Mizaru Bosatsu

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After struggling to comprehend the needs of so many, his head split into eleven pieces. Amitabha Buddha, seeing his plight, gave him eleven heads with which to hear the cries of the suffering.
Wikipedia, Kuan Yin

The Wikipedia article fails to mention that the eleventh head belongs to none other than Amitabha himself. I suppose you could say it was a meeting of the minds.

In Eurpean mythology, anything with multiple heads is invariably bad news. But then, Europeans were fairly unique; few other cultures were ever quite as removed from, and hostile to, the natural world. To me, the eleven-headed Kuan Yin iconography springs naturally from the botanical metaphor already implicit in the lotus seat.

In Japanese folk religion, though, the many-headed Goddess of Mercy has a Rabelaisian counterpart in the triune Monkey, made famous by its representation at Nikko. Lorianne had some fun with this icon in a recent post:

I had hoped to contribute ten self-portraits to the marathon, so I’m still one shy of my goal…but I have until midnight tonight (or maybe early tomorrow morning?) to post one more attempt.
Until then, though, I’m behaving myself, seeing, speaking, and hearing no evil.
Hoarded Ordinaries (see image)

Seeing a bodhisattva in a thousand-leafed rhododendron — what could be more emblematic of monkey mind?

What I saw when I was drinking

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Yesterday afternoon, I drank up the last of my homebrew. Plummer’s Hollow will be dry until I get around to making some more. So it was a bittersweet occasion. Hell, it was a bittersweet beer.

But don’t be alarmed — I wasn’t drinking alone. I never do.

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For one thing, there were the flies. Not the kind that bite, but the kind that just want to land on you and walk around a bit, pausing every few steps to rub your grime off their forefeet.

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A good, strong stout should help you appreciate, you know, the little things: The songs of the birds. The weave of your jeans. The way you don’t feel anything one way or the other when you kill a fly, and you begin to wonder if that makes you a potential sociopath.

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I got many glimpses of the chipmunk that lives in my herb garden as it hurried back and forth to its burrow, climbing tall weed stalks to get at their seeds and riding them down to the ground. I thought about my grandmother, who used to hand-feed chipmunks when she and Grandpa lived here for several summers back in the 1970s. In all likelihood, she fed this very chipmunk’s great x 30 grandmother. I can’t help feeling that creates a special bond between us. Not special enough to make we want to try hand-feeding it, but pretty special.

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Through the slats on the porch railing, I had a good view of a crowd of garlic, though I wasn’t close enough to eavesdrop. People tell me I should decapitate them so their bulbs will grow bigger, but I can rarely bring myself to do so. They have such character! I love watching them uncurl, finally pointing their bills straight up like bitterns. And when their heads split open and the children within grow beaks of their own, I scatter them far and wide. Slowly but surely, I’m turning the lawn into a garlic patch.

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From time to time, my eyes strayed back to the book on my lap: Jim Harrison’s The Shape of the Journey: New and Collected Poems. I was reading the section of poems called After Ikkyu and liking it pretty well. Harrison is a good drinking companion.

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But mostly, I looked at the beer. As I mentioned, it’s homebrew, so I wouldn’t have to carbonate and bottle it. Three years ago, in fact, I left a couple batches in the carboy and just siphoned off a pitcher whenever I got thirsty. I don’t particularly need the mouth-feel of carbonation; I do it for the foam. What do wine drinkers look at? I’ve never understood that. Beer is beautiful.


UPDATE: With the last photo, I meant to reference Dsida Jeno’s “Poem of Darkness,” which I recently became acquainted with thanks to frizzyLogic. True, Jeno himself mentions coffee. But what better than stout for a “dark and bitter drink” into which, “one dank brown evening,” to “melt and sink”?

Old farm photos

The Children’s Picnic

Seven girls sit on the lawn around a picnic blanket. The year is 1919 or 1920, so of course they are all wearing dresses. They range in age from three to about fifteen. One girl wears a bow in her hair; she is six years old, and her name is Margaret. We don’t know the names of any of the others, because 81 years later, Margaret can no longer remember who they were. The teenager might have been her cousin Phyllis, she thinks.

The photographer takes three pictures of the children’s picnic, which will make it possible to pinpoint its location — on the lawn above the kitchen — even after eight decades have elapsed and almost everything has changed. In the background of one photo, a martin house and a large bell stand loom above the unfamiliar foliage. In the first two photos, the girls look stiff and serious — all except for Margaret, who grins impishly, at home here on her Great Uncle George’s farm. Then they go back to their picnic, raising spoons to their lips. The pet collie, whose name is Snap, appears as a blur of movement off to the left. Margaret’s eyes follow the dog; you can almost hear her calling for him to come. But he isn’t interested in joining this strange feast, which seems to include nothing but a small pile of oak leaves in the center of the blanket.


Charles in the Garden

Two-year-old Charles stands in a large patch of turnips, or perhaps rutabagas. Behind him, the barn is brand-new, painted a shade of darkness that must be red. Above the corncrib, rows of fruit trees where we have only ever known a field stretch all the way up to Sapsucker Ridge, which is dimly visible in the distance. In dreams, I sometimes visit another version of the hollow that lies right over a ridge we’d somehow overlooked, where the orchard was never bulldozed out in the 1950s and the old farmhouse was spared its extreme makeover into a faux plantation home. Everything is twice as big and twice as far — the way things looked when I was small.

Margaret’s little brother still has uncut, blonde curls and wears a long-sleeved white dress. He stands with his feet planted firmly in the garden path and grins at something off to the photographer’s left. With one arm raised he points high above his head, as if leading the ranks of turnips on to glory.


Light and Shadows

In the middle of the road below and to the right of my front porch, Jacob Plummer stands in his Sunday best with one hand on his hips and the other resting on the rear wheel of an open carriage. His wife Mollie sits up in the carriage holding the reins. They’re hauling what look like steel gates, or perhaps the springs for a child’s crib. The horse has his head up, clearly intent on getting back to the barn. At the top of the photo, a limb from the balm-of-Gilead polar tree that used to stand at the corner of the wall until its death in the early 1970s blocks much of the background. The bottom third of the photo is a double exposure. On the near side of the road, the sky starts over with much less balm-of-Gilead in it — a sky which, judging from the sharpness of the shadows cast by man and horse and carriage, must be a clear blue and not this barren field of white that we see.



The hired man and his son have paused in their harrowing of the freshly plowed field. It’s spring; the trees at the edge of the field still look skeletal, and there are splashes of white that could be shadbush. The newly emancipated stones have dried in the sun, making them clearly visible against the darker soil. The man is bearded under a floppy felt hat, and wears a long-sleeved white shirt and dark pants held up by suspenders. In the first photo, the camera is tilted, making him appear to stand at an angle to the ground, like the gromon on a sundial. In the second photo, they’ve turned away from the photographer and gone back to work, the boy astride the left horse holding a switch, the man behind with one foot on the harrow and his hands on his hips as the iron teeth sink once more into the mountain’s thin red clay.


