A sailor’s life


First of all, you must know this: they can’t sing. At all. That much is pure folklore.


I remember how we met; it was my first day on the job. The ocean started halfway down a dark flight of stairs. We were equipped with wet suits, oxygen tanks, and flippers, which made it a little difficult to navigate the steps. The water came up to my knees, then up to my chest, then it was over my head and I couldn’t get over the strangeness of breathing underwater. I snapped on my flashlight and was startled by the number of bright, swimming things all around me, garish as a toddler’s plastic toys – spillover from the nearby artificial reef. I snapped my light back off, a little frightened. To think the whole world was once that way!

A complicated set of airlocks took us out into a subterranean parking garage, with pumps roaring to keep it dry. Sooner or later, I’m sure, the U.N. will eliminate the loophole that still permits automobiles as long as they aren’t on land. We squished up several flights of stairs, past a shopping mall mezzanine and the kitchen of a fancy restaurant. The cooks waved us over and pointed to a half-sized door. “There’s more ocean down that way,” they said, “but be sure to knock first.”

Well, guess who we found on the other side. And she wasn’t alone, either.


She had a dark and roving eye, and her hair hung down in ringalets. So went the old sea shanty.

Actually, I don’t mind her roving eye, as long as it stops roving long enough to take me in. It’s when she looks through you or past you that you want to die. Picture Odysseus straining at the mast, the surf roaring in his ears, in his throat, mad to fling his body against the rocks…


Sailors have always been fairly unreliable types, I guess. Still, it’s surprising that it took the scientists so long to verify what sailors had sung about for centuries, whenever their bodies stopped swaying long enough for them make contact with a barstool. Manatees, the skeptics said at first. Then, porpoises. But no: these were true descendents of the hominid line, gone the only direction they could go to escape the genocidal tendencies of their Cro-Magnon cousins. They saw what had happened to the Neanderthals.

It’s hard to imagine the long-term vision and cold-heartedness required to subject your own tribe to a program of selective breeding and strict natal screening, generation after generation killing the infants who didn’t take to the water, then for extra measure killing all who weren’t beautiful. But somehow they must’ve done it — or so my shipmates tell me. It stands to reason. Why else would they still be here, when so many other things are gone forever?


Time passes differently at sea: more slowly, yes, but in a good way. Landside, you’d pay a lot for this much free time. I’ve spent many enjoyable hours down below, watching the light show of luminescent plankton being sucked in through the baleeners. It’s kind of hypnotic. We can catch 20,000 pounds of krill and plankton on a good day — that’s a lot of fireworks. Sometimes I like to imagine I’m inside one of those great sea creatures, the whales, that died out back in the 21st century. Sitting in the darkness, surrounded by flickering curtains of blue and green and red, I straddle my cello and broadcast slow improvisations on longing out into the farthest reaches of the interstellar net.

Edited 8/24/06 in response to reader comments.


question mark on screenLately I seem to be confronted by enigmatic signs. This morning while I was eating breakfast, for example, I noticed that one of the two cartons we bought peaches in, which originally held Xerox office paper, had “Thoreau” written on the side in magic marker. Perhaps someone connected with the orchard had previously used it to move or store books. But an entire carton just for Thoreau? He didn’t write that many books; it must’ve held mostly books about Thoreau. I’ll take the peaches.

Yesterday around lunchtime, a question mark butterfly landed on the screen of my front door and stayed there just long enough for me to snap three pictures from inside. Nothing too odd about that, except that the very same thing had happened two days before, around the same time of day. What might it mean?

Yesterday afternoon, a dry high blew in. By late in the day, that end-of-summer mood I tried to evoke with quotes from favorite poems yesterday morning had given way to elation and a distinctly autumnal sky. black locust log After supper, I grabbed my camera and headed up over the ridge to the west, escaping the long shadows that already reached as far as the houses. The wind blew steadily, making the shadows dance as I poked along through an open forest of very old, gnarled chestnut oaks and black birches. The thin soil and open rocks of the Tuscarora Quartzite formation support little else, especially since the loggers of a hundred years ago took most of the white pines, almost all of the hemlock, and all chestnut oaks straight enough to serve as mine timbers.

I soon came to the first of a string of small talus slopes — open rockslides of a few acres in size that start just below the ridge crest. Such rockslides are a familiar feature to anyone who’s ever hiked along a ridge in the western half of the Folded Appalachians. Logging and associated burning in the 19th century may have set back their colonization by lichens, moss and trees by a few centuries, but essentially these rock slides all date back to the last ice age, which ended 8,000 years ago. Though we’re well south of the southern-most extension of the Wisconsin ice sheet, periglacial conditions reworked local landscapes throughout the central and southern Appalachians, creating talus slopes, bogs, and a host of other unique habitats.

