June 2006

This is the last day to send in links for the first-ever Festival of the Trees, which will appear here sometime tomorrow morning, inshallah. (Send links to me — bontasaurus at yahoo dot com — with “festival of the trees” in the subject line.)

Let me reiterate that for this first edition, I am accepting pieces from your archives, as far back as you care to go. I want to suggest that writing about trees has deep roots in the blog world; it’s not some new fad just invented for this blog carnival. But recent posts are also, of course, most welcome.

I’ve already received a respectable number of contributions, which means that I won’t be doing much hunting for stuff on my own. So if you’d like to make sure your own blog — or your favorite blog read — is included, you’ll have to send me links. It’s O.K. to send multiple links and let me choose (though future hosts of the festival may set different rules).

Also, I’ve decided that I’ll follow a quote format, with somewhat lengthier selections than is the norm for blog carnivals. (No, this will not be a post for the ADD-impaired!) The implication for artists and photographers is that I may reproduce your images to illustrate the post — with due credit and a link back to the original, of course.

*

That’s it for a post today. If you don’t think you can get through this last day of the work week and the month without a Via Negativa fix, here’s something from the archives that you probably don’t remember (I didn’t): Looking ourselves over. It’s actually two posts in one, but the heart of it is a comparison between anthropologist Keith Basso’s descriptions of the Western Apache and my own, anecdotal impressions of rural white folks in Central Pennsylvania. A little on the wordy side, but you’ns might like it.

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My eighth entry in the self-portrait marathon

Meanwhile, there are entire towns where nothing terrible is happening for an hour or two, where parents are caring for children with remarkable tenderness, where nurses are tending patients, mail carriers are delivering packages, and at least one man who owns a small business is taking off work early to coach a girl’s soccer team. Terrible things will continue to happen in those places, which the best efforts of such people will not be sufficient to prevent, but their bursts of gratuitous kindness are the mustard seeds from which healing bushes sometimes grow. They constitute the alternate reality that I want to live in, even if it means limiting my exposure to other kinds of news.
Barbara Brown Taylor, “What’s new?” The Christian Century, May 30, 2006

As I sat on my porch this morning drinking my coffee around 6:30, I watched a lightning bug fly past with its lamp extinguished and decided it was time to do another self-portrait.

I don’t know what kind of play the self-portrait marathon is getting in the larger blogosphere, but I doubt it’s attracting the kind of breathless attention devoted to the latest Supreme Court decision, or whatever fresh horror is emerging from Iraq or the Occupied Territories. And perhaps that’s as it should be. But if you haven’t stopped by lately to check out the gallery, you should. You can view it as a Flickr slideshow, too.

While it’s easy to be cynical and dismiss the self-portrait marathon as nothing more than an outlet for bloggers’ unflagging tendency toward self-absorption, I think that misses the real story. Over 75 bloggers, from amateur shutterbugs like me to professional portrait painters, have committed to taking a prolonged, in-depth look at one subject — a subject that Agatha Christie once described as “perhaps the greatest mystery of all: ourselves.” And as the galleries attest, many of the results have been quite striking.

The blogosphere has been billed as an alternative to the mainstream media, but in many ways, it’s just as superficial. The emphasis remains on speed rather than accuracy, sensationalism rather than nuance, and two-sided conflicts rather than the full complexity of life as most of us experience it in our daily lives. Even for us non-political bloggers, there’s a great temptation to simply post our latest snapshots, with a few accompanying sentences of breathless prose, and move on to something else. To try to see anything more fully, to observe it attentively and then take the time to describe or depict it with as much care and effort as we can muster seems almost counter-cultural. But if the bloggers I tend to read have anything in common, it might be precisely this, that they are dedicated to documenting what Barbara Brown Taylor refers to as “alternate reality.”

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Twenty-eight great-
spangled fritillaries
on one small clump
of butterfly weed

lifting & settling
to pivot on the un-
steady dust-devils
of their tongues,

their wings rocking
halfway open for
balance, orange
against orange.

Ezra Pound famously described literature as “news that stays news.” Fine. But what do we mean by news? Isn’t there something inescapably sensationalistic about the practice of selecting and highlighting certain phenomena, pushing the rest into the background? Well, perhaps so. But barring enlightenment, how else are we to see?