The Siblings

Richard is twelve, and doesn’t know what to do with his hands. In one photo, we see him in profile against a tree with his hands held stiffly behind his back. In another photo, he stands in the road halfway up the hill toward the barn with his hands thrust into the bib pockets of his overalls, frowning at the camera. In a third photo, taken at the same spot, his little sister has joined him. His hands have now disappeared behind the front of his overalls, elbows a little less awkward at his sides as he stares at the ground to his right. A straw hat nearly hides his new haircut. Margaret appears to imitate his posture, resting her weight on one leg and thrusting a hand into the pleats of her dress. The dog is nowhere to be seen. Stifling the vivacity that will carry her through nearly ninety years of life, she looks as grownup as she can, and gives her best impression of utter boredom.

The web and other fables

Last Sunday morning I walked down the mountain to meet the woman we buy eggs from on her way back home from 8:00 a.m. mass. As I crossed the tracks, I heard her tires on the metal decking of the county bridge. She rounded the bend and stopped; a helmet with legs stood in the road between us. We hurried over and crouched on either side of it with our cameras, admiring the bright red eyes and orange markings and its apparent fearlessness as it continued on over the gravel and into the high weeds. However it had managed to survive to adulthood in the tiny strip of woods between the tracks and the river, it knew better than to look for sanctuary in the dark night of its shell.


Does place matter? Are online spaces truly analogous to real-world places? Do the connections we forge through blogging reinforce or compete with our connections to real-world communities and natural places? I emailed a bunch of blogger friends to get their opinions, and as you might expect, everyone had a different take on it. “What I like about place-specific writers (though I am definitely not among them),” wrote Siona, “is how I come away appreciating the nuances of my own particular corner of the planet that much more as a result.” Lorianne noted that for her main interest — nature writing — the blogosphere was a gold mine.

Whereas published nature writing might clue me into a handful of interesting (usually spectacular) wild places, place blogs allow me to check in on a greater number of places, most of them quite ordinary: places where folks actually live. Instead of seeing ‘nature’ or ‘place’ as being something that happens somewhere else away from people–Abbey’s deserted desert, Thoreau’s tranquil pond–I learn from blog-reading that ‘nature’ and ‘place’ transpire in the real world, in places where people are reading books & doing laundry & getting drunk & falling in love.


Below the old corral, I remind myself to quit walking so fast. Stop and look around, Dave! I take three steps back in the direction I just came, and a ruffed grouse family flushes from the weeds. The half-grown youngsters burst into flight, careening off to all points of the compass. The mother stays behind to do her broken-wing act, weaving drunkenly through the dry leaves and calling piteously. “Oh, stop your grousing!” I say, and she does.


Places are no less real for being imaginary, Beth wrote.

I think imaginary places have great power, and when we (on purpose or unwittingly) are presented with a real life substitute, the fantasy is diminished or even destroyed. I don’t much like seeing movies of books, for that reason, because I rather like the people and places who are created by my imagination when I read. In the case of REAL people (bloggers), the temptation to actually meet is too great, so it has been a tradeoff I’ve been glad to make. But I am sorry for some of the diminishment of the power of that virtual place and its inhabitants.

Marja-Leena offered a visual artist’s perspective, saying that for her, familiar blogs quickly become very place-like. It occurs to me that the element of evolution in a blog — the fact that it is constantly growing — adds to its feeling of spaciousness.


The black raspberries are ripening. The decline in our local deer herd has meant that, for the first time in over a decade, there are enough canes around the houses to yield a cup or two a day. I feel sorry for people who have to keep their lawns mowed, or feel that they do; it’s a nice feeling to be able to go outside and gorge on something one didn’t even have to plant. It’s odd, though: picking berries into a pot always seems like work, but eating them as I go, a handful at a time, is pure pleasure. I feel like a bear circling my house, glancing into all the windows.


Early in the discussion, I had mentioned that I didn’t think that immersion in online activity was such a great issue; the invention of writing systems had precipitated the original leap into abstraction, and that leap is still unsurpassed by anything that’s happened since. The blogger known as whiskey asked,

I want to know why it’s (potentially) unhealthy to live in an abstract state – as a writer, or as any kind of an artist? After all, it seems a bit of a prerequisite to live there, in the spaces between imagination and reality, memory and creativity, but is there really ever a conscious choice in the matter, or are we just drawn that way?

I think that creative individuals have a more heightened sense of reality – not in an abstract sense – but in the capacity to shift perception, to see otherwise, to move a little deeper in and out of what surrounds them than someone who stays on the surface of things.

To me, this is an infinitely healthier state, more flexible, less subject to rigidity and thus breakage. The benefits seem to far outweigh the risks – although it’s true that the risks take quite a few of us out. Is that pathological or is it evolutionary?

Several other bloggers answered, and a consensus seemed to emerge that, as Beth put it,

Abstract thinking […] can be informed by the concrete, day-to-day world, and our gift (I’d dare suggest) is to describe or translate the day-to-day world with added meaning because of that ability to think abstractly. So I think the two are best if in some sort of conscious balance, not that one is healthier than the other.


I get up from my writing and go out. It’s a beautiful morning, the nicest in a couple of weeks: clear and cool, like autumn in July. I climb the hill past the lilac bush — the path I take a dozen times a day. Just as I step onto the veranda of my parents’ house, a sunbeam passes through the front porch and all the way through the living room to light up a potted geranium that sits in the middle of a round table next to the door. This is its second blossoming, pink streaked with white, as obvious as a five-dollar whore. But the sun’s spotlight, filtered by several layers of glass, lends the flowers a brief, otherworldly radiance, and half a minute later, when it fades and goes out, I find I have forgotten whatever it was I came up for. Newly inspired, I go back down and return to my writing.


The email discussion began to ramify, making it difficult for me to keep track of who said what. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Dale weighed in about the importance of the quality of one’s attention, and questioned the relevance of “the natural” to our ability to stay focused on the present. Siona’s response resonated with me.

To me, physical embodiedness is a necessary part of attention. It’s all fine and good to examine the quality of attention from a spiritual or psychological point of view, but I somehow think that, unless the body is included, something is missing. And much as I’d like to think I can capture the same meditative quality in my squared-off office quarters, I know that unless the pores of my skin are soaking up the richness of a landscape, that unless the bronchii in my lungs are breathing in the respiration of plants, that unless my body is settled in the earth, where it belongs, there’s no way I can presume to be as present as truly possible. We are all connected to the planet, and the deepest present awareness, I think, demands this connection to “the natural.”

Other people jumped in to differ with or expand upon points already made. It occurred to me that, instead of using email, we should all be blogging and linking to each other. Only interconnected, hyperlinked text, with multiple nodes and no center, can begin to fairly represent a real-world conversation.


I went out for a walk one evening right at dusk during a break in the rains, and chose a foot path that winds through the hundred-year-old oak woods on what we call Laurel Ridge. The wood thrushes as usual were singing their heartbreaking songs. I started noticing mushrooms beside the trail, though it was hard to tell how many in the dim light. A deerfly found me and began blundering around in my hair. The humid air had a rank and fungal scent.

