August 2006

wood turtle with its head drawn in

We are bracing for Tropical Depression Ernesto and the possible six inches of rain that have been forecast starting tomorrow night. So my brother and I have been busy cleaning drains in the road. I didn’t have a whole lot of writing time today, and what time I did have I spent trying to write a rare piece of literary criticism. It was awful, depressing. I feel unclean.

While I was working on the essay, about two hours ago, I glanced down at my office chair’s left armrest and saw blood. My elbow was bleeding, but from what, I couldn’t tell. I went into the bathroom and washed it off, then got out the Band-Aids. But when I started to put one on, peering at my elbow in the mirror, the bleeding had stopped and I couldn’t even find the wound. Elbows are a strange business.

A little later, a female ruby-throated hummingbird came and hovered just outside the window next to my writing table, watching me for close to fifteen seconds, which is almost an eternity for a hummingbird. A half hour later, I deleted the essay. It was well past time for a tactical retreat.

bumblebees on thistle

I took this picture two weeks ago, right before sunrise — click to see the full-size version, as usual. The following poem is a good example of the sort of exercise I engage in to stay in practice, on days when inspiration utterly fails to strike.

Night stops them cold
where they cling
to the green thorax
of the mother of bumblebees,
that bed of nails.
They hang
lifeless but not dead,
sleepless but very far from waking
to the vast meadows that blaze
above their heads.

Naguib Mahfouz is one of the few contemporary novelists I’ve actually read, so when I saw the New York Times headline — Naguib Mahfouz, First Writer in Arabic to Win Nobel Prize, Dies at 94 — I clicked on the link.

Mahfouz’s politics and brand of Islam (heavily influenced by Sufism) made him many enemies, and in 1994, he narrowly survived an assassination attempt.

Though he continued to write in his later years, Mr. Mahfouz was in failing health. He was diabetic and nearly blind, and lived quietly in an apartment overlooking the Nile. After the 1994 attack he largely abandoned his old habit of walking daily to a coffeehouse to meet friends, and to the offices of Al Ahram, the newspaper for which he had written occasional columns. And the injuries he suffered in 1994 made it difficult for him to hold a pen or pencil.

Still, he said, every day a writer must write something, anything. In a 2002 interview, he said he could still manage to write vignettes of his dreams. “They are very, very short stories, like this,” he said, indicating the tip of his index finger.

Though 94 certainly fits most people’s definition of a ripe old age, with a writer like that, it’s hard not to feel that he must’ve left a lot unfinished at his death, just as he left a lot unsaid in what he did write. Here’s how Mahfouz ended his book-length parable The Journey of Ibn Fattouma:

With these words ends the manuscript of the voyage of Qindil Muhammed al-Innabi, known as Ibn Fattouma.

No history book makes any further mention of this traveler.

Did he complete his journey or did he perish on the way?

Did he enter the land of Gebel? How did he fare there?

Did he stay there till the end of his life, or did he return to his homeland as he intended?

Will one day a futher manuscript be found describing his last journey?

Knowledge of all this lies with the Knower of what is unseen and of what is seen.

Rest in peace.

gone beech 1Slap. Slap. Slap. Slap. Slap. Slap. Slap.

The first flip-flops of the fall semester are coming up the sidewalk across the lawn in front of Old Main.

Slap. Slap. Slap. Slap.

They stop short. There’s a brief rummaging sound, then the snapping open of a cellphone, followed by seven beeps.

Hey Brad, it’s me. I’m here on Old Main lawn, on that sidewalk above the Wall?

You’re where? Oh, sorry! But listen, you gotta come down here RIGHT NOW. I want you to tell me I’m not crazy!

beech with three-part trunkWell, you know that tree with like the smooth gray bark and the great big limbs that reached all the way to the ground? The one we used to party under, and you carved our initials on it way up high where no one would see it unless they climbed?

Yeah, O.K., a weeping beech — whatever. I called it the Umbrella Tree.

Listen, it’s NOT HERE.

I’m DEAD serious. I’m standing here looking at a great big patch of smooth DIRT. It’s like, no stump or anything!

They’ve got the area all roped off, with ribbons and stuff. Oh wait, I guess I can walk around…

beech with fungusNo, the one behind it is still there. But there’s a big orange fungus thing on the back of it, like, I don’t know… Like maybe that’s what happened to the other one, you know?

