Making sense, robot-style

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

This is so cool, it deserves its own post rather than simply an update. I just realized that the Feedblitzed email version of my last post — and I presume all other Via Negativa posts from here on — contained an audio link at the end. Clicking it generated the following creepy yet delightful rendering, via Talkr.


Email subscribers will not see the above player, however. They can click on this link instead.

Making sense

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Qarrtsiluni, the online literary magazine I help curate, is now soliciting for submissions to a new theme, Making Sense. “We challenge you to build up a world in scent, taste, touch, sound, or any combination of these. … To have a full and concrete awareness of space, physical detail, and emotion, you do not need sight,” the editors write.

basswood leaves

Last weekend, I ate both eyes of a fish. They were slightly sour, and full of a salty juice that couldn’t be tears. Later, somebody told me: You’ll never cry again!


If you saw your nose all by itself, would you recognize it? What would it smell like?


A. sat on the floor and sketched our feet as we listened to Bach’s partitas for solo violin. You can tell from the sketches: those feet had completely forgotten that they were feet.


Conversing with someone who is undergoing a massage is a bit like consulting a Ouija board. The words hold extra weight for passing through the hands, but it’s hard to tell where they’re coming from.


I’ve been single for so long, I like to go out in the rain just for the contact.


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall


I can’t seem to figure out what to do with my head. It is too small to carry the right sort of luggage and dangerously prone to spills and injuries. I was thinking I might rent it out for micro-idea transmission, but I’m not sure how well I’d like sitting on top of a metal tower during thunderstorms. Then there’s the whole issue of bird droppings. Perhaps I could put it in a breadbox to keep it fresh. But lately it has this alarming tendency to weep, which could promote spoilage. …

I wrote that after a trip to the Adirondacks back in 2004. Some people don’t like to travel due to the lack of comfort. For me, it’s the lack of sleep. A mere four or five days with less than five hours of good sleep per night are enough to turn me into a humorless emotional wreck. Then for days after I get home, I mope around wishing I had seen more and been more outgoing.


Fortunately, this past weekend’s jaunt had been in the company of fellow bloggers, most of whom are also social misfits of one kind or another, and we tolerated each other’s lapses, if that’s what they were. Lorianne writes about the pleasures of ditching one’s friends to walk the streets alone, something I wish I’d found time to do myself. Rachel of Velveteen Rabbi, on the other hand, eulogizes the joys of communion. Leslee seemed most affected by the heat, but still managed to take a number of good photos of the area of Brooklyn where we all crashed. Other photosets from the trip include Lorianne’s photos of MoMA, Velveteen Rachel’s Brooklyn set, and Frizzy Rachel‘s NY September 07 set (which includes two photos of my head). And Dale has a poem up called Pilgrim in Brooklyn.

UPDATE: New posts about the New York blogger swarm are up at 3rd House Journal – part 1 and part 2 – and the cassandra pages.

always read the label

Halfway home on the train,
my tongue discovers something hard
between the molars, left over from
a rushed breakfast
at a diner in Brooklyn.
The molars break it open
& the tongue remembers: rye toast.
Our last meal together.
Caraway seed.

Iron aged

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Trump Tower trees

So much of modern urban coolness seems to derive from smooth, reflective surfaces.

Serra installation reactions

A deliberately aged, industrial artifact can draw a crowd.

in the subway

Surrounded by millions of strangers, who wants to risk open vulnerability?

Serra installation

Unless you grew up in the rust belt, surrounded by shuttered factories, I guess you’d have no particular reason to associate a Richard Serra sculpture with unemployment, drug abuse, and domestic violence.


The primary associations would presumably be romantic or nostalgic. It would seem almost rustic, perhaps — a wall in search of a garden, an extension of the earth.

Serra installation guard

Its vulnerability to the elements might connote a kind of innocence. Visitors would be warned against touching the rusty surface, or even (for the indoor portions of the exhibition) snapping photos.

Lichtenstein women

All it takes is a simple frame to turn the innocent ironic.

Richard Serra closeup

But the sculptor wants to provoke “an engagement between the viewer, the site, and the work.” We must do what we would never do with a stranger: take off our sunglasses and meet the iron’s yellow eyes. No irony there.