By the next morning, a cold front had blown in and the rains seemed to be over for a while. I took the path again, and was astounded. Yellow-brown toadstools were everywhere, pushing up the leaves, opening their cracked umbrellas. Here and there I saw amanitas and coral mushrooms, and clusters of Indian pipes — ghost flowers, as someone aptly nicknamed them — offered counterpoint to the lurid fungal display. I sat down on a patch of moss. It’s one thing to realize intellectually that a dense network of fungal mycelia extends for miles beneath one’s feet, and that without it, most of these trees could barely gather water or nutrients, but it’s another thing to see direct evidence of it.

Arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungi are mutualistic symbionts living in the roots of 80% of land plant species, and developing extensive, belowground extraradical hyphae fundamental for the uptake of soil nutrients and their transfer to host plants. Since AM fungi have a wide host range, they are able to colonize and interconnect contiguous plants by means of hyphae extending from one root system to another. Such hyphae may fuse due to the widespread occurrence of anastomoses, whose formation depends on a highly regulated mechanism of self recognition. […] The root systems of plants belonging to different species, genera and families may be connected by means of anastomosis formation between extraradical mycorrhizal networks, which can create indefinitely large numbers of belowground fungal linkages within plant communities.
–Manuela Giovannetti, Luciano Avio, Paola Fortuna, Elisa Pellegrino, Cristiana Sbrana and Patrizia Strani, At the Root of the Wood Wide Web: Self Recognition and Nonself Incompatibility in Mycorrhizal Networks

Like an Internet user clicking on “page source” for the very first time, I sat uneasily among the fruiting bodies of the wood-wide web.

For a much more thorough and academic look at the relationships between blogging and place, see Tim Lindgren’s paper, “Blogging Places: Locating Pedagogy in the Whereness of Weblogs.

Of birds and bloggers

For the first-year anniversary of the bird blog carnival I and the Bird, its founder, Mike of 10,000 Birds, asked contributors to talk about why they bird, why they blog and/or why they blog about birds. Read the results here.

Some of Mike’s own thoughts should be of interest to anyone who blogs (or who simply reads blogs), especially if they’re wondering what the deal is with carnivals.

Someone one said that happiness makes up in height what it lacks in length. I suspect that principle applies to many other emotions, including enthusiasm for blogging. This is a tough business, particularly because it’s not a business at all. Very few people are making decent money off the sweat of their brows here in the blogosphere, but lots of bloggers will tell you how heavily they’re sweating. Productive, effective, consistent writing on any topic is demanding work. So what’s the payoff? Where is the inducement to stay at it when other demands loom large? I think most bloggers feel rewarded by recognition and connection. More readers satisfy the former while the respect of our peers, hopefully manifested in the form of links, provides for the latter. So, it stood to reason that if I wanted to see my favorite bloggers continue to offer up top notch content for free while encouraging others to get in the game and do the same, I had to do my part to deliver readers and links. That, my friends, is what a carnival does.

If the new Festival of the Trees enjoys even a tenth as much success as I and the Bird, I’ll be satisfied.

Throwing away the mirror

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This is my final entry in the self-portrait marathon, which ends this week. I snapped it on Saturday, from almost the exact same position where the photo I have been using in each of the other portraits in this series was snapped. In this one, of course, the angle is different, though I expect you’ll recognize the yellow wall. You can also see the legs of the tripod I used for the original shot poking out from behind the coat on my coat rack. I had been drinking mugwort ale and was, shall we say, in a rather elevated mood when, on my way toward the kitchen, I noticed these shadows cast by the setting sun, sat down in my swivel chair, and took four pictures. This was the fourth. I was dimly aware that it might be an important shot, but did not realize that it contained my own likeness until days later, when I uploaded the pictures to my computer.

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Here’s a close-up with the contrast increased, in case you’re having trouble seeing the portrait. It’s a pretty good likeness, I think, though the mouth is canted a little strangely, as if I were laughing at some private joke. One thing you’ll notice about self-portraits is that the subjects are almost never smiling. If they were, I suppose we might worry a bit about the author’s mental health.

This morning I was re-reading a not terribly good translation of the tenth-century Japanese fictional diary Tosa nikki, by Ki no Tsurayuki. Since I had alluded to it in yesterday’s poem, I thought it might be interesting to see if I still liked it, two decades after my first encounter with it. I was blown away.

It occurred to me as I read it that it functions on one level as a kind of ironic self-portrait. And since women were considered more vulnerable than men, by inventing a female protagonist to narrate in his stead, its author, the reigning poet and literary critic of his day, could explore in depth what it meant to be an artist or poet, with one’s heart-mind (kokoro) continually open to everything around it.

In the diary, amid all the high drama and low comedy of the ex-governor’s (i.e., Tsurayuki’s) slow progress by boat along the coast of Shikoku and Honshu en route to Kyoto, the narrator keeps returning to her deep sorrow for a young son who died a short time before. Her precise relationship to the ex-governor is never spelled out — one of several omissions designed to pique the reader’s interest. In line with Tsurayuki’s theory — articulated in his preface to the great imperial anthology of poetry, the Kokinshu, which he helped edit — poems arise spontaneously from the narrator’s heart in response to her strong emotions on seeing various things deemed poetic, usually natural phenomena.* But of course in reality Tsurayuki must have composed them himself, seemingly undercutting his own theory. Her poems are much the best of those included in the diary, but she chooses not to share them with anyone, whispering them to herself and consigning them to a diary which, she says at the end, “I really ought to tear up and be done with.”

As was normal in the aristocratic culture of the time, the people in the diary are constantly composing and exchanging poems. Despite our narrator’s superficial resemblance to Emily Dickinson, poems in her age were generally not the products of a unique and private vision, but a kind of social currency used to establish and maintain relationships of all kinds.

With one exception, the worst poems recorded in the Tosa Diary are all by the ex-governor. But because of his high position, no one has the courage to tell him how bad they are. That’s partly why this work strikes me as an ironic self-portrait by a poet in the twilight of his career. By contrast, several precocious children manage to come up with poems that are deemed very good, and even the illiterate captain, quite by accident, at one point shouts commands to his crew in what the astonished narrator declares is a perfect tanka!

