Bear lines

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

hemlock zipper 3

The rain lets up.
A pileated woodpecker
hammers on my house.

skeletonized leaf

Autumn for the trees
is a second springtime
for the rocks.

claw marks

Four parallel lines
on the maple log
where the bear thought better of it.

view of I-99

This fall, once again,
I’m shocked to see how much the leaves
had managed to hide.

Yesterday, when the rain eased up in the early afternoon, I took my camera for a walk down the hollow. For folks with high-speed internet access, here’s a ten-photo slideshow of the results. Dial-up users can browse the photos here.

November rain

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Rain makes the November woods less gray: tree trunks green up as the moss swells and lichens open their pores. The contrast between dark bareness and bright accretion is repeated in the stones of my garden, which remind me of barnacled sea creatures. In back of the house, beyond my kitchen window, the leafless black raspberry canes glisten, a tangle of arches in every shade of purple.

At least it’s a warm rain. I go out to take a leak in the driveway, and find myself gazing at the wild rosehips in front of the wall — such an enticing red! A squirrel crouches on a branch to husk a walnut, fur twitching under the too-short porch of its tail.

Flooded out of its hole beside the old stone well, a garter snake, too, looks unusually brightly colored. At my approach, it shrinks and expands simultaneously, curling into an S shape and flattening its body: yellow stripes on dark brown like a multi-lane highway viewed from the air. All empty threat, of course, but still I keep my distance. Up at the bird feeder, the tufted titmice look like punk rockers with their crests matted into liberty spikes.

It’s raining, it’s pouring, we used to chant when we were five — but nobody’s snoring here yet. In this kind of rain, you’d think the damn gutters would clean themselves, wouldn’t you? I brew a rare second cup of coffee.

The wind is from the east, and the barometric pressure is low enough to be detectable as a sort of nameless elation. I keep going out onto the porch to watch the shreds of cloud scudding in over the treetops, gray against the white cloud ceiling.


Loud at first, the rain
grows quieter by the hour
on a hillside deep
in fallen leaves.

Wild geese

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall


My daughter — the one I never had — I’ve given her up for dead. Words in a dream. Whose? Pale gray skin rising out of sleep, this sky. One size fits all. Wild geese so low over the trees, you can hear their wingbeats.

Last night, my long-dead grandmother, impossibly wrinkled. We were standing in different lines; I don’t think she saw me. –Do you have anything to declare? –No, nothing. It’s true, she rarely did.

This morning, the smell of skunk goes well with coffee. The trees are bare now except for the beeches & some of the oaks, the big ones. Standing under them, I can’t snap a photo without freezing a leaf in mid-fall.

How can we live without the unknown before us? Certainty is a nightmare. At least when I dream, I know I’m dreaming! But the bench looks better empty, I decide, & wander off.

Abusing the Ladder

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

“Do not misuse or abuse a ladder.”
safety instructions on the side of a 28-foot extension ladder

The ladder makes a perilous bridge, but it’s better than nothing. The ditch by the pasture only runs when there’s a flood, & then it’s a torrent. So I ran for the ladder, laid boards down & drove the goats across it in single file. It only bowed a little.

Another time we hung it in the well all summer — a handy rack for the hams, to keep them cool. Whenever we needed one, I’d climb down the ladder with a rope around my waist, groping around between my legs for the sweating bag of meat. Somehow, pigs belong under the earth. It’s where they’re trying to go all their lives, pushing their snouts into the soil like soft bulldozers.

When we were making bricks & needed a mold, once again — you guessed it — we used the ladder. Mud, straw and sun, a simple recipe. True, we got fined for building without a permit, & we had to take the tower down. But it sure made people talk!

Now for the barn dance, they’re giving the ladder pride of place in the hayloft, in front of the amps. Some kid with a drumstick is banging on the rungs, eking out a tune from all the variations of abuse.

Outside, the fiddler draws his bow against the barbed wire fence, like the louder little brother of the wind: an eerie sound, as unapproachable as the horizon. It makes me want to climb on out of here.

Thanks to Blue Abstractions for the oddmusic gallery.

For a righteous rant on warning signs and safety labels, see here.


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

When we moved here in 1971, the outhouse had a metal sign on the wall with faded black letters, evidently taken from an old passenger train: Kindly flush toilet after each use, except when train is in station.

