Dreaming of scotch

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Whenever I drink too much, I often have a hard time sleeping. Last night, for example, I woke up around 3:30 and never did get back to sleep. And that was merely from dreaming about drinking. In real life, I can’t handle anything much stronger than wine, but in the dream, I was downing shot after shot of scotch, and actually enjoying it. Until my dream-karma caught up with me, that is, and transmigrated with me into my waking life.

Speaking of dreams, Peter emailed me this morning to describe a dream-visit to “a bricks-and-mortar Via Negativa,” located not in Plummer’s Hollow, but in the nearby city of Altoona, PA. “It was in a respectable local mall,” he wrote, “but it was kind of dark and musty — kind of mossy, actually — with large trees interspersed among the displays. There were books and DVDs, but the decor and clientele somehow suggested a beach bong shop.”

Speaking of malls, I was cheered by a story last night on NPR’s All Things Considered about the decline of shopping malls. Many of the anchor-store chains have gone bankrupt, outcompeted by the big-box stores, and the new chains — they cited the mega-bookstore Barnes and Noble — have no desire to take their places, since they already incorporate mall-like features such as coffee shops and kiddie play areas. New owners of old malls have to deal with many empty stores and a general air of decay (which does sound like a good match for Via Negativa, given my affinity for old, decrepit structures). Some malls are even being “de-malled,” they said: the roof is removed, and the storefronts migrate to the exterior wall, facing the parking lot.

Speaking of Barnes and Noble, a couple weeks ago I attended the first poetry reading at the new Barnes and Noble in Altoona. It’s part of a brand new shopping center built right into the side of the same mountain ridge I live on, at terrific environmental cost. But it’s the first real bookstore Altoona has ever had — at least in the 35 years I’ve lived in the area — so we’re not boycotting it, any more than we’re boycotting the so-called interstate built on the mountain’s flanks. At any rate, the reader was my friend Todd Davis, reading from his wonderful new book Some Heaven, whose cover reproduces one of my favorite works of Renaissance art: Dürer’s “Das Grosse Rasenstück.” Todd is perhaps one of the least affected poets I have ever known; he has a down-to-earth style of delivery that’s perfectly suited to his plain-spoken yet hard-hitting poems about landscape, love, death — all the great themes.

Speaking of the mountain’s flanks, the Davises live in a little subdivision about a half-mile to the west of the so-called interstate. If they want to see the sunrise — or the full moonrise — they have to hike up here, as they often do, to get out of our shadow. In “Moonrise Over the Little Juniata,” Todd writes,

The ridge hides most
of the moon until well into the evening, while in the valley,
where it’s still dark, we can see the silhouette of shale
and sandstone, delicate appendages of trees […]

In another poem, “Jacklighting,” Todd describes the physical geography of places like Plummer’s Hollow (though he uses the word “ravine,” rather than “hollow”):

In this part of Pennsylvania, roads run along
streambeds, or beside the narrow tributaries
the highest ridges conceal when they turn
their faces to the north or south–creases

marked the length of their long necks, ravines
as beautiful as the shadowed space at the base
of a woman’s throat.

Todd read from typed copies of his poems rather than the book itself, and used neither podium nor microphone. In his brief introductions to the poems, he often drew attention to members of the audience, making us all feel a part of the web of associations and influences undergirding his work. The bookstore lady hovered nervously, evidently preoccupied, it turned out, with the problem of how to distribute a small number of promised free drinks and pieces of cake to a larger-than-expected crowd. But the pieces of cake were enormous, and it was simply a matter of subdividing them, I think, because somehow, miraculously, everyone got a piece.

And that — as my friend Teju Cole would say — is what the kingdom of poetry is like.

