December 2007

rust angel

I was looking for angels of rust under an overcast sky. The snow hadn’t yet begun to fall, but I could smell it coming. This morning, two Vs of geese flew over the house — non-migrating locals, I’m sure. It was only after their last calls died away that I realized how quiet it was. A quiet that meant not just Sunday morning, but low barometric pressure.

The day darkens toward noon. New shells of old furniture crowd the barn, fresh flotsam from the wreckage of Margaret’s house: all maple, my brother says. Stripped down to the frames. Studying the outside corner of the barn, I notice a drift of old sofa stuffing at the base of the foundation, a few feet below a large knothole where more of it bulges. The gray squirrel that lives in solitary exile in the barn must have its nest right inside.

The light isn’t good, to put it mildly. On closer examination of the side of the corncrib, maybe they aren’t angels at all, but red-tailed hawks. I can almost hear that archetypal rusty metal cry. Rilkean angels, at best: the terrible kind that wield swords of flame and can never be dissuaded from their quarry. So unlike the bugling geese whose breast feathers cover me at night — though geese can be fierce too in their own way.

cat on a compost pile

I hear a crunching of teeth on bone from the compost pile at the edge of the field. The feral cat flattens itself against the far side of the pile, behind the onion skins, the ribs of lettuce, the eviscerated hemisphere of a pink grapefruit. We could be like other country people and plant a wagon wheel in the front yard and a dish antenna on the roof, I think. The grapefruit halves collect no signals other than the snow that falls intermittently for the next several hours. After dark, where a car had sat in the driveway all afternoon, there is one black patch.

quarry tire tracks

I have a new, probably temporary photoblog, borne of my itch to test out the shutterchance platform, but also reflecting my interest in sharing photos that explore complex patterns and textures, which can only be appreciated full-size. In typical photoblog style, it displays one photo at a time, and clicking on a photo takes you to the previous photo.

Note that I only have the standard, free “account,” which means that shutterchance won’t archive more than 30 of my photos at a time. And if I go more than a month without posting an update, they eliminate the blog to clear up space on their servers. So even though I’m calling it “photomidden,” this won’t be like the packrat middens of the American southwest, which can persist for 40,000 years. Probably I should change the name to “water writing,” instead.

Also, for what it’s worth, I have a new post up at the Plummer’s Hollow blog: Redpolls. But really, if you’re looking for some good reading, I recommend paying a visit to qarrtsiluni. We’ve been putting up a new post every day except Christmas for a couple of weeks now, and the Insecta issue will still run through the first week in January. I’m sure it will end up with the highest word count of any issue we’ve ever done. I think the fact that insects are both ubiquitous and very alien to our experience as mammals makes them a perennial source of inspiration for writers and artists.

In the latest installment of her on-going series on writing and blogging, Beth asks, “What matters to you, and why, and how does what we do here together serve that purpose?”

witness tree
Click photos for larger views, as always.

Well, I guess bearing witness seems pretty important. I was there, I am here, I’m hearing or seeing XYZ — writing doesn’t really get much more meaningful than that.

joinery

Seeing how it all fits together is important to me, too. Writing isn’t just a matter of communicating ideas I already have; if it were, I’d have grown tired of it a long time ago. It’s about discovery.

stick and stone

Peace-making matters. In grade school, we used to respond to insults with sing-song nonsense: “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names will never hurt me!” As if by saying it, we could make it so — which, given the incredible power of language to hurt or to heal, we sometimes could. It’s funny, though. You’d think writers, of all people, would’ve learned this lesson well, but often we’re the most careless, launching witty character-assassinations and flinging maledictions about with wild abandon. Witness the legendary bad-boy behavior of many famous writers — or the endless flame-wars of the blogosphere. It’s easy to get drunk on power, I guess, even if it’s “only” the power of a well-turned phrase. So I think those of us who cherish dialogue and conversation as an integral part of our writing practice need to work especially hard to avoid conflict and promote harmony. I’m not saying I’ve always excelled at this myself, but I have (eventually) repented of my lapses and tried to learn from them.

tango

Empathy matters to me, and both in my reading and in my writing I tend to seek out poems that take me inside the mind of another. “The world’s selves cure that short disease, myself,” as the poet Randall Jarrell once put it.* Love and joy matter. And we need a word for that quiet kind of joy — almost the opposite of passion — that comes from a mind fully engaged in what it does best. Some people find it in organizing things, or hanging drywall, or programming computers. I happen to find it in writing.

