Domestic regression


“The urge to destroy is also a creative urge,” said Bakunin. Taking a crowbar to the walls of a living room where I’ve spent over half my life feels less like destruction than some kind of past life regression therapy. Each layer of wallpaper represents a different occupant, probably, and I can track changing aesthetic tastes over the course of a century. I can also now hazard a guess about when the windows were put in, based on how many layers their moulding overlaps. And under the repeated prying of the crow, the blank page of the plaster crumbles to reveal the regular ruling of a schoolboy’s notebook.


The lath is attached to thin spacer boards tacked to the original plank shell, which itself retains a layer of thick, 19th-century wallpaper. I can see daylight through the cracks between board and batten. The contracter was imagining two-by-fours, I guess — a regular internal skeleton — and plenty of space between the bones for insulation. But this house was built like an insect, with an exoskelton to hold it all together. It’s nice to imagine that the oak and chestnut planks were milled from trees cut right here on the mountain, but in all likelihood they came from farther to the west or north, beyond the reach of the charcoal cutters for the iron furnaces and forges of the upper Juniata. With a forge right at the bottom of the mountain remaining active until 1850, the hollow probably would’ve had nothing but pole timber in 1865 when the house was built. They called this “Brush Mountain” for a reason.


How the wind must’ve howled through the cracks those first winters after the Civil War! Did they heat with charcoal, I wonder? As a retired forgeman, the first occupant would’ve been most familiar with it. But possibly by then real coal was cheaper, shipped on the new railroad down the Allegheny Front from the newly opened mines to the west.

And now for the ceiling…

UPDATE: Whitewash! We found whitewash on the original ceiling beams! Just like a barn.


I am whatever beast inhabits me.
–Charles Simic, “Sleep”

Well, as you may have heard, Charles Simic was just selected as the next Poet Laureate of the U.S. I attended a Simic reading two years ago and blogged about it here. (And despite the jesting tone of the piece, I really did enjoy it thoroughly.)

Three blog posts from the last three days (August 1-3) struck me as more than a little Simician, if that’s a word. Each concerns a possible revelation, treated with bermused skepticism. Together, they gave me the push I needed to resume my links blog, Smorgasblog (see topbar link, or sidebar of home page). I’m keeping my fingers crossed that our tenuous DSL connection holds.

Had anyone grown fond of the automatically generated list of post titles from my blogroll feed? I’m wary of letting the sidebar get too long, but I can put that back in if people were using it.

Viking nicknames

according to the Icelandic sagas

Every few years I re-read the Icelandic sagas in translation. This time, I kept a notepad handy and jotted down the more interesting nicknames. Here are a few of them. For those unfamiliar with the sagas, I should mention that they were regarded by the 12th- and 13th-century Icelanders for whom they were written as essentially factual works, albeit with some literary embellishments. In other words, the following names all belonged to ostensibly historical figures.