It occurs to me that this definition, “news that stays news,” captures pre-modern and non-Western attitudes toward elevated language, as well. Consider, for example, the song cycles that once accompanied all-night circle dances of the O’odham, or the spontaneously generated, loosely linked verses of one of the old-time blues poets like Son House or Bukka White. From one perspective, such lyrics employ traditional folk material, and therefore must be the opposite of news. But if words are treated as living, ephemeral beings rather than marks on the page, and therefore must be re-created for every performance, how can their inspired production not constitute news?

So in that sense, I think the ephemeral and fairly spontaneous nature of the blog medium should help nudge us away from our usual Western attitude toward art as something static and eternal, the realization of some bullshit Platonic Ideal. I think the non-Western view is closer to reality. All art is inherently messy and imperfect, a moment temporarily rescued from the ceaseless flux. Whether its subject is the world without or the world within, a good work of art is nothing more or less than inspired journalism.

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When I wrote an email to some family members yesterday, I mentioned two things I thought were newsworthy: the twenty-eight fritillaries, and the discovery of a nesting solitary vireo (A.K.A. blue-headed vireo) less than a hundred feet away from the nest I found last year. I can’t claim credit for this discovery, though. Two biology students from Penn State Altoona, who are working on a research project up in our woods, told me about it when they stopped to admire the fritillary-covered butterfly weed on their way back down the mountain. They were abashed they’d never noticed the nest before, and so was I when I went to look. It’s about eight feet off the ground above one of our most frequently traveled trails, right in front of one of the gates to our three-acre deer exclosure. How in the world could we all have missed it?

The vireo let me walk right under the nest and snap pictures from two feet away, her head swiveling to follow my movements. Since the nest is wedged into a small fork on a witch hazel branch — the favorite tool of water dowsers here in the Appalachians — I wonder whether the eventual fledglings will be gifted with the ability to locate hidden springs? Will the healing properties of witch hazel make the nest’s occupants somehow less vulnerable?

At the beginning of this post, I quoted Barbara Brown Taylor on “healing bushes” (a phrase which, taken out of context, might seem to have a certain political resonance!). Her focus was on the Bible’s Good News, but this quite literal healing tree with its avian occupants — not an “alternate reality,” but the real world as we all too seldom remember to see it — is gospel enough for me.

With apologies to Sonny Boy Williamson. The homebrew made me do it.

She’s my baby. Every time she knocks on wood, it opens, with a soft parting of cellulose.

Her smile doesn’t just light up the room; it can power all the household appliances for a month.

She’s better than a street sweeper, because wherever she walks soon gets a spit-shine from the scores of men rushing to kiss the ground.

She visited Lourdes once, & the abandoned crutches got up and walked away.

The last time she strolled past a cemetery, the dead didn’t stop at coming back to life — several of them danced on their own graves. They were that grateful.

She went to visit her congressman in Washington, & by the next morning, astonished headlines twice as solid as the last Presidential erection were precipitating a nationwide shortage in black ink: CONGRESS VOTES SELF PAY CUT, MAKES SUBSIDIES ILLEGAL.

You say your woman is fine, but mine can actually get you fined in dozens of municipalities where the transport or possession of my baby has been declared a threat to public health & decency.

Six hundred & sixty-six ordained ministers have denounced my baby from the pulpit. Jesus is still O.K. to worship — he’s safely off in heaven — but if this broken stink of a world were ever really healed, how could you tell the sinners from the saved? It’s a dilemma.

That’s why, for her birthday, I’m buying her the second-most expensive sunglasses on the rack — the kind with mirrored lenses.

Not prescription, mind you. Her eyesight is perfect.

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Squish, squish, squish went my boots as I waded through the tall grass on Greenbriar Trail. But much as I looked forward to changing into dry pants and shoes, strangely enough, I was content. Starting at 6:05 in the morning, we had managed to tally many of the deep-woods species for which the Bald Eagle Important Bird Area was designated, including Acadian flycatchers; worm-eating, black-throated green and cerulean warblers; and a plethora of wood thrushes, ovenbirds and scarlet tanagers. We had run into a box turtle on Laurel Ridge Trail, and enjoyed views of the adjacent ridges rising above a thick blanket of fog. Though it was extremely humid and the vegetation was still sopping wet from the previous evening’s downpour, at least the air was cool and it hadn’t rained on us.

