Teacher, Teacher

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Didactic by day, the ovenbird sings
another, more evocative melody just before dawn.

It sings about leaves that kept opening in the darkness
& the horizon drawing tight around the cabin.

The schoolmarm had been dreaming of other people’s children,
& woke with a head full of mucous & a pounding headache.

Her brother had taken the team to the back field,
left the sow to turn the garden with its snout.

She grabbed the ax and went to win back the sky:
girdling trees, he’d smirked, is no work for a man.

The rain came. A thrush started singing
from a branch that had yet to get the news of its death.

She circled a basswood,
fitting it with a bright new corset.


It probably helps to know that “Teacher, teacher” is the usual onomatopoeic rendering of the ovenbird’s daytime call.


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall


The more attenuated my longing, the less I see. Clear root of appetite, filament, figure against whatever suppositional ground: only in your sturdy grosgrain can one resist the constant impulse to diversion. What originates as a kind of shorthand for desire soon becomes the single most combustible fuel for turning desire into ash and shadow into hollow glare. Something goes awry in our looking that has nothing to do with the seen, like a fruit bred to be free of any seed.

Built around the first ten words generated for me by the Random Prompt Generator at Poetry Thursday: attenuated, root, figure, grosgrain, shorthand, single, combustible, shadow, awry, seed.

I must say, though, the word “prompt” itself is stranger and more intriguing to me than any of these. Hmmm…


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Prompted by the image I’m using as a header for my online book, Spoil.

Up to my ears
in accidents &
old weather,
the no-news
that rarely manages
to be good,
I begin to feel
a little like one
of those tablets
from Moses’
first trip into
the clouds —
impossible —

while overhead,
the pink Sinai
of a crabapple tree
abuzz with every
kind of hornet,
bee, & model-
thin ichneumon
plays host
to a scat-
singing catbird
who pauses just
long enough
to snatch another
stingered morsel
out of the air.

Greatest Blog Hits sought

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Qarrtsiluni is calling all bloggers to send in their best posts.

The blog form is now ten years old. How better to celebrate that anniversary than with a “Greatest Blog Hits” issue? From now through our deadline of June 15, we’re reversing our long-standing prohibition against previously blogged material: we want ONLY previously blogged material, at least one year old. It may take any form – fiction, nonfiction, poetry, art, photography, audio, cartoons – and there’s no restriction on length (though excerpts will also be considered). We simply want your best posts.

Read the whole call for submissions here.


Wildflower walking

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

tiger swallowtail

The air was cool on Saturday morning, and this tiger swallowtail let us approach quite close as it basked in the strong sunlight. With the pale forest litter as a backdrop, it was difficult to spot, even from three feet away. Only with all intermediate shades between dark and light removed (with the “threshold” effect in Photoshop) does the pattern of its wings emerge clearly, just like the children’s game where someone says “hot” or “cold” to lead someone else to a hidden prize. Having only two options can really clarify.


The purple trillium comes in two colors, purple and light yellow. The latter seems to be controlled by a recessive gene, like blue versus brown eyes in humans. Given the trillium’s three leaves, three sepals, three petals, and three stigmas, though, it seems a little surprising that there isn’t a third color option. Then again, most trillium species only have one.

Cut down a trillium for any reason — even if only for the cut flower — and it can take years to recover, if ever. Like many perennial native wildflowers of the Appalachians, trilliums spread with glacial speed, depending almost exclusively on ants to carry their seeds back to their colonies and toss them out in their middens after eating the protein-rich bribe (the eliasome). And ants don’t tend to walk great distances, at least not in human terms. “This type of seed dispersal is termed myrmecochory from the Greek ‘ant’ (myrmex) and ‘dispersal’ (kore),” says the Wikipedia.

yellow mandarin

A freshly opened flower of yellow mandarin is the same monochome green as its leaves. Young as it is, though, it’s already bound by a few strands of spider web. The flowers must move quickly before the forest canopy fills out and robs them of sunlight; those whose lives are linked to theirs, like the ants and the spiders, must move even more quickly. But I suppose it is because they have so little time each year in which to flourish that these wildflowers’ long-term progress is so slow.

So musing, we sauntered slowly up the hollow.

UPDATE: Gina Marie posted about the walk here.


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

witch hazel

Witch hazel was once the dowser’s favorite source of forked sticks. But nowadays the few dowsers still practicing their ancient and ridiculous craft are just as likely to improvise with wire from a coathanger — good news for the witch hazels, I suppose. But just look at this tree: doesn’t it look like a great place to hang a coat?

trail blaze

For six months the trees have stood bare and exposed, and I’ve had nothing but convivial feelings toward them. But now suddenly they are turning alien and inhuman. Where before I might’ve seen a face, now there’s nothing but a mask waiting to be carved. I’m seeing handles instead of hands, chair legs instead of limbs, and instead of company, a forest of empty chairs.


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

last dream before waking

My grandfather never died;
he simply lost all animation.
We carry him from house to car
to house, & his pale thin figure
is able to hold any pose indefinitely.

He doesn’t eat, so he never goes
to the bathroom — a relief for everyone.
Some of us do put words in his mouth:
I know what Pop-pop would say, we say,
& maybe we do, but his expression never changes.

He’s sitting right there when
the four siblings meet
to divide the estate. He was always good
at not hearing things, though,
& this morning is no exception.
The room turns to coal around him.
We are shining our headlamps
at the shale ceiling & its yellow
shapes of ferns. We are listening for canaries.

After a lifetime in the oil industry,
it must seem strange to return
to the hard coal country of his childhood,
but at least Pop-pop doesn’t need a light.
This is an outcome he’d recognize —
one he set aside after his famous talk with God.
I hear his nose drip behind me
like the stalactite it was always trying to become.
Someone says, Black as the ace of spades!
with a nervous laugh,
& it sounds just like him.

[Poetry Thursday – dead link]

I also recorded an audio version of my poem “Into the Garden” from the other day, and posted it along with the text here.

Find links to other people’s Poetry Thursday posts here.

Plummer’s Hollow wildflower walk

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

For anyone in the area who might be interested, I’ll be leading a walk up the hollow on Saturday morning beginning at 9:00 a.m. The road is open to the public in any case, but only for the first mile and quarter. By joining this hike saunter, you’ll get to see parts of the property normally off-limits to casual visitors. Bring water, wear comfortable walking shoes, and drop me a line if you need directions. Our wildflower diversity isn’t as high as you might find in some other spots with less acidic soil, but the hollow’s very pretty this time of year, and of course I can natter on endlessly about forest history and stuff.

Down to earth

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

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.