Onund Tree-Foot
Gudbrund Hump
Ivar Prick
Geirmund Hell-Hide
Thorir Long-Chin
Olvir Child-Sparer
Olaf the Broad
Bork the Stout
Helgi the Lean
Asmund the Beardless
Ketil Thistle
Eirik Ale-Lover
Hallstein Horse
Aud the Deep-Minded
Thorgeir Flask-Back
Thorkel Moon
Geirmund the Shifty
Odd the Orphan-Poet
Thorir Paunch
Ogmund the Evil
Thorarin Foal-Brow
Torfi Bundle
Asgeir the Rash
Thorbjorn Oxen-Might
Hallvard Travel-Hard
Thorodd Poem-Piece
Olaf the Peacock
Bersi the Godless
Thord the Coward
Ketil Flat-Nose
Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye
Thorolf Bladderbald
Thorstein Cod-Biter
Thorolf Twist-Foot
Bolverk Blind-Snout
Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue
Mord Fiddle
Asmund Grey-Bush
Ulf the Unwashed
Orm Wood-Nose
Thorleif Crow
Ketil the Smooth-Tongued
Sigurd Hog-Head
Onund the Handsome
Ogmund Tangle-Hair
Thorkel Braggart
Thorir Snippet
Grim Hairy-Cheek
Ketil Trout
Thorstein Sleet-Nose
Hallbjorn Half-Troll
Gunnstein the Berserk-Killer
Ornulf Fish-Driver
Bjorn Butter-Box
Eilif Eagle
Hroald Backbone
Thorgeir Earth-Long
Bjorn Iron-Side
Mord the Careless
Thorstein Shiver
Bolli the Elegant
Sarcastic Halli
Hallfred the Troublesome Poet
Thorold Sledgehammer
Eyvind the Proud
Hrolf the Walker
Ragnar Shaggy-Breeches
Thorbjorn Raven
Thorbjorg Pride-of-the-Farm
An Twig-Belly
Geirmund Thunder
Eysteinn Fart
Frodi the Valiant
Erlend the Torpid
An Bow-Bender
Audun the Uninspired
Bard the Peevish
Thorbjorn the Pock-Marked
Thord Horse-Head
Thorfinn Skull-Splitter
Asgeir Scatter-Brain
Brand the Generous
Eyvind the Plagiarist
Finn the Squinter
Thord Bellower
Eirik the All-Wise
Ulf the Squinter
Thorgeir Thorn-Foot
Strut Harald
Sigtrygg Silk-Beard
Ketil the Lucky Fisher
Einar Fly

Sources: Grettir’s Saga, tr. Denton Fox and Hermann Palsson (University of Toronto Press, 1974); Njal’s Saga, tr. Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson (Penguin, 1960); Eyrbyggja Saga, tr. Hermann Palsson and Paul Edwards (Penguin, 1972); The Sagas of Icelanders, ed. Leifur Eriksson (Penguin, 2000).


The house spider
was on the inside
& didn’t budge
when the phoebe flew up
& clung to the window screen,
jabbing fruitlessly
at a meal turned to metal —
or rather, subdivided
into orderly
impenetrable holes,
as in a physics
textbook account
of the structure of matter.
Chalk lines on a blackboard,
rows of blank faces
at their desks.
But it was right there
the spider,
the phoebe,
the rattle of wings.

Festival of the Trees 14: in katydid time

northern true katydid on black walnut

Hi everybody, and welcome to the 14th edition of the Festival of the Trees. I’m a northern true katydid, Pteryphylla camellifolia; you can call me Pterry for short. I’ll be your guide here today. And who better? Starting at the end of July here in central Pennsylvania, I gather with a few million of my closest friends to make music in the treetops every night. It’ll get louder and louder as the month wears on. We like trees so much, we’ve learned how to disguise our wings as leaves, and we make music the same way the trees do, by rubbing our leaf-wings against each other. It sounds like this. Human scientists have various theories about why we stridulate in unison, but the answer is simple: we got rhythm! It’s like, we’re all shaking in the same wind, man.

Pennsylvania blogger Jason Evans at The Clarity of Night had a poetic post about the midsummer forest back on July 7: a little before my time, of course, but I sure recognized the mood.

Given enough rain, trees grow like crazy in the summer heat — especially if they’re members of the species immortalized by the beloved children’s classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, as Brooklyn blogger Missy recently discovered. “If you’re not careful,” one of her commenters warned, “that tree will grow through your window, into your open mouth, past your nasal cavity, and right into your brain while you’re sleeping.”

On these hot summer days, it’s natural to long for a good hard thunderstorm to cool things down. But sometimes the trees don’t take it so well. Trees in a storm were the subject of a poem, Storm, at Beloved Dreamer, as well as a photo essay here at Via Negativa, Death of oak tree.

It’s also apparently the season when neighbors with central air conditioning take their chainsaws to beloved shade trees. Julie Dunlop at Pines Above Snow — a great new blog that takes a literary approach to conservation — draws lessons from a neighbor’s assault on an American holly in “The Tree No One Knew.”

