Window pictures

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

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I want to say that the invention of window glass has led to the domestication of vision. This may seem like so much hyperbole, but in fact, windows have proven just as lethal as most other efforts to make the great outdoors less threatening or more easily accessible. It’s estimated that at least 100 million wild birds are killed by collisions with windows and other human structures in North America every year. According to the Bird Conservation Network,

During daytime, birds often fly head-on into windows, confused by the reflection of trees or sky. This is a common occurrence even in suburbia at homes and glassy office campuses. All of these birds suffer head trauma and over half die.

There are various ways to try and combat this effect.

Recent research by ornithologists at the Field Museum of Natural History confirmed that simply turning off bright lights, closing blinds or pulling the drapes reduces bird deaths by 83%. Even not washing the windows during the migration months helps keep the reflective qualities low and, thus, can help reduce bird injury and death.

I haven’t washed my windows in years, and I feel damn good about that. I can look up from my computer in the late afternoon and enjoy the play of sun and shadows through the spicebush in my garden: shadows of clustered berries, shadows of wings.

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The lone window on the northwest side of the barn is missing half its panes. I remember as a kid taking advantage of that fact more than once in my never-ending war against the woodchucks, resting the barrel of the .22 on the empty frame.

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Here’s a view into the ground floor of the old chicken coop, where our chickens spent much of their time when the weather wasn’t conducive to foraging outside. The mixture of hay and chicken manure that remains can make a rich mulch, but I always have to sift it to remove the numerous shards of glass, all, I presume, the remains of previous windows.

I’m wondering whether the ability of windows to keep things in might confer certain environmental benefits to offset their hazards – for example, by making confinement more tolerable to otherwise rapacious domestic cats, not to mention by retaining heat. Maybe the shadow within the shadow knows. Or maybe I should just Ask Umbra.

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One of the largest employers in the Tyrone area is a PPG (formerly known as Pittsburgh Plate Glass) factory specializing in the manufacture of the large back windows of automobiles. It’s amazing to me that engineers have figured out how to make curved glass that doesn’t distort one’s view out; a little over a hundred years ago, even flat window glass came out full of flaws and waviness. The glass castle that houses the PPG corporate headquarters – the most distinctive feature of the Pittsburgh skyline – symbolizes the dominance of glass in the Era of the Automobile. I look at the way the car window warps the house, the trees, the sky, and I think: this is what the angels must see of us – cocooned in our glass bubbles – if they exist.

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The car is gone, the garage is empty. On days like this, one can envision what the end of cheap oil might mean: great societal upheavals and the loss of a dream of freedom based on personal mobility, yes, but also cleaner lungs and much clearer views. Forced to go about on foot, we might once again come to believe in the soul as the infinity that remains outside,* instead of some house-bound, transparent ghost.

All around me, as I snap this shot, white-throated sparrows are foraging and singing: Poor Sam Peabody, such a sweet and mournful tune. Play it again, Sam, I want to say. All those weeks of rain were easier than this painful blue.

*From a translation of a poem by the great Spanish poet Juan Ramón Jiménez entitled “Yes, If I Could Only Smash.”

Singing science

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

I’m excited by the theme for qarrtsiluni this month, “science as poetry.” This was the choice of the brand-new editors, Alison Kent and Maria Benet; I was pleased to be able to step aside and leave the blog in such capable hands. (Though I couldn’t resist a final, spur-of-the-moment post for the October theme on the death of Rosa Parks.)

Potential contributors having a hard time thinking of a topic need look no farther than the recent news that laboratory mice can sing (click on the link to hear recordings of the songs).

Scientists have known for decades that female lab mice or their pheromones cause male lab mice to make ultrasonic vocalizations. But a new paper from researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis establishes for the first time that the utterances of the male mice are songs.

This finding, to be published Nov. 1 online by the journal Public Library of Science Biology, adds mice to the roster of creatures that croon in the presence of the opposite sex, including songbirds, whales and some insects.

“In the literature, there’s a hierarchy of different definitions for what qualifies as a song, but there are usually two main properties,” says lead author Timothy E. Holy, Ph.D., assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy. “One is that there should be some syllabic diversity–recognizably distinct categories of sound, instead of just one sound repeated over and over. And there should be some temporal regularity–motifs and themes that recur from time to time, like the melodic hook in a catchy tune.”