The captain is also at the center of the most dramatic and possibly the most telling incident in the diary. Throughout the voyage, they are plagued by high seas, adverse winds and the threat of attack by pirates. Near the end, a gale blows up while they’re offshore at a place called Sumiyoshi, which is celebrated in Japanese verse for the abundance of a grass called wasuregusa — “grass of forgetfulness,” or maybe “oblivion grass.” The narrator has just composed a sad poem about her desire to forget, if only for a moment, her sorrow at the death of her child. The sudden high seas threaten to capsize the boat, and the captain tries the standard offering of sacred shredded cloth to try and pacify the local spirit of the place, without effect. At last he hauls out a mirror — at the time, a rare and valuable object — and quotes a proverb: “We have two good eyes, but one thing more precious.” A footnote in my edition explains that this is usually a reference to one’s children, not to a mirror. The captain casts the mirror into the sea, and almost immediately the storm begins to ebb. The narrator concludes,

The [poetic] things associated with this place — the calm sea of Sumiyoshi, the grasses of forgetfulness of care, and the elephant princess-pines of the shore — the god resembles none of them. It was plain to see that the god’s desire was reflected in that mirror and that the mind of the captain understood that of the god. (Earl Miner, tr., in Japanese Poetic Diaries, University of California Press, 1969)

In his poetic manifesto, written years earlier, Tsurayuki had maintained that poetry possesses the non-coercive power to “move heaven and earth” and “wake the feelings of the unseen gods and spirits” (see footnote). Now, in the Tosa nikki, he seems less certain of this. Perhaps, like many aging aristocrats in 10th-century Japan, he was coming increasingly under the influence of Buddhist notions of no-self and emptiness. If the heart or mind of the artist is, as the ancient Japanese thought, a mirror held up to nature, what do we do about this foolish being, this creature of inexplicable emotions, who keeps appearing in it every time we try to see what it really holds?


* Here’s the first paragraph of the preface, as translated by Burton Watson in From the Country of Eight Islands: An Anthology of Japanese Poetry, Anchor/Doubleday, 1981.

Japanese poetry has its seeds in the human heart, and takes form in the countless leaves that are words. So much happens to us while we live in this world that we must voice the thoughts that are in our hearts, conveying them through the things we see and the things we hear. We hear the bush warbler singing in the flowers or the voice of the frogs that live in the water and know that among all living creatures there is not one that does not have its song. It is poetry that, without exerting force, can move heaven and earth, wake the feelings of the unseen gods and spirits, soften the relations between man and woman, and soothe the heart of the fierce warrior.

Short shorts at qarrts

Qarrtsiluni, the online publication of uncertain identity — blog or literary magazine? — and whose name no one can ever remember how to spell, has just begun a new issue — if that’s the word –  which we hope will be tailor-made for the summer season: short shorts. Beth Adams and I are the editors this time; see her description of what we’re looking for here. And be sure to stop by the magazine — er, blog — whatever — to see our first two, brief but revealing posts: Splitting and Index of First Lies.

First fiction

We were alone
in the darkness
on the top deck
of the ferry
coming back
from Shikoku,
the two
of us wrapped
in a single windbreaker,
me thinking
about the ex-governor
who had sailed
a thousand
years before
into this same
rocked & buffeted,
who for some
reason envisioned
a woman in
his stead —
the log she
would keep,
the songs & poems
she would salt
it with —
& she, whose name
signified safety,
place of refuge,

thinking perhaps
that I was proving
more difficult
than she had

“the log she would keep”: The Tosa nikki is the first work of fiction in Japanese (see here for a typo-laden version of an abridged translation). It describes in the voice of a female aristocrat a sea voyage the author himself took, from Tosa in southern Shikoku back to the capital, Kyoto. Ki no Tsurayuki , c.872-945, was the preeminent poet of his day, and authored in addition the first work of Japanese literary criticism, the preface to the Kokinshu.


Why did the chicken cross the road?

Well, good lord, everyone knows that! Don’t they?

Fifty years ago, I imagine, free-ranging chickens were nearly ubiquitous along small country roads. The roads maybe weren’t in as good shape as they are now; farms were small and numerous just about anywhere agriculture was feasible; and farmers liked to hedge their bets with a more diverse array of crops and livestock than one sees nowadays. I wasn’t alive then, of course, but I’m guessing that back then, anyone who had ever gone for a drive in the country would have had ample opportunity to wonder why in the hell the chicken crossed the road. That joke must’ve actually seemed funny once!

I know because when I was a kid we raised chickens for a number of years. We always had a few bantams and araucanas, including one or two roosters, but the rest — twenty to forty, depending on the time of year — were hens of a hybrid breed known as Black Beauties. Even before we put up the gate at the bottom of the mountain, there weren’t many cars on our somewhat scary, mile-and-a-half-long, one-lane dirt road, and those that did venture up — the meter man, the game warden, UPS before all their drivers became too lazy or, uh, chicken — didn’t drive over ten miles per hour. So when cars rounded the guest house curve and began the ascent past the henhouse, the chickens had plenty of time to do what chickens always do when an automobile approaches: run directly in front of it at high speed. A chicken might be a hundred feet from the road, but as soon as she sees a car approach, she’ll start running. The goal is to get there in time to cross the road just inches away from the front tires, flapping her wings for speed and cackling madly. If the driver is alert and steps on the brakes in time, her game of chicken will end safely with no loss of life or radiator grill.

Chickens, it seems, don’t have a whole lot going on behind those beady little eyes. Except for bantams, who retain much of the canniness of their wild ancestors, chickens are remarkably easy to hypnotize. Sometimes, when the devil was casting about for ways to employ our idle hands, one of us kids would get a yardstick and some chalk and draw a straight line on the concrete floor of the veranda. Then we’d go catch a chicken, soothe her until she stopped clucking, and lay her down on her side with one of her eyes level with the line. For some reason, this is deeply entrancing to a chicken — kind of like putting a person behind the wheel of a car on a long, straight road. She can lie like that for hours, perfectly still while people, pets and other chickens walk all around her. Then all of a sudden you’ll see her get up, shake herself, and walk away as if nothing happened.

We also found we could hypnotize a chicken by holding her upright in one hand at eye level and staring directly into her eyes. In half a minute or less, she’d become sufficiently entranced that you could carry her out to the old stump we used as a chopping block, place her head between the nails and stretch out her neck to its fullest extent with no fuss whatsoever. Again, though, this didn’t work on bantams, who always seemed to be able to intuit our intentions, and had a special kind of call that they only uttered on the way to the chopping block. It sounded disturbingly like “Help, help, help!” The roosters knew what it meant, too, and would come running over and try to screw up their courage to attack, charging as close as they dared and making what were presumably intended to be threatening noises. But we kept the bantams for meat, not for eggs. And if you can’t handle killing, you have no business eating meat.

I should add that it was my father — a lifelong pacifist — who acted as executioner up until I was around 16 or 17, when he passed the responsibility on to me with considerable relief. In late summer and early fall, during the poultry killing season (we also raised muscovy ducks), Dad would kill two birds a week, and Mom would clean them, sometimes with the help of one of us kids. The scary thing about killing a chicken is how much it thrashes about after its head comes off. The chopping block was situated right next to an old road scraper — an attachment for Dad’s small farm tractor — and we took advantage of its curved blade to deflect the flying blood from our clothes. Dad taught me how to hold the chicken’s legs in the left hand, bring the hatchet down with the right, then quickly swing the bird up and over against the scraper blade during the one- or two-second lull before the convulsive thrashing began.

We never tried letting them go to see if they’d run around — it wasn’t worth getting dirt on the neck, Dad said. Besides, it would have seemed callous and disrespectful. We used the neck meat, of course. Everything but the feet and the head, which seemed to retain consciousness for ten to fifteen seconds after it tumbled to the ground, the beak opening and closing soundlessly a couple of times before the eyelids slowly closed.

