Ballad of the Army Carts

by Du Fu (Tu Fu), ca. 750

The carts squeak and rattle,
The horses neigh and neigh.
Clouds of dust hide the bridge across the River Wei.
Bows and arrows at their waists, the conscripts file out;
Mothers, fathers, wives and children rush onto the highway.
Hands clutch, boots tromp, bare feet stand still.
The wailing rises straight to heaven — no need to pray.

I walk alongside the column, ask what’s going on.
A soldier says simply: “They call up more every day.

“Some of us were sent north to the Yellow River at age fifteen,
And now at forty we’re heading off to the garrisons in the west.
On our first tour, the village headman had to tie our bandannas for us.
When we came back, our hair was white, but still there’s more unrest.
The frontier garrisons run with blood, enough to fill an ocean,
But the Martial Emperor’s territorial ambitions have yet to crest.
In the hundred districts east of the mountains, throughout the land of Han,
There must be ten thousand villages that brambles now infest.
Even if wives are strong enough to handle a hoe and plow,
The crops grow every which way, the fields are all a mess.
It’s hardest for the Shanxi men, with their reputations as fighters:
They’re rounded up like dogs or chickens, every male impressed.

“But sir, though it’s good of you to ask,
Complaining isn’t part of the soldier’s task.
We can only shake our heads. Take this winter:
The Shanxi troops were never sent home.
The District Officers are demanding the land tax,
But where will it come from? You can’t get blood from a stone!
I honestly think it’s bad luck to bear a son now,
It’s better to have a daughter: at least she can marry
And live with the neighbors next door.
But a son will end up lying on some distant prairie.

“Have you ever been to the Blue Sea — Kokonor?
From ancient times, the bleached bones lie thick along its shore.
The new ghosts moan and mutter,
The older ghosts cry:
Thin chirps and twitters, under a gray and dripping sky.”

I am indebted to David Hawkes’ detailed exegesis in A Little Primer of Tu Fu (Oxford: Clarendon, 1967) — highly recommended for anyone with more than a smidgen of Chinese. I have attempted to convey something of the rhythm and end-rhymes of the original, so the translation is a little freer than it might otherwise have been.

In his commentary, Hawkes notes that the poem was probably written to protest “a new drafting of reservists and ‘volunteers’ to fight against the Tibetans. … The old system of militia service which took the peasants away for regular periods of unpaid National Service was superseded a generation before the date of the poem by the recruitment of paid regulars who were kept on reserve and called out intermittently as occasion arose. Unfortunately the new system did not produce an adequate intake of recruits, and press-gang methods were frequently resorted to in order to raise armies for unpopular campaigns.”

Fighting South of the Wall

by Li Bai (Li Po), ca. 746

Last year we fought at the source of the Sanggan River;
This year in Xinjiang, on the road to Conghe.
We pasture our horses on the snowy slopes of Tian Shan,
And rinse our weapons in the Caspian Sea.
The front stretches for ten thousand miles;
Our troops are all worn out, too old to fight.
For the Huns, fighting and slaughter take the place of plowing;
From ancient times, their fields of yellow sand have grown nothing but bones.
The Qin Emperor built the Great Wall to keep them at bay,
And a thousand years later, we’re still tending the beacons.
Again and again the beacon fires are lit,
And war rages on without end.
Men die fighting hand-to-hand;
The screams of fallen horses reach to the heavens.
Kites and vultures gorge on human entrails, carry them off,
And leave them hanging from withered mulberry branches.
Officers and soldiers bloody the grass and bushes;
What good are the generals’ strategies now?
They must know that war is a terrible tool.
The true sage never makes use of it.

Translated with the help of a dictionary. I’m reasonably certain I got the gist of it, though.

Return to paradise

The United States is building a wall on its border with Mexico to restrict immigration from the south; the Israelis are creating a “security barrier” to keep out suicide bombers; India is walling off Kashmir and Bangladesh; the Saudis have announced two walls, one to keep the conflict in Iraq from overflowing into their country; China wants to get back into the act of building walls to seal off North Korea; Russia is thinking about walling off Chechnya; and the oil-rich United Arab Emirates has decided to put up a barrier along its border with dirt-poor Oman, reports Mark Ehrman.
The Christian Century, “Century marks,” May 15, 2007.

