Sing a song of sang, that human root:
wrinkled homunculus growing slow as thought.
Even the seeds take twenty months to sprout,
stones that finish growing in the ground
as if traveling through the interminable gut
of some great beast that vanished in the Pleistocene.
Sing a song of burying in haste,
the berries’ flesh a tempting prize for mold.
So if picked on a morning in early September,
nestled into a plastic vial & sent by overnight mail,
you must plant them as soon as they arrive —
don’t put it off till after supper.
Choose each resting-place with care,
moving slowly through the woods & stopping often.
Pretend you’re burying a grandparent, piece by piece.
Make a hole with your index finger
no deeper than the second knuckle,
drop the blood-colored berry in & cover it up.
Pray for uninterrupted sleep, & an end to sleep.
Let your stomach rumble, soft & low.
Quite by chance, I just found out that my local public radio station aired a related story this morning. Refer to the other links on that page for more on sang culture in Pennsylvania.
If you’ve gotten this message after attempting to leave a comment at the previous post, or after clicking on any of the navigation links from the post page, you’re not alone. I don’t know what the heck’s up with it. I’ve tried taking the post down and publishing it anew, but the problem persists. I felt bad about the negative tone of the piece when I wrote it last night, and now, it’s clearly cursed. I don’t know if the hex can be lifted. Best not to click on it for now.
My apologies to anyone whose comments have been lost.
UPDATE (1:12 pm EDT): All fixed now! Matt tells me that some word or combination of words in the text of the post (“pretty pictures”? “exploitation”?) had triggered a block from the security system in place at the hosting provider. That system has now been turned off for Via Negativa.us.
A butterfly outlined in dew: what could be more beautiful, right? Ah, but ignorance is bliss. A cabbage white on a common mullein stalk: what could be more emblematic of the simplified ecosystems bequeathed to us by five centuries of global trade and environmental exploitation? My blog buddy Pablo, of Roundrock Journal, goes so far as to remove every mullein he finds on his land, fighting what I fear is a hopeless battle against invasive species. Most of the time, I can’t bring myself to be quite so zealous. Are we not an invasive species as well? Where forest ecosystems are concerned, I am reduced to near-despair by the seeming impossibility of doing anything about the scourge of invasive earthworms, which are slowly but surely destroying forest humus and threatening everything that depends on it, from native wildflowers to trees, fungi, snails, salamanders and songbirds. And let’s not even talk about aquatic ecosystems.
Most of the time, when I write about nature here, I try to stay positive. I want to help people appreciate the natural world, not infect them with my cynicism and despair. But I do experience almost daily the truth of Aldo Leopold’s observation: “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.”
It goes without saying that, even at its most degraded and impoverished, the world is still beautiful — often achingly so. To some, the loss of complexity and diversity may even seem like a blessing. But whatever the aesthetic pleasures afforded by simplicity or the efficiencies associated with organizational unity, complex systems are much stronger and more resilient than linear ones. More than that, our minds and bodies are themselves complex systems thoroughly enmeshed in the larger networks of relationships in which, and through which, they have evolved. Nature offers a model for mobility and flexibility that we can’t get any other way. Its health — its wholeness — is essential to our own. Touch one strand and the whole web trembles.
The plane banked and swung low over the treetops — so low, we all dove for cover, thinking the pilot must be suicidal. (Has Al Qaeda begun hijacking Piper Cubs?) Its engine roared and sputtered like a teenager’s badly tuned GTO, and we held our breaths as it banked again and went into a steep climb. Maybe this is some kind of mating flight, I thought, peering at the cockpit through the scope of my .338 Winchester.
The plane leveled off at about five hundred feet above the forest canopy and began to circle. I think we were all getting a little peeved — we’d paid $8,000 a head for a quality, wilderness hunting experience, and goddamn it, we wanted some peace and quiet! But the next thing we knew, four parachutes were opening in the sky above us.
“You’re not going to believe this, guys,” I said, still looking through the Trijicon AccuPoint. Jim grabbed his .30-06 and followed suit. Four chairs were floating down toward us. “What the hell?”