Ansel Adams and the Polaroid

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Visiting an Ansel Adams exhibit, I am unable to fully focus on the largest prints, distracted by the reflections in the glass behind which they are imprisoned. Is this how the photographer intended his work to be seen, with the world of the gallery imposed like a double exposure over El Capitan or the New Mexico cemetery in the moonlight?

The exhibit explores the decades-long relationship between Adams and Edwin Land, the founder of the Polaroid Corporation, for whom Adams worked as a consultant. Fascinating material — especially the many snapshots Adams generated as he tested the various films and cameras. But given the fact that the exhibit was sponsored by Polaroid, and not knowing much about Adams other than what I can remember from an art history course I took 20 years ago, I am unable to exorcise the demon of distrust. How really central was Adams’ experience with Polaroid film to his overall career as an artist?

They quote a couple of sentences from Adams’ autobiography: “Many of my most successful photographs from the 1950’s onward have been made on Polaroid film. One look at the tonal quality of the print I have achieved should convince the uninitiated of the truly superior quality of Polaroid film.” The uninitiated, yes — that’s me. I am able to relate to the many test snapshots on exhibit far better than to the iconic Western landscapes, in part because their small size requires close viewing, where reflections on the glass are not nearly so distracting. And the subjects are casual and domestic: the corner of a porch. A woman standing on her front stoop.

And at any rate, as a very amateur digital photographer and blogger, I am most struck by how this artist renowned for his long exposures celebrated the instantaneousness of the Polaroid. “To have a print and a negative from the same exposure is a tremendous assist in the creative process,” Adams wrote in 1961. I had also always associated the Polaroid with low-quality color snapshots of family gatherings, but the docent tells us the film was in fact designed for nature photography. All of Adams’ Polaroids in the exhibition are in black-and-white.

The docent talks about Adams’ difficult relationship with color. He spent the last years of his life trying to master color photography, but finally gave up, she says. His whole approach to photography was shaped by his early training as a classical pianist; he was a composer, not a mere finder, of images, and he couldn’t handle a lack of total control over colors and values. Moreover, he found the medium’s promise of verisimilitude deceptive:

Color photography is a beguiling medium in that it offers some apparent simulation of reality, to which the majority of the public respond. Because of economic necessity, the development of color has been keyed to popular demand (much more than black—and—white photography), and the approach to professional work has focused on “realism ” of color and fail—safe technology.

The taste—makers in color photography are the manufacturers, advertisers in general and the public with their insatiable appetite for the ‘snappy snapshot.” I have come to the conclusion that the understanding and appreciation of color involves the illusion that the color photograph represents the colors of the world as we think we perceive them to be. The images are, at best, poor simulations, but the perceptive alchemy translates the two—dimensional picture into the common world of experience. Picture reality is a philosophical and psychological impossibility. Color pictures are so ubiquitous that the casual viewer comes to accept them as the true “reality”, the color process reveals for them the real world, which is not hard to understand because the “real world” is, for most people, an artifact of the industrial/material surround. The colors of the urban environment are for the most part far more garish and “unrelated” than we find in nature. The Creator did not go to art school and natural color, while more gentle and subtle, seldom has what we call aesthetic resonance.

Among the large prints in the exhibit, the one that most impresses me has an industrial subject, “Pipes and Gauges, West Virginia, 1939.” The composition of curved white pipes and small gauges, with its frank sexuality, is far warmer and earthier than any of the landscapes, “artifact of the industrial/material surround” though it might have been.

Tastes like chicken

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall


Mushroom season came late this year. We finally got some rain toward the end of August, and now the mushrooms seem to making up for lost time.

One of our young visitors last Sunday had never seen a wild mushroom before, and was agog when I pointed out one of the common brown ones that dot the forest floor. “I love mushrooms! Can you eat these?” He was full of excited questions.

I told him that some were edible, but not these ones. I pointed out a few species I recognized, including the death cup. I described how it could dissolve the liver within 48 hours, leading to an agonizing death. “But there are a few species we eat,” I said. “Mostly giant puffballs and chicken mushrooms, and sometimes the odd chanterelle, oyster mushroom or morel.”

