Shadow cabinet

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

An enormous wish:
That nothing be too plentiful;
That grass diminish into lawns,
And the hunt become a ceremony of love.
This harmony is a prayer against too much.

Paul Zweig, “Prayer Against Too Much”

Thursday, November 18, 10:30 a.m. A mostly overcast morning, and tolerably warm. The slowly changing sky is full of indistinct faces: stray ears, the odd bulbous nose, chins, foreheads, eyes both bright and dull. The bluebirds sit quietly on the electric line above the old nest box. In forty acres of field, there are thirty-nine acres of silence and one cricket. Play it again, Sam.

But here comes a series of agitated cries to spoil the mood. Nobody does agitation as well as the pileated woodpecker. And it’s always damn near impossible to tell what, if anything, has gotten them so riled up. This one’s in the woods up beyond the old farm dump, flapping from tree to tree, yelling. When it comes across the field, I notice that its calls are timed to its deliberate wingbeats, AH…AH…AH…AH…AH as if it were cheering itself on.

Just in from the edge of the field to the northeast, in the fifty-year-old woods that I still think of as an old orchard fifteen years after the last surviving apple tree died out, a mixed flock of white-throated sparrows and juncos crowd the Japanese barberry bushes. They fly down into the Japanese stiltgrass for seeds, return to the bushes, singing. Given the choice between two rival onomatapoeic interpretations of the white-thoateds’ song, today I’d say it’s definitely Poor Sam Peabody they’re singing about. Sweet Canada is too far out of sight and out of mind – this week, anyway.

People talk about old fields and orchards “reverting” to woods, but it’s not true. Yes, some first-succession trees came in here, but this is very unlikely to resemble what had preceded the land’s conversion to field – a one-off woods that had been, in turn, nothing like the original forest before it was clearcut for charcoal in 1815. So what had been most recently an artificial savanna dominated by clones of a tree native to the Caucasus has simply seen the geographical center of its nightmare botany drift eastward.

Nevertheless, in the weak sunlight I find myself pausing to admire the nice, straight trunks of these young black cherries, black locusts, black birches and red maples. Here in the forested east, if nature were left to its own devices such uniformity in age class would occur only on about two percent of the total area, following rare, catastrophic disturbances. The species that depend upon such disturbances and the range of short-lived habitats that succeed them would be rare and highly prized. I squint, imagining myself looking at this woods with the eyes of a delighted discoverer. I can see how easy it might be for forestry students to become mesmerized by the endlessly varying distribution patterns of more-or-less uniform columns above a light and open understory. It’s like an endless Parthenon.

This is, I realize suddenly, one of those rare days when my mind isn’t wandering. I find myself stopping often to peer at things like the curled-up bark on a dead birch or a forest of lichen on an ancient stump – things so common I don’t bother to write them down. I know from experience that, regardless of whether the specific details ever surface in my writing, the more such looking I allow myself to do, the better – deeper – my poetry will eventually become. Yet so often it seems preferable to stay in the narcotic shadows of my imagination than to engage closely with the landscape I’m walking through.

The factory whistle blows the noon hour. It’s back after a three-year silence during which the Tyrone paper mill, which had specialized in high-quality recycled stock, was shut down by its parent company, stood idle for close to a year, then was bought and slowly brought back to life by a consortium of former workers and local investors. For some reason, they only restored the whistle to operation three days ago. It blows at 7:00 and 8:00 a.m., 12:00 and 1:00 p.m., and again at 4:00 p.m. It’s a fairly sonorous, long, baritone blast. My mother resents the intrusion, but I grew up with the sound, so I’m delighted to be hearing it again. I can’t decide, but it sounds as if it might be just a little lower in pitch now.

The whistle finds me in the chestnut oak-black gum-heath understory woods near the crest of Laurel Ridge. The light continues to vary in intensity – not quickly, as on one of those high-pressure days with fast moving cloud shadows, but slowly and meditatively. No doubt this has a lot to do with my own mood. I have the feeling that I could be anywhere, depending on where and how tightly I focus. This clump of trees and bushes seem straight out of a northern forest – smell that air? That dried-out root ball could be driftwood on a beach after the season has ended and the summer people have all gone home.