Yeah, I know it looked healthy last time we saw it, but that was like last MAY.

I don’t know, I’m just saying, maybe they HAD to cut it down.

No, I don’t see how our carving could’ve hurt it. People have been carving these trees like FOREVER. You remember that one on the other side of the sidewalk? “1970 – the year PSU burned”! It’s like a YEARBOOK or something.

Oh wait! Hold on! I was wrong! The tree’s STILL HERE!!!

gone beech 2No, I am NOT. I’m SERIOUS. You know that one big branch that bent down into the ground and came back up again? The one that we — uh, you know. They LEFT it, the part that comes back up! It must’ve put down its own roots! They just cut off a couple of its side branches or whatever. And there’s fresh barky stuff all around it.

WhatEVER. The point is, they’re keeping it! Like, they didn’t WANT to cut down the rest of the tree, but they HAD to.

beech with graffitiWell, maybe, but why would they? They go to all that trouble with those elm trees, when they could just cut THEM all down and put in some other kind of tree. Penn State LIKES trees!

Well, I don’t care if it IS just because of the alumni. Pretty soon we’ll be alumni too, ya know! Well, I will, anyway. You can go back to sleep now. I gotta get to class.

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For all you procrastinators: today is the deadline to send in tree-related links for the third Festival of the Trees, which will be hosted on September 1 at Burning Silo. Send them to Bev at burning-silo (at) magickcanoe (dot) com, with “Festival of the Trees” in the subject line.

jumpseed

I can’t look at jumpseed without my body remembering how it felt to be five & walking home from school, that long mile & a half up the hollow, how my fingers found some obscure satisfaction in stripping the eponymous seeds off the stems, feeling them rattle against my palm, & idly pulling out clumps of translucent, shallow-rooted clearweed. They lined the road bank, two shades of green.

Freshly moved to Pennsylvania from our home in rural Maine, I had been skipped into the first grade & was just finding out that a profound overbite marked me as half-rodent. Clearweed, stingless nettle, so easily dislodged! Jumpseed, so willing to part with handfuls of your hard, green teeth! I took you for granted. I failed to learn even your common names for decades.
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Again, another reminder that the blogzine qarrtsiluni, which I help edit, is soliciting contributions for a new theme, education. The word limit this time is a whopping 3000, but of course briefer submissions are welcome, too. Send fiction, nonfiction, poetry and artwork to qarrtsiluni (at) gmail (dot) com.

If it were possible to write a poem that vanished
completely from the page as it was read, so
that it would last for just a single reading
by whoever found it first, her eyes
& silent lips inadvertently erasing
each word as s/he partook, gaze
like a flame moving through
the flesh of some effigy
for the ineffable, ah–
this would be that
poem, this screen
that page & you
that dear
reader.

for St. Antonym

Global warming has penetrated the snow globe. Turn it over and you get freezing rain, drip drip drip drip. Set it down and the sun comes out, drop drop drop. An occasional clatter when some branch lets go. The snowman in the front yard of the psychiatric hospital loses his carrot and his sticks and shrinks into an icy lingam. In place of a carol, the music box plays Mozart under Glass: incessant tinkling. Hammers wielded by a sweatshop full of elves.

ThoreauMy mother cut up and froze the rest of the peaches from the box marked “Thoreau” and gave it to me to fill with pears. Alas, there’s nothing remotely Thoreauvian about our pear tree, though we haven’t had to prune it in years. It’s a dwarf, genetically identical to every other Bartlett pear tree in the world, and this year, as most years, it was loaded. We are always amazed that this one, 15-foot tree, which looks especially small standing out in the middle of the field, can pack so much fruit into such an economical space. We planted it back in the mid-70s along with five other fruit trees in that location, but we didn’t fully appreciate the necessity of fencing everything from the white-tailed deer then. The Bartlett was the only survivor.

The pears have to be picked unripe; otherwise they fall to the ground and feed the hornets or the deer. Nor do our hoofed friends limit themselves to windfalls. We’ve actually seen them stand up on their hind legs and hop to reach pears as high as seven feet off the ground. Did Thoreau ever have a problem with deer eating his wild apples? No, he did not. There is exactly one reference to deer in Walden. It’s in Chapter 12, “Winter Animals”:

One man still preserves the horns of the last deer that was killed in this vicinity, and another has told me the particulars of the hunt in which his uncle was engaged.

