Cecelia Fire Thunder

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

From Indian Country Today, some rare glad tidings:

In one of the largest and most spectacular inaugurations in the history of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, Cecelia Fire Thunder, the first woman ever to lead the nation as president began a new era….

Cecelia and Vice President Alex White Plume are fluent in the Lakota language and she said they plan to speak the language while in the offices, because, as she added, there may be solutions in the language.

The inauguration was a special event for Oglala women and for women from other tribes. A special ceremony by the women’s society distributed sacred food, or “food of the Gods,” said Rick Two Dogs, uncle to Cecelia and Oglala spiritual leader.

The food contains the spirit, mind and heart of the tribal leaders, he said.

Wilma Mankiller, the first woman to lead the Cherokee Nation as principal chief, is a special friend to Fire Thunder; the two call themselves sisters.

“It takes a strong person to stand up in Indian country,” Mankiller said.

“She [Fire Thunder] is a healer of people. She carries herself with dignity and was not elected because she is a woman. She was elected because she gets up every morning, says prayers in her language and goes out and fights for her people.”

Mankiller said Fire Thunder doesn’t accept things the way they are, which makes her optimistic about the future.

“We have survived relocations, massacres and wars and we are still standing; how can I not be optimistic,” Mankiller said.

A certain slant

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Put it off all you want; there’s no escaping the pull of the blank page. We writers stare into it the way, in ages past, a body might have confronted and tried to befriend its own mortality. It was considered greatly enlightening, in fact, to acknowledge one’s “inner death” that way, back in those benighted centuries before the gospel of unlimited Growth unseated the old values of poverty, humility and hospitality.

Mid-afternoon a few days before the winter solstice and I’m up at the spruce grove at the top of the field. The air is as clear as it gets and the view out toward the east is spectacular, but I’ve seen it too many times to become entranced. Mountains and rivers without end, big deal. But turn around, go into the grove. Look: a small patch of sunlight on the needle-covered ground illuminates an otherwise invisible, glistening tapestry. Marvellous!

I kneel before it, run my fingers along the ground to make sure this isn’t some kind of wintertime mirage. A few threads bend to the pressure of my fingertips, but most of them somehow escape my touch. They are extremely fine, and stretch right across the surface of the ground: the ruined webs, I suppose, of what I always like to think of as handkerchief spiders. They are too taut simply to have fallen from the trees, I think. The whole network trembles in this barest ghost of a breeze, while all around the unlit ground looks bare and ordinary.

Then a few minutes later at the so-called vernal ponds along the crest of Sapsucker Ridge, another kind of revelation: three flat, white spaces on a forest floor otherwise free of snow, blank pages for the tracks of coyote and white-tailed deer and the long shadows that stripe them from end to end. I stand and stare at the largest one, contrasting its present opacity with my memory of how it looked on my last walk here a week ago. It was a few hours closer to dusk, and I stood watching the dark outlines of tree trunks shake and shimmy against a reflected sky for so long, I almost managed to convince myself that I was being given a glimpse into some other time, some other forest.

Now this frozen and snow-dusted pond in the woods is the opposite of a looking glass. But with the sun so bright and the sky so blue, its surface offers a sneak preview of coming attractions one or two months away. The long shadows will be just this shade of blue, yes, and in between, the granular surface of the snow pack will glisten, just like that. I will time my walks and set my course so as to head as much as possible into that “certain slant of light,” alert for anything that gleams. I remember how my friend Crystal Dave used to walk when he was out searching for quartz in a freshly bulldozed site of a future subdivision, head down, hands clasped behind his back. “You just go along blinking into the sunlight,” he said, ever the night owl, “and look for that one stone that winks back.”


There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of cathedral Tunes –

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference –
Where the Meanings, are –

None may teach it – Any –
‘Tis the Seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –

When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –

(The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition, R. W. Franklin, ed., Belknap Press, 1998, # 320)

A contribution to the Ecotone wiki topic Solstice Place.


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Today is Via Negativa’s first birthday! It hardly seems possible. I am trying hard to remember what I had in mind when I launched her into the world one year ago. I think I had very little inkling of what I was getting into. I had seen only a few, political and links blogs – and none of the popular ones, either. Diary blogs, philosophy and religion blogs, literary and nature blogs were all beyond my ken. I had no concept of blogrolls and little understanding of the importance of linking.

