Hepaticas for Beth

“Hepatica,” said Beth: “probably my favorite flower of all.” I’m beginning to see what she means.

I don’t have time to write today, so these pictures will have to suffice.

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Listening to the thrasher

Dawn. The third-quarter moon is setting through the branches of the flowering cherry by the side of my front porch. I’m up a little later than usual, and the brown thrasher has proceeded me, improvising rhyming couplets since first light.

If you’ve never heard a thrasher in full throat, you may think I’m exaggerating, but it’s true. Researchers have documented the thrasher’s ability to improvise over two thousand unique phrases in one session – and I mean unique to a human ear, not (as with so many songbirds) only discernible through a sonograph. The thrasher is a close relative of the gray catbird and the mockingbird, so if you’ve ever heard either of those birds, you have a pretty good idea of the tone quality and range of sounds available to a thrasher. But as I said, the thrasher tends to sing in rhyming couplets – in other words, to repeat almost every phrase once before going on to the next.

This pattern not only assures identification, but produces a very pleasing effect. The lines are all approximately the same length – very short – but the variation in pitch and melody between couplets, and the bird’s habit of mixing things up with occasional three-line and one-line phrases, sustains my interest as a listener almost indefinitely. Since the thrasher is also a bit of a satirist, it’s fun to listen for echoes of other birds’ songs or calls; this morning, I was surprised by a brief snatch of whip-poor-will.

The Spanish poet Miguel Hernandez once declared that “The lemon tree in my garden is a bigger influence on my work than all the poets together.” I’m tempted to make a similar statement about songbirds such as the wood thrush and brown thrasher. While the former models lyric concision and allegiance to a single, elegiac mood, the latter makes me hunger for virtuoso displays of craft and wit.


Speaking of virtuoso displays of craft and wit, I’ve just finished an excellent book-length poem that I picked up at the used bookstore last week: Song of Lawino, by Okot p’Bitek. I hadn’t heard of the work or the author before, but it looked good, and I’m a bit of a collector when it comes to poetry. I didn’t have anything from Uganda yet, and this looked like a good place to start.

Turns out that Song of Lawino is one of the most famous works of postcolonial East African literature. What really turned me on, though, is that the whole thing – over 200 pages in the author’s English translation – is in one of my favorite poetic forms, dramatic monologue. Lawino is a very tradition-minded woman from the Acholi society, a Luo-speaking, Nilotic people of northern Uganda. Her song – which, according to the Wikipedia, was based solidly on traditional Acholi verse forms – is a satirical lament for her husband’s abandonment of traditional values and customs in favor of what she sees as a shallow aping of European practices. Though translated into free verse, apparently the original does consist of metrical, rhyming couplets. The author was educated in Britain as an ethnographer, and published scholarly works on religion and collections of proverbs as well as the several book-length poems which – if Song of Lawino is any indication – showcase his insider/outsider knowledge of his native culture very well.

The poem veers from sincere-sounding lament to scatology and denunciation, all employing the praise-proverb mode familiar to any fan of traditional African poetry. Like Don Quixote, or Jaroslav Hasek’s Schweik, Lawino herself remains something of a cipher. Is she really as clueless as she maintains, for example, when she declares, “I am ignorant of the Good Word in the Clean Book”? But as with Schweik, the pretence of ignorance provides an excellent cover for the author’s sly critques. I was particularly struck by the sense of how the Protestant and Catholic missionaries’ teachings might have sounded to a traditional Acholi.