As the engine’s roar died away into the distance, three of the parachutes lodged in the treetops around the camp, dangling their strange cargo just out of reach. I headed for where I thought the fourth had come down, forgetting about grizzlies for the moment as I smashed through the alder.
There it was, sitting slightly askew in the middle of the thicket. It was a camp chair, all right, with a light wood frame supporting long strips of some kind of leaf. Additional items were tied across its arms: a rolled-up hammock, a long, bamboo tube and a bundle of dart-like things. A blowgun?
When I unrolled the hammock — cunningly constructed of vines and plant fibers — a piece of paper fell out. The message looked as if it had been typed on an actual typewriter.
“Dear Friends,” it read, “We send you these gifts as tokens of our goodwill. We bring good news about the grace of God and his victory over the giant anaconda, which will bring peace and love to your war-torn lands at last. Welcome to civilization!” It was signed simply, “The Waorani.”
Someone had added a postscript in pen at the bottom of the page. “P.S. Awfully sorry to inform you that the subsurface rights to the forest in which you have been hunting belong to Shell Oil, who will begin bulldozing for an oil sands mine on Monday. Peace.”
Can you read the sky? This one is a sign that means “unreadable” — a mackerel sky.
An altocumulus mackerel sky or mackerel sky is an indicator of moisture (the cloud) and instability (the cumulus form) at intermediate levels (2400-6100 m, 8000-20,000 ft). If the lower atmosphere is stable and no moist air moves in, the weather will most likely remain dry. However, moisture at lower levels combined with surface temperature instability can lead to rainshowers or thunderstorms should the rising moist air reach this layer. There is an old saying, “Mackerel sky, mackerel sky. Never long wet and never long dry.”
Beautiful, isn’t it? Let’s face it, stability and uniformity are boring.
Take rocks. Rocks are far from the paragons of stability we imagine them to be. Go for a walk across a boulder field sometime — it’s easy to lose your balance. Some rocks like to rock, some rocks like to roll, and you just have to keep movin’ and groovin’, as the song says. There are boulder fields in eastern Pennsylvania full of rocks that ring when struck, emitting clear, resonant tones. People come with mallets and go rock-hopping in search of a perfect pitch. Here on the mountain most of the rocks play dead, but some sleep with one eye open.
If you can’t put your trust in a rock, what else is there? A cipher, perhaps. The abstract truth of numbers. But somehow the mind rebels, and the numbers begin to take on completely extraneous qualities: sexy 6, owlish 8, 55 a pair of drummer’s brushes. 49 seems inexplicably tastier than 48. We could paint by numbers, green and green and green.
“It is only when we forget all our learning that we begin to know,” Thoreau once wrote in his journal. “I do not get nearer by a hair’s breadth to any natural object so long as I presume that I have an introduction to it from some learned man. To conceive of it with a total apprehension I must for the thousandth time approach it as something totally strange.”
Total, totally: as if from heterogeneous reality to derive some unity, some gestalt. That too, says my inner Ecclesiastes, is so much empty grasping at the wind.
If each morning you could forget everything, including language itself, and could be reborn in a world free of signs, what would you see? Faces. Everywhere. We make the strange familiar simply by coming to dwell in its fishy midst. We cast our lines skyward, in hopes of landing the elusive holy mackerel.
This weekend, we bid a fond farewell to dial-up Internet. With the invaluable assistance of my cousin-in-law Jeff, we’ve swapped 28 kilobytes for 3 megabytes per second.
For years now, Jeff and my father have been scheming about ways to get high-speed access to Plummer’s Hollow. They didn’t think that the phone company, Verizon, would be laying fiber optic cables anytime soon. But last month, a telephone line repairman out on a service call informed us that they had indeed installed a local fiber optic network this past winter. It seemed a little odd that Verizon would go to all that trouble and expense and then neglect to inform eligible customers, but once contacted, they shipped the new DSL modem willingly enough. It only remained to wait for Heidi and Jeff’s next visit — fortunately already scheduled for Labor Day weekend — since we figured we wouldn’t be able to reconfigure on our own the wireless system that Jeff had set up for us between the two houses.
