Mouth organ

Sally in the Garden, Whiskey Before Breakfast, Wind That Shakes the Barley, Money Musk, where do these damn tunes come from? They come from this little metal box, from its rows of tongues. From my own tongue and lips and throat. From the in-breath and the out-breath, the wings inside my chest fluttering however the notes dictate. From a change in the weather; from the flicker of lightning behind my eyelids. Fisher’s Hornpipe, the Rights of Man, Off to California, no two refrains come out the same. Grace notes grow into flourishes, flourishes into figures, figures into new tunes — reels, ballads, hornpipes — half the titles vanished from my memory, few lyrics (can’t sing and play at the same time in any case), only the tune, or part of it. I pace back and forth on the morning porch, cupping the mouth organ against my lips. Thunder rattles the windows behind me. The rain pours down.

Eye in the sky

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UPDATE (July 29): According to a new article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the derailment in northern Pennsylvania was caused by speeding down a steep grade — the sort of thing that could have been prevented through better policing. 

The main east-west railroad line in the eastern United States, connecting Philadelphia to Pittsburgh and Chicago, runs past the bottom of our mountain. Our only access to the outside world is down a mile-and-a-half-long road to a public railroad crossing that serves nobody but us and our visitors, railroad employees, and occasional train photographers. On the other side of the tracks, a hundred yards of township road lead to a one-lane county bridge across the river to the highway beyond. Fisherman, teenagers swimming in the river, drug dealers, and people involved in, shall we say, other kinds of activities frowned upon by polite society, all use the township road and the small patch of woods between the tracks and the river.

The day before yesterday, my brother Steve had just gone out the gate and locked it behind him when a train came along. While he waited at the crossing, he decided to go check out a stand of vetch about fifty feet down along the tracks to see if there were any good beetles on it. Just as the first train was clearing the crossing, another train came thundering through in the other direction. He was still congratulating himself on his decision to make good use of his time when a railroad policeman pulled up.

“What’cha doin’, buddy?”

“Uh, I’m an insect collector. I just thought I’d check out these weeds while I waited for the crossing to clear. How did you know I was here?”

“We saw you in the satellite pictures. We’re on high alert, and we’re under orders to investigate anything that looks the least bit suspicious. Homeland Security and all.”

Steve explained who he was, and that we lived here.

“So that was you we saw walking into town along the tracks last Thursday?”

“No, that was my brother Dave.”

Steve asked if they bothered to interfere in any of the various shady activities that go on the other side of the tracks. No, but they were very aware of them. The railroad dick chuckled about watching people get naked in little clearings in the woods, never dreaming that someone might be watching from above.

When Steve reported this conversation to us later that evening, I think we each had the same, conflicted reaction. On the one hand, it’s a shame that the authorities feel we have to invest so much time and money protecting ourselves from terrorist threats at the same time that they turn a blind eye to so many social and environmental ills that a little bit of money could go a long way toward easing. And while Norfolk Southern was keeping an eagle eye on its main line, just last week a branch line in northern Pennsylvania saw a derailment that resulted in the spill of 47,000 gallons of sodium hydroxide into one of the state’s best trout streams, killing every living thing for twenty miles downstream. “The cause of the derailment remains under investigation,” says Norfolk Southern. This is the kind of thing that can and does happen around railroads, terrorists or not.

Further, in the view, I think, of all Plummer’s Hollow residents, the increasing militarization and privatization of domestic so-called security bodes ill for the long-term survival of the republic. “Homeland Security” already sounded like a cover for creeping fascism to us, so you can imagine how thrilled we were to have direct confirmation of our fear that we were in fact being watched — and not even by people on the public payroll.

On the other hand, as conservationists, we abhor the runaway expansion of the highway system with all its attendant costs in pollution, habitat fragmentation and economically unsustainable patterns of human settlement. It takes 100 times less diesel to ship freight by rail than by truck. If the government ever decided to shift taxpayer subsidies away from the trucking and petroleum industries and back to railroads, I think we’d all cheer, despite the cost to us in terms of added inconvenience and danger.

