Uncurious George

Tom Montag has just posted a must-read cri de coeur, Dear Friends Who Read, by Wisconsin writer Martha Bergland. This is one of the most powerful indictments of the Bush regime that I’ve seen.

. . . And then they went back in the house and blew their noses and made a pot of coffee and there was a little smile between them, a quiet moment of domestic happiness that will never come again. The sun will come up again and again and again on days that he will not be in. She will never see him again, feel the comfort of his warm body in the night. Her life in her house is destroyed.

You can imagine this because you read. You feel what other people feel. George Bush can’t imagine this. George Bush doesn’t read . . .

“Alone in the world”: hill country women

I wrote the following poem back in 1992. My mother included it on the dedication page of her book Appalachian Autumn (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1994), a synoptic nature book that included a description of the clearcut logging of a 100-acre portion of Plummer’s Hollow that had once belonged to the McHugh family.

in memoriam Margaret McHugh

When her mind went they took her away
from the house in the hollow where she’d lived
forty years in combat readiness
with her dog & her shotgun, a color TV
& her dead brother’s artificial legs standing
guard at the top of the stairs.

Her ancestors’ land had been sold out from under her
& clear-cut by the absentee owner
who couldn’t be bothered with a mother’s deathbed
commandment half a century old:
Don’t let anyone lumber the mountain again.
She’ll never survive a third cutting
& neither will you.


From the other end of Appalachia, in northern Georgia, here’s an excerpt from an interview with Anna Howard, 93 at the time (1973, or a few years before: this was included in Foxfire 2, edited by Eliot Wigginton and published by Anchor/Doubleday). For all you city people, “locust” refers to a very hard wood, black or yellow locust, often used for fence posts because of its resistance to rot. The oldest portion of my house, built right after the Civil War, rests on a sill of locust instead of a rock foundation. The bark is still intact.


God can put it on your heart or mine anything he wants you t’do, and I know he can. He has mine. Pray about things you don’t know what t’do about. It’ll come to you just as plain.

And I try t’be all th’same alike. I don’t talk about people. I don’t say no harm about nobody and all they do. It says in th’Bible t’do unto others as we wish t’be done by, and I feel that way about that. And I feel like if you’re in earnest and got faith in th’Lord and ask him for anything, he’ll put it right in your mind. . . .

Kindness and love is th’main thing. Now that’s my advice. It’s good to know you got a friend. It’s love. Just like I made [a friend] out of you. I see people that their looks and their ways just a’gives t’you, and you love ’em. And th’next time you see’em, you love’em better.

I’ve not had too much of a happy time since my old man died. And after my children left, I just felt alone in th’world. And when all my people died – everyone that passes on out, I just feel like I’m further and further away. Yes, sir.

So now I knit socks a lot. I just love t’do that. If I ain’t got anybody t’talk to me, now I’m bound t’have somethin’ in my fingers. If I’m able t’hold my head up, I’m bound t’have somethin’ in my fingers t’employ my mind. . . .

I’ve been made fun of for bein’ old-fashioned, but it don’t matter t’me a bit in th’world. If anyone tries to run over me, they’ll find they’ve run up against a stake that won’t budge ’cause it’s made out a’locust! I’ve always done th’work of a man. God’s been good t’me. He’s given me strength.


My grandmother was a far less god-fearing woman. She grew up in northeastern Pennsylvania: still very much in the Appalachians, but culturally closer to New England than Appalachia. This portion of the state was largely settled by pioneers from Connecticut in the 18th century; my grandmother’s people were among those settlers.

Although Grandma was a very reticent person, she was always kind toward us kids, teaching us how to draw and helping with other craft projects. She was fairly intellectual, and much more adventuresome and open-minded than her husband, my grandpa. A four-month sojourn in Peru with my parents a few years before her death may have been the high point of her life. I wrote the following poem in her voice shortly after her death; it may or may not accurately represent her view of life. I felt justified in taking the liberty because, of all my immediate relatives, she is the one I most take after – with a little bit of my other grandmother’s more acerbic personality thrown in.

in memoriam Margaret Ide Bonta

I spent my tomboy girlhood on horses
rambling through orchards & the molehills
we fancied mountains, just south
of the glacier’s plow line. My brothers
taught me all the arcana of knots & hitches
I call to mind now, tied to an oxygen tank,
the transparent umbilicus bridled to my nostrils.

