browse plants and blackberry thickets. The Indians aimed at a rough equilibrium between opposing forces rather than the subjugation or obliteration of a hated foe.

The concept of a nature apart from humanity has no real equivalent in indigenous worldviews. But the essential dignity and integrity of non-human beings – their self-willed quality, their wildness – was respected. Greater-than-human realities were revered, including everything that we understand by the word wilderness and then some. It’s all very well to say that our thinking has “advanced” to the point where – perhaps – a bare majority of American citizens might have some appreciation for these perspectives. But until the underlying social and economic structures change, all the sympathetic understanding in the world won’t do much good. The very people who claim to care the most about nature are the ones building new homes on lots gouged out of the forest. The conquest continues.

(A Suburban Mother Tells Stories to Her Son)
by Louise McNeill

My great great grandpa Jethro walked
The wild savannas deep in grass;
He saw the herds of buffalo
File westward through the mountain pass.

Great grandpa William in his time
Remembered pigeons wild and gray
Whose thousand wings beat out the sun
The morning that they flew away.

My grandpa Frederick could recall
The wild trout flashing in their school;
He set his stick of dynamite
And scooped a hundred from the pool.

My father, Douglas, saw the trees.
Across this bare, eroded land,
He saw the tulip tree and ash,
The spruce and hemlock – virgin stand.

And I myself at morning saw
The chestnut on the ridge – its living green –
The blue-fringed gentian . . .

Listen now, my son –
Stories at evening – wonders I have seen;
And as we sit, look sharp and well remember –
Your son may hear the strangest tale of all:
How little rabbits hopped across our garden,
How grass grew by the wall,
And there, one night, when you were six or seven,
You heard a bobwhite call.

(Hill Daughter: New and Selected Poems, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991)

Since McNeill wrote that poem, in the late 1960s or early 70s, populations of northern bobwhite quail (Colinus virginianus) have declined throughout its range. In all my 38 years, I have never heard a bobwhite call.


Thus, the ghost stories we love to scare each other with this time of year point to darker realities, for me. Of course, the Appalachian region abounds with stories of witches, haints and other uncanny beings. I say “uncanny” rather than “supernatural” because some, such as the fabled white stag or Will o’ the Wisp, have a basis in reality.

When my brothers and I were young, we used to go trick-or-treating over to our only neighbor’s house largely for the legends and lies Margaret was all too willing to feed our young imaginations with. One she told might be called . . .

The Headless Hunter

Way back in the late 19th century, two teenage boys were hunting deer on the end of the ridge above the railroad tracks. When darkness came on, they started down the knife-edge toward their homes in Upper Tyrone Forge. Only one boy carried a carbide lamp, but the other walked confidently in front, shotgun slung over his shoulder. When he tripped over a root in the darkness, his gun discharged, blowing the other boy’s head off. For ever after, until the last house along the crossing was abandoned in the 1960s, folks in Upper Tyrone Forge said they could look up at the mountain on dark nights in late October and see a light moving through the woods where the dead hunter was still looking for his head.

For another of Margaret’s “Legends of Plummer’s Hollow,” I’m indebted to the superior memory of my brother Steve:

The Phantom Fallen Woman

One summer in the early years of the 20th century, George Plummer brought a mysterious young woman home from Pittsburgh with him, and informed the family of tenant farmers living in what we now call the Guest House that she would be staying in the main house for the rest of the summer. They thought it peculiar that she almost never showed herself outside during daylight hours, spending all her time in the dark, upstairs bedroom at the north end of the house. It seemed that she had musical training of some sort. Mr. Plummer – by this time, a wealthy man – bought a small church organ at auction and installed it there for her, and the tenants told Margaret’s mother that they often heard her playing the organ and singing concert music in a fine soprano voice.

Late in the summer, the reason for her visit leaked out: she was unmarried and with child, and as a friend of the family, it was said, she had been invited to spend her period of confinement in the welcome solitude of Plummer’s Hollow, far from wagging tongues. She gave birth to a child at the end of the summer and returned to Pittsburgh, where she died shortly thereafter. (My brother says Margaret was fuzzy on the details: how she died, and whether the baby lived.)