As I mentioned, we live only a mile and a half from the tracks. We have a pretty good idea of the kind of nasty stuff that goes by our crossing on virtually a daily basis. A major mishap or terrorist strike could easily render Plummer’s Hollow — not to mention all of Tyrone and vicinity, home to more than 5,000 people — uninhabitable. And in the event of such a disaster, given that our only access is across the tracks, how would we evacuate?

So you can understand why, the next time I have to walk into town, if the sky is clear, I’ll be looking up and giving a big, friendly wave. Nobody here but us chickens.

Holey water

punkwater tree 1

“Holey water.” That’s what biologist Peter Marchand titled his “In the Field” column in Natural History magazine back in September of 2000. I’ve always called it punk water: the water that stands in rotten, or punky, cavities in trees. To Mark Twain (Tom Sawyer, Chapter 6) it was spunk-water.

“Say — what is dead cats good for, Huck?”

“Good for? Cure warts with.”

“No! Is that so? I know something that’s better.”

“I bet you don’t. What is it?”

“Why, spunk-water.”

“Spunk-water! I wouldn’t give a dern for spunk-water.”

“You wouldn’t, wouldn’t you? D’you ever try it?”

“No, I hain’t. But Bob Tanner did.”

“Who told you so!”

“Why, he told Jeff Thatcher, and Jeff told Johnny Baker, and Johnny told Jim Hollis, and Jim told Ben Rogers, and Ben told a nigger, and the nigger told me. There now!”

“Well, what of it? They’ll all lie. Leastways all but the nigger. I don’t know him. But I never see a nigger that wouldn’t lie. Shucks! Now you tell me how Bob Tanner done it, Huck.”

“Why, he took and dipped his hand in a rotten stump where the rain-water was.”

“In the daytime?”


“With his face to the stump?”

“Yes. Least I reckon so.”

“Did he say anything?”

“I don’t reckon he did. I don’t know.”

“Aha! Talk about trying to cure warts with spunk-water such a blame fool way as that! Why, that ain’t a-going to do any good. You got to go all by yourself, to the middle of the woods, where you know there’s a spunk-water stump, and just as it’s midnight you back up against the stump and jam your hand in and say:

‘Barley-corn, barley-corn, injun-meal shorts,
Spunk-water, spunk-water, swaller these warts,’

and then walk away quick, eleven steps, with your eyes shut, and then turn around three times and walk home without speaking to anybody. Because if you speak the charm’s busted.”

punkwater tree 2

Assuming these are fairly authentic folk beliefs, perhaps the double meaning of Marchand’s term, “holey water,” isn’t so inappropriate. Whatever you call it, it does seem to possess an outsized significance, at least from an ecological point of view. According to Marchand,

In a landscape devoid of ponds, water-filled tree holes are sometimes hidden reservoirs of biodiversity, providing a habitat for upwards of 140 species, including protozoa, flagellate algae, swarms of bacteria, and numerous invertebrates whose larval stages are aquatic, as well as occasional mosses and vascular plants. Included among the invertebrates are moth flies, wood gnats, midges, punkies, mosquitoes, marsh beetles, and beelike or wasplike syrphid flies. A dozen or so insects in these families are seldom, if ever, found elsewhere.

Here on our mountain, the dry, northwest facing slopes and ridge crests support a forest type found widely throughout the Appalachians: mixed oak with a heath understorey (mountain laurel and various blueberry and huckleberry species). In our case, the most numerous oak species is the chestnut or rock oak, which flourished as a result of repeated timbering in the 19th century and the eradication of competing canopy-height chestnut trees by the introduction of the chestnut blight in the early 20th century. Chestnut oak was one of the two species favored by the tanbark industry (and in fact, there was a tannery right nearby in Tyrone), as well as for mine timbers.

punkwater cranefly

What does this have to do with holey water? It just so happens that chestnut oak is one of the most vigorous stump-sprouting species. That is to say, when a chestnut oak is cut down, unless deer browse pressure is too intense, new sprouts will typically shoot up all around the perimeter of the stump, and anywhere from two to five of these new stems will survive to form healthy, new trunks. (Notice the stump at the edge of the reservoir in the photos. This was from logging in the mid-1970s. Had all three trunks been cut at that time, new sprouts would probably have replaced them.) The best and most long-lasting reservoirs for holey water are those walled in by living tissue; absent such protection, rotting stumps won’t retain water for more than a decade or two, depending on the species. Thus it is that our relatively young forest (100-125 years old) can support a phenomenon otherwise associated with very mature or old-growth forests, where large crotches and cavities among roots quite often collect water. (In Britain, Marchand says, old-growth beech forests are full of holey water.)

