Invisible Ink

At first, it’s the palm
& fingers that bear
the purple ink of an hour
in the raspberry patch.

But the berry juice fades
as it dries, even on the palest skin,
or else the body somehow soaks it in:
by afternoon it’s nearly gone

& new, more lurid marks
have appeared on the back
of the hand & half-
way up the arm:

parchment where the dry nibs
tried their points.

Death of an oak tree

split 1

The storm came in quickly over the ridge, bringing rain and lightning and strong gusts of wind.

split 2

Nine miles above, the sun shone. Below that, darkness and chaos: hurricane-force winds, temperatures a hundred degrees below zero. We are fortunate that most of the drama in a thunderstorm is over our heads; what we see is mostly the violence of catharsis.*

split 3

A couple days later, I found a big old red oak, a property-line tree, reduced to a tall, jagged stump. Even from a distance, I could tell this wasn’t the storm’s fault. Wind-thrown red oaks tend to go over roots and all — and it’s a good thing, too. Over the course of millennia, such regular uprooting is one of the few ways a forest soil gets turned, and many native species of plants and animals have come to depend upon the complex, pit-and-mound microtopography that results. Bole snap, as it’s called, is more typical of other species, such as the chestnut oaks that dominate these ridgetops. This, too, serves its purpose: standing dead oak snags are havens and cornucopias for wildlife.

carpenter ant damage

A glance inside the stump confirmed my suspicion: carpenter ants were the true culprits here. Odd, isn’t it, that we refer to such masters of demolition as carpenters? Then again, their homes are no more destructive of forests than our own. And we are no less heedless of coming storms…

*See “Fly Me to the Clouds,” by Paul VanDevelder, in the July-August issue of Audubon magazine.

Festival of the Trees returns to Via Negativa

leaf bootI volunteered to host the next edition of the Festival of the Trees here at Via Negativa on August 1. So if you’d like to be included, please post something about trees or forests by July 30th and send me the link (bontasaurus [at] yahoo [dot] com), with “Festival of the Trees” in the subject line of your email. You can be as scientific or as poetic as you like.

For those who aren’t familiar with it, the Festival of the Trees is a blog carnival — that is, a regular gathering of links to blog posts on a particular topic (in this case, trees), each time hosted at a different blog. For more about the FOTT and what we’re looking for, see the About page of the coordinating blog (and be sure to visit some of the past editions linked from the sidebar). I’m one of the two co-founders of the Festival, along with Pablo of Roundrock Journal, and hosted the very first edition on July 1, 2006.

leaf tree

Today’s Deep Thought: Sometimes, you can see a forest in a single leaf. Especially if it’s a fallen leaf that contains a small reservoir of rainwater.

Sweet William and the Wanderer

Despite my radically reduced surfing speed, I’ve been keeping up with my favorite blogs as best I can (mostly with the help of my Google Reader-generated Smorgasblog substitute), and I want to tell you about two really exciting new blogging projects. (Yes, the bloggers are both friends of mine, but I think I’d be equally excited if I didn’t know them from Adam’s off ox.)

First, Dale at mole began an annotated translation of the great Anglo-Saxon poem The Wanderer:

Often I have told my trouble to the dawn;
There is no living creature now
That I can talk to freely. I know for a fact
It is a better habit to keep your heart’s cage locked —
To keep your mind’s wallet closed — think what you will.
A worn out heart cannot withstand Wyrd
And a disordered mind mends nothing.
Someone who wants to be thought well of
Binds his unhappiness up tight in his breast.

I happen to know that Dale once studied Anglo-Saxon and Middle English literature at a prestigious graduate school, so I imagine his accompanying commentary is as trustworthy as his translation — for which, by the way, there is a crying need. With the exception of Heaney’s Beowulf, most of the Anglo-Saxon corpus has yet to find its Edward Snow (Rilke’s definitive translator into English, for those who don’t know). I also remember, a year or so back, Dale holding forth somewhere or another about the impossibility of translating Anglo-Saxon poetry into modern English. That was before he read Heaney’s Beowulf, I think.

It’s not that big a corpus, Dale. Shouldn’t take you more than a year, I’m figuring.

Another first installment of a projected series appeared last night at Dick Jones’ Patteran Pages: a re-imagining of the story behind the old English ballad, Fair Eleanor and Sweet William. By way of background, Dick says, “it occurred to me that it might be interesting to […] write a poem that moved back through the formalised structures of the rhyming ballad towards the immediacy of the events that inspired the song in the first place.” There aren’t too many poets of Dick’s caliber in the blog world who are willing to share what he calls “the rawest of material in its earliest form” — though I must say, it read awfully smoothly to me. The contrast between the starkness of the action and the beauty of the description raised the hairs on the back of my neck — and if you’ve ever seen the back of my neck, you know that’s no idle accomplishment.