I’m reminded suddenly of a great title I thought up the other day – a title for what, I’m not yet sure: Shadow Cabinet. I liked the implied merger of the personal and the political, and had pictured a kind of cross between an 18th-century cabinet of curiosities and a vanity chest topped by a black mirror. But now I’m seeing analogues everywhere I look.

Ten minutes later I scare up some turkeys who had been foraging just over the crest of the ridge. There’s a thick screen of mountain laurel and lowbush blueberries between us; my first sign of their presence is two, three, four immense dark shapes bursting into view with a great flapping of wings. I hear the sound of a large crowd running through the dried leaves and walk quickly in that direction, hoping for a better view. As I push my way through the laurel, pandemonium breaks out.

Let me tell you, there are few sights in nature as dramatic as a herd of wild turkeys on a mountaintop suddenly turning into a flock. It scarcely seems possible that anything so heavy can fly, and fly well, let alone that a creature so ungainly, even prehistoric in appearance can suddenly attain such grace.

The panicked wingbeats from some twenty-five turkeys taking off at once includes plenty of clicking sounds as the wings clip first against bushes and saplings, then against small branches in the canopy. They soar out over the valley two and three abreast, curving to the southwest on a trajectory that should intersect with the mountain again a mile or two downridge. One of our hunter friends’ families lives in a house right down on the other side of Elk Run Road from here, and if any of them are home and looking up at the mountain right now, I imagine they will be feeling a mix of awe and frustration at this sight. Throughout fall turkey season, none of the hunters saw a single bird. The season ended just last Saturday, so of course that was the signal for the turkeys to emerge from wherever they’d been hiding. Wild turkeys are reputed to possess a great deal of cunning – in stark contrast to their domesticated cousins, who are so lacking in sense as to lay eggs standing up, and who can’t be left outside in a downpour lest they tilt their heads back to watch the rain until they drown.

Such (according to farm kid folklore, at any rate) is the nature of the fowl that many of us will be counting our blessings over one week from today. Personally, I feel blessed enough already. And if these wild birds are as smart as the hunters say they are, no doubt they have been celebrating an early Thanksgiving of their own.

Exposure vs. exposé

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

All That Moves Must Disappear, writes Karrie Higgins in a typically thought-provoking post.

I am a huge fan of literary circumspection. The only way I know of to make a piece of writing suggestive is to avoid spelling everything out. Of course, this can cost you readers in the blogosphere, because very few people, it seems, can refrain from skimming what they read, and few go back for a second read. Knowing this, I have been guilty more than once of making things much more explicit than a strict consideration of aesthetic effect would have dictated.

What I am leading up to is this: if I’d been in Karrie’s place, given a great title like that, I know I would’ve had a hard time not mentioning Fallujah. I am thinking in particular about the way civilian deaths (at least 800 at last count) and other atrocities have been almost completely excluded from mainstream U.S. news coverage, thanks in large part to Pentagon propaganda’s framing of the story as a fight against an invisible enemy named al-Zarqawi, who may not even exist. This is also in the context of a news blackout that includes indefinite detentions – disappearances – of unauthorized (unembedded) journalists. The tens of thousands of residents thought to have remained in the city during the assault were treated as enemy combatants. All who moved – and many who did not – were killed.

Of course, it isn’t only people whose images would disappear from long-exposure photographs of Fallujah. The dogs and cats feeding on human corpses would be erased from the historical record, as well. Perhaps someday an Iraqi artist will paint the 21st century’s equivalent of Guernica. Maybe you’ll get to see it in MOMA. Why not? As K. observed recently, hatred is, if nothing else, an endless source of entertaintment.*

You may need to read that last word twice.


