Wintery thoughts in a time of resurrection

barberry in snow

Bigger news than this Easter weekend snow and cold snap, for us, is a rare visitor at the bird feeder two days in a row: a swamp sparrow. Or so my mother determined — I’m no birder. She came back from a walk yesterday morning glowing with enthusiasm at all the birds in the hollow that were seemingly unfazed by two days of snow: migrant hermit thrushes, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, blue-headed vireos, and more. I had walked briskly down the hollow and back an hour earlier and saw nothing but the blowing ghosts of winter and the sharp contrasts between green barberry leaves or yellow spicebush blossoms and the new backdrop of white.

snow on walk

A purely aesthetic vision necessarily excludes as much as it admits, always seeking to impose some sort of frame. That may account for some of my blindness. Then, too, as a man, I am probably more inclined toward tunnel vision in the service of specific search images (in my case, certain kinds of photos). I’ve always agreed with Louis Leakey, who felt women make better naturalists than men because they tend to be more patient observers. That’s one reason why he recruited women — Dian Fossey, Jane Goodall, and Birute Galdikas — to do the long-term primate studies he thought were needed. He also felt women would have more compassion and empathy for their subjects, and unlike a lot of scientists at the time (and to this day), thought that that was a good thing.


It seems to me that the critical balance we need to strike is not so much between art and science, but beween dispassion and compassion. It is not enough simply to dissect a frog, or to capture its picturesque image on a lily pad, in order to understand what makes it work. We need to see the whole pond, and the ecological matrix of which it is a part. We need to understand why frogs are suddenly going extinct all over the planet. And we need to understand that when they go, a part of us goes with them — and that no purported salvation that is limited to the human realm can in fact save us.

Happy Easter.

Testament: last lines

for all those I have plundered (nothing I have is mine to give away)

I can’t decipher my stale devotion
it’s made up entirely of curse words
no condoms for the heart
will save you daily from three dozen blessings
pale orange branches, pale blue sky
there are always more
the mother’s slim hands vanishing into blurred velvet
her compound bird-span wings disguised as eyes
in twilight, curves as hard as nutshells
and beyond, the bright flying splinters of the stars
they shower onto the earth
to house its want
elusive green whorl
and I hid it like a mutant twin
unraveling the dark seam of winter
notch between hills
I am as empty as the mourning dove calling today –


In response to the Poetry Thursday challenge, “Write a poem to, for, or about a poet.” If you’re reading this on-site (as opposed to the RSS or email version) the poem may appear all or mostly blue on first reading, reflecting my mood early this morning before I started putting it together. But unrhymable orange is its proper color, I think. Therefore each reader must complete this on his/her own by clicking on all the lines, in any order.

You can find links to the other April 5th PT poems here.

Bulleted list

Things seen today:

turtle woods in fog

  • fog and rain
  • a map to the mythical land of Generica
  • 18th-century engravings of human fetuses just before birth, looking very peaceful and wise inside their mothers’ cross-sectioned bodies
  • a dozen flickers hopping around on the lawn like robins while a hen turkey wandered across the field behind them and the sun broke though the clouds
  • mist rising from the springhouse roof
  • daffodils in bloom around the old dog statue, which is beginning to acquire the faintest tinge of green
  • a slow fly.

foggy porch

The photos, however, were both taken on Monday.


woodchuck 1

I am watching a woodchuck through the kitchen window as it forages in the black raspberry patch out back. Its fat body fits easily between the canes, as if they had no thorns at all — the pale dead, and the reddish purple arches of the year-old canes, their heads buried in the dirt. The slope is stubbled with nubbins of grass, violets, dandelion, dame’s-rocket. The woodchuck’s jowls wobble as it gobbles the tender greens.

woodchuck 2

I am watching its progress in the small screen on the back of my camera, which I hold a foot from my face. First I see the animal as if in a stained-glass window, its body and the ground around it framed and fragmented by the raspberry stems: ground hog. Then I zoom in on face and fur, shining in the strong sunlight: so much color where until now I’d only noticed brown and gray! How much wood, even freshly split, could you say the same about?

woodchuck 3

But now I’m getting a reflection from the inside. I pull a yellow bottle from the windowsill and it spots the movement, freezes. Dark eyes bore into the camera. Then a waterfall of fur is spilling downslope. A moment later I feel a bump, bump, bump against what I am used to thinking of as a floor. I crouch down and press one palm against the wood.

Previously on Via Negativa: Marmota monax.
See also my mother’s essay, Mad Marmots.