The man I married grew up in town
& loved the country for its range of practical puzzles.
But for my part, I preferred the ocean’s
implausible clues: polished stones & glass & wood
on a beach asymptotic to the hyperbole of waves,
tidepool anemones like stars collapsing, turning inward,
conch & clamshell pressing their ears to the sand.

All the men of my family were hardheaded Methodists
for whom speech was more vital than prayer.
But I always found piety jarring–the minister’s
baited candy. Like the scent of a bear in the barn
one day as I rode my favorite Clydesdale in,
standing barefoot on his back like a circus performer,
reins in one hand. When that massive
draft horse shied he sent me flying, really flying,
ponytailed hair & calico skirts ballooning.

My sister & I were like that: we smoked,
we drank a little, we rode along behind
on our brothers’ motorcycles. But when
it came time to marry, we did. Hank & I settled
in calm suburban waters, had three sons–
if I’d had a daughter, I wouldn’t have known
what to do! And when he retired, we bought
a small house on the ocean, ‘way down south–
a house built on sand, true,
but protected by seawalls from the storm surge

until these last couple years when everything
got me at once, & the songs my mother
sang to me in the crib
suddenly after all this time pop into my head.
It’s as if you were to find a bottle, say,
on the high tide’s windrow–& the message inside
were written in your own hand,
in childish shaky letters.
I just lie here humming & wondering where I’ve been.

I’m in pain, of course, but it’s not so bad
that they have to take me out back & shoot me
just yet! The main thing is, my mind’s still clear,
neither too fast nor too slow. Makes me think
of my favorite Robert Burns song, do you know it?
“Flow Gently Sweet Afton.”

Well, we don’t need to sing the whole thing now.
There’ll be plenty of time later, when I’m gone.


The folklorist James York Glimm has written two books on central and north-central Pennsylvania; the following selection is from his second, Snakebite: Lives and Legends of Central Pennsylvania (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991). Glimm writes, “Storytelling has sometimes been assumed to be a man’s province, but I have found that women informants have at least as much to say and can tell stories just as well. . . . As a younger man I was more interested in the frontier hunting and fishing stories that men like to tell. Women don’t tell many hunting yarns, but they tell other kinds of stories that give a detailed and personal picture of the world they lived in years ago.” One of the exceptions to this rule was 82-year-old Catherine Voce, who reminisced happily about living in a cabin ‘way up on a mountainside in the 30s, growing most of their own food and hunting deer with her husband. This is the conclusion of her interview with Glimm.


If I were young again and had wings to fly, I’d fly back up on the mountain above Rock Run and live in our cabin. When you’re young and in love, it makes all the difference. All I heard were the birds, a distant cowbell, and sometimes the S. and N.Y. whistle when the wind was right. I was in love and I was happy.

That’s enough talk. Let’s go outside and stretch a bit. I’ll show you my garden. Maybe I can get that other woodchuck that’s been eating me out of house and home. Hand me that four-ten over there, and watch out, ’cause it’s loaded.

Now, here’s where Mr. Coon comes for his cat food every night. I ought to shoot him, but I can’t. He’s so big. Sits here outside the screen door and licks his paws and goes, “Mmm yum, yum, yum.” Lately he gets here early, or Mr. Possum will beat him out. Quarter to nine. Now this is my sweet apple tree. The porcupines love sweet apples. Two years ago I killed so many I stopped counting. Maybe seventeen. They come off the mountain and wake me up at night with their weird sounds. Did you ever hear them? It’s a “Wee-wee-yum-yum-yee-yee-mum-mum” noise, like that, and I don’t like it. So I get up in the night with my .410 and my flashlight and shoot them. One night I got six. I buried them behind the barn in the soft soil. No, I don’t like porcupines. Come on. Keep low and quiet and maybe we can get a shot at Mr. Woodchuck.

It’s so overgrown around my garden, I can’t keep up. There are currants, asparagus, potatoes, garlic, and tomatoes. Now, look inside that pen. Just look at that lettuce. Oh! He’s eating me out of house and home. I put boards up and he goes right under – look at that. Watch out – I’ve got a muskrat trap over there. One way or another, I’ll get him. That? Oh, that’s just a black snake. Leave him. He’s OK. Here, take some garlic home with you.