“Oh, you grow your own mushrooms?” The concept of wild food was taking a little time to sink in.

“No, they grow themselves,” I said. “We just pick them.”

My mother took both youngsters up to the spruce grove at the top of the hollow for a picnic lunch. Virtually the whole time, she said, they were clamoring over the wild mushrooms that lined the trails, picking them and breaking them apart to see what they looked like inside. Then on the way back down to the house, one of them spotted a log covered with orange.

chicken mushroom log

“Look! What’s that?”

“Oh, wonderful! Chicken mushrooms!”

The kids were ecstatic. Their newly acquired mushroom-breaking skills suddenly had a purpose! They filled their arms with the fleshy shelf fungi and staggered back to the house.

I heard the news a short while later. We had a large gang to feed, and I had already defrosted chicken to make chicken tarragon, but I had wanted a vegetable side dish, too. It looked as if we’d be having chicken and chicken mushroom in the same meal.

chicken mushrooms

I concocted a stir-fry with about a half a pound of chicken mushroom strips, a couple of sweet red peppers, and one yellow squash cut into half-moons. The sauce consisted of garlic, ginger, tamari, rice wine, oyster sauce, and five-spice powder. It was, if I may say so, delicious. My cousin Jeff — usually a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy — surprised me by taking seconds. “It tastes like chicken, but you can definitely tell the difference,” he said.

Chicken mushroom, also known as sulfur shelf (Laetiporus sulfureus) grows on rotten logs or at the base of dead trees. The other week, my mother found some growing directly out the ground, presumably on a dead root. On wetter years, we can find it as early as June. We’ve never found it twice at the same spot, so we have to keep our eyes open. Taste varies, depending on the freshness of the mushroom and probably also on genotype. But as Wildman Steve Brill puts it,

If there’s one mushroom to start with, this is it. The chicken mushroom is easy to recognize, with no poisonous look-alikes. It’s common and widespread, it has a long season, and it can be huge.

Brill also tenders some culinary advice:

To adapt it to traditional chicken recipes, include a source of protein (i.e., grains or beans) to make the dish filling, plus some olive oil or vegetable oil, because unlike chicken, this mushroom contains no fat.

Unless the mushroom is so young and tender it almost drips with juice, it’s better to cook it in moist heat (i.e. in soups, stews, or in grains) than to cook it in oil.

The only thing you have to remember is to remove the stem — that is, roughly two inches at the base of the fan. Also remove any rove beetles you might find hiding between the fans (though they are probably edible, too).

Here are a couple recipes I’ve had success with. The first is adapted from the original Moosewood Cookbook‘s recipe for spaghetti squash; the second uses actual spaghetti. Both fall under the general heading of “comfort food,” which is pretty much my specialty in the kitchen. “Comfort food” means that things get mixed together in big bowls, plopped into big casserole dishes, and baked until bubbly (ideally in a small toaster oven, to save electricity). Butter and cheese are your friends.

Chicken Mushroom and Spaghetti Squash Casserole

Bake or boil one medium spaghetti squash. While that’s going on, sauté in olive oil or butter one large onion, sliced; two to three cloves of minced garlic; one sweet pepper, cut in thin strips; and about a pound of chicken mushrooms, also cut into strips. Add a half teaspoon dried oregano and a full teaspoon basil — or more, if you have access to the fresh herbs. Add salt and pepper to taste, as they say.

When the squash is cool enough to handle, scoop out the stringy flesh and put it in a big bowl along with the sauté. Mix in a cup or more of ricotta and an equal amount of grated mozzarella. Stir it all together and plop it into a greased, three-quart casserole. Top with a shit-load of bread crumbs, and bake at 350F about 40 minutes — the last ten without the lid.

Chicken Mushroom Tetrazzini

First, unless you already have some leftover chicken gravy in the fridge: Melt at least four tablespoons of butter on medium heat. Add a third of a cup of flour, half a teaspoon salt, and a dash of black pepper, and let it bubble for half a minute. Then add a 15-oz can of low-sodium chicken broth and stir until thick. Add a cup of milk or light cream and continue stirring until it thickens again. Remove from heat.