I did know that I wanted primarily to generate original content, but as I recall, I envisioned brief (!) essays and lengthy quotes from printed sources. To the extent that I had a motivating idea at the beginning, I believe it was to write some sort of anti-blog, a post-ironic website devoted to Nothing – hence (in part) the name. After a few weeks, I developed a firmer sense of direction and crafted the Apologia that I still link to, though I think a re-write is long overdue. A few more weeks, and I stopped worrying about whether a given post “fit.” The notion that, “Hey, it’s my blog, I can put up anything I want!” quickly proved intoxicating.

Except that it wasn’t just my blog. From the beginning, I had a strong conception of this as its own thing, an organic whole made up of (as it turned out) very disparate parts. But one thing I didn’t understand when I got started was the importance of comments. Hell, it took me a good two weeks just to figure out how to add a comments feature. In the meantime, I stumbled more or less into the present blog neighborhood, I think from following a Blogwise or Blogorama link to the cassandra pages – always a good place for newcomers to get their sea legs. It turned out that comments threads at blogs were unlike message boards in one, important respect: they were respectful. At least for the smaller and less political blogs, flaming seems to be quite uncommon, and more importantly, the quality of the exchanges is often quite high.

This, I soon decided, is what reading was meant to be: a mostly solitary yet still communal, almost campfire experience, where a reader’s response can prompt new insights from other readers and from the original author, too. As a more-or-less Serious Writer I had always believed strongly in the need for new forms of interaction between audience and author and among authors and texts. In addition, I have a longstanding interest in finding ways to re-invigorate literary culture with some of the methods and emphases of oral traditions, such as communal authorship and the ability to extemporize songs, stories and everything in between.

In the blogosphere, all of this now seems possible. One good way to overcome the tyranny of the secondary text/experience, it seems, is to greatly expand the number and accessibility of primary sites. My most unexpected discovery was the extent to which I would connect with other blogs and other bloggers, and the intensity of some of the friendships that formed as a result. It turned out that there was an astounding number of impossibly talented and/or fascinating people writing with verve and passion about things that matter. I discovered food bloggers, travel bloggers, photo bloggers, audio bloggers, poetry bloggers, birding bloggers, Buddhism bloggers, model airplane bloggers – you name it. It remains a source of wonder to me that I can log onto Bloglines any given morning, click on one of my subscriptions at random, and read something as good or better than anything published in Orion or The Georgia Review.

Of course, there are peculiarities about this blog neighborhood that distinguish it from the rest of the blogosphere, where different sets of values may apply. A few days ago, I spent an hour or two reading some of the hipper weblogs and came back to my own feeling slightly abashed. “Look at all this rampant sincerity!” I muttered to myself, scrolling down the main page of the Via Neg. But perhaps, I thought, the problem isn’t sincerity per se, but the fact that it’s mixed in with cynicism, humor and outright silliness in ever-varying proportions. Can’t I just find one predominant mood and stick with it? And I knew, of course, what I would want that mood to be: grave, vatic to elegiac, spiced with flashes of irony. I would have to rein in my enthusiasm for things I like. Gushiness is never cool.

Well, it ain’t for nothing that I have a lengthy Rabelais quote right under my picture at my geocities site. See, Rabelais was The Man. In his one, gargantuan book he found room for everything: not just the bawdy and scatological humor that everyone remembers, but social commentary (including a serious proposal for a commune), philosophy and religion, word lists, recipes, all in a spirit of provisionality and experimentation that few other literary authors have managed to emulate. Then there are the myth cycles of certain indigenous peoples, which employ a similar mix of genres, moods, voices and levels. To hell with gravity and consistency! Long live the melange!


This would probably be a good place to do one of those Year in Review things, but I’m not sure where to start. Besides, the “High Points” links are there for anyone who wants to take a core sample – though some of V.N.’s more memorable posts, such as Conjuring Place, the Bathroom Poems, Hot Raccoon Sex and How to Make an Egg Salad Sandwich, aren’t included. My two personal favorites among all the things I’ve written for this blog so far are the poems In the Ice Forest, from last February, and From a Distance, dashed off in one draft last July.

I could go on and on about how much blogging has changed and improved my writing, but you’ve probably heard it all before. One of the few things, if not the only thing, I’ve written about blogging here is the essay Hanging Gardens, from last May, where I compared bloggers to paper-making hornets for some reason. (I had the devil’s own time trying to find it just now, so you better all go read it! The Google Search bar doesn’t always work when you’ve got too much content in one place, it seems.)

The main thing I want to say is THANK YOU to everyone who’s been a regular reader, whether or not you’ve ever left a comment.


Last Saturday was the final day of regular rifle deer season in Pennsylvania, so not wanting to risk interrupting the hunt, I confined myself to a walk down our mile-and-a-half-long driveway and back. It was about 40 degrees out – just cold enough to require a knit cap.

