What might it mean to dream of catfish? They lived in burrows like prairie dogs, whiskered heads popping up as we walked past. “The ground was too saturated to plant this year,” the farmer said, “so I switched to fish.” The small ones were red, and the big ones were bluish gray. They watched us with what I imagined was deep suspicion, but it might just as well have been melancholy, or a blithe lack of concern. “You can watch ’em all day, and you’ll never see ’em blink,” the farmer said.
The other night, talking about politicians, my mother said, “I don’t know how they can look themselves in the face.” It was, dare I say, a quote worthy of the president she so despises.
But perhaps the truly gifted ones do manage that. I think Bill Clinton, for example, sees Bill Clinton in everyone he meets. That’s why he always looks so happy in a crowd.
Whereas his successor sees a potential mob: unreadable, as he is to himself. “There’s no cave deep enough for America, or dark enough to hide,” he babbles. “I know the human being and fish can coexist.”
There’s a certain period every day around mid-morning when the squirrels run back and forth across the roof. I sit trying to type while claws rattle overhead.
At least, I think it’s squirrels. Maybe it’s another typist. It must be a pretty dull story, though, if I’m in it.
I watch the snow start: fat flakes at first, growing smaller after the first ten minutes. It’s mesmerizing, and I could sit and watch all day if I only had warmer pants. I envy the deer hunters in their tree stands. It’s like a silent movie: so much in motion without a sound! I wonder how falling snow might be represented in Japanese, which has a lot of onomatopoeia for things that make no sound. As Cornell linguist John Whitman observes:
In addition to those onomatopoeia which imitate the sounds of nature, called gisei-go in Japanese, Japanese recognizes two additional types of onomatopoeia: one that basically suggests states of the external world (gitai-go), and another that basically names internal mental conditions and sensations (gijoo-go). There is some overlap between the two. […]
While some of these forms are clearly descriptive of internal states, e.g., ira-ira “frustrated” (the Japanese press labeled the seemingly unending war between Iran and Iraq the “Ira-Ira War”), there are many which can be used to describe both external or internal states, for example, “gocha-gocha,” which can quite accurately describe either the cluttered state of my office or that of my mind.
Sticklers who prefer a narrower definition of onomatopoeia refer to phenomime and psychomime — see the Wikipedia. Whatever you call it, the profusion of gisei-go, gitai-go and gijoo-go “sounds” constitutes one of the main attractions of Japanese comic books, I think, which for some reason always use katakana for them. The katakana script is also preferred for foreign loan-words, technical or scientific terms, and corporate brands: in general, anything a little out of the ordinary. But in fact onomatopoeia occurs with great frequency in spoken Japanese, perhaps because the language serves a more subjective worldview than, say, English. Here are a few examples I ran across on the web just now as I searched for the sound of falling snow. (Vowels are pronounced as in Spanish.)
Kasa-kasa: A rustle, as of grass or paper — maybe even sleet, I’m thinking.
Zaa-zaa: Another way of representing a rustle. Can also be used for static and other forms of white noise. A shorter version, za-za, denotes rapid footfalls on leaves or grass. Related but softer sounds are represented by saa-saa.
Hyuu-hyuu: The lonely sound of a cold wind. (Ordinary wind goes hooo or byuu.)
Shito-shito: The sound of falling rain.
Tsuu-tsuu: Another rain-sound. Also, the hum of insects.
Fuwa-fuwa: A gentle movement. Even gentler: fuwari-fuwari or funwara-funwara.
Noro-noro: A sound effect for anything happening slowly.
Paa: The sound of light shining. This can also be represented as po, bo, or kaa.
Uttsuri: The sound the heart/mind (kokoro) makes when overwhelmed by beauty.
Gunya: A sudden realization or minor satori — essentially, the sound of one hand clapping.
Shiiin, jiiin, or riiin: The sound of motionless staring. Implies being stunned beyond words.
The above print is one the few original artworks I own: “Wild Apples,” by Jay Pfeil. Please excuse the reflection on the glass — since Jay makes a living from her art, I thought I’d better not make too easily reproducible an image.