The new study shows that mouse song has both qualities, although Holy notes that the ability of lab mice to craft motifs and themes isn’t quite on a par with that of master songsmiths like birds.

“Perhaps the best analogy for mouse song would be the song of juvenile birds, who put forth what you might call proto-motifs and themes,” he explains. “It’s not yet clear whether singing conveys an advantage to male mice during courtship, as it appears to do in birds.” …

“Studying this kind of response in mice lets us model higher-level tasks such as pattern recognition and learning in a brain where the neuroanatomy is much simpler than it is in humans,” he explains. “The idea is to help us lay a foundation on which we can eventually construct a very concrete understanding of how these tasks are accomplished in the human brain.”

Will science someday be able to explain what poets and musicians cannot: the source of inspiration? I’m not holding my breath.

At any rate, I already have a different idea in mind for this theme, so I offer the above story al que quiere. See the qarrtsiluni sidebar for the slightly expanded submission guidelines.


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 29 of 42 in the series Antiphony: Paul Zweig


I’m reading Paul Zweig. This is the eleventh poem in the third (“Eternity’s Woods”) section of his Selected and Last Poems, followed by my response. See here for details on this experiment in responsive reading.

The Art of Sacrifice
by Paul Zweig

Our breath on the altar is offered in love.
The fuck-you we smile is offered in love.

[Remainder of poem removed 11-18-05]

* * * *


The yogi who fears the little death of ejaculation
treats every release of his semen as a sacrifice.
Beyond the bliss of union, he seeks power:
flight; perfect foresight; invisibility;
the ability to possess a body
as the gods do, lording it over the tongue.
He chants religious verses as he comes,
oh light, oh ether.

There are no magic powers, there is no little death,
there is only a letting-go – however fleeting –
of that death-grip in which we hold
our precious ones & zeros,
Shiva, Gauri.

In the half-light, half-dark of dawn,
headlights on the new highway
outshine the moon that hangs full in the cleft
they used to call Skytop,
oh father-face offered into the mother-face.

Beyond building highways, the engineer seeks
a world that yields and merges
with the flawless model.
But moving the mountain laid open
countless veins of pyrite.
That rent web of fool’s gold
now bleeds acid into two trout streams,

In color

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

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Is it possible to take an uncliched photo of autumn color? Probably not, but I thought it might be fun to try. I found this rosette of red oak leaves on a foot-high tree, an example of deer bonsai. If its leading buds are destroyed too many years in a row, a seedling can forget how to grow straight and divert all its energies to crawling and twisting, the same as if it were growing near the tree line. At least it doesn’t make a virtue of its extremity and call it civilization.

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In a year of otherwise drab and extremely late color, when the blueberry and huckleberry bushes turn, the powerline right-of-way becomes the best destination for fall foliage on the mountain. The same species grow abundantly in the woods, but their foliage is sparser there, and far less likely to catch low-angled sunlight.

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After the recent rains, a couple of small, woodland pools reappeared for the first time since early June. I remember the clumps of wood frog eggs I found there in early April, and how after weeks without a drop of rain, the last, saucer-sized puddles seethed with tadpoles, like alphabet soup reduced to nothing but the Qs.

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Views and pictures of views are the stuff of real boredom for me. But I liked how, with a rockslide in the foreground and the wooded Allegheny Front behind, the late afternoon sunlight lent a certain charm to the cemetery-like arrangement of mobile homes in the middle distance. For the first time, I was able to look at these houses without immediately thinking of the burning cross incident that occurred there a few years back, someone’s idea of a practical joke on his new, African-American neighbors.

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I guess last Tuesday’s surprise snow shower gave me my best shot at an uncliched take on autumn. For some reason it almost killed the camera, though. Perhaps, despite my protective umbrella, a flake or two landed on a sensitive spot. Right in the middle of a busy morning, with everything still fully attired in summer and fall fashions, here comes winter, boldly exposing herself to my poor little one-megapixel camera. It stopped working for four days after that, heedless of my frustration at my inability to get a picture up.