Dust to dust

dame's rocket with shadow

Yesterday, the snow had not yet begun to melt. The cold snap that began in the middle of January seemed as though it might last forever. I made pumpernickel rye bread, darkening the dough with black cocoa and potatoes with purple flesh that turned deep blue when cooked. While the dough was rising, I circled the farm on snowshoes, looking at the shadows on the snow.

laurel shadows on powerline

My parents once spent a few months in Peru, where they were astonished to encounter potatoes of every imaginable color and flavor. Unfortunately, yesterday’s blue mashed potatoes didn’t taste anything out of the ordinary. I saved most of them for the main course — the most unearthly looking shepherd’s pie you’ve ever seen.

net of twigs

Yesterday, the snow still shone with deceptive purity. There’d been no melting to release the grains of atmospheric dust, pollen, or volcanic ash from their crystal prisons and concentrate them in a thin layer of grime on the surface of the snowpack.

dried goldenrod

Mongolia, we might be eating your dust every time it snows. We tilt our heads back and catch the flakes on our tongues, imaging the taste of distant steppes and blue mountains.

squirrel tracks

But sometimes all we get is sleet. Tell the Khan’s horsemen to ride harder.

The sounds of forest silence

laurel shadows 3

UPDATE (Feb 19): Thanks to a comment from Leslee, I’ve just learned that the New York Times Magazine also had an article about Krause’s niche hypothesis yesterday, bizarrely enough. Check it out.

The silence you listen to in the woods when you’re by yourself is not at all like the silence you listen to with another person.

Of course, when we say silence, what we really mean is, absence of human noise. The woods are rarely quiet — except when people are talking or running machines. I imagine only someone from a true forest culture — the Mbuti of the Ituri rainforest, the Orang Asli of peninsular Malaysia, or the Penan of Borneo — would know how to talk in a way that harmonizes with the natural soundscape.

The woods are peaceful, we think, meaning not simply that noise is absent, but that harmony is present. It seems very likely that all members of an ecological community occupy distinct, non-conflicting aural niches, says bio-acoustics researcher Bernard Krause.

Experienced composers know that in order to achieve an unimpeded resonance the sound of each instrument must have its own unique voice and place in the spectrum of events being orchestrated. All too little attention has been paid to the fact that insects, birds and mammals in any given environment have been finding their aural niche since the beginning of time and much more successfully than we might have imagined. Indeed, combining an audition with a graphic print-out of the diversity and structure of natural sounds from a rainforest forcefully demonstrates very special relationships of many insects, birds, mammals, and amphibians to each other. A complex vital beauty emerges that the best of sonic artists in Western culture have yet to achieve.

Of course, the soundscape of a temperate-zone forest in the winter is minimalist in the extreme: a twittering of juncos, the tapping of a woodpecker, the sudden burbling of a Carolina wren. Trees creak in the wind. A chickadee sings his spring song — two descending, minor-key notes — in the middle of a snow squall. If you stand absolutely still, you can just barely make out the sound of snowflakes hitting bare branches. Drop a pin and you’d probably drown it out.

Weekend reading

skeletonized leaf

The 2nd edition of Oekologie brings together a diverse array of blog posts on ecology and environmental science (including two of mine).

This is a new and badly needed blog carnival, and I urge anyone with an interest in ecology or natural history to consider linking and submitting links. Here’s the home page. (For a weekly collection of more general environmental blog posts, see the Carnival of the Green. The most recent edition (#64) is here.)

After the storm

big grate in snow

How can you call it a storm when it’s so quiet, and when the world grows lighter, rather than darker, as the snow piles up? asks a newcomer to the northeast. It’s the wind, says a native, who has recently moved to a city so used to winter that the residents ride bicycles in the snow.

black birch snow ring

The wind spins around the trees like a pole dancer, leaving rings as wide as bicycle wheels.

squirrel hole 1

Snow may evoke erasure and forgetfulness for us, but it doesn’t stop the squirrels from remembering where they buried each of their hundreds of acorns. In the depths of winter, scientists have discovered, gray squirrels not only mate, but they also eat like gourmands, savoring every bit of a nut after the often laborious struggle to disinter it from the frozen ground. Snow turns these arboreal acrobats into divers.

tuliptree seed clump

The aptly named tuliptree catches snow in its dried seed-cups until they spill over. The slightest breath of wind is enough to scatter the whole banquet.

laurel crosses

Fifteen inches of snow is enough to almost bury the shortest mountain laurel bushes. Leaf clumps protrude from the snow in the shape of Iron Crosses, as if a small division of German soldiers had perished here.

laurel shadows 1

The cirrus clouds grow thinner and thinner, until by late morning the sun shines brightly for the first time since the storm began two days before. Now the snow is a screen for shadow plays with a simple, incremental narrative arc.

