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.


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.


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!

*A quote I used as an epigraph for the third section of Shadow Cabinet, “Masque.”

11 Replies to “Matter”

  1. This is interesting (great photos and good explanation) I tend to stay away from analyzing why I write or photograph, partly because I over-analyze every other action and emotion of my existence to death.

    But your posts gave me this insight. “Seeing” and sharing are the only reasons I in the excitement of “did you see that?!?” Not the excitement of the spectacular, but of the excitement of recognition of the spiritual, mystical, magical, ironical or the life (or death) affirming variations and cycles in the natural world. All creatures have the urge to share the excitement of recognition, warning, or proclamation. A lone mule on the ridge snorts when coyotes pass in the creek bed below, whether there are other mules about to hear her or not.

    If I stop to analyze why I blog, I tend to stop posting all together, because I don’t have much traffic or feedback, and the “sharing” part seems pretty pointless, but your post has finally made me understand graffiti and anonymity, which I never understood before… I have an urge to share it, so I stick it up there. There is ever so much more freedom in graffiti, and I should free my blog that way.

    Is the last photo of a sassafrass bending around next to a red oak? I am stuck on photographing curvaceous sassafrass lately..must be a winter thing.

  2. oh! I clicked on it, and can see you have tagged it a chestnut oak, and in the larger view, you can see the curvy one is the same…nice!

  3. Cady May – I’m glad my somewhat off-the-cuff thoughts were useful to you. I appreciate hearing your reasons for blogging, in part because I’m giving a talk on “Finding Nature on the Internet” to my local Audubon chapter next month, in which I’ll be talking a lot about place-based blogs like yours. I think people with a real interest in the natural word have been recording their observations in one way or another for a very long time, so the transition to blogs seems natural (uh, so to speak).

    Yes, both are chestnut oaks. I do like looking at sassafras trees, though, and we have plenty of them. Maybe I’ll take some pictures for you.

    Jim – Thanks for stopping by. That’s a great post you linked to; I encourage other readers of this thread to go check it out.

  4. This is an excellent post, Dave, beautifully written & right on the money. I have nothing to add, save, maybe, to regret my own little flame war with a visitor to my blog who had the temerity to take a pop at a poem. Peace-making matters…

  5. Dick – Thanks. I read that exchange, and I can’t say you were wrong – the other fellow was exceedingly arrogant. But probably the best thing to do with criticism that isn’t meant to be constructive is simply to remove the comment. There’s no reason to tolerate boorish guests. And your regular readers and friends often feel obligated to counter-attack if you don’t.

    Which is not to say there isn’t room for critical comments, of course, depending on the blog. Beth and I were very pleased with the spirited excahnge touched off at qarrtsiluni recently by one reader’s critical response to Mark Libby’s portfolio “From the Insect Lab.” But the commenters were all civil, and Libby told us in an email that he found the exchange very useful in understanding how and why people respond to his work.

  6. I never thought about it before you mentioned it here, but your blog and your commentators are a shining example of civil exchange of interesting ideas. You’ve made something difficult look effortless.

  7. You think so? I worry that I often don’t respond promptly enough, or at sufficient length. But I guess people are pretty understanding. Also, sometimes the host has to sit back and let others talk – not try to dominate the conversation. I worry about that, too!

  8. I really liked this. It does seem effortless and I guess that’s what practice will do for you. I also appreciate Beth’s question which is with me as I empty my house of things that no longer matter to me on this last day of the year.

  9. Oh dear, oh my, but this is good.
    Makes me feel most clumsy and inelegant, that said despite a resolve ( not quite the same as a resolution…) to give up disingenuous self-deprecation. The discovery as one writes is the warming of words between the hands, but then sometimes you need to let them cool again!
    Many thanks for all you do here and elsewhere, it’s been a wonderful and rewarding year. Happy New Year, Dave.

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