The Hard Way

Our barefoot summer
ended at the edge
of a mowed field
in August: goldenrod stubs
like freshly sharpened pencils,
hay salted with thistle barbs
& the odd nest of baby
meadow voles orphaned
by the mower’s blade,
pink as erasers.
We learned the hard way:
one quick dash across
the stubble left holes
in our horn-tough feet.
They bled just a little,
but sprouted taproots of pain
under every step
that lasted into September,
when buses the color
of goldenrod bore us
back into waxed hallways
& the squeak of rubber.

Chasing dragons

The scientists’ children ate our weird food with gusto. “We like trying new things,” they said.

“If someone served you escargots, would you try it?” I asked.

“Sure,” they said.

And as soon as supper was over, they were right back outside.

millipede on hand

Their parents had gone off down the mountain with a couple other ornithologists to survey the spot where they planned to construct a blind and spring-net trap for banding golden eagles on migration, later this fall. The impulse to hunt and capture fierce winged beings seems to be in their blood.

mantis on arm

Jeffrey was immensely proud of the male praying mantis he had found before supper and decided to keep as a pet, and he continued to address it in terms of endearment even though it delivered painful bites every chance it could get. His younger sister Ashley wasn’t shy about playing with the beast, either, and when my father spotted a dense swarm of green darners up on the barn bank, she raced back and forth for ten minutes, desperate to catch one.

Plummer’s Hollow gets a fair number of younger visitors, but I haven’t been so strongly reminded of my own childhood in a long time.

What he said to his friend

in the style of the classical Tamil

Like a knot
of yellownecked caterpillars
on the underside of a witch hazel leaf
responding to the approach of danger
by arching their soft bodies
& freezing into a clump
of sudden thorns,
hoping to ward off the caress
of a wasp’s antennae:
that’s what happens
to me whenever
she smiles.

[Poetry Thursday – dead link]

For background on Tamil love poetry of the Sangam period, see the Wikipedia. Unfortunately, none of the late, great A. K. Ramanujan‘s translations seem to be online, but some earlier, public-domain translations are available at the Humanistic Texts site.

UPDATE: I’m wrong. Nancy at under the fire star – a Tamil Nadu-based blog – has shared a few of Ramanujan’s translations, and was kind enough to include the links in a comment below. See especially the poems at her last link.

Sleeping Buddha

Our submarine sank through layers of strange darkness to the very bottom of the ocean, where we found a lost pocket of terra firma complete with trees, lawns and sidewalks. We came to rest right in the middle of a revolutionary mob, who confused our ship with one of their invisible overlords and began to squabble over who would have the privilege of breaking it the way one breaks a wild horse. When we stepped out to sample the air, the crowd fell silent, and parted on both sides of us like the Red Sea for Moses. We crossed the square to a public fountain, my fellow prospectors and I, and raised cupped hands brimful with a miraculous, salt-free water that had never been sullied by so much as a glimpse of clouds.

As far as I can tell, this dream was prompted by my watching, shortly before bed, a video of the Talking Heads performing “Once in a Lifetime.” I was particularly impressed by the line, “there is water at the bottom of the ocean,” which I had never focused on before.

Buried things have always drawn my attention. Like much of the rest of the nation, I’ve been following the search for the lost coal miners in the mountain in Utah. And this morning over breakfast, I was reading an article about the Afghan archaeologist Zemaryalai Tarzi’s effort to locate the 900-foot-long “Sleeping Buddha” described by the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang in the 7th century. If its remains still exist, buried by who knows how much sand or rubble, they wouldn’t be more than a mile or two from the famous standing Buddhas destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.

