Hot off the presses

Two bloggers I read have new books out. Rachel Barenblat of Velveteen Rabbi has published a 24-page chapbook of her chaplain poems, chaplainbook, under the new Laupe House imprint. And Fred First of Fragments from Floyd has published Slow Road Home: A Blue Ridge Book of Days with his Goose Creek Press imprint. Congratulations to both authors! I take inspiration not only from their well-crafted words, but also from their example. Self-published, cooperatively published and print-on-demand books seem like a natural extension of the blogging ethos.


Speaking of natural extensions, I’ve just adapted Smorgasblog to fit my sidebar – scroll down past the Archives. The sidebar template had no problem with the HTML; it was a simple copy-and-paste job, sparing me the trouble of actually learning the language the blog template is written in (PHP), at least for now.

Links added since my last Smorgasblog update include: Numenius of Feathers of Hope on Vandana Shiva; Dick Jones on friendships between bloggers; Rachel Barenblatt on coming to terms with Jewish concepts of “purity” and “impurity”; Jarrett Walker on Jane Jacobs; a Nigerian commenter at the cassandra pages on Wole Soyinka; Patry Francis on equanimity; and Rexroth’s Daughter on being crabby. Check it out!

The way things are

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It’s right there in front of you, that Shangri-La, that eternal spring.

I mean, how else would it keep finding its way into your camera? You click the shutter thinking that you’re taking a picture of one thing, and hours later when you look at the results, you see something more, like those double-exposed pictures that the Victorians tried to pass off as photographs of ghosts.

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“I have a similar train of thought at peak of each season,” says the sylph, “a desire to stop the world for a geologic minute, a general sadness that it will pass.” Me too.

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But the passage itself is so beautiful: that way-making, that semi-conscious inscription of memories in nerve-map and neural net, in slowly fraying muscle, in thinning bone. Heraclitus’ river, the one you can’t step into twice? Why not say that it is reborn each moment, like any stream or spring? The Indians of La Florida – the flowering land – didn’t lie when they told Ponce de Leon about a fountain of eternal youth. They couldn’t know that he would put a self-centered spin on it.

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six-spotted tiger beetle

In my camera’s Shangri-La, green tigers stalk the numerous descendents of those wasps who long ago fell to earth and lost their wings. Birth alternates with death and joy with suffering, as in any divine comedy; only those for whom all distinction between individual and tribal existence is meaningless can escape death. And these immortals – too small to be glimpsed except through the finest optics – are running the show.

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Welcome to planet Earth.


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black-and-white warbler

“The descent beckons,” wrote Dr. Williams in his great poem about the Paterson Falls. Why do I think of this now, in spring – the very name of which conjures up such images of upwelling and resurrection? Persephone has returned from the underworld, and in spring the young man’s fancy turns lightly, they say, to thoughts of love. But then why do we hear about so many boys with guns and bombs, their resentments turned to rage? As the earth thaws, it gaps open, and many find their gaze drawn downward.

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Solomon’s seal

Many of the most emblematic wildflowers open toward the ground, a posture presumably intended to attract insect pollinators. Solomon’s seal is famous for its dangling row of blossoms, but even the first sprouts have a certain air of ascetic contemplation – a kind of inwardness. One of my favorite wildflowers – which unfortunately doesn’t grow here in the hollow – is wild ginger, which buries its reddish-brown flower in the leaf duff. I’ve come to prize the spicy flavor of its dried roots even more than Asian ginger for flavoring homebrewed ale and mead.

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wild oats

With the onset of summer, rayed and umbeliferous flowers will abound. But in the light-drenched woods of spring, flowers nod sleepily. If – as the botanical term campanulate suggests – they resemble bells, they are bells without clappers. Others hide their sexual faces inside tubes, under hoods, or in mute trumpets.

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Sit near a patch of blossoming lowbush blueberries, and you’ll soon see the attraction they have for wasps and bees, which swarm in to drink from their over-turned cups. These bells may not ring, but they certainly can buzz!