Thus, at any rate, the suggestions that arise from these latest photos: this morning’s exercise in seeing. Because the world always does come first for me. The older I get, the more I distrust abstract theorizing and language full of modular, corn-fed words like “enhance” and “utilize” and “environment”; tell me you want to improve or use the land and I’ll start paying attention. The best ideas come from contact, physical contact with the real world. Those of us who spend many hours a day staring at computer screens forget that at our peril. Matter matters!
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*A quote I used as an epigraph for the third section of Shadow Cabinet, “Masque.”

hole in ice

My parents gave me a goosedown comforter for Christmas. With that atop my layers of blankets, they assure me, I’ll never be awoken by the cold again.

ice bubbles 2

The feathers — or parts of feathers — must be allowed to clump, it seems, but not too much. “Made up of light, fluffy filaments, the down clusters expand and intertwine to form air pockets” within cells of cotton cloth known as baffle boxes, says the description on the packaging.

curled leaf

Electric blankets have never appealed to me; I love the idea of maximizing the body’s own heat. I like to imagine that they were snow geese whose breast feathers will be keeping me warm, though I’m sure they weren’t.

UPDATE: Yep, it’s warm!

Is there any news more significant than the weather? It’s sunny here, and in the 40s, and I’m shading my eyes against the low sun and watching the flash of birds’ wings as they go in and out of the feeders on my parents’ back porch. I’m thinking for some reason of an artifact we had in our museum when we were kids: a piece of soapstone with a hole bored through it, just big enough to fit a finger through. The stone bulged around the hole and tapered toward both ends, and thinking about it now, I guess it must’ve been some sort of tool — perhaps an unfinished axe, or some strange kind of mallet. But whoever gave it to us (I can’t remember now) told us only that it was made by the Indians, so I treated it with the reverence owed the inexplicable, and it never once occurred to me that the hole might’ve been bored for something as prosaic as a tool handle. I thought it was marvelous the way someone would think to create a hole like that and surround it with stone, like a portable well. I would turn it over in my hand and wonder about the time it must’ve taken, and the single-minded focus. Only a hunter would have that kind of patience, I thought, and imagined men with spears going up against a wooly mammoth. Viewed on end, the stone was shaped like a human eye, and I wondered if it might not have some vaguely religious significance, like the god’s-eyes I had learned to make in third grade by weaving yarn around crossed popsickle sticks. A couple of those artifacts of my childhood still remain among my parents’ massive collection of Christmas tree ornaments, and get hung up on the tree every year. As for the soapstone artifact, I’m not sure where that ended up, but I think it’s safe to say that I learned far more from it than I ever would’ve if someone had simply told me what it was.

Our government at work.

Martin E. Marty, the very prominent historian of Christianity, pointed out in a speech at Penn State’s Altoona College two years ago that state sponsorship of Christianity may not be such a good idea — unless one’s interest is in seeing Christianity wither and die. That’s what’s happening in all the Western European countries with state-sponsored churches.

Of course, the various Advent traditions haven’t been much affected by this withering of faith, since they long predated the imposition of Christianity. In central Europe, the demon Krampus (pictured above, courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons), who accompanies St. Nicholas, is still widely popular, as is the shaggy horned monster Klaubauf, Knecht Ruprecht, and many others. The American Santa Claus — a conflation of St. Nicholas and Father Christmas — has spread throughout the world, even to non-Christian countries like Japan, where Christmas trees and lights and gift-giving have become commonplace. One could chalk this up to the modern commercialization of Christmas, but in fact the exchanging of presents during the midwinter holiday goes back at least as far as ancient Rome, where it was a central feature of the Saturnalia celebration.

One can point to many signs that might indicate a decline in Christian values in contemporary American culture: the deep ignorance of the Bible among both secular and religious Americans; the decline in support for social welfare programs and the ever more popular equation of greed with moral virtue; the continued popularity of violence and warfare; the widespread lack of awareness of the very basic fact that Easter is the most important Christian holiday and movable feast. (Does anyone even still remember what “moveable feast” means?) But I strongly doubt that wishing folks “Happy Holidays” out of consideration for their possibly non-Christian sensibilites amounts to a war on Christmas, as certain demagogues have claimed in recent years.

As for officially sanctioned displays of nativity scenes, we should be careful what we wish for, as officials in Barcelona discovered a couple of years ago when they tried to ban the popular caganer figure from public displays. Catalonians told them loud and clear: Don’t crap on our holiday traditions!

