The outhouse poet strikes again

We are very different writers, he & I.
He uses the point of a nail clipper
to etch his angular letters where they’ll reach
the broadest possible audience. Paper
is what you wipe with, says he.
Me, I revere the dirt beneath my nails
as if it were the dust of my ancestors,
which it might well be. Nature abhors
a pit, say I. We are all connected.

The shithouse poet only gets the urge to write
when he gets the urge. Sometimes his muse
is loosened by 24-hour news-mongering
on the fear channel. Squatting over the void,
hole to hole, he vents in rhyme.

Me, I make my own buzz,
rub my forefeet together for warmth.
If you didn’t know any different,
you might think I was praying.
You might take this windowless house for a hermit’s cell.

Doubting against doubt: finding the grail bird

Here’s a book review to wrap up Summer Book Week. Thanks are due to my father for posting (and copyediting) in my absence, and to him, my mom and my brother for sharing their expertise in “favorite books” posts.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usI try hard to avoid anything topical at Via Negativa, but as regular readers will remember, I made an exception for the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker, announced late last April. In company with a lot of other folks, I saw it as a real emblem of hope – maybe ecocide can still be averted. Maybe there’s still time.

Since then, one of the most pivotal re-discoverers, Tim Gallagher, has had his book published by Houghton Mifflin, The Grail Bird: Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. This was no instant book, but had been in the works for some time; an epilogue gives an update as of February 2005. And Gallagher, the editor of Living Bird magazine, is no slouch as a writer.

Mostly, The Grail Bird is just a good yarn, filled with engaging portraits of the various characters who have stalked the bird for science, from the 18th century to the present. I hadn’t realized the extent to which scientists had helped decimate the last surviving populations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries through their insatiable urge to collect. The attitude of ornithologists toward birds was strikingly similar to the attitude of early anthropologists toward the “primitive” people they studied: gather all the hard evidence possible, including corpses, because of course their continued existence is incompatible with human progress. The role of the scientist was to document the march of rare species and indigenous peoples toward extinction. But while the mainstream of anthropology has long since repudiated this truly primitive mindset, evidence suggests that ornithologists are having a great deal of trouble accommodating any other storyline.

The real hero of the book is Gallagher’s good friend and fellow ivorybill fanatic Bobby Harrison, a roly-poly Southerner with an insatiable hunger for Snickers bars and Dinty Moore beef stew and an uncanny penchant for taking the long way around, whether on foot in snake-infested swamps or traveling cross-county in his beater of a van. It’s Harrison, along with Arkansas natives David Luneau and Gene Sparling, who maintains a constant vigil in the swamp. Wave after wave of crack birders from Cornell and elsewhere spend varying lengths of time in the area trying to collect solid documentary evidence of the Ivorybill’s existence, but in the end it’s the fanatical Harrison and Luneau who come up with the brief, blurry videos that remain the most solid evidence to date (if one discounts the excellent audio recordings of ivorybill calls from several locations).

The Grail Bird ought to appeal to a much wider audience than just birders. The story of the ivorybill’s repeated rediscovery and subsequent dismissal by legions of skeptics throughout the latter half of the 20th Century left me pondering the nature of doubt. Ever since the so-called Enlightenment of the 18th Century, we have been accustomed to regarding unquestioning faith as problematic; I can’t remember ever hearing a critique of “blind doubt.” But following the crushing loss of the Singer Tract in the 1940s, the American ornithological community has fallen prey to a fey kind of fatalism in regards to the ivorybill. No proof is good enough, and any ornithologist so foolhardy as to claim to have seen it – or even to believe in the veracity of a sighting – risks irreparable damage to his reputation.

That was the case with John Dennis, who had taken what was generally acknowledged as the last irrefutable photo of an ivorybill in Cuba in 1948. His claim to a sighting in the Big Thicket of East Texas in 1966 was roundly ridiculed. With Harrison’s help, Gallagher is able to relocate a sound recording Dennis had made, and the analysis of the sonogram convinced audio technicians that the call on the tape could only have been made by an ivorybill.

In another coup of investigative journalism, Gallgher tracked down the previously unknown individual who took the controversial snapshots of an ivory-billed woodpecker in Louisiana in 1971. The then-head of the Louisiana State Museum of Natural Science, George Lowery, had presented the snapshots at the annual meeting of the American Ornithological Union that year and was astonished at his colleagues’ reactions.

Lowery’s pictures were met with immediate withering skepticism by most of the other ornithologists. The photos showed two different trees, but the posture of the bird in them was too similar. You couldn’t see its bill or feet. Somehow, it just didn’t look right. And yet the question remained: why would someone go to all the trouble of climbing fifty or sixty feet up two different trees to fake these pictures – particularly since the man who took them wished to remain anonymous?

In this case, the skeptical reaction appears especially unscientific. Not only did the skeptics’ explanation fail to satisfy Occam’s razor, but their refusal to even entertain the possibility that a population of ivorybills persisted in an area with extensive tracts of suitable habitat, as attested to by a well-respected biologist, was the very opposite of the open-minded search for truth that is the supposed hallmark of Western science.

Gallagher and Harrison are among the dedicated few who never allowed themselves to believe that the ivorybill had gone extinct. It’s not that they were ever fully convinced that the bird still existed, simply that they refused to dismiss what struck them as convincing accounts by credible witnesses. They dared to “doubt against doubt,” as it were. Significantly, neither is a professional ornithologist. Each is an amateur in the best sense of the word: etymologically, a lover, someone passionately dedicated to a pursuit. Of course, plenty of scientists are also passionate advocates for the natural world: one thinks of E. O. Wilson, Reed Noss, Michael Soulé. Without true passion to burn off the choking thickets of fatalism, I wonder, can the mind ever find room for dispassionate analysis?

It’s not that Gallagher doesn’t understand where the skeptics are coming from. He gives a very sympathetic portrait of one of his colleagues at the Lab, Kevin McGowan, whom he describes as “the resident skeptic.” For McGowan, it seems, a bird in the hand is worth a hundred in the bush.

He wants to see empirical evidence for everything. This may be because he was the curator of Cornell’s bird collection for a long time and is used to dealing with evidence that you can see or touch, such as bird specimens. He is careful and precise, and if he says he saw something, there is little doubt that he did. …[H]e has less than perfect vision. He is obsessed with visual clarity to such an extent that he insists on only real glass lenses in his eyeglasses, not plastic, despite the extra weight.

After seeing Luneau’s video, McGowan is finally convinced.