Several luminous things

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

fallen oak flowers

As above, so below. The day that ended with less than one degree of apparent distance between the two brightest objects in the night sky began for me with the finding of several luminous things. It was a cool and cloudless morning, and in the woods, the spent flowers of the oaks rained down every time the wind blew, making an almost imperceptible patter.

rock oak leaves 1

Newly opened leaves already supplied food and shelter to a variety of insects. The first rays of sun caught one small caterpillar, the larva of a dull brown duskywing, still out gobbling on a bright green oak leaf. Perhaps it was concerned that its own green was still too dark to offer an effective camouflage. Its bedroll waited a couple of leaves away.

pink ladyslipper

A rose-breasted grosbeak let loose with its usual string of brilliant notes from a black birch tree at the edge of the woods. “Rose” doesn’t begin to describe the patch of color on its breast: an almost unnatural hue, like a punk chick’s hairdo. I tried and failed to get a good photo, but after it flew, I discovered a new lady’s-slipper orchid almost directly underneath its perch.

fly on Jack

Most of the trees are fully leafed out now, but a few canopy gaps always remain. Small patches of sun moved slowly across the forest floor, growing or shrinking as they moved. And since it was a cool morning, the flies moved with them. For half a minute, the roof of Jack’s pulpit sported a bug-eyed gargoyle.

deerfly on wild yam

I watched a small blowfly apparently pollinating a Solomon’s-seal, crawling up into one of the bell-shaped blossoms, then backing out and flying away before I could take its picture. Again, though, I was quickly compensated, this time with a perfectly motionless deerfly on a wild yam leaf.

cinnamon fern fiddleheads

A clump of cinnamon fern fiddleheads huddled in the middle of a crowd of mayapples. They were facing inward not out of antipathy toward their toxic neighbors, but in anticipation of the imminent rise of their leader, the brown, fertile frond whose resemblance to a cinnamon stick gives this fern its common name.

mayapple blossom

Hidden under their parasols, the mayapple blossoms remained thoroughly mysterious. They depend on insect pollination to produce fertile seeds, yet they offer no nectar in compensation. How do they do it? The eventual fruits, ripening in mid-June, are the only part of the plant that isn’t poisonous. In fact, they’re said to be very good. I’ve never had one, because the animals always get them first, but maybe this year I’ll be lucky. Would I deprive a chipmunk of its treat? I would.


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

If you live in the eastern U.S. or Canada, go outside right now and look to the west.

Moon and Venus conjunction

Purty, ain’t it?

I don’t usually indulge in breathless, guess-what-just-happened blog posts, but this was too good to miss. I’m sure it’s all over Twitter.

UPDATE: And you want to know why I don’t? I just mispelled “conjunction.” In the title of the post. (See the permalink URL if you don’t believe me.)


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Wabi-sabi is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.
–Leonard Koren

At the bottom of the pasture,
a house trailer with one of its
long walls neatly removed
like the lid on a Japanese bento,
so anyone can take in its contents
with a single glance, flashing by
on the highway, sunroof down,
radio blaring, & look —
there’s a wee kitchen,
a living room with sagging sofa-bed,
two bedrooms & a walk-in closet
gaping empty: neither clothes
nor the bodies that slipped in
& out of them, white as rice,
growing round on next to nothing
& never feeling full.

I and the Bird 49: the Wordchaser

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall


Welcome to the 49th edition of I and the Bird, the carnival for bloggers who love birds. I’m calling this edition — with a nod to my fellow Pennsylvanian Rob Fergus — the Wordchaser. I’m less of a birder than a bird appreciator (for street cred, I can only point to my vice-presidency in the local Audubon chapter), but I chase down poems the way a life-lister chases birds.

Past editions of I and the Bird have showcased the host’s own creativity, with sometimes extraordinary results. But this time I want to turn it around and focus on the linguistic creativity of the contributors themselves. Poems, like birds, are everywhere; it’s just a matter of training ourselves to recognize them — a metaphor here, an alliterative passage there, and something lovely dark and deep lurking just beyond. And with a little bit of editing, the English language naturally resolves into a rough iambic pentameter…

gnatcatcher on scarlet oak

Each line in the “found poem” below is a link to the post I lifted it from. I’ve altered nothing but the punctuation, and I’ve included an audio version for those who may have trouble hearing the poetry at first. I’m hoping the excerpts will read like riddles, enticing you to click through and discover their original contexts.