We were right. On Saturday morning, Jeff muttered and puttered around for a couple hours while the sorry remnants of Hurricane Ernesto kept us all indoors. Dad and I were on hand with what you might charitably call color commentary: advice, perhaps, but only of the fatuous kind offered up by the guys in the press box who couldn’t throw a pass to save their lives. It took Jeff a little while to figure out what he had done before and undo it, but suddenly there it was: the new version of Firefox downloading from the web in seconds rather than taking half an hour. “Gee, look at that, Paw!” To say we were stunned would be an understatement. After lunch, a couple more hours sufficed for Jeff to install a new wireless network.
On Sunday, while Jeff and Heidi’s six-year-old daughter Morgan went off to explore in the woods with my mother, the laptops came out in the living room. That’s the funny thing about computers: since they tend to be less absorbing than books, somehow their use doesn’t preclude social interaction quite the way reading a book does. On the other hand, when my parents sit together in the evening reading newspapers and magazines, they also frequently share aloud from what they’re reading, so maybe there isn’t a huge difference.
Suddenly, Morgan was back, in a state of high excitement: “There’s a snail! We found a snail! You HAVE to get pictures!”
And so I did. This was a distinctly unsluggish woodland mollusc — a snail on speed. They had picked it up somewhere down along the road, and it emerged from its shell almost immediately and began exploring my mother’s hand. While I snapped pictures, it glided rapidly from finger to finger like a circus performer, switching to other hands as they were offered.
Ironically, living out here in the boondocks far from cable TV, we now have a faster connection than many folks in town. Jeff explained that since we’re tapping into a node less than a mile from our houses in a rural farm valley with, presumably, fewer than a dozen other Internet users, we don’t have to compete for space on the cable. In his suburban neighborhood in New Jersey, by contrast, hundreds of people might be downloading files off the Internet at any one time.
Needless to say, this has left us all feeling a little breathless and barely able to believe our good fortune. But high-speed access probably isn’t going to change our lives. Like the snail, I’ll still remain fairly slow moving and low-energy by most people’s standards. I’ll still retreat into my shell from time to time. But I’ll relish being able to explore things like Flickr slideshows and Internet radio, and I’m already appreciating the ability to dispose of mundane tasks, such as reading and answering email, more quickly.
Best of all is the fact that I no longer have to keep my computer on all the time to avoid breaking the wireless connection between the houses, as was the case when it ran through the modem in my Dad’s computer. Now, I can turn the computer off before going to bed each night and wake up in a quiet house. More than anything else, it is that new access to silence that feels luxurious.
Click here to see all six snail pictures. If you have favorite sites on the Internet that you think I’d enjoy, I’d love to hear about them. My tastes in music run to blues, jazz, roots/world music, and modern classical.
You don’t want to write. You want to have written, I admonished the overgrown puppy straining against the leash.
Every other day, we took the two mutts on chew-proof chains to the dead end of the street, then cut across the yard of an unoccupied house, went through a hole in a grown-up hedge and came out onto the concrete lot of an abandoned warehouse, where we let them loose. It was November in Mississippi. The right-angled insurgency was yellowing in the cracks. Seeds sprang from pods at the slightest provocation.
The lot was bordered by a watery ditch (they called it a bayou, rhymes with “hey you”) across which someone had thrown a narrow board bridge. The trick to keeping the dogs out of the mud was to lead by example, dashing eagerly over the bridge and up onto the old railroad bed beyond. It usually worked.
The railroad bed was a wide no-man’s-land dividing what used to be the exclusively white side of town from the black side of town; the yards and houses on the far side of the former tracks remained noticeably poorer and more brightly colored. The right-of-way — if you could still call it that — bore signs of an on-going struggle over its fate: here, some ambitious speculator had planted survey stakes. There, someone from the far side had planted and half-harvested a small plot of okra. Two private visions of paradise. But what about the public?