In addition to its merits as a work of art, it’s valuable to me as part of the Plummer’s Hollow historical record: it depicts an actual tree that stands about fifty feet from my kitchen window, as it appeared during the the artist’s nine month tenancy in this very house, back in 1979-1980. In fact, the print came off a big press that stood, as I recall, right next to the wall upon which it currently hangs in the guest house living room.
Here’s the same tree as it appeared a week ago, with just a little Photoshoppery to make it a look slightly etchified (excuse the technical art-talk here, folks). I didn’t notice until I compared the photo with the print that Jay must’ve reversed her own sketch at some point in the printing process, because in reality the two trunks overlap in the opposite direction from the way she depicted them. Aside from that discrepancy, one can clearly see how much the tree has grown over the past 28 years, and how much it remains the same. A couple bad ice storms have taken their toll, but every year the tree is still dotted with apples that only the deer could love — and it gets well fertilized as a result.
We have several wild apple trees around the fringes of the field, and I’m sure they represent either old rootstock shorn of its grafts that survived the bulldozing of the Plummer Farm orchard back in the 1950s, or else the direct offspring of orchard trees — apple varieties don’t come true from seed. Here’s a photo taken in what is now our shed lawn, showing a bit of the orchard in the background as it appeared in 1919.
The child in the photo was a Plummer relative up visiting his grandparents, Jacob and Mollie Plummer, who had a house in town at the time, but probably spent at least part of the summer here in the guest house. I would love to know just how many people have lived in this modest little dwelling over the 150 years of its existence. Just the other week, someone contacted us through the Plummer’s Hollow site to say that an ancestor of his had been born here back in the 1880s, and my Dad — who has done extensive research on the history of the place — had never heard the name. In fact, that was the first good evidence we’ve had that the place was even rented out in the 19th century, when Plummers still lived in the main house year-round.
Jay Pfeil and her soon-to-be husband Richard Sackett only lived here a short time, but they made a big impression on me. I was 12 and 13 at the time, and my brothers and I used to drop in after supper at least once a week for jam sessions: Richard was an accomplished guitarist, and my brother Steve played the five-string banjo. Richard got a job with a local landscaping company, and when time and circumstance permitted, he used to go busking in the streets of State College with some of his musician friends. Jay was exhibiting her works at local and regional arts festivals, with encouragement from her artist mother, who came to visit a couple of times — the apple didn’t fall far from the tree, I guess. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the three of them were role models of a sort, the first people I’d ever known who put art and music at the center of their lives. True, my mother is a writer, but my parents were never what one would call bohemian.
The winter of 1979-80 was a rough one, and Jay and Richard had to leave their Volkswagon bus at the bottom of the road for a couple of months, where eventually it got vandalized. The isolation per se didn’t seem to bother them too much, but they left, Jay said, because there wasn’t enough light here. It’s a north-facing hollow, and the guest house in particular is dark because of its proximity to the woods. For me, of course, the cave-like ambience is one of the main attractions of living here, but then I work with words rather than images. Jay and Richard moved to Black Mountain, North Carolina, where Jay continues to make intaglio prints of local trees, among other things. In a biographical statement on the Piedmont Craftsmen site, she says,
At present I am immersed in drawing new leaves in the spring, with a special love of the native Fraser (or Mountain) Magnolia. I am also continuing to work on a number of other series, such as ‘Paths Through the Woods,’ ‘Plant Portraits,’ and ‘Full Moon’ … Through my daily mountain hikes, I strive to etch or draw my work in their natural locations. Due to the time-consuming and complex nature of etching and engraving, larger works are often finalized in my studio. It is my hope that [by] conveying my enthusiasm and reverence for the wild world … others may enjoy, respect, and conserve the environmental diversity that surrounds us in a sustainable, cooperative balance.
Though Jay may have ended up putting down roots farther south in the Appalachians, the seeds she planted here continue to bear fruit, albeit in a slightly altered form.