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The blueberries grow in a small powerline right-of-way that’s almost a hundred years old. The human-maintained scrub oak barren there is a unique habitat for our end of the mountain, and we often wonder whether it harbors any rare species. I was busy snapping pictures of the rasta-like flowers of scrub oak the other day when I spotted this meloid, or blister beetle. I showed the picture to my brother Steve, and he immediately got excited. In over thirty years of collecting beetles on the mountain, he said, he’d never seen this species.

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Of course, that may simply be because he doesn’t tend to do a lot of collecting this time of year; the real insect biodiversity bonanza doesn’t begin for at least another month. It may also be that these beetles are common in the canopies of other oaks also flowering now, 80-100 feet off the ground. But this morning, we combed the scrub oaks on the powerline and only found two individuals from this species. Even more surprising, Steve couldn’t find it in his favorite beetle guide. Sure, beetle species are much too numerous to include more than a representative sample in any given book, but it seems odd that something so large and showy wouldn’t have made the cut.

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As I watched, this one eventually turned head-down to match the inflorescence. Steve told me that many meloids are naturally uncommon, and some are quite interesting. As is often the case with brightly colored critters, blister beetles can be quite toxic. They secrete an oily substance from their joints called catharidin, which does cause blisters for some people. Nevertheless, when disturbed, this beetle’s reaction was to drop like a stone and disappear into the leaf litter. “That’s not an uncommon reaction among pollinating beetles,” Steve said.

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So clearly, there are all kinds of practical reasons to be geotropic. The danger with spring, as I mentioned the day before yesterday, is that the real heart of it will be overlooked in our feverish anticipation of more sun. “The descent / made up of despairs / and without accomplishment / realizes a new awakening : / which is a reversal / of despair,” wrote Williams. “For what we cannot accomplish, what / is denied to love, / what we have lost in the anticipation – / a descent follows, endless and indestructible .”

This website under attack by the U.S. Congress

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If the telecommunications companies and their allies in the U.S. Congress have their way, the bum’s cynical prophecy could soon come true. “The wide and unbounded Internet could soon be fenced in by cable and phone firms. Higher prices and less choice may lie ahead under a misguided bill moving forward in Congress,” says the San Francisco Chronicle. The New Yorker spells it out:

Until recently, companies that provided Internet access followed a de-facto commoncarriage rule, usually called “network neutrality,” which meant that all Web sites got equal treatment. Network neutrality was considered so fundamental to the success of the Net that Michael Powell, when he was chairman of the F.C.C., described it as one of the basic rules of “Internet freedom.” In the past few months, though, companies like A.T. & T. and BellSouth have been trying to scuttle it. In the future, Web sites that pay extra to providers could receive what BellSouth recently called “special treatment,” and those that don’t could end up in the slow lane. One day, BellSouth customers may find that, say, loads a lot faster than, and that the sites BellSouth favors just seem to run more smoothly. Tiered access will turn the providers into Internet gatekeepers.

Fortunately, big Internet companies such as Google and Yahoo are being joined by political advocacy groups from across the political spectrum in opposing this assault on network neutrality. Here’s what’s at stake, according to

If Congress abandons Network Neutrality, who will be affected?

  • Advocacy groups like MoveOn–Political organizing could be slowed by a handful of dominant Internet providers who ask advocacy groups to pay “protection money” for their websites and online features to work correctly.
  • Nonprofits–A charity’s website could open at snail-speed, and online contributions could grind to a halt, if nonprofits can’t pay dominant Internet providers for access to “the fast lane” of Internet service.
  • Google users–Another search engine could pay dominant Internet providers like AT&T to guarantee the competing search engine opens faster than Google on your computer.
  • Innovators with the “next big idea”–Startups and entrepreneurs will be muscled out of the marketplace by big corporations that pay Internet providers for dominant placing on the Web. The little guy will be left in the “slow lane” with inferior Internet service, unable to compete.
  • Ipod listeners–A company like Comcast could slow access to iTunes, steering you to a higher-priced music service that it owned.
  • Online purchasers–Companies could pay Internet providers to guarantee their online sales process faster than competitors with lower prices–distorting your choice as a consumer.
  • Small businesses and tele-commuters–When Internet companies like AT&T favor their own services, you won’t be able to choose more affordable providers for online video, teleconferencing, Internet phone calls, and software that connects your home computer to your office.
  • Parents and retirees–Your choices as a consumer could be controlled by your Internet provider, steering you to their preferred services for online banking, health care information, sending photos, planning vacations, etc.
  • Bloggers–Costs will skyrocket to post and share video and audio clips–silencing citizen journalists and putting more power in the hands of a few corporate-owned media outlets.