The reservoir in these pictures is typical of the holey water basins one can find scattered along the ridges at a density of perhaps one per acre. Some are more reliable than others. As Marchand explains, the size, shape and configuration of these pans, as he calls them, determines how much water they can collect from stem flow and how many leaves blow in. “Autumn leaf fall provides almost all the energy necessary to sustain the tree-hole community,” he points out, but too many leaves can fill in the pans too quickly.

I imagine that even the more ecologically minded of my readers are having trouble getting too enthusiastic about habitat for mosquitoes, gnats and midges. One issue Marchand doesn’t go into much — and which I have only anecdotal evidence and common sense to support — is the importance of holey water to vertebrate species. My mother once watched a black bear drinking from the very pan pictured here. I’m sure many other critters have the locations of such water sources fixed in their mental maps, and I imagine it must influence their daily movements and their willingness to inhabit otherwise dry ridgetops.

punkwater reflection

Marchand mentions how salamanders can often be found in tree pans that have mostly filled in, but he doesn’t speculate about our native Appalachian tortoise, the eastern or Carolina box turtle. Though completely terrestrial, box turtles cannot live far from a permanent water source — and they spend all their lives within their several-acre territories. We regularly find box turtles on both ridgetops, and their populations there seem healthy: we’ve found juveniles on Laurel Ridge, and the two times we’ve run across mating box turtles, it was also on the ridgetops. The first coupling, in fact, was less than a hundred feet from the reservoir in these pictures. And as recently as June 24, during our IBA count, we ran across a turtle within fifty feet of it.

This is, of course, pure speculation. I’m not aware of any scientific studies to bear it out, and I’ve never actually observed a box turtle drinking from a stump. On the other hand, however, I must say our box turtles are remarkably free of warts.

railroad-crossing box turtle

Love and death at the milkweed saloon

monarch pair
Monarch butterflies on common milkweed

The milk of milkweed is a strong drug. Members of the genus Asclepias — named for the Greek god of medicine — contain “powerful heart poisons that can be used to treat congestive heart failure and atrial fibrillation,” according to this article. Crab spiders that feed on milkweed aphids spin erratic webs, turn pink, grow fat to match the flowers. Monarchs, whose caterpillars eat nothing but milkweed leaves, are said to be immune to the effects of the drug, but I wonder. Would you call a three-thousand-mile mass migration normal behavior? And they’re not alone: the large milkweed bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus), too, is a long-distance traveler, migrating hundreds of miles south each fall to escape the frosts, and returning in the spring.

swallowtail and honeybee
Tiger swallowtail butterfly and Italian honeybee

But the nectar is the main attraction. The globular clusters of flowers emit a fragrance that most humans find a little cloying, but insects find irresistible. Common milkweed has pollinators innumerable that arrive by day and by night: honeybees and bumblebees, wasps, flies, butterflies, moths, and skippers. Many who come to drink, of course, are freeloaders, but the pink cups overflow — there’s enough for all.

milkweed longhorns mating
Milkweed longhorn beetles mating

A large milkweed patch on a sunny day makes me think of a street of saloons in Hollywood’s version of the Old West. The air is electric with danger and desire. While a pair of monarchs circles in graceful courtship, beetles copulate, and sinister assassins lie in wait for their victims. I found a moth swinging dead from a flower by its proboscis, the victim either of an assassin bug — which tends to dispose of its prey in this fashion, after sucking out the juices — or of the milkweed flower itself, which frequently traps insects in the too-narrow grooves of its sexual parts. The milkweed, let’s remember, has its own agenda: by late fall, to begin to release thousands of seeds into the wind on silk parachutes. So right now, it wants to be pollinated. It wants it bad.
dead moth
dead moth, species unknown (to me, at least)