Much like the reclining Buddhas in Thailand, this immense sculpture presumably depicted the Buddha at the point of death/nirvana, though of course it’s more appealing to think of him as enjoying a millennium-long sleep under the ground like some kind of immense cicada. More about that in a moment. First, an essay in the Tricycle blog goes to the heart of the issue: does the recovery of buried or destroyed icons even make sense from a Buddhist perspective? The author quotes from Xuanzang’s journal about the standing and sleeping Buddhas of Bamiyan, and goes on to suggest how the loss of such icons might’ve struck the great theologian and translator:

Xuanzang’s own religious feelings were deeply rooted in an awareness of how loss and nostalgia operate to drive us on the path to liberation. When he reached the Bodhi Tree and stood before the empty seat once occupied by the Buddha, he threw himself into the dust and wept bitter tears. This existential encounter with the Buddha’s absence hammered home that he lived in an age without an enlightened teacher, that he had failed to plant the karmic seeds that would’ve allowed him to meet the Tathagatha when he walked softly upon the earth. Profoundly aware of his own past inadequacies, Xuanzang’s commitment to the Dharma redoubled as he stared the truth of emptiness in the face. A follower of the cult of Maitretya, Xuanzang hoped that being reborn in the Tushita heaven would let him meet and learn from a Buddha after his death. Xuanzang probably wouldn’t agree with those who saw the loss of the Bamiyan Buddhas [at the hands of the Taliban] as conveying a lesson in detachment. Rather, for him it was precisely the pain of losing something cherished that leads to aspiration for following the path of Dharma.

I’ll admit, I’ve always been attracted to the melancholy strain in Buddhist art and Buddhist-inspired literature. Ironically, the modern emphasis on non-attachment coincides with a proliferation of icons, whereas for the first five hundred years or so, Buddhism was strictly aniconic, in the same way that early Christian symbolism privileged the empty tomb. Only the Buddha’s footprints or parasol could be depicted, reinforcing his followers’ consciousness of his absence.

Maybe it’s the subterranean influence of my pagan Germanic heritage, but I can’t help thinking of nirvana as a kind of living death. It is, after all, depicted not as a triumph over death but as a triumph over rebirth — a pure extinction. And since I don’t believe in reincarnation, the only way I can understand this is to imagine a supernatural ability to elude decay and the recycling of all of one’s elements into new lifeforms. I picture the Buddha lying in suspended animation when at last some modern Grettir discovers his burial mound and descends into the darkness with the gift of breath like a sword between his teeth.

Singing in the bog

Bear Meadows blueberriesPicking highbush blueberries with the Amish, we discover that, unlike the other pickers scattered around the bog, they don’t like to shout back and forth to each other. My brother tells me they prefer to whistle. Steve loves to pick, and takes Amish with him every time he goes — it’s too far to drive in a horse and buggy.

This is a bog where occasional holes in the sphagnum can pull you in up to your waist. Some people wear hip-waders like trout fishermen; others, like me, wear old shoes and long pants and plan on getting wet. The Amish women pull on short rubber boots for better traction and wade out into the bog in the same dresses they wear for everything else. I guess they’re able to find areas free of sawgrass to do their picking in. On their return from the bog, they pour the water out of their boots, wash their legs in the creek, and change back into their shoes.

The Amish men and boys pick a little apart from their female relatives, I think. The day I went out with them, I twice heard the teenaged boy roaring like a bear, and each time his sister obligingly shrieked.

I was picking out toward the middle of the bog. It was on one of the last days of July, and I counted myself fortunate to hear the distant songs of both a veery and a hermit thrush from the fringe of old-growth spruce and hemlock that encircles the bog. Flocks of cedar waxwings coursed back and forth as always, catbirds and red squirrels scolded from nearby hummocks of blueberry bushes, and dozens of tree swallows swooped and circled over the sea of sawgrass at the center of the bog. Now and then I heard the croaking cry of a raven high overhead. Surrounded by ridges on three sides and protected as a network of State Forest Natural Areas and Wild Areas, this is as close to true wilderness as one can get in the valley-and-ridge province of central Pennsylvania.

Our Amish friends were too far away for me to pick up more than an occasional murmur — not that I understand a word of Pennsylvania German in any case. But I heard them clearly enough when the singing started: the 50-something maiden aunt’s voice raised in what I took to be a hymn, the only form of music their brand of fundamentalism permits. It was a haunting melody in a minor key, and I was disappointed when she stopped after a single verse. I suppose she might’ve been singing to illustrate some point she was making to her neice, because I heard two more, all-too-brief snatches of song in the next ten minutes.