“I wanted to believe before,” he told me. “But it’s in my nature to be skeptical. I just couldn’t help but have doubts, even though I trusted the abilities of some of the people who’d had sightings. It wasn’t until I saw David Luneau’s video that I really accepted the existence of this bird.”

Seeing, as they say, is believing; everything else is hearsay, even the best audio recordings. This attitude is especially curious in a field where identification by human or electronic ear is more and more heavily relied upon to verify the presence of breeding or migrating birds. Cornell Lab has taken a leading role in promoting this kind of research, as well as enlisting legions of amateur birders as so-called citizen scientists for all kinds of studies, so it is only appropriate that the Lab should’ve led the ivorybill rediscovery effort. But even the Lab’s best people are not immune to the debilitating influence of irrational disbelief. Gallagher recalls interviewing one of the searchers, woodpecker expert Dr. Mindy LeBranche, on the evening of the day when she had a good, clear sighting.

I was annoyed that so many people were throwing out percentages about how sure they were that they had seen an ivory-bill. Ron and David were maybe 85 percent sure; Jim Fitzpatrick was 98.5 percent sure; now here was Mindy saying she was 99 percent sure of her sighting.

“What’s all this crap I keep hearing about people being 90 percent sure, 95 percent sure that they saw an ivory-bill?” I said. “What is it about your sighting that gives you that one percent of doubt?”

Mindy shot right back: “Because the bird is freaking extinct! For years I’ve been convinced of that. And that’s why I can’t be a hundred percent sure.”

As we spoke, I left the camcorder running, and it was still taping for a while after the interview was over. When I played it back later, it was interesting to watch the expressions on her face while conversations went on all around her. People were laughing and joking nearby, and she would occasionally laugh along with them, throwing out a comment or two. But every time she stopped talking, she would withdraw into herself. Her face at times looked almost horror-struck, almost like that of a person in shock – or perhaps like someone who has…well, seen a ghost.

Just in the past week, the news media have gleefully seized upon reports that a number of prominent birders and ornithologists are increasingly willing to air their doubts about the rediscovery. An article challenging the evidence is scheduled to appear in an as-yet unnamed journal, with rebuttals and counter-rebuttals. The New York Times quotes two prominent birders, David Allen Sibley and Kenn Kaufman, questioning the reliability of the evidence collected to date. Both have recently authored best-selling bird guides, and both took the unprecedented step of excluding the ivory-billed woodpecker. So for the damned bird to reappear just after they had literally written it off is a bit of an embarrassment, to say the least. (Sibley subsequently uploaded a PDF file of an insertable ivorybill page at his website.) As for the scientists,

“The people who originally announced this thoroughly believe they got an ivory-billed woodpecker,” said Mark B. Robbins of the University of Kansas, one of the three scientists preparing the challenge to the Science report. “They believe one thing, we believe another. This is how science plays out, the fabric of science getting at the truth.”

Except that in this case, the fabric of science appears to be a funeral shroud. As my brother Steve recently remarked, when did it become unscientific to assume that a species is still present until the last acre of suitable habitat is completely eliminated? There’s a kind of arrogance at work here that says that since we can’t find something, it must not be there. But do we really know where and how to look? Considering that the Cuban subspecies depends on pine forests rather than bottomland swamps, it’s clear that our knowledge of the ivorybill’s habitat preferences and adaptability is miniscule.

Sibley reviewed The Grail Bird for the Boston Globe last month. Though he says he liked the book otherwise, he takes strong exception to Gallagher’s critique of the scientific community. “[T]rue science, objective and unbiased, has to be based on concrete, testable evidence. Since 1944 there has been no conclusive evidence to go along with the sightings,” Sibley intones. At this point, though, I wonder if the doubters would be satisfied with anything less than a corpse.

See also Learning from the ivorybill, The finding and The thing with feathers.

A dozen natural history books for summer reading

It’s Summer Book Week at Via Negativa. Since I’ll be gone part of the week on vacation myself, I decided it would be an ideal time to consider what constitutes the perfect summer read. I’ve enlisted the help of my family to put up posts while I’m gone, and also do a little guest-blogging.

As you might guess, my mother has a large library of nature and natural history books. It includes all the expected authors – Abbey, Thoreau, Dillard, Lopez – and many more besides. I’ve been wanting for some time to get her to supply a list of her all-time favorite nature books, because I figured it would include a number of non-standard authors and even a few obscure ones. This past weekend, Mom graciously complied. Here’s her list, and what she had to say about it.

These twelve books represent only a fraction of the wonderful natural history books that I have enjoyed over the years. Most are now out of print, but all are available through except for one (Crip, Come Home), and that is available through – another good, online source for used books. My choices are colored by my interests over the years and by, in a few cases, authors who are or were friends. In alphabetical order by author:

Twelve Moons of the Year, by Hal Borland. Any book by Hal Borland is good reading. Most are based on his nature editorials for the New York Times. As the dust jacket tells us, “Here…is that familiar, comfortable voice, gentle wit, occasional crankiness, and dry, countryman’s wisdom that made him one of Americas’s best-loved writers about nature.” He died in 1978 and immediately fell off the radar screen in collections of best nature writers. But for anyone who loves celebrations of the daily events in country living, Borland’s work is worth reading.

The Appalachians, by Maurice Brooks. Written back in 1965, this beautifully illustrated book is a primer on the Appalachians by a man known as “Dr. Appalachia” in his lifetime. I was enchanted by it because it captures the uniqueness and beauty of this old chain of mountains stretching from Canada’s Gaspe Peninsula to southern Georgia, with such chapters as “Orchids That Aren’t in the Tropics,” “Lungless Salamanders,” and “The Wood Warblers.”

Life on a Little Known Planet, by Howard Ensign Evans. The “planet” is that of the insect world. Evans has written many wonderful books and this is just his best known. How can you not embrace the work of an author who has chapters called (for example) “The Cricket as Poet and Pugilist,” “Bedbugs, Cone-nosed Bugs, and Other Cuddly Animals,” and “The Intellectual and Emotional World of the Cockroach”? In his concluding chapter, “Is Nature Necessary?” Evans writes, “The fact that there are literally millions of species of plants and animals on this little-known planet of ours is to me overwhelmingly exciting,” and he conveys this excitement throughout his book.