Once established, a milkweed colony can expand rapidly through rhizomes, growing from just a few plants to half an acre in a few years. Then, too, it can dwindle over the course of a decade, finally disappearing altogether. Currently, our largest patch of common milkweed is at the end of the old field where it extends up to the ridgetop, which therefore — presuming that migrating monarchs ride the wind currents along the ridges to some extent — may be ideally situated to attract the first monarchs north in early summer. This year, I spotted my first monarch on June 17. This particular patch is only a few years old, and seems still to be in the expansion mode, filling in a strip of field between the edge of a maturing deciduous forest and a 30-year-old grove of Norway spruce. A couple of vernal ponds, which can collect water from heavy rains throughout the year, lie a short distance away through the woods, which is also littered with abundant fallen and standing dead trees of several species and in all states of decomposition. In short, the place is a hotspot of local invertebrate biodiversity — an insect Mecca.

netwinged beetle orgy
A net-winged beetle orgy

I’ve barely begun to explore the teeming life of the milkweed patch, assembling the better photos into a photo set on flickr. As time and light conditions permit, I hope to augment it. In the meantime, here’s a small selection. As usual, my focus is more on aesthetics than science, but I urge anyone with an interest in natural history to read the article I quoted from above, In a Milkweed Patch, by Marcia Bonta (Hi, Mom!). She — unlike me — has done her research.

I have also scrutinized list after list by scientists that are fascinated by all the insects that live, eat, nectar and/or die on common milkweed and each differs in species’ numbers and kinds. So even though scientists have been studying the common milkweed and its visitors for as long as 113 years–beginning with Illinois naturalist Charles Robertson’s pioneering, 25-year study–there is still much more to be learned about these intriguing wildflowers and their inhabitants.

yellow skipper 2
tawny-edged skipper (I think)

Gingerbread man

wild ginger

Caught out in the open as she trots down the gravel driveway, the feral cat freezes and flattens herself in the track, trying to impersonate a large black stone.

I’ve come outside to take a leak, but end up measuring myself against a bull thistle instead. It stands a little taller than me, and its flowers are still in bud, swelling like green porcupines. There’s something charismatic about this plant: it has style. Every angle of every leaf tapers into a spine, exhibiting a kind of single-mindedness that one does associate with bulls, or human warriors. The Russian thistles massed up in the field are mere foot soldiers by comparison. I aim a jet of urine at its lower leaves.

An hour later, my brother Steve shows up, and we head off down the mountain for a short expedition to a nearby natural area: a north-facing base of a talus-strewn ridge where cold air collects in small pit-caves even in the middle of the summer. We used to go swimming in the adjacent creek when we were kids, but that wouldn’t be possible now — it’s fiercely posted and fenced on the state forest side. These are hotly contested cold waters: Spruce Creek, a trout stream that attracts flyfishermen from around the world, following in the footsteps of President Eisenhower, who discovered it back in the 50s when his brother Milton was president of Penn State. A couple nights ago, Steve and I watched the documentary Why We Fight, which goes into great detail about Eisenhower’s prophetic anti-war thinking — the generally forgotten background to his famous coinage of the phrase “military-industrial complex” in his farewell address to the nation. It’s tempting to imagine Ike crafting his valediction right here at Spruce Creek, standing knee-deep in the current and ruminating on the need for balance.

Another factor in maintaining balance involves the element of time. As we peer into society’s future, we — you and I, and our government — must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without asking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.

While I go off stalking photos, Steve stretches out in the largest of the pits, luxuriating in the natural air conditioning and escaping the oppressive humidity above. I guess the way it works is that ice formed last winter and spring lingers deep inside the crevasses of the mountain, cooling the air that drains out at its base.