Lots of good things happen unbidden. Sure they do:

A Golden-winged singing in the far field;

A chance encounter with a small flock of Cockatoos,

Little cotton balls above their legs;

Fallouts of migrants at coastal “fire-escapes;”

Antshrikes, antwrens and antbirds churring and flitting.

A Bobolink flew up out of the field and circled me,

The super nova of the forest, the gaudy Prothonotary.

I knew instantly what it was! There was no mistaking

An immature Bald Eagle in January with a broken wing.

They make the most amazing murbling noises

(Audubon would have said something like that).

The afternoon lull had set in, but we pressed on.

We spotted the lapwings again, out in the glasswort–

How high above the water the white flashes!

Who knows how they knew they were there,

Bird with bird, birds with the very air.

Red Knot, that salmon sensation, doesn’t persist;

I can’t pry them from their hidden nest.

Tomorrow perhaps. Perhaps the day after,

I will spot snipe both close and in good light,

Hundreds of ruddy turnstones, a least sandpiper,

Dendroica cerulea by sound as well as sight.

In their minds, they’re following the food,

Catching arthropods as they attempt to flee

In dewy grass, or ground on the sole of my boot.

I wanted to see the Gray-crowned Yellowthroat;

How it arrived on the window sill I know not.

It was dusk by that time and no hope of a decent photo.

The bird stretches its wings and simply lets go.

hunger bird

Sources: Julie Zickefoose, Thomasburg Walks, Trevor’s Birding, Living the Scientific Life, Gulf Coast Bird Observatory, Drawing the Motmot, The Birdchaser, Bell Tower Birding, Richard Guthrie, Bird Treatment and Learning Center, The Egret’s Nest, Birds Etcetera, The Hawk Owl’s Nest, Ben Cruachan Blog, The Nemesis Bird, The Flatbush Gardener, Fragments from Floyd, 10,000 Birds, Marcia Bonta, The House and other Arctic musings, lovely dark and deep, A DC Birding Blog, Cup O’ Books, Gavan Central, Tick Magnet, Antshrike’s Bird Blog, Bird Ecology Study Group, Wrenaissance Reflections, Dzonoqua’s Whistle.

The next edition of I and the Bird will appear in two weeks at A Blog Around the Clock. Send submissions to Bora: Coturnix AT gmail DOT com.

By the wayside

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

roadside moss garden

Our desination last Sunday was a roadside cliff in northeastern Pennsylvania that my friend L. remembered from one trip some seven years before. To hear her describe it, it was a veritable hanging garden of moss and ferns and wildflowers, and she had jotted enthusiastic notes to that effect in the margins of her atlas. We looked for over an hour, and never re-found it.

Adam's Falls 2

Oh sure, we found the road she’d marked in the atlas, but it wasn’t the one she remembered. The cliff was neither as steep nor as wet nor as rich; she didn’t even recognize it. The road she’d been on then had been paved, she was sure of it, but this was potholed gravel.

Ganoga Falls 6

We consoled ourselves with a visit to the nearby Rickett’s Glen State Park. Black-throated green and black-and-white warblers called from the tops of old-growth hemlocks, but my attempts to pish them down within camera range brought me nothing but chickadees and a redstart.

