After the cold

spectacled owl on eggsIt was a strange virus, not only in its intensity, but in its effects, as well. One writer at the New York Observer referred to it as the emo flu, because of the unaccountable feelings that lingered for a week or more after all other symptoms went away.

It was the strangest [flu] I’ve ever gotten, and I’m not alone in thinking it was weird. Indeed, I feel compelled to alert the world, or at least this city, about the extraordinarily subtle and insidious sequelae of this contagion going around.

When I call it the “emo flu,” it’s not a metaphor. I don’t know if it’s medically an influenza virus, but whatever the nature of this melancholy microbe, it’s worth a warning.

It begins with familiar-seeming mild flu-like symptoms (mild in my case, more severe in others), but then tails off into a long, etiolated fugue state in which something more than flu-like lethargy, lassitude and inanition paralyzes you. It’s not just a neutral world weariness, it’s Weltschmerz–world-historical sadness: Some mournful, emotional, deeply despairing, unremittingly sad and despondent sense of life seizes you and won’t let go for at least a week afterward.

That’s not been my experience at all. For me, the only noticeable depression was right at the beginning, which is hardly unusual — in fact, I can often tell when I’m about to get sick by such departures from my otherwise generally cheerful mood (though granted, given my general worldview, mine is the kind of cheer associated with whistling past graveyards). I was impressed by the tenacity of the virus, its ability to plug or irritate sinuses, ears and throat at the same time. What I have now, though, a week and a half after I blew my nose for the last time, is far from depression. It’s more like a heightened state of well being, accompanying a profound reconfiguration of my habits and interests.

It began innocuously enough. With everything blocked up, sleeping was difficult, so I began to keep odd hours, sleeping from midnight to three, reading until seven, then going back to sleep until ten or eleven. Whereas before I had been an early-to-bed, early-to-rise kind of guy, within a few days after contracting the virus, I had become a total night owl.

Nothing out of the ordinary in that, surely. But I also began to notice that strong light was painful to me. I had always turned on an incandescent lamp on my writing table after it got dark, in order to avoid eyestrain from the computer monitor, but now I found I preferred to read in the dark. Fortunately, a lot of my favorite blogs use templates — skins, as the cool kids call them — with black or dark gray backgrounds, and I found these much easier on my eyes. I created a new category within my Bloglines subscriptions just for dark-skinned blogs. I also reset the background color of my word processing program to midnight blue with white text; it looked just like the WordPerfect default screen from twenty years ago.

My house has always had a certain cave-like ambience, which I’ve enhanced by planting trees in front of several of the windows. Now I found myself installing shades and curtains in addition — a needless luxury if you live as far out in the woods as I do, at the dead end of a mile-and-a-half-long, gated driveway. The problem is, ever since coming down with the “emo flu,” I’ve developed an extreme sensitivity to sunlight. If I spend more than fifteen minutes in it, I actually begin to feel nauseous and have to scurry back inside if I want to avoid throwing up.

I’ve never been a fan of sunglasses; I don’t even really own a pair, and for a couple days I managed to get by with squinting and pulling my hat down as low as I could on the rare occasions when I had to leave the house during the day. Then I remembered that there was a pair of sunglasses in the corner of a small, shrine-like arrangement of odds and ends that I keep in a disemboweled cabinet television set in my living room. A guest left them behind ten years ago, a couple weeks before his death from a heroin overdose. I remember how skeletal he had looked on that cold, January day, and how he had retreated to an upstairs room to sleep until the sun went down, while another friend and I huddled around the wood stove.

I retrieved Ben’s sunglasses from the television shrine and began wearing them, but I find it only affords a limited amount of relief. The best thing is simply to stay indoors with the shades drawn until after dark, if at all possible. It helps that we’re now over a month past the autumn solstice, and the hours of daylight are outnumbered by the hours of darkness.

The good news, though, is that aside from this realignment in my sleep cycle, I feel better than ever. As evening comes on, I find myself filling with the same kind of creative energy that I used to feel first thing in the morning. Often, I get too excited to sit still and work, and I go off on long jogs through the woods. Fortunately, there are over ten miles of trails on the property, and the hunters and I keep them mostly clear of fallen logs and branches, though my night vision is so good, it hardly matters. Vitamin A, you know.

I’ll tell you, there’s nothing like returning to normal — it makes one appreciate all the things we otherwise take for granted. For the first few days after getting over a cold, one takes special delight simply in being able to smell and taste and hear things clearly again. This time — due, I’m sure, to the unusual severity of the cold — that illusion of heightened perception has persisted for close to two weeks. My newly nocturnal habits doubtless play a role: without bright lights and colors to distract me, after the noise from the valley has subsided, it’s amazing, some of the things I’ve been able to detect. Last night, for example, I heard a porcupine waddling through the leaves from a hundred yards away. I had a sudden vision of rushing up to it with a stick, flipping it over, and killing it with a fast bite to the jugular, though I have no idea why I’d want to do that. Three nights ago, the heavy footfalls of a gravid female black bear were not quite the first thing to alert me to her presence. I had caught a whiff of something sharp and dangerous and stopped dead in my tracks. I felt a degree of fear and a desire to flee that I’ve never felt around black bears before. When she whuffled in my direction, I nearly shat myself.