But my baby moves in my arms;
he shifts his thick body
inside the plaid shawl that wraps him,
cranes his head to see our visitors
so as to smile his two small pearly teeth
at them, so as to fix his round
sea-blue eyes on them, so as
to welcome them to our hearth
with his two precious first words.

And he cuts him down.
With skill. It must be said,
with skill for his black blade
passes my face in a whisper,
a thing half seen, half-imagined —
the swift parabola of a bird
glanced through a window,
or a leaf blown in a hard wind.
I feel its dangerous breath;
I feel its voice deep within
my cage of bones.
(I must feel it always).


Also deserving of mention: Chris Clarke has been channeling Robinson Jeffers.

This is not the time to retreat into nature poetry. This is not
the time to withdraw from dim-lit rooms
into the wild bright world, to hide one’s head
beneath the wide sky’s broad blanket. The real world,
the important world flickers on these screens
and all the sunlit trivial expanse outside
mere glare to interfere, to mask our reading
of true poetry, the gutted mockery
and feeble seething, the plodding litanies of martyrs,
the toothless rage of impotent Barakas.
The only imperative is the imperative of my scream.

Poems and translations like these really make me proud to be a blogger.


Independence Day:
the hunters gather
for archery practice
in the woods.

All her neighbors have gone off on picnics
& the like. Humming quietly, she assembles
her new privacy fence.

Driving home after the rained-out fireworks,
visibility restricted to a short
cone of light on the winding road
& on either side, fireflies
rising from the fields.

Postcard from home

Hi Eva, Mark and Steve,

I guess you must be in British Columbia by now. The weather here has been mostly cool and dry since you left, until yesterday, when the skies opened up right around fireworks time — from around 8:00 p.m. until almost 10:00. I still heard plenty of booming, though.

This morning I was out on the porch by 6:00, and was rewarded with my first good bear sighting of the year. I heard a racket in the walnut trees behind the Guest House, but saw only a pair of gray squirrels at first. The next thing I knew, a small bear cub was climbing the big red maple beside the driveway. A few seconds later, the mother appeared, along with three other cubs, one of them clearly identifiable as the runt of the litter. They were full of play, racing up the trunk of every tree they passed, one after the other, and then dropping to the ground and climbing on their mother as if she were another tree. I didn’t have my camera with me, but even if I had, I don’t think there would’ve been enough light for either a still photo or a video. I was just happy to see evidence that the mountain is still a good black bear nursery, as it has been for most of the past fifteen years. I watched as the bears scrambled up the bank above the road and moved slowly off into the woods. I could hear them crashing around for a couple minutes after they were lost from view.

This wasn’t the only family I’ve had the pleasure of watching from my front porch in the past week. Last Friday morning, the twin fawns that have been hanging around the yard put on a real show. They too were full of play, and were tearing around in big circles that took them well up into the woods and then back through the tall weeds in front of the springhouse, while their mother grunted anxiously. I’ve seen fawns at play plenty of times before, but what surprised me with this family was the way the mother got into it a little bit herself. When the fawns returned, they pranced on either side of her until she, too, began ducking her head and kicking up her hind legs. Then they were off again and the whole sequence played over. The second time they returned to their mother, one of them actually vaulted over her lowered head and climbed up onto her back — just like the bear cubs I saw this morning. The play session ended with a round of nuzzling, before they returned to their regular business of munching on everything in sight.

I haven’t had any more sightings of the third family of large mammals on the mountain, the coyote pups that we saw a month ago down toward the end of the mountain. But I did hear them howling in concert on Monday afternoon — a real cacophony! It sounded as if they were somewhere not too far beyond the Steiner-Scott Trail, and I went over there the next morning, hoping that the pups’ typical enthusiasm for playing in the middle of mowed trails would give them away, but no luck. I haven’t heard any more practice howling since then, so perhaps they moved on.

All these sightings have me thinking about play behavior, and how it seems especially pronounced in habitat generalists, which makes sense: such species would have the most need of a flexible, experimental kind of intelligence. The other day, a blogger friend of mine posted something about the human capacity for joy, but it’s good to be reminded that this capacity is by no means limited to human beings.

At any rate, I hope you’re all having a good time, and are taking plenty of breaks from driving to get out and explore.


I saw a captioned photo
of a beach somewhere in Italy
that’s off-limits to men,
where women can swim & sunbathe
free from cat-calls & ogling.
That night I dreamt about
an endangered sea turtle
fresh from burying her eggs
who rose up from the sand
in the shape of a woman
& I thought, So that’s what they do
when we’re not around.


Despite what this porcupine seems to think, there are plenty of trees for everyone at the 13th edition of the Festival of the Trees.

Thanks to my friends Chris and Seung for the use of their laptop and high-speed internet to upload the above video, which I shot in Plummer’s Hollow last week. (I wasn’t using the zoom — the porcupine really was that close!)