Spring in Washington, by Louis J. Halle. I’ve probably recommended this book to more people than any other I’ve read. Written in 1945, Halle visits, on bicycle, all the natural places in and around Washington, D.C. When we lived there, 20 years later, we still found and visited all the places he wrote about. This is not a guidebook. Instead, Halle “undertook to be monitor of the Washington seasons, when the government was not looking. Though it was only for my own good, that is how the poorest of us may benefit the world.” I must admit that I took his words to heart.

The Long-Shadowed Forest, by Helen Hoover. Helen and her artist husband Adrian lived on the shores of a lake on the Canadian border of Minnesota during the middle of the twentieth century. Best known for herGift of the Deer, I like this book even more, maybe because of her poetic title that evokes our own forest. Hoover snowshoes in the winter and walks the other months of the year, describing what she sees in the rugged wilderness where she and her husband chose to build their primitive cabin without the amenities of modern life. She feeds a three-legged mink, watches bull moose battle, records the antics of chickadees and gray jays, and sees wolves crossing the frozen lake. But she too has a message. “When we poison and bulldoze and pollute, let us remember that we are not the owners of the earth, but its dependents. Let us look to the earth, to its wealth and beauty, and be proud that we are a part of it. Let us respect it, and time and space, the forces of creation and life itself. As we hold the future in our hands, let us not destroy it.”

A Naturalist on a Tropical Farm, by Alexander F. Skutch. For more than 60 years, before his death just a few weeks shy of his 100th birthday, Skutch, a native of Maryland, lived on a tropical farm in Costa Rica where he studied and wrote about tropical birds in dozens of books. My husband and I visited him back in 1989, when he was 85, and ate lunch with him and his wife while his tropical birds flew in, out, and around his unscreened home. Throughout his life he watched his tropical farm become an island in a sea of agriculture. In this book he writes about his life on the farm and the wildlife he observes, including leaf-cutting ants, cichlid fishes, and a potpouri of plants, birds, and mammals.

Driftwood Valley, by Theodora Stanwell-Fletcher. A bestseller after its publication in 1948, it has remained a timeless adventure book. Teddy and her husband John overcome a series of near-disasters in their attempt to live in harmony with nature. Living in the wilds of British Columbia where no white people had ever lived, they homesteaded during the latter part of the 1930s. They also collected the plants and animals of the region for the British Columbia Provincial Museum to provide a source of income. But mostly Teddy writes about the natural world and its inhabitants, including an enlightened defense of the wolves they see. “Utter silence, a deathlike hush over the land, and then, from somewhere below, came a sound that made our hearts stand still. Like a breath of wind, rising slowly, softly, clearly to a high, lovely note of sadness and longing; dying down on two distinct notes so low that our human ears could scarcely catch them. It rose and died, again and again.” Many years later I visited Teddy in her northern Pennsylvania home and heard of her years in British Columbia and of her life afterwards. During our visit, she, too, was in her late eighties, and still enjoyed snowshoeing every winter.

Iceland Summer: Adventures of a Bird Painter, by George Miksch Sutton. Sutton was the Pennsylvania Ornithologist for the Pennsylvania Game Commission back in the 1920s. Then he went on to some fame as a bird artist, in my estimation the best of all of them, and as an ornithologist adventurer in such places as Mexico and the Arctic. His books are fun to read and a joy to look at because his delicate paintings always illustrate them. Iceland Summer recounts his summer quest, along with fellow ornithologist Olin Sewall Pettingill, Jr. and his wife Eleanor, for birds in the wilds of Iceland. Not only did this book receive the coveted John Burroughs Medal for nature-writing in 1962, but he was knighted by Iceland for his contributions to that country. His painting of an Iceland gyrfalcon, which appears in this book, was used by the Iceland government in a postage stamp.

Wandering Through Winter, by Edwin Way Teale. The concluding book in Teale’s American Seasons series, it was an inspiration and goad to me, as were all the many books Teale wrote in his lifetime. From his early books on insects, especially Near Horizons, to his late books about his farm in Connecticut, Teale never wrote a bad book. His knowledge of the natural world was vast and he shared it in a most appealing way. In my opinion he was, and remains, the dean of American nature writing. In Wandering Through Winter, as he travels from the Silver Strand below San Diego to Caribou, Maine, he writes about whooping cranes, migrating whales, pupfish in Death Valley, and the eagles of a Mississippi ice jam. Teale also spends a day with a witch hazel gatherer, camps in the desert, and visits a snowshoe maker in Maine.

Crip, Come Home: The Story of a Bird Who Came to Stay, by Ruth Thomas. The bird is a brown thrasher with a broken wing who lived on the Arkansas farm of Thomas and her husband, and was able to make his living on his own despite his broken wing. For eleven and a half years Thomas meticulously observes him. She also watches her husband Stan lose his battle with cancer. “All the months of Stan’s illness, the old thrasher was a joy and a care beyond ourselves,” she writes. “Stan’s love and the old cripple thrasher, somehow they seemed one, and when I faltered, gave me strength. ‘Do not walk and weep and brood by the fire. Somewhere is another need, another pattern. Have courage to seek,'” she concludes. I included Thomas in my book American Women Afield: Writings by Pioneering Women Naturalists, and my editor said that the excerpt from Crip, Come Home brought tears to her eyes.

Mountains of the Heart: A Natural History of the Appalachians, by Scott Weidensaul. An update of the Brooks book, Weidensaul follows the Appalachians from Georgia to Newfoundland, and “we see how geology, climate, evolution and five hundred years of history have shaped one of the continent’s greatest landscape features into a mountain range of unmatched diversity and beauty.” My friend Scott has written other, more praised books such as Living on the Wind, but this is my favorite, probably because of its subject and its lyrical title, since they are the mountains of my heart too. And unlike Brooks’ book, which doesn’t say much about Pennsylvania, Weidensaul, who lives in the shadow of Hawk Mountain, writes at length about his Pennsylvania Appalachian roots.

Naturalist, by Edward O Wilson. As a great fan of Wilson’s writing, I was especially pleased when he published this autobiographical book, beginning with his childhood on the Gulf Coast of Alabama and Florida. He describes both his growth as a scientist and the evolution of the science he has helped define. As he succinctly writes, “Most children have a bug period. I never grew out of mine,” going on to specialize in ants. Unlike many scientists, Wilson has spoken out and continues to speak out about the loss of biodiversity. “The great majority of species of organisms – possibly in excess of 90 percent – remain unknown to science. They live out there somewhere, still untouched, lacking even a name, waiting for their Linnaeus, their Darwin, their Pasteur…Earth, in the dazzling variety of its life, is still a little-known planet…A lifetime can be spent in a Magellanic voyage around the trunk of a single tree.” He may be a famous scientist, but he has never lost his awe for the incredible earth we inhabit.

