There’s getting to be a serious backlog of thoughts and observations around here. Is there such a thing as mental retentiveness?


Last Tuesday, in Penn State’s main library, I’m browsing the new books shelf in the Arts and Humanities section when a peculiar sense of deja vu washes over me. I have been coming here for over 30 years, and the library has gone through quite a few changes during that time. But suddenly I am remembering how I used to think as a kid whenever I browsed the spines of abstruse academic books: Professors know all this cool stuff! I will never be that knowledgeable. I’ll never even be able to grasp simple things like how income tax works.

It makes me sort of sad, now, to realize that in fact very few professors know much of anything outside the boundaries of their disciplines. It further occurs to me that one of the rare exceptions to this rule may be my own brother Steve – not yet a professor, but a PhD and master of many foreign languages and diverse areas of expertise, from entomology to physics to economics to British and American horror fiction. And even for people like him, I have a very good idea of the pivotal role that intellectual confidence and the fluent use of big words play in shaping other people’s perceptions of unlimited expertise.

It’s not at all a comforting thought, the realization that, fundamentally, humanity knows nothing. I’d much rather be that naive little kid again. (And in fact, I never have figured out the federal tax structure. But neither has anyone else, I don’t believe.)


All last week I was looking at faces and seeing the skull beneath the skin. In one or two cases, I had to look away to avoid imagining earthworms tumbling out of eye sockets. Where the hell did this come from? I am rapidly losing interest in the kind of speculative writing (and reading) that has formed much of the content of this weblog. I didn’t start out to be a “blogger of place,” but now I think I could happily abandon everything else and just focus on the daily news: I mean the real news, the minutiae of otherwise unchronicled events that don’t directly involve human beings thinking up new reasons to slaughter each other.


The most original idea I had last week (well, original to me, anyway) was this: Via Negativa ought to have its own blog, a place to put housekeeping notes, maintain searchable categories of archives, report on new incoming links, post complementary and critical e-mails, and blogroll all sites that link to V.N. I could include occasional reflections on how well or poorly different writing experiments at V.N. seem to turn out, and even post ideas for alternate posts that never made the cut.

I know there’s such a thing as metablogging, which means simply blogging about blogging in general. (My favorite metablog is Mandarin Design.) What I have in mind is something even more reflexive: a hyperblog, perhaps?

I’m not sure I can handle the upkeep for another blog, though I did play around a bit with title ideas – Penumbra, Caveat, Via Parasita – and mottoes: Made in the shade. Vanity of vanities. My blog has fleas.


Yard signs, garden signifies, I decide a week after the election.


Late Thursday morning, I went for a brief ramble around the field, entranced by the shape and color of the goldenrod seed heads. The weak sunlight gives an air of mystery to the puffy, gray-white heads of tall goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), making them appear to glow from within. The 40-acre field is dominated by goldenrod, but tall goldenrod is just one of four or five different species, and one of only two to go to seed in such an impressive manner. It’s Veterans Day, and I can’t help seeing platoons of soldiers standing stiffly at attention.

All the leaves on all the goldenrods turned black and shriveled with the first frost, which makes it much easier to see the ground around their stalks. Since the field hasn’t been tilled in at least 33 years, a thick carpet of moss has grown up in many areas. I can pick out three distinct species of moss without hardly trying; I am sure there are many more than that. British soldiers’ and reindeer lichens can be found in the drier areas. Ebony spleenwort ferns, still green, show up quite easily now, sprouting here and there among the moss. I am surprised to find a cutleaf grape fern (Botrychium dissectum), though. This is a species we didn’t used to see that much of, but now, every year we find more of it. It’s difficult to decide whether that’s because it is truly on the increase, or simply because, until we first identified it some five or six years ago, we didn’t know what we were seeing. It’s not an especially rare species. Maybe it’s been here all along.

True to its name, this cutleaf grape fern’s triply pinnate leaf has turned a deep wine red. In pausing to admire it, I knock against the six-inch-tall sporangiophore with the toe of my boot, and it releases a little brown puff of sporangia. Holy smoke! I tap it some more, like a lazy Johnny Fernseed. Billyuns and billyuns, I think. Meanwhile, the clouds overhead have thinned, and now the sun begins shining strongly enough to cast shadows. The tall goldenrod seems to shrink a bit. Now it’s just another hayfield gone to seed.


Yesterday was cloudless and very, very quiet from mid-morning on, when our weekend visitors departed. I felt rather disoriented all weekend because of the disruption of my early morning rituals: these were people who get up as early as I do. I still sat outside both mornings with my coffee, but my cherished communion with the darkness was destroyed. About all I could do was enjoy the way the two bright pin-pricks of Venus and Jupiter were enough to give the entire rest of the sky a depth and purity it otherwise would have lacked.