It’s funny how the virus seemed to contain the seeds of its own destruction. I feel so much healthier and more alive now, I’ll be surprised if I contract another cold for a very long time. Before, I was in serious danger of becoming a mouse potato, but now, there’s almost nothing I’d rather do than go outside, with no other goal than to slake my thirst for contact! Contact! as Thoreau put it.

I mean that quite literally. For example, despite the lowering temperatures, I often find myself leaving shoes and socks behind. My feet are toughening by the day — or rather, by the night. I’m seriously considering dispensing with other articles of clothing, too. I mean, why not? When you run, you hardly feel the cold. It’s not like there are neighbors to complain, and besides, it’s dark out. I’ve never been interested in nudism before, in part because I am hairy in parts of my body where most folks seem to find hairiness a positive affront. But now I’m beginning to think of a thick pelt as a good thing, particularly with winter coming on. It may be just my imagination, but it even seems as if it’s been getting a little thicker in recent weeks. There’s been a lot less hair in the bathtub drain, though, so probably what’s happening is that I’m just not shedding as quickly as I had been before.

It’s hard to say. Another luxury of living alone is that I don’t have to spend much time in front of the bathroom mirror. Even when I brush my teeth, I barely give my reflection a passing glance, though I probably should. Lately my teeth have begun feeling different, somehow, and they seem to require a lot more brushing to get rid of the stench from an ordinary meal. I may even take up flossing. It seems like such a civilized thing to do.

self-portrait as lunatic

Poetry and laughter

One of the most peculiar aspects of [spasmodic dysphonia] is that victims are typically unable to have conversations in their normal voice. Yet they can speak under different circumstances, such as just after sneezing or laughing, or in an exaggerated falsetto or baritone, or while reciting poetry…

–Rachel Konrad, “Hampered by rare syndrome, Dilbert cartoonist talks again” (Associated Press, Oct. 27, 2006)

I have always felt that much of the best poetry is funny. Who can read Hopkins’s “The Windhover,” for instance, and not feel welling up inside a kind of giddiness indistinguishable from the impulse to laugh? I suppose there has got to be some line where one might say about a poem, “That’s too much nonsense,” but I think it is a line worth tempting. I am sure that there is a giggly aquifer under poetry.

Right now I am thinking of something unlikely that I saw a few days ago, the morning after my town had experienced a major winter flood. In the middle of a residential street, a cast iron manhole cover was dancing in its iron collar, driven up three or four inches by such an excess of underground water that it balanced above the street, tipping and bobbing like a flower, producing an occasional bell-like chime as it touched against the metal ring. This has much to say about poetry.

For I do not want to suggest in any way that this aquifer under poetry is something silly or undangerous; it is great and a causer of every sort of damage. And I do not want to say either that the poem that prompts me to laughter is silly or light; no, it can be as heavy as a manhole cover, but it is forced up. You can see it would take an exquisite set of circumstances to ever get this right.

–Kay Ryan, “A Consideration of Poetry” (Poetry, May 2006)

Lynx rufus

Woken by thirst & a hot gaze
from the mouth of the shelter: sun,
or mother dangling some new,
wet chew-toy for her grown kitten?
The dream visions slink
back behind the rocks, where
it’s always night. Yellow eye,
help me look for a drink under
these shelves of angled light.
Water has no scent of its own.
After dark, it’s simple to track it
by its purr: every large ravine
has a throat, a pulsing vein.
Its surface trembles, the loveliest of pelts.
But sometimes too there’s water
on top of the mountain,
above the head of the ravine.
Silent, & therefore
something to be wary of. Moving
only when the wind disturbs it.
Impossible to ambush.
Daylight buzzing in my whiskers,
I gust through the newly molted leaves
looking for that fierce glint.

Written in response to the comments about anthropomorphism in my previous post.

Revised 10/31, partly in response to further comments from readers. Thanks, y’all.

Looking for water

leaf pool

The afternoon sun catches the bobcat full in the face where he rests under a boulder near the top of the talus slope, waiting for night. It wakes him from a pleasant dream of raiding a mouse’s nest and crunching down an endless supply of succulent squirming hairless mouse babies. He blinks, and tries shifting around to get away from the sunlight, but the small shelter, which stinks of porcupine, barely accommodates him as it is.

The sun makes him thirsty. He remembers the last time he came this way, finding a series of small pools right over the crest of the ridge from here, near the edge of an old field. It’s worth a try.

