Miracle man

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in the words of Bill Tierney, street protestor and professional interrogator

Terri is not dead
until she’s dead. I tried
to be nuanced and culturally aware
but the suspects didn’t break.
They did not break! I’m here
so our civilization beats theirs. Now
what are you willing to do to win?
We’re not going to go home.

You are the interrogators, you
are the ones who have to get
the information from the Iraqis.
What do you do?
That word torture.
I’m here to win.
Terri is not dead until she’s dead.

You immediately think, That’s not me.
But are we litigating this war or fighting it?
If I’m leaning a little to my left side, it’s
because I left my right mind at home.
I’ve seen miracles.

There’s always a mental lever
to get them to do
what you want them to do.
Terri is not dead until she’s dead.

The Brits came up with
an expression – wog.
Wily Oriental Gentleman.
There’s a lot of wiliness in that part of the world.
We’re not going to go home.

It’s the amateur who resorts to violence.
Smarts over smack. I’m here to win.
Terri is not dead until she’s dead.

There was a 19-year-old with me
in Baghdad. What’s going on in her head
is what kind of fingernail polish
she’s going to wear.
And she’s sitting across from
a guy from Yemen.
I’ve seen miracles.

Sadism is always right over the hill.
Don’t fool yourself.
There is a part of you that will say, ‘This is fun.’
You have to admit it.

I was burned all the way from my waist up.
You can hardly see it anymore.
By the laws of physics, I should be dead.
So I’ve seen miracles.

I’m here to win.
We’re not going to go home.
Terri is not dead until she’s dead.

Sources: All phrases are from quotes by Bill Tierney, a spook-for-hire who worked most recently as an interrogator for the U.S. Army in Iraq. I have done nothing to alter the substance of his words, other than to juxtapose statements made as a Terri Schiavo supporter with the more extensive quotes from a public forum on interrogation techniques a month earlier. In both cases, reporters described his testimony as highly emotional.

Schiavo Protesters Have Hearts on Sleeves and Anger on Signs, by Rick Lyman, New York Times, March 28, 2005

Spy World, by Patrick Radden Keefe, Boston Globe, February 13

I am indebted to Bill Mon for connecting the dots (see Christian Soldier).

And yes, I “borrowed” the title from an old Ozzy Osbourne song.

May Terri Schiavo rest in peace. May all the prisoners who have died in U.S. custody rest in peace.

Cibola 67

This entry is part 66 of 119 in the series Cibola


Reader (10)

[In Zuni] the most honored personality traits are a pleasing address, a yielding
disposition, and a generous heart. All the sterner virtues–initiative, ambition,
an uncompromising sense of honor and justice, intense personal loyalties–not
only are not admired but are heartily deplored. The woman who cleaves to her
husband through misfortune and family quarrels, the man who speaks his mind
where flattery would be much more comfortable, the man, above all, who thirsts
for power or knowledge, who wishes to be, as they scornfully phrase it, “a
leader of his people,” receives nothing but censure and will very likely be
persecuted for sorcery.
Introduction to Zuñi Ceremonialism

Rare indeed is the execution for which no other than superstitious reasons may
be adduced. . . . [L]ike a vigilance committee, the priesthood of the Bow
secretly tries all cases of capital crime under the name of sorcery or witchcraft .
. . On account of this mysterious method of justice crime is rare in Zuñi.
“My Adventures in Zuñi”

Zunis of all ages are . . . fearful of the dark, when witches and the dead are
abroad; they accompany each other even on short nighttime trips to the
outhouse or the car.
“Zuni and Quiché dream sharing and interpreting”

Out of nowhere

I’m late. The last of the red drained from the sky while I was in the shower; now the ridge behind me glows red as I sit facing east with my feet propped up.

Suddenly there’s a distant boom, very low-frequency, comparable in pitch to the drumming of a ruffed grouse. Maybe it’s more of a rumble than a boom – I feel it as much as I hear it. What the hell was that?

A minute later, another boom. The kind that rattles glass in windows, shakes plates from plate rails.

