Under the magnifying glass

For a few days after Christmas, I had my brother Steve’s best friend Sam and two of his kids staying with me, because there was no room at the inn. Sam is a professional entomologist and Steve an advanced amateur, and they are joint custodians of an insect collection that fills nine large cabinets and includes over 100,000 specimens that they’ve collected all over the world. One evening, Steve and Sam waxed philosophic about the differences between insects and people. We had just been discussing the problems and ramifications of excess flatulence – that is, telling fart jokes.

“People are so gross!” Steve said. “I mean, we’re just disgusting! The human body might look good from a distance, but close up, forget it. I mean, we’re always exuding mucous, sweat, body odor… Insects are clean.”

“Are you saying you actually find insects more attractive than human beings?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah! I mean, insects have this bright, shiny armor surrounding their bodies, and all these cool-looking appendages…”

“What about bombardier beetles, shooting scalding acid out their butts?” Sam asked. “That’s a little gross, wouldn’t you say?” A brief discussion of bombardier beetles ensued.

“I know what you mean, though,” Sam admitted. “I’ll be studying an insect under the magnifying glass for a long time, then suddenly look at my thumb and go, wow. Ewww.”


Two bright, shiny new blogs caught my attention this past week, and both feature very familiar voices. “Nomen est Numen” has molted and emerged in an adult form as autobiology, where, the author says, “I’m writing because I want to be more accountable to myself.” Meanwhile, someone calling himself teju cole has launched a blog with a life expectancy of just one month. “Mostly, you can expect words and images related to a journey I made to Nigeria in December 2005,” he says, “though from time to time I may stray from that brief.”

Brief is right! Get it while it’s fresh, as the blowfly said to the carrion beetle.


The New Year’s Eve installment of the invertebrate blog carnival Circus of the Spineless is due out later today at bootstrap analysis, a great blog in its own right. Billed as the “chronicles and musings of an urban field ecologist,” it’s full of great stuff such as book and journal reviews and the low-down on neon-blue rabbit piss. It will make you look at the urban environment in a whole new light.


Your average “year in review” story describes 2005 as a year of unprecedented natural disasters. But man-made disasters are always more appalling to me – and in many cases, of course, the former grade into the latter, when you consider factors such as ravaged coastal wetlands or shoddily built public schools in earthquake zones.

Worst of all are disasters perpetrated by outworn and dangerous ideologies, such as the gospel of economic growth. Here’s one of the creepiest things I’ve read all year.


If you’re looking for something to keep you occupied while waiting for the ball to drop, check out The Infinite Teen Slang Dictionary. It’s, like, totally wharf.


Rendition. Such an intriguing word.

Rendition is a legal term meaning “surrender” or “turn over”, particularly from one jurisdiction to another, and applies to property as well as persons. For criminal suspects, extradition is the most common type of rendition. Rendition can also be seen as the act of handing over, after the request for extradition has taken place.Rendition can also mean the act of rendering, i.e. delivering, a judicial decision, or of explaining a series of events, as a defendant or witness. It can also mean the execution of a judicial order by the directed parties.

Wikipedia, “Rendition”

[A] performance of a musical composition or a dramatic role … an explanation of something that is not immediately obvious … the act of interpreting something as expressed in an artistic performance

WordNet Search 2.1, “rendition”

Rendition was infamously used to recapture fugitive slaves, who under the Constitution and various federal laws had virtually no human rights. As the movement for abolition grew, Northern states increasingly refused to comply or cooperate with rendition of escaped slaves, leading to the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.

Wikipedia, op.cit.

[T]he processing and manipulation of information in order to represent it, for instance, on screen or on paper. Not to be confused with conversion. Rendering is, for instance, carried out by a Web browser in order to display an HTML file on screen. Conversion or formatting refers to the preparation of a file so that the browser can display it.

Factory3x5 Glossary of Terms, “Rendition”

The CIA was granted permission to use rendition in a presidential directive that dates to the Clinton administration, although very few uses were documented during that time. The practice has grown sharply since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and now includes a form where suspects are taken into US custody but delivered to a third-party state, often without ever being on American soil. Because such cases do not involve the rendering country’s judiciary, they have been termed extraordinary rendition.

Wikipedia, op.cit.

Instance of a record rendered into another software format by a process entirely within the control of the ERM/EDM system, without loss of content. The content and most of the metadata (i.e. all except the relational linking back to the native format record and details of the software format) are identical. Renditions may be required for preservation or access / viewing purposes.

DataCore Technology, Inc. – Glossary of Terms, “Rendition”

Human rights groups charge that extraordinary rendition is a violation of the United Nations Convention on Torture, because suspects are taken to countries where torture during interrogation remains legal, thus circumventing the protections the captives would enjoy in the United States or other nations in the West. Its legality remains highly controversial, as the United States outlaws the use of torture, and the U.S. Constitution guarantees due process. Rendered suspects are denied due process because they are arrested without charges and deprived of legal counsel.