True, the real birders — my mom and my brother Steve — were unhappy at all the no-shows, but that’s in the nature of point counts, I guess. The idea isn’t to count every bird every time, but to capture most of the breeding species every year, in a consistent enough fashion to be able to track population trends over the course of decades. And it’s not everybody who’s fortunate enough to be able to go out their front door and find themselves in the middle of an IBA. In our case, though we don’t have a hawk watch on the property, we’re situated on a ridge with one of the highest recorded counts of golden eagles in eastern North America, which I think helped persuade the scientists on the Ornithological Technical Committee of the Pennsylvania Biological Survey that Bald Eagle Ridge was worthy of designation as an IBA — one of over 80 in the state. Its abundance of interior forest habitat was the other key consideration. As conservationists here never tire of pointing out, Pennsylvania is home to 17 percent of the world’s scarlet tanagers and nine percent of the wood thrushes. Long-term data, such as those generated by point counts, will help scientists monitor the health of these species.

The point count protocol developed by Audubon Pennsylvania involves counting every bird seen or heard in three minutes at each permanently designated point on a route. Counters must go out two times each breeding season, defined as the months of May and June, between 6:00 and 10:00 in the morning. The points must be 500 feet apart, and we have sixteen of them in our route, starting at the spruce grove at the top of the field, and taking in both ridges and the deep hollow in between before ending up on my parents’ front porch — Point 16. On Saturday, I was the official timekeeper and note taker; Mom and Steve identified the birds, mostly by ear.

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Point 14 is in the field near the edge of the woods, along a mowed trail we call Butterfly Loop. As we stood there counting, a pair of fawns came bounding down the trail toward us. I whipped out my camera and snapped a couple of pictures before they turned and raced off. Then, as we squished on toward the next point, they came running back. This time, the bolder of the two got within six feet of me before deciding that I might be dangerous. We almost had the venison equivalent of veal for supper a lovefest.

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Steve spotted a sharp-shinned hawk harrying a red-tailed hawk in the sky over Laurel Ridge as we neared Point 15. Then, on the way back down toward the house, he asked if we’d seen any Baltimore checkerspots. “Not yet,” I said. But then we spotted one.

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You may remember my post about the caterpillars, which feed mainly* on turtlehead, a plant that isn’t nearly as common as it used to be, thanks to the hooved rats our friends the deer. We found two Baltimore checkerspot caterpillars this spring, and on Saturday morning, we saw two adults, one after the other — both in the vicinity of our largest patch of turtlehead.

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Most of the yard birds remained stubbornly silent during the three minutes we listened on the front porch, so the count ended on a bit of a gloomy note. But there’s no denying the pleasure that can come from changing into a dry pair of socks. I draped my wet socks over the railing on my own front porch, and later that afternoon, I noticed they had become a Mecca for great spangled fritillaries.

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When I poked my head out around 5:00, I even caught a pair of butterflies mating on my socks, though I wasn’t able to get a picture of it. I guess there are all kinds of good reasons to get one’s feet wet.
__________

*Edited from “exclusively,” which turns out not be true, according to the latest science. Thanks to commenter “striped twistie” for the correction (see message string).

“Personal ornaments are a powerful tool of communication,” says Francesco D’Errico at the Institute of the Prehistory and Geology of the Quaternary in Talence, France, one of the team that studied the beads. “They can indicate social or marital status, for example. But you need to have a complex system of language behind that. To me [these beads] are very powerful archaeological evidence that these people were able to speak like us.”
–“Ancient beads imply culture older than we thought,” New Scientist

Rain makes
a cave of the air.
It doesn’t mean to fall,
any more than
the thrush
means to sing such
an ache into the heart.
Tell me what
your tongue tastes like —
blood? Metal? Your reflection
in running water?
This is how it happens.
When the first
bone drill pierces
a nugget of shell,
something round
as the day can suddenly
admit a saving loop of hide:
time can be savored.
The world’s first
belt or necklace
divides
the waters from the waters
like a movable wound,
like a smile
full of teeth
when
the others see.

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A visitor to Alan Seeger Natural Area, a small old-growth forest near State College, Pennsylvania

No shirt, no shoes, no problem. No link: problem! You only have one more week to write a blog post in time to get it included in the first-ever Festival of the Trees. What are you waiting for?

True, I haven’t bestirred myself to do a tree post so far this month, either. But I did just set up a coordinating blog for the festival, so cut me some slack, O.K.?

