September 2005

When I read the following letter from my mother to her nine-year-old granddaughter Eva, it had “blog post” written all over it. As you’ll see, the last couple weeks have been an exciting time for wildlife sightings on the mountain. While I sit inside writing poetry, my mom (naturalist writer Marcia Bonta) is out wandering the mountain, having close encounters with black bears and logging our first-ever sighting of a fisher in Plummer’s Hollow. But sometimes the critters get even closer, as the first part of her letter relates. (Keep in mind that she wrote this quickly, in one draft – like a blog post, but very unlike her usual writing for publication.)

Dear Eva,

Autumn is here. The air is cool and crisp, the sky bright blue, and the temperature was 39 degrees Fahrenheit this morning – not quite the freeze we were promised, but close.

The other day, while writing an article about woodchucks that I had entitled “Mad Marmot,” after the sign on the lab of the professor studying woodchuck hibernation, I had come to the end and wondered how I could write a good conclusion. I had heard bumping noises downstairs and so had Grandpa, but we thought that it was Uncle Dave coming up early for his lunch.

Finally, shortly after noon, I went downstairs to put on the soup. A woodchuck ran across the kitchen floor in front of me. It was the same woodchuck that has been hanging around on the veranda, knocking over our walking sticks in the corner, all summer. I quick slammed the door between the kitchen and the living room and called to Grandpa, “There’s a woodchuck in the kitchen!”

He came running down and propped open the back door. Then we looked around in the kitchen for the woodchuck. Grandpa took a flashlight and looked behind the stove and refrigerator. No woodchuck. Then he looked under the refrigerator. Uh, oh. It was squeezed in the space behind the bottom front panel. (Did I mention that this is a smallish woodchuck?) Anyway, Grandpa pried off the panel and the woodchuck didn’t move. I gave Grandpa a broom and he and Uncle Dave, who had come up by then, tried to persuade Mr. or Mrs. or maybe Ms. Woodchuck to leave. Finally, it made a mad dash for the open back door with Grandpa yelling after it, hoping to discourage it from coming back.

But how had the woodchuck gotten inside? We thought that it must have dug a hole in the foundations down in the basement since it lives in the burrow system under the front porch. But we couldn’t find any hole down there. It remained a mystery until after dinner.

Grandpa went into the living room to sit down and read and he called to me, “Come in here and look at this.”

On the piano he pointed out several fresh scratches and some dirt. I saw a couple long, fresh scratches on the wooden floor. Then he showed me a gaping hole in the screen in the window behind the piano. That woodchuck had climbed up the table we have sitting next to the veranda door and busted its way into the house, landed on the piano, tumbled down on to the floor, probably ran around the living room – because the scratches were over near the spinning wheel – then into the dining room and on into the kitchen.

What had it wanted in our house? Did it want to hibernate? Was it truly a mad marmot, either angry or crazy or both? And why did it show up just when I needed a conclusion to my article?

The next day I went for a late morning walk. I was walking back along the Far Field Road when I noticed a wild grape vine wiggling down below. I stopped and looked. At that very moment, a large mother bear reared up about 30 feet below me and to the side of the shaking grapevine. She started sniffing in my direction and I wondered what to do. I knew that the grapevines were shaking because of cubs. Should I run? Should I stand still? Should I speak to her?

Luckily, she was a peaceful mother. She merely lowered herself back down on all four legs, walked quietly over to what turned out to be one good-sized cub, both looked up at me so I had a good view through my binoculars, then they turned away and walked silently down the slope away from me.

Then the other day I was sitting on Alan’s Bench and heard a “cluck-cluck” behind me. I didn’t move. A hen turkey walked quietly past in the weeds in front of me. Yet I kept hearing the “cluck-cluck” behind me. I sat still for another ten minutes and finally continued my walk. Two turkeys ran out on the trail ahead and another one joined them from the spruce grove. That one had been the clucker.

Between all those animals, and the fisher I saw in the hollow the other week – a very rare species for Pennsylvania – I feel like I’m living in the middle of “Wild Kingdom.”

Love, Nanna

© Marcia Bonta. Used by permission.
__________

My account of our visit last March to the groundhog researcher my mother mentions in the second paragraph can be found here. For another guest blog post from Marcia Bonta – her list of favorite nature books – see here.

