Down to earth

flying squirrel

Trees in the Concrete, the 11th — and first themed — edition of the Festival of the Trees, appeared yesterday morning at Flatbush Gardener. Xris did a great job of finding articles and blog posts to fit his theme. Also, I and the Bird #48 — “A Field Guide to the Bird Posts” — is fresh this morning at Greg Laden’s blog. (The next edition of I and the Bird will be right here at Via Negativa on May 17! Those of you who know me personally can wipe the coffee off your computer screens now.)

And as long as I’m posting links: fans of my mother’s nature writing can find three new posts from her at the Marcia Bonta and Plummer’s Hollow sites — Saving the Future; Spring wildflowers: back on track; and April Journal Highlights (2).


Almost every morning I have a choice: stay inside and write, or go for a walk. Yesterday, I went for a walk. I was rewarded with a rare daytime sighting of a southern flying squirrel, supposedly our most abundant tree squirrel species here in Pennsylvania but seldom seen because of its nocturnal habits. This one was fleeing a pair of gray squirrels — it wasn’t clear how the altercation started — and landed on a big black locust tree right beside the road.

I didn’t get going until around 10:00 o’clock, but I did so with a great sense of accomplishment, having just solved a fairly complex coding problem on my own. This had to do with the way my recently revamped Shadow Cabinet site displayed in Internet Explorer. In essence, post titles were being messed up by the next page and previous page navigation links, and the fix involved pandering to a proprietary IE property known as “hasLayout,” which I’d never heard of until yesterday and still barely understand. But it occurred to me afterwards, as I started off through the woods, that the feeling of getting way in over my head is very similar to what I experience when I write a poem. In both cases, I really have no idea what I’m doing; I just keep trying different things until something works. The process (or stylesheet) may not be pretty, but as long as the product looks good, who cares?


WordPress has this dumb little slogan, “Code is Poetry.” No, it isn’t. The elegance and simplicity that WordPress coders pride themselves on may possess a certain kind of aesthetic appeal, but they are borne of an utter lack of nuance and ambiguity. Good poetry, by contrast, may or may not adhere to a minimalist aesthetic, but is almost always dedicated to exploring nuance and ambiguity, rather than eliminating it. Such devices as metaphors or puns have no equivalent in the necessarily literalist language of code (although there is a new form of poetry that depends on a detailed knowledge of scripting). All of this probably seems fairly obvious, but the slogan bothers me because it suggests that poetry is, in turn, a type of code — and in fact, I’ll bet that a sizable majority of people who state that they “just don’t understand poetry” are reacting to this very misperception. “Why can’t the poet just say what s/he means?”

Writing code and writing poetry may have a few things in common, though. In both, there’s almost always more than one way of saying something, and the trick is to find the best one. A concern of conscientious web designers these days is to “futureproof” their work: to try and anticipate which tags will fall out of favor as web standards evolve, and to avoid using them so that the page they’re working on will still render properly five or ten years down the road. For poets, something akin to futureproofing occurs when we weigh the extent to which the appreciation of our works depends on a knowledge of local conditions, ephemeral slang expressions, or current events. The anticipated shelf-life for poetry may be a bit longer than for software or web pages, but at some level we must realize that there are no true universals; even the concept of romantic love is a little over 800 years old, and might not be very well understood a millennium from now.

This realization ought to bring us down to earth, but somehow most poets — like many computer geeks — still tend to be rather full of themselves. The power of language at its most suggestive (poetry) and at its most tool-like (commands of any sort) is intoxicating, and power tends to turn people into assholes.

box turtle

While stalking an ovenbird yesterday morning, I almost stepped on this box turtle. Both creatures are very well camouflaged for a lifetime spent on, near, or — as seems to have been the case with this turtle shortly before I found him — underneath the forest litter. Wildflowers and tree seedlings aren’t the only things pushing their way out of the ground these days.

10 Replies to “Down to earth”

  1. As someone who has trouble understanding some poetry and most code, I really understand everything you say here, heh! I love how you sandwiched your discussion inside your natural surroundings, making me feel as if I came along this walk with you and this was what we chatted about. Love the fungi and turtle…

  2. Just a quibble, but . . . code has no ambiguity or nuance? I suppose in a sense you’re right, but in that sense poetry has none either. If you were God, and had the mental capacity to comprehend every either/or choice that makes up a program (impossible for a human being even for very simple programs, nowadays) it would have no ambiguity or nuance, but you could say something analogous about poetry, couldn’t you? We only get to have ambiguity and nuance because we aren’t God. Thank, um . . . well, thank God for that.

  3. marja-leena – I’m glad the post resonated with you. Thanks for stopping by.

    dale – I think I acknowledged the range of options you’re talking about when I said that “In both [poetry and code] there’s almost always more than one way of saying something, and the trick is to find the best one.” But that’s not the same as an ambiguity in effect, where a given word or phrase is meant to be understood in two or more different ways simultaneously, as in a metaphor. In a code — hypertextual or otherwise — any lexical element has a single denotation. That’s what makes it a code.

  4. Dave do you get wood turtles? We saw the darnedest turtle last weekend. It was one of those experiences that open up the seeming range of the possible. It was long, low, oval, crowding or surpassing the 8 inches given as a maximum for the wood turtle. The closest I can come to it at this point is the wood turtle, which aren’t allowed to be anywhere near southern Missouri. It was high on a hill, a mile from deep water, definitely a land turtle by its looks.

  5. Wood turtles can go pretty far up into the woods. But I can’t tell you much more than that. We do find them on occasion – down near the river.

  6. Bill – that’s probably what you saw. We didn’t see them often in upstate NY, but they were found occasionally, as were box turtles. I’m very fond of both and delighted to see this photo, Dave! And also the flying squirrel – what a treat!

  7. There’s another open-source weblog platform similar to WordPress; I can’t recall the name, but I got a kick out of their version of the WordPress slogan: Code Is Pottery.

    Nice to see a flying squirrel photo; they are nocturnal around here and I’ve never seen one.

  8. Code Is Pottery
    I love it!

    My parents get a flying squirrel in their house once every few years. Unclear how they get in. But you can see them if you walk in the woods on a moonlit night, and you can hear their thin, whispery chittering almost any night year ’round. Here in PA, at any rate.

  9. Love the turtle, Dave. Cheers me right up, thanks.

    My parents in Michigan have flying squirrels that we see at twilight sometimes.

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