It Came From the Woods

Go visit Windywillow for Trees of Halloween. Then continue down the page for Trees and Fruit of Autumn: a two-part Festival of the Trees!

Inside Jack

Each slice of the pumpkin carver’s knife lets a little more darkness out. The stringy remnants of Jack’s brain dangle like strands of spider web, or errant vines of some sinister creeper…

creeper locust

Nobody’s safe from the red menace! That’s right, I’m talking about Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia). I used to think of it as just a pretty native species with berries that the birds love, but then I looked it up on the web (a world-wide web – how creepy is that?). Here are some of the testimonies of ordinary American gardeners, selected from Dave’s Garden, “the website where friends share their triumphs and dilemmas in their home gardens and their lives.” Slightly edited for spelling and punctuation.

This plant is HORRIBLE!! I have thought for years that it was poison oak and have been terrified to touch it. I have a bed of English Ivy in my front yard and this creeper pops up all the time. I just pulled one out of some photinia bushes I have and the roots ran for about 15 ft down the side of my house. … We found some growing into the Architecture library, it had worked its way through tiny cracks in the caulking around the old windows. … It comes up all thru my lawn. I have pulled and dug and chopped large roots of this. It is impossible to get rid of. I have even sprayed it with Round Up and everything around it died, but it flourished. My other neighbor said it causes him to break out in a rash. … I’ve learned my lesson to wear gloves, but talk about an evil plant. … Last week I was trimming weeds and pulled alot of this off my fence (without gloves–big mistake!!!) The next day my face was on fire. It went from redness to scabbing, and now I have what looks like dark burnt skin. It never got blistery or oozed like poison ivy. … I just completed taking a prescription steriod, am taking an OTC antihistamine and using Cortaid topically – nothing seems to be working. It just keeps spreading. … Virginia creeper is a menace in Pompton Lakes, NJ. … Anyone got some agent orange left over from Viet Nam?

creeper and shadows

Last week a neighbor tried to remove this Virginia Creeper. After trying unsuccessfully to get rid of it for years, he hitched a tow chain to it, then to his pickup, and pulled on it. He successfully removed 3 fence posts and the chain link fencing from a good portion of his ‘cyclone’ fence that was 4 foot high. I guess he was so mad at it he took out a small axe and started to chop it up into small pieces; alas there-by giving some of the smaller cuts a chance to live on. Next year, I guess, he might be getting a whole new yard full of them, and bombing the place out too. … The roots of this vile weed spread between our yard and the neighbors (on both sides!). It is EXTREMELY established in our block and we see there being NO way that we would be able to get all the roots. Is there a poison or some kind of miraculous Virginia Creeper killing weapon that we can use? We are anxious for any kind of solution people may have for the removal of this vile weed! … A trip to the emergency room seemed to be in order when my arms started swelling up. I’m taking a 12 day course of prednisone, and Benadryl. It seems to be helping, as the swelling’s gone away, and the blisters are no longer oozing but the itching is intense. … I can’t get away from this stuff! I moved last year from Philadelphia, PA, where it was battling with English ivy to take over my front yard, to Savannah, GA, where it grows at least twice as fast. When I moved in last June it was threatening to engulf my detached garage like kudzu. … Every kind of vine or invasive plant — native or nonnative — went crazy all over my yard. The worst, however, was Virginia Creeper, which crossed the lawns, attacked all kinds of trees and had me reliving Little Shop of Horrors. … I have discovered many long runners of this stuff all over my yard and it has grown up under the siding and forced pieces of siding loose. … This week I went and pulled some more because it was taking over my beautiful row of flowers all along the fence and WHAM. I have it everywhere on my body. It hurts, itches, is red and swelling. … My eye is almost swollen shut, it is around my mouth, ears, belly, legs, arms, fingers, etc. … Each blister itches like crazy and feels like a pin is inserted into each one of them. There are at least 1,000 blisters on me. This isn’t my worst reaction. That one caused a 4″x6″ bright red blotch on my forearm where ALL my skin was eaten away. The doctor had to stiffle a scream when he saw it. … Virginia creepers flattened several acres of woods where I grew up in New York. Where mature forest trees stood fifteen years ago is now low scrub with a vanguard of virginia creeper like some kind of space-slime invasion. … While spring cleaning the yard I noticed that my 8 foot azalea bush was dying on one side. Upon inspection I saw what looked like a demon vine wrapped around the branches choking it to death. My neighbor said it killed all his azaleas.

cable and creeper

So far at Dave’s Garden, 60 different people have warned against growing Virginia Creeper. But intermingled with these horror stories were 34 positive comments and 15 neutrals. Could it be that the creeper’s noxious power has somehow penetrated their brains?