This entry is part 21 of 42 in the series Antiphony: Paul Zweig

I’m reading Paul Zweig. This is the second poem in the third (“Eternity’s Woods”) section of his Selected and Last Poems, followed by my response. See here for details. I’ll remove Zweig’s poems after a week or so to prevent egregious copyright infringement.

Snow
by Paul Zweig

Love is all we could manage,
Its particles floating from the hard rim of the air.
Our tracks were clear in the fresh chance
Heaven threw behind us….

[Remainder of poem removed 10-10-05]

* * * *

Dust

In my dream running after you, lungs aching
as you rise above the shore on sudden wings,
watching you grow smaller & smaller
against the sky,
I shout myself awake.
It’s past four.
A wind moves in the curtains, bringing the scent of rain.

I turn over, & something small & sharp
pokes my cheek: the needle end
of a breast feather from
some long-dead goose
has threaded a small hole in my pillow.
I pull it out.

The darkness quivers with distant lightning.
I lie awake, listening for the first rumble,
the first random taps against the pane.
Today, I think, I will take a broom
to the stairs below the window
where dust has settled in the corners of every step.
An hour later, when the storm passes,
the sky is already light.

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Imagine if, like most mammals, we saw the world in black and white. We might know autumn as the time when the leaves try to match the cloudless sky in clarity, just before they free themselves from their tenuous attachments.

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Imagine – answers the cynic – if we didn’t see the world in black and white. Sharp contrasts are pleasing to the eye and the mind of a creature whose not-so-distant ancestors relied on depth perception to keep from falling, perhaps to their death.

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Imagine how different, how much more modulated our sense of the world would be if the nostrils were our main doors of perception. While our eyes can perceive only a narrow spectrum of colors, the number of smells our noses can distinguish is said to be virtually infinite. Given the troubles we have with leaders whose outstanding characteristic is a fondness for dichotomy, I wonder what would happen if we restricted positions of power to those with highly sensitive olfactory organs?

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Probably things wouldn’t turn out too differently. I can think of plenty of highly sensitive people – many poets, for example – who don’t know the first thing about compassion. It’s the heart that needs to learn more hues than red.

Raked sand garden at Ginkakuji Temple, Kyoto
Raked sand garden at Ginkakuji Temple, Kyoto, by Richard Jackson (used by permission)

View the full-size image here and the whole photo set here.

Update: Links glossary added (see bottom of post). In case anyone but me is keeping the track, this is my fourth (Friday morning) draft of a response to Zweig’s poem about Venice…

The City of Absences
Kyoto 1985-86

1.
Crossing an unexpected bridge,
I find myself once more in the city of absences,
twenty years gone. It’s August, I think.
The cicadas drown out every human motor.

I return to labyrinths of old wood,
disposable chopsticks,
the absent-minded purchase cocooned in paper.
My eyes adjust to the darkness in all-night coffee shops
& pagodas of moss.

City where I learned to live
on little but the morning bakery’s give-away bag of bread heels
& the peaches & pomegranates left at roadside altars
to buy off the peripatetic dead.
I bow my head for its low ceilings & sticky air
& an unseen female voice sobbing iki, iki, iki every day at noon.

Horribly pale, full of awkward & inadvertent gestures,
I return with my larval tooth
chewing, chewing, slicing slow half-circles from the air
with the wing of a mantis,
brandishing a Noh dancer’s open fan.

2.
City where I first learned my vocation
as a chorus of one.
My split-toed slippers whisper over the bridge
as I chant my itinerary: through the gate
to the inner provinces, past the gnarled pine that marks
the traveler’s naive goal, & now,
seemingly by accident,
some ancient battlefield deep in autumn grasses.
It’s as if the celibate poet gets drawn into the vacuum
left by every improperly commemorated death.
His task is to question, to listen, to transmute.
The difficult entrance past, he steps to the side.

I return for the mudra of automatic encounters:
two cups & we’re friends,
three cups & we’re trading insults
& lighting each other’s cigarettes from the embers of our own.