– Marcia Bonta

Favorite authors on ancient history

It’s Summer Book Week at Via Negativa. Since I’ll be gone part of the week on vacation myself, I decided it would be an ideal time to consider what constitutes the perfect summer read. I’ve enlisted the help of my family to put up posts while I’m gone, and also do a little guest-blogging.

Over the last few years, my brother Steve has been making an intensive study of ancient Greek, Roman and Byzantine history, finding many parallels with our own times. Here’s his annotated list of favorite authors on (and mostly from) that period. I’ve refrained from including Amazon links, since many are available in multiple editions and translations.

In general, I prefer culling history from original sources wherever possible. This list is therefore top-heavy with the works of Greco-Roman historians, and is by no means inclusive. It is also more an author list than a book list, since I have found reading the works of the best historians, ancient and modern, to be a the most rewarding approach (also, it’s a sneaky way to slip in more than the recommended maximum of ten titles!). Included are two modern historians, J. B. Bury and Steven Runciman, whose exceptional scholarship fills in much of the gaps of Byzantine and Medieval history, owing in no small measure to their interest in subjects not popular with many other historians (witness Runciman’s works on the Sicilian Vespers and the Bulgarian Empire, for example).

Some might be disappointed that I have excluded Gibbon. While the unabridged Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is often an edifying and informative read, Gibbon’s undeniable command of his material is unfortunately surpassed both by his ego and his inept conclusions. In addition, Gibbon was an uncritical champion of empire as a benign and civilizing influence, a premise I reject without apology.

Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War: The first book of descriptive history, Thucydides’ masterpiece is a timely parable on the pitfalls of imperial hubris. The famous Funeral Oration of Pericles highlights the glories of Athenian society at its apogee, while Thucydides’ accounts of the ruthless Athenian subjugation of Melos and the disastrous and unwarranted invasion of Sicily highlight the follies of hegemonic overstretch.

Herodotus, The Histories: This famous work by the “Father of History�? is a must-read for its entertainment value as well as its genuine historical interest. Sandwiched between riveting accounts of Greek heroics at Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis, and Platea in the long Greco-Persian conflict, are fascinating if improbable cultural, geographical, and faunological digressions, such as the fabled gold-digging ants of India. Also of great interest is Herodotus’ account of Achaemenid Persian history and culture.

Appian, Roman History: This lesser-read Greek historian of republican Rome is palatable to an informed modern audience because his accounts of various Roman wars of subjugation (the Iberian wars and “Mithridatic�? wars against independent Pontus, e.g.) are marked by the author’s obvious sympathy for the vanquished tribes. In addition, Appian is the only continuous source for the tumultuous period from the Gracchi to the rebellion of Spartacus, an era that saw Rome for the first time convulsed by civil war and ravaged by the despotism of Marius and Sulla. Appian shows better than any other author how Rome morphed from a republic into an autocratic empire in the space of a few generations, and lays much of the blame on Rome’s incurable love for militarism and territorial expansion.

Plutarch, Lives: Plutarch’s timeless character studies, while of dubious historical value in places, nonetheless offer priceless glimpses into the way that Romans in the 2nd century AD were apt to regard their semi-legendary past. Particularly attractive is the biography of Numa Pompilius, Rome’s second king, who made peacemaking his top priority. For his entire reign, Rome was at peace with her neighbors. Pompilius supposedly founded the College of the Fetials, a priestly caste charged with investigating the facts of any international dispute, to determine whether Rome had a grievance legitimate enough to justify going to war. Plutarch’s larger-than-life biographical sketches have been credited with helping to inspire the chivalric code.

Sallust, The Jugurthine War/The Catilinarian Conspiracy: Sallust’s two brief extant works are usually bound together and make for a quick, rewarding read, in spite of Sallust’s preachy tone. The Jugurthine War was a late first century BC conflict against a wily Numidian usurper in North Africa who dared to challenge the Roman right to dictate terms to the Africans. Rome finally captured Jugurtha and subdued his rebellion–but at a price. The two generals who secured Jugurtha’s downfall, Marius and Sulla, quarreled over receiving credit for the outcome, and became bitter rivals. Their enmity led a few years later to the awful civil wars that tore the republic asunder a generation before Julius Caesar, and led to the slaughter of thousands of Roman partisans. Sallust’s other work is one of several accounts of the celebrated conspiracy of Lucius Catiline and his confederates in the Senate, a conspiracy that was discovered by chance and exposed by Cicero. Julius Caesar himself was quite possibly one of the conspirators, or so Cato, Cicero, and the historian Appian all believed. The downfall of Catiline cemented Cicero’s reputation as the greatest statesmen of his age and, with Cato, Brutus, and Cassius, one of the last spokesmen for the old Republic.

Tacitus, The Annals/The Histories: Tacitus, Jefferson once opined, is not to be read but to be studied. This finest Roman historian is our best source of the traumatic events of the early imperial period spanning much of the first century AD. In his economical style, Tacitus describes the intrigues of Tiberius, Messalina, Nero, Galba, Otho, and many other polititicians and rulers of this turbulent period of western history.

Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars: This scandalous set of biographies of Caesars from Julius to Domitian accuses most of Rome’s early despots of monstrous personal crimes. From the well-known aberrations of Nero and Caligula to the personal depravity of Tiberius and Claudius, this book is a depressing but probably fairly reliable illustration of the corrupting influence of absolute power.

Anna Comnena, The Alexiad: Anna Comnena was the daughter of the very capable Byzantine emperor Alexius Comnenus, whose task it was to rebuild the state after the disastrous defeat to the Seljuk Turks at Manzikert and the subsequent political turmoil. Though somewhat hagiographic, as might reasonably be expected from an adoring daughter, this is the first known work of Western history written by a woman, and is easily the most readable of the Byzantine chronicles. Aside from the endearing personal touches, this book is noteworthy for its detailed account of the use of the Byzantine secret weapon, Greek fire, and for Comnena’s lengthy discussion of the Bogomil heresy. She describes Comnenus’ efforts first to convert, and then to exterminate, the Balkan-based sect that later gave rise to the Albigensian movement in Lombardy and Languedoc.