Wikipedia, op.cit.

Rendition may also refer to the culinary process of rendering, “to heat a piece of fat, or fat meat, slowly in a pan to convert it to liquid form,” as one on-line glossary of cooking terms puts it. (This is also referred to as trying the fat or lard.) The unifying meaning-element for all these definitions would seem to be translation from one state or context to another. As one of the above definitions reminds us, rendition is not to be confused with conversion, which is generally conceived of as somehow altering the fundamental make-up of the thing or person converted. In rendition, as in translation, there is a general presumption that the object of rendering remains largely unchanged and unimpaired in some essential way. Extraordinary rendition is extraordinary precisely because it violates this norm.

Translation, though, is also famously problematic in its own right. Given the somewhat dubious attempts to justify torture as a way to obtain vital information, I think it’s important to consider what happens to thought and language when they undergo translation into simple, binary terms – i.e., into information. What are we to make of tortured words? What happens to a people whose public vocabulary of human rights and freedoms is rendered – boiled down – into the slippery fuel for a war with no concrete enemy and no identifiable end?

No one has pondered the nature of translation more deeply than the literary critic and philosopher George Steiner. According to Steiner, “To understand is to decipher. To hear significance is to translate.” Quoting almost at random from his magisterial study, After Babel:

[E]very act of human communication is based on a complex, divided fabric which may, fairly, be compared to the image of a plant deeply and invisibly rooted or an iceberg largely under water. Active inside the ‘public’ vocabulary and conventions of grammar are pressures of vital association, of latent and realized content. Much of this content is irreducibly individual and, in the common sense of the term, private. When we speak to others we speak ‘at the surface’ of ourselves. We normally use a shorthand beneath which there lies a wealth of subconscious, deliberately concealed or declared associations so extensive and intricate that they probably equal the sum and uniqueness of our status as an individual person. It was from this central fact of the dual or subsurface phenomenology of speech that Humboldt derived his well-known axiom: ‘All understanding is at the same time a misunderstanding, all agreement on thought and feeling is also a parting of the ways.’ …But this opaqueness, this part of illusion in all public speech-acts is probably essential to the equilibrium of the psyche. Articulated or internalized, language is the principal component and validation of our self-awareness. It is the constantly tested carapace of individual identity. Yet at the phonological, grammatical, and, in significant measure, semantic levels it is also among the most ubiquitous and common of human properties. There is a sense in which our own skin belongs to every man. This apparent contradiction is resolved by the individuation of associative content. Without that individuation, in the absence of a decided private component in all but the most perfunctory, unreflecting of our speech-acts, language would possess only a surface. Lacking roots in the irreducible singularity of personal remembrance, in the uniqueness of the ‘association-net’ of personal consciousness and sub-consciousness, a purely public, common speech would severely impair our sense of self.

No wonder that so many of us who, to all appearances, have nothing to hide, still instinctively reject the proposition that anyone has the right to watch our every move, read our every e-mail and get our every word down on tape. And no wonder that those who assert that right tend to be the very same people defending the use of torture, or the right to invade sovereign nations under any pretext. But those who seek merely to colonize our imaginations with mass-produced fantasies are guilty of a subtler and more insidious violation, as a consequence of which the loss of freedom may be greeted with relief, and sensory deprivation or even torture may be actively sought as a respite from constant over-stimulation. If no thoughts are ever truly our own, how do we differ from slaves? Here’s Steiner again:

A diffuse rationalism, the levelling impress of the mass media, the increasing monochrome of the technological milieu, are crowding on the private components of speech. Under stress of radio and television, it may be that even our dreams will be standardized and made synchronic with those of our neighbours.

Welcome to the nightmare world of extraordinary rendition.

In illo tempore

The phone rang at mid-morning on Christmas Eve, and my nine-year-old niece Eva answered it. One of our hunter friends, Troy, was calling from his cellphone. “There’s two bears on Sapsucker Ridge right up above the barn!” he said. We hustled into our boots and overcoats and ran outside. Troy, his brother Jeff and his son Andy were standing at the top edge of the field, staring up into the woods. It was a bright, sunny morning, but the snowpack, which had melted quite a bit the day before, was still firm, and our boots punched through with every step as we made our way up across the field.

The hunters had been moving their portable tree stands in anticipation of the beginning of muzzleloader deer season the day after Christmas. Like most of the hunters we know, they have excellent observational skills, and one of them had caught a movement in a tangle of brush a hundred yards away near the top of the ridge as they walked by in the field below. Until I looked through binoculars, I had to take their word for it that the black dot was the head of a half-grown bear.

“There was a second one – the mother probably – but she went on over the ridge,” Troy said. The remaining bear was nonchalantly turning its head all around and working its jaws, as if rehearsing a speech. “I think he thinks we can’t see him,” Jeff remarked. I hoisted Eva onto my shoulders so she could get a better view. We decided that this was the same mother bear with cub that my mom and I had surprised on the Christmas Bird Count as they lay in a denning cavity a quarter mile farther down the ridge.