No hobo with any sense ever walked between the rails.


My brother went to the high school football game last Friday night. The stands were packed, but the air above the field was crowded, too: hundreds of migrating red bats swirled above the field, diving at anything that moved, including the players and the football, he said. Screw the game — I would’ve gone just for the bats.


This past weekend, my Aunt Jean told an amusing story about her daughter Hillary’s encounter — if that’s the word — with President Clinton. She was standing on a street corner in Washington, D.C. sometime back in the mid-90s when the presidential motorcade went by. The President was lounging in the back of his limousine eating a banana. When they passed Hillary, he caught her eye, smirked, and waggled the banana at her. She called up her mother. “I think the President of the United States just made an obscene gesture at me!”


I’m tired of the same old stale oaths. I think I’m going to start saying “Crikey!” and “Balls!”

According to the Wikipedia, “In Italian there are at least 140 vulgar words for penis and around 100 that mean vagina.” Crikey! So much for the Eskimos and their legendary 100 words for snow.


I’ve heard my mother re-tell the story of my birth so many times, I almost feel as if I remember being there.

“A month before he was due, he flipped in the womb. Fortunately, he wasn’t as big as the other two, or they would’ve had to do a Caesarian. As it turned out, he was my easiest birth by far! A half-hour before he came, the doctor let all the other doctors and residents in the hospital know — everyone wanted to see what a difficult breech birth looked like. So there were all these people crowding into the room! It felt a little strange at first, but then I thought, ‘Oh, well.'”

I wonder how many people were actually there? It would be nice to know. Considering how few people come out to poetry readings, I’m thinking that might have been one of the largest audiences I’ve ever had.

Nor did I disappoint, apparently. I not only mooned everybody, but my penis was tucked between my legs in such a fashion that that was one of the first things they saw. It was visible for quite some time before I actually popped out. I may be reading too much into this, but I suspect it was a gesture of contempt for a world that I was clearly not at all anxious to enter.

Tree stands

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

hunter in treestand

When the leaves come off the trees, it’s not unusual to find men and women sitting or standing in them, holding very still. Do not be alarmed. They are merely practicing a locally popular form of spiritual exercise — hunting meditation.

Archery season for white-tailed deer in Pennsylvania began on September 30 this year, and ended on November 11, giving the deer two weeks to lose their wariness before the onset of regular rifle season on the Monday after Thanksgiving. (See here [PDF] for a complete list of hunting seasons in Pennsylvania.)

green tree fort 2

Tree stands, as they’re called, may be as simple as a ladder of spikes and a flat spot on a limb, or as elaborate as the fanciest tree house. The tree stand above is on a neighbor’s property; I posted photos of a few other examples of fixed tree stand architecture here.

On my parents’ 648 acres of mountaintop land, we don’t allow any fixed tree stands. All stands must be portable, and can only be strapped to the trees. The only things we nail into trees are the “No Hunting Except By Written Permission” signs around the perimeter. Our hunter friends are only too happy to patrol the property and keep out the slob hunters and the local miscreants. So it’s no coincidence that tree stands are often located near the property lines, where they do double-duty as watch towers.

one tree two stands

Tree stands are a fascinating and under-appreciated form of vernacular architecture. Requiring the hunters to use portable stands seems not to have crimped their creativity too much. One black cherry tree supports two stands back to back, and is often used by a mother and daughter who, between them, command a 360-degree view. I’m not sure that the camouflage paint does much to disguise these particular stands, but it does give at least symbolic expression to the underlying ideal of blending in with nature. It is this ideal that most distinguishes tree stands from other types of tree houses — let alone from more conventional dwelling-house architecture.

two treestands are better than one

Hunting meditation is about more than just putting meat in the freezer. For some of the hunters, the two weeks of regular rifle deer season are the high point of their year, and they tell us they would rather hunt in Plummer’s Hollow than vacation in the Bahamas. Considering how cold and nasty the weather can be this time of year, and how early in the morning they have to get in their stands, that’s quite a statement.

Some of the hunters bring cameras as well as rifles into the trees with them, and often seem just as happy to get good photos or videos of non-huntable wildlife as they are to bag a deer. (Non-huntable wildlife on my parents’ property includes all predator species: bear, fox, coyote, bobcat, etc. We only allow hunting of deer — which we badly want taken off, for the health of the forest — turkey, and small game such as ruffed grouse and gray squirrels.)

