Shall we dance?

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Natalie suggested that each participating blogger follow our comma-free, one-sentence posts with additional sentences, continuing the same story line, so I did. But this is one of those stories where you, dear reader, must do all the work, supplying plot, character and motive along with the commas. You can star in this one yourself, if you like. Someone has to take the initiative around here!

Shall we play Twenty Questions the way we used to when we were small and crammed together into the back seat with almost the whole vacation behind us now & spotting license plates had begun to wear thin (though some of us had hated that game from the moment it got started) & we added a fourth category to the traditional three so Ideas were included which often of course made it impossible to solve in just 20 questions because how in the hell do you decide whether or not Democracy is bigger than a breadbox?

Or should we instead aspire to levity as on the evening of an alcohol-free family get-together on New Year’s Eve & take the questions dealt for us from decks not of our own imagining but focus our attention instead on the progress of plastic surrogates around a racetrack where the outcome seems heavily weighted in favor of those with the best memories for all the momentous events in the life of this particular colony of yeast?

And if we ever settle on a medium then shall we decide who asks whom the way one might volley for a serve or choose first move in a chess match based on the color of pawns held tight in a pick of fists?

The butternut chronicle: Nov. 16, 1998

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

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

I’ll also submit this as a late entry for the Ecotone wiki topic Cats and Place.

If I were a good ecological citizen, I’d be reaching for the .22 right now. And I might yet. But I have such a hard time pulling the trigger any more.

A cold wind has kept me off the porch for much of the day. I’m beginning to think I might have picked the wrong time of year to start this record. It was still 34 with a stiff breeze when I came out at 2:00, and I don’t last for more than ten minutes. But the wind did allow me to sneak out without disturbing the black and white cat hunting in the overgrown front yard below me. Out of habit, I grabbed the rifle from its usual spot behind the door, setting it down on the wicker sofa beside me.

Though completely feral, this cat’s relative lack of wariness by daylight distinguishes it from, say, a red fox – another non-native that occupies a similar ecological niche. Actually, given that we have both red and gray foxes on the mountain, with coyotes moving in, the few wild-living housecats may only survive because they are able to switch to a more diurnal pattern than they might otherwise prefer. Thus are new niches pioneered.

Not that this ecosystem needs another prolifically fertile mid-sized predator. In the absence of top carnivores, and with the highly fragmented landscape offering lots of access to formerly inaccessible deep-forest spots, omnivores such as raccoons, skunks and opossums are devastating populations of songbirds through nest predation. Seen in this context, feral housecats are just one minor piece of the puzzle. It’s the unnatural proliferation and consumption patterns of human beings that are at the root of all this, of course.

This cat is, I suspect, a regular resident of an old barn down in the valley, less than a mile to the east. I have tracked it up over Laurel Ridge in winters past. An all-black cat sometimes shows up as well. They both seem to specialize in rodents – mainly chipmunks and meadow voles – but I’m sure neither would hesitate to raid a song sparrow or ovenbird nest in season, if they happened across it.

After a few minutes of fruitless stalking of the semi-subterranean voles, the cat goes out to the driveway and pads down to the big log that lies at a right angle to the road. Using the log as cover it sneaks back toward the stream. At the base of the butternut it surprises a chipmunk, attempts to pounce. But the chipmunk easily dodges and disappears in the dense weeds.

The last couple days it’s been warm enough for the birds to bathe in the stream below the butternut tree, but not today. I wonder whether the cat’s interest in this spot stems from familiarity with its frequent use by birds? Quite possibly so. I picture the cat crouched low among the sedges, waiting for its chance as an unsuspecting junco whips up an instant fountain with its wings . . . As much time as I spend out here, I still miss so much of what goes on!

The cat climbs the bank and works its way over to the corner of the house. Some new movement in the weeds prompts it to freeze once again – more voles, no doubt. Finally it heads up the slope and out of sight. I suspect it may be headed for an old woodchuck hole that gives access to the crawlspace underneath the kitchen, which is fine with me. Plenty of white-footed mice there. I’m getting as tired of setting traps as I am of taking potshots at feral housecats.

The whole time I tracked the cat with my eyes, I was remembering a story that the ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi once told on himself. He was trespassing in a fenced game preserve when a strange-looking magpie startled him, brushing his face with its wings on its way to a nearby branch. He raised his crossbow to take aim at it, but just as he did so,

He noticed a cicada, which had just found a beautiful patch of shade and had forgotten what could happen to it. A mantis hiding behind the leaves grabbed at it, forgetting at the sight of gain that it had a body of its own. The strange magpie in its turn was taking advantage of that, at the sight of profit forgetful of its truest prompting.

‘Hmm!’ said Chuang Chou uneasily. ‘It is inherent in things that they are tied to each other, that one kind calls up another.’

As he threw down his crossbow and ran out of the grove, the gamekeeper came running behind shouting curses at him.

(A. C. Graham translation, Chuang-Tzu: The Inner Chapters, Hackett, 2001)

To be a part of the food chain does involve one in a sort of infinite regression. But what Zhuangzi is critiquing here, I believe, is the way the focused awareness of the hunter can be so easily spoiled by thoughts of gain. The instant one thinks “I have forgotten myself!” all is lost. As soon as Zhuangzi loses his mental equilibrium, the game warden is after him. There are so many ways to participate in the lives of others – and the majority of them seem to involve some sort of ego-projection. I wonder if my squeamishness about killing doesn’t derive primarily from my own fear of death.