Image hosted by Photobucket.com

Eva’s parents had spent the night in town with my brother Steve and his family; when they all showed up an hour and a half later, the bears were gone. “Let’s go out after lunch and follow their trail,” Steve said. “Maybe we can track them to their den!” His enthusiasm was infectious. I had just finished decorating the tree, and would have a few hours free until I’d have to assist with supper preparation. Eva decided to go along, too.

It was a warm day. By two in the afternoon, the snow had turned to slush. We found the spot where the bears had been hanging out that morning without much trouble, and began following their fresh tracks, clambering over and around numerous deadfalls and smashing through thickets of wild grape and blackberry. In many places, a smaller paw print had been pressed inside a larger one, and it was easy to picture the gangly youngster scampering along behind its mother.

Image hosted by Photobucket.com

We were relieved when, after couple hundred yards, the trail led us up over the ridge and down into the relatively more open woods on the other side, where the main hazards were the dense patches of mountain laurel and steep boulder fields. The snow was firmer and crunchier on the northwest side of the ridge, and gave us pretty good footing over the rocks.

Image hosted by Photobucket.com

The trail began to parallel the ridge crest about a hundred feet below it. Steve set a brisk pace, and Eva began falling farther and farther behind. She wasn’t complaining, but I could see that her cheap, low boots were no match for the snow. While I waited for her to catch up, I snapped pictures of the gnarled old rock oaks and black birches that grow among the rocks, the closest thing to old growth on our mountain.

Image hosted by Photobucket.com

This was also the only place on the mountain where paper birch grows, and in the strong sunlight, the contrast between the snow and the off-white bark was striking.

Image hosted by Photobucket.com

Eva admitted that she had a couple inches of water in her boots, so I led her back up to the top of the ridge and pointed the way home. Steve seemed tired of clambering along the steep hillside himself, and convinced me that if we simply followed the crest of the ridge, sooner or later we’d find where the bears had crossed back over. One way or another, we’d have a good walk out to the Far Field, he said, and that much turned out to be true. Through binoculars, we could just make out the bears’ tracks down below, continuing to head southwest along the ridge. “They could be half-way to Altoona by now,” Steve said, and we reluctantly turned back.

I still had to finish wrapping presents, so I took the more direct route home. Steve went back along Laurel Ridge, where he scared up a small flock of wild turkeys. I had a brief encounter with a dead snag I had never noticed, standing along the edge of the field. A woodpecker hole near the top pierced all the way through to the sky beyond, and as I watched, the contrail of a nearly inaudible jet seemed to thread it, fading rapidly away toward the south. Perhaps if I were one of the Magi, I’d know what to make of this perspective-dependent celestial sign.

Image hosted by Photobucket.com

It’s odd. Given their wariness and generally crepuscular habits, we see bears only once every month or two, on average. But twice before when Eva was visiting with her family we’ve had great sightings of black bears, and both were on Easter. The second time, Eva was the first to spot the large, male bear peering in through the bow window while the rest of us sat in the other room. These were our first Christmas Eve bears, but I have a feeling they might not be our last.

In The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, the great comparative religionist Mircea Eliade talks about the cyclical nature of sacred time. “Religious participation in a festival implies emerging from ordinary temporal duration and reintegration of the mythical time reactualized by the festival itself,” Eliade wrote. “Hence sacred time is indefinitely recoverable, indefinitely repeatable.” Sacred, ritual time operates almost like a time machine (my image, not Eliade’s), making the participants feel as if they have in some sense returned to the way things were at the very beginning, in illo tempore. In Judaism, and in Christianity after it, every Sabbath permits such a return, and the high holy days even more so.

For most of the last two thousand years, Christians have regarded Good Friday and Easter as the high points of the liturgical calendar, but nowadays, for whatever reason, many seem to have decided that Christmas is a bigger deal. It’s certainly much less Christian in its origins, and the celebration of light and faith at the darkest pivot-point of the year has a nearly universal appeal outside the tropics. The epiphany in the manger also takes us back to Eden in a way that the Passion and Resurrection of Christ cannot. According to widespread folk belief, on Christmas Eve night, the speech of animals becomes briefly intelligible once again, though the traditions disagree on whether it is a good idea for humans to listen in.

I’d be lying if I told you that any of these ideas were passing though my head on Christmas Eve, however. After supper, we gathered in the living room according to time-honored family custom and listened while Mom read the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus from her battered old copy of the King James Bible. My ten-month-old niece Elanor rested quietly in her mother’s lap.

Then Mark takes the seat at the piano, and it’s carol time. We begin with a few of the more light-hearted songs, courtesy of Steve, who has an excellent memory for lyrics: “Jingle Bells” in Latin, the Grinch song, and Tom Lehrer’s cynical take on the holiday. Then it’s on to more serious carols which everyone is expected to join in on, such as “Silent Night” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Only the light above the piano competes with the colored lights strung on the tree and threaded through the greens on top of the fireplace mantle.