What is a blog carnival? It’s just a fancy name for a periodic collection of links to recent blog posts about a given topic — in this case, all things arboreal. (See here for more information on what we’re looking for.) Usually, the host invents some sort of theme or narrative to connect the links and make things more entertaining: see the invertebrate carnival Circus of the Spineless or the birds and birding carnival I and the Bird for some good examples. But that’s my problem, this month. What I need from y’all are links.

Most people submit links to their own blog posts, but some exceptionally kind and generous people like to help out by sending links to other blogs and websites, too. Send anything that you think might fit to me: bontasaurus (at) yahoo (dot) com, with “Festival of the Trees” in the subject line. For this initial installment of the carnival, I’ll probably allow posts prior to June 2006, as well.

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The other week, we took Eva to visit some friends of the family who live a few miles away. The main inducement was easy access to a quiet portion of the Little Juniata River, and the promise of good crayfish hunting there. Their interest was scientific or aesthetic rather than culinary, though Eva is from a part of the country where crawdads are considered a delicacy. But how do you find creatures that are almost the exact color of the mud they burrow in?

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While the kids honed their crustacean search images, I went hunting for smaller invertebrates. Along the shore, several foot-long bays seethed with tiny rowboats — the aquatic insects known by the somewhat redundant name “water boatmen” (family Corixidae). Their bodies are fully submersible crafts; they have the enviable ability to capture bubbles between the hairs on their bodies and turn them into shiny wetsuits of air.*

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It was a hot and humid late afternoon, and everything seemed a little stunned. In the woods along the river, I found a daddy longlegs resting quietly on a small black cherry leaf, rather like the Little Prince,

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while nearby, a long-legged cranefly took the opposite approach, suspending itself between several sassafras leaves. Clearly, it was a good place to hang out.

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In the adjacent wetland — which was rather parched on account of the drought — a question mark butterfly also seemed intent on doing not very much at all. Of course, it’s the larvae of the species that do most of the work, including locate their proper host plants, elms and nettles. Once they emerge from their chrysalises, life slows down. The females lay eggs hither and yon, as the mood strikes them.

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A white moth floated dead on the surface of a muddy pool. I wondered whether, like the Chinese poet Li Bai, it had drowned while trying to embrace the reflection of the moon. You never know. Back at the river, Eva’s newfound hunting buddy Nathan took a fall that he swore was an accident, and totally unrelated to his previous pleas to be allowed to swim. So much of the hunting impulse seems driven by pure envy of the prey.
__________

*UPDATE: Rebecca Clayton thinks that the bugs in the photo are more likely to be juvenile water striders (see comments). After checking out several reference sources, I’m inclined to agree.

This entry is part 4 of 7 in the series Self-Portraits

 

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My seventh entry in the self-portrait marathon

My mother’s people gaze across at my father’s people in the narrow upstairs hallway of my parents’ house. It all seems amicable enough. Some were rich, some were poor, but most were somewhere in the middle. Both sides are dominated by people of German, English, and Dutch ancestry, with a little French Canadian and Irish thrown in. A discouragingly large number on both sides were teetotaling Methodists, but for all that, they don’t look any more sober than decorum required.

Aside from genealogists, most Americans don’t spend much time thinking about their ancestors. After all, we are descended from the disinherited and the violently dispossessed — or at the least, from people who believed in leaving the past behind. And we’re still that way, aren’t we? We think of our ancestors as forebears only, and believe them quite irretrievably dead and gone — perhaps to a better place from which they might occasionally cast a fond glance in our direction, but that’s all. They’re not expected to take an active interest in the affairs of their descendents, much less transmigrate back into the clan. Sometimes one of them might come back as a ghost, but that’s about it.

I think it’s important to remember how odd this belief about our ancestors makes us, how much of an exception to the general run of societies around the world. Combine that with our astonishing ignorance of history — even quite recent history — and I think it’s safe to say that we Americans are almost uniquely alienated from our roots. It goes along with our alienation from nature, I believe, and in some respects probably helps license the on-going commodification of what used to be thought of as Creation. In pre-modern Europe, the dead were buried in the churchyard at the center of the village, and had their day on the calendar (All Souls Day). Ancestor reverence formed a minor part of a complex system of traditional observances — including local saints’ days, rogations, feasts and fasts — which all together told people who they were and where they came from. Carnival rites linked bodily symbolism, both sacred and profane, with the cosmic drama of changing seasons and renewed fertility.