J. B. Bury, History of the Later Empire, from the Death of Theodosius I to Justinian: John Bagnell Bury, an eminent English historian of the late 19th and early 20th century, was almost single-handedly responsible (along with Vasiliev) for restoring the image of the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire, an image which (outside of the Orthodox world) had languished in opprobrium ever since Gibbon’s dismissive treatment of this greatest Medieval European state. Generally considered Bury’s most definitive work, History of the Later Empire carefully examines the history, culture, and economics of the Eastern Empire (and of neighboring states) during the fifth and sixth centuries AD. Other works by Bury carry the history forward through the reigns of Heraclius, Irene, and other noteworthy rulers until the tenth century. As a historian, Bury far surpasses Gibbon for his impartiality, attention to detail, and avoidance of ego insertion.

Steven Runciman, The Emperor Romanus Lecapenus and His Reign: A more modern English historian, Steven Runciman, was one of the most erudite people ever to write history. Runciman seems to have known most of the languages of Eastern Europe, as well the classical and standard research languages, not to mention Turkish, Arabic, Armenian, and various other Middle Eastern languages. He was thus ideally positioned to write the many superb historical, cultural, and religious studies of Byzantium for which he is remembered, and of which the above-named is perhaps the best but by no means the only one worth reading. Lesser-known books of tremendous value include The Medieval Manichee (a history of heresy from the early Gnostics through the Cathars, and containing much material to be found nowhere else on less-studied heretical movements like the Paulicians), Byzantine Civilization, The Fall of Constantinople, History of the First Bulgarian Empire, and The Sicilian Vespers (a fascinating account of a Medieval intrigue between the thrones of Byzantium and Aragon to bring about the downfall of the ambitious hegemon, Charles d’Anjou). Runciman is also justly celebrated for his three-volume History of the Crusades, still considered the definitive work on the subject.

– Steve Bonta

Travel book favorites

It’s Summer Book Week at Via Negativa. Since I’ll be gone part of the week on vacation myself, I decided it would be an ideal time to consider what constitutes the perfect summer read. I’ve enlisted the help of my family to put up posts while I’m gone, and also do a little guest-blogging.

In addition to being a peace scholar, my father is a voracious reader of travel books. Almost every night before going to bed, he reads a chapter or two from whatever travel book he’s engrossed in at the moment – there’s nothing better for putting himself in the proper frame of mind for sleep, he says. Over the years he has read hundreds of the things, so I figured it would be fun to get an annotated list of his all-time favorites. Here’s what he came up with.

Some of my favorite travel books describe the social and cultural conditions of places that later break into the headlines. The fighting in Kosovo and Albania? Find out about feuding in the area a century earlier in High Albania by Edith Durham. Why were the Mujahideen in Afghanistan’s Kunar Province so successful in killing the American SEALS a few weeks ago? Read George Scott Robertson’s account about the fighting qualities of the mountain people in that particular section of the country. Why do the nomadic people of Darfur and the settled villagers fight and kill? Find clues in Michael Asher’s book on the deserts of Sudan. Not all great travel books presage later fighting, of course, though they should give a strong feeling for people and places around the world. A few favorite travel books:

Accounts about Africa

In Search of the Forty Days Road, by Michael Asher (Longman, 1984).
The Forty Days Road, the name for a semi-mythical desert track, provided a convenient excuse for Asher to buy a camel in a Khartoum market and start exploring the deserts of the Darfur region of Sudan. He had an amazing ability to fit in with the desert tribes and move around with them on his camel. The relationships of the semi-nomadic peoples with one another and with the more settled peoples of Sudan, one of the themes of the book, provide an insight into the continuing tragic situation that envelopes Darfur today. Asher’s subsequent books about the desert are effective also.

Travels in Ethiopia, by David Buxton (Praeger, 1967).
Buxton describes his travels to many parts of Ethiopia with sensitivity and grace. He lived in the country for three years in the 1940s; his writing and his sharp black and white photos provide a compelling picture of a very poor country with a fabulous history.

Some Great books on Asia

Hunza, Lost Kingdom of the Himalayas, by John Clark (Funk & Wagnalls, 1956).
Aside from the silly sub-title (Hunza is neither lost nor is it in the Himalayas–it’s in the Karakoram Range), Clark provides an engrossing account of his year (1950) among the villagers in an inaccessible valley of northern Pakistan. His reason for moving to Hunza? He wants to combat the advance of communism by teaching woodworking to village boys. A geology professor at Princeton with some medical training, when he isn’t working with his students, he treats villagers for various illnesses and explores the geology of the mountains. As he builds his programs, he overcomes the hostility of officialdom in Pakistan, the selfishness of the Mir who autocratically rules Hunza, and the initial suspicions of the villagers. The book is a forerunner of the Peace Corps concept by a man who is middle-aged, highly motivated, and very well trained for his tasks.

Danziger’s Travels: Beyond Forbidden Frontiers, by Jeff Danziger (Grafton Books, 1987).
Danziger is an excellent writer who exhibits a remarkable ability to talk his way past officials, endure unbelievable hardships, and whack along through fascinating places in Asia, from Turkey to China. One of the most memorable sections is his description of the war in Afghanistan against the Russians in the mid-1980s. Danziger was in Herat, watching from his hiding place as the MIGs swooped over the city dropping bombs. He had to move with the Mujahideen across the country at a strenuous pace, running up and down and up and down high mountains, striving to keep up with the fighters. Probably the best of the “following the Silk Road�? travel books, the account may lack the depth of some of the others on this list–Danziger describes his travels rather than his life in a particular area–but it’s really a great read.

My Journey to Lhasa, by Alexandra David-Neel (Harper, 1927).
David-Neel, a French woman with a life-long fascination for Tibet, became the first traveler in the 20th century to enter the forbidden city of Lhasa. Traveling with her adopted son, a young Buddhist monk, she disguised herself as an elderly Tibetan woman when they entered Tibet from southwestern China, traveled as much as possible on remote roads, let her “son�? do all the talking, avoided communities where they might be challenged, and successfully made it over the mountains and into Lhasa. It was a breath-taking journey for a woman in her 50s. Her follow-up books on Tibet, especially Magic and Mystery in Tibet, are also worth reading.

Káfirs of the Hindu-Kush, by George Scott Robertson (Lawrence & Bullen, 1900).
In the late 19th century, Robertson decided to travel from northern British India across the Indus River into the mountains of what was then called Kafirstan and is now called the Kunar Province of Afghanistan. The Kafirs, so-called because they had resisted conversion to Islam until the mid-19th century, were famed for raiding and terrorizing villages near and far and murdering the inhabitants. A few decades earlier, when the Emir of Kabul finally conquered them and converted them to Islam, they became fanatical about their new faith–but they retained the ferocity of their ways. Robertson describes both the hostilities he faced in the villages where he visited and lived and the raiding, terrorizing expeditions that his friends and neighbors carried out. Anyone who believes that Osama bin Laden may be hiding out in South Waziristan, or the other mountainous areas along the Afghanistan/Pakistan border, should read this book about the special fighting culture of Kunar Province. It’s a perfect fit for the top Al-Qaeda folks.