We sang the Faith of the Messengers
Like parrots,
I did not understand it at all!
I thought about it
In my own head
But I could get nowhere,
And there was nobody
To turn to.
The Padre and the Nun are the same,
They only quarrel
They are angry with me
As if it was I
Who prevented them marrying.
To them
The good children
Are those
Who ask no questions, who accept everything
Like the tomb
Which does not reject
Even a dead leper!
Who accept everything
Like the rubbish pit,
Like the pit-latrine
Which does not reject
Even dysentery.
[ . . . ]
We recited
The Faith of the Messengers
Like the yellow birds
In the lajanawara grass
The teacher shouted
As if half-mad
And we shouted back:
I accept the Hunchback
The Padre who is very strong
Moulder of Skyland and Earth…

“Hunchback,” incidentally, is how Lawino understands the focus of the missionaries’ petitions because, as a footnote in a section on traditional versus modern medicine informs us, “The name of the Christian God in Lwo is Rubanga. This is also the name of the ghost that causes tuberculosis of the spine.”

Song of Lawino is not an epic or narrative poem; the arrangement is thematic, though almost every section does contain stories. Lawino’s complaints seem believable in the sense that it is very easy to believe in her as a character – a proud, all-but-discarded first wife of an ambitious man who is embarrassed by her. One does sense that her complaints are frequently hyperbolic, as in her description of the utter foulness of the public restrooms for a modern dance hall, which might make even Rabelais blush.

The stench from the urinal is thick!
It hits your nose
Like a blow,
Like the horn of a bull rhino!
You choke,
Your throat pains sharply
You get out quick
And shout a curse!
You meet a big woman
She staggers toward you
And leans on the wall
And before she unties her dress
She is already pissing;
She forces out the urine
As if she has syphilis.
The stench from the latrine
Knocks you down from afar!
It is as if you have entered
Into a lion’s mouth.
The smell of Jeyes
And the smell of dung
Rise to the roof
The entire floor
Is covered with human dung
All the tribes of human dung!
Dry dungs and dysentery
Old dungs and fresh dungs
Young ones that are still steaming,
Short thick dungs
Sitting like hills,
Snake-like dungs
Coiled up like pythons.
Little ones just squatting there,
Big ones lying on their sides
Like tree trunks.
Some dungs are red like ocher
Others are yellow
Like the ripe mango,
Like inside a ripe pawpaw.
Others are black like soil,
Like the soil we use for smearing the floor.
Some dungs are of mixed colors!
Vomit and urine flow by
And on the walls
They clean their anus.
And there are writings
On the walls
With knives.

Another one of my favorite sections contrasts Western and Acholi conceptions of time. Lawino’s husband has bought a clock, which Lawino admits “Is a great source of pride / And beautiful to see,” but the idea of adapting life’s daily rhythms to its metronome strikes her as absurd.

Time has become
My husband’s master
It is my husband’s husband.
My husband rushes from place to place
Like a small boy,
He rushes without dignity.
And when visitors have arrived
My husband’s face darkens,
He never asks you in,
And for greeting
He says
“What can I do for you?”


I do not know
How to keep the white man’s time.
My mother taught me
The way of the Acoli
And nobody should
Shout at me
Because I know
The customs of our people!
When the baby cries
Let him suck milk
From the breast.
There is no fixed time
For breast feeding.

Lawino was a success both in Uganda, in the Luo version, and internationally when the English version was published in 1966. According to the Wikipedia, it was even translated a second time into English, as The Defence of Lawino, by the Ugandan writer Taban Lo Liyong. I was delighted by the serendipity that brought it, and p’Bitek, to my attention.


Speaking of serendipity, just as I started Song of Lawino, I chanced on an article in the Christian Science Monitor that made me wonder if Ugandans might not possess a particular genius for inspired misreadings of Western cultural artifacts. As with Song of Lawino, some popular movies might have alternate translations from dueling “veejays.” These improvisational, voice-over translators/commentators are apparently creating a whole new oral art form in Uganda. Some have already become local superstars, and their fame is beginning to spread beyond the country’s borders as they experiment with taped, Swahili versions of their interpretations.

“Veejaying” is now a central form of local entertainment. But the art involves much more than translation. Part sports announcer, part street preacher, part comedian, a veejay must fill in cultural gaps and keep the audience engaged, which – for many veejays – often means taking considerable creative license.