I’ve been blogging at least six days a week for two and a half years now, and I have never asked my readers for a penny. But now I’m asking all Via Negativa readers who are U.S. citizens to please sign the MoveOn petition.

For maximum impact, call or write your congresscritter directly (find his/her contact information here). I’ll share my own letter to my Republican congressman as soon as I receive his response. Note that the automatic email page also displays the contact information for your representative’s local office(s), if you want to save money on a toll call. Thanks!

UPDATE (8:00 p.m.): To stay abreast of developments on this issue, bookmark Save the Despite losing the committee vote to preserve network neutrality today, they report that

There’s a white hot firestorm on the issue on Capitol Hill. No one wants to see the telcos make a radical change to the internet and screw this medium up, except, well, the telcos. And now members of Congress are listening to us. The telcos have spent hundreds of millions of dollars and many years lobbying for their position; we launched four days ago, and have closed a lot of ground. Over the next few months, as the public wakes up, we’ll close the rest of it.

High spring

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New growth sprouts from an old nest, signaling as well as anything can that we’ve entered that magic time I call high spring. The daffodils are fading, the banks of forsythia are in the last throes of blooming, and the first cohort of wild blossoms – shadbush, spicebush, coltsfoot, hepatica – are shedding their petals. The leaves of birches and black cherries are just beginning to open, turning the ridge to the west a pale green, while the oaks are in blossom all up and down the ridge above my house, giving it a yellow-green wash. Red maples, sugar maples and tulip poplars provide pastel splashes of red and green.

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Wild sweet cherry trees – legacy of a long-gone orchard – glow white along the edge of the field in the early morning sun. Down in the hollow, purple trillium (A.K.A. wake robin) is in bloom, and Solomon’s seal and yellow mandarin are just at the point of flowering. Black cohosh, wild sarsaparilla, and a host of ferns unclench their insurrectionary green fists.

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wild sarsaparilla

Almost every day brings a new birdsong: last Thursday, the black-throated green warblers were back in force. Friday afternoon, I heard weeza-weeza-weeza from inside at my writing desk and bounded out the door with my camera, but was too slow with the focus to get a shot of the first black-and-white warbler calling among the last blossoms of the ornamental cherry next to my porch. Yesterday morning, at around quarter to six, I heard a whippoorwill sing a few phrases of its namesake song from about a quarter-mile away (which is just about the distance and duration I prefer, actually). Later in the day, I watched a pair of Louisiana waterthrushes courting in the branches of a black birch above the now-roaring Plummer’s Hollow Run.

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rue anemone

A weekend of hard rain has eased the fire danger I alluded to last week. Water streams from the mountain’s every pore, and it’s a real pleasure to sit outside at first light and listen to the birds tune up against a background of running water. This morning, one of those songs made my heart leap: wood thrush! But not, I’m sorry to say, an especially gifted member of the tribe. I don’t know if he grew up next to a busy highway, and thus was unable to learn the full nuances of his species’ song (a documented phenomenon, by the way), or was simply too tired from the migration to give it his all, but this was a bare-bones version of that famous thrush call.

But I’m sure there will be more thrushes – possibly as early as this evening. And it served as a reminder to me to get out more often and listen for the other thrush species, which sometimes sing on migration. In past years, I’ve been lucky enough to hear both veerys and hermit thrushes, and once, about five years ago, a Swainson’s thrush – far outside its normal breeding range – sang through most of June at one spot down in the hollow.