Mom has a good, rich, mezzo-soprano voice and took a lot of voice lessons in her youth, but with advancing age, each year it’s an open question whether she’ll be able to hit the high note in “O Holy Night” – always the last carol of the evening. As she works her way up to it, her younger granddaughter gets more and more into the spirit of things. Guarded closely by her mother and her cousin Eva, she crawls up onto the coffee table next to the piano, where she sits waving her arms rapidly up and down as if to urge a faster cadence in the music. Eva gets the idea of putting a small plastic toy into one of her wildly gyrating hands. Elanor clutches it for a second or two, then releases her grip, sending the toy flying. She shakes with laughter, her eyes squeezed shut with pleasure. Eva hands her the toy again, and again. I can’t remember when I’ve ever witnessed such pure, unmitigated delight, and it makes me feel something I haven’t felt in a long, long time. Meanwhile, Mom and Mark have made their way into the third verse of “O Holy Night,” after some rusty piano accompaniment in the first verse, and skipping the second.

Truly He taught us to love one another,
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother.
And in his name all oppression shall cease….

She hits the note. Elanor is bubbling over with joy. Oh holy night.

A holiday adventure

Image hosted by Photobucket.com

Jesus may be the reason for the season, but Yule belongs to the old gods.

Image hosted by Photobucket.com

And the old gods were bored.

Image hosted by Photobucket.com

But the old gods were no match for Igor.

Image hosted by Photobucket.com

“Igor, fetch me my heavy chain!”
“Yes, master!”

Image hosted by Photobucket.com

“Home, Igor!”
“Yes, master!”

Cut your own

Image hosted by Photobucket.com

News flash: Rudolf’s nose isn’t exactly red

Image hosted by Photobucket.com

We’ve been coming here ever since I was five years old. I remember the excitement, all three of us boys crammed into the backseat of the old Scout.

Dad always made us walk at least a half a mile, for some reason. “That’s where all the good trees are, kids!”

Image hosted by Photobucket.com

Of course, the snow was much deeper when I was your age. And the trees were greener, too.

Image hosted by Photobucket.com

“What’s the fence for, Mommy? Can’t they just fly away?”

“That’s to protect them from all their fans, honey. Just like those barricades they put up to protect the president on TV!”

Image hosted by Photobucket.com

“I think he likes me!”

“Of course he likes you, honey. You’re giving him treats.”

(Sound of chewing.)

“Daddy, can I have a reindeer for Christmas?”

Christmas bird count: the wild and the quiet

Saturday, December 17, 2005: Christmas Bird Count. For my mother and my brother Steve, this is, I think, a bigger deal than Christmas itself. For me – a non-birder despite my involvement with the Audubon chapter that sponsors our local count – it affords a rare opportunity to follow my mother around on her morning walk. Since this is her main source for the natural history observations that fuel her writing, she almost always goes out alone. But on the CBC, it’s always a good idea to have a second set of eyes and ears. And this year, with an unprecedented fifteen inches of snow on the ground, I figured she’d appreciate having someone to break a snowshoe trail for her.

So strictly speaking, I wouldn’t be following her; she’d follow me. But it didn’t seem to matter, since neither of us were in any hurry. We knew Steve had gotten up at the crack of dawn and driven the short distance from his house in town to the bottom of the mountain. Together with our friend Todd – a beginning birder – he’d take care of the more bird-rich half of the property, down in the hollow, as well as along the Little Juniata River, which flows through the gap.

I had meant to get up early and listen for owls, but wouldn’t you know it: for the first time in ages, I slept in past daybreak and didn’t rise until 6:30. The first bird I saw or heard as I sat out on the porch drinking my coffee was a mourning dove, fluttering up from the stream on musical wings.

“Mourning dove!” I announced by way of a greeting when I walked in the door of my parents’ house. “Oh boy, do we have doves!” Mom said. A flock of fifty swarmed the birdseed below the feeders, scarfing up the cracked corn. We watched them for a moment in silence. “Well, if anything happens,” Mom said – meaning, I guess, if the world economy suddenly collapses, triggering another Great Depression – “we’ll have plenty to eat!”

But barring that, we’d only be bagging birds in the most figurative sense. Come to think of it, the hundred-year-old tradition of the CBC is based on a conscious rejection of an older, more sanguinary tradition: the Side Hunt. Those four calling birds, three French hens, two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree? They were for supper.