The video jockey is an offshoot of the distinctly home-grown phenomenon of the video hall. Makeshift shacks commonly made of plywood and tin sheeting, they function as the main form of cinema for the Ugandan masses, most of whom cannot afford theater tickets or rentals of pirated DVDs.

Video halls mushroomed around the country in the mid-1980s, when a measure of relative peace and prosperity made copies of foreign movies more accessible. But since most of their patrons did not speak English well, owners brought in translators, who usually sat near the TV set, ideally with a microphone.

Well-known names include VJ Ron, who is known for his intricate translations of detective thrillers, and the Love Doctor, who specializes in romantic dramas and comedies.

Jingo, as his public knows him, is most noted for his cheeky renditions of American action films in Luganda, the local tongue. Hand grenades might become passion fruits in a Jingo translation; characters played by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis evoke proverbs about crocodiles and chickens.

One of the most effective things about Song of Lawino is the dramatic situation itself: the narrator begins by describing her husband’s frequent, harsh denunciations of her – “My husband’s tongue is fierce like the arrow of the scorpion” – before launching into her fierce counter-attack. Apparently, Ugandan veejays also fight against strong cross-currents of criticism. Echoing Lawino’s cultural conservatism, “Some church groups and other conservative outfits here complain that the video halls and veejays are polluting the minds of Africans with the sex and violence of American mass culture.” And according to an accompanying article for the “Reporters on the Job” column, the main veejay interviewed for the story expects criticism from Westerners for the liberties he takes with the films.

“In Kampala, everyone knows [VeeJay] Jingo. At first, he didn’t understand why I would be interested to know about the changes to the plot, and the local references that were peppered throughout each movie,” says Rachel [Scheier]. “Eventually, he told me about working in at least half-a-dozen references to a Ugandan opposition leader, who had just lost the presidential election, into a banal thriller about an airline pilot. He was reluctant because he figured I would criticize his changes.”

Later, Rachel went to Jingo’s trading center to see him veejay live. “I took along an interpreter to translate his interpretation back to me in English. It took a while, but I finally got it. Veejaying isn’t really about translation; it’s about making something completely new, something uniquely Ugandan.”

“The ways of your ancestors / Are good,” Lawino tells her husband, presumably echoing p’Bitek’s own views. “They are not thin, not easily breakable.” I can’t help thinking p’Bitek would be pleased by this new evidence that Ugandan wordsmiths will not only resist but actively transform the tidal waves of cultural influences from abroad. I wish them great success in exporting this model. In time, even a hidebound poet in the benighted North may learn how to become a more active and creative listener.

Three short poems to inaugurate a new pocket notebook

climbing into
each other’s sky
circling crying


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above the road bank where
the hepatica has just come into bloom,
the corpse of a porcupine

carrion beetles clamber
through the quills

butterflies cluster on what’s left of its mouth
a hole spanned by the long, curved
railings of its teeth

& down below, the pale blue blossoms
swaying on their stems

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On Easter morning, I took a plastic
envelope of ale yeast from the refrigerator,
placed it on the floor, & brought all
my weight down on it
to break open the enclosed packet of nutrients.
Within hours, the envelope had swollen up
like a sheep’s stomach
with afflatus from the resurrected yeast.

Now I will feed it malt & honey
& bitter herbs. It will pass
this brew through its multitudinous body
& turn it into beer.
The empty tombs of its spent cells
will drift to the bottom of the bottle’s
brown sea.

Time Lapse with Tess Gallagher

a symmetry of doubt with us
at the center
– Tess Gallagher, “Time Lapse with Tulips”

By the end of the reading it seems natural, this twinning
of incandescent phrase & florescent face.
A female poet must acknowledge the physical
in a way the male poet need not, I suppose,
& Gallagher goes for the aesthetic of surprise, inclining
as if into a strong wind to welcome our applause,
that violent travesty of prayer.

Would she take questions? She would.
And me with my hand over my head, a-twitch
with a question of such naive-sounding sincerity
everyone will laugh, afraid to let our visitor think
we might all be so simple. But she will go ahead
& answer in the same spirit.