Sauté about three cups of chicken mushroom pieces in olive oil until soft. (Or follow Brill’s advice and steam it, if you must.) Meanwhile, blanch, peel and sliver a handful of almonds.

Remove leftover whole wheat spaghetti from refrigerator (or cook fresh: roughly 6-8 ounces of dry noodles). Cut into shortish pieces.

Get out two big bowls. In one, mix the noodles with half of the sauce. In the other, mix mushrooms, slivered almonds, and a cup of fresh or frozen green peas with the other half of the sauce. Starting with the noodles, alternate layers of these two mixtures in a greased, three-quart casserole, two layers of each. Top with Parmesan (yes, you can use the cheap powdered kind — I always do) and bake as above (350, 40 minutes, whatever).


All this talk about wild chicken mushrooms reminds me of Wallace Steven’s fun, albeit baffling, poem, “Bantam in Pine Woods.” According to the Wikipedia, it’s now in the public domain, so here it is. Get someone to read it out loud at the supper table while you’re tying into your chicken mushroom casserole. Hilarity may or may not ensue.

Bantam in Pine-Woods

Chieftain Iffucan of Azcan in caftan
Of tan with henna hackles, halt!

Damned universal cock, as if the sun
Was blackamoor to bear your blazing tail.

Fat! Fat! Fat! Fat! I am the personal.
Your world is you. I am my world.

You ten-foot poet among inchlings. Fat!
Begone! An inchling bristles in these pines,

Bristles, and points their Appalachian tangs,
And fears not portly Azcan nor his hoos.

From the Book of Missing Hours

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

In the before-dawn
stillness of the crickets,
thin sickle-moon, the thistles in the yard
inseparable from their shadows,
from under the front porch
comes an urgent metronome —

— pure supplication
addressed to no one
in particular, poor feral
cat in heat
counting the ways
in which this endless moment
might be illuminated.

Update: For what it’s worth, this was Via Negativa’s 2000th post.

Making Sense

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall


Qarrtsiluni, the online literary magazine I help publish, has a brand new look and a brand new theme: Making Sense. Here’s how guest editors Katherine Abbott and Rob Mackenzie describe it:

Writers often lean on what they see. But for this issue, we challenge you to build up a world in scent, taste, touch, sound, or any combination of these. We are not outlawing imagery, not at all. We value a clear, active connection with the world. As Wislawa Szymborska said in “Conversation with a Stone”: “Even sight heightened to become all-seeing/ will do you no good without a sense of taking part.” To have a full and concrete awareness of space, physical detail, and emotion, you do not need sight. Take your impetus from another sense, or let material from another sense define or guide the piece.

Read the post for the rest of the guidelines, and the other news about the magazine.

IRFD 4: Lonesome mud

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

rock bridge

International Rock-Flipping Day, September 2, 2007This is the rock bridge I cross a dozen times a day on my way between my house and my parents’ house. It’s a ten-inch thick, four-foot long slab of Juniata sandstone, bashed from its resting place in the middle of the Plummer’s Hollow boulevard by my Dad’s bulldozer during a major road upgrade project back in 1994, and installed by yours truly, with tractor, a few months later. It spans a drainage ditch where water only intermittently appears on the surface. But since we let the lawn revert to weeds (around the same time we improved the road), the surrounding area has turned into a wetland of sorts, and one can often hear lonesome water gurgling a foot or two underground.

My first impulse — being the sensitive, poet-type guy I am — was to let the bridge keep its secrets to itself.

bridge meets bucket 1

My second impulse was to get out the heavy machinery.

bridge meets bucket 2

Dad volunteered to operate the bucket while I snapped pictures. Kids and adults gathered ’round for the momentous Flipping of the Bridge. My cousin Jeff said he hadn’t felt so much anticipation since Geraldo Rivera opened Al Capone’s vault live on teevee.

under the bridge 1

The bridge-rock came loose from its moorings with a minimum of fuss. The backhoe stood it on its side with one metal finger. It seemed safe to approach.

under the bridge 3

We found… mud. The adults jeered. But Devon and Morgan seemed able to appreciate its finer qualities. This wasn’t like finding some low grade of bituminous in your stocking on Christmas morning. This was good, dark, rich, mud.

under the bridge 4

Could we get another shot of that, please?