Merry Christmas.
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Subscribers must click through to see the highly edifying video (which is a couple years out of date, but what the hell).

snow and fungus log

Sky and snowpack are two kinds of white, and the pale skin of arboreal fungi makes a third. Within a year or two after death, a log or snag has already become an extension of the ground in one respect: it is shot through with networks of fungal hyphae, the mycelium. This is not a root structure — remember that fungi are more closely related to animals than to plants. Rather, it is like a skilled miner who has adapted to the job so well that he has become almost indistinguishable from the ore.

birch snag in snow

Wood so mined becomes lighter than paper: punk wood. It breaks easily, but does not yet crumble between the fingers. It makes an excellent tinder, burning with a green flame.

catacombs

Other miners of dead trees include ants and termites and the pale grubs of beetles: stag beetles, longhorn beetles, scarabs and more. Such xylophagous insects contribute at least as much to the decomposition of trees as the fungi — indeed, some species of the latter require the openings of the former before they can begin their own infiltrations.

Various species of bees and wasps and the maggots of flies, midges and mosquitoes also make their homes in the tunnels of beetle grubs, and feed on their dried-out excrement. Though there’s very little insect activity this time of year, a half-rotted snag preserves a record as visually rich and intriguing as a Dead Sea scroll. And of course the woodpeckers also come knocking, drilling doors into larder, shelter, and sounding board. The winter woods echoes with their stacatto taps and calls.

oak snag in snow

If after all this the dead still stand, it is often at odd angles. The sun is no longer of any interest to them. They alone try the embrace of other trees, and when the wind blows, they are vociferous in their complaint.
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Don’t forget to send tree-related links to Lorianne — zenmama at gmail dot com — by December 30 for inclusion on the next Festival of the Trees. And be sure to visit the Insecta issue of qarrtsiluni, which is still in progress with a number of posts yet to come.

rock in the snow

The solstice occurs in just a couple of hours, so I guess that makes this the longest night of the year. That strikes me as something worth celebrating. I am waiting for my friend Chris to show up, on foot, because the road up the hollow is probably too icy for his car.

We don’t get many vistors this time of year, apart from our hunter friends — and of course the birds for whom this is balmy weather: tree sparrows, juncos, siskins. This morning, my mother found a flock of common redpolls at the Far Field, the first we’ve seen in many, many years. Redpolls are Canadian birds that don’t tend to venture too far south of the border most years, unless forced to by hunger. They were gorging on birch seeds at the edge of the field, Mom said. But by the time I got there this afternoon, the flock had gone.

As I stood listening, a pair of military jets flew over just a few miles away. Yesterday, apparently, they were much closer: one of the hunters had gone for a walk to the Far Field, and wrote in an email,

Perhaps you are not impressed when the military fly their jets over the mountain but yesterday when I was walking 2 flew over so low I could see the whites of the pilots eyes. Literally feet over the tops of the ridges. It gave me the willies.

Ah, Chris is at the door! And look, he has a knapsack bulging with holiday beverages. First out of the bag: a dry Irish ale from Magic Hat brewery in Burlington, Vermont. Good things come from the north.

coyote tracks

Let my words
be bright with animals,
images the flash of a gull’s wing.
If we pretend
that we are at the center,
that moles and kingfishers,
eels and coyotes
are at the edge of grace,
then we circle, dead moons
about a cold sun.

–Joseph Bruchac, “Prayer,” from Near the Mountains

Happy solstice!

I was out shopping much of the day, so I’m afraid I don’t have any energy left for a proper blog post. Instead, let me briefly call your attention to two or three new and shiny things.

  • Mike Libby’s insect sculptures at qarrtsiluni are stirring up an interesting discussion in the comments. The line between nature and artifice is extremely strong in our culture, and blurring it can feel like a violation of the most fundamental kind, it seems.
  • Anthropological Notebook is rapidly turning into one of my favorite new blogs. There are a lot of anthropologist bloggers out there, but last time I checked, most of them seemed content to talk to each other, secure in their academic ghettoes. Lye Tuck-Po is an exception. She takes amazing pictures and has been very active on Flickr (much more so than me), so I was pleased when she decided to make the jump to blogging. And even though she hasn’t been at it for very long, her blogging already displays a wide range of interests and specialties: everything from environmental degradation to street photography to boats and bridges. Check it out.
  • Finally, one of this week’s news stories at my dad’s Peaceful Societies site describes the Christmas Bird Counts among the Ohio Amish. They rack up huge numbers of birds because they do their birding on foot. And without the help of the internet, needless to say.