It’s 7:45 when we finally leave the house. At 20 degrees Fahrenheit, there are few early birds and even fewer worms. The gibbous moon hangs low over the ridge. At 7:50, we stop a stone’s throw beyond the barn for our first “pish break.” Pursing her lips, Mom lets loose with a series of urgent vowel-less syllables – pshh pshh pshh – which in avian Esperanto must mean something like, “Free beer! Free beer!” Some species respond to it more readily than others, but generally speaking, pishing is a good way to see if any dickey birds might be lurking in the weeds. Right now, though, nothing stirs. “They’re all at the feeders,” Mom says.

7:55. American crow, a distant cawing. The faint yank yank yank of a nuthatch. I look back. Mom has her pocket notebook out and is scribbling away, taking notes for next year’s December column in Pennsylvania Game News, no doubt. I take note of this in my own pocket notebook.

“What are you writing about me?”

“What are you writing about me?”

8:05. Juncos, and maybe a white-throated sparrow or two, flitting around in a nest of fallen trees overgrown with dried grasses at the edge of Margaret’s Woods. I circle the thicket, trying to drive them out so Mom can count them.

“They hide too well, Memsahib!”

At 8:17, at the top edge of the field, we hit our first small clot of avian activity. The weak sunlight is just starting to warm the southeast-facing, wooded slope of what we call Sapsucker Ridge. I tally them by ear: black-capped chickadee, titmouse, downy woodpecker, white-breasted nuthatch. Mom scans the grape thickets, looking mainly for those birds that don’t come to the feeders: the lonely and the rum, I think, remembering the song chanted at the great winter bonfire in the children’s classic Moominland Midwinter.

Here come the dumb,
The lonely and the rum,
The wild and the quiet.
Thud goes the drum.

Mom takes note of the downies, since they rarely come into the feeder. They are, however, neither lonely nor particularly rum, as woodpeckers go.

“Oh look, they’re courting! Oh, isn’t that cute!” It is.

8:33. A pileated woodpecker flies silently overhead, following the edge of the woods. We pause to admire its characteristic undulating flight. Pileateds are definitely rum.

A couple hundred feet farther along, we run across our first set of coyote tracks. There’s a scant quarter-inch of fresh snow on top of the crust – perfect tracking conditions. And this morning we’ll get a pretty good idea of just how many coyotes are roaming the mountain: lots! This is one of the biggest ironies of winter, I think. Though life is at its lowest ebb, what life still stirs is much more in evidence now than during the warmer months, when a thick green veil lies over the land.

I follow the coyote tracks a short distance into the woods, ignoring my mother’s mild complaints at the extra walking. While the crust is strong enough to support the coyotes, we break through with each step, and where the snow has fallen on top of a thick thatch of weeds, my snowshoes sink down well over a foot. But the reward isn’t long in coming: a sudden blur of loud wingbeats erupts from the snow at the base of a wild grape tangle. “Ruffed grouse!”

So there’s our partridge, as some folks insist on calling grouse. Now where’s that pear tree?


8:50. We’ve been birding for one hour now. We’ve made it at least 300 yards from the house.

The sun slowly grows brighter as the clouds in the east thin out. My mother scans the grape thickets on the far side of the small powerline right-of-way that bisects our property at right angles to the ridges. “There’s a red-bellied,” she calls out. “And a pair of pileateds.” I’m taking pictures of a fresh deer bed with a coyote track running through the middle of it. We’re standing at the base of a huge black cherry tree, wondering if maybe we ought to pick up the pace a little, when the pileateds launch themselves into the air one after the other, cross the powerline, and land on the trunk of the cherry tree right above our heads. We stand open-mouthed as they hitch themselves briefly up the trunk, their great heads pivoting on their straight, sleek bodies like African gods, red crests brilliant in the sun.

8:57. A distant, nasal ark ark ark. “Raven!” we call out in unison.

We take another short loop through the woods, right beyond the powerline. There’s just enough snow to bury most of the fallen logs that are directly on the ground; this is where having snowshoes really pays off.

9:05. Teakettle, teakettle! Teakettle, teakettle, teakettle! Chirrrrrrrrrrrrrrrp! “Ah, there he is!” Mom says happily. But who wouldn’t feel happy after hearing a Carolina wren? You could have the gun in your mouth with your finger on the trigger, ready to end it all, and the song of a Carolina wren would still make you smile. If then the bird himself hopped into view, bobbing up and down and pointing his inquisitive bill in every direction, your heart would melt, I swear. Even in the darkest, coldest days of the year, depression can never linger long in a home haunted, as ours is, by Carolina wrens.

9:10. Just as we emerge from the woods, I notice a pair of large, rainbow-colored spots in the cirrus clouds on either side of the sun. “Look – sun dogs!” It seems like a very good omen.

Still heading along the edge of Sapsucker Ridge, we’re on the alert for its namesake the yellow-bellied sapsucker, which Mom spotted here just yesterday. She logs a cardinal, then a small flock of goldfinches. Something raps on a tree, a little louder and slower than a downy woodpecker. “Now that one sounds like a hairy, wouldn’t you say?” Yes, I would.

