Genius loci

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Sucede que me canso de ser hombre.
Pablo Neruda, Walking Around, Residencia en la Tierra, II – translation here

It’s a little disconcerting to me how, lately, the moment I step outside, something happens. Tuesday late morning, for example, two squadrons of geese came honking low over the trees just as I started out on a walk, and mid-morning yesterday, a pair of A-10 Warthogs thundered overhead seconds after I walked out on the porch to pitch an apple core. This morning at 5:05, no sooner had I sat down outside with my coffee when the resident feral cat, whom I call Coyote Bait (C. B. for short), trotted up the driveway in the moonlight like a detachable shadow. It was so still, I could hear her paws on the gravel: a soft rattle, like the sound the stream makes during a prolonged drought.

Why should this surprise me? Only because I sit inside gazing at the computer monitor like a shaman peering into a crystal, where the merest flicker might foreshadow some fundamental shift in the heart’s climate. Everything seems significant at first, but after a while, it all blends into a gray sea of information, and I begin to tire of the whole human race – our never-ending chatter and busyness, our genius for exploitation.

Outside, meanwhile, the unseasonable warmth returns to melt the snow from last weekend’s storm. Late in the morning, when I finally go out with the camera, a bluebird is singing up by the barn, and a black-capped chickadee fresh from its bath is drying itself out in the lilac bush, puffing out its breast feathers and shaking its wings.

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The black-capped chickadee, Parus atricapillus L., is in the tit family (Paridae). Tits are “small, plump, small-billed birds; acrobatic when feeding. Often roam in little bands. Sexes alike,” says Peterson. Though they may appear comical to us, I think chickadees probably take themselves fairly seriously: witness the strict hierarchy maintained within their winter-long foraging flocks. Witness also their tendency to act as scouts in larger, mixed-species flocks and around bird feeders. When they sound the tocsin, all the other birds freeze, and when they issue an all-clear signal, everyone goes back to feeding. They’re like the boy scouts of the bird world. I remember once when I was burning trash, three or four chickadees flying in as close as they could to scold the leaping flames.

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Black-capped chickadees are among the brainiest of songbirds. Their social structure is complex; non-breeding chickadees can have memberships in several different foraging flocks at the same time, with different positions in the dominance hierarchies of each. Their simple-sounding songs contain much more complexity than unaided human ears can detect, enabling the communication of quite detailed information. Most astonishing of all, perhaps, are their memories. Chickadees have been known to hoard a thousand seeds and dead insects each day, tucking them into knotholes, under loose pieces of bark, even up inside clusters of pine needles. And researchers have found that they can remember which item is stored where for at least a month. Think of it: 30,000 or more distinct caches within a home range of twenty to fifty acres in size. Not even the most obsessed of human geographers can ever hope to know a landscape in such intimate detail.

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What of their ecological niche? Chickadees are foragers and scavengers par excellance. They can digest carrion from a gut pile as easily as goldenrod seeds, spiders, or wild grapes. Specialized leg muscles permit the acrobatics for which they are justly famous, and these contortions enable the gleaning of food that other birds can’t get at. I also can’t help supposing that their year-round, life-long residence in an area, following juvenile dispersal, contributes to their ability to exploit all available resources. With much denser plumage than other species of a comparable size, they are well suited to the vagaries of a northern climate. Each fall, they grow a fresh set of feathers, and portions of their unusually large hippocampus – key to their prodigious memories – also regrow.

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Large brains; organization into small bands; physiological adaptations to permit scavenging in an array of habitats: we could almost be talking about Homo sapiens here. But a vanishingly small percentage of the human race retains any experience of what it might mean to become so local as to begin to resemble the very spirit of a place.

Con mi mano rodeo la nueva sombra del ala que crece:
la raí­z y la pluma que mañana formarán la espesura.

Neruda, Naciendo en los Bosques, Tercera Residencia – translation here

Losing control

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

               elsewhere

Start from the knowledge that control is lost. Here, now, I’ve lost it, I’m naked. Breathe that in.

*

So his front end leaps over curbs, and his back end stumbles, and he falls in the street. If he walked, he would be fine. He just doesn’t know how.

*

He gave us the look that he always gives when he has just found himself on the floor: Why did you guys put me here?