By that time it had turned into a very hot day, and I was glad to see that my bucket was almost full. The slog back to the car was exhausting. My mother was already there, panting in the shade, and our car was the last vehicle left in the small parking area. We blew the horn in the agreed-upon signal — three series of three short blasts — and waited for the Amish to return. I wasn’t at all surprised to see that the older woman — the one who’d been singing — had picked about three gallons to my two and a half, while the boy had picked close to five and was disappointed to have to leave so soon.

On the way down out of the mountains, as we passed the ski lodge, we saw some people out on the go-cart course despite the heat. I tried to explain the attraction of driving in circles in tiny little cars as best I could. “Why would anyone come all the way here and not want to go for a hike in the woods?” said S. in her slightly clipped English, and I had to smile — it was exactly the sort of thing my mother would say. On the long drive back, she asked us to be sure and tell them as soon as the mountain that looms over their farms came into view.


deer ears

RRRRrrr rrRRRrrr rrrRRRrrr. The incessant grinding noise emitted by my computer was making it almost impossible to concentrate on anything. Some days it went away after a few hours of operation, but not yesterday, and by 10:30 p.m. I’d had enough. I shut the computer down, went outside, and saw two meteors, one right after another, as I stood there with my fly down, flapping my free hand in the direction of a mosquito’s whine. Some nights, if I didn’t have to pee, I might not step outside at all.

And it’s not often we get clear weather during the Perseids. I reminded myself that one of the last times times we did, I ended up writing a poem about it (note the urination theme). On that occasion, I was actually lucky enough to hear the meteor as it fell — a rare and mysterious phenomenon supposedly caused by very low-frequency (VLF) radio waves that are picked up by objects in one’s vicinity. “Simple materials like aluminum foil, thin wires, pine needles — even dry or frizzy hair — can intercept and respond to a VLF field.”

So I got up early this morning and sat out in the field with my coffee mug, watching the stars fade as the small stain of light slowly spread above the eastern ridge. It was good to get reacquainted with Orion, standing roughly where he’ll appear at nightfall in January, and the Pleiades high overhead like a lucky ring found hiding under the sofa cushions. It’s a little sad to sit outside at dawn this time of year and not hear any wood thrushes — or most any of the other exhuberant singers from just a couple of weeks ago.A screech owl quavered a few times, but otherwise it was still, and cool enough to keep the mosquitoes from flying. And in all that time I only saw a single meteor, and that one only out of the corner of my eye.

But it has been too long since I’ve done any stargazing, I decided. Usually about all I remember to do is wake up early on mornings when the moon is full, and even then I tend to sit close to the house. Getting away from the trees when the sky is dark and very clear, I am reminded of the ultimate strangeness of reality — something I often lose track of with all the comforts and minor dramas of daily life. When I got back to the house, I thought perhaps I might have a poem in me, but instead I found myself fetching a screwdriver and opening up my computer.

I knew what the problem was: the slow death throes of the old hard drive from my previous computer, which my cousin Jeff had mounted alongside the new hard drive when he gave me this good-as-new recycled computer a few months back. He had told me it wouldn’t be hard to disconnect it, and it wasn’t. It took me less than ten minutes to perform the lobotomy and close the box back up. I turned it on with much trepidation, but lo and behold, my operating system came up without a hitch — and in blessed silence.

Later in the morning, I walked down the road to unlock the gate at the bottom of the hollow for an expected visitor. Mosquitoes were singing in both ears — the first real hatch we’ve had all summer, thanks to the recent rains. I surprised a doe and her half-grown fawn in the stream, and they bounded up the opposite side of the ravine and stopped, watching warily as I continued on my way, their big ears backlit by the sun and revolving slowly, like dish antennae tracking a distant signal.