The end was swift, and I’m sure the shock of it prevented much if any suffering. We told ourselves that these chickens had lived a good life, unconfined except by snow in the winter — and even then, they had the whole, dirt basement of the henhouse to grub around and take dust baths in. Our motives for this arrangement weren’t entirely altruistic, of course. Eggs and meat from free-range chickens simply tastes better, not only because the birds get plenty of exercise, but also because, dumb as they may seem by comparison with human beings, chickens are smart enough to do what few humans can: balance their diet on their own. Even in the dirt under the henhouse they evidently found enough worms, insect larvae and other invertebrates to continue producing eggs with deep orange yolks throughout the winter.

I don’t know what it is about a car that provokes such panic among chickens, but panic is never a rational response to danger, even among people. I’ve seen panic attacks at close hand, and they’re scary, and a little awe-inspiring. The mind seizes up somehow — a form of paralysis completely opposite to trance or hypnosis. Breathing and circulation go into overdrive. As the etymology of the word suggests, panic was once associated with the groundless terrors people felt when they strayed too far from the safety of home and village: Pan was the god of fields and woods.

And of course panic is contagious, leading potentially to pandemonium. When one chicken started racing for the road, half a dozen others would quickly follow suit, and a mad rush for the safety of the henhouse would ensue. In commercial operations, this tendency to mass panic can lead to large pileups in the corner of a chicken house and dozens of birds smothering to death.

Even small flocks, like the one we used to keep, are too large for the physical and mental health of the birds if bad weather confines them to quarters for too long. Chickens are social birds with a strong tendency to keep themselves in line with a pecking order. As with human dominance hierarchies, this “order” regularly leads to the death of its most vulnerable members. The skin on a low-ranking chicken’s feet might split from frostbite, and the sight of blood would provoke another chicken to begin pecking. Chickens like the taste of blood. Soon, the unfortunate hen would be surrounded by a mob of her comrades, fighting each other for a piece of her increasingly bloody body. I saw this happen a couple of times, and was able to beat them off, but knew that I was only forestalling the inevitable. During the bi-weekly replacing of the old litter with fresh hay from the barn, we would occasionally find the partially eaten corpses of missing chickens. I suppose we lost four or five chickens a year this way.

If having a pecking order leads to such brutal results, how and why did it evolve? The easy answer is that, in the case of most breeds of chickens, naturally evolved traits have been distorted by inbreeding and the selection for certain traits disadvantageous to the long-term survival of chickens. But of course many species of fully wild birds have informal pecking orders, too. And though many human societies are quite non-hierarchical, such societies tend to be those at the simplest level of social organization: small, nomadic bands thinly distributed across a landscape. With higher population densities and more sedentary habits, hierarchical structures seem like an almost inevitable development, absent some mitigating ethos strongly valuing individual autonomy.

My theory is that hierarchies are common among social animals because social animals have a strong need for security, and a pecking order happens to be one of the easiest ways of providing it. The individual chicken knows her place, and if the tensions created by rivalry for higher positions in the pecking order threaten the solidarity of the flock, then miraculously a chicken at or near the bottom begins to bleed around her toes. Presumably, the experience of participating in the elimination of one of its least desirable members generates the same kind of positive emotional feedback that the citizens of a modern nation-state get from invading a much smaller country or howling for the elimination of some undesirable minority.

But we have strayed perhaps a little too far from our original question, haven’t we? I don’t know if we can make it all the way to the finish before the next car comes, but let’s get a running start. Our goal, let’s remember, is the other side — or the Far Side, for you die-hard Gary Larson fans. (And has the chicken ever had a more sympathetic champion?) Cars don’t go as fast as they otherwise might because the road is rough, and the road is rough because the road scraper is currently employed for, um, other purposes. But let’s not talk about that right now — keep your eyes on the goal. We can make it! Do it for the flock.

Festival of the Trees 1

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Excerpt of a much larger photo by Cindy Mead

“In the company of trees”

I have always been happiest in the company of trees. When I was a freshman in Houston I used to take my books out to a grove of pine and oak in a forgotten corner of the campus and sit underneath a tree reading in the warm afternoons. Sometimes I would pace back and forth and read my essays out loud. I cannot recall ever seeing another person in that grove. Except for the squirrels and birds I had it all to myself. Years later I think I remember the trees better than the books I was struggling to understand. I would stay there until the light played out and then head back to my dorm along sidewalks set between parallel rows of oaks drenched in Spanish moss. In the waning light the trees seemed dark and mysterious and at the same time compelling.

So writes Bill at prairie point blog. Welcome to the first monthly roundup of blog links to all things arboreal: the Festival of the Trees. Today, I want to showcase as many different ways of looking at trees as possible. Some might complain that this approach results in too long a blog post — “That ain’t no post, it’s a stinkin’ TREE!” But my assumption is that people who like trees are, by and large, given to contemplation rather than hurried skimming and haphazard clicking on links. Also, while most blog carnivals focus on the near present, I’m including some archival material to try and show that tree bloggers, like trees themselves, have been around for a while.

Let’s start with some biology: trees are flowering plants. This simple fact is something we wildflower enthusiasts sometimes need to be reminded of, as a recent post in Rurality demonstrates.

I thought I spied parasitic growths on the palm trees. But no, they were blooming!

Almost all plants bloom in one way or another I suppose, but I tend to think of those with inconspicuous flowers as non-blooming. You never hear anyone rhapsodizing over oak tree blossoms, for example. Before last week I had assumed that palms were the same. Only it turns out that all my previous trips to Florida were just mis-timed to catch them.

From flower, of course, comes seed or fruit. Any recent visitors to frizzyLogic must have seen the new masthead, which features silhouettes of what qB calls her bauble trees — London plane trees, close relatives of the North American sycamore. Here’s a full-color version from a recent post (click on link for larger version).

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As many of qB’s tree photos suggest, a closer-than-usual look can turn the most familiar-seeming trees into strange and exotic beings.

Last July, Nuthatch at bootstrap analysis went into delicious detail about something else we seldom pause to contemplate: how leaves are arranged on a branch.

I spend a lot of time in forests. As an ornithologist, I spend a lot of time looking up in forests. With luck, I see the bird I am searching for. If not, my eye will wander the canopy, appreciating the play of light through the leaves. One day, my mind, as well as my eye, wandered. Was there a pattern to this seemingly chaotic riot of green? Nature, I know, is a most efficient master. It seemed reasonable that leaves, as food factories designed to carry out photosynthesis, should probably be positioned in order to maximize their exposure to sunlight.

This is, in fact, the case. It may not always be easy to see, because environmental conditions, physical constraints, injuries, etc. obscure the patterns, but the method of leaf arrangement, or phyllotaxis, on plants is both precise and quite astounding.

Ontario-based blogger Pamela Martin, in Thomasburg Walks, ponders the ability of southern trees to survive a northern winter.