Notice the green garden hose running down the inside of the ladder to the tree stand in back.

treestand funnel seat

The hose connects to a funnel, which is mounted in the seat, as shown. The top of the seat is hinged, and can be lifted to allow access to the funnel. This tree stand was designed to make a daylong sit as comfortable as possible.

high treestand ladder

I sometimes hear non-hunters make fun of those who use tree stands, implying that they’re lazy because they’re not, you know, hunting. But we’ve been keeping careful records over the past fifteen years since we posted the property, and the records show that those who are the most patient and spend the most time sitting have the best success.

Hunting from tree stands is safer for us and for the hunters — it virtually ensures that they’re firing at the ground. It’s also practically a necessity in some habitat types. Much of the mountain has a dense understory of mountain laurel, a broad-leafed evergreen common in Pennsylvania. Whenever white-tailed deer come under intense hunting pressure, their normal instincts as a prey animal kick in and they do what they would do year-round if their natural predators, wolves and cougars, were still present: they bed down in the laurel, or other thick cover, only moving about when absolutely necessary. You need to sit well above the laurel if you want to have any hope of a clear shot.

high treestand seat

Some of the hunters do use prefabricated tree stands, and some of the homemade ones incorporate lightweight, prefabricated ladders. But the wooden ones have the most aesthetic appeal, I think, especially as they age and weather and get chewed on by squirrels and porcupines. Many of the stands remain in place throughout the year, so casual hikers like me can enjoy them, too.

Sometimes “enjoy” isn’t quite the right word, though. The tree stand in these last three pictures is especially high, and is strapped to a large red oak right at the end of the ridge overlooking the Little Juniata River. It’s completely open except for two, flimsy rails on either side, and when the tree rocks in an icy blast of wind off the gap… well, let’s just say the deer aren’t the only ones stricken with terror. I have a healthy respect for anyone whose idea of a good time is spending two weeks in late autumn sitting in a tree.

view from high treestand

Don’t forget to send in tree-related links to The Festival of the Trees.

The Wait

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

The priest performs his sleight-of-hand
to a nearly empty cathedral: two women
sit in a back pew, flanked
by three black garbage bags
containing their worldly possessions.
The stained-glass windows are dull
with November light.
–What’s he saying?
–It doesn’t matter. Wait.
There will be free samples at the end.

Under the pew, safe from the janitor’s mop,
the house spider has eaten all her children.
On the back wall of the sacristy,
the sworn enemy of time continues to tick.

Poem modified Nov. 11, 4:00 p.m. and Nov. 12, 10:04 a.m. — see comments for original version.

First Time

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

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Qarrtsiluni, the literary blogzine I help out with as managing editor, is seeking submissions for its current theme, First Time. As the guest editors explain,

There’s a first time for everything. The obvious: first kiss, first love, first sex. The first day of school. Less obvious: first time around the block, first poem, first loss, first Christmas you remember. This first time for everything theme is wide open, so we don’t want to limit you with our suggestions. Surprise us!

We are looking for memoir and essay, for poetry, fiction, photography, artwork. For a form that perhaps we’d be seeing for the very first time.

This edition will run through the end of December, but submissions must be in by December 15, and should be no longer than 3,000 words. For additional guidelines, see here.

Image courtesy


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

The trees clack
& sway as I walk
between them. Cloud-
shadows race over
the ridge, making the sun
flicker like a movie projector.
It’s thirty years ago, or twenty.
It’s just last week. I hear
a harsh cry & look up.
Right overhead, a raven —
out flying, I’m sure, for the sheer
hell of it — kites sideways
& upside-down into the wind.
It keeps pace with me
for half a minute, as one
might navigate by any
predictable thing.

Blast Area

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

blast area

The blast was larger
than anticipated: beds
of limestone can dip
in odd directions.
The ground shook with release.

In the yellow house
next to the quarry,
the crash of a plate rolling
off a plate rail
& onto the tile floor
was followed by a couple
seconds of silence,
then the trucks
yelping into reverse.

The windows were all open.
Raindrops began to blow
against the curtains.
An index finger
resumed its pilgrimage,
dipping into
the hollow at
the base of a throat
too frozen with joy & terror
to make a sound.