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

The first straw lands so gently it is barely felt. It is lighter than a lover’s kiss – or at least it seems so, because the heart doesn’t rise to meet it. Any straw can make one sneeze, of course, but this is not just any straw: it is the first. It has a mission. And I think we must recognize that it is not altogether unwelcome. Hope had been killing us, making us feel small and weak and Left Behind. What a relief, then, to know that we can abandon our burdens and take shelter here in this toasty warm inn, which seems to have plenty of room for everybody, except for dogs and Samaritans. Sure, the soldiers are kind of noisy, get a little obstreperous with the serving girls, but hey, boys will be boys. And we must remember, they keep us safe from those terrorists up in the hills.

The second straw is a little heavier, but still, one barely notices. Besides, why should the spirit let itself be afflicted by the trivial aches and pains of the flesh? Just look at the people who make the most noise about “oppression” and “injustice” and so forth: chronic ailers, every one of them. We could be living in a utopia and they’d still find something to complain about. We’re not, of course, but that’s only because utopia is impossible. Things are probably just about as good as they can get right now. We need to concentrate on defending what we have, because all the lazy, inept and just plain defective peoples of the world are jealous and want to take it away from us. Isn’t it a shame the way envy and greed can poison the mind, make people hate what we have worked so hard to build up here?

The third straw comes with a helpful reminder: All flesh is grass, it whispers as it lands between the wingbones. It’s considered a normal reaction at this juncture to weep a little bit. And why not? I have been touched by an angel! Book deals, appearances on Oprah: truly, the sky is the limit now. I may not have been to the mountain, but this seems so much more efficient. Bit by bit, the mountain is coming to me!

The fourth straw speaks a little louder – in fact, it sings. Yes, just like a cicada. It sits there on top of the others whistling its one-note tune, and one finds oneself admiring its ability to stay on message. We should all be so persistent! If even a straw can resist going whichever way the wind blows, how much stronger should be our own determination not to veer from the path – which is, after all, plenty broad.

Spare the rod, spoil the child, says the fifth straw as it connects with our sadly sagging shoulders. Stand up straight, soldier! Hold your rifle as if you mean it! With freedom comes responsibility. Every able-bodied citizen must take his or her turn, now, to defend the homeland. Those who refuse will be sent to prison camps where lazing about is not an option. But see how good it feels to discharge a firearm? Such sweet release!

The sixth straw lands with a roar like the ocean surf: The Lord is my shepherd, all the voices are chanting in unison. There’s no more waiting for the sweet bye and bye. History is coming to an end. The pastures have been grazed to the nubbin, the still waters are brown with silt, the dead zones are growing and merging. Species that cannot compete effectively in the new global marketplace are dying a merciful death. Stranger, tell the Lakedaimonians that we lie here awaiting their orders.

The seventh straw comes soaked in gasoline. I am the first and the last, it shrieks. Our nostrils fill with smoke. The rain is black with the fallout from burning libraries. Once in a while a large piece of ash drifts slowly down and we can make out a word or two before it crumbles to pieces against the rubble. I have seen two or three such messages with my own eyes, but I dare not repeat them. Americanization is now complete. This was the last straw. Any moment now, the trumpets will sound.

The butternut chronicle: Nov. 19, 1998 & an afterword

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Clear sky, thirty-six degrees. I’m out on the porch as always. At 10:05 a lone blue jay flies in, lands in the upper brances of the butternut tree. With its large beak it begins probing the crevasses and lesions in the bark, just like a nuthatch or chickadee. They all do the same thing, I think – me too. But the tree can hardly pick at its own wounds.


With that, my note taking came to an end. It’s too bad I did not then realize what the true focus of my journaling had been – I probably would have been inspired to keep it up for much longer. I had been thinking that the focus was me, my observations, the record of an inveterate porch sitter. And no doubt there was something to that. Just the other day, I was struck by a reference to the back deck in a poem by Robert Haas. He’s a native Californian, so it seemed perfectly natural – not just a suburban thing, as decks are elsewhere, and not a symbol of Americans’ chronic inability to be content with where we are and accept the vagaries of the local climate.