3.
Nothing changes.
Water drips where it has always dripped
until invisible fingers replace the worn-through stone.
Some outcaste genius rakes sand in a certain way
& eight centuries later the monks still take the same steps,
chant the same words to pace themselves,
walking backwards through the pure-white ocean
without leaving a ripple.

This time, too, I will make plans & abandon them,
I will return to the disco walled with mirrors
whose patrons dance alone with their reflections,
like the Kinkakuji
when a carp comes to the surface: that languid sway.
Kagami no ma, the mirror room
where the actor tries to become one with his part.

I will tan myself to a golden hue
& slip in among the crowd of smooth-faced buddhas
posing for snapshots at all the sights:
Pachinko Palace, constructed under the Showa emperor.
Rabu Hoteru, where married couples can shed the costumes
marked papa, mama.
Tachimamben, famous for its blue-suited businessmen
leaving offerings of saké in the gutter.
Makudonarudo, where shadows are barred at the door.

This time I will fill my pockets with one-yen coins.
They weigh next to nothing – sexless little moons of aluminum –
& I float up over the ticket sellers
with one sudden gulp of focused breath.
The sky fits me like a mask with two backs.
I am past the gate with its double roof, through the torii.

4.
Garden paths unscroll like kimonos, glossy
from centuries of discriminating use,
turning away from everything that teems or hungers.
Two steps and the moon,
three steps & the summit of an uninhabited peak
with inch-high pines.
Impossible to find a novel place to sit.

City of imperial absences,
city of foreigners with fat Daruma asses,
go ahead, try pushing me from my seat behind the pillar.
My very gravity rights me.
My eyes are filled with so much wakefulness,
I can hardly focus on anything here in the present.

But the ear – listen! – is finally all lotus.
My forefinger & thumb unite
to press the eraser’s pink tongue to the page.
__________

Links glossary:
Japanese roadside shrines (a very unique example) usually feature the bodhisattva Jizo and are intended to placate hungry ghosts
Disposable chopsticks (waribashi)
Noh drama (section 2):

The main character of a Noh play is called the shite (pronounced sh’tay) who sometimes appears with one or more companion characters called tsure. In many plays, the shite appears in the first half as an ordinary person, departs, then appears in the second half in his true form as the ghost of famous person of long ago. The former is called the maejite and the latter the nochijite. They are traditionally performed by the same actor.

The secondary actor, the waki, is often a travelling priest whose questioning of the main character is important in developing the story line. He also often appears with companion waki-tsure. An interlude actor called ai or ai-kyogen also often appears as a local person who gives further background to the waki, and thus to the audience, in order to understand the situation of the shite.

The waki is dark, passive yin to the shite’s yang. He never wears a mask.
Mudra
Japanese outcastes (Burakumin, called kuwaramono or “river-bank dwellers” during the Kamakura period, when many of them found refuge in Zen monasteries)
Kinkakuji (temple of the Golden Pavilion)
Kagami no ma is the immediate backstage in Noh, connected with the main stage by a bridge. “Here the actor, already dressed in many layers of robe and a wig, puts on the mask and sits before a large mirror to study the figure he makes; this is where he undergoes the process of becoming the character.” (Kunio Komparu, The Noh Theater, Weatherhill/Tankosha, 1983)
Pachinko; Showa emperor
Rabu Hoteru
Tachimamben (no Google results) means “stand-and-piss spot.”
Makudonarudo
Daruma (cf. the common Zen ko’an, “Why did Daruma come from the West?”)

This entry is part 20 of 42 in the series Antiphony: Paul Zweig

I apologize for the paucity of posts here lately. I’m still reading Paul Zweig, and have come a cropper of the lengthy and magnificent last poem in the second section of his Selected and Last Poems. (See here for details on this experiment in close reading.) I hope to be able to post a poem in response to it, but I make no promises. In the meantime, given its length, I thought it ought to get a post of its own. As usual, I’ll take it down in a week to ten days, so enjoy it while you can. (N.B.: I will definitely not be attempting a response to “Aunt Lil,” the first poem in the selection from “Eternity’s Woods.” I simply don’t have any comparable experience to draw on there.)

The City of Changes
Venice 1973
by Paul Zweig

        I
Returning to thunder, white buildings,
And a damp smell rising from the sidewalk.
Lightning plunges through me, exposing
The gray wall I lean against
Like Rodin’s half-carved statues.