A third boom. I can feel it in my molars, almost. I decide they must be blasting at the limestone quarry two miles away, although usually it’s a higher-pitched sound, and the direction of origin isn’t nearly so difficult to pinpoint. A fire siren starts up and dies.

Another boom. I’m not wearing my watch, but they seem to be spaced about a minute apart. I think of our friends in the small village next to the quarry, how stressful it must be to have this blasting going on while they’re getting ready to go off to work. I recall a brief lecture on strip mining and quarrying by one of the Pennsylvania Chapter of the Sierra Club’s most knowledgeable activists, at a meeting just last month. “Blasting is an art, not a science,” she said. “Or you could say that each new hole requires a brand-new science.”

Boom. Again a fire siren wails once and falls silent. Is this what it felt like to be in Sarajevo on August 25, 1992? Such a calm morning! And then… Coming out of nowhere, like the hotel bombing in Lebanon last month that killed the former president. Prompting a sudden sick feeling in the pit of the stomach for all those who came of age during the civil war.

Boom. If this were still the Cold War, I’d be wondering, Is this it? Instead I’m thinking Al Qaeda, payback for Abu Ghraib…

Pick your disaster. News of the recent earthquake off Sumatra prompts recollections of the one major earthquake I experienced, in Taiwan, 1986 – also a middle-of-the-night thing. A violent shaking of something one had always been taught to regard as inert and unchanging. The exhilaration I felt, against all reason – chalk it up to a neurotic/religious temperament, perhaps. I’m an awe junky, I admit it. The earth is alive! I remember exulting – silently, so as not to alarm my seven roommates, all of whom immediately scrambled out of their bunks and poured into the hall, talking excitedly in Fujianese. Other people told me they had run out into the street, watched buildings and lampposts sway. One even saw ball lightning. I was so jealous.

Boom. The sound comes less from the air than out of the ground. Perhaps they are blasting deeper than usual, or have started on a new stratum. The limestone beds are lower Ordovician, and lie at perhaps a 15-degree angle. My house sits in upper Ordovician, on nearly vertical strata of the fossil-free Juniata formation. A mass extinction of unknown origin 443.5 million years ago is used to mark the end of the Ordovician period. Thus, it’s no exaggeration to say that cataclysmic disaster is written right into the stone here. But more to the point, the sharp plunging of these strata means that if vibrations from the quarry followed bedding lines alone, they would travel deep into the earth, a mile or more beneath my front porch. That may account for my impression that the sound is emanating from the ground, from all directions. In addition, fracture traces associated with a nearby, inactive fault craze the rocks on either side of the water gap, and it’s hard to believe these lineaments don’t also act as conduits for sound.

I first learned about this back in the 70s, when a geologist from Penn State approached my parents about burying an instrument called a tiltmeter at the top of our field, a mile and a half from the fault. A second tiltmeter was buried a comparable distance in the opposite direction. Up until then, like most people I had associated faults with seismically active regions at the edges of continental plates, such as the Pacific rim. But the first generation of Landsat photos had revealed a maze of intracontinental faults and lineaments, as well.

A tiltmeter is like a seismograph, they explained, but way more sensitive. The idea was to measure differential movements along the fault in response to the same, uniform stimuli – most notably, the tides. It really fired my ten-year-old imagination to learn that land as well as water responds to the moon’s gravitational tug with daily and monthly fluctuations: earth tides, they called them. Even when it isn’t shimmying in some temblor or quarry blast, the ground is far less firm than we like to think.

Another source of movement preceptible to the tiltmeter was the shrinking or expanding of soil in response to changes in temperature. My brothers and I were easily persuaded to help out by taking daily readings of high and low temperatures with a special thermometer they lent us. And they let us watch and ply them with questions on the momentous day when contractors dragged a huge drilling rig up our narrow, winding driveway and clear to the top of the field.

The tiltmeter was planted deep, never to be removed. There’s still a noticeable depression there, if you know where to look. For a long time I walked softly whenever I passed the spot, mindful that my footsteps were being recorded (or at least registered – I think the radio transmitter failed in less than a year). They told us not to worry, though – anything like that would be automatically discounted, off the chart. For something sensitive enough to “hear” the moon, even the footsteps of an ant would be deafening, they said.