Signs and wonders

good dog

These are the proverbial dog days of August, and if you’ve ever wondered why they’re called that, the answer is simple: it’s when a dog shows up and lies on your porch.

If you haven’t noticed a dog on your porch this year, it’s probably either because: a) you’ve been naughty rather than nice, or b) you haven’t lost a tooth lately. Don’t be surprised if you end up with a stocking full of cats instead.


It was so humid the other day that not only did the salt not come out of the shaker, it actually clumped up in the Morton Salt box. The salt may, as advertised, pour when it rains, but when we get a really humid spell, forget it. Actual beads of moisture formed on the outside of the salt box — I swear to dog.


This morning around 9:00, I found a crayfish walking across the lawn. This seemed as if it might be a serious portent; I’ve never seen a crayfish venture out of the water before. I raced back for my camera, but by the time I returned, it had disappeared into the tall grass. When I spotted it, it was about ten feet from a drainage ditch and marching purposefully toward a shallow well some fifteen feet farther up the hill, so all I can think is that the on-going drought has made the former spot uninhabitable, and it decided to try its luck at the well instead. It’s tempting, though, to think that the humidity might have been the real culprit: the crayfish was in an exploring mood, and simply didn’t notice that it had left the water.


If you want to do a biological inventory of your house, rip out some of the walls and then pound on the beams with a hammer. Snakes really dislike this, we’ve found. Also, the fine plaster dust that settles over everything makes it possible to see where the mice go on their nocturnal visits. I’m looking at a line of tiny, delicate tracks right across the top of my keyboard.


Old dogs and small children seem capable of communicating on a very deep level. The trouble is, I don’t think they really have much to say to one another.


But what do I know?

Tunnel Vision

The trail is a straight tunnel
through dripping woods.
In last night’s dream, I’d been
ready to cross a mountain
where roads & trails
hadn’t yet been thought of,
not even by the animals.
On the far side, my brothers
had found another hollow
parallel to this one, where
riotous growth pressed
against the windowpanes
& light-starved houseplants
rotted in their pots.
But this morning,
the trail ends as always
at the crest of a ridge a-bristle
with dying laurel bushes
& brown & yellow bracken.
The valley full of fog
glows in the weak sunlight
like the belly of a carp.
The woods are silent
except for the patter of urine
where a deer grazes,
her pelt already quivering
under the feet of her daily flies.
The camera around my neck
travels the length of the trail
in both directions, far heavier
than its credit card-sized
counterpart in the dream,
& just as empty.

[Poetry Thursday – dead link]

Outside the box

for Natalie

Outside the box, the imagination grapples with opaque horizons of soil more alive than dead, teeming with earthworms and nematodes, grubs and ground beetles, bacteria that fix nitrogen and other bacteria that take nitrogen apart, root hairs extending into fungal mycelia like fingers into gloves, floating chunks of bedrock, and the condensed and highly polymerized substance known as humin, insoluble in acid and alkali alike and virtually impervious to the methods and instruments employed by the shadowy agents of decay. Right outside the box, the temperature remains a constant 54 degrees Fahrenheit year-round, and six feet above, another kind of uniformity prevails, according to which the grass is continually foiled in its attempts to flower and set seed, despite the inaudible cheering from what the Kabbalah claims may be as many as two angels for every blade.

Ode to Scrapple

Sing scrapple: buckwheat-
& cornmeal mush-stuffed
relative of head cheese,
the hog’s gray matter.
Plus every part
that couldn’t be cured
into ham or crammed
into sausage casings —
some good foot meat, perhaps,
a corkscrew piece of tail —
up to & including
the oleaginous grunt.
Always the butt of jokes
for the ignorant mass
of weiner-eaters who prefer
their pig scraps pink
& prefitted for the throat.
This is a square meal
the color of earth.
It’s what’s for supper
when you haven’t eaten
since breakfast, & want
something you can
slap in the hot
fat of a griddle & fry
until it grows a thick
brown skin. Then
serve with Grade-A
maple syrup, go hog-
wild, wallow in the gray
& gritty mush.