At the edge of the rockslide, I paused to admire some paper birches growing in a clump, as they so often do, re-sprouting from the same roots. I stood at the center of the clump, my feet sinking into a deep, spongy mound of rotted wood. The individual trunks might last little more than half a century, but I’ll bet this birch has been here in some form for a very long time.

vulture 1I was just starting out onto the rocks, looking for pictures, when I saw something large and black out of the corner of my eye. A turkey vulture had landed on the other side of the rocks, about eighty feet away. The head was still half gray, which I guess — in contrast to human beings — would make it an immature. I froze and started snapping pictures, expecting it to take off at any moment. But it didn’t.

I eased myself down into a comfortable sitting position on the warm rocks. The vulture didn’t seem at all concerned about my presence. Its head swiveled slowly about, and from time to time it reached down to groom its breast feathers, but otherwise it seemed content to sit and face the sun, which was about half an hour from setting.

vulture 2So that’s how I found myself watching the sunset with a turkey vulture. I shot its picture several dozen more times, of course, hoping that a few shots would turn out relatively unfuzzy (I wasn’t packing a tripod). At a certain point I realized it probably intended to roost nearby, though I didn’t see any other vultures around — they generally roost together, I had thought.

Since the air was now so clear, the light didn’t change much as the sun neared the horizon. The steady wind filtered out most valley noise except train whistles. As I watched the bird, I began to regret what I wrote a week ago about the ugliness of vultures. The wind lifted the feathers of its breast and nape, and the sun tinged them with gold. vulture 4I saw its head from all angles as it looked about, and it came to seem as appropriate as punctuation at the end of a line of fine, dark calligraphy.

I’m sure that more scientific-minded readers will fault me for anthropomorphism in implying that the vulture was there to watch the sunset. But no sooner had the sun dropped below the horizon than the vulture hopped off its rock, waddled into the woods and flapped up into the branches of a black birch tree. I took that as my signal to get up, too, and get off the rocks before darkness fell.

eastern clouds after sunset

Coming soon…

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Days of tired gold and bitter blue

Don’t miss the comments to August at the cassandra pages. Beth solicited readers’ recollections of summer vacations from their childhoods, and the responses have been quite varied and interesting.

This time of year often seems to prompt a look back or inward. Here for example are some lines I just discovered by Charles Wright (1):

Aprí¨s-dog days, dead end of August,
Summer a holding pattern,

heat, haze, humidity
The mantra we still chant, the bell-tick our tongues all toll.
Whatever rises becomes a light —
Firefly and a new moon,
Sun and star and star chart

unscrolled across the heavens
Like radioactive dump sites bulb-lit on a map.
Whatever goes back goes dark–
The landscape and all its accoutrements, my instinct, my hands,
My late, untouchable hands.

Summer’s crepuscular, rot and wrack,
Rain-ravaged, root-ruined.
Each August the nightscape inserts itself
another inch in my heart …

I can never get through this season without reciting at least once these favorite lines from Robinson Jeffers (2):

Come storm, kind storm.
Summer and the days of tired gold
And bitter blue are more ruinous.
The leprous grass, the sick forest,
The sea like a whore’s eyes,
And the noise of the sun,
The yellow dog barking in a blue pasture,
Snapping sidewise.

Here’s the last stanza of a poem by Indiana poet Todd Davis, who has recently relocated to Central Pennsylvania. He’s talking about beavers at the bottom of a pasture (3):

Towards the end of August, when we first noticed
the days growing short, Canadian air dipping south,
we came at dusk to watch them swim with the ease
of falling locust leaves, and just after sunset,
as the moon began its slow ascent, they moved
from the water, began their work, accepting
the miracle of night’s black weight — soft light
gathered to their bodies, coats dark and glistening,
gliding under a blanket of stars.

And then of course there’s Emily Dickinson (4):

As imperceptibly as Grief
The Summer lapsed away —
Too imperceptible at last
To seem like Perfidy —
A quietness distilled
As twilight long begun,
Or Nature spending with herself
Sequestered Afternoon —
The Dusk drew earlier in —
The Morning foreign shone —
A courteous, yet harrowing Grace,
As Guest, that would be gone …


(1) From “Meditation on Summer and Shapelessness,” Black Zodiac. Please note that line indents and stanza breaks in the original cannot be reproduced within blockquotes in this blog template.