There is another tree in the yard that does not wait: the shagbark hickory. There are two, around the same age as the catalpas; they are about 50 centimetres high (currently lost in the tall grass). Reputed to be hardy to this zone […] this tree is also not at all frost-tolerant, and yet it insists on leafing out first every spring. It freezes, leafs out again (occasionally freezes again), and then, resources spent, it basically rests for the rest of the growing season. The linked article warns nut farmers, “Grown from seed, it can take 10 or more years for hickory trees to start to bear.” In this case, perhaps thirty or forty years.

Pamela wonders whether “an internal clock of some kind” might play a role. As it happens, another contribution to the festival goes into great detail about internal clocks. Coturnix of A Blog Around the Clock reports on the results of a Spanish study that “measured the levels of expression of circadian clock genes in the chestnut tree.” When the temperature and length of daylight together indicated “winter,” they found, the trees shut down entirely. Fluctuations in temperature during the course of the winter had no apparent effect — the trees stayed “asleep” (my word, not Coturnix’s) until the lengthening daylight and warmth of spring together restarted their clocks.

So, the clock is stopped — but is it still sending some kind of signal? Coturnix describes himself as a specialist in circadian rhythms, which makes his conclusions worth quoting in full, I think. Plus, something about the precise language of science is very appealing to me as a writer, even if I don’t always completely understand it.

How can we interpret these data?

Overwintering is the stage in which all energetically expensive processes are minimized or shut down. However, workings of the clock itself are not very energetically expensive, so this is an unlikely reason for the elimination of rhythmicity during winter.

Second interpretation would be that, as the tree shuts down all its processes, there is nothing for the clock to regulate any more. There is also no feedback from the rest of metabolism into the clock. Thus, circadian rhythmicity fades as a by-product of overall dormancy of the plant.

Third, the clock itself may be a part of the mechanism that keeps everything else down. In other words, a clock stopped at (for instance – this is a random choice of phase) midnight will keep giving the midnight signal to the rest of the plant for months on end, keeping all the other processes at their normal midnight level (which may be very low). Thus, the clock may be central to the overall mechanism of hibernation in trees — i.e., the autumnal stopping of the clock is an evolved adaptation.

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Bark beetle calligraphy (one of my own photos)

Then there are the mysteries of identity itself, often felt most keenly by the amateur naturalist struggling to pinpoint a species. Let’s remember where that word amateur comes from: while the professional is supposed to be detached, the amateur can be amorous, full of enthusiasm for his/her subject. Pica at Feathers of Hope has just posted a poem that excites my enthusiasm for poetry to an extreme degree. I must reproduce it in full.

Like and Unlike

yes no one zero
differentiated or opposite
five petals or four
a series of

Madrone is not
smooth bark
but different leaves
less showy
hidden in the


its bark says
smooth and red
peeled and sheer

I’m here
I am

the sweet smell
in late sun
oak titmice
and ravens
oh, sure,
that’s madrone,
not a



Tree names haunt the streets of towns and subdivisions all across the United States: Maple Vista. Oak Drive. Cherry Lane. Last month, the Middlewesterner had a revealing look at the origin of one of those street names.

I interviewed a man last night, nearly 80 years old, just about my father’s age. He was born in the house he’s living in. He has roots set down like the elm tree he said Elm Street is named after. A great blast of dynamite would not bring that tree down back when they were pouring cement on Highway 44. It took a second great blast of dynamite to topple the tree; the force of it broke windows way across the street at Stellmacher Lumber. Because the blast was directed to the south, the windows of the fellow’s house, just a few doors away, were not affected, though the house shook.

It was a stubborn tree. It had been there a long time and it wanted to stay. The old fellow said: You don’t know what you’ve got til you take dynamite to it and it’s gone.

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Porcupine tree (another one of my own photos)

Some urban and suburban forests can be quite lush, though. I remember visiting my brother Mark years ago when he lived in Austin, how refreshing it felt to walk through neighborhoods where a lack of the kind of zoning we have here in the uptight northeast meant that people could let their yards run wild, if they wanted. And down there, let me tell you: stuff grows fast. Another post at prairie point blog, based in north Texas, brought some of that back, for me.

Though I haven’t visited it, Berkeley, California is evidently another place where yards are allowed to run wild, judging from the reports of Katsuri in her blog not native fruit.

our neighborhood is like a park, it’s a horticultural wonder that has sprung up on the grasslands of the berkeley hills. in other words, it’s mostly artificial. but it’s older, and very much overgrown – a feature many newcomers do not like about berkeley – but that’s just it, we don’t ‘manicure’ or ‘spray’ much. (Although that is changing as a more monied group moves in. Berkeley used to be more about idealists of many ilks.) We wanted things to be ‘organic’ and to ‘let nature be nature.’ So we have some mighty tangles here and there around Berkeley, some briars that have gone bananas, but also just a lot of very relaxed-looking plants. I love the plants of Berkeley.

some of our plants are natives: live oaks, redwoods, pines. these are my favorite trees, and they just exude spirit and soul.

You can kill a tree with kindness. Sometimes, a little bit of neglect is just what the doctor ordered. New blogger Ashley Kramer lives in Los Angeles and calls herself a Green Urban FarmGirl.

The first and perhaps key step in saving a peach tree is to know almost nothing about trees. Aside from the trees in your backyard growing up, you really have no experience with growing trees, and even that experience was limited to the fact that you have parents who cared for those trees, and also you paid no attention.

Next, move into a converted art studio that has a big overrun garden and a half dozen fruit trees. Nod knowingly when the owner identifies the trees for you: Avocado, Plum, Fig, pomegranate, Lemon, Lime, Tangerine, oh and that volunteer Peach that never produces good fruit. Agree that the peach tree should be removed to give more space to the Avocado and that weird yellow flower kind-of succulent tree thing that looks tropical.

Up in Vancouver, artist Marja-Leena Rathje finds inspiration in a huge old conservatory.

What a wonderful atmosphere in there, full of tall tropical trees reaching to the top of the dome, trees such as figs, palms, and a lovely African Fern Pine with its very soft needles (left of the palm in the photo above) plus gorgeous flowers, and many colourful tropical birds.

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Photo by Jean (larger version here)

And in London, Jean also finds the exotic quite close at hand, as in the subject of the above photo, which she calls “kind of Chinese-looking.”

Living very near to a big, Victorian city park, full of huge old trees, is a constant pleasure. I’ve been there several times a week for 17 years and still look up, look around and see something new.

One of the great things about hosting this festival was finding out about new blogs — and new trees, too. I was surprised to find a blog devoted entirely to trees right here in my home state of Pennsylvania: Arboreality. Like me, the author lives on an old farm dotted with black walnut trees. But the post J L Blackwater selected for this festival discusses an ornamental tree I’d never heard of.

Allow me to introduce you to the tri-color beech (tricolor, tricolour, tri-colour), or tri-color European beech, scientifically referred to as Fagus sylvatica Roseomarginata. […] The tri-color beech tree you see in today’s post has a dark red/purple, a lighter red/brown, and a white shade which isn’t visible in these images. According to my reading, the best way to ensure that all the colors show up on your tri-color beech tree is not to baby it. This tree needs stress and hardship in order to show its truest and most beautiful colors. If a tri-color beech tree is overfed and given too much care and attention, it will lose the variegation in the leaves, and fade into a single reddish color.