He emerges cautiously onto the rocks, his pupils narrowing into needles against the glare. Fortunately, he’s only two short leaps from shade and the shelter of the trees.

The air is still. It feels strange to be walking around in daylight, with his mind still half in dream. The sounds of his own footsteps in the leaf litter don’t seem nearly loud enough, and there’s a disconcerting sense of sameness to the various odors that reach his nostrils, as if everything’s been tainted with some kind of poison from the sun.

He clears the fringe of laurel and walks through the open woods along the flat top of the ridge. When he reaches the spot where he remembered finding the pools, there’s nothing but mud. He sniffs, and draws back. The only moisture here is from the hind-ends of horny white-tailed deer, who never seem to mind pissing where they drink and shitting where they eat.

The bobcat continues north along the ridge, remembering a brushy ravine that leads down to the creek. He never sees the pair of deer hunters, a married couple, dressed in blaze orange and sitting against a tree about fifty feet away. Colorblind like all bobcats, he will never see the yellow and orange and red of the autumn leaves, not even when he returns a week later and finds some rainwater to drink in two of the pools that had been dry on his earlier visit.

By that time, the hunters will have told and retold their story of the bobcat to almost everyone they know, and it will have taken on a certain mythic dimension, despite the fact that they are scrupulously honest about the details, the animal’s small size, its apparent lack of caution. It starts becoming possible to imagine what the world must look like to a bobcat — how it can be so wary, such a good hunter, and yet so oblivious.

It is, after all a cat, and we know cats. Everyone knows about cats and water, how particular they are about pulling their whiskers back and only breaking the surface with their tongue. Drinking from the creek is one thing, but still water must make a wild cat especially cautious. Can’t you just see him, catching sight of this other cat in the water and jumping back, then maybe sneaking up on it and touching it with his paw?

Well, I’m sure it won’t be the first time he’s ever drunk from a pool during the daytime. But yeah, I’ll bet he still does a double-take.

The omniscient narrator finds himself unwilling to speculate further. It’s all too easy for those of us who see in color to think we know exactly what we’re looking at.


This straw isn’t bad, really, said the scarecrow. I like straw.

At least I’m eliciting strong emotions, said the alarm clock.

I’m taking this opportunity to get in touch with my roots, said the wind-thrown tree.

There’s no greater joy than the feeling of being useful, said the automatic rifle.

Wow, what an intense rush, said the lobster. You hardly notice the heat.

I’m ready for some time apart, said the quarry stone.

One leaf

log and maple

I’d be very pleased with myself if I’d thought to place that single maple leaf on the log under the crook of the red maple sapling, but in fact I was oblivious. I had eyes only for the sapling’s dramatic struggle to escape the crushing embrace of the dead. This is, after all, the season for high drama; who can be expected to focus on a single leaf? It only revealed itself as the true subject of this photo in retrospect, as I was reviewing the pictures in the LCD screen on the back of the camera.

This past weekend was the peak of fall color here on the mountain. Because the majority of canopy-height trees are oaks, every year it’s hit or miss whether we’ll have a good display — some years they go straight from green to brown, with no intermediary stops at rust red (red oak), scarlet (scarlet oak), or orange-yellow (chestnut oak). This year has been excellent for color, but lousy for photography. The weather this weekend lurched from rain to sun to snow and back again. During one period of intermittent sunshine, I hurried up to the top of the field for some wide-angle shots, but none of them turned out very well. (I posted the two best results on Flickr.)

three maple leaves

The maples are more dependable. Although in general I’d advise ecotourists in Pennsylvania not to waste too much time in the “big woods” of the north-central counties, where the forests are young and ecologically impoverished by decades of severe overbrowsing by white-tailed deer, in early October the fall foliage display is much less likely to disappoint wherever maples and birches are the dominant deciduous trees. But we have plenty of red and sugar maples and black birches here, too, especially along the forest edges. One of the best places for leaf-peepers to go around here is the stretch of Interstate 99 between Altoona and Bald Eagle. I don’t suppose I need to dwell upon the irony in that.

blueberry foliage

But a healthy Appalachian oak forest is far more than just the canopy. Park your car or bicycle and go for a walk in the woods almost anywhere in central Pennsylvania right now, and your gaze might gather warmth from the orange flames of sassafras, the red coals of shadbush or maple-leafed viburnum, or the crayon-yellow, starfish-shaped blossoms of witch hazel, which perversely chooses the middle of autumn to bloom. In wetter areas, the spicebushes are stippled with blood-red berries, and higher up the mountainsides, lowbush blueberry leaves — as in the photo above — turn a wonderful wine-red. Even the invasive multiflora rose and barberry bushes are worth a second glance, since, in addition to their own crimson fruits, many of them wear a colorful patchwork coat of fallen tree leaves. If you spook a deer, or if you run into a hunter dragging his quarry out of the woods, chances are its coat will have finished changing from the reddish brown of summer to winter gray. In another week, most of the forest will have followed suit, and the drama will be over for another year. The oaks will all go brown, and wait for the November winds to strip them bare.