9:32. We’ve just begun moving after perhaps our hundredth pause, disappointed that the sapsucker still hasn’t shown. I glance over at the ridge and see a large black shape laboring up the hillside. “Look! Look!” Mom finally glances up from her notebook. “Bears!”

A second, smaller bear emerges from behind the rootball of a fallen tree fifty feet away – legacy of last January’s icestorm, which felled two-thirds of the trees in this section of the woods – and follows the first bear up the side of the ridge.

My camera is in my hand, but I decide to keep watching rather than to squander this sighting with one eye shut and the other pressed to the viewfinder. The best picture I could get with this camera probably wouldn’t be worth sharing, anyway.

After the second bear disappears we wait for a few seconds to see if any more will emerge. There seem to have been two mother bears with cubs roaming our end of the mountain this year, and oddly enough – judging by the numerous reports from our deer-hunting friends over the past few weeks – neither have gone into hibernation yet. One mother has three cubs, but we decide this must be other one, who has but a single cub. I climb cautiously up to the rootball, following a line of bear tracks probably from the day before, dusted over by last night’s snow.

“You gotta come see this,” I tell my mother. “It’s a regular den!” I help her up over the couple of rough spots and she joins me at the edge of the cluster of logs, peering down into a bear-shaped hole. In all her years of tramping through the woods, this is a first.

We worry a little about whether we’ve disturbed them just as they were finally getting settled down for the winter, but knowing what resilient creatures bears can be, and how many similar configurations of logs and rootballs dot the mountain now, we figure this probably won’t set them back too much.

The woods had been quiet for at least five minutes before we saw the bears. Now, a minute later, the trees and grapevines are once again alive with small fluttering forms. Poor Sam, sings a white-throated sparrow – and stops, as if thinking better of it. It’s too glorious a morning for such a mournful tune.


It’s the end of our second hour, and we’ve made it as far as the thirty-year-old grove of Norway spruce at the top of First Field, a quarter mile from the house. Once again, I persuade my mother to go off-trail. “Let’s just cut through the corner of the grove,” I say. “Might be a long-eared owl in there, you never know!” Perhaps it takes a non-birder to trust in such far-fetched scenarios, but several years before, Mom had indeed found one of those rare winter visitors in the grove, though not in time for the CBC.

I hear an odd chirp I don’t recognize. “That sounds like a kinglet!” I hear Mom say, and she suddenly starts breaking her own trail into the grove. But as luck would have it, it’s me, without binoculars, who gets the visual confirmation. One of the two chirpers flits into the tree right in front of me. She pauses for a few seconds on an open bough, and the bright, angelic glow at the top of her head leaves no doubt at the identification. “That’s a golden-crowned kinglet, all right.”

“Oh, wonderful! That’s my favorite winter bird! But I haven’t been able to find a one in this grove,” Mom says.

That’s par for the course. No matter how ardently one scouts things out in advance, Christmas Bird Count always brings surprises, I don’t know why. That’s the magic of it, I guess. Even people like me, with a natural aversion to counting and listing, can’t avoid sharing in that to some extent, just as the presence of children can make one see Christmas as something more than an empty celebration of greed.

10:05. We’re halfway along the Road to the Far Field, following a snowshoe trail I’d broken the day before. It feels like a superhighway compared to where we’ve been. Suddenly Mom stops and raises her binoculars. “There’s a bluebird up ahead! Ohmigosh. I haven’t seen one in weeks.” As we stand there marveling, the whole little flock of bluebirds flies right toward us and passes overhead, six of them in all. So far, I’m doing just fine without binoculars.

We pause to admire a small mammal track: an intestine-like knot of narrow tunnels pushed up right in the most recent quarter-inch of snow. “Was this a vole?” I ask. Mom looks at it carefully. “No, I’d say that’s a shrew – probably a least shrew, by the size of it.”

10:25. We reach Coyote Bench, as Mom calls it, and brush off the snow with our gloves. We each have insulated cushions strapped to our belts, and this seems like a good time to use them. With all the leaves down, the bench affords a good view of Sinking Valley, and Mom soon has her binoculars trained on the homes of our mostly unknown neighbors below.

“Look at that castle! I wonder who lives there?”

“Wasn’t that the place that X built, after clearcutting and selling off his land on the mountain?” X’s property bordered ours for a short distance at the end of the Far Field; he owned a several-hundred-acre piece of mountain asset and raped it twice in the space of thirty years. Not much grows over there now but hayscented fern and striped maple.

“Oh yeah, maybe you’re right. Why in the world would anyone want to live in a place like that, though? You’d spend all your time cleaning! And then he died a year or two after he built it.”

“Must’ve been all the cleaning.”

This leads us into a half-hour, rambling discussion of environmental issues and the possibilities for social change, about which my mother tends to take an even gloomier view than I do. Still, we’re cheered by the sight of Amish haystacks right on the other side of the road from the “castle.” Sinking Valley is still quite rural, and the Amish are managing to buy up many of the farms as they go on the market, keeping the subdivisions at bay – at least for now.