(2) From “Prelude,” The Women at Point Sur (see Wikipedia article for a brief description of the book).

(3) From “Night’s Black Weight,” Ripe.

(4) From # 935, R.W. Franklin (Belknap) edition.

After forever


I’m awoken at 2:30 by something crawling on my back. I turn on the light, and there beside me in the bed is a big, black cricket. I scoop it up and pad downstairs, open the front door and toss it out into the darkness.

Five and a half hours later, my dad and I are rummaging around in the basement of my parents’ house, looking for the big can of miscellaneous nuts and bolts. I’ve just been given an old stereo — my first in fifteen years — but one of the speakers is missing a nut where the wires attach. The nut can isn’t in its usual place on the shelf. We look high and low without success, and we’re on our way back up the cellar stairs when I spot a can on top of the shelf where the nails are kept. Eureka!

The stereo only came with one, thin speaker wire, but I find a couple coils of thicker stuff in one of my dad’s boxes of electrical supplies. Now let’s see if I can put it all together. It’s an overcast morning, with rain in the forecast — perfect weather for puttering around indoors.

The stereo components appear to date from the late 60s or early 70s. There’s a Sherwood receiver, AR speakers, a Pioneer tape deck and a Benjamin Miracord turntable. It would be cool if the tape deck works — I have a lot of cassettes — but I already have a boom box if it doesn’t. I’m mainly hoping that the record player works, so I can bring down some of my classical records from my parents’ house and listen to music in the evenings, which is generally when I would prefer to listen to music, I think.

The previous owner had kept all the manuals, which is good, because unlike more modern equipment that I’ve owned in the past, the connections aren’t color-coded; everything is explained in terms of ohms. After a great deal of fussing and muttering, I get it all hooked up and plugged in, but now I can’t find the “on” button. I turn up the “Loudness” knob and get a rain of static — the radio works! In a burst of inspiration, I connect the old, thin speaker wire to the screws where an FM antenna is supposed to attach and run it up to the ceiling, and suddenly I’m listening to NPR’s Scott Simon oozing fake empathy. Huzzah!

One of the speakers has a distinct, rattling buzz. I get a screwdriver and pry off the cover, and as I suspected, only a small piece of foam still connects the woofer’s black paper cone to its frame; the rest has disintegrated. I gather from the web that speakers in this condition can be repaired, though I’m not sure I’m up to the task. What’s surprising is that the other speaker still sounds fine. If the turntable works, I’ll count myself lucky.

First, though, I test the tape deck. It makes a faint grinding noise when I turn it on — that’s all. I recall that my dad’s brother gave us an old tape deck a few years back thinking we might be able to use it, though we never did. I go fetch it from my parents’ attic, and it sort of half works: sound comes out of the left channel loud and clear, but nothing from the right. That’s O.K., I guess, since I only have one good speaker. Fortunately, the receiver has a monaural setting.

My classical records are up in my parents’ collection, as I mentioned, and years ago I sold off my blues records in a fit of madness, so all I have down here right now are a couple dozen old metal and punk records. For testing purposes, Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality should do. Besides, I don’t have it on cassette — I haven’t heard these songs in a very long time.

The needle looks O.K. I drop it in the groove between the first and second tracks and “After Forever” comes on. Damn — it sounds good, even with the one fuzzy speaker! The great, stoned, bass-heavy riffs instantly take me back twenty years, but the lyrics sound relevant as ever:

I think it is true it was people like you who crucified Christ
I think it is sad the opinion you had was the only one voiced

I listen to the rest of the record with one ear while I type. Then it’s over, and the phonograph arm returns to its cradle with a quiet whir and click — a sound that provokes a nostalgia all its own.

In the aftermath, I find myself focusing on the crickets. There’s a loud one calling right outside the front door.

record player

UPDATE: I replaced the buzzy speaker with the one that still sounded good from an old pair of Polk speakers in my parents’ attic. So I now have a working stereo.

Residence in the earth

one of our neighbors in the valley

The way our would-be straight lines fall on the land, whether along the contour or across it, makes me think of clothes on a body — the farther from town, the more natural the fit. From highway to road to lane, it’s the same-size wheels, but then for the crops they must grow, sprout treads. Suddenly escape is no longer an option: if we want to eat, we must slow down and pay attention to every detail.