Behind the Wall: A Journey through China, by Colin Thubron (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1987).
Thubron is a fine travel writer, primarily because he learns languages before venturing out into a new country. He learned Arabic before traveling around the Middle East nearly 40 years ago, then learned Chinese before wandering around China to see how it was doing after the ravages of the Cultural Revolution. Then he learned Russian in order to travel in Siberia and the newly independent Central Asian Republics after the end of the Soviet empire. This account of China is a personal favorite, perhaps because of his honest and friendly approach to the people and places he visits.

Travels in Central Asia, by �?rmin Vámbéry (Harper, 1865).
Vámbéry was one of the most intrepid travelers of modern times. A Hungarian scholar who was fluent in numerous Asian languages, he disguised himself as a Hajji who was returning from Mecca and was able to join a caravan of other returning hajjis in a journey from Tehran into what is now Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. He visited the independent Kingdoms of Khiva, Bukhara, and Samarkand (Russia had not conquered those areas yet), before circling back toward Europe through Herat in western Afghanistan. The King of Khiva at the time was notorious for vicious treatment of his subjects, visitors, foreign emissaries, and especially non-believers. Had Vámbéry’s disguise been challenged, he would have been quickly killed. His observations on the countries he crossed and the fabled central Asian cities he visited are riveting.

A Couple Others

Six Months in the Sandwich Islands, by Isabella Bird (Murray, 1890).
Bird was crossing the Pacific in the 1870s when her boat was unable to leave the Sandwich Islands, now the Hawaiian Islands. Forced to remain there by the circumstances, she made friends easily, lived with various people on different islands, and traveled into all sorts of remarkable natural places. She climbed massive volcanoes on the big island of Hawaii, rode horses to scenic natural places, and hiked into remote spots. A remarkable, intrepid, spirited person, her other books, particularly her A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, are also engaging reading.

High Albania, by (Mary) Edith Durham (Beacon Press, 1987 reprint of 1909 edition).
On her doctor’s orders, Durham traveled down the Adriatic for her health about 100 years ago, but she ignored the warnings of dangers and journeyed inland to visit the mountains and villages of Albania and the former Yugoslavia. During her numerous trips in the Balkans, she not only learned the languages, she also gained the trust of the people and traveled easily as a lone woman. The kindly villagers would host her at length, reluctant to see her finally move on since her very presence afforded the village a measure of protection from the intentions of enemies. Her hosts would take her almost to the top of the ridge and point the way, but they could not accompany her into the next village–due to the ever-present memories of ancient feuds. Nonetheless, her love for the Albanian people comes out clearly in this wonderful book.

—Bruce Bonta

Not far from nowhere: a memoir from the middle

It’s Summer Book Week at Via Negativa. Since I’ll be gone part of the week on vacation myself, I decided it would be an ideal time to consider what constitutes the perfect summer read. Here’s a review I wrote last weekend.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usI’ve never understood why summer reading is supposed to consist mainly of light, escapist fare. Isn’t summer vacation the one time when many people actually get a chance to relax and enjoy living in the moment? To my way of thinking, the perfect summer read draws you in, but doesn’t completely suck you in; is best savored in small bites slowly chewed rather than inhaled at one sitting; brings you to your senses rather than making you dead to the world. Tom Montag’s poetic memoir, Curlew: Home (Midday Moon Books, 2001) is just such a book.

Montag grew up on a rented farm “one mile south and a quarter mile west” of the town of Curlew,

dead center in the northwestern corner of Iowa. It is not far from nowhere, admittedly. When I was growing up, the town’s most remarkable feature was the short strip of pavement that constituted Main Street.

The book is not so much about Montag himself as it is about what it means to grow up in the middlewest, as he prefers to call it, raising food for people on both coasts who never give the continent’s vast midsection a second thought. It’s a kind of meta-memoir, a book about memory itself and the place of remembered landscapes in the imagination – especially urgent questions for a farm boy who, against all odds, grew up to be poet. As a fellow middlewesterner, reviewing the book for, notes, “Curlew, Iowa, and the Midwest become symbols of the greater reality of family, home, life, death and change. It is a book about what it means to be human.”

“Home is in your heart, you take it with you, you wear it like a stink,” Montag says. Don’t expect any weepy, County-Western-style sentimentalism here. Curlew: Home is infused with stoic melancholy, but also contains flashes of a cautious kind of joy. In this regard, as well as in its impressionistic style of composition, it reminded me strongly of old-time blues music – some talking blues epic by Leadbelly, say, where lyric alternates with narrative and the occasional shouted line.

Montag spent the month of October, 2000 traveling back to his childhood haunts, and intersperses journal-like episodes from “The Journey” with stories from his boyhood. Though not averse to drawing the occasional pithy moral, most of the time Montag wisely lets the people he interviews and the incidents he relates speak for themselves. As with blues lyrics or a Japanese linked verse sequence, a great deal of the reader’s pleasure comes from the sense of contrast and consonance between adjacent sections. (It’s interesting to see that these techniques were fully developed well before Montag began deploying them in his daily blog The Middlewesterner.)

Many of Montag’s stories glow with the light of the miraculous: the time his father witched for water, indicating not only where the well should be dug, but predicting the precise depth at which water would be found. The time Montag dreamed of having his legs run over by a tractor – and two days later having the dream come true. The time he broke his sister’s collar bone, much to their mutual surprise, or when his brother and he discovered the bitter mysteries of iced tea. Almost every character encountered in the book seems simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary, from Montag’s indomitable mother and his child-prodigy sister Colleen, to Curlew’s 93-year-old mayor and the outspoken, anti-corporate female postmaster Montag interviews on his visit in 2000.

The stories are rendered especially effective by their location within an overall trajectory of loss and longing. In the narrative present we see Montag restlessly circling the now-abandoned homesite, walking the four miles around the square of grid that had included his parents’ half-section farm again and again. We feel his shock at the emptiness as he stands among the windbreak trees where their farm had been, visits graveyards, stares at vacant lots where grade schools and grain elevators had stood. Miraculous things may have happened here once, but what’s to show for it, Montag wonders.