Norway spruce in snow

Little sunlight penetrates the spruce grove, where the snow is still making its way to the ground.


I walk bow-legged on webs of rawhide, in hoops of ash wood. There’s just enough snow to make it worth the effort to break trails for snowshoeing. After only an hour, muscles I haven’t used since last winter begin to register their complaints. Unlike walking on water, no faith is required — only patience, and the willingness to sink.

To view all the photos I took yesterday, click here.

Poor Man’s Flower

True glove often comes to a bad end.

I have it from a reliable source — actually, several sources — that today is (or was) Valentine’s Day. How sweet. I thought I’d record a couple of love songs as a little tribute to this very special day. First, here’s an old Irish song, which I learned off Cordelia’s Dad’s first album. That’s the name of the band, Cordelia’s Dad. This is called “Poor Man’s Labor.”


Then for the women’s side of things, here’s the old Carter Family song, “Wildwood Flower,” touchingly rendered, I thought, on the Philippine mouth harp. The recording has been electronically enhanced just a little. Sing along!



The experiment with democracy, born in violence, ended in dictatorship — an utterly predictable result. All we got out of it was a new meaning for an old word, stew: corn syrup gravy with mystery meat, which turned into a symbol for the resistance. Newage oracles claimed to know how to read the cracks as it dried in your bowl. They were drawn to bodies, and anything else that stank. They were worse than flies. You couldn’t keep them out, not even with a LED-studded crucifix.

Poverty suddenly became virtuous again. Funny how people will pick at a scab, like a worthless old hen that keeps on brooding a clutch of infertile eggs. We were always glancing at the horizon, listening, quivering in the corners of basements. During the five long years of what the foreign papers euphemistically referred to as social unrest, window glass had become more valuable than heroin. To say nothing of water, or a white picket fence that didn’t quickly darken with soot. A soldier from the last batallion to leave New York had wept and wiped his nose with the end of his turban. Guess I’m headed back to the Caliphate, he said. I’m gonna miss you crazy infidels.

Dave’s 9 Rules for Blogging

To join my exclusive blog network, you must first swear fealty to the 9 Rules. After all, without rules, there’d be no rules.

1. Whatever you do, don’t bore yourself.1 For example, by blogging about blogging. *yawn

2. Provide substantial original content now and then. That’s the only thing that keeps the endless conversation at the heart of the interactive web from devolving into empty, meaningless chatter. Well, that and catblogging.

3. Never pass over a great title for a blog post just because it might hurt its searchability. That’s fucking lame.

4. Don’t take any numerically based ranking systems seriously. Technorati barely even works half the time, and the Truth Laid Bear Ecosystem is a travesty of true ecological relationships spawned by a Bushite blog portal.2 Besides, why should we let numbers run our lives? Rank yourself alphabetically instead. Does your blog title begin with a V? Get to the bottom of the list!

5. If you don’t promote yourself, no one else will. Why not email your friends individually and offer them $5 if they’ll read your blog for a week? If you’re a knitting blogger, be sure to work your URL into everything you knit.

6. Always remember, no matter how clever you may think you are, somebody named Ralph probably said it first.3

7. Blogging is more than just a soapbox or self-publishing outlet — it’s a way to connect with like-minded people. If you’re a food blogger, why not invite your favorite Central Pennsylvania-based literary blogger over for dinner sometime? He’s probably nowhere near as obnoxious in person.

8. Snark without humor means the trolls have won.

9. Post at least once, O.K.? No post, no blog! I’ve had it with you people.

1 Boring everybody else is, of course, perfectly acceptable. In some situations, it may even confer a perverse kind of status in the blogging world. I name no names. [back]

2 Some of the best stuff on the internet appears on small sites with few incoming links and all too few readers. You’ll be lucky if you’re ever a fraction as good at photoblogging as Paula’s House of Toast, nonfiction as prairiemary, or poetry as Vivid. [back]

3 Ralph P. Lipswitch in Hoboken, for example, or CuttingRoomRalph33, on YouTube — or even Ralph W. Emerson. My favorite blogging-applicable Emerson quotes:

All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.

Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities have crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.