For someone from out West, or somewhere else in “real” mountain country where snow lingers on high peaks until June, our little Appalachian ridges must seem like a joke. But whatever these mountains lack in size, I think they make up in mystery (not to mention biodiversity: due to its boreal microclimate, this very spot harbors one rare plant, which shall go unmentioned, and at least two other uncommon ones). When I last stopped by here, in the third week of May, there were still several inches of ice at the bottom of each of these so-called caves; a hundred years ago, when hemlocks extended all the way up the mountainside and kept the forest considerably cooler, visible ice probably lasted right through the summer. That was the case up in Coudersport, Pennsylvania, where a much larger ice cave used to be a well-known roadside attraction until the forest above it was cut down and most of the ice disappeared.

hemlock stump face

I find a small hemlock stump that for some reason kept growing after the sapling was cut down, forming a kind of pinched-together face that reminds me a bit of a flower bud. The adjacent root sprout is already almost two feet tall, identical to, yet different from, the tree that was cut down. No wonder the stump got its signals crossed.

When I circle back to where my brother had been lying, he’s gone, so I take his place in the pit for half a minute. It’s odd: there’s no transition from the hot, sticky air above to the cool, dry air below ground level. The sounds of the creek echo strangely off the rock walls; it could be the murmur of a distant crowd, or a radio turned down to the point where you have to strain to make out the words. Somewhere at this very moment, people are huddling in bomb shelters, or crouching motionless among the fruit trees in their orchards as jets scream overhead. Somewhere, bodies are being washed and wrapped and prepared for burial.

I walk quickly back to the car, pausing only to admire a slope covered with wild ginger (Asarum canadense) and briefly imagining the sharp, spicy flavor of their roots. Like the more familiar Asian ginger (Zingiber officinale) whose roots you can buy in the supermarket, this American species was traditionally credited with the power to “quicken the blood.” The refrain from the children’s story goes through my head: Run, run, as fast as you can, you can’t catch me, I’m the gingerbread man! I snap a picture of their rounded, heart-shaped leaves before hurrying on. It looks like rain.

Poems for a trip to the shore

Spanish-language poets never seem to tire of writing poems about the sea, and I never tire of reading them. Here are four favorites, freshly translated for the summer beach season. (Some of you may remember the first of these from a post back in March — The owl’s insomnia. I like my new version better.)


SONG (Canción)
by Rafael Alberti

If my voice should die on land,
carry it down to the sea
and leave it on the shore.

Carry it down to the sea
and make it captain of a white
ship of war.

Oh my voice, decorated
with the emblem of a sailor:
over the heart an anchor,
and over the anchor a star,
and over the star the wind,
and over the wind the sail!


THE SHORE (La orilla)
by Roberto Sosa

The great shore
gives shelter
to the smallest minnows.

Mother to boats and travelers,
she looks after that blue child the water.
She swallows hooks.

At night she sings, and the fishermen dream
of dragging the sea’s skeleton
back to their huts.

My little girl, my minnow,
this whole great shore’s for you.


THE LONGSHOREMEN (Los estibadores)
by Roberto Sosa

Yesterday’s courier and cross of rubble. From somewhere or other they came up with walls, docks and black ships. Boxcars that eclipsed the morning, the longshoremen already diminished by their bulky loads … even the ice was a form of outrage. Courier of yesterday — my father was one.

The breakers of late afternoon always subsiding, but still always rising up. To me, everything seemed to have grown dark — the tourist and the fisherman, the masts, the flotillas of gulls — all, all but the flying foam.

The workers on the docks went home to their cooking fires like failed angels. I was six, and dread was already dread.


Me at the Bottom of the Sea (Yo en el fondo del mar)
by Alfonsina Storni

There’s a house of glass
at the bottom of the sea.

It fronts on a street
of solid madrepore.

At five o’clock,
a fat golden fish
comes calling.

He brings me
a scarlet spray
of coral blossoms.

I sleep on a bed
just a bit bluer
than the sea.

An octopus
winks at me
from the other side of the glass.
In the green forest
all around —
ding-dong, ding-dang
the sea-green pearly
sirens sing
and sway.

And over my head
in the twilight, burning,
all the bristle-points
of the sea.


In October 1938, Storni drowned herself in the ocean at Mar del Plata.


In the last village before the highway, oblivious to the danger of rockets, a young man pushes a cart loaded to the sky with white eggs.

In the other direction come lorries, loaded with shells, for Israeli tanks to launch into Lebanon.