Adam's Falls 1

On our way down the glen, we saw waterfalls and blossoming hobblebush; on the way back up, we saw crowds of painted trillium. They were right beside the trail, and it was hard to see how we’d missed them on the way down.

painted trillium 1

Driving back on PA Route 118 toward Hughesville, we pulled off the road to examine an incredibly verdant north-facing cliff, thick with moss and ferns (see photo at the beginning of the post). It was obviously very unstable, though, because a couple tons of it had recently calved, and blocked most of the berm. Directly across the highway, the rock cut was dry and grassy, and someone had erected a roadside memorial: white cross with a blue bow at its center, ringed with artifical roses and rocks the same color as the cliff. Joe Young, 34, 2003. Banks of greater celandine were in flower a few feet away, an old-world poppy more striking for its foliage than for its yellow, cross-shaped blooms.

roadside memorial

Making a blog-book: some preliminary conclusions

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Someone in the WordPress.com help forums asks about the nuts and bolts of writing a book on his blog. I’d been meaning to share some of the lessons I’ve learned from my experience blogging three different books, so I thought I’d post about it here and leave the link in the forum.

If you want to have a book as part of your blog, then the logical thing to do, I guess, is make the book title a category (or “topic,” for you Blogger users) and put the category link in the sidebar. The category pages will of course display however your blog’s theme (template, skin) dictates — many themes only show excerpts — and with whatever number of posts per page that you have as your global setting. You can hand-code a clickable table of contents (hereafter, TOC) to include in the sidebar (use a text widget in WordPress.com) or on a dedicated page. If the book has already been written and you want people to read the contents in order, you can of course put the entire text within a single page or post. But if you really want people to read it, I’d advise serializing it whether or not you already have it written. In WordPress, each category has its own RSS feed, so people can subscribe to your book whether or not it is on a separate blog. But putting it on its own blog gives you much more freedom to format it however you wish. You can display links to its latest posts in the sidebar of your main blog using the RSS feed, with an RSS widget in WordPress.com, or a customizable display from Feed Digest for other platforms (the “New at Qarrtsiluni” section of my sidebar here uses code from Feed Digest).

I’ve blogged three books, the latter two at WordPress.com (not to be confused with the open-source blogging software I use here, available at WordPress.org). The first was an epic, integrated with this blog (then at Blogspot). It had a couple dozen enthusiastic readers at first, but they gradually dwindled as the months wore on, leading me to wonder if in fact the blog form was a good fit for longer books — at least the kind that demand sustained attention to plot. I put the finished document into a PDF and haven’t pursued further publication options, such as Lulu.com, basically because I just don’t like it that much anymore.

The other two blog-books are both collections of lyric poems, one drawn from this blog, Shadow Cabinet; the other, called Spoil, a selection of older stuff. I originally set up Shadow Cabinet using exclusively non-chronological pages for the poems, and a sidebar TOC. I included a blog in which I wrote about the process of putting it together, and allowed comments there but not on the poem pages, because I felt that a book would look better without readers’ remarks — and after all, people had the chance to comment the first time around, when they appeared here. But when WP.com introduced a Random Post feature last month, I decided to move all the poems from pages to posts so I could take advantage of it: I’m a big believer in opening collections of poems at random, and reading backwards or forwards from that point. With a single post-page displaying at a time, I wanted readers to be able to easily find the links to the preceding and following pages so they could move through it the same way they’d turn the pages in a real book. The sidebar TOC wasn’t as handy, I decided, and besides, it distracted from the main content. But as I tried all the different themes on offer at WP.com — currently around 70, I guess — I was shocked by how few included post-to-post links. (This is the sort of feature you can’t change from the stylesheet, and WP.com doesn’t give access to the main template code because of the way it’s set up, as a multi-user community — a change in any theme’s PHP would show up in every blog currently using that theme.) After a lot of fussing around with fancier themes, I found that good old Kubrick — the default WordPress 1.5 theme — did the trick (see detailed theme review here). Not only does it have previous and next post links right up top, but the sidebar disappears on the post pages: perfect!

The Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin famously declared that the urge to destroy is also a creative urge, and I repeated that to myself as I eliminated, one-by-one, all the posts in the writing blog originally included at Shadow Cabinet in order to make room for the poems. I input them in their TOC order and assigned a fictional date to each post, starting with January 1. (I apologize to the handful of souls who’d subscribed to the feed, and must’ve suddenly wondered at the 83 new posts that appeared overnight!) I amended the stylesheet to suppress post metadata (date, time, etc.) and other irrelevancies, but — in a switch of policy — decided to allow comments. My original focus with Shadow Cabinet had been simply to put together a manuscript for print publication, so I was trying to make it resemble a conventional book as much as possible. But I gradually realized I like online publication as well or better: no trees are killed; costs are minimal; world-wide distribution is automatic; and the potential for reader-author interaction adds a whole new dimension. The trick, I think, is just to add a lot of white space between the poem and the comment form or comments. I’m still working on uploading audio versions of the contents, which I think is one other way to make an online book more compelling than one in print. For an extra, one-time payment of $20, WP.com lets me store up to 1 gigabyte of mp3 files on-site.

For my third experiment, Spoil [now no longer on WordPress.com – 3/10/09], I used chronological posts from the outset, and rather quickly settled on the Day Dream theme (review here) — one of only two one-column themes at WP.com (three if you count the one-column skin for the Sandbox theme). But as I got near the end and started thinking about navigation through the finished book, I decided to switch to another theme, White as Milk, and import all the styles that I liked from Day Dream, because in the latter, the navigation links appear down below the comment form, and I couldn’t see any way to change that without changing themes. The vestigial sidebar I retained from the White as Milk stylesheet gives readers the option of going to a random page at any point, rather than merely from the home page as with the other book. The current front page setting — just the TOC — is very boring, I think, and I should probably put together some sort of preface page instead. On Shadow Cabinet, by contrast, the TOC is split into three different pages and isn’t even displayed on the home page sidebar. I’m really not sure what the best way is, I guess, because I really don’t know how the average reader prefers to navigate, and the visitor statistics aren’t detailed enough to tell me. For both books, it might be helpful if I introduced separate title pages for each section right into the chronological loop, so readers paging through in order will know when they switch from one section to another. In Spoil, especially, the five sections are thematically quite distinct.

I’d be interested in feedback, positive or negative, from anyone who has spent time with either book: not so much what you thought about the contents (though that’s fine, too), but whether the presentation and navigation worked, and how it might be improved. And if you’ve experimented with book-blogs yourself, I’d be very interested in seeing examples and hearing how you went about it. Several literary magazines publish “online chapbooks” now, so I’m clearly not the only one thinking that this is a good way to present collections of lyric poetry, at least.


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

two-dimensional Bush

I like to tell people that the strength of this nation is not our military — although we intend to keep it strong. The strength of the nation is the fact that we’ve got compassionate, decent, honorable citizens who hear a call to love a neighbor like you’d like to be loved yourself. And that’s what we’re here to honor.

Each of you is part of a legacy of service that harkens back to our country’s earliest days. When Martha Washington — the husband [sic] of the first George W. — organized sick wards for wounded soldiers and made visits to battlefields to boost the morale of the troops, she volunteered for a cause bigger than herself.

President Bush

two-dimensional Bush 2

And that’s why it’s vital for our country that our young people step forward — and serve a cause larger than yourselves.

President Bush

The trouble with Mother’s Day

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Last night my mother and I caught the first few minutes of A Prairie Home Companion while putting the finishing touches on supper, and we shared a chuckle at Garrison’s monologue: some B.S. about discovering that his mother had led a wild life in the few years before she got married, traveling the country with a circus and dancing on the backs of elephants. He made much of the discomfort this new-found knowledge supposedly occasioned.

The story may have been fiction, but I think the discomfort is real. A good friend of mine regularly complains about one of her grown sons who seems unable to keep his embarrassment at her unorthodox views and behavior to himself. Granted that I am only hearing one side of the story, it sounds to me as if he is unable, or unwilling, to grant her the full freedom of an independent person, demanding instead that she remain forever defined by her role as his mother. That’s not only selfish, but infantile. In his defense, though, I gather my friend went through some rather profound life-changes right around the time her four children were leaving the nest: the sixties were happening and she was in the thick of things, getting an advanced degree and then starting an academic career. So no doubt it was very difficult for him and his siblings to see their mom suddenly having such a wild time — not back in her youth, where it could perhaps be forgiven or at least ignored, but right in the middle of her life.