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rattlesnake fern

I was happy when temperatures got cooler over the weekend. To my mind, spring is best when it is long and slow, though I know a lot of people who seem to regard the season primarily as foreplay to summer. Some years, it stays cold through late April, and then an early heat wave makes the flowers leap into bloom, the trees leaf out and the songbirds return from the tropics all in a rush – a southern spring. My parents traveled to Arkansas last month, and were confounded to see hepaticas blooming alongside wild geraniums. I’m sure it’s all in what you’re used to, but to them, it just didn’t seem right. Spring should come gradually, almost imperceptibly at first. Not for nothing did Aaron Copland set his ballet Appalachian Spring in Western Pennsylvania; there’s a kind of choreography to spring arrivals and blooming dates here in the north, a certain order and cadence that’s practically synonymous with spring in the minds of most northeasterners. As in any dance composition, there are many high points along the way, as buds burst in mid-air and flowers relax into nascent fruit. High spring, as I conceive of it, climaxes in mid to late May, when the pink and yellow lady’s-slippers bloom. By then, all the trees except for walnuts and locusts have fully leafed out, but insects and air pollution have yet to diminish that first, fresh, startling green.

Introducing Smorgasblog

Via Negativa just had a baby: Smorgasblog. Go look.

I’ll be updating Smorgasblog on a weekly basis, and posting reminders here. It will have its own archives, but no comments feature. I strongly encourage readers to click through and read the original posts, and leave comments there if they feel so moved.

In a nutshell

An empty half-walnut shell lay
upturned on the verandah.
The wren fluttered down
& poked at it with his bill,
hopping all around it
in his big clown feet.

The black walnut half
had two large openings
like holes in a round kayak.
The wren probed one
& then the other, leaving nothing
to chance.

It was time for tea on the verandah,
but nobody came.
The wren flew off.
The walnut shell rocked a few times
& was still, riding high
without ballast
through the long afternoon.


Black walnut (Juglans nigra) produces much harder nuts than the familiar white or English walnut. Its nutmeat is also much tangier – an acquired taste.

The wren here is the Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus). The poem came out of direct observation, but was also influenced by the poem “The Hollow Walnut,” by the great Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral (translated by Maria Giachetti in Gabriela Mistral: A Reader, White Pine Press, 1993).

Hug this

Earth Day is ycomen in,
Loude sing hippie!
Groweth hoke and bloweth smoke
And springeth self-righteous glee.
Sing hippie!

(with apologies to my old friend Anonymous)

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For last year’s Earth Day post, see here.


The scarab was in a world of shit. He took to it like a horse to water. “You can lead a fish to water, but you can’t make him blink,” he was fond of saying. He was happy as a pig in mud.

The scarab put his best face backward in order to keep a running tally of his progress, which was a matter of degrees – especially since he was in graduate school. Shit doesn’t just happen; you have to work at it. He covered all the bases, so typically he never got beyond the first date. All work and no play makes Johnny a very inept lover, the female beetles decided. Especially if he cares more about his stinkin’ piece-of-shit job than he does about you.

So he gradually backed himself into a corner, and that’s where the Egyptian priest found him. He said something cryptic and walled the scarab in with a few gold bricks. Ah, the irony! He had the balls of a brass monkey, and offered them to the scarab, but all the scarab wanted was to keep his shit together. He didn’t give a you-know-what about old world charm.

The gods must be crazy; that is their chief qualification. Whenever clients come seeking answers to life’s little dilemmas, the priest will place two steaming piles of dung in front of the scarab and study his reaction. “Holy shit!” the scarab invariably mutters to himself. “Holy shit!”

Fire danger

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Spring azure butterflies mate among the dry leaves on the forest floor. With the fire danger so high, the faintest rustle calls for a closer look.


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The red-tailed hawk lies headless in the woods. Think of it, that hooked beak passing harmlessly through some scavenger’s belly…


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All the while we eat our picnic lunch, shadows of water striders glide over the bottom of the creek like six-spotted dice. Just as we finish, fifty feet away, a limb crashes down.


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Sunlight floods the forest in April as at no other time of year. The sun arcs as high above the horizon as in August, but almost nothing is in leaf. So each blossoming shadbush stands just within view of the next – a situation no doubt intended more for the benefit of insects than for us.

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Spicebush stands in wet clay, opening miniature replicas of the sun.


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The blush on the ridgeside deepens as the red maples set their winged seed.


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Though poised for fight rather than flight, the buck’s antlers were wings of a sort, too. Warm temperatures and a shrinking creek draw vultures, and one lifts off at our approach. Did I really hear, or merely imagine, a momentary clash of tines and pinions?