The sky fell during the night without making a sound. A few late drunks might’ve wondered why going home seemed harder than usual, as if they were wading through snowdrifts. The bats might’ve wondered at the sudden congestion in their airspace. But the sky fell largely unnoticed, and the pieces found each other on the ground due to the same excess of gravity — or lack of levity — that had precipitated their fall. Being sky, they tended to collect in open places: along ridgelines, river banks, and DMZs, sliding together and turning until they locked into place.

We awoke to find that the sky had turned into the most vulgar sort of mystery, a puzzle with only one solution. The ancient Hermetic projection — “as above, so below” — had finally come true, and shepherds of every faith were triumphant. Clearly, it was in the natural order of things that we should live encompassed by strong, parental arms. “A mighty fortress” and all that. Only the weakest members of the herd died in the panicked rush for shelter from the new featureless hole that yawned above.

See the etymology of “paradise” here.

False faces

The number of times that natural selection has pulled eyespots from its magic hat tells us that humans are not the only animals for whom a face is a beacon.

The difference is that we draw inferences that a bird, for example, would not.

Wherever we see eyes: that could be me. So many imaginary friends!

But maybe it’s only the backside of a click beetle, or some other prodigy of a trickster universe. The trap springs. The mask possesses its wearer.

Whereas a cardinal can spend all summer warring with its reflection in the implacable eyes of the house.

“False Faces” was the name the Jesuits gave to the preeminent medicine society of the Haudenosaunee and other Iroquoian peoples.

As for my blogging and internetting, I’m trying to think positively about slowness.


UPDATE (June 22) – Thanks to everyone for the supportive and sympathetic comments. I do now have regular access to a dial-up connection, but as you can imagine it’s excruciating to go back to that after having gotten accustomed to DSL. If I get desperate enough, I may return to blogging at 26k/sec. In any case, though, I have sent Smorgasblog on vacation and substituted a dynamic blogroll courtesy of Google Reader. This will display links to the latest posts from close to 100 blogs; it’s not selective.

I’m suspending publication of Via Negativa (and curtailing most of my other online activities) due to a loss of internet service in Plummer’s Hollow. At this point I can’t predict when I might resume — it could be anywhere from a few days to a couple of months.

Thanks for reading. Take care.


Inside the body
of sleep, each thinking
we are alone & surrounded
by wholly private visions,
failing to recognize
the animal whose footfalls
we hear in place of our own,
touching what we take
for a wall where there are only
other fingers, other skins,
& waking to the smell of heat
on a cool morning in early
summer: I’ve turned into
a tourist in my own life.
I carry a camera from room
to room, alert for any irruption
of significance into the hum-
drumming of home appliances.
Someday, even my breathing
will seem worthy of note.

All the goodliness thereof


The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry?
All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field.
–Isaiah 40:6 (King James Bible)

The other day, my brother mentioned that when he’d gotten home from visiting some friends the evening before, he found that his two-year-old daughter had gotten a little carried away with the washable magic markers while her mother was distracted in the other room. “She was wearing nothing but diapers, and had painted herself almost completely green,” he said. “It reminded me of Lorca’s Romance Sonambulo!”


My maternal grandfather, when pressed to eat more at a family gathering, would often say with an impish grin, “I have had an elegant sufficiency, and any more would be a superfluous indulgence.” A Google search reveals several variants on this phrase, all apparently dating back to the Victorian era, but I like Pop-pop’s the best. Stopping short of satiety is indeed the soul of elegance — or goodliness, as they used to say back in the 16th and 17th centuries (Her goodliness was full of harmony to his eyes. –Sir Philip Sidney, Arcadia).