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

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.

The butternut chronicle: Nov. 14, 1998

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 13 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 entirely of thoughts and observations made while sitting on my front porch. There’s no entry for Nov. 15, and only a couple of observations from the day before – also a Sunday in 1998.

The warm spell continues. It’s fifty-one degrees at 8:00 a.m. A disgustingly late hour for me to be getting up, but I spent a late night with some visiting friends, who are still sleeping.

All five of the nearby resident gray squirrels are in the butternut tree, racing back and forth through its vase-shaped splay of limbs. The sun shines brightly but diffusely through a thin screen of cirrus; the trees don’t cast shadows. There’s a peculiar feel to the air this morning, like Indian Summer gone stale, I write.

Then again, maybe I just need to change my socks.

The origin of the chickadee

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Once there was a woman who had a daughter she treated badly. The mother would be boiling corn soup and she would make the girl stir and stir. She would look in the pot and see it there and go hungry. But when she asked for some, the mother always said, “Not yet.” There never seemed to be a time when the corn soup was ready. The poor girl wished she could be a bird and fly away. Her wish was granted, and They turned her into a chickadee. That’s why the chickadee always comes around when people have anything going on. It hopes they will give it corn soup. It follows you through the woods, too, when you go to cut logs or brush, think maybe you’re going to build a fire and make soup.

Seneca Indian story collected by Merle H. Deardorff at the former Cornplanter Grant, NW Pennsylvania (destroyed by the Kinzua reservoir in 1965)

Butternut chronicle: Nov. 13, 1998

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 12 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 entirely of thoughts and observations made while sitting on my front porch. The butternut tree that then dominated the view has since fallen over, and I have yet to reconcile myself to its loss – or to the imminent loss of its species, currently being wiped out throughout its range by a disease of unknown origin and poorly understood epidemiology.

3:20 p.m. Fifty-four degrees. A male white-breasted nuthatch inches along the edge of the porch roof, probing under the lip of shingles with his workmanlike bill.

There are four things you need to know about white-breasted nuthatches (Sitta carolinensis): 1) they are basically solitary; 2) their strongest allegiance as a non-migratory, highly territorial species is to place; 3) nuthatch space is defined and delimited by the presence of trees, with which they have a unique and intimate relationship; and 4) they spend must of their waking hours upside-down, finding thereby all the small gleanings overlooked by everyone else.

Guestblogging at the V.B.

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Elck started it, Velveteen Rabbi picked it up – soon everyone was doing it; me too. By the time I joined in they added another rule to make it more interesting: not just One Sentence, but No Commas. I do need to acknowledge the influence of the new kid on the block with his post about different sized thoughts. And I must say that trying to shrink a whole thought into a single sentence does feel like downsizing. “Here’s your sentence, little thought. Now do your time.”

Raising hell

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

I guess I must’ve had some kinda angel on my shoulder back in them days, like that one time when I was sitting out on the porch in that dump I used to live in there on College Avenue working my way through a case of Koch’s, and as I finished them pounder bottles I’d give ’em a good toss so they’d go splat in the middle of the street, which was also Route 26, you know, just for the sound of it I guess, like cymbals at a parade except for having no echo, and to watch them zillion little pieces of glass go skittering and skattering up and down the street. ‘Course the cars all had to slow down as time went on, crunching their way slowly through like they was grinding over a bunch of little bones or something, like them bones you got in your ear maybe, or a bunch of mice. But the thing is I wasn’t out to do no harm, I was just feeling so good, you know, and it was really more like, “Hey! I love everybody,” because you gotta understand it was like the first real warm day in March, real nice afternoon, and you know how that goes. Things get crazy on them kinda days in a college town, you know, I’m sure there was parties breakin’ out all over and the kids up in Beaver Canyon was probly bein’ assholes as usual, throwing keggers out on every balcony, pissing on people down below, getting naked, even screwing out there – that’s how they started that riot that one time, and Penn State ended up expelling the girl that was involved even though it wasn’t on Penn State property – yeah, just her, not her boyfriend nor none of them assholes who came running down from the frats up on the hill and did most of the damage, tearing down lampposts, flipping cars – so all I’m saying is, I guess the cops was otherwise occupied that afternoon. But I didn’t even think about that, I had drunk more’n half that case of pounders when the phone rang and it was my old girlfriend Kate on the line asking me if I could meet her at the Brewery in like fifteen minutes, just to catch up and have a few drinks, you know, so I said “Sure” and got my wallet and started right on over and I was only about one block away when here come a whole gang of cop cars with their lights flashing. “Some poor son of a bitch is about to get fucked,” I said to myself, and then forgot all about it until hours later when I got home and my one roommate Drew, he says, “You know the cops was here right after you left,” and I says “What about?” and he says “What the hell do you think? Someone called in about all the glass in the street, and whoever it was said they seen it coming from our porch, but the only one home was Darren and of course he was all fucked up on pills or whatever and he said he didn’t know nothing about it, but they made him get out there with a broom while they stopped traffic in both directions for about ten minutes, though they never did try and cite him for anything,” and at the thought of that sorry-ass little punk with his falling-down mohawk out there in the middle of College Avenue trying to sweep up a ton of glass with our worn down broom with a busted-off handle, I couldn’t help it, I cracked up. I mean, I was just like, “Well fuck me runnin’!” Darren and me had a good laugh about it after we got sober.