I didn’t write that. It’s the last two sentences from a report by Nick Thorpe of the BBC. But I think it stands quite well on its own.

A couple of the pieces Beth and I have published in the current, short shorts edition of qarrtsiluni were actually rescued from old emails I had happened to save. I guess I’m always on the lookout for revelations, the briefer and more mysterious, the better. It can be difficult to set out consciously to create a good short piece of writing: like cooking a small fish, or pushing a cart full of eggs through a war zone, it takes a light touch. As Ben Zen says, there is nothing so unforgiving as the genuine.

We’re still actively soliciting contributions, by the way. Currently, we have almost enough material to make it to the end of July, but would like to continue through August, as well. Artists interested in interpreting the theme or accompanying a specific piece — as qB has just done — might want to contact Beth or me for suggestions in advance.


Bolete owl

The mid-summer woods are dark and damp and full of mystery. Visibility is at a minimum. Things crash off through the brush without ever giving one so much as a glimpse. Strange calls issue from the throats of recently fledged birds.

Toothsome amanita

Mushroom. It sounds like a good place to get polenta, or the last stop in an obedience school for sled dogs. Then too, it conjures up the effects of certain fungi on humans: ventilating the rooms of the mind with extra windows, say, or dissolving the liver.


Small patches of sunlight slide across the forest floor and disappear, re-appearing a few feet or many yards away. The photographer of mushrooms can either stalk these patches of available light and see what they illuminate, or find a potential subject and wait for the sun. Or, of course, one can forgo the sunlight altogether, use a tripod, and shoot in the gloom.

Bolete abstract

Me, I lie in ambush. I figure I’ll know my quarry when it comes.

Dying sun

Spare parts

Here’s an old poem based on some emails from a woman I “met” about five years back through an online dating service, a very ambitious young Sharon Olds disciple. The “relationship” fizzled after about a month when it became obvious to her that I was more interested in talking about poetry than hopping a bus to her city for a weekend of heavy calisthenics. But she liked the poem, and seemed pleased that I chose to cast it in her voice, so I don’t think I do her any disrespect in reprinting it.


I’ve been so swamped, I took
a mental health day, called in sick.
My poems are dwindling like unused
extra fingers. But the signs
weren’t good: first the car
that wouldn’t start, then no heat
in the apartment. And in between
the therapist saying you have to learn
to let go
. Hell, I barely made it
to the appointment. How can I relax
when my mechanic charges twice
as much as my therapist? I ask
the radiator repairman, can’t you fix it
so it doesn’t knock?

I need things to be simpler than they are.

Today my car still isn’t running
& I work eleven hours, 9:00 to 8:00.
After work I’ll rent an old movie
& fall asleep on the couch,
the tattered cushions will take me
as I am, will let me down gently
into their kingdom of spare parts.
I’ll weight my pockets with ballast of coins
& combs, let the missing socks stay missing,
pay no mind to the pens all sticky with ink.

After the fire

Charred shell of an oak that the fire entered, snakes of flame darting through the logging slash, the wind turned poisonous: I was not there, only stopping by for the first time yesterday to see how the few trees left by the loggers fared in the May Day blaze.

We study crowns studded with the brown & shriveled remnants of leaves that budded out & started to grow, my friend tells me, in the weeks following the fire — as long as the sap already in limb & branch could maintain the illusion of life, like a sleepwalker trying to speak. The trunks still bear the forester’s blue mark that meant do not fell, save as a source of seed.

But this one — the one that stops us, appalled — never leafed out at all. The fire slipped into a hollow burl at ground level & fed on the heartwood, which had probably already acquired a certain predilection for the sweet & vastly slower flames of decomposition. The fire made a nest for itself in the spent shell from some earlier battle that the tree had managed to win, then ate its way back out through several new holes, burning a random sort of mask. You might want such a thing if you were acting in a play that included a role for Chaos, I suppose.

I give the charred wood a gentle kick, testing for weakness. It answers with a quiet boom, resonant like nothing living, tuned & tempered by the immense tree-shaped silence that continues above.

For more on the May Day forest fire, see here [PDF].

If you have a blog, please consider writing a tree-related post for the next Festival of the Trees.