Why any of this should amaze me is difficult to explain. As long as I’ve lived in the country — almost all my life — I am still a creature of books and screens and flat Cartesian spaces with their promises of freedom. I must continually remind myself that power is round: gears. Coins. Bellies. The sockets in which our animal limbs revolve as we wander the globe.

corrugated pipe

Why Monday and not Saturday, the Amish woman wonders as she hangs out the wash, darks and lights together. The breeze swells a kerchief the same way the earth ripples under the fields. Aren’t weaving and harrowing pretty much the same? Her eyes still lazy from Sunday follow a hedgerow up to where the woods start in earnest — a good thing, because desire works best within limits. It’s a sin to want more than what you can properly attend to. She gazes at the mountain, a long, low ridge nearly identical to all the others she’s known since childhood. Every few miles another mountain, like a permanent Sabbath rising between weeks of fields.

The language of fire

in a crowded theatre
the one word not
to be played with
we melt
on its urgent tongue

on command
an arm goes down
red blossoms
against the white-
washed stone

in the hole
the frantic leaping
of fish after
a chemical spill

the messenger
who brings no message
only his own
unbearable company

Forbidden fruit

suggestive tomato 1

If I told you that it was reported that a shepherd was killed because his goat wasn’t wearing a diaper, and goats are simply too sexy to be naked, would you believe me? Or if I said that three people were killed because of the provocative way their vegetables were displayed in the market, would that make sense? The celery and tomatoes were deemed too naughty by clerical edict.

–Robin Andrea, The Fertile Naughtiness of the Natural World

suggestive tomato 2
We laugh at such thinking at our peril, we WASPs. A hundred years ago, we too were mortified by such things, teaching our children (for example) that a table or chair had limbs, not legs. Did anyone honestly believe that careless reference to the sexiness of furniture could lead an impressionable mind astray? Where does such prudishness come from?

The great Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin introduced some useful concepts in his book Rabelais and His World, as he strove to bridge the chasm between modern and pre-modern European ways of looking at the body. The predominant imagery of the pre-Lenten Carnival, he found, was grotesque: like the tomato in these photos, it exceeded itself in ways that were both comic and sexual, with a mixing of lower and upper body symbolism whereby, for example, a nose became a penis, and vice versa. Though material rather than spiritual, the grotesque body was, in a sense, cosmic, both literally and figuratively larger than life — “a body in the act of becoming,” as Bakhtin put it. A popular survival from pre-Christian days, it persisted in an uneasy balance with the Body of Christ and what Bakhtin termed the classical body of church and state, which was as finished as the grotesque body was unfinished, closed off to the world and therefore susceptible of that sine qua non of priestly religion: purity.

The European so-called Enlightenment gave the mind-body split a huge boost, in conjunction with the rise of capitalism and the modern nation-state. The classical body dominated the thinking of the emerging middle class, whose members always aspire to better themselves by embracing elite mannerisms and perspectives and turning away from their origins in the village and the soil. But it seems to me that the new, ideal body of the industrial bourgeoisie was even more private and tool-like than the classical body had been, in keeping with new, reductionist ideologies.

Reductionism is the genius of the modern age, the source of our immense scientific and technological power. Religious fundamentalism, though often seen even by its adherents as a rejection of modernity, is equally modern in its insistence on reductionist interpretations of text and doctrine. (Recall that for Islam, the Wahabite and other modern “fundamentalist” movements arose only in the 19th century; Sufic and syncretic movements dominated popular Islam up until modern times.) As oppressive social structures spread their tentacles (a grotesque image!) into every facet of society, one unintended consequence is to inspire ever higher levels of fear and paranoia in its increasingly individuated and isolated members, now reduced to the status of taxpayers, occasional voters and consumers. Modern medicine and industrial warfare promote a diminished vision of human beings as little more than animated cadavers, suicide bombers, collateral damage.

In place of the comic body of Carnival, we have the angry, anonymous mob, summoned up and defined by its fear and rejection of some threatening other: capitalists, immigrants, Arabs, Jews, Shiites, Sunnis, Americans, whatever. The institutionalized religious or insurrectionary mob is like a grotesque body with bulimia. Its obsessive quest for purity, now liberated from the constraints of an empathy-based ethics, feeds a revulsion toward its own members, and purge follows purge. Nazi propaganda defined its undesirables as “life unworthy of life”; Chinese communist propaganda rejected sexual desire itself as anti-Communist. These are of course extreme examples, but I am trying to understand how people can be put to death for displaying suggestive vegetables. The mobocracy instinctively acts to control whatever threatens its supremacy, and what could be more subversive than sexual desire?