Tim's eight-point

Don’t forget to send any and all tree-related links to Rachel of frizzyLogic, who will be hosting the next Festival of the Trees on November 1. Address your emails to: festival (dot) trees (at) gmail (dot) com, and send them no later than October 30.

Mountaintop removal


I decided to include this brief documentary here as a kind of quick course for those who might be unfamiliar with the phenomenon of mountaintop removal, since I’ve made reference to it here in the past (most recently in my Campfire tale post). I don’t particularly care for the use of celebrity spokespeople and other outsiders to the region, which to my mind reinforces the notion that mountain people are incapable of speaking up for themselves, but otherwise I think the video gives a good overview of the crisis.

Some additional points to consider:

  • “Mountaintop removal” is a bit of a euphemism. This form of extreme strip-mining effectively obliterates the entire mountain by taking off its top and then using the “overburden” to fill in the adjacent valleys and ravines (a.k.a. hollows).
  • The forests will likely take tens or hundreds of thousands of years to recover, if ever. When the narrator refers to a moonscape, that’s not hyperbole. However, more aggressive species of grass will grow, and some local boosters of the coal industry talk about how this will open up the view and allow cattle grazing and the introduction of Rocky Mountain elk for big game hunters to pursue.
  • The practice of mountaintop removal is tantamount to ecocide. As mentioned in the documentary, the location of these mines in southwestern West Virginia and Kentucky threatens one of the most biodiverse temperate ecosystems in the world: what forest ecologists call the mixed mesophytic forest. This forest is simultaneously under assault by pulpwood companies who are stripping out everything, plowing, and planting red pine monocultures designed for short-rotation tree farming. Many species of salamanders, land snails, and beetles, and even some wildflowers and songbirds, will be threatened with extinction if the combined assault continues too much longer.
  • Mountaintop removal amounts to an undeclared war against the people and communities of this region. The mining companies display the same kind of callous disregard for life as the European companies that conspired to ship deadly chemical waste to Ivory Coast last month: it’s not that they hate poor people, exactly, they just fail to recognize them as fully human. The documentary shows this pretty well. Like any war, it also divides communities, with many people clamoring for the few, temporary jobs that this form of mining provides, even knowing that laying waste to the land will render it largely uninhabitable for generations to come.
  • What can you do? Besides helping to spread the word, consider supporting organizations such the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, West Virginia’s premier conservation organization, which has been tireless in its fight against mountaintop removal through every possible legal means. (The Highlands Conservancy is also, incidentally, one of the main reasons why the Monogahela National Forest is in such good shape.) Other worthy groups include Appalachian Voices, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, and the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.

End games


In every collection of poems, essays, or tales, there’s one poem, essay, or tale that I don’t finish. An avid reader, like an ardent lover, must never fall prey to the delusion that s/he has completely comprehended the object of her/his attentions. Some mystery must remain. A map with no blank spots never tempted an explorer.


Suppose you wanted to hire an end-of-life coach. What qualifications would you look for?

Perhaps the question sounds absurd. But show me an authentic teacher who is not, in effect, an end-of-life coach.


Despite being more or less a secular humanist, I often describe myself as religious, too. The semantic janitor in me insists that the fashion for calling oneself “spiritual but not religious” simply muddies the cistern of public discourse. Moreover, using the word spiritual might imply belief in the literal existence of spirits, whereas religious implies nothing more than religiosity, which can include behavior as basic as showing respect for the dead.

True, the universalizing religions — Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, and so forth — advocate profounder shifts in the inner lives of their adherents. But most religions that have ever existed have been altogether less ambitious and more circumspect about such questions as the possible end and meaning of life. The universalizing religions propose to teach humility; village and tribal religions actually model it, to some extent. And it’s this kind of existential humility, rather than the adherence to any particular belief, that seems most characteristic of true religiosity.


“My parents were so uptight,” she said, “they wouldn’t even utter the word ‘breast.’ And of course they sent us to Catholic schools, too.

“My brothers and I had no idea what to call those unmentionable things on a woman’s chest, so we made up our own word: puff-outs. We used to go through magazines together, laughing at all the pictures of women with their comical puff-outs!


“Human females are unique in the concentration of fat deposits in breasts and buttocks. Although breasts develop in some primates in first pregnancy, human females are further distinguished by breast development during puberty, usually several years before pregnancy.