To Thoreau, living in the hey-day of market hunting, the white-tailed deer was a wilderness animal and a creature of legend. In The Maine Woods, he mentions them in the same breath as bear and moose as a denizen of “Ktadin,” the irony being that in fact central Maine is at the northern edge of the white-tailed deer’s natural range. These days, suburban homeowners in the Concord, Massachusetts area probably think of deer the way most Pennsylvania suburbanites do — as hoofed rats — and some probably even keep their kids indoors in the summer so they won’t contract Lyme disease. If Thoreau were alive today, I imagine he would compromise his vegetarian principles enough to join other ecologically minded folks in becoming an enthusiastic promoter of wild venison.

Another creature whose numbers have mushroomed since the eradication of top carnivores and the severe fragmentation of the eastern forest is the woodchuck. When I picked the pears, I left a dozen or so in the topmost branches, figuring the deer would get them when they eventually fell. Not so. Two days later, my mom told me, she, Dad, and my brother Steve watched a woodchuck climb the tree to eat the remaining pears! This is highly unusual behavior — Mom tells me she’s only ever seen it once before.* They’re nicknamed groundhogs for a reason.

When I heard this, I was doubly glad I hadn’t been greedy and picked every last pear. The value of that one wildlife observation — especially to a naturalist writer like my mother — far out-weighs whatever pleasure we would’ve gotten from those dozen, succulent, top-of-the-tree Bartletts.

That’s the sort of accounting Thoreau excelled at. At the time of his death, he was half done writing a book called Wild Fruits, a contrarian work dedicated to the notion that “the less you get, the happier and richer you are.” Thoreau’s take on economics strikes me as considerably saner than the dangerous fantasies of the Chicago School:

It is a grand fact that you cannot make the fairer fruits or parts of fruits matter of commerce, that is, you cannot buy the highest use and enjoyment of them. You cannot buy that pleasure which it yields to him who truly plucks it. You cannot buy a good appetite even. In short, you may buy a servant or a slave, but you cannot buy a friend.

To me, a good, firm, tart apple is the finest of fruits, and I agree with Thoreau that even wild apples can taste delicious if you come upon them unexpected out in the woods. Pears are a bit like mangoes: soft and sweet and sticky. I enjoy them, but I have a hard time eating more than two or three at a time. Back when I quit smoking, I ate a couple bushels of Stamen Winesap apples in the course of a month, consuming as many as 25 a day and opening my first-ever abdominal savings account in the process. I couldn’t have done that with pears.

But pears were my paternal grandfather’s favorite fruit, and now that Pop-pop’s gone, eating pears from our tree has become an act of remembrance for us. So I filled the Thoreau carton with all the ones I could reach from the ground, then took a second carton up the stepladder, balancing it rather precariously on the top rung.

Since we hadn’t thinned them earlier in the season, many were small, no more than a couple mouthfuls each when they ripen. And of course they will ripen all in a rush, and we’ll do our best to gorge on them, feeling ridiculously wealthy and fortunate — not to mention sticky. And then they’ll be gone, and the box marked “Thoreau” will be put to some other good use.
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*This is an update of what I wrote earlier, when I said I thought it was unprecedented.

Don’t forget to send tree-related links to Bev by August 29 for the Festival of the Trees.

Qarrtsiluni is now accepting submissions for a new theme, education. Meanwhile, however, those short shorts of summer will keep appearing through the end of August.

tire tracks 1

It’s the last two weeks before the students return with their immaculate book bags and their forty thousand sets of genitals. Workers from the Office of Physical Plant are busy trimming and chipping, watering, applying poison and fertilizer. The chains that line the walks must be re-hung from fancy new black metal hitching posts. Fresh-looking bark mulch must be trucked in to cover up the scandal of decay. Earthworms are coming out of the ground, and cicadas are tumbling from the treetops in mid-buzz. Their small bodies stiffen with every inch of sidewalk they attempt to traverse.

annual cicada on sidewalk crack
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