In the years following her death, a number of families living in the tenant house reported hearing the sound of an organ coming from that upstairs room, though oddly this never happened during the summer, when people were living there, only in the long months when the house was shuttered up. As late as 1970, someone walking across the back slope claimed she heard the unmistakable sound of a woman’s voice singing a very strange-sounding song with words she couldn’t make out. She was frightened out of her wits and fled down the hill as fast as she could run.

With the arrival of the Bonta family in 1971, as my brother put it in an e-mail, “the unquiet spirit of the fallen woman seems to have found peace.” We have never seen or heard anything uncanny here in all our years of occupancy.

Well, almost nothing. Living in the aforementioned Guest House – also once thought to harbor a ghost – I have grown accustomed to a huge range of noises that might spook a visitor. The house was built in stages in a rather haphazard fashion, which resulted in an unusual number of crawl spaces above, below and between sections. I’ve gotten used to scraping, sliding, chewing, and tapping noises, things that go bump and things that chatter their teeth, things that wail and whimper and moan. I generally ascribe the uncannier noises to either raccoons or porcupines; the others could be anything from mice to woodchucks, bats, flying squirrels or one of three species of snakes that I know share the house with me. When it gets really cold in January, the plank walls can pop audibly as they contract. And once in a rare while, I do hear a sound I simply can’t place. Sometimes, the hair rises on the back of the neck despite my best efforts to laugh it off.

I guess we’re a lot less fearful about living way out in a lonely, northeast-facing hollow than a lot of folks might be. One of my cousins from suburban New Jersey won’t spend the night in our guest bedroom because, she says, she finds the silence itself unnatural and unsettling. To us, living with an interstate right over the ridge to the west and a noisy quarry to the east, it’s never quiet enough. We mourn the fact that generations of fearful white folks with guns have left us such a tamed and diminished land. This mountain probably hasn’t had any rattlesnakes in a hundred years. Until the late 1980s, black bears were a rare sight. One of the last wolves in Pennsylvania was shot on this very mountain back in the 1870s or 80s. Coon hunters still scare themselves with tales of coyotes following them and their dogs through the woods at night, their howls growing nearer and nearer . . .

Our own hunter friends are pretty commonsense folks, but they never mind telling a good story on themselves. One of them, Jeff, once told me about an incident that befell him early one morning, well before daylight. He had parked at the bottom and was climbing the side of the hollow, heading for his tree stand, when he heard something rustling close behind him in the dry leaves. As soon as he stopped, the noise stopped. He started up the hill again and there it was, following just as close. He walked faster, but whatever it was kept right up. “Finally I was just running, you know, but I got out of breath and had to stop. That’s when I noticed there was a long strap hanging out of the back pocket of my coat!”

His brother Troy told a more spooky, but still believable, tale about a time when he was still-hunting for turkey, leaning up against a tree over in Margaret’s Woods, dressed all in camouflage. Suddenly he heard a loud voice: “You can’t hide!” He looked all around, but nobody was there. Then he heard it again. “You can’t hide!” It was coming from right overhead! He looked up into the branches of the tree, and there was a crow staring back at him. It cawed as if it were laughing at him, then flew away.

Troy is not a man given to wild flights of imagination. “I ran back to the truck,” he told us, “and when Paula come down, she seen right away something wasn’t right.” “He was white as a sheet!” his wife confirmed, adding that she made him tell the tale a number of times before she finally believed him. They both seemed relieved when my dad described a talking crow he had seen as a kid. “It’s probably someone’s pet that escaped,” he said – and thus another potentially supernatural story was brought to earth.


Margaret’s house has stood empty for over a decade now. We were able to buy the property when the lumberman was done with it, and we maintain trails and a parking lot for our hunter friends over there. Kids from the valley have snuck up and gone through the place at least once; Dad and I boarded up the windows and doors to try and prevent liability in case of an accident. Even before that, it was depressing to go in there, with the moldy flotsam from two generations of lonely and impoverished mountain people scattered all around. Margaret was, in life, a paranoid and suspicious person with a great local reputation for shooting first and asking questions later. According to a now-deceased hunter friend of her brother’s, some prostitution went on in the house back during the Depression. (I’m paraphrasing; the exact words were, “They used to run a cathouse up there, you know!”) But for all that, as far as I know, no unquiet spirits have been seen or heard there in the thirteen years since Margaret died.