Hmm. If only we could introduce J.L.’s beech to Ashley’s peach! They seem to have a lot in common.

Do you have a favorite tree or tree species? For Pablo of Roundrock Journal, it’s the white oak. Nor is he alone in his affections.

White Oak lumber is favored for furniture and barrel staves. Something about the graining allows the oak to remain water-tight. And the forest critters appreciate the tree for its abundant branches suitable for nesting as well as its cavities for denning. White Oaks produce acorns, of course, but the amount of energy required to do this can mean that they may take a half dozen years before they can produce a heavy crop, and in some years they may not produce any acorns at all. Of the ones produced, those not eaten by the deer or the turkeys or the raccoons or the opossums or the other wild things can fall victim to worms. It has been said that it takes 10,000 acorns to produce a single White Oak tree. You can understand, then, why I try to nurture the ones I have.

Urban geographer Jarrett Walker takes us down under and introduces us to a favorite Australian tree, Ficus macrophylla.

Hard plasticlike leaves, brown and hairy underneath, all perked toward the sun. At moments, the tree resembles a thousand-strong flock of birds ready to take flight.

It’s hot, though, so come in underneath. Everything’s upside down here, so the vast buttresses seem to support the earth more than they do the tree. Here is a city of shade, with many secret chambers behind high walls.

There’s room to think here, and just enough darkness that we can see.

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Photo of cedars by Cindy Mead (larger original here)

We can’t talk about trees without talking about forests. And we shouldn’t talk about forests without admitting that few of us know what a truly natural forest ecosystem would look like. Back in 2004, I translated a parable from the 4th century B.C. by the Chinese philosopher Mencius — Ox Mountain.

Ox Mountain once was covered by trees. But it had the misfortune of standing too close to a city. People came with their axes and their hatchets; they climbed all over the mountain. They cut down the trees, stripped the mountain of all vegetation.

Nevertheless, the night breeze wafted over its slopes. Rain and dew fell; everywhere sprouts of green began to show. But cattle and sheep had been let loose to pasture on the mountain. Before too many years had passed, it stood gaunt and bare. Today, people see its barrenness and can’t believe the mountain wasn’t always that way.

Who can tell when forests have been altered, cut down with axes, demolished with hatchets? Day after day the trees are cut down. How will the mountain ever recover?

The good news is that, in most parts of the world, it’s not too late; with careful conservation planning, we can bring the forests back, and given the political will, we can preserve much of what’s left, even at the current level of human population. Though Cindy of Woodsong mourns the loss of old growth in Michigan, she hears promise in the songs of blackpoll warblers — and in a recent article by Pennsylvania-based naturalist Scott Weidensaul, whom she quotes:

Sat on my farmhouse’s back step in the low light of dawn, watching two blackpoll warblers — slim, streaky and hyperkinetic — flit through the new leaves of the maples, which the sun turned into tiny lenses of green.

My trees were a way station for these birds, moving between their winter home in South America and their destination to the north — the boreal forest, the vast shield of spruce and aspen, of muskeg and marsh, that stretches from Newfoundland to western Alaska. Larger than even the Amazon, North America’s boreal zone is one of the biggest intact ecosystems left on the planet, with 1.4 billion acres in Canada alone, most of it still in immense, interlocking tracts that make up a quarter of the earth’s remaining original forest.

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“Canadian Trees,” by Curt Stump (larger original here)

As some of the previous excerpts have already suggested, wilderness can come as close to home as we let it — if only we can bring ourselves to stop forever cleaning and straightening things up. Hal of Ranch Ramblins, a blog based in the Ozarks of north-central Arkansas, warmed my heart with his passionate defense of standing dead trees, or snags.

The dead wood itself becomes a meal for ants, termites, and wood-boring beetles. These insects, as well as their larvae, in turn become a meal for various species of birds. Raccoons will also visit the snag for a delicious meal made up of insect larvae.

Besides serving as a feeding station, a snag provides cover for a vast array of creatures. The loose bark of a snag provides cover for bats to roost, as well as a cozy spot for caterpillars to pupate. Also taking cover under the loose bark are tree frogs, salamanders, and various types of beetles. Tree holes also provide a place of refuge for a large number of critters, including woodpeckers, owls, bluebirds, nuthatches, chickadees, wrens, titmice, squirrels, raccoons and opossums, to name just a few. It has been estimated that up to one-third of all forest birds and mammals depend on dead trees for either nesting or shelter. The great popularity of providing man-made housing for birds stems from the fact that many species have lost a good portion of the snags that they depend on for their survival. Thus the need for bluebird houses, bat houses, purple martin houses, etc.

It sounds a little clichéd to say so, but in some ways I think folks like Hal are simply recovering an ancient wisdom — one that found hidden order in the apparent chaos of wild nature. If I may be permitted one other translation from my archives, here’s an old Pennsylvania German folksong that conveys something of the attitude my European ancestors had toward trees and forests.

Who lies with this woman?
A very beautiful lover.
Lover in the woman, woman in the bed,
Bed in the feather, feather on the bird,
Bird in the egg, egg in the nest,
Nest in the leaves, leaves on the branch,
Branch on the limb, limb on the tree,
Tree in the thicket, among sticks and leaves.
What grows in the wood? A dense thicket.
That’s what grows in the greenwood.

People from a variety of cultures have felt a continuity between trees and humans that goes well beyond a simple homology of trunk to legs and torso. In ancient Israel, the goddess Asherah — she of “cakes for the queen of heaven” fame — appears to have been worshipped in arboreal form, as the Wikipedia entry makes clear.

[T]he word asherah also refers to a standing pole of some kind, pluralized as a masculine noun when it has that meaning. Among the Hebrews’ Phoenician neighbors, tall standing stone pillars signified the numinous presence of a deity, and the asherahs may have been a rustic reflection of these. Or asherah may mean a living tree or grove of trees and therefore in some contexts mean a shrine. These uses have confused Biblical translators. Many older translations render Asherah as ‘grove’.

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“Glorytree,” by Curt Stump (larger original here)

Rabbinical Judaism long ago incorporated a version of this ancient Near Eastern tree reverence into its normal, yearly observances: Tu BiShvat, “the New Year of the trees.” As Velveteen Rabbi explains,

The holiday has its roots in a passage in the Talmud, tractate Rosh Hashanah. […] We mark the new year of trees at the full moon in the middle of the month [Shevat]. Out of the notion that trees have their own new year (originally used to mark the age of trees, to determine when one should begin tithing fruits to God and when one could eat of the fruits oneself) came an elaborate set of holiday traditions, up to and including a mystical journey through the four worlds.

People often compare trees to teachers, parents, or spiritual mentors. Lorianne DiSabato of Hoarded Ordinaries once wrote that way people grouped themselves at a Buddhist retreat reminded her of a forest.