For my own mother, the transformation has been less revolutionary and more evolutionary, I think, but there’s no question that both my parents are very different from the people they were when my brothers and I were forming our first and most lasting impressions of them. Mom likes to say she’s getting more radical with age, and that certainly seems to be true. For example, I remember years ago she used to groan whenever Dad put on one of his Bartok records, preferring the more standard Bach, Brahms, and Beethoven. But thanks in part to our local NPR station’s endless and maddening parade of classical pablum, Mom now has a much higher tolerance — even craving — for the less conventional harmonies and rhythms of 20th-century classical music. I don’t remember her blasting Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and dancing around the kitchen when I was a kid, though I suppose it’s possible she waited until we were off to school to do that.

I’m also still learning things about her — though I have yet to uncover any hidden past life involving circus elephants, alas. Just the day before yesterday, she told me she thought that her interest in nature observation was really helped along by watching some bizarre flicker behavior when she was a young mother in Washington, D.C., pushing my older brother in a stroller through Rock Creek Park. “I was always interested in nature, but I think that was when I really started observing things and writing about them in my journal,” she said, adding that she’d have to try and find that entry in her Washington journal for the article on flickers that she’s planning. (Yes, she’s been keeping journals continuously for at least 44 years.)

This is a long way around saying that I am uncomfortable with this whole Mothers Day thing. Perhaps if the holiday had stuck with the pacifist vision of its founder, Julia Ward Howe, I wouldn’t feel that way — who better to end war, after all, than those who stand to suffer the most from it. But instead the holiday has become an excuse to promote (and of course commercialize) a one-dimensional view of mothers as self-sacrificing servants of their families, with negative repercussions for mothers and for children alike. Should children of alcoholic, abusive, or psychopathic mothers suffer a lifetime of guilt for their inability to worship at the shrine of Mom? Should new mothers struggle through the hell of postpartum depression because they don’t happen to find motherhood as immediately fulfilling and wonderful as the entire weight of our culture insists it must be? And what about moms who don’t fit the June Cleaver mold: those who are the primary breadwinners, for example, or perhaps the only breadwinners? I don’t think single moms should be scapegoated for social ills that have much more to do with endemic poverty and injustice. And I don’t think it’s fair to stay-at-home dads to associate the nurturing-parent role with femininity.

I realize I’ve been uncommonly fortunate in having stable, nurturing, and happily married parents who are also among my best friends. Perhaps it is that friendship that makes me resent the imposition of culturally approved scripts about parents and children. But I think there’s something more than a little patronizing about the way we treat mothers in general. Exhibit A comes straight from one of my mom’s favorite rants: “Mother Nature.” For some reason, good ol’ boys and developers just love to talk about Mother Nature, I’m not sure why. It always makes me flinch.

Mood indigo

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

black knot

The middle of a warm afternoon in May. The new leaves have reached about half of their full size, and the steep end of the mountain is so green you want to shout for the sheer wonder of it. Below on the railroad tracks an east-bound freight has been stopped on a tip from someone down the line who saw a figure sitting in an open boxcar. A dark-skinned man in handcuffs is being placed in the back seat of a police van. Cars line up on both sides of the crossing as the police sort slowly through three gym bags full of personal belongings, right there on the brick sidewalk beside the station. Where is he from? What language does he speak?


A line from an obituary: He was truly an honest man and enjoyed tinkering with clocks.

He was. I knew him. A good man who shouldered a great deal of sorrow in his life, including the deaths of both his adult children.

You ain’t been blue, no, no, no.
You ain’t been blue till you’ve had that mood indigo.

indigo bunting

We came home from shopping to find an indigo bunting — the first one we’ve seen this year — sitting on the metal table next to the door, motionless except for a slight trembling and the blinking of its eyes.