The hoped-for winter wren never puts in an appearance, so we resume our walk, shortly emerging into the Far Field and breaking fresh trail once again. The next hour doesn’t turn up any new species, though we are able to count all the common feeder birds out here, a mile from the house. Down at the end of the field, we scare up our second grouse for the day, and a little later I find its meandering tracks. Where it hopped over a fallen tree, it left a pair of neat wing prints on the far side.

A strenuous loop through the woods at the back corner of the field turns up nothing, and I feel bad for having put my mother through it, though she’s a pretty good sport about it. But on the way back through the field, the masses of dried goldenrod are full of foraging sparrows and chickadees. A raven sails past for the third time this morning, and a moment later we hear a slightly higher-pitched answer to his croaking cry. Since many years the ravens don’t make an appearance on the CBC at all, we feel quite fortunate in being able to log them both.

11:55. Just as we’re heading into the woods toward home, a large flock of starlings swirls up out of the valley and lands in the treetops on the far side of the field, where we’d just been. This is, believe it or not, a species we don’t get for the bird count every year, here on the mountain. Mom trains her glasses on the noisy birds, and makes a ballpark estimate of 150. After three or four minutes, the flock lifts off and heads down-ridge.

Very little is stirring now; this is what birders call the mid-day lull. We make it back to the house in just half an hour. Steve has arrived before us, and he and Dad – who spent the morning on feeder duty – point out our resident sharp-shinned hawk perched on a log a little ways up in the woods, ripping at a junco. They both got to see her swoop in and chase her prey around the cedar tree right next to the house – an almost daily drama, now. The red-breasted nuthatch has been in and out all morning, too, Dad says.

Steve and Mom compare notes. As we figured, the golden-crowned kinglets, bluebirds and ruffed grouse were our only unique species contributions. Steve got all the others we did, plus flicker, brown creeper, winter wren, and two rare winter visitors that Mom had scouted out for him in the days leading up to the count: a towhee and a hermit thrush. He was no luckier than we were with sapsuckers, and confirmed our sense that, for the first time ever, cedar waxwings seem to be absent from the mountain for the CBC. (In fact, as we’d learn that evening at the bird count covered dish supper, no one saw waxwings anywhere in the count circle.)

But Steve and Todd were amply rewarded for their strenuous hike (neither wore snowshoes) by the fresh fisher tracks they found all over the northwest side of the hollow. After the couple of sightings this past fall, there seems little doubt now that Plummer’s Hollow boasts at least one resident fisher – one of the rarest mammals in Pennsylvania.

Steve waits until we finish enthusing about our black bears, then oh-so-casually mentions his best sighting of the day: a late migrating golden eagle. He and Mark got one for the CBC once before, several years ago, but this one was much lower, and it soared right overhead. “You wouldn’t have needed binoculars at all,” he says. It was that kind of day.

Christmas letter

Dear Friends,

Well, Via Negativa is two years old now. I knew the birthday was coming up sometime around the solstice, but I missed it: it was last Saturday. And here I’d been assiduously taking notes for a “year in review” post (which, I see, I avoided doing in the first birthday post). Nuts. Well, here’s that post anyway.

2005 saw a lot of changes in Via Negativa, beginning in her sidebar. Three of my favorite brainiac bloggers – Abdul-Walid of Acerbia (formerly Elck of the vernacular body), Siona of Nomen est Numen, and Andi of Ditch the Raft – hung up their blogging hats. They each had very good reasons for doing so, I think, and it’s not their fault that I felt my enthusiasm for the medium ebb just a little after they left. But now one of them is back, blogging under a new name. Andi took her vows as a Korean Buddhist nun-to-be (haeng-ja), and just last week returned to the blogging fold as Soen Joon, with a blog called One robe, one bowl – the first cloistered blogger in my blogroll.

Three of the bloggers I read faithfully have scored major successes in the world of print publishing this year. Ivy – surely the hardest working poet online – had her first book-length manuscript, Mortal, accepted by Red Morning Press. Patry Francis, who blogs at the aptly named Marvelous Garden, having more than paid her dues with years of waitressing, had her first novel accepted by Dutton. And I was perhaps most excited to learn back in October that Beth successfully pitched her book on Gene Robinson to a small New York publisher. Back in January 2004, Beth’s post about listening to Bishop Robinson preach and then going to a shopping mall sparked a memorable discussion spanning three comment threads. That was, I think, the first really meaty blog conversation in which I took an active part, and it was a revelation to me. I added a comments feature to Via Negativa shortly thereafter.

This past September saw the birth of a new kind of online publication, qarrtsiluni – equal parts group blog and literary magazine. While there are all sorts of equally valid reasons for blogging, those of us involved with qarrtsiluni are hoping to inspire folks around the blogosphere to sometimes take a bit more time with their writing, starting with ourselves. And we want to encourage more collaborative literary and artistic efforts, taking advantage of the much greater opportunities for interaction and feedback available online than in print journals. So far, I think, qarrtsiluni has had a pretty good run.