The dogs raced back and forth, got into everything. The white one was dumb as a bucket of rocks. Sometimes her front legs couldn’t go fast enough to keep up with her strong hind legs, and she went rolling, ass over teacup. But the brown one — an adopted stray — was plenty smart, and had learned a basic version of hide-and-seek. Eva would duck down in the tall grass and have me yell, “Where’s Eva?” in a panicked voice, and the brown dog would come barreling like a runaway locomotive back from wherever her nose had taken her. Sleuthing consisted of running in circles until the quarry made some exasperated noise.
Work on your listening. School yourself in surprise. That’s all there is to it! The white dog squatted and assumed a thoughtful look.
It’s the back-to-school season, and I wake up with cold knees thinking, shirts and skins. Touch football. Wishful thinking on the part of our high school gym teachers, that latter term. We were not there to touch, much less to be touched — a popular euphemism for insanity when I was a kid. Manliness meant playing rough, rejecting all gentler forms of physical contact. To be a man meant to carry a switchblade in the front pocket and a can of chewing tobacco in the rear, to be always ready with a lightning-swift jab or a stream of spit.
Even for a pacifist such as I was then, showing fear or pain would’ve wounded my pride, that golem, that reservoir of touchiness. I learned to stand still and smile when someone punched me in the chest with all their strength, and to show up at the appointed spot for an after-school fight ready to turn the other, defiant cheek. I got good at it — maybe too good. My skin — I like to say when people wonder whether they should venture to criticize something I’ve done — is a mile thick.
But perhaps the operative measurement is not thickness, but proportion of surface to volume. In which case, I must’ve been nearly as sensitive as one can get, since I was always very ectomorphic — i.e., skinny. Unlike now, when my heart and my gut — that moral lodestone of our president — are much more insulated from direct contact with the world.
Even though I hated team sports, the symbolic aspect of the contest between shirts and skins fascinated me. The Skins: lord, how we white people have always loved to play at savage, stripping for the Boston Tea Party, wearing blackface, getting “tribal” tattoos. Naturally hairy, how we have alternately loathed and adored the shaved skin, the tattooed skin, the pierced skin! And then to make such a commotion about its color, because the eyes at least can hold another at a distance and still take her measure, unlike the sense of touch. Once upon a time in white America, ultimate humiliation wore a thick skin of tar coated with feathers. Soft, sticky, tar-baby-dangerous, it represented everything a man must reject. We need so badly to steel ourselves against the treacherous vulnerability of the Other.
Nakedness in European culture has long been confused with an existential withoutness. The naked savage by definition lacks civilization, refinement, even — yes — sensitivity! But boys’ pick-up sports, even in a school without uniforms, may show the folly of this conception, because in fact it is the shirts who are defined by what they cannot be: nude. In a situation where nakedness is elective and clothing is otherwise compulsive, it is the clothed who are without that most precious of possessions, freedom.
In other situations, of course, the opposite may be true — under slavery, for example. In that case, the skin itself became a uniform, and a single value — blackness — was imposed on a wide range of colors. One way or another, the infinitely attractive and subtle skin challenges those who would enforce uniformity of behavior. For Westerners, and for anyone else who aspires to modernity, your shirt is the one thing you don’t want to lose. However much we fetishize the naked skin, clothed remains the standard, the flag, the team colors that inspire allegiance to the rules of the contest. Clothed and closed.
I know, it’s Friday, and maybe you were planning on dinner and a movie tonight. Why not give joint surfing a try instead? You could wow your date with a trip to the virtual carnival … actually, several carnivals.
Festival of the Trees #3 is full of new faces and some old ones too — check it out. And while you’re at it, be sure to take a look around Burning Silo if you haven’t visited it before. Bev’s great insect photography, graceful writing style and depth of knowledge about nature have few parallels in the blogosphere.
And as if that weren’t enough, the Circus of the Spineless celebrates its first anniversary with a highly entertaining format comparing the parade of invertebrates with a normal circus, for example: “Normal Circus: Trained Lions. Our Circus: Trained Aphids. … Normal Circus: Bearded Lady. Our Circus: Hermaphroditic Snail.”
So those are the features. Now good luck finding someone you click with.