Boom. What would it be like if an earthquake struck here, in the east? It’s not impossible. Earthquakes in seismically inactive regions are rare, but they can be devastating. Here’s a website with a list of the major earthquakes that have struck the midwestern and eastern United States and eastern Canada in historical times. Most notably, in late 1811 and early 1812, “New Madrid, Missouri, experienced the three largest earthquakes known to have occurred in North America (magnitudes estimated between 7.2 and 8.3) and 203 damaging aftershocks. Soil liquefaction occurred.” The price for greater stability is more violent cataclysm, when it comes. Deep stucture is no guarantee of permanence.

The website’s map does locate Pennsylvania within a zone of minor risk of damage from earthquakes. But as an article by science writer Robert Roy Britt on Space.com makes clear, it’s extremely difficult to know whether a given fault is truly inactive, if the periodicity of significant seismic activity is measured in thousands of years.

Britt’s article focuses on a plateau area of upstate New York, but many of the lessons would apply here, as well. The scientist featured in the article, Robert Jacobi, has developed methods to detect slight activity along faults based on subtle clues that would be invisible to both satellites and tiltmeters, such as “a long row of dead, dying or stressed plants; maybe a hint of out-of-place autumn color skipping along the top of a forest canopy. … A leaning tree … can indicate that a fault is slipping quietly over time, possibly building stress that might give way in a sudden snap.”

Our local lineament can be traced simply by noting the course of the Little Juniata River from Tyrone southeast to Mount Union. This is not uncommon.

“Faults chew up the ground, and so the ground is more susceptible to erosion – so many streams follow faults and fractures,” Jacobi said.

Variations in plant species or health can also be indicators: Stressed vegetation blooms later in the spring and turns color earlier in the fall.

“Some of these lineaments are there because faults conduct water and soil gas,” Jacobi said. “They conduct fluids and gases that will make trees and grass respond differently.”

Even within a forest canopy, scientists can pick out differences by flying over a region at various times of the year. In drier areas, where there is little vegetation, what greenery there is typically follows fault lines, where water reaches the surface.

From airplanes, readings of magnetic fields emanating from rock below helped Jacobi’s team calculate that some of the faults extended several miles (kilometers) below the surface. Matching their results with known faults in the far north of the study area helped show the method was reliable.

I’m fascinated by the notion that something virtually instantaneous on a geological time scale – seasonal changes in the growth of grass and trees – can be used to detect glacially slow movements along structures untold millions of years in age.

The booming stopped after about ten minutes. Three hours later, it’s a calm morning. I decided to ignore the red sunrise and hang out laundry anyway, choosing to believe an online forecast for sun and temperatures in the 60s. But in the back of my mind on days like this there’s always a little voice whispering, Don’t trust it. Anything can happen. We’re all living on groundless hopes, on borrowed time. The world can break.

Cibola 66

This entry is part 65 of 119 in the series Cibola


Marcos (3) (conclusion)

The friar sighs. Coughs.
What dreamers, all those prophets!

How much more sensible
the Psalmist, eulogizing
the young lions
roaring for their prey,
seeking their food from God.

And the Seraphic Father, who wrote
in his homely way All praise
to you my Lord
for Sister Death . . .

Already three of his guides, knives out,
have reached the site.
He shouts them off it:
Déjalo, por piedad!
The lion too must eat.

He feels her eyes on him, breath
of coolness off some remnant
snow pack–he scans the peak
for a telltale glare among
the crags, the high meadows–
lingering like the words
of a favorite verse

long after the fire
that fixed them in memory
has paled, diminished
by far fiercer lights.

the young lions roaring for their prey: Psalm 104.

the Seraphic Father: St. Francis. The quote is from his “Canticle to the Sun.”

the words of a favorite verse: I.e., Isaiah 11:6. See Reader (9).


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“Konkerlee,” they sang – if singing is the term for something so unmelodic, so off-key. “Konkerlee.” But all together. With feeling.