*

(Thought: [if] otter hell is the life of a three-toed sloth, then sloth hell must be the life of an otter?)

*

What if we can’t stop the suffering? How do we practice from that point?

*

Blogging is a strange affair. On the one hand, in my experience it can be an effective aspect of practice; on the other hand, it can easily slip into what the Pali texts call papanca: the proliferation of thoughts, spreading out in all directions, without any prospect of finding a limit. The trouble with papanca is that it begets further papanca, and this can go on forever.

*

It was a fifteen mile drive to the graveyard, and I was still in the thick of a torrential acid trip and an escalating storm. I took it slow. Driving while tripping on acid requires incredible concentration. You really have to squelch all distortions of your perceptions and see what is really there. Do or die. You have to focus on your motor skills and reactions, and also, there’s the fear. THE FEAR. Just the routine underlying fear that’s always there when you’re tripping on acid. You are in an alternative state of mind where you really can’t be sure whether every atom in your body will suddenly unravel and fly apart sending electrons spinning off into space with the release of such intense energy that your brain can’t even comprehend what the end is like . . . but . . . I made it out there. I stood there in an ice storm looking down at the graves of my mom and my brother. I was completely wasted.

*

Who knew there were such mysteries inherent in taking out the garbage? Who knew that a lemon peel was so central not only to my sense of self, but also in the binding of a contract that delimits myself in relation to others? Who knew that taking out the garbage was a form of reassurance that “for one more day I have been a producer of detritus and not detritus myself”?

*

Snow all the way into the distance: I feel like a man losing his sight. The world dims with snow.

*

Teetering nervously in the gateway of an unknown garden where I’ve ventured only a few times, in the extremes of love and fear and grief that I’ve mostly managed to avoid. Could I, dare I, come here more often?

Scraps from the scriptorium

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The morning starts out gray, dull as a stone in the driveway. “The stone is a mirror which works poorly,” Charles Simic once wrote. But mirrors of any kind bore me. They always give the same answer.

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The structure of the wood must influence how the bark beetles excavate their galleries, I think. Is this the tree’s calligraphy, or the insect’s? I pore over my images with the intensity of a Medieval monk.

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The sky starts to clear. Icicles formed by a waterfall’s spray dangle trumpet-shaped toes above the current.

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A swayback mare and her foal graze at the edge of a snowy pasture. The rusty trailer, too, was once a blank white.

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I spot a ribbon – the kind used to wrap presents – winding through the branches of a ridgetop oak. A balloon must’ve brought it here. The last blue scrap of it almost disappears into the sky.

Fecal matters

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I was fascinated by the Table of Contents for a book called Scatology, the Last Taboo: An Introduction to Fecal Matters in Early Modern Literature and Art, edited by by Jeff Persels and Russell Ganim:

The ‘Honorable Art of Farting’ in Continental Renaissance Literature
Barbara C. Bowen

‘The Wife Multiplies the Secret’ (AaTh 1381D): Some Fortunes of an Exemplary Tale
Geoffrey R. Hope

Dr. Rabelais and the Medicine of Scatology
David LaGuardia

‘The Mass and the Fart are Sisters’: Scatology and Calvinist Rhetoric Against the Mass, 1560-1563
Jeff Persels

Community, Commodities and Commodes in the French Nouvelle
Emily E. Thompson

Pissing Glass and the Body Crass: Adaptations of the Scatological in Théophile
Russell Ganim

Scatology as Political Protest: A ‘Scandalous’ Medal of Louis XIV
Jeanne Morgan Zarucchi

Foolectomies, Fool Enemas, and the Renaissance Anatomy of Folly
Glenn Ehrstine

Holy and Unholy Shit: The Pragmatic Context of Scatological Curses in Early German Reformation Satire
Josef Schmidt, with Mary Simon

Expelling from Top and Bottom: The Changing Role of Scatology in Images of Peasant Festivals from Albrecht Dürer to Pieter Bruegel
Alison G. Stewart

Tamburlaine’s Urine
Joseph Tate

‘The Wronged Breeches’: Cavalier Scatology
Peter J. Smith

From the Introduction:

Discussion of excrement is generally relegated to one of two extremes: the objective, clinical discourse of medical and social sciences (e.g., gastroenterology, psychology, anthropology) or the subjective, gross indecency of infantile insult or juvenile jest (e.g., South Park). The contributors to this volume reconsider this last taboo in the context of Early Modern European artistic and literate expression, addressing unflinchingly both the objective reality of the scatological as part and parcel of material culture – inescapably a much larger part, a much heavier parcel then than now – and the subjective experience of that reality among contemporaries.