Over the years we bought it piece by piece,
this hollow that still bears the name
of its 19th-century homesteader on the topo maps.
Lawyers framed the title transfers in proper terms
& the county courthouse took note,
whiting out the now-redundant property lines
on its own maps that admit no extraneous detail:
no creeks or contours that might signal a watershed,
no shading (say) to plot the alternation
of field & “unimproved woodlot,”
the land parceled out in jagged shards.

But for all that our deeds were driven
by our love for the uncut forest, who are we
to put our name down here as if
it were some magic seed that could set
root overnight? It’ll take us years
to grow out of our wariness,
skulking like feral cats around Margaret’s place.


Twenty years ago, in the flush of first purchase,
in between battles with blizzard, flood & drought
my father followed every lead
through a century of local newspaper files & tax records,
unearthed the barest of clues to the hollow’s history:
Margaret’s artist mother must’ve
married a ne’er-do-well, for she had
half her land lumbered in 1901 to pay
back taxes, & sold the other half for a song
to settle a grocery bill, her own
uncle Jacob calling the tune.

The scarred land healed. By the 1970s
the third-growth woods gave ample cover
to the shadiest of dealings,
bore witness to a separate truth – soon enough
to be violated in turn. While each
of the two elderly cousins – arrogant
nouveau riche and “poor white trash” –
ravaged by alcoholism, however genteel –
strung up for us the other’s skeleton
in a common closet of lies.


One hot June morning I amble over,
shovel in hand. You never know,
treasures of dubious lineage keep turning up.
Like its late occupant the place still holds
a few cards close.

Below the house the huge
catalpa tree’s in bloom, littering the driveway
with pale monkey-faced blossoms,
& the other catalpa up by the outhouse
harbors in its dense shade a weed-free iris bed
& a mob of sweet william gone native
with multihued abandon. At 96 degrees Fahrenheit
the cumulative scent from the yard becomes
an almost visible miasma.

I nose about the grounds, sizing up
the ancient fruit trees:
Keifer pear, a thicket of plum,
Concord grape on a stalwart trellis,
a half-dead quince
& the sprout-clogged branches that already droop
with this year’s apple crop:
Baldwin. Pippin. Winesap. Smokehouse.
The mottled trunks of these last survivors
from an orchard abandoned in the ’40s
could exhaust an artist’s palette.

The house has proved less hardy.
Two winters of heavy snows & a rampant wisteria
have conspired against both porches,
& the whole back half of the house
meanders on a collapsed foundation,
senile with rot.


Fifteen feet away I come to a stop.
Memories of Margaret’s ghost stories
from childhood Halloweens
are summoned up by a multiphonic hum
and an odor overpoweringly sweet.
I look up: honeybees beard the attic gables
crowding the cracks like subway commuters at rush hour.
These are, no doubt, distant descendants
of the bees Margaret kept for decades
in boxes above the orchard – my pets,
she used to laugh. I press my ear
against the faded clapboard
to listen to the roar: no seashell’s
echo of my own bloodsurf, but the actual
pulse of the house, murmuring
like an industrial loom from
the gentle fricative welding of warp to weft.

I step back to watch the bees.
After a while I start to see a pattern
in their lines of flight, spokes
of a spinning wheel drawing in nectar
from every blossoming corner of the yard.
The hive couldn’t have found a fortress
more impregnable to marauding bears
than these catacombed walls.
From every crevice their coffers overflow
& Margaret’s house weeps honey
the way a tree leaks sap.


Groggy from the heat, awash in sweat
I resume my walk, if only for
the illusion of a breeze. A pool of shade
beckons from behind the tumbledown shed
where the steel-ribbed frame of a chaise lounge
flowers orange with rust.

I weave through the trees above the spring,
leap the low mound with its stray runners
of barbed wire marking the old line
& plunge into the field, a cloud of pollen
from the brome as I swing my shovel,
clean blade catching the sun.

After the show

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Blogging the Appalachians


Appalachian Week continues at Via Negativa with a reminiscence from my troubled youth (as opposed to my troubled middle-age).