In my yard, it’s vigorous but I wouldn’t call it invasive. Personally, I love the plant and especially the fall color. … I planted it against my garden shed to soften the hard edges. It was a small clipping that has been gradually increasing in size for the last 5 years and is only now reaching the top of the shed. … This vine grows all over my brick house, and I just love it. It keeps the house nice and cool in the summer, and sticks well to the bricks without damaging them in any way. The birds nest in it, and when the wind blows the sides of the house ripple like the ocean! It’s terrific! … I have not seen any of the evil side of it in 2 years of observation; it covers things well and in a short period of time, growing about 60 cm higher per year. Its foliage is visible from far away, and it produces berries that feed birds. … As a native American, it has its right to existence and I will not call a native an invasive. Weed, yes. A weed is a plant growing where you don’t want it. And I yearly remove it from the cultivated gardens. You will find it growing beneath trees mostly, because that is where birds drop the seeds. I know many of them are dependent on this natural food. … I love this plant. It turns a cheap welded wire fence into a 6 foot tall 2 foot wide wall of lush green leaves. It makes a terrific barrier between properties. … I was prepared to battle it to the death if it started to get out of control, but it’s simply spread up the fence as intended, and is easy to train. … It has caused no problems and we love it. It tends to grow over our doorway, and DH and myself have to pull or clip a new opening several times a summer, and neither of us have had any reaction to it. … I would recommend this plant, but only if you’re not the type who goes postal and runs for the roundup over three dandelions in your lawn. … For some of us that don’t get mad at a leopard acting like one, or a creeper that seems to always be creeping, it’s a wonderful addition. … It has nice foliage in the summer, berries for the birds and gorgeous fall color. What’s not to like?

People: still by far the scariest invasive species on earth. They give me nightmares.

Happy Halloween, though. I think I’ll dress up as myself and go visiting all the creepers with a spray-can of Agent Orange.

Shine or shimmer?

Haiku comment week continues. Today’s relatively small haul of half-baked haiku shows what happens when I prioritize my own blogging and going for a walk instead. Even without the extra effort to write haiku, it’s always hard to know how to balance writing with reading, commenting, and linking.

Velveteen Rabbi

How can I separate
from the insidious desires
of the temporary self, that voice

which whispers “today I want
warmer socks and a box of truffles
and praise from the people around me
and an easy shortcut
to everything I don’t yet know?”

It’s shine or shimmer,
sunspots on the camera lens
or my own shadow.


Creek Running North

There are pomegranates in the refrigerator, untouched, and persimmons ripening on the tree. On Sunday a boisterous dog covered my shins in mud. She paid close attention to me in a way instantly familiar and wrenching…

Left in the fridge,
slowly turning sweet —


Dharma Bums

We forgot to bring the Sibley’s Bird Guide with us (that and a bunch of other important things like the telephone, the modem, the cat’s kibble), so the new birds we are seeing in the creek are unknown to us. It’s like the good old days, when we just looked and couldn’t identify anything.

I like a café
where nobody knows my name:
I can eavesdrop.


Somewhere in NJ

Most important is the sea and a beach empty of people. Shorebirds wheel in the far distance trailing their shadows along the shoreline. The haze at the horizon suggests gannets or scoters tumbling into themselves above the breakers.

Shadows on the surf,
reflections on the wet sand:
black skimmers.


Factory Town

White stands for purity.
Maybe that is not appropriate.
Use a different color.
I myself would not use a plaid cloth.

The red pillow case
I use for an altar cloth
never shows the dust.


while sparrows & kinglets
while jays
while aerodynamic oak leaves

I sat inside with
a silence well past the age
when it could ever get pregnant

mouse nests in the furnace
were converted to ash & heat

a silence that sounded
very much like static


Behind the Trees

trail junction
Click to enlarge

Haiku Comment Week continues.