One thing my sidebar doesn’t reflect too well is the exponential growth in country/nature blogs over the past year (see Rurality‘s sidebar for a good collection of links). I’ve added a few, but I’m always wary of expanding the list of “vaguely compatible blogs” beyond the point where it can still serve readers as a handy guide to a sampling of sites I find interesting. But this past week I decided to put in links to the parent sites of two blog carnivals – regular, community-generated compilations of links to the best posts about a given topic, in this case birds and invertebrates. I coupled them with the useful, weekly compendium of Buddhist-flavored posts at Blogmandu – an old-fashioned meta-blog – to create a new sidebar category, which I hope to expand in the coming year as similar efforts get off the ground, or as I discover more such places already in existence. They offer great solutions to the blog addict’s eternal dillemma: how to read more blogs and still leave time for, well, anything else.

There are many other things that excite me about the blogs in my blogroll: new experiments in writing or artwork, major life changes for the people whose lives they chronicle. I started jotting down notes, and the list quickly got out of hand. So you’ll just have to click through my links and discover them for yourself, I’m afraid.

I don’t want to sound more selfless than I am, either. Via Negativa has had a pretty good year in terms of its original content, too. Long-time readers probably have their own ideas of what the most significant developments were; here’s what stand out in my mind:

1. I got a camera, a hand-me-down birthday gift from a loyal reader (thanks, Matt!). Though only one megapixel, it’s proved more than adequate for the low-resolution pictures required for the Internet. I haven’t owned a camera since I was a kid – film processing was never something I thought I could afford – and I have really enjoyed the effect that taking pictures has had on my quality of attention.

2. I blogged an epic, Cibola (see sidebar links). At least six people claim to have read it all the way through, not counting myself. It had its moments.

3. An involuntary sojourn in lovely Summersville, West Virginia with a broken-down car led me to read the one poetry book I had on hand with the same approximate intensity with which the survivor of a shipwreck clings to a raft. That book was Paul Zweig’s Selected and Last Poems. Unlike Andi, however, I didn’t ditch the raft once I got home; I made a shrine out of it and began regular prostrations. So far I’ve written thirty-four poems in response to Zweig’s, and the project continues to hold my interest. Let’s face it, we can only ever write as well as we read, so why not make the effort to read more consciously? And the blogging medium seems ideal for experiments in antiphony.

4. After some fourteen months of finding captions for the same cartoon, many of them mildly amusing, I finally ran out of steam with the “Words on the Street” feature early last August. The efficient cause, I think, was that it lost out against my new-found enthusiasm for responsive writing – I didn’t have enough time to write two features in addition to a regular essay. The material cause? I was simply running low on ideas. But the final cause may have been the reality that, with all the photographs, Via Negativa no longer had to rely on a daily cartoon to provide graphic relief. Nevertheless, Diogenes the Bum had become in some sense his own person, and it has proved impossible to keep him from popping back up from time to time.

5. The travelogue I just completed was satisfying to write, and I learned (or perhaps relearned) a couple things from it: First, that the pieces I write off the cuff, following just a few leads, are in many ways more satisfying than those I plan out and research (the ivorybill posts). And second, that the time I spend here at home, following all my usual waking and beginning-to-write rituals, is absolutely essential. I really can’t write anywhere else. But given the necessary distance in space and time from the actual travelling, travel writing, I discovered, can be a blast!

6. Overall, I think I can discern a few trends. The lengthy treatises that I used to inflict on Via Negativa readers with monotonous regularity largely disappeared this year, though I doubt the overall word count has diminished too much. I don’t indulge in nearly as much speculative thinking as I did the first year – whether because I got that all out of my system, or simply because I haven’t read much philosophy lately, I’m not sure. There’s been a much higher proportion of poetry, though some of it has taken the form of prose.

One thing that hasn’t changed is that I can’t remember where I’ve been from one month to the next. On occasion, when I go back into the archives searching for a particular post, I find myself reading the adjacent entries with only the faintest recollection of having written them. That’s good, in a way, because it means I can keep coming up with the same ideas again and again and they’ll seem fresh every time. You may think I’m joking, but many of the poets I most admire seem never to have had more than a small handful of original insights. In fact, that may be part of their charm, what makes their oeuvre seem so tidy and unified in tone. Last year at this time I said, “Long live the melange!” But given my craving for variety, sooner or later variety itself may come to seem tiresome, and I’ll crave the simplicity and mystery of the eternal return. Even now, it might be possible to imagine all the words posted here to date as constituting some kind of interminable, profane mantra. Om mani padme jesus h. christmas hum!

Best wishes for a joyous and safe holiday season. Thank you all for reading, and I hope you’ll find the time to visit often in the coming year.

– Dave