Naked to his waist, the skinny white kid from Duncansville, Pennylvania doesn’t sing, he scream-vomits. His torso contorts in paroxysms of stylized rage as he gasps for air, hurling each phrase at the sweat-drenched audience:





And with that the band kicks in. In front of the makeshift stage – one end of the basement roped off with yellow CAUTION tape – the human maelstrom resumes. Someone scales the speaker stack and leaps off, trusting in the kindness of strangers to keep him from hitting the glass-strewn floor.

We’ve reached the bottle-smashing stage of the evening. At these parties, everyone wears boots for a good reason. By the end of the night, my housemates and I will have an inch or two of shattered glass to sweep up. I watch anxiously from the rear as people swing from the exposed pipes like punk Tarzans.

My friend Bill, hanger-on and roadie, stands against the wall to the left of the stage, a big grin on his face and a 12-pack of Milwaukee’s Best under one massive arm. This is his second twelve-pack of the evening. He averages seven minutes per can – I’ve timed him. As he finishes each can, he crumples it and tosses it into the mosh pit. Like tossing a cat into the spin cycle – it’s always fun to see what direction it will fly out in.

It’s all good, clean, violent fun. In this particular corner of the punk rock underground, hippies, straight-edgers and metal heads are tolerated; only homophobic rednecks and racist skinheads risk getting their asses kicked. There does exist, however, a sharp but unspoken social division between the kids who grew up in the suburban bubble of State College and those from anywhere outside it – self-confessed hicks from bumfuck nowhere. Most of the former come from comfortable backgrounds; their parents are professionals, and most of them can expect to be the same someday. In their politics as in their musical tastes, they are sophisticated purists.

Not so the hicks. For them, the stakes are much higher. The two punk shows I attended in Altoona had a more desperate and dangerous tone than these friendly basement bashes in State College. People entered the mosh pit expecting to get hurt; there wasn’t any rasta-style pogoing or ironic variations on the tango. If anyone can be said to have – as the punk anthem puts it – “no future,” it would be these kids from the rust belt and the sticks. Good factory jobs are disappearing – not that too many of the folks on stage or in the mosh pit would accept that such a thing could exist in the first place. Meth labs are sprouting up in the more remote hollows where moonshine was once distilled.

These are the rebels, the misfits. Every society has them. The Appalachians, with their history of extreme individualism, seem to have more than their fair share. Contrary to stereotypes, mountain people are among the least likely to attend church of all surveyed groups of Americans. During the Civil War, it was in the mountains that families’ loyalties were most sharply divided.

There’s little sense of regional identity, no cultural pride. These kids profess nothing but scorn for parents and siblings who listen to Hank Williams Jr. and live for Friday night high school football games. They cultivate an exaggerated mimic of their native accent, to the delight of the State College kids for whom rural white culture is an oxymoron. In a moment of levity between songs, the singer raises his arms in a mock Nazi salute and calls out: “To you’ns I say . . . ”

“FUCK YOU’NS!” the locals shout back.

Bill grins at me from the other side of the room, hurls a beer can in my general direction. That means he wants to talk. I elbow my way through the crowd. “Hey, you fucking hippie!” he calls out affectionately. “What’s up, faggot?”

I am allowed to say this only because I know him – not that Bill is ever shy about his homosexual tendencies. And we both enjoy the shocked looks this garners from the politically correct State College kids.

“Fuck any sheep lately?”

“Hell no! I’m too busy with my sister!”

Bill hands me a beer, then motions me to lean in closer. “Chris just bought a huge bag of pot. Come on out to the car right after the show!”

“Is it any good?”

He wrinkles his nose. “Nah, not really. It’s local – just what some guy grew up on Wopsanonnack. You have to smoke a ton of it before you feel anything. But the price was right!”


My housemate Darren comes over, grinning from ear to ear. “Hey, did you see that old guy with the cane? He was great!”

It seems that Darren had been sitting out on the front stoop the other afternoon, enjoying a breakfast beer, when an old fellow walked by and gave him a friendly glance. I guess Darren figures that anyone who can see past the pink mohawk is O.K.

“Hey, where are you going?” he called out.

“Just walkin’ home, son, just walkin’ home.”

“You look like you could use a beer!”