The five-pointed star inside each apple. The pattern of roots beneath the soil. The fetus sucking her perfect, tiny thumb. Blind fish in the depths, the ultraviolet messages flowers send to bees, all the colors hidden in white, the fossils buried deep in solid rock.

This morning
I saw behind the trees
the first bits of sky.


The Rain in My Purse

somewhere there’s a beard with my name on it
a nest for crumbs and smoke
because life comes at you from all directions
when you’re a man

You can have mine
when I’m done with it — right after
I rob a bank.


Pines Above Snow

Lucky Charm and his successors became my ambassadors to the outdoors, drawing me away from my books and literally carrying me into the woods and fields. On Lucky’s back, I chased foxes, watched a snake swallow a frog, and developed my first hostile relationship with an invasive species–bull thistle–due to its impact on bare legs.

Every young dreamer
should be issued a horse
just for the thistles.


Riverside Rambles

Often these wisps of spider-silk travel through the air at an angle of around thirty degrees to the ground. This is because the lower trailing end is gripped and weighted down by a small spider traveling to a new home.

To see ballooning spiders,
stand in the trailing shadow
of a tree.


The Middlewesterner

The farmer with flowers at Five Corners is parked there looking at them; as I pass through the intersection he pulls away.

The first morning back
on Standard Time, the farmer
checks on his flowers.


box elder


The first fire
sprouts from a pine cone’s cluster
of crackling tongues.



Couldn’t stand to look at that miserable excuse for a painting another minute so I changed my position, sat close up to the table, grabbed my palette knife and attacked.

With three empty chairs
and only two apples, this life
can hardly stay still.

All grass is flesh

I hearby declare October 28th through November 3rd Haiku Comment Week. Almost all of the comments that I leave at other blogs this week will take the form of haiku (which for me means approximately 17 syllables arranged in three lines and containing some element of surprise or grain of insight). I’ll collect them once a day and re-post them (slightly edited in some cases) here at Via Negativa, with links to the posts that prompted them, along with brief quotes.

Why haiku comments? I read a lot of blogs, but rarely take the time to leave substantial or interesting — or any — comments, in part because I tend to do my blog-reading at the end of the day, when my brain is tired, and in part because I’m a slow thinker in the best of circumstances. Also, I’ll admit I sometimes skim even the better blog posts rather than giving them the close attention they deserve. Americans in particular are schooled in unhealthy patterns of consumption, assuming that if a little of something is good, a lot of it must be even better, but in most cases that’s simply not true. I need to slow down. Composing haiku is a way to try and get myself to come up with thoughtful responses to posts I like.

I seem to have had grass on my mind today…


Fragments from Floyd

How would you describe what a breath of late October air feels and smells like where you live?

Grass blades edged in frost
for the first time since April:
a sharpness in the nose.


Dick Jones’ Patteran Pages

she is a continent
without roads, without cities.

Maps are redundant:
all directions lead
to polar north.

Are there tides on the moon?
The Sea of Tranquility
looks darker tonight.



Everyone knows that people write poems, but what’s a little less obvious is that poems write people too.

The keeper of spells
killed & buried in the bog
turns to bitter parchment.


Roundrock Journal

With luck and a clear sky, Pablo will be out at Roundrock today, enjoying the seasonal color and the mild weather. Nothing much on the agenda, which makes for the best kind of visit.

I was asked if I had any news to report about the decay of the shopping bags. Alas, I haven’t been out to my woods since the day I placed them. Maybe I’ll be able to report now.

Nothing to do but sit
& watch empty shopping bags
break down in the sun.


In a Dark Time

Lael also seemed rather drawn to this statue, even arguing with another little girl who said it was HER family.

A girl climbs into
the sculpted circle & gazes
at the father’s zero face.


Pocahontas County Fare

I was never sure whether “Kitchener” should be capitalized, or why the seamless grafting technique had that name, but yesterday, while looking for something else, I discovered the answers to both these questions.

The perfect suture
may wear a general’s name,
but was he the knitter?


3rd House Journal

One day after work before we moved, I drove over and parked at the end of our street, got out and hiked up the embankment to see the reservoir — a grassy mound surrounded by a high railed fence. Where’s the water??