“Humans have been interested in breasts and buttocks, in one way or another, for a long time, as illustrated by the so-called Venus figurines of Upper Paleolithic Europe. More recently attempts have been made to explain the evolution of the unusual anatomical features. Here I present an integrated hypothesis, proposing that breasts and buttocks evolved to signal a female’s nutritional state to males, in the context of facilitating female choice of mate. High male parental investment is critical to this point of view. I reach the conclusion that humans stand out against a general background of sexual selection wherein many animals exhibit male ornaments to attract females.”

–John G. H. Cant, “Hypothesis for the Evolution of Human Breasts and Buttocks,” American Naturalist, Vol. 117, No. 2 (Feb., 1981)


The buttocks are at once the humblest and the proudest feature of our anatomies. In Buddhist meditation, the buttocks may appear to adopt a subservient position, only to return to prominence during prostrations. “Free your mind and your ass will follow,” as George Clinton once said.


Christian fundamentalists remind me of straight guys who are into anal intercourse. Both seem to be missing the point, somehow. They are idolaters, for whom the well-formed text or body with all its comic superfluities is merely the means to an end. And of course the end can’t come quickly enough, as far as they are concerned. It was to help these kinds of people that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on an ass.

Bear Heaven

Bear Heaven apertureLast week’s head cold prevented me from going through my slides from the previous weekend’s trip to West Virginia as soon as I would have liked. I’ve now done so, and liked the results well enough to create a Monongahela National Forest photo set. Folks with high-speed access might enjoy the slideshow, which — in case you’re unfamiliar with Flickr — displays the photos at the original size I uploaded to the web (sometimes as high as 180k). If you’re on dial-up, it’s easier to click on the thumbnails at the main set page, which take you to a medium-sized version. To see the full size, you have to click on the magnifying glass icon right above the photo. Maybe this is all intuitive for some of you, but it wasn’t for me when I started using Flickr.

What is it that keeps pulling me back to northern West Virginia and the magnificent Monongahela National Forest? Maybe the fact that it looks so much like home — only more so. Though the basic geology is virtually identical to where I live, the mountains are higher, the relief is greater, the roads are scarier and the people are much fewer. I’ve probably said this in one of my previous posts about West Virginia, but the mountains and hollows there look the way this mountain and hollow appear in some of my dreams — the ones where I’m five years old again.

My hiking buddy L. and I just made our fourth visit in two years. Time constraints and the length of the drive down there (four and a half to five hours just to get into the northern part of the forest) meant we’d only have one full day, so we decided to play it safe and re-visit areas we’d seen before at different times of the year. The first of these was Bear Heaven, a primitive campground and picnic area on a high ridge eleven miles east of Elkins. We discovered it on our last trip, in late July 2005, and were enchanted by the huge, weathered mazes of rock under a maturing second-growth forest, reminding us of lost cities being reclaimed by the jungle. Our last morning on that trip started out rainy, so we took our umbrellas and wandered out among the misty rocks. Many of the boulders were thick with lichen, including rock tripe lichen (genus Umbilicaria) bigger than any we’d seen before.

rock tripe

L. is an enthusiastic spinner, weaver, and dyer, so our main excuse for returning to Bear Heaven was to collect fallen rock tripe to use in dyeing — it apparently yields a legendary purple known as orchil. Also, the campground is cheap: only five dollars a night. The temperature dipped well below freezing both nights, and that combined with a brisk wind, I think, kept the one noisy bunch at the other end of the small campground from partying much later than 10:00 o’clock.

Bear Heaven features the same weathered tors as the much better known Bear Rocks Nature Preserve, adjacent to the Dolly Sods Wilderness. Both bear-friendly destinations are created from the same Pottsville conglomerate, a formation first described from beds in the anthracite coal region of eastern Pennsylvania. Some 300 million years ago, in between the swampy periods that gave us all that coal, a vast, shallow lake gathered the silica-rich erosional remnants of an earlier, granitic version of the Appalachian chain. Over millions of years, as additional sediments accumulated on top, the sandy lake bottom hardened into rock. Then came the head-on collision of North Africa and North America, mashing against each other and pushing up mountains on either side of the orogenous zone in the same way that the collision of the Indian subcontinent with Eurasia is currently making those bumps knows as the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush.

Bear Heaven hoodoo

Hundreds of millions of years later, erosion has sadly diminished what must once have been soaring peaks, but the low ridges that remain memorialize the violence of their origins in the incredibly complex folding and fault-thrusting of the bedrock, especially in the eastern and central portions of the chain. West of the Allegheny Front, sediments lie flat enough to justify use of the term “plateau” (The Allegheny Plateau in Pennsylvania and West Virginia; the Cumberland Plateau farther south), but dramatic down-cutting by creeks and rivers can expose a wide range of geological formations within a short distance just as surely as the accordion folding of strata in the ridge-and-valley province to the east. This geological diversity and constant variation in altitude within a convoluted landscape, combined with the relatively wet and temperate climate, helps make the Appalachians a hotspot for global biodiversity.