The tradition of stereotyping country people as clowns and simpletons is as old as agriculture, as old as literature. Curlew: Home helps demonstrate the literal groundlessness of that prejudice. It takes its place in a counter-tradition questioning the civilized fantasies of detachment from the earth that stretches from the ancient Daoist classics to Wendell Berry and Henry David Thoreau. From an early age, Montag and his siblings, like many farm kids, learn sober lessons about violence, suffering and moral responsibility.

A series of essays in Part Three details the inevitable cruelties of farm life: “Cutting Pigs” (everything you ever wanted to know about castration, but were afraid to ask), “Butchering Chickens,” “Killing Rats,” “Killing Pigeons.” The first in the series, “Feeding the Cattle,” sets the tone. One time, Montag writes, “I was slower getting out of the way then I intended to be,” and one of his father’s prize Herefords, all 1300 pounds of it, “put its foot exactly where my foot was. The full weight of pain.”

He slams the steer as hard as he can, first with an elbow, then a shoulder, but it doesn’t move. Finally he twists its ear with all his strength, and it “bellers” and lifts its foot just enough for him to extract his own. Then he goes to work dumping the feed in the trough as usual, bucket after bucket. Afterwards, he stands watching them, “like mountains pushing and shoving.”

Off to the west the sun was dropping down behind the trees in the grove. Long shadows were spilled like paint. Wind, cool and soothing. The sound of chickens, the sound of a car along the gravel road in front of our place, the sound of one of my sisters calling out “Supper!””There has got to be more than this,” I might have said to myself. I was watching the cattle feeding dumbly and I was looking at myself. Had I been bred into a life no less predetermined than the march of those steers toward the slaughterhouse, I wondered. “There has got to be more to life than feeding cattle.”

“Hey!” I shouted at the evening sky, just for the hell of it, just because I could. The sound roared from deep within and exploded out of me. None of the cattle turned to look at me, not a one of them.

I went to my supper.

At the other end of the series, Montag tells us “Why I Don’t Hunt.” In order to fully appreciate that story – like so many others – you’ll have to read the book, and even then you may not get it the first read through, as I did not. True epiphanies are hard nuts to crack, impossible to get at without shattering the shell of words.

All my life I’ve been waiting for that pheasant’s arc of flight to be completed. All my life the bird crumples and falls to earth. What is beautiful has been broken since.

A cure for summertime depression

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It’s Summer Book Week at Via Negativa. Since I’ll be gone part of the week on vacation myself, I decided it would be an ideal time to consider what constitutes the perfect summer read. I’ve enlisted the help of my family to put up posts while I’m gone, and even do a little guest-blogging.

I can’t very well review my own mother’s book. Who would trust such obvious nepotism? On the other hand, Mom has included poems of mine in the front matter of three out of four books in her popular Appalachian Seasons series, so I think it’s high time I return the nepotistic favor. Since the books are blog-like journals anyway, the obvious thing to do here is simply to reproduce an entry from Appalachian Summer as a substitute blog post. Enjoy.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usJULY 25. Most of the field wildflowers provide food for other creatures. This morning I watched a male American goldfinch feed on dame’s rocket seed. Bouncing bet attracted silver-spotted skippers and a black swallowtail butterfly while Joe Pye weed appealed to great-spangled fritillaries.

Then I encountered a patch of golden-yellow, common St. John’s wort (Hypericum perfolatum), an immigrant species that thrives in fields. It seemed to be devoid of feeding insects. Most insects avoid St. John’s wort because it emits a toxic chemical called hypericin, hence its genus name. Hypericin is made and stored in the leaves, flowers, and stem glands of St. John’s wort and slowly poisons a predator.

However, it depends on sunlight to activate it so some insects can avoid its toxicity by clever ruses. Butterfly of moth larvae that roll or fold a leaf and bind it with silk to cover themselves or sew leaves to form a shelter can eat St. John’s wort from within because they are shielded from sunlight. Stem borers and leaf miners are also protected from the sun. The tough outer layer of several adult beetles in the genus Chrysolina screen out sunlight. The soft-bodied larvae of Chrysolina hyperici can eat inside the leaf buds of St. John’s wort or feed openly on the plants only at dawn. In addition, they contain a large amount of beta carotene that combats phototoxicity. So, no matter how much a plant evolves to resist predators, there are always a few that can circumvent their prey’s resistance.

Humans have recently been taking St. John’s wort to fight mild depression. They too must stay out of the sun to avoid triggering hypericin. This seems counterproductive to me. I would become even more depressed if I were forced to stay inside. It is the bright sunshine that continually elevates my spirits. After a succession of gloomy, overcast days, my mood matches the weather. Only sunshine cures my depression. Yet so many people spend most of their lives inside under artificial light even in the summer. Perhaps those with mild depression would benefit from frequent walks in the sunlight, especially on such a spectacular day as this one.

– Marcia Bonta, Appalachian Summer

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Books for the trail

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It’s Summer Book Week at Via Negativa. Since I’ll be gone part of the week on vacation myself, I decided it would be an ideal time to consider what constitutes the perfect summer read. I’ve enlisted the help of my family to put up posts while I’m gone, and even do a little guest-blogging. So please stay tuned, and I’ll see you on the other side.

As I start thinking about assembling gear for a multi-day camping trip in the West Virginia wilderness, my first and most important consideration is what book to bring. I want something I can use to wake up my mind first thing in the morning, so that means lyric poetry. At camp, even more than at home, dawn is my favorite time of day; why fritter it away with my nose in a novel? Since we’ll probably be doing some backpacking, whatever book I bring can’t be too heavy, but if I should find myself spending a rainy afternoon in my tent, I wouldn’t want something I could finish in an hour or two. This argues for a paperback volume of an author’s selected or collected poems (I’m not too fond of multi-author anthologies).

Whatever book I pick will play a fairly large role in shaping my mood and honing my attention for a day of rambling through the woods. Thus, I think I’d prefer poetry that grows from the author’s attachment to the land, poetry that dives deep – as opposed to, say, poetry of alienation or of purely cerebral themes. Thus, I have narrowed the list of candidates to just a few titles. Here are the current contenders.