A tall fence surrounds
The underground reservoir.
Why not a moat?



Where is the Pratyekabuddha?

Where did it get
such a perfect pair of lips?
The grass isn’t saying.


One Word

…a bound to appreciate,
Rub his face in the sprouting wheat he’ll be
hawking up later…

The cat feasts on grass,
& just like a ruminant,
brings it all back up.

A tale of horror

I always have a hard time sleeping this time of year, when the nights grow long and cold and the crickets stop chirping well before midnight. It’s been raining, too, preventing me from going to work for most of the past week, so I’ve had to cut back on meals, too.

So let’s just say I was in no mood to be awoken this afternoon — much less to have my bed jolted violently and turned on its side. I’d heard this place might be haunted, but I never expected anything like this. “Hey!” I yelled. “Leave me the hell alone!” The next thing I knew, an enormous white face was looming over me, with awful staring watery eyes as big around as my head, and a mouth that emitted deep rumbles I could feel in my chest.

I screamed.

mushroom beast

I needed to move my woodstove about six inches to the right, and decided that the easiest way to accomplish this was by picking up one end and shoving an iron pry bar underneath it, propping both ends of the bar up on concrete blocks, then rolling the stove across the bar. I think if you live in the country for any appreciable amount of time, concrete blocks begin to seem like an all-purpose solution to otherwise insurmountable problems, kind of in the same league with duct tape and WD-40. The steps into the shed where I went to get the pry bar, for example, consist simply of three layers of stacked blocks — a temporary fix some 25 years ago that somehow never got an upgrade.

Our main supply of blocks is in the lower part of the barn, inside the second set of double doors. It’s cold and damp and dark in there, and I couldn’t really see what I was doing, but that’s O.K — I could find my way around this place with a blindfold on. I grabbed two blocks from the top of the pile, but after only a couple of steps, decided maybe I’d be better off carrying one at a time, instead. Besides, one of the blocks had begun making high-pitched noises, halfway between a rusty hinge and a shriek. I noticed something small and dark a few inches from my arm, and quickly set the block down on the bench outside the door. BAT!

I ran.

bat 2

…To get my camera, of course.

I snapped a few shots, but almost immediately began to feel guilty about the trauma I must have been causing this poor little beast — most likely Myotis lucifugus, “mouse-eared fugitive from the light.” I put its block back on the pile, snapped one more photo, then grabbed another block and went out. When I returned to check half an hour later, it had disappeared — probably by climbing deeper into the pile. I wished it a good night, and figured it could take that any way it wanted.

See also this post.


We’ve been getting some sorely needed rain over the past couple of days, but today it’s merely overcast and damp, so this morning I went out for my first walk with a camera since last Sunday, heading straight up the side of the ridge above my house. My boots made almost no sound on the wet, moss-covered trail. Every breeze precipitated a small shower and a clatter of acorns.

About three-quarters of the way up the ridge, a flock of grackles suddenly came flying low over the treetops from the northeast. As I was focusing on that, a larger flock swept in from the other direction and the two of them met almost directly overhead. They wheeled about in one great spiral, doing exactly what I had tried to provoke the flock on Sunday into doing without success, their wings making a sound like the crashing of surf, or perhaps an angelic applause. Then they flew off toward the south and I didn’t see or hear another grackle the rest of the morning.

See, this is what I mean when I say I can’t shake the feeling that there’s something more. Do I think this encounter was a sign from God, or some kind of omen? Hell no, because I don’t believe the universe revolves around me. Those birds all have their own lives, each as significant as my own. Should I say it was a mere coincidence, then, and let it go at that? Not quite. Because what’s that word “mere” doing in there? Aren’t coincidences, in fact, pretty goddamn wonderful? My reaction instead was to smile. If I believe, the joke is on me. If I don’t believe, the joke is still on me. The universe seems to have a pretty good sense of humor sometimes.

I watch the increasingly acrimonious public debate between religious fundamentalists and scientific fundamentalists with dismay: like the blind men with the elephant, each is partly in the right and all are in the wrong. Reductionism, though a powerful tool essential to the proper conduct of science and mathematics, offers no more definitive a view of reality than mysticism or magic. Each way of seeing can be useful, especially if one uses them in alternation and never allows oneself to become emotionally committed to a single perspective. Sometimes, it’s helpful to realize that X is no more than Y, but at other times, one needs to remind oneself that X is no less than Y. All quantification is provisional — but so is every effort to qualify. It has so much to do with where you look, which instruments you use, which frames or frameworks you impose.