There might have been a bouquet in the interim –
roses, carnations, something from
the florist down the street. It all went by so quickly.
It might have been April, the storm drains
suddenly plastered with petals, white, red.

Good Friday moment

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I suppose people who were raised Christian can remember the first time they learned about the crucifixion, and what effect that had upon them as a child. For me, I think the real end of innocence was when I found out that we are killing the earth, that even the weather is no longer completely natural. This is an appalling fact, and it’s easy to understand why so many people would prefer to believe otherwise. No one wants to admit that we are capable of geocide, just as no Christian wants to admit that if Jesus were alive today, they would probably join the crowd baying for his crucifixion.

Stabat mater dolorosa
iuxta crucem lacrimosa
dum pendebat filius…

Words as drugs

The versatile Abdul-Walid of Acerbia has posted two translations from the Yoruba at oncaesura. As long-time readers may remember, I have a special fondness for Yoruba folk poetry and Ifa divination hymns, especially as translated by Ulli Beier in a couple of long out-of-print volumes. Though inevitably much of the word-play and musical effects of the originals don’t come through in translation, the vivid imagery and often vatic tone still make for arresting poems in English.

Abdul-Walid translates a pair of traditional incantations (ofo) by an herbalist (onisegun), along with a simplified transcription that allows one to appreciate some of the sounds of the original without the usual mess of diacritical marks to indicate the tones of the syllables. The first is An incantation to tranquilize the afflicted; the second (in order of performance) is An incantation to calm the afflicted:

Calm, calm, soft and calm,
soft and calm is the snail,
gentle is the leaf’s fall
from the tree.

In calmness the springbok
births its young in the forest.
Softness is the mud’s by the riverside,
gentleness seeks out the banana tree.

May softness fall upon you,
may softness fall upon you.
The ikupero leaf whispers:
may your body be untied,

may rest befall you
without warning,
until all is calm.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll lie down for a brief nap…

Bad maxims, revisited

I won’t have time to write anything new today, but here’s a recycled post. It originally appeared in Via Negativa on September 6, 2004. PARENTAL ADVISORY: Contains caustic cynicism and naughty words. Seal all entrances with duct tape and plastic before proceeding.

1. You create your own reality. Re-write history to eliminate your rivals and give yourself all the starring roles.

2. If not you, someone else then. If not now, whenever. It’ll get done. If it doesn’t, well, it probably didn’t matter all that much in the first place.

3. Live in the past. That way, you’ll never have to worry about being surprised.

4. If at first you don’t succeed, hit the government up for more subsidies.

5. It’s not who wins or loses, it’s whether we all get to taunt the losers.

6. Power corrupts. But if nothing ever corrupted, we’d be up to our ears in shit and corpses.

7. Cleanliness is next to chemical allergies, birth defects and senility.

8. Eat the poor. They’re 90% fat-free!

9. It is better never to have loved at all than to have loved and lost your dignity. So suck it up, you big baby. Repression works.

10. Real men don’t ask for help. If things get bad, you can always talk to Jesus.

11. If you meet the Buddha, tell him to give me a call. He still owes me $25 bucks.

12. It’s not the goal, it’s the journey. Especially when you’re lost.

13. You can sleep when you’re dead. Be sure your grieving loved ones spend at least $3000 for a really comfortable casket.

14. A friend in need is fine, but probably isn’t the best person to go out drinking with.

15. If you put all your eggs in one basket, you can save lots of money on heat lamps.

16. A stitch in time is bad for the economy. Throw it out, already!

17. I’m O.K., you’re O.K. It’s those other people who are fucking things up.

18. First thing we do, let’s kill all the murderers.

19. Misery loves company. Specifically, the Frito-Lay Company, makers of Fritos, Cheetos, Doritos, Tostitos, Ruffles and Lay’s brand snack chips. Frito-LayTM. Food for the fun of it!TM

20. Before doing X, always ask yourself, “What would happen if everyone did X?” If the answer is, “Cataclysmic war and social chaos, leading to the rapid extinction of most higher life forms,” then it’s probably a pretty good way to turn a profit.