If students of literature and the arts have hitherto and in the main been reluctant to tackle, or squeamish about addressing, scatology in earnest, a slowly growing number of recent works (e.g., Vigarello, Monestier, Inglis) have articulated for them and modeled, to varying degrees, socio-historical interpretations of excrement as process, product and experience. …

Evoking reactions of disgust and/or ribald delight, the texts and illustrations under examination unleash creative forces and responses that alter our perception of what the form and function of art actually are. Cultural suppression becomes subcultural revelation as what was once rejected as waste is now valued as inspiration. Or, rather, as at least one critic has likewise argued in a corrective to Bakhtin, the distinction between high and low culture, like the rejection and subsequent recuperation of waste, actually corresponds more to the way we have chosen to recover the past than to any real separation acknowledged among Rabelais’s contemporaries. As is the case in many of the Amerindians studied in Lévi-Strauss’s L’Homme nu, their excrement was always already useful, recyclable, both literally and figuratively; part of the effort of the following essays is to make that point.

If academic B.S. isn’t your style, a much more (ahem!) down-to-earth approach to excrement can be found in the Humanure Handbook. Its TOC includes such chapter titles as Crap Happens, Waste Not Want Not, Deep Sh*t, A Day in the Life of a Turd, The Tao of Compost, and The End is Near. According to the introduction, the author, Joseph Jenkins, had the rare honor of being censored by Howard Stern:

The Humanure Handbook … was roundly vilified on Howard Stern’s radio show where I was censored – twice! – for daring to utter words that no one must ever hear on the airwaves, including the “s” word (when I honestly asserted that one of Stern’s fake call-in people was “full of shit”). More surprisingly, however, Stern censored out the following statement I made during the interview: “I have composted all of my family’s humanure in my backyard for 20 years, and have grown a food garden with it the entire time.” These words were not allowed to reach the tender ears of Howard Stern’s audience. As soon as my interview was over, however, the listeners were instead titillated with playful songs about anal intercourse. Funny world, this. Funny creatures, humans.

High grade

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Let’s cut down all the big oaks and make some money! Maybe even enough to pay taxes for a decade or two. They’ll grow back… won’t they?

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You’ve heard of clearcutting. But these days, private land in the northeast is much more likely to be subjected to what’s called high-grading, usually defined as “taking the best and leaving the rest.” The results may not look too bad from a distance: the smaller and more deformed trees remain to give the illusion of a healthy forest. Cut-and-run loggers easily convince landowners – most of whom do want to do what’s best for nature, according to surveys – that the forest will come back better than ever, and that wildlife will prosper in the meantime. It isn’t true.

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Open up the forest canopy, and whistlewood, a.k.a. striped maple (Acer pensylvanicum), springs up quick as a whistle, prolific as the white-tailed deer – which, like most other wildlife species, find it unpalatable. So if the deer are too numerous, as they currently are in most parts of Penn’s Woods, a second high-grading follows the first. Sure, deer are beautiful. So is whistlewood. So are the people filling all the new housing subdivisions…

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Given a more balanced deer herd, the land responds to acts of rape by arming itself with thorns: blackberry, raspberry, greenbriar, wild rose, black locust, or – as here – devil’s walking-stick, a.k.a. Hercules’ club (Aralia spinosa). All these species live fast and die young, preparing the way for longer-lived species and beginning to restore the ravaged soil. Most, including the devil’s walking-stick, are a bonanza for wildlife; this is why small openings are a valuable part of the forested landscape. After those openings close, however, it will be decades before their new coterie of trees can equal that initial burst of wildlife food. A poletimber stand can be as barren as a desert.