So they sat and talked for an hour or two, Darren said, and the old guy waved his cane about with excitement as he described the fun he used to have when he was Darren’s age – the whiskey he drank, the fights he got into, the hearts he broke. So Darren invited him to stop by the next evening. He had never heard of punk rock, but it sounded like a good time, he said.

He showed up around eleven, just as things were getting going. Darren said the guy stood at the bottom of the cellar steps for a few minutes, taking it all in with a gleam in his eye. Then he leaned his cane against the wall and waded into the mosh pit.

“He isn’t very big, you know – but then, neither am I. He just did whatever I did, bouncing off people and having a good time. His arms were turning around like windmills!”

“Where is he now?” I ask.

“Oh, he said he had to get home. Said his wife was gonna beat his ass, so he might as well get it over with.

“He broke his glasses, though,” Darren adds mournfully. “I offered him some money out of the cover fees, but he wouldn’t take it. He said he thought he should pay us – he’d never seen anything like this!”


The bowl is basic industrial – the kind made from copper pipe fittings. The cannabis is, as advertised, weak. More drunk than stoned, we pledge eternal friendship. What this means is illustrated by reference to some of the State College kids. “That one guy, K., he acts all friendly ‘n ‘at, wants to hang out. But every time he gives you a beer, you know he’s keeping track.”

“Fuck that!” the drummer says. “If you’re friends, that means you don’t keep track! Right, boys?” A chorus of “Hell yeahs!”

I pipe up with the old saw about how you can pick your friends and you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your friend’s nose. “We do!” Bill says, and he and the bass player proceed to pull snot from each other’s nostrils. I stand corrected.

“Here’s what we say,” Bill informs me. “‘You can pick your friends, you can pick your nose, and you can pick your friend’s nose. But you can’t roll your friends up into little balls and flick them against the wall!'”

“Wow, man,” I say, playing the blissed-out stoner for their amusement. “That’s so far out!


Five in the morning, and nearly time for bed. I’m sitting at the kitchen table listening to the life story of a 17-year-old girl from Huntingdon. L. has blond hair, a classically thin, Appalachian face, pale blue eyes and a perpetually anxious expression. I know her older brother pretty well, but this is the first I’ve had much of a conversation with her.

Tonight she seems especially woebegone. I gather that she has been sleeping with Darren, off and on, but tonight he’s got someone else in there. “I’m really not looking forward to the drive back home,” she says sadly, shooting me a hopeful look.

I know some men find this kind of vulnerability irresistible. Me, I’m fighting the urge to give her a reassuring pat on the head. I murmur something sympathetic, I don’t remember what. But it’s all she needs. Soon I am hearing more than I really want to know about domestic violence, incest, an abortion last year. Her every sentence ends tentatively, a rising intonation inviting agreement, affirmation. “Oh geez,” I say. Or, “Wow.” “Damn.” “Holy shit.” At appropriate junctions I follow up with questions, remembering the lesson my father – a recovered shy person – had taught me: always ask people about themselves.

At six-thirty I walk her to her car; she’s good and sober, as am I. We shake hands. “Hang in there,” I say. Her eyes are a little damp. Only now, some twelve years later, does it occur to me that she may not ever have been listened to quite that way before.


I think she made it. I ran into her once several years later, and she told me she was a sophomore at Penn State, following her brother’s lead. She still seemed pretty clueless, but then I’m not one to talk.

As for the other 17-year-old girl I didn’t sleep with that night – the one who lay passed out on my bed in a pool of her own urine the whole time I was listening to L.’s life story – she died later that year in a drunken accident. Partying in a strange house, she opened what she thought was the door to the bathroom and tumbled down a steep set of cellar stairs, snapping her neck.

A lot of the people I used to party with have died, for some reason. I can’t get over the thought that, in some fundamental way, I failed them. The few people from that scene I still keep up with were all State College kids.

The last I saw Bill, he had grown a mustache and no longer shaved his head. “I hang out at the redneck bars down in ‘Toona town now,” he said. “There’s fights there every night! Bodies go flying, people get knifed – it’s great!”

“You’re as full of bullshit as ever, I see.”

“It’s true! I just stand there and watch, you know, and drink my beer. You can get used to anything.”