21. Some people see things as they are and ask, “Why?” Some people dream of things that never were and ask, “Why not?” If you know either of these kinds of people, please call the Department of Homeland Security’s toll-free hotline.

22. When the going gets tough, remind yourself that countless generations before you have faced these very same problems. And now they’re all dead.

A short course in Pennsylvanian

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In Pennsylvania, all the railroad tracks are named Beth. Sure, there’s a prosaic reason for that, but why dwell on it? No one wants to hear the real story behind such notorious Pennsylvania toponyms as Intercourse, Jersey Shore, or Hairy John Picnic Area, either. One writer I know got an entire chapter of his memoir out of a visit to Panic and Desire – neighboring hamlets in Jefferson County, Pennsylvania.

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We have our own way of doing things. Up through the first few decades of the 20th century, until the state began to enforce an English-only campaign in the public schools, a significant proportion of the rural population spoke a dialect of German – so-called Pennsylvania Dutch. The Amish still do. Some of those old German dairy farmers were so obsessed with cleanliness, they made their barns round so there wouldn’t be any corners to sweep out.

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Whether you need your horse shod or your teeth floated, we can redd it up.

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We take hunting camps pretty seriously, too. The hunting camp tradition dates back to the Indians – hence, I suppose, the fake-Indian names given to many modern camps. The difference is that the Indians took their entire families out into the woods for a couple months each fall; white hunters have always preferred to do the male bonding thing, playing the Indian as imagined by Daniel Boone.

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The capitol building in Harrisburg has a striking green roof – just about the only thing green about the current legislature. These days, politicians pay lip-service to conservation while turning their backs on a rich environmentalist tradition that includes such visionaries as William Bartram, John James Audubon, Rachel Carson, Howard Zahniser, Edward Abbey, and Annie Dillard.

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The capitol reminds me of those domes of moss you can find out in the woods. Which is appropriate, really, considering what “Pennsylvania” means in Latin. The region was famous for its forests long before William Penn came on the scene, in fact. As early as 1632, an Englishman named David DeVries, sailing north on the Delaware, claimed that the ground fires set each fall in the forests to the west gave off a distinct, medicinal odor:

The 2d, threw the lead in fourteen fathoms, sandy bottom, and smelt the land, which gave off a sweet perfume, as the wind comes from the northwest, which blew off the land, and caused these sweet odors. This comes from the Indians setting fire, at this time of year, to the woods and thickets, in order to hunt; and the land is full of sweet-smelling herbs, as sassafras, which has a sweet smell. When the wind blows out of the northwest, and the smoke is driven to the sea, it happens that the land is smelled before it is seen.
(A.C. Myers, ed., Narratives of Early Pennsylvania, West New Jersey and Delaware, 1630-1707, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912)

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These arborglyphs were made by insects, but up through the early 19th century, arborglyphs made by Native Americans, as well as by some groups of Europeans, were a common sight. The Pennsylvania German Romany people known as Shekener, though prone to use dead trees as signboards, brought with them the old European reverence for such species as ash, beech and oak. According to the folklorist Henry Shoemaker,

They venerated, if not worshipped, trees and resented their being cut down and mutilated. They only burned dead wood, or the wood from fallen trees. They would not cut a green tree except a pine under any circumstances.

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Of course, even fallen trees can sometimes seem to possess an active intelligence. I took these shots yesterday on my way back from Harrisburg, in the state forest named for the founding father of Pennsylvania’s 2.1 million-acre state forest system, Joseph Trimble Rothrock.