Hospitality is as close to a sacred duty as any I know. One can’t very well ask one’s guests to please sit in the dark for twenty minutes just so one’s own, hidebound rituals won’t be altered for a day or two. Nor were these the kind of people I could’ve invited to join me out there. With the temperature around 25 degrees on Saturday morning, my uncle made it clear he thought I was crazy – just like the black guys in his north Jersey neighborhood who stand around outside shooting the bull in all kinds of weather. (To his credit, he didn’t imply that they were all drug dealers, merely that they were incomprehensibly Other.)

I throw in a load of laundry right after they leave, and hang it outside. My usual hiking buddy has other commitments today, so I decide reluctantly to spend the rest of the morning on a long-overdue redesign of the blog. This eats up half the afternoon, as well. When I go out to take the clothes down around 3:00, I hear what sounds at first like a large waterfall or distant applause coming from the other side of Sapsucker Ridge, toward the west. High-pitched overtones like rusty door hinges reveal its true origin: a mammoth flock of red-winged blackbirds. After a few minutes, the flock takes wing, which is impressive both aurally and visually. A moment of silence gives way to the sound of wings, like a thousand decks of cards being shuffled at once. Just as the flock comes into view over the ridge, it performs a complex roll-and-split maneuver, a kind of mitosis. Within this enormous cloud of birds, some individuals begin flying in unison toward the southeast, over the field, while an equal number begin flying equally in unison toward the northeast, along the ridge. How is this decided?

The southeast-bound section of the flock heads out over Laurel Ridge toward Sinking Valley, then swings around northwestward and rejoins the other half of the flock in less than a minute. They all settle in the trees just beyond the corner of the field and resume the rusty waterfall impersonation. But after only a few seconds another hush, another card-shuffle of wings. This time, with the low sun full on them and the blue sky above, the effect is spectacular. I stand open-mouthed as the flock spirals, rising like a cobra from a snakecharmer’s basket, splits in the middle, rejoins, undulates like a flag in the breeze. As they wheel about, thousands of red wing patches simultaneously catch the sun.

Then I realize that One of These Things is Not Like the Other, as we used to sing back in grade school. A small hawk, probably a Coopers, is making tight circles in the middle of the flock. Suddenly I can see what this whole aerial ballet is all about. I’m reminded of the way certain Java applets respond to the slightest motion of the cursor as the flock swirls and curls around its would-be predator. After about a minute the hawk gives up, turns and glides off down the ridge, heading south for the winter. The blackbirds fly west, and in a few seconds things are absolutely quiet once again.


A little while later I’m sitting out on the porch, enjoying the stillness and the play of random thoughts swirling around in my head. One that I write down concerns the phrase “too much information.” I guess what strikes me is the way that the very concept of “information” – still basically alien to me, despite having been all my life the son of a librarian – includes connotations of too-muchness. Information can be catalogued, it can be communicated, but can it ever really be absorbed in the way that (say) knowledge or understanding can? Information evokes sleek and sexless modernity, pure quantity without affect.

Quite apart from what is usually meant by economic considerations, how you attain something, I’m thinking, determines its real value. How you get somewhere shapes your ability to perceive, to absorb and assimilate. The cliche that says that life is a journey is too vague, it seems to me, because life is really more like a pilgrimage, even for people who are not especially religious. “Journey” implies a mere change in position of an essentially static subject, whereas “pilgrimage” recognizes and celebrates the reality that the perceiver changes along with the perceived, that road and traveler make and unmake each other in an intricate pas de deux. Trying to describe such motions using calculus would involve an unpredictable number of returns to the starting point to change the terms of the original equation. I remember my high school calculus teacher Mr. Bloom, and how he used to sometimes “solve” an impossibly difficult equation in just this manner. I wonder now if his habit of talking out loud to God as he went along was always as facetious as I had assumed at the time.

While I’ve been sitting here taking notes on myself, the sun has slid off my pant legs, across the yard and up into the woods. Yes, this is all a distraction from what’s really important. Yes, it’s time to go for a walk.

Up on Laurel Ridge Trail I stop to admire the messed-up bark of a chestnut oak tree that must have some kind of disease or genetic mutation. Deeply furrowed like all chestnut oaks, this one’s bark forms collars or rings every six inches or so. The result is a highly complex micro-topography. So often in nature, it’s the disease, the predator, the apparently tragic error that produces the most spectacular effects.


If I didn’t write it down, I write in my pocket notebook, would any of it matter? In other words, is meaning something I discover through writing – or something I merely invent? And is this discovery/invention mainly an unveiling, or does it more closely resemble embroidery, even weaving? If the latter, how do we describe the results? With a dip in the dye vat, a veil for a bride can become a widow’s weed . . .

Enough of this. I have to go up and take the bread out of the oven now. I’m making Swedish rye this morning, with orange juice, mashed potatoes and anise seed. Temperamental stuff – I don’t think it rose nearly as well as it did the last time I made it. I could stick with the tried-and-true whole wheat-multigrain recipe, but what would be the fun in that? Fresh rye bread with garlic butter and a bowl of cabbage soup: the search for meaning seems trivial by comparison.

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