The vast, old Appalachian mountain chain has shaped the natural history and biodiversity of the continent. Its elevational, moisture, and latitudinal gradients have helped to protect its species during periods of climate change, resulting in today’s richness of life-forms. The elevational differences help to extend the distribution of certain species throughout the region. Species that thrive in the colder northern latitudes, often occur in the south too, at higher elevations. In terms of species number, the Appalachians are among the richest temperate areas. They include 255 birds, 78 mammals, 58 reptiles, and 76 amphibians.

tripe prospector

The mountains we see today are like bones in a long-buried skeleton, exposed when the land rose and the sea’s long fingers began to cut more deeply, seeking out the softer sediments. Many of the rivers are far older than these latest incarnations of the Appalachian chain, which is how they have come to cut directly through the hardest layers to such dramatic effect. But first- and second-order streams tend to follow paths of least resistance.

The Pottsville conglomerate accounts for many of those “bones” in the plateau portions. It caps some of the highest ridges, including West Virginia’s highest point, 4,863-foot Spruce Knob, also within the Monongahela NF. Due to its unique physical and chemical properties, this conglomerate often tends to erode into maze-like rock cities, and close up, one can see that flat surfaces both horizontal and vertical are stippled with little hollows and bowl-shaped depressions. It’s a bear’s heaven, one supposes, because of the abundance of suitable denning spots. In Pennsylvania, local toponyms for outcrops of the Pottsville formation include Wolf Rocks and Panther Rocks. They’re places that really bring out the kid in me — I want to crawl through every cave and canyon and scale every tor.

yellow birch knee

Scrambling over and around big rocks was just the thing to get our blood moving on a chilly morning after a hearty breakfast at camp. We waited until the sun was fairly high to improve our chances of lichen- and photo-prospecting success, but then were a little disappointed when the rocks didn’t appear quite as marvelous as they had on our previous visit, in the mist and rain. L. got a couple quarts of fallen rock tripe pieces and was satisfied, I think, but I didn’t get nearly as many good pictures as I had hoped, and I think it’s because I was looking with the wrong eyes. I kept searching for the Bear Heaven we’d seen before, and feeling frustrated when it didn’t appear. I circled one of the “cities” twice, looking for a deep canyon that I’d glimpsed from both ends last time, but it seemed to have vanished. I’d be tempted to think I dreamed it if L. hadn’t been there too.

We did make some interesting finds that morning, though. Yellow birch has always been one of my favorite trees, largely because of the way its ropy roots loop over the ground or twine around rocks and stumps. Black birch does this also, but it’s a much shorter-lived tree; yellow birch can live for two hundred years and get up to five feet in diameter at breast height. (The breast height of the hiker, that is. Most birches don’t have breasts.) I’ve seen yellow birches that approached that size in a spectacular old-growth forest in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the Sylvania Wilderness in the Ottawa National Forest. I’m sure there are some ancient yellow birches lurking on inaccessible slopes in the Monongahela National Forest, but I haven’t found them yet. Probably if we can ever get our asses down to the Gaudineer Scenic Area’s 140-acre old-growth fragment we’ll see some good-sized specimens. But no matter. Even young yellow birches are fun to look at, and I enjoyed all the yellow birches at Bear Heaven because it’s one species we don’t have here in Plummer’s Hollow. It’s a slightly higher-elevation or more northern species, even if sometimes I have to drive down to West Virginia to see it.

yellow birch roots 2

The outcroppings we were exploring were on the leeward side of the ridge, which appeared to foster a moist microclimate. Many of the rock faces were thick with moss as well as lichen. One of our most interesting discoveries that morning was a large beech tree whose trunk had been colonized by rock tripe — something I’ve never seen before.

Red spruce — once dominant in all the higher portions of the Monongahela, and the tree that gives its name to Spruce Knob — is making a good comeback at Bear Heaven, intermixed with eastern hemlock. The following picture of a red spruce growing on the top of a tor shows why these trees tend to dominate rocky, infertile sites: they don’t need much soil to get by.

Bear Heaven canyon

As with yellow birches and hemlocks, red spruce roots are adept at exploiting every crack and crevasse in search of water and nutrients. In addition, they form symbiotic relationships with a species of truffle and an associated species of bacteria, which together help them obtain scarce nutrients such as nitrogen. The spruce and truffle/bacteria combination are two legs of a three-legged stool. The third leg is the northern flying squirrel, which likes to eat — and incidentally plant and spread — the underground fruiting bodies of the truffle. Widespread cutting of old-growth conifer forests throughout the northeast, combined with incursions of the more numerous southern flying squirrel, which carries a disease often fatal to its northern cousins, has almost wiped this species out in Pennsylvania. In West Virginia, a subspecies called the West Virginia northern flying squirrel enjoys federal protection as an endangered species. Here’s how the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service describes it [PDF]:

Imagine if small families of mastodons lived in isolated areas on mountaintops. People would think such creatures were very special and that it was remarkable, possibly miraculous, that these animals from ancient times were living in our present age.