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Central Pennsylvania is world-famous for its brook trout. Two U.S. presidents – Dwight D. Eisenhower and Jimmy Carter – were in the habit of helicoptering in for a weekend of trout fishing. Personally, I don’t understand the catch-and-release concept, but fly fishermen seem mostly harmless, and they tend to be staunch conservationists. If you want to tie flies that really speak to the fish, you have to learn what they like. And what they like is wilderness. The brook trout is a fish with extremely limited tolerance for roads, construction or clearcutting in the watershed – anything that might raise the water temperature a couple of degrees, or contribute more than a smidgen of silt. Jimmy Carter learned the lesson well: he signed laws setting aside more land as wilderness than any other president, and has continued his activism to the present, advocating the creation of an Arctic National Monument in place of the beleaguered wildlife refuge.

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Trout streams tend to have names like Standing Stone Creek, and if you stand still as a stone and listen, pretty soon you’ll swear they’re trying to talk to you: a strange mix of whispers, maybe something in Romany, or Shawnee. What would it take to become fluent, I wonder? Given a course of total immersion, might I learn at least some form of glossalalia?

First hike

All actual life is encounter.
– Martin Buber

A Sunday morning in early spring, not a cloud in the sky and very quiet. The thick moss on the trail muffles my footsteps, so that I am able to sneak up on the same small herd of deer three times. But I am not stalking them; each time they catch a whiff of me and spook, I’m surprised anew.

The second time this happens, I’m right at the intersection of trails at the bottom of the hill where, two Sundays ago, my 14-month-old niece Elanor took her first-ever hike. It occurs to me that this stretch of trail has been permanently altered for me by that milestone event. The trail I walk on now is both the same and not the same as the one in my imagination, and my impression of stillness now is made more vivid by contrast with the excitement and commotion preserved in my memory like stills from a movie.

For weeks, Elanor had been fiercely resisting the imposition of shoes. For her first birthday back in February, her cousin Eva in Mississippi had mailed her a pair of baby shoes that she felt would be sure to get her walking, because they were designed to squeak in an amusing fashion with every step. At first, we weren’t sure whether this was a good idea. Sitting out on the lawn in front of the house, her daddy and grandpa got the shoes on her feet without too much trouble, but she began to fuss as soon as they cajoled her into taking a few steps. The loud squeaks seemed to add insult to injury – “What in the world have you done to my feet!?” – and we were only able to distract her from the misery of this new form of confinement by showing her the crocuses up at the edge of the lawn. She seemed a little disappointed that those brightly colored objects came apart so easily, however.

If we wanted to save any crocuses for another day, we thought we’d better relocate to the woods. Steve put his daughter on his shoulders, and we headed up toward the top of the watershed, where four, wide trails come together right below the spruce grove. It’s a big, mossy clearing where little kids always love to hang out and play. As we headed up through the laurel woods, we marveled at the way the mid-afternoon sun illuminated Elanor’s frizz of unshorn, blond hair, giving her a halo of sorts – a very misleading impression! She had been sick for much of the previous week, and her mood was still a bit uncertain, though she was clearly enjoying her ride.

We all sat down on the moss, and sure enough, Elanor was soon distracted by the plethora of twigs, acorn caps, and other small objects that needed to be tasted. She took the few steps over to my lap and was rudely reminded of the shoes still on her feet. Soon she began to fuss about the prospect of toddling back to her grandparents, who held their arms out and made encouraging noises. Steve took pity on her, got up, took her hand, and started to lead her down Laurel Ridge Trail, speaking soft words of encouragement while Elanor glared at her squeaking feet. After less than a dozen steps, he let go of her hand and followed as she continued walking on her own.

Realizing they weren’t coming back, we all got up and joined the parade, expecting it to end after one or two hundred feet. It didn’t. I raced ahead to get pictures as Elanor toddled along the 200-year-old woods road, following the wide stripe of moss. The pictures show a look of intense concentration as she rounded the big curve and picked up speed heading down the long, steep hill toward the intersection with the Dump Trail.

All this flashes through my mind as I stand at that same intersection two weeks later. In our neighbor’s recently cut-over woods to my left, the deer have just spooked for the second time. In the woods to my right, a blue-headed vireo is calling not far from where I found the nest last year. Might it be the very same male, I wonder? A pair of downy woodpeckers taps somewhere up ahead, joined suddenly by the loud and very resonant drumming of a pileated woodpecker.