The evolution of a reading

My post on difficult poetry and poetry readings spawned an interesting discussion. Both Laura and Bev felt there was a strong connection between hearing a poem and understanding it, which is interesting considering how difficult it can be to grasp the meaning of a poem on first listen. Bev wrote,

The speaking is what makes it come alive for me. If I don’t understand a poem, I read it aloud two or three times. Btw, when I was working on my graduate degree in Eng. lit, I was assigned to the university’s writing tutorial services. I used to work with students who were having problems with their essays. I frequently had students bring in a poem they were supposed to write about. They wouldn’t know what to say because they didn’t understand the poem. I think they thought I’d explain it to them. Instead, I’d make them read it to me at least a couple of times — sometimes more. The first time was usually quite pathetic. Subsequent attempts were usually much better. After a couple of readings, we’d sit and discuss the poem – and most times, they’d already be starting to get the meaning. I liken the process to talking to your dog about your problems. You already know the answer, but you just have to hear it.

Ivy Alvarez stressed the importance of warming up before giving a public performance.

I think if poets are going to read their work aloud, they should practise being heard, otherwise what’s the point?

I know there’s plenty to think about while a person’s up on stage [nerves, do I gotta go pee, is my time up, why are they looking at me funny, have I got all my poems, hey, he’s cute, random thoughts like that] but that’s why one has to warm-up beforehand.

I can’t help thinking that poets who give lackluster readings are just being lazy — unless, as Marly suggested, they are deliberately affecting “a toneless, mechanical sort of reading,” stemming from a “desire for the inaccessible.” Just because I’ve written a poem doesn’t mean I automatically know the best way to read it right off the bat. I thought it might be fun to record myself in three different stages of comprehension of a given poem, using the most recent thing I’ve written. If I’d saved a recording of every take, this would’ve been close to an hour long and about as exciting as listening to a guitarist practice the same riff over and over.


Probably no one will ever accuse me of a lack of enthusiasm for poetry. But you can have too much of a good thing, creating a sort of enthusiasma that makes normal breathing difficult. That’s a line I hope never to cross. But I think I may have gone a little too far with this particular recording adventure, mixing in a harmonica (my very inadequate rendering of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Eyesight for the Blind”). You can listen to the results on the poem’s new page at shadow cabinet.

By the way, in case anyone was wondering, the poem was not autobiographical. (You’ll notice I included it in the Masque section of shadow cabinet.) I chose it for this reading exercise mainly because it was short, without thinking that I’ll probably want to revise it at some point. Well, if I do, I’ll simply erase these recordings and make new ones, I guess.


Speaking of evolution, Happy Darwin Day, y’all.

The Man with the Bag

I’m slowly learning how to play this strange instrument, the kubing.

Found all over the Philippines, the mouth harp is called Kubing among the Mindanao trives [sic] (Maguindanao and Maranao), Kulaing in Cotabato, Subing in Visayas, Barmbaw among the Tagalogs, Kollibaw among the Negritos, Kinaban among the Hanunoo Mangyans, Afiw (made of metal) among the Bontocs, and Coding among the Ibaloys and Kalingas.

With this instrument, it is said that courtships are made and the common words and language of love and lovemaking can easily be expressed.

It turns out that you really shouldn’t hold it against the teeth, as I had been doing, but simply press it against the lips. I guess that’s how it became associated with courtship: it’s not very loud when played this way, and absent a microphone, you’d have to get it pretty close to a listener’s ear. If my own experience is any guide, there must be quite a high risk of spraying one’s date with saliva. Fortunately, folks at home won’t have to worry about that. With the microphone turned all the way up, you can hear my breathing pretty clearly, though, which may or may not improve the effect. “Man with the Bag” is my own off-the-cuff composition.

“The man with the bag” was something my maternal grandfather used to joke about. Evidently this was his own mother’s name for the bogeyman: Be good, or the man with the bag will get you! I don’t know if that came out of Southeast Pennsylvania folklore, or was just something she made up. Georgina Dresch Myers was quite a storyteller, I gather, and my Pop-pop, as the first-born of her three sons, must’ve been especially favored with her off-the-cuff bedtime stories. She was by all accounts a very bright woman, who pretty much ran the local Methodist church for many years. She lived as much as possible according to the Golden Rule and the beatitudes, and was forever scolding my Pop-pop for his focus on making and saving money — not atypical for a boy who came of age during the Great Depression. Pop-pop told us that his mother fed every beggar and hobo who came to the door, usually in return for some token chore so they would feel like they were earning their bread. There were many men with bags wandering through Pottstown, Pennsylvania back then.