A subspecies as old as mastodons lives today in isolated clusters atop the central Appalachian Mountains in the highest elevations of West Virginia and adjacent Highland County, Virginia. A relic of former ages when the earth was very different, the West Virginia northern flying squirrel was isolated from the northern flying squirrel species when ice sheets covering North America receded about 10,000 years ago.

West Virginia northern flying squirrels live in high-elevation, spruce-northern hardwood forests of the Allegheny Highlands consisting of red spruce, fir, beech, yellow birch, sugar or red maple, hemlock and black cherry. The squirrel historically lived in the old-growth spruce forests that dominated the highlands until extensive industrial logging decimated this habitat between the 1880s and the 1940s. Even in the wake of this landscape level of habitat loss, West Virginia northern flying squirrels were resilient enough for a few residual populations to survive in small, scattered patches of less than ideal habitat while forests regenerated over the following decades.

The brief document continues with descriptions of an on-going, large-scale red spruce restoration effort in the Monongahela and adjacent areas — a rare example of the kind of habitat restoration mandated under the Endangered Species Act — and concludes by saying that, while the West Virginia flying squirrel will never be common, its population seem stable and its long-term prospects look good. (I wish we could say the same about the northern flying squirrel in Pennsylvania.) I must admit, I wasn’t thinking about flying squirrels on our latest visit, but even if I had remembered to listen for their soft, high-pitched chirps after dark, I doubt I could have heard them over the high winds.

Bear Heaven foliage

Our biggest discovery of the weekend, where Bear Heaven was concerned, was that there was a lot more to it. In the inclement conditions of our previous visit, we hadn’t noticed the small picnic area, which features but a single, dilapidated picnic table and a pump that dispenses sulfur-tasting brown water. The attraction is its proximity to another whole series of rocky tors. On Sunday morning, before we left, we walked over and were impressed by the difference a few hundred yards could make. This rock city was higher and dryer, much less mossy and relatively less lichenous, though that may have been due to a greater number of visitors climbing all over them and breaking the lichen off in their eagerness to get a view from the top. Whereas the leeward rocks were covered in many palaces with polypody fern, the windward rocks harbored woodfern.

The most striking difference was in the shrub layer. Among the leeward rocks, the dominant shrub was mountain holly, which took us a while to identify since it isn’t such a common species back home. The windward rocks, by contrast, rose from a typically dense thicket of rhododendron, which must have been beautiful during our July visit, if only we’d known to look for it.

Don’t forget to send any and all tree-related links to Rachel of frizzyLogic, who will be hosting the next Festival of the Trees on November 1. Address your emails to: festival (dot) trees (at) gmail (dot) com, and send them no later than October 30.


10-point skull

After six days of being sick and sleeping in odd patterns (if at all), what a joy to wake up well before light and sit out on the porch with my coffee again! It’s good to get back into the old rut. Sirius glows balefully above the trees to the south. A great-horned owl calls once from the same direction. Water gurgles in the ditches on both sides of the yard with a pleasing stereophonic effect — something I might not notice if it were daylight.

The deer are restless this morning. All the while I sip my coffee — some twenty minutes — I hear them crashing back and forth through the woods on the other side of the driveway. It’s not a bear or a coyote that’s spooked them, I don’t think; I don’t hear any alarm snorts or stamping of front hooves, and the mad dashes seem too frequent and too short. What I hear instead are the strange, low grunts of a buck in rut. At one point, there’s a higher-pitched vocalization, almost a moan. I wonder if I might be hearing some advanced stage of the mating game. More likely, though, it’s the sound of rival bucks contending for the privilege of servicing a doe in estrus.

Imagine what it would be like if human beings went into rut and estrus like white-tailed deer: if males were obsessed with sex for only two months out of the year instead of all twelve, and females for just one day! The economy would collapse. Without the dependable lure of sex and all the anxieties attending the quest for personal sex appeal, how would you get consumers to spend money? And with nothing to sublimate, who would bother to farm, make widgets, or write blog posts?

It’s funny, every year brings fresh evidence that most of the vaunted properties of the human heart and mind that were once thought to set us apart actually differ only in degree, not in kind, from the mental abilities of other animals. Tool-using? Complex problem-solving? Language? Altruistic behavior? Reverence for the remains of dead relatives? Warfare? Peace-making? All these and more can be found in other species. Symbolic language still appears uniquely human, and I suppose you can consider that a difference in kind if you want to. But what most separates us from other animals lies not in our minds but in our bodies — specifically, in women’s bodies. They don’t go into estrus. Along with our close relatives the bonobos, humans are virtually the only species that’s physically capable of making whoopie any time of the year.