Down near the bottom of the hollow, right in the middle of the driveway on a level with my nose, I found a small spider with a spot of yellow in the middle of a thin, brown abdomen. She was spinning a web.

I couldn’t believe it. For a month or more, every time the sun shone strongly I’d go walk in the woods and see if I could still see strands of spider and caterpillar silk hanging from trees and bushes, and sure enough: the woods seemed as interlinked as ever. I had chalked it up to the resilience of webs spun much earlier in the summer or fall, but now I wasn’t so sure.

She was climbing up a very long anchor thread leading from the edge of the road to an overhanging hemlock branch. The silk was virtually invisible, so my first impression was of this strange, small being crawling upside-down through the air. I watched her inch her way back up to the branch, and would have watched longer if I hadn’t had to hurry back and start supper. It didn’t seem like a very good time or a very auspicious place to start a big new project like that. On the other hand, I guess someone has to prey on all those January mosquitoes!

But maybe it wasn’t about prey at all. Maybe it wasn’t even about the web. Who knows?

Two days later it was snowing.

This land is whose land?

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

The U.S. Forest Sevice has announced its intention to push ahead with oil and gas drilling within roadless areas in Utah’s Uinta National Forest, despite widespread opposition from the actual, legal owners of the land (us). The head of the Utah Petroleum Association, however, knows what’s best for us: “We have to make a decision as a society to allow the responsible development of oil and gas leases on public lands.”

An even more heinous violation of the public trust is underway in Maryland, where Republican governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has admitted an intention to begin selling off state parks and state forests to real estate speculators (a.k.a. “developers”). “We’re absolutely looking at surplusing properties wherever we can,” the newly installed kleptocrat told the Washington Post. “Just having government holding pieces of land that should be developed is a policy we want to confront.”

It may interest cultural conservatives to know that Woody Guthrie’s first draft for “This Land is Your Land” had every verse end with the line, “God blessed America for me.” The thin strand with which I connect all this to the via negativa, however, is the little-known fourth verse (from Guthrie’s final version):

As I was walkin’ – I saw a sign there
And that sign said – no tress passin’
But on the other side – it didn’t say nothin!
Now that side was made for you and me!

Treasures of the snow

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Some mornings I like to devote to reading rather than writing, feeling that since reading itself is chief among the acts of the imagination, it cannot be an entirely healthy thing day after day to employ my most creative hours mainly in the production of my own words. The structure and phrasing of the foregoing sentence may already suggest to the subtler reader in which era I have spent my morning. I started for some reason with Andrew Marvell, who writes so engagingly about gardens and the mind:

The Mind, that Ocean where each kind
Does streight its own resemblance find;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other Worlds, and other Seas;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green Thought in a green Shade….
(“The Garden”)


Luxurious Man, to bring his Vice in use,
Did after him the World seduce:
And from the Fields the Flow’rs and Plants allure,
Where Nature was most plain and pure.
He first enclos’d within the Gardens square
A dead and standing pool of Air:
And a more luscious Earth for them did knead,
Which stupifi’d them while it fed.
The Pink grew then as double as his Mind;
The nutriment did change the kind….
(“The Mower Against Gardens”)

Then I decided to try and find poems more appropriate to the season. In English poetry of the 16th and 17th centuries, winter is usually portrayed in a negative light, symbolizing either frigidity and lack of feeling –

Shee’s but an honest whore that yields, although
She be as cold as ice, as pure as snow…
(Sir John Suckling, “Against Fruition”)

or the decrepitude associated with advanced age, as in Shakespeare’s famous 73rd sonnet:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang….

Both sets of meanings are at work in the following poem by John Donne, which I remembered too late to share on St. Lucy’s Day. But in fact it is a solstice poem, since before the reform of the calendar the solstice fell on December 13.

A Nocturnall upon S. Lucies Day,
Being the Shortest Day

‘Tis the yeares midnight, and it is the dayes,
Lucies, who scarce seaven houres herself unmaskes,
The Sunne is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rayes;
The worlds whole sap is sunke:
The generall balme th’hydroptique earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the beds-feet, life is shrunke,
Dead and enterr’d; yet all these seeme to laugh,
Compar’d with mee, who am their Epitaph.

Study me then, you who shall lovers bee
At the next world, that is, at the next Spring:
For I am every dead thing,
In whom love wrought new Alchimie.
For his art did expresse
A quintessence even from nothingnesse,
From dull privations, and leane emptinesse:
He ruin’d mee, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darknesse, death; things which are not.