Finally, a selection of Appalachian women’s voices wouldn’t be complete without the West Virginia poet Louise McNeill (1911-1993). In the last years of her life she and editor Maggie Anderson collaborated on a volume of new and selected poems, Hill Daughter, published by (who else?) the University of Pittsburgh Press in 1991.

Anderson notes in her introduction that “The work of many writers from the southern Appalachian Mountains is a record of painful journeyings, away from what Kentucky poet James Still has called ‘the earth loved more than any other earth,’ off to the bright promise and the brighter economies of the cities. Louise McNeill’s life and work reflect those journeyings. The ‘paradox,’ as she has named it, is, in part, that the very opportunities that call mountain writers away from home also cut them off from the deepest sources of the writing itself, from its original impulses in a beloved place and people.”

McNeill’s poems are, in a word, devastating.

by Louise McNeill

I am the trajectory and flight –
The archer, arrow, and the bow –
The swift parabola of light –
And I the rising and the flow,
The falling feather of the cock,
The point, propulsion, and the flood
Of blackbirds twanging from the nock,
And I the target and the blood.


by Louise McNeill

Walk through the fern but do not tear the root.
Rest on the stump but count no ring of age.
In rotting wood see neither hint nor sign,
Nor translate from the oak leaf’s fallen page
One mystic line.

Look at the wheat field, see it blade and straw,
But neither bread nor sealed-in germ nor shadowy reaper –
Leave the close ground its anonymity,
Such knowledge to the blind mole and the worm –
The gray night-creeper.

Leave the enigma to the close-lipped dark;
Beyond your fenced-in land do not inquire –
For things there be best hidden:
Light that only the blind should see –
And over the hills in that far country
Truth bare, forbidden.

Get radical

Wendell Berry is pissed.

Most of us are still too sane to piss in our own cistern, but we allow others to do so and we reward them for it. We reward them so well, in fact, that those who piss in our cistern are wealthier than the rest of us.

Read and act.

Self knowledge

I just found an old notebook from 1998. It contains some quotes from the German film director Werner Herzog, from an interview on NPR’s “Fresh Air” (October 27, 1998). I am not absolutely sure that the following quote is verbatim, but the fact that I included ellipses suggests it might be. Probably I taped it and made a transcription.

I’d rather die, I’d rather jump from the Golden Gate Bridge before I would go to an analyst. . . . It’s a hysteria, here in America in particular, to “discover your inner self” and talk about “inner growth” and all these stupid things. Once in a while, it is very sane, it is almost clinically sane, to take a certain distance from yourself, and to look at yourself with a certain caution . . . What’s wrong with the analysts is that – let me put it in a different way. When you rent an apartment, and you illuminate it with neon lights to its very last corner, and you put lights everywhere, the apartment becomes uninhabitable.

Werner Herzog

This reminds me of several other things.

In Western houses we [Japanese] are often confronted with what appears to us useless reiteration. We find it trying to talk to a man while his full-length portrait stares at us from behind his back. We wonder which is real, he of the picture or he who talks, and feel a curious conviction that one of them must be a fraud. Many a time have we sat a festive board contemplating, with a secret shock to our digestion, the representation of abundance on the dining room walls. Why these pictured victims of the chase and sport, the elaborate carvings of fish and fruit? Why the display of family plates, reminding us of those who have died and are dead?

Kikazu Okakura, The Book of Tea (1906)


Without “chaos”, no knowledge. Without a frequent dismissal of reason, no progress. Ideas which today form the very basis of science exist only because there are such things as prejudice, conceit, and passion; because these things opposed reason; and because they were permitted to have their way. We have to conclude, then, that even within science reason cannot and should not be allowed to be comprehensive and that it must often be overruled, or eliminated, in favour of other agencies. There is not a single rule that remains valid under all circumstances and not a single agency to which appeal can always be made.

Paul Feyerabend, Against Method: Outline of an anarchistic theory of knowledge (1975)


Like industrial sex, industrial eating has become a degraded, poor, and paltry thing. Our kitchens and other eating places more and more resemble filling stations, as our homes more and more resemble motels. “Life is not very interesting,” we seem to have decided. “Let its satisfactions be minimal, perfunctory, and fast.” We hurry through our meals to go to work and hurry through our work in order to “recreate” ourselves in the evenings and on weekends and vacations. And then we hurry, with the greatest possible speed and noise and violence, through our recreation – for what? . . . And all this is carried out in a remarkable obliviousness to the causes and effects, the possibilities and purposes, of the life of the body in this world.