[Remainder of poem removed 10-10-05]

I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason–
John Keats, letter to his brothers, Dec. 21, 1817

This week witnessed the birth of a new group blog, qarrtsiluni. Beth explained better than I could what we are about. K. of Lucid Moment is the Managing Editor and blog host; he, Beth, whiskey river and I make up the editorial team for September and October. After that, we hope to pass the baton to others.

Go take a look. And please consider contributing original prose, poetry and/or artwork; all modes, moods and themes are welcome within the broad parameters of a monthly theme.

To be “capable of being in uncertainties” is to be literally in the midst. The poet is in the midst. The poem, too, is in the midst, a kind of magnet for complex historical, literary, and psychological forces, as well as a way of maintaining oneself in the face of the multiplicity.

There are serious consequences to being in the midst. For instance, one is subject to influences. One experiences crises of identity. One suffers from self-consciousness. One longs for self-knowledge while realizing at the same time that under the circumstances self-knowledge can never be complete.

Charles Simic, “Negative Capability and Its Children,” in The Uncertain Certainty

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I carried my second-hand camera to the far end of the field; it carried the field back home in its little wafer of memory. I’m sorry it’s a little blurry. I had slept poorly the night before, & now everything seemed slightly out-of-focus.

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Leaves on a first-year catalpa sprout are almost big enough to serve as umbrellas in a pinch. Yesterday morning, though, as you can see, I used them as a welder’s visor to look at the sun. Expect major sunspot activity in the next few days.

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A white ash split down the middle by last January’s ice storm bravely sent up a few clusters of sprouts, but this summer’s drought has not been kind. The Virginia creeper climbs it with claws of shadow.

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As I started up the ridge, my tired kneecaps made little popping noises with every step. Then I saw how thickly the wild grapes hung, fat clusters weighing down a witch hazel bush at the bend of the trail. I found a ripe grape & popped it into my mouth. Thick skin, crunchy seeds, acid-sweet pulp – I eat it all. There’s something vaguely unsettling about a peeled grape.

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For you, oh reader, I’ll ford a river of white stones, for you I’ll grow a garden of lichens – don’t laugh. Marvel of marvels, a garden of lichens once gave me my best line ever: fungal integument chemically identical to an insect’s exoskeleton.

Dry? Of course it’s dry. This river is parched.

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When you read these words, do you hear your own voice, or imagine mine?

Yesterday morning I visited State College, home of Penn State’s University Park campus. The leading headline visible in the newspaper kiosks all up and down the main street declared, City Not Ready For Residents. Classes started more than two weeks ago, but I imagine there are quite a few freshmen who still aren’t quite ready for State College, either. Quite apart from the strangeness of a new place – which some will find bewilderingly large, and others ridiculously small and lacking – is the virtually unchallenged practice of trying to make wildly disparate individuals conform to uniform requirements and lesson plans.

A couple hours earlier, I had been moved almost to tears by my parents’ description of a movie I had never seen. It was a foreign film, which meant that they probably got more out of it than if it had been in English, paradoxically enough. With subtitles, one doesn’t have to worry about missing any of the dialogue due to the characters speaking too rapidly or indistinctly. My father has mentioned that on the rare occasions when he gets to watch a movie at some motel with cable TV, he always turns on the closed captioning for that very reason. And of course when one replays a foreign movie in one’s head, all the characters speak in English, without even a trace of an accent. The words at the bottom of the screen, so essential to our comprehension, completely erase themselves in memory. Such captions might constitute a good example – so rare in our society – of a completely ergonomic tool.

Our friend L. recently told us about a small auditorium on campus where foreign and art films are sometimes shown. It’s fan-shaped, like most auditoriums, she said, but the weird thing is that every row has the very same number of seats. So people sitting right in front of the screen end up being crowded much too close together, and folks in the back rows find themselves sitting much too far apart – especially if they might have had any hanky-panky in mind. Think of all those pairs of frustrated hands trying to connect with each other in the dark, arms stretching awkwardly and maybe even a little painfully into the chasms between the seats.