The front porch in small town and rural Pennsylvania performs many functions that a back deck cannot. Even with cable TV, video games and the Internet, a lot of people still sit out on their porches in the evening – which begins at 4:00, with the end of the second trick. As I mentioned here once before, the front porch is an extension of the threshold, blurring the boundary between home and street. It affords a safe vantagepoint for watching the world go by, as the world is wont to do. Friends and strangers don’t need to feel shy about dropping in – no invitations are necessary. If all the seats are taken, you can sit on the stoop. The back deck, by contrast, is a wholly private space.

I knew of course that the butternut was dying a slow death, and I knew that I would miss it when the last green branch withered, girdled by the canker. But I figured it would stand for many years after that, remain a wildlife condominium in death even more than in life. I never expected it to just topple over one day in August, at around 8:30 on a calm, clear, humid morning. We cut it all up for firewood except for the bottom eight feet, which were full of carpenter ants – the proximate cause of the grand old tree’s demise.

In its absence, I don’t know that I could really gather enough material for a daily front porch chronicle. I have of course recorded a number of observations in these virtual pages, and someday there might be enough to gather into a small chapbook. But the gap between the porch and the edge of the woods is too large – about 75 feet – for close observation of whatever goes on there, and I don’t like using binoculars. The only other tree that’s close to the porch is a Japanese cherry that I will probably cut down this winter to put it out of my misery: it’s terribly afflicted with a disease of its own, black knot. This spring I need to knuckle down and plant some stuff – a bigger job than it might seem, because virtually everything we plant must be fenced against the deer.

I don’t much like fences. But I can’t help thinking that a project like that might give me plenty more to write about.

Retired pianist

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Lines fine as spider silk
that craze a surface once
adored for sleekness,
ripples where a frog jumped in,
oh flesh that sags, corners
that wander off true: with
these very claws fumbling
for the keys I have found
a way to go on without regret.
My love, oh world, I give you
pearly everlasting. Let happiness
spread like the spot in this
November sky where the sun
used to make a blazon of
your virtues. Let outlines grow
fuzzy, liberated from their shadows.
Play all the fractional notes
between white & black, hemidemi-
semiquavers in milkweed pods,
seed-clouds of goldenrod, bare
branches. Their ordnance spent,
freed of primary obligations,
the empty casings have room
for more world – rain wind snow
wakefulness sleep – & thereby,
my dear sir or madam, more
resonance. More give. More play.
Holding without having, we learn
at last how to keep.

The butternut chronicle: Nov. 18, 1998

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 14 of 14 in the series The Butternut Chronicle


For those who just tuned in, I’m transcribing and reworking the notes from an old journal consisting almost entirely of thoughts germinated and observations made while sitting on my front porch. It ran from November 1 through November 19, 1998.

I woke early, grabbed a shower & took my coffee up into the field to watch the Leonids. Between 5:20 and 6:00 I counted thirty-three streaks of light. I found myself slowly revolving in place with my head back, sometimes stomping my feet to keep warm: an Indian kind of dance, perhaps, accompanied by a vague though prayerful longing. All the while, a pair of great-horned owls were calling back and forth between the ridges and Venus shone bright as a searchlight. Even as the stain of light from the east spread across the sky, even as the earth’s atmosphere grew visible, meteors continued to flash in its inverted pan. Thirty-three: one for each year of my life. These are all the stars I wished upon, I said to myself, knowing full well they were nothing but grains of dust.

Out on the porch at 8:12. It has turned into a glorious morning. I crane around to admire the rosemary blooming on the other side of the window glass: two pale blue, almost orchid-shaped flowers at the end of the longest branch, which bends like a lazy N or half an infinity symbol.

1:15 p.m. Forty-five degrees now and still cloudless, but the stench of cow manure freshly spread on some field down in Sinking Valley makes it tough to sit outside. I count myself fortunate, though, that the pulp mill in Tyrone went out of operation back in 1970, and that none of those massive hog farms one reads about elsewhere have been built here yet.