The Protestant Reformation did away with most of that, and the Industrial Revolution finished it off. The 19th-century bourgeois novel and 20th-century psychology invented the isolated, narrowly sexual and generally neurotic individual, and the Great Awakening and subsequent religious movements stressed a personal relationship with God or Jesus above all else. My Methodist ancestors seem, on the whole, content with this arrangement. They knew how to compose themselves for a photograph, wearing their Sunday best and meditating on eternity, or something else completely apart from daily life, for as long as it took the man with the box and the flash to capture their likenesses. They rest easy in their frames, smiling sardonically — if at all — at the thought that some lonely fool might someday long to re-enter those frozen moments.

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Today my head is very itchy. Today I am newly fascinated by the words nightjar and (thanks to pohanginapete) fossick. Today we have ample sunshine, cool temperatures and low humidity. Today the wood thrushes are continuing to sing well past 10:00 in the morning, accompanied by an indigo bunting, a wood pewee, and a common yellowthroat. Today I have begun by reading other people’s words instead of writing my own, which means really that I have been whispering, murmuring, and chanting under my breath the same as always. Today I broke my usual rule of no radio in the morning, and caught the headlines on NPR while I fixed my eggs — not that an egg ever can be fixed once it’s broken. Today the Middlewesterner is retiring from his sidebar such immortal Internet search strings as last chance notes to girlfriend, Blue hypnotic liquor, poems that rhyme with John Deere equipment and Commodification of the sasquatch. Today, says the Guardian, Bush accuses Iran of dragging its feet. Today the Stanley Cup goes head-to-head with the World Cup in the sports headlines.

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Today I have been engaging in an odd form of egosurfing with typoGenerator, inserting the text “dave” and “bonta” and marveling at the random images the program retrieves from the web. Today I am wondering where we got the idea that something like music could ever belong to its author, given that every instance of authentic listening involves a re-creation of the thing heard as well as a subtle reshaping of the one who listens. Today they are protesting in Vienna. Today I am trying to picture a jar full of night — a voice in the night woods, as Peterson describes the whip-poor-will: by day camouflaged as dead leaves, or flit[ting] away on rounded wings like a large brown moth. Today is the shortest day of the year in the southern hemisphere. Today the rudbeckia in my garden has begun to bloom in earnest, and it looks very much as if the first butterfly weed blossoms may open by late afternoon. Today by 11:30 the six Carolina wren fledgelings, who left the nest the night before, have still not figured out how to get out of the garage. Today is not even half over.

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On Saturday night, I picked up seven books at a well-stocked Half Price Books in the strip mall outside Pittsburgh that I wrote about yesterday. Two were books I’d already read, but the rest are new and full of tantalizing passages.

My typical approach with newly acquired books is to open them at random and read a few pages until I find something thought-provoking. If it’s poetry, I’ll often continue reading in a haphazard fashion until I’ve read about two-thirds of the book, then go to the beginning and read straight through, skipping those poems I’ve already read. With nonfiction, I do feel an obligation to read books from beginning to end, but since I realize I might not get to them for a while — if ever — I also often begin with extensive random samplings. In fact, I think one reason why I favor poetry and nonfiction over fiction is that it lends itself so well to this kind of disorganized reading. Let me show you what I mean with a quote or two from each of the books I just bought.

1. A Scattering of Jades: Stories, Poems, and Prayers of the Aztecs, ed. by T.J. Knab, tr. by Thelma D. Sullivan. Simon & Schuster, 1994.

This is in my estimation the best English-language anthology of Aztec literature, so I was very happy to get it. On reacquainting myself with it on Sunday morning, I found this wonderful factoid on page 83:

The word for storyteller is tlaquetzqui, he who holds something back.

2. Chronicle of the Guayaki Indians, by Pierre Clastres (Paul Aster, tr.). Faber and Faber, 1998.

This is the other book I’ve read before, an ethnography most notable for its penetrating and sympathetic portrayal of endo-cannibalism — that is, the eating of the members of one’s own tribe after their death. However, it has plenty of other fascinating tidbits as well, including a portrait of a berdache (Clastres calls him a homosexual), or this description of how the Guayaki language can be adapted to whistling:

As I listened to this surprising dialogue (which unfortunately I did not have a chance to record), what I heard was mainly whistling sounds such as tss, dzz, djj — explosions interrupted by abrupt glottal stops and followed by long vocalized expirations ending in a simple expulsion of air. Naturally, I could not decipher any of this. And yet this was ordinary Guayaki — a language I could understand to some extent — but reduced to that part of its consonantal structure that could be whistled and to breathed vowels. Basically it was the language as anyone could have whispered it, reduced to its simplest perceptible expression. The small range of sounds produced did not seem to affect the liveliness of the discussion that Jyvukugi and his wife were carrying on at a great rate; they even seemed to be having a very good time, and sometimes their faces would shake with repressed laughter. I also noticed that from time to time I would hear nothing and only their lips would be moving: instead of listening to the sound of the whistling, they were reading each other’s lips. … Why had the Guayaki created this strange way of communicating? I can only guess at the reason, but I do have a hypothesis. The main quality of this method of manipulating the language by deforming it was really its quasi-silence, which situated it halfway between sound and gesture. And I imagine that, out of fear for their safety, the Atchei had determined to minimize the chances of being overheard by their enemies: the ghosts of the dead, or, more plausibly, the Machitara and Beeru. But perhaps, in the end, this supposition is too pragmatic, and we should instead look for an explanation in the mythological character of Jakarendy, the master of honey, who did not speak but whistled in order to attract human beings and shoot his fern arrows at them.

In any case, I am almost sure that that day Jyvukugi and his wife were “whistling” instead of talking in a normal way so that I would not understand what they were saying to each other. And they were completely successful in doing that.

3. A’aisa’s Gifts: A Study in Magic and the Self, by Michele Stephen. University of California Press, 1995.

Clastres was remarkably lucky in uncovering so much about the people he was living with in just one year — but who knows whether further residence might have caused him to completely rethink his initial conclusions. Another book from my latest haul discusses the difficulty of interpreting societies in which “epistemology and cultural logic posits many layers of things concealed, and according to this cultural logic, one layer contains the opposite of another.” Thus, says the author in her brief introduction to this study of the Mekeo people of Papua New Guinea,

[O]nce one gains access to esoteric knowledge and to the private worlds of individuals (which itself is no easy matter), the public symbolism and public descriptions given of the cosmological order seem to be overthrown. … The discrepancies were such that I might easily have concluded I was initially mistaken on many points; during my second extended fieldwork, when I learned the language well enough to converse without interpreters and was at last given access to esoteric knowledge, I was able to get the “real” picture.

Skipping ahead to the middle of the book, one discovers an example of what the author is talking about. I wonder whether it might also be the case for many other, imperfectly studied cultures that

The myth is the vehicle for transmission of secret knowledge. Which is why, of course, only abbreviated versions are told in public. What I assumed were merely simple explanatory folktales, such as “How the Dog Became the Enemy of Other Animals” or “The Origin of the Fishing Trap” … now emerged in their esoteric form as the explanations of important rituals — major rites for hunting in the former, fish-calling rituals in the latter. … Much more than just a social charter, Mekeo myths constitute a basic framework for the system of esoteric knowledge.

4. Insight and Artistry in African Divination, ed. by John Pemberton III. Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000.

I couldn’t resist jumping straight to Chapter 11, “Where the Mouse is Omniscient: The Mouse Oracle among the Guro,” by Lorenz Homburger. Yes, the Guro and their close neighbors in central Ivory Coast use live field mice as oracles, keeping them in large, specially designed pots. The Guro are animists whose highest god, Bale, dwells in the earth rather than the sky.

The mouse oracle pot, usually made from one piece of wood, sometimes of clay, is covered with the skin or fur of the red duiker. The belly of the pot is divided into two levels joined by a hole allowing the mouse to climb up and down. Two tortoise shells … are used in conjunction with the pot. The diviner places and removes them alternately, one of them … for divination in the morning and the other … for the evening. To the insides of the shells are fitted ten chicken bones — in certain cases, bat bones are used instead — one end of which is attached to the shell. A cowrie shell is sewed to the loose ends. After sprinkling some rice chaff over the cowries, the diviner places one of the tortoise shells with the bones arranged parallel to each other into the pot, which is then closed with a lid. According to Guro belief, once the client has explained the problem, the mouse climbs up and listens to what is being said. Then the mouse descends and questions the earth through a little hole in the bottom. Boti ba Tra described the messenger function of the mice: “mice can hear and understand all sounds of the earth, indeed they live in the earth, and we in turn populate it.” Finally, the mouse climbs up again to “place the cowrie shells.” After less than a minute, the client is told to lift the lid off the pot. It is rare to catch a glimpse of the mouse, as the animal lives in the dark, is scared by daylight, and therefore rushes back down to the lower half of the pot. The client carefully places the shell before the diviner. The configuration of the bones now discloses the answer to his previous questions. The position of the bones can be read and interpreted. The process is repeated until all of the problems of the person seeking advice are determined and solutions found.