What could I do to convince a neighbor not to chop down a healthy tree? How could I communicate with someone who holds such different values? I ask myself, should I even speak out when we live so closely packed and must get along? These are questions environmentalists face every day, in large and small scale dilemmas. I look at the holly stump with grief and regret, at the [neighbor’s] cherry with joy and fear.

In a pair of posts at the cassandra pages, Beth Adams contrasts the attitude of her rural Vermont neighbors with the residents of her adopted city, Montreal. In Vermont, “a white-painted tire planted with bright pink impatiens has been placed on the stump of the huge maple that used to tower over our street; those neighbors to the west have been singlehandedly responsible for cutting the two oldest, tallest, and loveliest trees in the neighborhood.” She takes some consolation in the weedy vigor of her own back lot. But among her Montreal neighbors, she finds evidence of a different attitude. After a neighborhood tree was struck by lightning in a recent storm and had to be cut down, Beth’s husband J. reports, “there was a woman standing there next to it, and when I went by I heard her saying a prayer in French for the tree.”

Of course, many trees are doomed by the building of human houses and housing developments in the first place, as Paulette (Becoming a Renaissance Woman) has been finding with the trees in her own subdivision. “We built our homes on the edge of a forest with a developer who didn’t take enough care with the trees,” she writes. At the poetry blogzine Bolts of Silk, Sue Turner dreads the coming of “a developer’s ax” to a stand of cedars. And Beau at Fox Haven Journal, in a brief tribute to an old leaning tree, quotes William Blake: “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way.”

The solution, of course, is to plant more trees. Artist Maureen Shaughnessy (Raven’s Nest) ticks off the benefits, such as, “In one year, an acre of trees can absorb as much carbon as is produced by a car driven up to 8700 miles,” though she also notes that “the average tree in a metropolitan area survives only about 8 years!” Maureen also sent along a link to her other blog, Land of Little Rain: five free desktop wallpaper images of trees that she’s created.

northern true katydid on black walnutTrees with character

I’ve been keeping my antennae out for cool tree-related items around the web. One of the better arboreal faces I’ve seen was a big hit on Flickr back in May. And the August issue of Outdoor Photographer magazine includes a piece on old growth in the East — what it is, where to find it and how to photograph it — by freelance writer/photographer/ecologist George Wuerthner.

Speaking of photographing old growth, Portuguese blogger Pedro Nuno Teixeira Santos of A sombra verde submitted the link to a photo post featuring olive trees — three very impressive individuals. I can spot faces in all three trunks! And from Ireland, Windywillow has some charming photos of old trees in a park in Dublin.

Old trees have a charisma that’s hard to resist; you can see how attached I’ve become to this big old black walnut. Lynn at Hasty Brook shared some photos of ancient, twisted cedars at Gooseberry Falls, on the shores of Lake Superior. The pronounced spiraling in the grain of one cedar trunk prompted a lot of comments from readers, so I thought I’d do a little online sleuthing. (Katydid antennae turn out to be better at broadband reception than most Verizon DSL modems!) I found an abstract for an article which appeared in the journal Trees – Structure and Function back in 1991: Function of Spiral Grain in Trees, by Hans Kubler, a forester at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Through spiral grain, conduits for sap lead from each root to all branches. This uniform distribution of sap is indicated by the paths of vessels and tracheids, and has been proven experimentally by means of dyed sap injected into the base of stems or taken up by roots. Trees receiving water only from roots at one side of the root collar nevertheless stay green and continue growing. Spiral grain in bark distributes food from each branch to other flanks of the stem and to most roots. Experimental interruptions of the sap and food conduits caused the cambial zone to reorient new conduit cells in new directions, bypassing the interruption. In particular, spiral grooves cut into the stem surface caused spiral grain. The new cells reorient through division and growth. Although spiral grain is largely under genetic control, trees appear to have a spiral grain especially where needed for distribution of water when root spheres are dry at one side. Compared with straight-grained trees, spiral-grained stems and branches bend and twist more when exposed to strong wind, in this way offering less wind resistance and being less likely to break. Through the bending and twisting, snow slides down from branches rather than breaking them, but the main function of spiral grain is the uniform distribution of supplies from each root to all branches, and from each branch to many roots.