All afternoon the butternut gets a thorough grooming from nuthatches, chickadees, even a downy woodpecker – sometimes all in the tree at once. Between 2:45 and 3:30 there’s a steady procession of squirrels back and forth between the woods and the walnut tree on the slope behind the house. For whatever reason they have abandoned their usual caution about crossing open ground today. At 3:20 I watch one squirrel pause for a drink in the stream. It crouches to sip in a very feline manner, takes its time. Then it climbs the butternut as high as the Thinker’s usual post and takes time out for a thorough scratch.

By 3:30 the sky has gone white. It’s very still. Much to my surprise, the smell of manure has already completely dissipated – guess I complained too soon. The downy is working over the smallest dead branches – there are quite a few – and I’m enjoying the range of tones he manages to extract along with whatever grubs or insects he’s after.

Around the same time, a small flock of chickadees demonstrates their species’ versatility. Some ride weed stalks and cattail heads halfway to the ground, dangling head-down like a dried plant’s dream of heaven in a huge winged seed. Others fly up to the tops of the walnuts and black cherries at the woods’ edge to raid old webworm nests, while still others hop around in the butternut, poking and peering under every loose piece of bark. They could just stay at the birdfeeders all day, but what would be the fun in that?

At 4:30 the Thinker crosses the road about fifteen feet off the ground and follows his usual arboreal highway down the splay of butternut limbs to his favorite spot. All’s not right with the world, but there’s no reason why it couldn’t be.

God says

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

A couple weeks ago, Languagehat quoted historian Solomon Volkov on the great literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin:

Bakhtin was particularly interested in the use of “reported speech” [chuzháya rech’]–that is, citation–in medieval literature, where “the borders between another’s and one’s own speech were fragile, ambivalent, and frequently convoluted and confused.”

Last week I came across a particularly striking example of this, in an anthology of German Mystical Writings (ed. by Karen J. Campbell for The German Library, Continuum, 1991). Mechthild of Magdeburg (1207-1282) stands out for her daring use of Brautmystik, “bridal mysticism,” in which the contemplative’s journey ends in ardent longing. What the body might experience as the torments of hell, Mechthild says, the soul perceives as the “high delight” of union with the Godhead. She began her major treatise as follows:


This Is the First Part of the Book

This book is to be joyfully welcomed for God Himself speaks in it

This book I now send forth as a messenger to all spiritual people both good and bad – for if the pillars fall, the building cannot stand. The book proclaims Me alone and shows forth My holiness with praise. All who would understand this book should read it nine times.

This Book is called The Flowing Light of the Godhead

Ah! Lord God! Who has written this book? I in my weakness have written it, because I dared not hide the gift that is in it. Ah! Lord! What shall this book be called to Thy Glory? It shall be called The Flowing Light of the Godhead into all hearts which dwell therein without falseness.

This prologue is followed by a poetic dialogue between Love and the Soul, modeled after the courtly love poems of the Minnesingers.

Obviously, the blurring of borders between author and Author here helps advance the mystical argument. Notice, however, that the divine Word is spoken; only human words are written. The emphasis on calling and proclaiming, the thrice-repeated title, and the injunction to read the book nine times, remind us of the extent to which spellcraft influenced (and continues to influence) the language of prayer.

Incidentally, if you think “flowing light” sounds a little sexual, I don’t think you’re mistaken. Mechthild’s revelation mixes allegory with bodily imagery in a manner that can hardly fail to strike the modern reader as bizarre. For example, from Part 1:

19. God caresses the soul in six things

Thou art My resting place, My love, My secret peace, My deepest longing, My highest honor. Thou art a delight of My Godhead, a comfort of My manhood, a cooling stream for My ardor.

And you thought the via negativa was weird! Actually, what this most reminds me of was something I read in Rolling Stone a few years back. Some popular hip-hop guy was being interviewed about his Christian beliefs. He said, “I’m on God’s dick!”

Further musings on the divine phallus will have to wait for another time.