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Tree-of-heaven (Ailanthus altissima) stretches green birds’ feet toward the sky. This Asian native often invades disturbed areas, spreading in clonal mats that crowd out and poison the competition – and poisons are the only real way to get rid of it. Tree-of-heaven snaps easily, giving off a cloying, peanut-brittle odor, and easily re-sprouts. One secret to its success: the huge masses of wind-borne seeds, which, since they don’t need the help of wildlife, don’t provide much nutrition. Its “heaven” is the fundamentalist missionary’s pie in the sky, stealing all the sun from what’s left of those heathen oaks.

Claiming the Body

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Body
of work
you make my heart race

body of evidence
weighed
wanting

body of knowledge
errata

body of the report
here comes
the red pen

governing body
hold me

body of water
hold me
up

body count
deadening
you overwhelm

body image
upside-down in the lens

body in motion
you rest
at a constant speed

body of Christ
one size
fits all

body of missing pilot
missing
missing

body of a Venus
elastic
full of give

body work
everything
comes into play

body art
thou.
__________

See also Chant for the Summit of the World Body

Adventures in eating

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

I’ve always been intrigued by a rival to Spam that sits next to it on the supermarket shelves here. It’s called Potted Meat Food Product.

“Hey Dad, what’s for dinner?”

“Potted Meat Food Product, kids! With Tater Tots on the side and Hostess Ding-Dongs for dessert.”

When I was a kid, my parents were pretty poor, though we generally ate whole grains and other health foods, as they called them then. But on rare occasions, Mom would serve scrapple for supper, and we always regarded it as a special treat. It’s scary to think that there are probably families out there that have a similar relationship with Spam.

*

“Health foods”: what does it say about our culture than this is not a redundant phrase? Or take its more popular successor, “natural foods.” I always picture the Far Side cartoon with the hunchbacked guy walking into an Unnatural Foods store.

In twelve years of public schooling, my mother saw to it that I never had to eat from the cafeteria. Somehow she managed to put on a full breakfast for us every morning, pack four lunches (which always included my Dad’s thermos of homemade soup), and get us out the door in time to meet Dad’s 7:15 carpool. Just thinking about it makes me tired.

Our packed lunches were met with bafflement by the other kids. To them, we ate “shit-bread and birdseed,” whole-wheat bread and trail mix being basically unknown then except to those who shopped in health-food stores or baked their own bread, as we did. We also raised chickens, so Mom always included a hard-boiled egg in our lunches. I don’t think the supermarkets carried brown eggs then, either. You can probably imagine the offensive racial epithet some of the kids applied to our eggs.

There was no way to eat a banana in a school cafeteria without provoking a scene of high hilarity, every boy in the vicinity grabbing at his crotch and emitting howls of pretend agony with each bite. It was always a challenge to ignore this scene and stoically finish off the banana, resisting the temptation to make rude suggestions in return. Fortunately, Mom packed apples and oranges much more often.

*

We raised a pair of pigs every year for three years in the late 70s, but never made our own scrapple. I’m not sure why, since with all the cornmeal in it, scrapple definitely qualifies as a health food. Mom did make head cheese in a burst of enthusiasm the first year, 1976. The pigs were named Jimmy and Fritz, and we ate their brains.

We boys had lots of fun with the electric fence that Dad put up around the pig pasture. Whenever we were bored, we took turns grabbing and letting go of the wire as quickly as we could. The first person to get zapped by a pulse of electricity was the loser. And of course whenever we had company, we had to initiate the other boys into the mysteries of the magic fence. One female cousin became an inadvertent and decidedly unhappy initiate, too, as I recall.

The pigs came in for a little bit of testing themselves, after they got big and mean. One year Mom tried a new pickle recipe in which hot peppers were a major ingredient. She mixed it up in a 15-gallon ceramic crock that sat in the corner of the kitchen, and we pitched in a lot of green tomatoes, cucumbers and sweet peppers. The longer they sat, the hotter they got, until at last even my little brother Mark, the most masochistic of us all, couldn’t eat them any more. You can probably see where this is going. One day when the parents were both away, we fed some of the pickles to the pigs, handing them in through the fence – “Here, pig pig pig!” – and being careful not to lose any fingers in the process.

The pigs reacted in seconds, emitting high-pitched squeals – shrieks, really – and I swear to God, their curly-cue tails stuck straight out behind them. They raced frantically around the pasture, then shoved their snouts into the dirt and rooted for all they were worth. We justified it as self-defense; they definitely kept their distance after that.