5. History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil, by Jean de Léry (Janet Whatley, tr.). University of California Press, 1990.

Léry was a French Protestant missionary in 1556, whose description of the Tupinamba Indians was remarkably sympathetic for his era. I like how he concluded “The Bodily Description of the Brazilians”:

Before closing this chapter … I must respond both to those who have written and to those who think that the frequenting of these naked savages, and especially of the women, arouses wanton desire and lust. Here, briefly, is what I have to say on this point. While there is ample cause to judge that, beyond the immodesty of it, seeing these women naked would serve as a predictable enticement to concupiscence; yet, to report what was commonly perceived at the time, this crude nakedness in such a woman is much less alluring than one might expect. And I maintain that the elaborate attire, paint, wigs, curled hair, great ruffs, farthingales, robes upon robes, and all the infinity of trifles with which the women and girls over here disguise themselves and of which they never have enough, are beyond comparison the cause of more ills than the ordinary nakedness of the savage women — whose natural beauty is by no means inferior to that of the others. If decorum allowed me to say more, I make bold to say that I could resolve all the objections to the contrary, and I would give reasons so evident that no one could deny them.

Léry also defends manioc beer made by spitting the chewed up root into a pot. How is this any more disgusting than crushing wine grapes with the bare feet? he asks. Yet he admits that he and the other missionaries were generally able to brew rum for their own consumption.

6. Different Hours, by Stephen Dunn. Norton, 2000.

I can’t decide whether my tastes have changed, or whether my first impression is correct — that the poems in this book aren’t as inspired as some of Dunn’s other efforts. So far I’ve read about a third of the book, and the only thing that really grabbed me was a quote used as an epigraph:

John & Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met.
–from a freshman’s short story

The poem that follows — “John & Mary” — falls short as a response to this text, I thought. Like another poem in the book, which takes off from a student’s typo (“The town was in the mists of chaos”), it seems to have fallen victim to the author’s need to ingratiate himself with his academic colleagues by indulging in a display of wit at the expense of a hapless student. The poem focuses on John & Mary rather than, for example, on hummingbirds, which might have produced a more interesting poem.

7. Not Such a Bad Place to Be, by William Kloefkorn. Copper Canyon Press, 1980.

Two years ago, when they announced Ted Kooser’s selection as U.S. Poet Laureate, I thought that the Librarian of Congress had picked the wrong Nebraska poet. It’s not as if William Kloefkorn doesn’t know how to adapt the poet’s art to the unique needs of our nation and its public servants. “In 1978,” the bio states, “he won the Nebraska Championship for hog-calling.”

What I’ve read from this book so far confirms my impression that Kloefkorn’s poetry is second to none, with all the unsentimental detail, grotesque violence and absurdism proper to a contemporary North American poet of place. Here’s a poem that might serve as a fitting conclusion for this otherwise completely miscellaneous post.

LEGERDEMAIN

We must never empty ourselves
of that last surprise.
We must grow longer arms,
reach deeper and deeper into the dark hat
to bring forth the rabbit.
We must not decline its pernicious bite,
must not rule out the alley behind the eye
where our shadows run naked as jaybirds,
rending their hair,
foaming at their mouths,
snapping at the glances of birds and dogs
and mothers and small children.
We must balance our equilibrium
on the tips of noses
that we must have been willing to paint
a bulbous blue.
We must stare into the mirror
and marry the second woman to the right,
must honor her all the days of our life.
We must not be reluctant to correct her,
or to chop off a finger,
or if the going gets tough
to bury her eight paces south of the henhouse.
We must never fail to keep in mind
where we might or could or should have done
better, or perhaps worse,
slapping the children on their bare hind quarters
as they trot off to dress themselves
and to tighten their teeth.
We must not assume that those clouds
in the far southwest are not out to submerge us,
or that, if they do, we do not have something
small and hard, like a key, say,
up the slack of our sleeve with which to unlock
the torrential trunk.
We must never empty ourselves
of that last surprise.
We must have the dark hat always
in the position of ready,
our sleight of hand equal even
to the most improbable depth.