Who knows when I would ever see the underside of this rock again.

under the bridge 2

Jeff took the camera and got a picture of me as I lay on my belly, taking one last, long look before we set the rock back down. Wait, what’s that? Something moved!

under the bridge 5

A cricket clung to the underside of the rock, its antennae twitching. This was, unless I am mistaken, the northern fall field cricket, Gryllus pennsylvanicus. You’ve heard them, I’m sure. This species calls all day and most of the night, and like many crickets, seeks out places with good acoustics in order to play its lonesome song and draw as many groupies as possible; the long, narrow space between the rock and the mud might or might not qualify. I’d hate to think we raised the roof right in the middle of a rock concert.

The bridge didn’t quite return to its original bed at first. Dad had to use the back of the bucket to push it into place.

tractor ride

The kids quickly forgot their disappointment. I’m sure they will long remember the scientific lessons and natural wonders of their first-ever International Rock-Flipping Day.

The last in a series. See also Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3. And don’t forget the check out the other participants’ blog posts, linked to at the bottom of Part 2.

IRFD 3: Plummer’s Hollow Run

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

flipping rocks

International Rock-Flipping Day, September 2, 2007My young cousin Morgan had so much fun exploring the mountain with her Great Aunt Marcia last year on Labor Day weekend, she brought along her best friend Devon this time. They arrived around 10:00 and wanted to go down to the stream and start looking under rocks right away.


Salamanders of two main species — slimy and northern dusky — live under the rocks in abundance, but not the ones out in the water, which was mostly where the kids wanted to be. With two kids, the energy level was quite high, and splashing in the water, debarking rotten logs, and looking for wild mushrooms often diverted their attention from the task at hand. Plus, only Mom was quick enough to actually catch a salamander — or perhaps it was just that she didn’t recoil from their slimy skin. The kids wanted to take one home with them, but we explained how these were lungless salamanders that breathed directly through their skins, and that they would die if removed from their subterranean homes.


We found a couple of earthworms, and Morgan was delighted with a small one that quickly came to life on her hand and circled her thumb. She was having such a good time, Mom and I couldn’t bring ourselves to mention that it was a non-native, invasive species, like almost all earthworms north of the Mason-Dixon line. Why risk spoiling the magic of discovery with a dose of gloom and doom?

coon tracks

Other rock-flippers had preceded us that morning, but we weren’t lucky enough to catch sight of them — unlike Fred First, who won the IRFD Grand Prize for getting a picture of something other than a human flipping a rock yesterday, which we will consequently have to rename Interspecies Rock-Flipping Day. (And no, I still haven’t figured out what the prize will be. Any suggestions?)


Many of the rocks in the stream concealed crayfish burrows, which Devon in particular took great delight in finding. When I caught an actual crayfish, though, neither one of them could be convinced to hold it. It waved its claws belligerently at me as I crouched to take its picture.

wood frog rock 2

About a quarter mile below the houses, we came to an area where Mom had taken a couple of other kids earlier in the week. Judging by the print on top of this rock, not all the rocks had been returned to their exact positions. That’s probably O.K. for creek stones, though — they get moved around quite a bit in the normal course of events, so the creatures that live under them must be adapted to a fair amount of turmoil.

wood frog

The rock with the rock-print on it turned out to be hiding a wood frog! Mom said they had found a frog here the other day, too, under a different rock — presumably the same individual. As their name suggests, wood frogs (Rana sylvatica) live in the woods, and we tend to think of them as needing water only during their brief mating season in early spring, when they crowd ephemeral woodland pools for raucous orgies. The rest of the time, they are off in the forest doing who knows what, and perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised to discover one in what is essentially salamander habitat. They may not breathe through their skins, but they do need to keep cool and moist, and the humus isn’t nearly as deep as it used to be with all the non-native earthworms gobbling it up.

To read other bloggers’ posts about IRFD, please refer to the links list at the end of yesterday’s post.