It may seem as if North America is relatively free from these impulses, but that’s hardly the case: true freedom and wildness are perceived as deeply threatening by most Americans. Aside from a very few towns and cities, our streets are virtually lifeless, devoid of informal commercial activity, vagrants, even loiterers. The symbol of middle class respectability is the weed-free mowed lawn. Lifestyle ordinances are strictly enforced, even in many rural townships. In place of riotous carnivals, we have parades. The reductionist equation of human being with zygote gains ever more popular acceptance, even as we become more willing to deprive our undesirable members of liberty and life in a vast prison-industrial complex.

Our actual, individual bodies bulge grotesquely in perverse reaction, it seems, to the unattainably attenuated, hard, machine-like bodies pimped by our elite-controlled popular culture. Sex in America now comes in two official flavors, liberal and conservative. Among liberals, sex is seen as a glue for self-fulfilling relationships, a form of healthy exercise, and/or a subject for therapy. For conservatives, it is a time-honored, divinely sanctioned technique for procreation. Both strike me as a radically impoverished understanding of what love-making could and should be.

Humans have, I think, a natural desire for self-transcendence. The physical excesses of the grotesque body of Carnival honored this desire by spoofing it: as Bakhtin somewhere points out, in ancient times and in highly traditional cultures, religion included a healthy admixture of comedy and burlesque. When the belly shakes with laughter or the whole body with orgasm, the line between self and other grows thin — a perilous situation for those whose power depends on anathematizing the other. You want self-transcendence? Make babies. Or wait until after death … and thus the death-dealing at the heart of reductionist ideologies attains an aura of sanctity. Keep your vegetables in line, buddy, or your ass is grass.

Long-time readers of Via Negativa might remember my previous, more comprehensive treatment of these themes with reference to Zuni Pueblo: Laughing in church and Houston, we have a problem.

Milk of paradise

monarch caterpillar 4

The last blossoms have faded and fallen at the milkweed patch, so things aren’t quite as frantic there now as they were a month ago. But it’s a still a pretty happening place. Whereas in July the patch was like a saloon, serving everyone who came, now it’s more like a walled garden, unapproachable to all but the few species that are adapted to feed on milkweed — and the things that feed on them. When I stopped by on Sunday, every other plant seemed to host a monarch caterpillar.

monarch caterpillar 3

Judging by their size, they must be about ready to pupate. I did see one monarch butterfly with very tattered wings going around laying eggs on the leaves, but I wonder whether her offspring will have enough time to complete metamorphosis before frost.

dead monarch caterpillar

I also found a dead monarch caterpillar — a grim reminder of the fact that, while the monarch’s ingestion of milkweed’s potent alkaloids makes it poisonous to birds, that doesn’t mean it’s safe from all predators.

wheel bug with wasp

Wheel bugs still stalked the patch. I found one busy feeding on a wasp. A second wheel bug sat on a leaf a foot below it, and I wondered briefly whether they might be male and female, but I didn’t have the time to stick around and see if any interaction would take place. They seemed perilously close to the nearest monarch caterpillars. I thought of Coleridge:

And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!

milkweed bugs 3

. . . For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

The milkweed bugs are as gregarious as the wheel bugs are solitary. I found several milkweed pods that looked from a distance almost like ripening tomatoes, so covered were they by the bright orange-red bugs. A closer look revealed that most of the insects were busy feeding, their long beaks piercing the skin of the pod to get at the ripening seeds beneath. Milkweed bugs go through five larval instars, each of which appears progressively more like the adult form, and most stages seemed to be represented at each of their feeding pods.

milkweed tiger moth

I also discovered a couple caterpillars of the milkweed tiger moth — yet another milkweed obligate, as its name suggests. They too had bright warning colors, notwithstanding which they seemed to prefer feeding on the undersides of leaves. With all the wheel bugs around, that seemed like a good idea.

Argiope aurantia

In the middle of the patch, an Argiope spider sat motionless on her web with its characteristic zigzag line stretching away from her like some sort of ornamental garden path. This feature has earned Argiope aurantia one of its common names — writing spider. But not surprisingly, such an eye-catching and frequently encountered spider has more than one common name: around here, people tend to call them banjo spiders, for some reason.

By far the most widespread name, however, is garden spider. For me, as for her, a garden can found almost anywhere, if you’re willing to take the time to really look.

See my growing milkweed patch photo set for more photos. See also Burning Silo blog for frequent updates on Bev’s captive monarch caterpillar rearing project, including such fascinating posts as today’s feature on a prominent predator — stink bugs.


hunger bird

It doesn’t seem right that such great & graceful wings should bear such a small & ugly head. From underneath, at least, you can’t see its nakedness, backlit as it is by the far more naked sun.