During the talk at the end of the retreat, I mentioned how wonderful it was to sit in the presence of these strong, experienced guides: “This weekend felt like sitting in the shadow of a whole row of Mighty Oaks, tall, strong, gray…” Earlier this year a newspaper here in New Hampshire interviewed me (me!) about Buddhism in the Granite State, and I mentioned this notion of the Mighty Oaks: saplings who are new to practice think Chris and I have been practicing a long time — in fact, they sometimes think we’re Zen Masters. But in truth, we’re mid-sized trees dwarfed by those giants who started practicing long before us. It takes all kinds — saplings, mid-sizers, giant knobby hulks — to make a healthy forest. It takes roots and air and spring showers — and lots and lots of patient sitting — to become a Mighty Oak.

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Waves of grain on a fallen log (another of my own photos)

Bonnie Bruno at Macromoments finds in nurse logs an apt image for the people who help guide us through life.

As the wood softens and breaks down, a cushy layer of moss creates a moist carpet atop the log. It provides a fertile home for lichen, moss, mushrooms, and wildflowers — new life from a seemingly useless tree.

Nurse logs provide a sturdy base and nutrients for new trees, too. A keen eye can spot trees that got their start from a nurse log. The old rotted log eventually breaks apart as the tree grows strong and straight.

Rabbi Shai Gluskin, reflecting on a photo from Carpenter’s Woods in Philadelphia, writes,

Our task in this world is to see the connection of life and death clearly. In the photo, I imagine a funeral scene where the young trees are attending to the fallen dead older tree lying before them. The biology of it is that the dead tree is tending to the living ones. It has made some room in the crowded forest canopy for some light to reach the younger trees. And soon the decomposing tree will nourish its comrades with minerals as well.

My kids are 11 and 8–which is a time ripe with seeing them out-do me in a host of physical as well as even some intellectual arenas (my daughter is better than me at Sudoku and Boggle).

In Bava Metzia 59b [in the Talmud], after a vigorous legal debate in which human beings perform miracles and reject heavenly evidence as having no standing, God says, “Nitzchuni banai, Nitzchuni banai.” The literal meaning there is “My children have defeated me.” Most commentators have God proclaiming this with joy.

Bev, at Burning Silo, writes about an ancient sugar maple that she has come to think of as the Oracle Tree.

Upon one’s approach, the most conspicuous feature of this tree is a large, rounded opening leading to a cavity within the trunk. In fact, this feature is what led me to regard this maple as the Oracle Tree — the cavity reminding me of a bottomless well, or some other mysterious natural phenomenon that might have had mystical significance to a culture. In another age, I can picture someone leaving offerings at this tree in exchange for luck, advice, or a piece of knowledge. I may not be the only one to think such a thing as, during a visit in midsummer two or three years ago, I found a thick handful of very long green grass draped over the edge of the opening. There was no grass of this type growing in the vicinity, so someone or something carried it from some distance to place it there. I find it a little difficult to believe that it was deposited there by a bird or mammal. For now, it seems the offering will remain another secret safely kept by the Oracle Tree.

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Photos and graphic design by Erika Rathje (see higher-resolution original here)

Over at Rubies in Crystal, Brenda contemplates paper.

The world is papered with knowledge. Burn all the paper in the stoneage firepit of our souls.

Smooth burning words under my fingers.

Forests are the lungs of the planet; and wood dust and water promise of immortality.

In perhaps the most philosophical post submitted to the festival, Paris-based geologist and poet Jonathon Wonham of Connaissances considers a variety of ways in which “something which was once present and has now disappeared may have left a fundamental impact” on present-day reality, preserved somehow in literal or figurative text.

[W]e might think of a tree sticking out of a river bed. As the sediment is transported around it, the tree exerts a fundamental influence on the structures developing in the sediment around it. Yet eventually, the tree is likely to rot and disappear, leaving the sediment that has gathered downstream compacted and preserved. The sediment is the history of that tree that is now no more.

I think these ideas may serve as a metaphor for what happens in poetry. The poet is the tree in the river.

Beth Adams — author of the brand-new biography of Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson — contributed a post from her old blog about the dismemberment of a favorite old willow tree. I don’t know whether the stark image of the mutilated tree was meant as a Christ-symbol or not, but her conclusion didn’t shy away from religion:

I’ll remember the willow best on those nights, years ago, when I was trying to figure out if God existed. After I’d meditated for an hour, the incense burned down to ash, candle extinguished, I’d come out into the night, and to my polished mind, open, newly innocent, every sensation appeared fresh, important, astonishing. The Milky Way had never seemed so vast, the air so exhilarating, the snow under my feet so white. And there the willow loomed: hugely alive, pulsating with being-ness and a quality of home that strangely did not feel closed to me. I stopped trying to paint it or write about it, but just stood there, night after night, as if it were part of the meditation ritual; looking up, not thinking, I let it tell me whatever it had to say.

Many contributors seem to feel that trees have something important to tell us. But whether they can communicate it in a language we can understand is another question. Tim Burns at Talking to the Owl seems doubtful.

… I leaned in close to hear him speak
And pressed his trunk against my cheek
Yet no noun or verb could I unfold
I had no ear for a tongue so old …

Curt Stump (who, in an ironic name-is-destiny kind of thing, is currently employed “putting dead chipped trees on new young trees”) wrote this spring that he was keeping his window open for

… the cool hiss
of the young
liquid leaves of spring

bringing me that sound
which I swear
when I close my eyes
I couldn’t tell from ocean
washing over rocks …

But what might trees make of our own babble? Dale of mole reports on a recent dream.

I go walking beside them, trying to explain in my turn, but my mouth is all full of a huge, meaty tongue; saliva drips from my mouth, but no words will come out. The trees moan in frustration, fretting the bark of their limbs together. I want to reassure them, but they point at my mouth and shudder. I realize I’m soft and repulsive to them, as a slug might be to us, and that my huge tongue is for them the crowning horror. I want to explain to them — it’s not always like this, I don’t know why it’s this way, this isn’t how people usually are — but I can’t get intelligible words past it, only slaverings and grunts come out, and the trees crowd away from me, muttering in alarm.

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Photo by Erika Rathje (higher-resolution original here)

Finally, Florida-based writer of speculative fiction Elissa Malcohn, at Chronicles from Hurricane Country, invokes the myth of Daphne and Apollo in a poem she posted just yesterday. Here are the final three stanzas.

Daily the chicks scream into the wind
For food. Daily their parents oblige, thrusting
Moth and worm down tiny gullets. You take your place
As world-tree, bursting limb after limb through holly
Turned to sacred ground. Hiding that tender profile
Of nest. Letting new lives take root.

Eons away from Apollo’s pursuit, your route
Is not an easy one. The rainforests wind
Down to devastation. Clear-cutting turns green profile
To brown. My kind encroach in droves, thrusting
Like the besotted god into your groves. Let my holly
Be a sanctuary, and when trimmed a hiding place,

Until the thrusting of your holy leaves
Again breach tamed suburban profile, in that place
Where we continue to let our roots run wild.


Thanks to everyone who contributed (including a couple of unwitting contributors)! Thanks are especially due to Pablo for having the idea in the first place. He’ll be hosting the next festival on August 1 at Roundrock Journal. Send all links to him: editor (at) roundrockjournal (dot) com.