All others, from all things, draw all that’s good,
Life, soule, forme, spirit, whence they beeing have;
I, by loves limbecke, am the grave
Of all, that’s nothing. Oft a flood
Have wee two wept, and so
Drownd the whole world, us two; oft did we grow
To be two Chaosses, when we did show
Care to ought else; and often absences
Withdrew our soules, and made us carcasses.

But I am by her death, (which word wrongs her)
Of the first nothing, the Elixer grown;
Were I a man, that I were one,
I needs must know; I should preferre,
If I were any beast,
Some ends, some means; Yea plants, yea stones detest,
And love; All, all some properties invest;
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, a light, and body must be here.

But I am None; nor will my Sunne renew.
You lovers, for whose sake, the lesser Sunne
At this time to the Goat is runne
To fetch new lust, and give it you,
Enjoy your summer all;
Since shee enjoyes her long nights festivall,
Let mee prepare towards her, and let mee call
This houre her Vigill, and her Eve, since this
Both the yeares, and the dayes deep midnight is.

The pseudonymous Restoration-era poet Ephelia makes novel use of winter imagery at the beginning of an invitation to Platonic love, which is worth quoting in full for its novel subject matter, I think. (The complete text of Ephelia’s book, Female Poems On several Occasions, is thankfully now online. I found this poem however in Kissing The Rod: an Anthology of Seventeenth-Century Women’s Verse, edited by Germaine Greer, Farrar Strauss Giroux, 1988.)

To Phylocles, inviting him to Friendship

Best of thy Sex! if Sacred Friendship can
Dwell in the Bosom of inconstant Man;
As cold, and clear as Ice, as Snow unstain’d,
With Love’s loose Crimes unsully’d, unprofan’d.

Or you a Woman, with that Name dare trust,
And think to Friendship’s Ties, we can be just;
In a strict League, together we’l combine,
And Friendship’s bright Example shine.

We will forget the Difference of Sex,
Nor shall the World’s rude Censure us Perplex:
Think Me all Man: my Soul is Masculine,
And Capable of as great Things as Thine.

I can be Gen’rous, Just, and Brave,
Secret, and Silent, as the Grave;
And if I cannot yield Relief,
I’l Sympathize in all thy Grief.

I will not have a Thought from thee I’l hide,
In all my Actions, Thou shalt be my Guide;
In every Joy of mine, Thou shalt have share,
And I will bear a part in all thy Care.

Why do I vainly Talk of what we’l do?
We’l mix our Souls, you shall be Me, I You;
And both so one, it shall be hard to say,
Which is Phylocles, which Ephelia.

Our Ties shall be strong as the Chains of Fate,
Conqu’rors, and Kings our Joys shall Emulate;
Forgotten Friendship, held at first Divine,
T’ its native Purity we will refine.

Some of Ephelia’s poems in a more romantic vein were equally unconventional, such as “To one that asked me why I lov’d J.G,” which contains the immortal line, “And yet I love this false, this worthless Man.” Its opening lines contain a brief, neutral reference to winter weather:

Why do I Love? go, ask the Glorious Sun
Why every day it round the world doth Run:
Ask Thames and Tyber, why they ebb and flow:
Ask Damask Roses why in June they blow:
Ask Ice and Hail, the reason, why they’re Cold:
Decaying Beauties, why they will grow Old:
They’l tell thee, Fate, that every thing doth move,
Inforces them to this, and me to Love….

This précis of Nature’s unknowable order may owe something to the monumental achievement of 17th century English literature, the King James Bible – specifically, Job:

Hast thou entered into the treasures of the snow?
or hast thou seen the treasures of the hail,
Which I have reserved against the time of trouble,
against the day of battle and war?
By what way is the light parted,
which scattereth the east wind upon the earth?
Who hath divided a watercourse for the overflowing of waters,
or a way for the lightning of thunder;
To cause it to rain on the earth, where no man is;
on the wilderness, wherein there is no man;
To satisfy the desolate and waste ground;
and to cause the bud of the tender herb to spring forth?
Hath the rain a father?
or who hath begotten the drops of dew?
Out of whose womb came the ice?
and the hoary frost of heaven, who hath gendered it?
The waters are hid as with a stone,
and the face of the deep is frozen.
Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Pleiades,
or loose the bands of Orion?
(Job 38:22-31)

Of course, if all else fails in the search for positive winter imagery, one can always quote out of context. John Dryden had something entirely different in mind when he wrote the following lines (in “Astraea Redux,” 1660), but they form an apt conclusion for this all-too-brief survey:

And now Time’s whiter Series is begun
Which in soft Centuries shall smoothly run.


For those interested in pursuing the Ephelia enigma, this site purports to identify not merely the poet, but “J.G.” and most of her other subjects. Other scholars dispute this attribution, some even making the case that “she” was a male poet adopting a female persona.