Do you have any idea what I’m talking about? No, I suspect you don’t – unless you grew up in a family of naturalists as I did. I try not to take that for granted, remembering how mystified I feel when people my own age and younger bond over choruses of their favorite television theme songs and advertising jingles from the 1970s and 80s. So often, growing up, I found myself unable to relate to my classmates in the local public schools – we might as well have been speaking mutually unintelligble languages. Without television, I participated only vicariously in the major cultural watersheds of our time, such as the airing of Roots, or the sudden awareness of issues like homosexuality or possible human cloning.

I had more in common with some of my fundamentalist Christian classmates than anyone else. They too had parents who didn’t believe in TV, distrusted the government, raised much of their own food, and did weird things like read books out loud, have regular family meetings, and eat meals together at set times. They too wore clothes from the Dollar General Store and shoes from Super Shoes, and didn’t have a clue about sex, drugs or rock ‘n roll. But beyond that, our respective value systems had very few areas of overlap. (“What? You believe in evolution? Don’t you know you can go to hell for that?”)

These days, the Internet keeps me feeling marginally more connected to mass-marketed culture and politics, though I still haven’t seen things that pundits on the radio regularly tell us that everyone has seen, such as the appearance of the Beatles on American Bandstand (?), or footage of the jets crashing into the twin towers on 9/11. Even as a kid, I felt like an anthropologist in my own country, and that feeling has only intensified with age.

In a dream the other night I was walking along an abandoned county road – you know, cracked patches of asphalt where tough customers like chicory, teasel and spotted knapweed gather around, drinking from 40-oz. bottles & talking trash. I topped a rise and found myself in the middle of our field circa 1975. There was my older brother, age 11 or 12, pushing the lawnmower without a great deal of enthusiasm. There were those three, huge balm-of-Gilead trees that my dad had had to cut down a few years later because they were dead or near death & leaning dangerously over the house. The seckle pear tree was back in the Pear Tree Curve of the driveway, still five years away from its collision with the driver’s side of our old truck in my brother’s first driving lesson. Our red VW bus sat in the garage. The forsythia was in full bloom, along with that row of tulips that would later be wiped out by rabbits. Puppies romped on the veranda.

I walked up to my brother and explained that I’d just come from the year 2005, through some kind of time warp. (We always use to talk about time warps when we were kids.) To my surprise, he bolted, leaving the lawnmower running. Good lord, I said to myself – he thinks I want to kick his ass! Maybe the sibling rivalry had been stronger than I remembered. I stared around at all the acres of mowed lawn and lawn yet-to-be-mowed. Why in the world did we keep it up year after year, this pointless struggle to prevent nature from running wild? It’s not as if we had any neighbors to cluck their tongues.

I realized I wouldn’t be able to handle the shock of meeting my parents when they were younger than I am now, so I woke up. Outside it was one of those cold and foggy mornings just like the ones on which the red-wing blackbirds always used to come back, sometime between late February and late March. They were one of the first and therefore most eagerly anticipated entries in the old Spring Arrivals List that my mom taped to the refrigerator every year. They would show up right after daybreak and perch in the yard trees for an hour or two, making their rusty-barn-door-hinge racket. They almost never actually bred on the mountain, so this was one of the few times in the course of the year when we could count on seeing them. But for some reason they haven’t been paying us an early-spring visit nearly as often as they used to when I was a kid – maybe one year out of three.

White-throated sparrows were singing their wistful song about Poor Sam Peabody or Oh Sweet Canada, whichever you prefer (I hear both). As I sat there drinking my coffee and feeling nostalgic, damn me if a red-wing blackbird’s konkerlee call didn’t ring out. Image Hosted by ImageShack.usA whole flock had landed in the walnut trees above the other house – the one I grew up in – and was joined a few minutes later by another flock of about the same size. There must have been a couple hundred, all told. With that many of them calling at the same time, most of what you hear, as I said in yesterday’s post, are the overtones. It’s a little like Tuvanese throat singing, if you know what I mean. I walked over to the edge of the porch and stood there listening for the longest time, peering into the fog.

N.B.: The above image of a redwing blackbird was highly modified from a web source.