Which is not to say that many other species don’t enjoy genital stimulation — including (gasp!) with members of the same sex — throughout the year; they simply aren’t fertile then and can’t engage in coitus. On the positive side, the virtually unique sexiness of the human female seems closely linked with the complexity of our social systems and the concomitant expansion in brainpower (I hesitate to say “consciousness,” since that’s such a nebulous and loaded term). Many researchers now suggest that extended human longevity, especially for post-menopausal females, derives from the competitive advantages enjoyed by those with the best daycare arrangements (‘Hey, Grandma…’). On the downside, liberated from the solar cycle, human females became shackled to the rhythms of our lifeless companion planet instead. Free to have sex whenever they want, they became vulnerable to sexual predators year ’round. [UPDATE: see comments section for discussion of rape among other animals.] And once we became smart enough to figure out how to eliminate or fend off our natural predators, human populations were free to grow exponentially.

In a nutshell, then: to be human means, above all else, to be uniquely capable of love. Or from another perspective, which strikes me as equally valid, to be human means to be uniquely fucked.

After I go back inside, I grab my copy of Appalachian Autumn and look up “Deer: white-tailed: mating behavior of” in the index. (Fortunately, my mother took the time to compile good indices for all four of her Appalachian Seasons books.) I refresh my memory with this passage, from November 24:

At the Far Field thicket I found more evidence of the rutting season — several secondary scrapes littered with deer tracks and feces. Again I conjured up a vision, this one of bucks and does meeting here and pairing off, an anthropomorphic idea totally at odds with what really happens between bucks and does. Although does can be choosy, they usually mate repeatedly with only one buck. Two days before a doe is actually ready, she begins seeking out a buck by leaving a trail of urine and pheromones. While every buck in the area may track her down, usually only the dominant buck, which drives off the others, claims her by “tending” her until she comes into estrus. Then he may copulate with her anywhere from once or twice during her twenty-four hours of receptivity to many times (one researcher reported eight times during the daylight alone). Since most breeding is done at night, actual figures are hard to come by. Once her time is up, though, the buck heads off to find another receptive doe. During the sixty-day rutting season, a mature buck may breed with between four and twenty does. On the other hand, after her twenty-four-hour fling, assuming she has conceived, the doe has no more interest in bucks.

It may sound as if the bucks are having all the fun. Perhaps they are, but like humans on alcoholic binges, they pay a heavy toll at the end. The prolonged stresses of the rut leave them depleted of energy stores right at the onset of winter. Many of them will linger through till February or March only to die miserable deaths from starvation and/or hypothermia. With luck, they’ll fall to the sharp fangs of a predator or a well-aimed bullet instead, but one way or another, their bodies will return to the food chain. The herd simply doesn’t need all those bucks. Contrary to the fond beliefs of many more romantic folks, nature is not a loving mother.

I suppose some people will read this and wonder why I have such a bleak worldview. I can hear it now: “Dave, you just need to get laid!” (Well, maybe I do, but that’s irrelevant. My beliefs are carefully thought out and entirely rational!) The thing is, the world doesn’t feel bleak to me. If you believe, as I do, that the only paradise that matters must be sought in the present moment, than what does it matter if in the long run we are all somebody else’s dinner? Right here, right now, the coffee is good, the stars are beautiful, and the night is alive with primal music — the flow of water, and the urgent and wondrous and terrifying dance that attends the creation of new life. Regardless of how attentive or distracted I may be, the ability to draw breath at such a moment feels like pure grace. I wouldn’t want things any other way.



Speaking of grace, this week for some reason Via Negativa has been getting an unusual number of interesting comments, which have been a welcome source of diversion to me. Maybe it’s just because the sorts of things I’ve felt up to writing about (sickness, politicians and toilet seats) are a bit more inviting than my usual fare. Actually, I rarely mind the relative paucity of comments here; nine times out of ten, I don’t comment on the blogs I read, either. I tend to do my blog reading late in the day, when my creative energies are at a low ebb, and besides, I figure I’m doing my part to support other blogs and bloggers through my Smorgasblog project, the Festival of the Trees, and qarrtsiluni. But if one doesn’t leave comments, one can’t expect to get very many in return, which is why I feel especially blessed that Via Negativa still gets so many of such high quality.

The message string for my post on toilet seats was an eye-opener for me. I had no idea that toilet seats could evoke such passions. Don’t miss your chance to weigh in, if you haven’t already, on this weighty and multi-faceted subject.

Even more recently, what do you use to keep your place in a book? If you thought the answer was “a bookmark,” you may be mistaken. Don’t miss the great contributions of Joan and butuki, among others, to the riddle thread, where the elusive sylph also makes a brief reappearance, gesturing enigmatically with a cat’s whisker.