I stopped into the CVS pharmacy to buy shampoo; it was my lucky day. A huge sign in the window announced a Semi-Annual BEAUTY SALE. If beauty could be bought and sold, I thought, just imagine how valuable ugliness would become! Then I thought: Prove that this isn’t already the case. “As soon as everyone in the world knows that the beautiful are beautiful,” says the Daodejing, “there is already ugliness.” It’s the ugliness that’s lucrative, ugliness that drives this bizarre, anti-ergonomic economy. I’ve seen aerial photos of the oil fields of Venezuela and the Niger Delta; they aren’t pretty.

The shampoo was on sale; it cost all of eighty-eight cents. Sure, it’s full of chemicals that have never been tested for their long-term effects on human beings, let alone on water quality, but I don’t have much money, and haircuts aren’t cheap. The shampoo should last close to six months if I’m careful and keep my hair short.

This was my first real visit to State College in several months. A new parking garage had just opened, right across the street from the old parking garage and two short blocks from the third major parking garage, which is a stone’s throw from a new, multi-level parking deck. If gas becomes too expensive for most of the students to drive cars, I wonder how many of them will suddenly rediscover how convenient it is to walk or ride a bike? If the predictions of peak oil theory are correct, these public monuments to private fantasies of independence will soon stand as empty as the shells of dead snails. At least the skateboarders, banned from the sidewalks, will have plenty of places to ride.

The new library downtown is almost finished. It sits rather comfortably on the new, expanded corner lot that has been created for it, and I was struck by the fact that it now no longer faces down toward the Penn State campus and its main artery, the elm-lined pair of sidewalks that lead straight to the university’s own, recently expanded library. Now it stands side-by-side with the three-year-old borough building, facing into the center of town as if to symbolize State College’s would-be independence from the behemoth university whose appendage it really still remains.

The main doors to the public library will take foot traffic in right about where an alley used to connect to the street. A large parking lot occupies most of the space where the Goodwill, Army-Navy store and bicycle repair shop used to be. Yesterday, workers were putting the final touches on the outside of the building, reaching up with paint rollers or leaning and twisting in with caulking guns. The landscaping appeared to be complete; the brand-new shrubs probably arrived already pruned. Twenty-foot trees had been planted in the new, faux-brick sidewalk.

My main reason for coming into town had actually been to visit the university library, which is also a fully public facility, complete with open stacks and no borrowing limits. Five years on and I’m still adjusting to the strangeness of its new wing and the novel arrangement of space and collections throughout the complex. They just redesigned the electronic catalogue in an effort to make it user-friendlier, and from what I could see, they succeeded. (“User-friendlier,” incidentally, is what MS Word’s Spelling and Grammar tool advises in favor of “more user-friendly,” which is what I had originally typed.) But finding my books in the oldest stack area wasn’t as easy as it used to be, because the locations are described in a more general fashion now, and one is expected to study a map on each level in order to figure out where to go.

I still take the stairs rather than the elevator in the section of the library that’s been the most thoroughly remodeled and, as they say in the plastic surgery business, enhanced. I was amused to see that the lounge areas around the stairs were plastered with signs: Cell-Phone Use Area. I suspect that every area designated for smoking when I was a student back in the mid-80s is now a Bantustan for cell-phone users, shielding the rest of us from the hazards of second-hand talk.

Halfway down one staircase, two large, galvanized steel pipes bisecting the landing a foot below the ceiling made me stop and eye all four walls with sudden astonishment. It’s strange how a glimpse of normally hidden infrastructure can sometimes make one feel as if the corner of a shroud or curtain had just been lifted.

I suppose that last image might mean more to someone from a strictly Muslim country. Here, instead of the chador, women wear dark glasses – men, too. I was struck by just how many people in town and on campus seem to feel a need to shield their eyes. It occurred to me, though, that perhaps part of the popularity of sunglasses owes to the freedom they give their wearers to stare uninhibitedly at each other’s bodies – that a mask of cool indifference quite possibly disguises a face of need.

One woman wearing mirrored lenses pushed a stroller, and I glanced down at its two-year-old occupant. Babies and toddlers are somehow exempt from anti-ogling rules; I guess it’s presumed they’re too young to have a fully developed sense of privacy or personal space. He sat up straight up in the carriage, looking all around at the things no one else could see. No city will ever be ready for residents like him.