Shooting the water

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

A small procession on a red dusty road, and everyone’s dressed in red, red. The pace is not fast, the song is not slow, the pines aren’t stirring in the breeze. As they grow nearer you can see the black coffin, and it’s only three feet long, my dear, it’s only three feet long.


Well, yesterday morning I was making breakfast, and believe me when I tell you that there was nothing different about that. I always make the very same thing, because who wants a surprise first thing in the morning – or second, or third? A glass of orange juice from concentrate and two eggs fried sunny-side up in butter, sprinkled with dried tarragon. I sat down with the newspaper while I waited for the eggs to fry, my plate heating on a separate burner. Well, just as I got up and started across the kitchen toward the stove, I had the strangest feeling. It was a little like that feeling of weightlessness or disassociation one gets during orgasm, except there was no sensation involved, no question of pleasure or release – simply an absence. It lasted for less time than it takes to tell you about it, because to become conscious of a thing like that is to banish it almost immediately. Indeed, what I call a feeling was probably not the experience itself but its impression, like the afterimage that forms on the inside of your eyelids if you open your eyes for a split second and close them again.


What are they singing, these people, and why don’t they all look sad? The road is straight and hot and the heat waves make their legs appear to wobble from side to side. I climb the bank and rest in the shade of the scrubby pines, waiting, my camera at the ready. As they get closer, I notice something odd: the coffin has no lid.


Warning: objects in dreams are farther away than they appear. Whenever I happen to wake, right away I begin thinking about blogging. A dream that might otherwise seem unremarkable gains in significance simply from the prospect of being recounted. But I’m always wary of “recounting fraud,” you know? I ask myself, were things really so logical? Were they even as sequential as narrative conventions imply? And what was so frightening, why did familiar landmarks seem so huge, so full of shadows? The letter killeth; but the spirit giveth life. I turn over onto my left side, knowing that I can only fall asleep on my right. Just before I drift off, I’ll roll back into place.


Like a log, my dear. I always sleep like a log. Like a log hitching a ride in a coffin. I peer through the telephoto lens in disbelief. They’ve dressed it in baby clothes, but it’s clearly no infant. If they’d debarked it, I might not have recognized it, but I can see the reddish-brown plates: it’s a mate to the trunks I’m standing among. The people shuffle past in weary cadence, clapping softly the way you clap when the cemetery’s a mile or two from town.


It’s rare that I’m terrified of something in a dream, but it’s just as rare that I don’t feel at least a little fearful. Face it, I’m a slow moving, medium-sized mammal with a number of potential predators to worry about. Sometimes I’m smaller and more rodent-like, but I’ve never yet dug my own burrows, always taking over the abandoned homes of other creatures instead. That’s human enough, isn’t it? At one point last night, for example, I was exploring a couple of woodchuck burrows near the top of the field that seemed to open up into some kind of cavern. I decided to test the echo, stuck my head into one of the holes and gave a roar. A couple of huge shadows detached themselves from the side of the pit and growled back, a low rumble. I felt a blast of hot, stinking air like a week-old corpse.


Whose log-body can this be, dressed so fine for its own funeral? I follow at a distance, already picturing how this will look on the glossy pages of National Geographic. The scene at the cemetery merits a three-page pull-out, at least. In place of gravestones, large, curved animal horns jut from the earth. Some are painted white; others have been wound about with colored yarn. Little bells dangle from the point of every horn. The wind is a welcome visitor, it seems.


Have you ever felt a wind inside your skull? Talk about mute, abject terror! A nightmare you’ll remember years later, looking through a magazine at the dentist’s office with the whine of the drill dimly audible above the Muzak. You find you can’t concentrate on much besides pictures, and fortunately this magazine has quite a few. In fact, it’s difficult to find the articles, apart from the captions and a few paragraphs following the titles – or are they headlines? The Misunderstood Manta. Ancient Nubia: Birthplace of the Pharoahs? A Funeral for the Whooping Cough. And here’s a nice piece on the Venus de Milo, which seems so emblematic of something or other. (Yes, of course she’s a which, never a who.)


Listen. Here it comes now through the pines, hissing. A gourd rattle gives it legs. Someone starts swinging a bullroarer and all the hair stands up on the back of my neck. The shutter clicks away, seemingly of its own accord: the sound made by the claws of rats on an empty granary floor. Not that they’d ever print that sort of thing. By the time the editors get done with my prose, baby, I barely recognize myself among all the cliches. I might as well be shooting so much water under a bridge, back in goddamn Iowa.