The only sane response, I feel, is to get comfortable living with the questions — and to school ourselves in appreciation. Let the questions spiral in on themselves like a host of grackles. If we wonder why coincidences happen, what does that tell us about our expectations? What is this thing called “random chance”? If we’re so certain chance exists, why do we need to add a reduntant modifier? What does it mean to say that things happen for a reason, if we admit in the next breath that such reasons must remain forever beyond the limits of our understanding? Can we admit that we just don’t know why things happen in one way and not another? Does it rob either religion or science of their power if we admit this?

I mentioned appreciation, but a purely aesthetic response can be as dispassionate as an analytical one. Christians refer to the central mystery of their faith in terms of passion, and I have to admit, strong emotions — both good and bad — can be awfully mysterious in their comings and goings. We shit in our pants with fear, for example. In a large crowd brought together by a common passion, we tingle all over with the pleasure of merging with the flock. In the throes of physical passion, we experience orgasm, something biologists still have a hard time explaining. Or in what I would argue is our closest brush with the sacred, we burst out laughing, that part of our body where we once were physically connected to something larger heaving convulsively, as if trying to link back up with a cosmic mother. One way or another, we exceed ourselves, and are reminded in the most concrete way possible that the little idol called ego is not sovereign; there is always something more.

And that’s all I have to say about religion for a while, I think.

Reporting live from the nightmare

Joel at Pax Nortona has been blogging from the center of the inferno in southern California, with the kind of ecological and geographical astuteness that you won’t find in mainstream media coverage. Joel’s coverage began with ominous forebodings last Sunday. By the next day, he described a party-like atmosphere as neighbors gathered to watch the fire close in.

Clearly visible to us in the park was the big screen television of one of the houses perched on the hillside overlooking the Serrano Creek drainage of Whiting Ranch Wilderness. One fellow pointed his binoculars at the living room. “He’s watching football,” he announced.

I smorgasblogged Joel’s post from his cat’s point-of-view. Another anecdote about the neighbors caught my attention in one of yesterday’s posts:

The lack of information leads to speculation. We know that the fire was started by arsonists, but who? “Towelheads,” said one man with a white cairn terrier. “Yeah, must have been towelheads,” said another. “I’d bet it was.” My thinking is that if it was Al Qaeda, they would have claimed responsibility for it by now.

Things get pretty harrowing — and Joel has photos, too. Visit the main page to read most of the coverage (for archival purposes: click on the Disasters category).


This week’s Science Times has a number of articles on new research into sleep and dreaming. The most interesting, I thought, was by Carl Zimmer: “In Study of Human Patterns, Scientists Look to Bird Brains.”

Bird sleep is so mysterious that scientists are considering several answers, all intriguing. The godwit may have managed to stay awake for the entire journey. Or it may have been able to sleep while flying. Or, as Dr. Benca and other scientists suspect, its brain may have been in a bizarre state of semilimbo that they do not understand.

And the Times‘ other outstanding science writer, Natalie Angier, contributed “In the Dreamscape of Nightmares, Clues to Why We Dream at All.”

Cultural specifics can also tweak universal themes. Dr. Bulkeley and his colleagues have found that nightmares about falling through the air are common among women in Arab nations, perhaps for metaphorical reasons. “There’s such a premium in these countries on women remaining chaste, and the dangers of becoming a ‘fallen woman’ are so intense,” he said, “that the naturally high baseline of falling dreams is amped up even more.”


“Bad dreams are functional, nightmares dysfunctional,” he said.

If you feel yourself falling, spread your arms out and learn how to fly.


I wandered through her face until
it grew abstract as a map,
with lightly drawn roads
& rivers in faint blue,
blank spaces where hills separated
zones of resource extraction,
quarry-holes for sound & for scent,
the settling ponds
of an unsettling color
& at the bottom of the map,
a beltway in red: here
the skyline of incisors
& the dark & pulsating
inner city beyond.