Wendell Berry, “The Pleasures of Eating,” What Are People For? (1990)


I breathe in the soft, saturated exhalations of cedar trees and salmonberry bushes, fireweed and wood fern, marsh hawks and meadow voles, marten and blacktail deer. I breathe the same particles of air that made songs in the throats of hermit thrushes and gave voice to humpback whales, the same particles of air that lifted the wings of bald eagles and buzzed in the flight of hummingbirds, the same particles of air that rushed over the sea in storms . . .

And like the alder and the spruce, the brown bear and the black oystercatcher, the mink and great horned owl, I bring the earth inside myself as food. . . . The rivers run through my veins, the winds blow in and out with my breath, the soil makes my flesh, the sun’s heat smolders inside me. A sickness or injury that befalls the earth befalls me. A fouled molecule that runs through the earth runs through me. When the earth is cleansed and nourished, its purity infuses me. The life of the earth is my own life. My eyes are the earth gazing at itself.

Richard Nelson, The Island Within (1989)

Appalachian fall

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Blogging the Appalachians


Black birch roots above the water.
Witch hazel blooming against the rocks.

Above the water: a spring half covered with birch leaves – yellow – & the red and orange of maples.
Against the rocks: boulders as big as you want.
One in particular that hikers circumambulate, patting its elephant-gray sides.

The stream can’t decide whether to flow over or under the ground.
If you put your ear down low, you can hear it trickling through caverns full of salamanders & stolen moonlight.

The birch won’t be here long – no more than a single human lifetime.
Its trunk rests on four columns, two tercet arches above the water.
A winter wren darts from grotto to grotto.
When he pauses to sing, you think, this is how rivers get started.

Rain & fog.
Pale yellow rays of witch hazel against the dark rocks, the moss-backed boulders.
What we notice depends on how often we stop, how well we listen.
You don’t need to know the names of anything, really.

The birch in all likelihood doesn’t care about its reflection.
Witch hazel will scatter its seeds through small explosions; it doesn’t need the birds.
Trees die & fall – or vice versa – but are far from dead.
Wren gleans silverfish & millipede, bark beetle, caddis fly: all small things that scuttle, flutter, flow.

The mountain emerges as a series of rests, an improvised pause.
You climb past the boulders in the rain, humming, a shock of white hair under a dark umbrella.


The more we think we know, the deeper our ignorance. An ignorant person is someone who mistakes his or her habitual views for reality and reacts defensively to new perspectives and ideas. Ignorance partakes of that proverbial contempt – for others, for oneself – bred by a long and uncurious familiarity. I am ignorant when I think this hillside full of rock oaks and mountain laurel has little more to teach me. I only have to go two steps off the trail to remind myself of the limits of my usual perspective.

Intellectuals are among the most ignorant of people, because we tend to have the most highly developed and strenuously defended views. And needless to say, such ignorance becomes deadly when it shapes corporate decision-making and government policy.

Knowing that we know nothing, on the other hand, is the beginning of true awareness. That’s why most dogs seem wiser than their masters, and so many truths can be found among the songs and sayings of the so-called common people.

In local parlance, here in central Pennsylvania, ignorant means uncouth, rude, offensive. That’s not entirely separate from the kind of ignorance I’m talking about here, as the following example of usage shows.

Some time back in the mid 80s my brother was dating a woman from South Africa of multiracial (“colored”) ethnicity. When he took her to meet a few of his friends in Altoona, they were curious about her background, never having heard much about South Africa. My brother explained a little bit about the apartheid system, and one of the women reacted with great indignation: “That’s so ignorant!

Now, I suppose that better-educated folks would say that anyone back in the 80s who didn’t already know about apartheid must have been deeply ignorant. But in fact, the woman in question was, my brother said, very curious and open-minded – quite opposite from the learned architects of – and public apologists for – the apartheid system.

You might call such a woman backward, but again you’d be at variance with local usage. Around here, backward means shy – and it isn’t such a bad thing to be. It’s far better than having a swelled head.