There’s often a pileated hanging around this spot, but I have yet to get close enough for a picture. In this morning’s strong sunlight, he should make a brilliant spectacle, I think. He sounds as if he’s right up at the top of the hill.

A tall laurel bush standing alone beside the trail catches my eye and I go down on one knee, admiring the way the light pours through its sundress of leaves. When at length I stand up again, there’s a sudden explosion of wings as a well-camouflaged ruffed grouse flushes from a few feet away. It arcs toward our neighbor’s new hunting platform, wings clipping the skinny trunks of black birch saplings. The pileated drums.

I am walking so slowly now I’m almost going backwards. Really, though, why hurry? I’ve walked this trail thousands of times – tens of thousands. I know what’s around the next bend. Or do I?

I pause to snap some pictures of interesting swirls in the grain of a fallen oak log that spans the trail. Ordinarily, we clear such obstructions, but in this case, we thought it best just to cut out a little notch that one can walk though, leaving the rest of it in place in order to discourage possible trespassers on all-terrain vehicles. Two Sundays ago, I remember, Steve had had to lift his daughter over it; she isn’t very good at stepping over things yet. As soon as she had started down the hill, her daddy and grandpa had come and held her hands to keep her from falling face-down on the rocks that poke through the moss. She seemed a little frustrated that they wouldn’t let her run as she likes to do at home, careening around from room to room of their apartment. But it wasn’t clear to us that she quite understood what a hill was: not all inclines come with stairs!

Just as I lift my head from photographing the log, I hear a wft, wft, wft overhead: the pileated! I watch in frustration as he arrows up the trail and veers off to the left, his great, black wings rising and falling with a woodpecker’s deliberate beat. Where did he come from? How could my ears have so deceived me about the distance between us?

I hear a distant, laughing croak – that all-purpose ark, ark, ark that ravens have been saying to each other since long before Noah. It’s a sound I associate especially with fine mornings and clear weather. I look off to the left, through a 30-year-old stand of pole timber, and spot the pair of them turning in a slow circle over the valley about a half-mile away. Ark, ark, ark! A few more circles, and then one of them turns and soars off to the northeast, followed by its mate. Half a minute later, a crow caws overhead in vain pursuit, incensed as always by the presence of its larger, more graceful cousins.

Elanor’s first hike in the woods (or anywhere, for that matter) only ended because her daddy picked her up and put her back on his shoulders. She had begun to sound a little fussy, and we figured that we better make her quit while she was ahead. In all, she walked at least a thousand feet over terrain that even some sedentary adults might find a little challenging. Two days later, they went to a store that specializes in baby shoes and got her a couple different kinds of non-squeaking footwear, and she’s been walking happily ever since.

That wasn’t a day for wildlife watching, of course, though arguably there’s little to distinguish a pre-lingual human child from any other natural being, aside from its much more protracted dependence on adults. In fact, watching the way otherwise reserved people, strangers, can go gaga over small children makes me a little sad, sometimes, realizing that this might well be one of the very few avenues they have for encountering something truly wild. But then again, isn’t this preference for cuteness and cuddliness part of what separates us from wild nature, ever since the original sin of domestication? How many self-described nature lovers would actually prefer the harsh cry of a raven to the lamb-like bleat of a fawn?

As I reach the top of the hill, the pileated is just visible on a tree a few hundred feet off the trail. His call, which I tend to think of as maniacal, is no doubt perfectly sane, simply intended for other ears than mine. I hear the deer moving through the laurel, nervous footsteps following their own network of trails. It must be right about the time the churches are letting out. I picture the congregants emerging from their well-lit caves, blinking and smiling at each other in the warm sunlight. May they, too, find inspiration in whatever lies just beyond their grasp.

Prompted by the meditations on stillness at pohanginapete and Laughing Knees.