This entry is part 19 of 42 in the series Antiphony: Paul Zweig

I’m reading Paul Zweig. This is the eighth poem in the second section of his Selected and Last Poems, followed by my response. See here for details.

The Black Stone
by Paul Zweig

        I
Death was my first appetite,
I’ve had others since.

Black stone I swallowed on the day I was born,
You are the loneliness fattening in my breath…

[Remainder of poem removed 9-31-05]

* * * *

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The Yellow Field

        for Beth

Somewhere in that critical hour before supper
I lost my appetite, all of it,
just as my strict Nanna used to warn against
when she set out the sweets.
My other grandma would light a cigarette
& gently shoo us out of the house
so she & grandpa could enjoy their cocktail hour – ah! – alone.

Peace without children, yellow field
where I dissolve, finally, into a murmur of bees.

Given a field of yellow, the weather doesn’t matter.
Given water from the ground or the sky
& my own, too-corrosive minerals, given
a season of ice, fissures growing
wherever the rhizomes can get their fingers in past the knuckle,
prizing the dead stone open along its seam
of gleaming yellow: a field spreads
wherever I used to feel hunger.

I stand in the middle of it at sundown, still as a tall stump
that doesn’t belong,
watching for the brilliant wings of monarch butterflies
beating, gliding, searching for a one-night hat stand.
I could be the spot marked Mexico on a yellow map.
My shadow stretches into the distant woods.

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A rare visitor rounds the bend of the driveway below my house

The screech owls gave me another chance to listen more closely to their calling the night before last, so I was able to revise the poem I wrote in answer to Zweig’s “Listening to Bells” the other day. Take another look – I think it’s a little less “In lieu of,” a little more of a genuine listening now.

I also want to draw your attention – for the benefit especially of readers who might have been grumbling to themselves about the dearth of prose here lately – to some truly inspired writing by recent contributors to the comment strings. There’s a longish and delightfully chaotic kite-tail of comments helping to keep the Chant for the Summit of the World Body aloft. Two of my favorites in that string include one from Jean:

…[T]he world body doesn’t need a rest. None of these is about the world body doing anything, just about what people would like it to do, or think they would like it to do. In fact, the world doesn’t have a body, only a shadow, a reflection indicating the presence of body that actually isn’t there. It talks a lot about wanting to have one, but no one can agree about what kind of animal it should be, and Bush is determined it should not come alive, wants a robot or nothing.

Farther down, Rexroth’s Daughter – one of the pair of inspired misfits who call themselves Dharma Bums – added this:

Thanks for poetically revealing the myth perpetuated by google. The world body is like an urban legend. Repeated enough it becomes evidence of its own existence. The google bomb of self: A desperate need to believe in the reality of our own skins writ large.

Google bomb – the willful multiplication of incoming links with uniform wording or naming, in order to increase the attraction of a place or position by its sleight-of-hand substitution for the results of otherwise unrelated searches, using a god-like logarithm of our own invention – has to be one of the most accurate analogies for the formation of self I’ve ever seen. As the Wikipedia article points out,

Google bombs often end their life by being too popular or well known, thereby attaining a mention in well regarded web journals and knocking the bomb off the top spot. It is sometimes commented that Google bombing need not be countered because of this self-disassembly.

In a different, more animist vein, Beth left a vivid comment after the aforementioned “Listening” post:

…I dreamt of an owl last night, a big one – like a great horned – seen in the dream first through trees, and then flying over the roof of the moving car and then ahead of it, down the road and off into the trees again.

It was blue.

Thanks to everyone who comments and to all who visit here, whether with words or with the gift of silent presence. It’s never quite the quiet of a tomb, though I must admit, sometimes I feel that I ever stop chipping away at my epitaph, I’ll have to go lie down under it and mind my manners. And then it’s nothing but cut flowers – no gardening allowed! So gather ye rosebuds and all that. Or rose hips, really, by now…

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A pasture rose, New York aster, and the light above my writing table visible through the dining room door

UPDATE: Bloggers are invited to enter their favorite comments from among those left at their blogs for the 90 Great Comments Contest, hosted by Glittering Muse (and inspired in part by this very post, for which I’m honored).