On Deciding Not to Travel

palmist 2

From the window of the fourth-
floor walk-up, the umbrellas
slid past each other with
assembly-line perfection,
black & blue mingling with
the occasional red, yellow,
lime-green. The street shone
like a mirror that gives
nothing back. The hiss of tires.
This short loop keeps playing
in my head as I watch
the cloud lift & a white moth,
caught out after daybreak,
yawing & veering against
a backdrop of dripping trees.
This summer won’t come again.
Why spend it en route
to somewhere else? I pluck
a snail from the deep grass
& place it on my palm.
It makes a slow circuit
on its single foot.

[Poetry Thursday – dead link]

Tomorrow is the deadline to submit material for the Greatest Blog Hits issue at qarrtsiluni. All genres are welcome and there’s no length limit, but the posts must have appeared at least one year ago — see here for additional details.


A cat living by her wits goes hunting in a downpour.


As patience to a predator, so is imagination to the prey. The field mouse that thinks, “It’s only rain” won’t live to bear another litter.


When the birds start scolding, the mice relax.


To the turtle in its shell, the thunder sounds like nothing more consequential than indigestion.


If the swallows in the belfry had their way, we’d live without news.

Snyder-Middleswarth Natural Area

black snake 2

A large black snake lay motionless on the moss beside the trail just past the signboard for the Snyder-Middleswarth Natural Area. My hiking buddy and I had driven over this past Saturday afternoon to pay homage to one of Pennsylvania’s most spectacular old-growth remnants before it is altered forever. The air was crystal-clear, adding to the cathedral-like effect of shafts of sunlight reaching down through the canopy.

hemlock varnish shelf fungi

Just past the snake we began to find spectacular, red and orange polypores — the hemlock varnish shelf…

fungus beetle on varnish shelf

and the fungus beetles known as Megalodacne heros, colored to match. Those that weren’t busy eating were busy mating, true to their family name Erotylidae, and some managed both at the same time.

fungus beetles

In fact, things are looking very good for hemlock varnish shelves and the beetles that love them at Snyder-Middleswarth for a decade or more to come. That’s because the hemlock trees are dying,

adelgid-decimated foliage

300-year-old giants falling victim to an insect barely bigger than the point of a pencil, the hemlock woolly adelgid. Their egg masses are often compared to the ends of cotton q-tips, an image more in keeping with the kinds of places where human beings go to die.

adelgid wool

The eastern and Carolina species of hemlock are especially vulnerable, though occasional individuals do show resistance. It may take a century or more for their native predators and diseases to catch up with the adelgids and bring them more into balance with the eastern forest ecosystem, though they will probably always remain an outbreak insect. In a few centuries, we may have new old-growth hemlock forests in Pennsylvania.

nurse log

But in the meantime, another climax species — yellow birch — seems poised to take over at Snyder-Middleswarth. Almost every fallen hemlock log we saw bore a thick fur of birch seedlings. Forest ecologists refer to these as nurse logs, which is a bit misleading: birches and other tree seedlings prefer to sprout on logs not because they are fertile nurseries — they aren’t — but because they offer relatively sterile refuges from soil microbes inimical to seedling growth.

foam 1

The word seems to have gotten out that the giants are dying — that’s the only way we could account for the dearth of visitors on a perfect Saturday afternoon in early summer. We walked slowly along the trail above the inaptly named Swift Run, looking at everything and listening to the songs of hermit thrushes and winter wrens. In three hours, we only heard a couple planes go over. It’s a deep ravine far from any highways — one of the quietest spots in all of central Pennsylvania.

woodfern fist

I renewed my acquaintance with several plants that I don’t get to see too often, including starflower (Trientalis borealis) and mountain holly (Ilex montana). And we encountered botanical oddities like the fern fist above, one of several we found, probably the result of some wasp or another hijacking the ferns while they were still unfurling in order to make gall-like brood chambers from the crippled fronds. (If anyone has a better guess, I’d like to hear it.)

stump face

But mostly what caught my eye were the dead and dying hemlocks. I know that new hemlock seedlings will sprout up after the adelgid population crashes, and some of them may even survive future outbreaks. But it will be a long time before the forest once again has trees with this much character and presence.

Hemlock Trail

It was 7:00 o’clock by the time we made our way back to the parking area. Much of the ravine was already in shadow. I turned around for a last, long look at hemlocks bathed in cathedral light.