Snakes in the water

electric pole

“Hello Sirs, I’m very sorry for my post,” said the ghost in the machine-generated blog comment as a prelude to its list of commercial links. Or maybe, indeed, these were the words of a truly repentant soul typing spam for pennies somewhere in the global South, where a penny might actually still suffice to buy someone’s thoughts.

At any rate, that was the last thing I read this morning before abandoning my blog for the fog, which was rapidly burning off. The field was dotted with the first spider webs of spring.

junction box

“What exactly do you call that thing?” I asked my dad just now. “A junction box, I guess,” he said. It’s where the telephone cable divides in eight, like the legs of a spider. I went back down to the other house, and he signalled me a moment later: “Phone call!”

You have to understand — I rarely ever get any phone calls. But speak of the devil, and it rings. A lady from the newspaper was calling to verify that I was the author of a letter sent in under my name two weeks before. “Could you tell me the subject of your letter please?”

I could barely remember. “Uh, wind plants?” I ventured. “That’s right!” she said, sounding as pleased as a game show host.

garter snakes

On my way back down the hill, I noticed a knot of garter snakes in the old well. Clearly not a mating ball, I thought, but it didn’t seem as if they’d need to bunch up for warmth today, either — it was 65 degrees and sunny by this time. Maybe they were just feeling sociable.

At my approach, they all started going off in different directions, and a few dropped into the water and began swimming in circles. It’s always such a surprise to see a snake swim. You wouldn’t think them capable of any bouyancy at all.

spicebush blossoms 2

“If I lived here, I’d set up an easel and just paint,” said a visitor on Saturday. But I don’t just live here — I grew up here, and that can make it hard to see things as an artist should, always at a bit of a remove. Ever since that remark, though, I’ve been looking at things with canvas in mind. Would this be worth the time, the trouble? Would it look good on a gallery wall?

It’s funny how a few casual words can lodge in the memory and bring about a subtle shift in outlook. We tend to think of communication as a kind of transaction, I think, with messages analogous to currency, inert, possessing only whatever arbitrary values we assign them. A convenient view, designed to keep the myth of the sovereign individual high and dry.

NaPoly attired

A number of bloggers are promising to write a poem a day for (Inter-)National Poetry Writing Month, A.K.A. NaPoWriMo, including Ivy Alvarez (who warns that she will be taking the full drafts down after a couple hours, “leaving excerpts wagging their tails behind them”), Harry Rutherford (who warns that many of his poems “will be truly awful”), and SB of Watermark (who warns that her highest hope is to “end the month with one or two good seeds”). Posting rough drafts of one’s own poems takes a certain amount of guts, I think. I encourage everyone to follow as many of these bloggers as you have time for and cheer them on. Lists of participants can be found here, here and here.

I just want to remind everyone that I, too, will be posting a poem virtually every day this month — as I’ve been doing for the past three weeks — at Spoil. The caveat in my case is that these are not new poems, and thus not in the spirit of NaPoWriMo (although most certainly in the spirit of the original, more fuddy-duddyish National Poetry Month). Since none of them are first drafts, I really don’t have any excuses, other than a sentimental attachment to the products of my long poetic apprenticeship. If you’re one of the twenty or so people keeping up with Spoil by subscribing to the feed, thanks — but you might want to click through once and a while and admire the totally bitchin’ header image, which is one of the best things about the site.

My new book

Bullshitting for Dummies

I just received the page proofs for my new book, due out in late August from Wiley Publishing. If you’d like a review copy, let me know. Here’s an excerpt from the Preface.

Prime-grade bullshit is the ultimate in tenderness, juiciness, and flavor. It’s immediately recognizable by its marbling — flecks of arresting imagery and compelling analogies within an overall lean prose structure — which enhances both palatability and believability.

But ask yourself: would you rather consume bullshit, or produce it? Just as the USDA has convinced consumers that the watery and tasteless flesh of feedlot cattle is something to be prized, so do seasoned bullslingers know how to take advantage of people’s general tendency to believe any claim that is attractively packaged and/or authoritative-sounding. This book will teach you how to run with the bulls in easy, step-by-step language that anyone can understand. And that’s no bull.


Festival of the Trees 11 is a many-branched wonder. Check it out.

amorous birches

Word of the Day: Treeple pl n [fr. tree + people, by analogy with sheepleq.v.]
1. Trees possessing unusually anthropomorphic forms or qualities
2. People as slow-moving and firmly rooted as trees
adj treeplish