Pretty cool, huh? Also in the far-out factoids department this month, courtesy of Rurality: wooly pine scale, an insect that looks exactly like bird droppings. And did you know that there was such thing as bark lice? Check out “Tiny curiosities,” from the always-informative Burning Silo.

northern true katydid on black walnut

Trees as sources of inspiration

Unlike us katydids, your ancestors came down from the trees millions of years ago. But many humans apparently still feel a close kinship with trees. LaRonda Zupp (The Ear of My Heart) describes a particularly good example of this kinship in “My Mother and Her Trees.” Her mother years ago got into the habit of giving tree-nicknames to the grandchildren, and now other relatives clamor for tree-names, too. As for herself, she identifies with the eucalyptus: “Being a nurse all her life, she felt this tree represented her the best as it is known for its medicinal qualities. […] My mother also laughed at her own choice of tree names and said that the peeling bark of the Eucalyptus reminded her of her own thinning hair and cracking skin.” Human and arboreal aging are also compared in “Gnarly,” a poem by Joan Ryan at Riverside Rambles, which concludes, “each day as I age more I envy the tree.”

Trees are a perennial source of inspiration to artists. Karen at trees if you please recently featured the tree paintings of Elmore Leonard, which do interesting things with the spaces between branches.

At a blog called Original Faith, spiritual counselor and author Paul M. Martin writes about a white birch tree from his childhood as an example of a home-grown sacred symbol. “Even now,” he says, “this long dead tree still photosynthesizes sentences for me.” If that sounds a little far-fetched, check out Lucy’s luminous photos of birch bark at box elder.

Kasturi at not native fruit quotes a poem about spiritual love from Hadewijch of Antwerp, who compares herself to

the hazel trees,
Which blossom early in the season of darkness,
And bear fruit slowly.

Trees can make you imagine all sorts of interesting things. Artist Steve Emery (Color Sweet Tooth) makes a good case for the proposition that all trees are hollow: “What any tree climbing child discovers is that the hearts of trees are wonderfully open, and I recall as a child feeling like I was climbing up into the globe of a hot air balloon when I pulled myself up the sugar maple where our bird feeder hung.” A recent post here at Via Negativa also turned on a childhood memory of climbing into a maple. And writer Lorianne DiSabato of Hoarded Ordinaries submitted a wide-ranging essay, “Listening to Trees,” which included this story:

The neighborhood where I grew up had few children for me to play with, so I spent a lot of time engaged in quiet, self-entertaining pursuits such as reading. The maple tree that stood in the courtyard between my family’s and our neighbor’s house — the same tree that is inextricably connected with my first memory of death — was my childhood companion and confidante, sheltering my childish thoughts as I lay dreaming below.

What is it about maples, I wonder? We katydids aren’t particular, though I’m personally rather fond of black walnuts, as you can tell. So I was delighted to see a series on insect inhabitants of black walnut trees at Pocahontas County Fare this month: spittlebugs; membracids; an assassin bug (yikes!); and a glimpse of the black walnut canopy. Which is where I’m headed now, I think.

J. L. Blackwater at Arboreality is right, the light through the trees at sunrise is stunning, but I’m feeling mighty exposed here on this trunk. After all, I’m not a sphinx moth, with wings evolved to look like bark; I belong with the leaves. Besides, I think it’s high time I gave photosynthesis another shot.

northern true katydid on black walnut

Next month, the festival will move to a Raven’s Nest. Please send links to maureenshaughnessy (at) gmail (dot) com no later than August 30.