Nature: Poems Old and New, by May Swenson (240 pp., 13 & 3/4 oz.). Over half my choices are translations; Swenson’s deft and clever use of the English language reminds me how much we sacrifice by reading poetry in translation. May Swenson is a thinking person’s poet in the tradition of Stanley Kunitz and Elizabeth Bishop. This book, spanning the nearly five decades of her writing, is an appealing choice because of the breadth of her stylistic and geographic range. She writes great travel poems, with the kind of word music and understated precision I would like to achieve in my own work. Here are the closing stanzas of “Bison Crossing Near Mt. Rushmore”:

The bison, orderly, disciplined by the prophet-faced,
heavy-headed fathers, threading the pass
of our awestruck stationwagons, Airstreams and trailers,
if in dread of us give no sign,
go where their leaders twine them, over the prairie.
And we keep to our line,
staring, stirring, revving idle motors, moving
each behind the other, herdlike, where the highway leads.

Uncollected Poems, by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Edward Snow (266 pp., 15 & 3/4 oz.). What could be a better companion for an unstructured trip than an uncollection? This is the heaviest of my five candidates; one would expect that from a book with German on every left-hand page. Snow’s translations hold their own against the best original poetry in English – he’s that good. And with this book he performed an invaluable service by rescuing Rilke’s uncollected poems from critical obscurity. Though Rilke himself idealized the thematically unified collection and cemented his reputation as one of the 20th Century’s three or four greatest poets with such works as Sonnets to Orpheus and Duino Elegies (the latter also available in a Snow translation), the miscellaneous poems he tossed off while waiting for “real” inspiration to strike, if penned by any other poet, would be regarded as a life’s crowning achievement. While it may seem surprising to include Rilke in a short list of place-based poets, to me, the strength of his philosophical questioning stems from close contact with the physical world, at least since his watershed New Poems of 1907, written under the influence of his mentor, the sculptor Rodin. By way of illustration, here’s a brief, untitled poem written in “Paris, summer 1925 (before July 6),” according to the translator:

Ach, nicht getrennt sein,
nicht durch so wenig Wandung
ausgeschlossen vom Sternen-Mass.
Innres, was ists?
Wenn nicht gesteigerter Himmel,
durchworfen mit Vögeln und teif
von Winden der Heimkehr.
Ah, not to be cut off,
not by such slight partition
to be excluded from the stars’ measure.
What is inwardness?
What if not sky intensified,
flung through with birds and deep
with winds of homecoming?

Forbidden Words: Selected Poetry of Eugénio de Andrade, translated by Alexis Levitin (294 pp., 11 oz.). This is simultaneously the longest and the lightest of my five choices. Andrade couldn’t be more different from Portugal’s other great 20th Century poet, the proto-postmodernist Fernando Pessoa. His are poems of “succinct lyricism,” as one of the back-cover blurbs says, with a pre-Christian sensibility strongly reminiscent of Horace. Levitin has made a career out of translating Andrade, bringing out volume after volume with various small presses. Before acquiring Forbidden Words – a New Directions product – this past April, my only previous encounter with Andrade was through his Matéria Solar/Solar Matter, translated by Levitin and published by Q.E.D. Press. That might seem like the perfect summer vacation companion, but I passed it on to a sun-worshipping friend several years ago.

Travel is often fraught with sleeplessness, especially when it involves sleeping on the ground. But this in itself can sometimes be a source of wonderment, not merely frustration, as Andrade observes:

Ouí§o Correr A Noite Pelos SulcosOuí§o correr a noite pelos sulcos
do rostro – dir-se-ia que me chama,
que subitamente me acaricia,
a mim, que nem sequer sei ainda
como juntar as sí­labas do silíªncio
e sobre elas adormecer.

I Hear Night Flow Through the Furrows

I hear night flow through the furrows
of my face – as if to call me,
as if, in just a moment, it will gently touch me,
I, who still don’t know
how to splice together syllables of silence
and drift upon them into sleep.

The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai: Newly Revised and Expanded Edition, edited and translated by Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell (195 pp., 12 oz.). Between Amichai and the equally great, Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (see the translation of selected poems entitled Unfortunately, It Was Paradise), one can get a strong sense of the passions aroused by one, very small corner of the earth. This might seem like a strange choice for a book to take on vacation, which is supposed to take our minds off the tensions and violence of the modern world. But whenever I go into what we call wilderness, I try to practice a memento mori of sorts. This land was not always ours; other people whose descendents are still with us have memories and dreams for it that may be completely incompatible with our own. What does it mean to be a tourist in one’s own imagined homeland? Is it possible to become indigenous? If so, what would it take?

So condolence visits is what they’re here for,
sitting around at the Holocaust Memorial, putting on a serious face
at the Wailing Wall,
laughing behind heavy curtains in hotel rooms.

They get themselves photographed with the important dead
at Rachel’s Tomb and Herzl’s Tomb, and up on Ammunition Hill.
They weep at the beautiful prowess of our boys,
lust after our tough girls
and hang up their underwear
to dry quickly
in cool blue bathrooms.

Once I was sitting on the steps near the gate at David’s Citadel and I put down my two heavy baskets beside me. A group of tourists stood their around their guide, and I became their point of reference. “You see that man over there with the baskets? A little to the right of his head there’s an arch from the Roman period. A little to the right of his head.” “But he’s moving, he’s moving!” I said to myself: Redemption will come only when they are told, “do you see that arch over there from the Roman period? It doesn’t matter, but near it, a little to the left and then down a bit, there’s a man who has just bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”

The Owl in the Mask of the Dreamer: Collected Poems by John Haines (275 pp., 15 oz.). As the unofficial poet laureate of Alaska, Haines offers plenty of fuel for wilderness dreams. But does that necessarily make his Collected Poems the best thing to take into the wilderness itself, or would that be too much like carrying coals to Newcastle? Another problem with Haines is his almost unvarying gravity. I asked a literature professor friend who hosted Haines for a several-day visit at his college one time if the guy ever lightened up – he didn’t. But as I admitted last December in my “Loose canon: 20th century poetry in English,” I am completely addicted to Haines’ shamanic/prophetic tone. One doesn’t read the book of Jeremiah for laughs, either.

The Way We LiveHaving been whipped through Paradise
and seen humanity
strolling like an overfed beast
set loose from its cage,
a man may long for nothing so much
as a house of snow,
a blue stone for a lamp,
and a skin to cover his head.

If the heat returns this week as predicted, I’m sure my hiking budding L. and I will be longing to trade our tents for igloos, too.

First leaf of autumn

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Black gum or tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica) always begins to turn color in late July or early August here in central Pennsylvania, though it won’t reach its peak until September. This leaf cups water from last night’s thunderstorm, which is probably also what stripped it from the tree.