Cibola 65

This entry is part 64 of 119 in the series Cibola


Marcos (3)

Panting from the climb, eyes
on the trail, the friar
almost runs into
his guide, who stands
with an arm outstretched behind
to stop him short. Then

without turning
his head, hooks
a fold of Marcos’s habit
& tugs him forward like
a trout, breathes in his ear: Mirad.
Within arrow’s range down
the slope, beyond
the pines with
their filigreed shadows
a meadow traversed
by a winding creek, sunlight
playing on the water

& there on the far bank
two animals lying down together
in the vast & reverent stillness.
The smaller one glows a burnished
copper flecked with white–
un ciervito, a fawn–
cradled by the golden
longtailed form that just then

raises her bowed head
to intercept
their gaze. A glimpse
of dripping jaws & tongue,
whiskered face stained red, before
she rises

& with one liquid
motion leaps
& vanishes.

(To be continued.)

Two legs at noon: new poem-like things

I want to give myself back to myself, I thought, sitting on the porch at dawn & watching the dark details slowly filling in between the scattered patches of white, which, among all possible fallen things, I suspect will once again turn out to be nothing but snow.


My first published poem in years & they fucked it up, printing double spaces between the lines. And they’re short lines, too. I’m amazed by how well they manage to bear the burden of their isolation. My words have never seemed so measured before. They pick their way over the page on herons’ feet.


Along with What do you do? & Where are you from? I would like to ask each new acquaintance, What do you grieve for? Because I have this hunch that everyone clutches a portion of the self-same grief. We give it endearing names, as culture & circumstance may dictate. Our male or female nipples ache to give it suck.


I remember sitting under, inside, encircled – surrounded by her, as ripples in a pond surround a water-strider, rowing the skinny boat of his fish-bait body to & fro.


After a day spent hunched over a keypad, to stand outside in my slippers looking at the moon seems wholly fatuous. How does taking this in for a few minutes make up for everything I have failed to witness? The calendar on my computer tells me to expect a full moon, so I wait for the clouds to thin & the trees to grow shadows as they should. In the space of ten minutes, my front yard expands to an enormous size. The calendar on my computer says it’s Good Friday. Resist the urge to pray long enough & the sweetness will rise & spread to your outermost branches.


Easter Sunday: thick fog, dark shapes of redwing blackbirds in the walnut trees, all calling at once. They drown out the song sparrows, the robins, even the creek. It’s the auditory equivalent of a rolling boil: the overtones rise & burst, rise & burst.


Whichever direction I walk, the fog keeps its distance. It reminds me of driving in certain parts of the Midwest where trees are spread just thickly enough to make one swear there must be a forest on the horizon. Here, the woods are never far. A pileated woodpecker drums & cackles. This corner of the field where plow & mower have been absent the longest has the highest concentration of ant mounds & small mammal burrows. Leave land alone long enough & it will grow – not in acreage, perhaps, but certainly in surface area. Its dreams are no longer yours. They multiply, re-drawing the horizon. Like a girl turning into her own woman – a rarer thing than it should be in this over-farmed world.


The snow lingers on old logging roads & on the weather side of abandoned plow lines. On a clear day in the middle of March one can see such scars on wooded hillsides from miles away. But today we’re socked in with fog; I keep my eyes on the damp leaves beneath my feet. Here & there I can make out drag trails from last fall’s hunting season, tufts of white hair from a deer’s belly.


Coyote shit always lies parallel to the direction of the trail. Here’s a case in point: three hairy gray turds side by side, half caterpillar, half pupa. Remember this if you’re ever lost in the woods. As much as its priorities may differ from ours, a coyote can be trusted to follow a straight line for miles.


Orange on the ridgetop where a porcupine has chewed the bark off a fallen red oak tree, limb & branch. Orange in the Far Field where my father always mows the same path with his tractor, a stripe of broom sedge through the gray-brown mess of old goldenrod.


Fifty feet off the trail, a tree drops a limb just to see if I’m paying attention. I am now.


Winter-bleached leaves on a stand of beech saplings hang tip-down, curled like funnels, holding moisture for no good reason I can think of. When the wind starts up they drop it all at once. I hear the patter from around the bend & picture things running – yet another harmless conclave broken up by the approach of a human being, two legs at noon.