The conventional wisdom then was that parents shouldn’t let their kids name their animals if they were destined for slaughter, but it never fazed us. In fact, I think it was healthy, in a way, to know that the meat on our plates came from a being that had had a name and a distinct personality. We all shared responsibility for its death. We had a history with our food, whether it was tomatoes grown from seed or pork raised from piglets we had bought in the spring. It was about as far from Potted Meat Food Product as you could get.

Firmament

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And God said, Let there be a fimament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.

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And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.

The hole in the lawn

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Sleep is finished with me before I am finished with sleep. Isn’t that just typical? I pick up the book I was looking at last night before my eyelids grew heavy, and notice that the words have burned little bare marks in the page’s snow. The sun that shines on the other side of the earth must’ve shone here, too, breaking through leaden clouds. And me lying unconscious all the while, my mind diverting itself with silent movies, with lantern slides. I woke at 1:00 and shuffled into the bathroom, trying to hold on to whatever I had just been dreaming about, so that I might remember it in the morning, but I ended up focusing instead on my effort to focus. Can the motion of the will ever take the place of genuine knowledge? I don’t mean that irritable reaching after fact and reason that Keats maligned, but the shoeless standing-in-the-presence-of, the empty-handed having-without-holding.

Before returning to my book this morning, though, I have to indulge my habit of sitting outside in the dark, where everything happens in the usual minor key: the water gurgling in the ditch, the wind blowing, the faint noise of the highway from over the ridge. A dusting of new snow makes the darkness visible. Usually around this time I get to hear and faintly see the porcupine making his way home to his burrow, but this morning he surprises me, emerging from under the porch and shuffling across the yard toward his favorite elm.

I had just been thinking about the silliness of so many contemporary writers, their sleight-of-hand substitution of pretend epiphanies for a postmodernist relativism. But we live in a culture of the climax, don’t we? The writers are no different from the sex addicts or the ravers, who are simply the most open about what almost everyone has been conditioned to desire: an endless and irreversible peak experience that we can suckle on like a child’s pacifier. What good is God or enlightenment if it can’t be known the way Adam knew Eve, if you can’t see it, touch it, dwell in it until ecstasy becomes your second nature and that prickly neurotic fellow who had usurped your good name is banished to the outer darkness? Until one day when a true ex-stasis occurs – and it is simply jarring or disorienting, not at all euphorogenic. Maybe you are beside yourself with grief, to the point where you treasure every dull glimmer of ordinary life the way someone shipwrecked on a desert island might make a collection of what, under other circumstances, he would regard as so much trash.

A porcupine leaves little pieces of itself here and there throughout the woods; if the quills didn’t come out easily, what good would they be? One afternoon last October, I was walking along one of our old woods roads with my head down, woolgathering as usual, when a small clump of porcupine needles caught my eye. I knelt down to examine them, as if I were a tracker or something. I heard a slight rustle behind me and turned. There right on the other side of the trail was the porcupine himself, or herself. S/he then turned her back to me and raised her quills, in the process showing me her pale butt. Then chattering her teeth she moved slowly off through the woods.

This obviously wasn’t an epiphany in any normal sense of the world. I didn’t come away with any profound new understanding of anything, though I was grateful for such a direct, even rude challenge to my normal self-centeredness. Like many wildlife encounters, it was humbling and a little unsettling – not exactly what most people mean by a peak experience.

So this morning the porcupine comes out right when I am expecting him to go in. On his way to the elm, he blunders into the little circle of fencing I put up last spring to protect a volunteer apple seedling. He circles the fence, then pauses over a shallow hole in the middle of the lawn where one can hear the stream flowing under four feet of rocky fill. What’s he doing, I wonder? It’s too dark to tell. He stays motionless there for more than a minute as if listening, as if trying to recall.

***

Just as I finish writing the above paragraphs, my mom walks in the door. “Hey, you want a good picture? There’s a young porcupine down in the hollow, in the big hemlock tree right before you get to the Waterthrush Bench.”

Half an hour later, it’s still there, chewing away. It doesn’t seem to be in any hurry.

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