UPDATE (June 22) – Thanks to everyone for the supportive and sympathetic comments. I do now have regular access to a dial-up connection, but as you can imagine it’s excruciating to go back to that after having gotten accustomed to DSL. If I get desperate enough, I may return to blogging at 26k/sec. In any case, though, I have sent Smorgasblog on vacation and substituted a dynamic blogroll courtesy of Google Reader. This will display links to the latest posts from close to 100 blogs; it’s not selective.

I’m suspending publication of Via Negativa (and curtailing most of my other online activities) due to a loss of internet service in Plummer’s Hollow. At this point I can’t predict when I might resume — it could be anywhere from a few days to a couple of months.

Thanks for reading. Take care.


Inside the body
of sleep, each thinking
we are alone & surrounded
by wholly private visions,
failing to recognize
the animal whose footfalls
we hear in place of our own,
touching what we take
for a wall where there are only
other fingers, other skins,
& waking to the smell of heat
on a cool morning in early
summer: I’ve turned into
a tourist in my own life.
I carry a camera from room
to room, alert for any irruption
of significance into the hum-
drumming of home appliances.
Someday, even my breathing
will seem worthy of note.

All the goodliness thereof


The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry?
All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field.
–Isaiah 40:6 (King James Bible)

The other day, my brother mentioned that when he’d gotten home from visiting some friends the evening before, he found that his two-year-old daughter had gotten a little carried away with the washable magic markers while her mother was distracted in the other room. “She was wearing nothing but diapers, and had painted herself almost completely green,” he said. “It reminded me of Lorca’s Romance Sonambulo!”


My maternal grandfather, when pressed to eat more at a family gathering, would often say with an impish grin, “I have had an elegant sufficiency, and any more would be a superfluous indulgence.” A Google search reveals several variants on this phrase, all apparently dating back to the Victorian era, but I like Pop-pop’s the best. Stopping short of satiety is indeed the soul of elegance — or goodliness, as they used to say back in the 16th and 17th centuries (Her goodliness was full of harmony to his eyes. –Sir Philip Sidney, Arcadia).

On Deciding Not to Travel

palmist 2

From the window of the fourth-
floor walk-up, the umbrellas
slid past each other with
assembly-line perfection,
black & blue mingling with
the occasional red, yellow,
lime-green. The street shone
like a mirror that gives
nothing back. The hiss of tires.
This short loop keeps playing
in my head as I watch
the cloud lift & a white moth,
caught out after daybreak,
yawing & veering against
a backdrop of dripping trees.
This summer won’t come again.
Why spend it en route
to somewhere else? I pluck
a snail from the deep grass
& place it on my palm.
It makes a slow circuit
on its single foot.

[Poetry Thursday – dead link]

Tomorrow is the deadline to submit material for the Greatest Blog Hits issue at qarrtsiluni. All genres are welcome and there’s no length limit, but the posts must have appeared at least one year ago — see here for additional details.


A cat living by her wits goes hunting in a downpour.


As patience to a predator, so is imagination to the prey. The field mouse that thinks, “It’s only rain” won’t live to bear another litter.


When the birds start scolding, the mice relax.


To the turtle in its shell, the thunder sounds like nothing more consequential than indigestion.


If the swallows in the belfry had their way, we’d live without news.

Snyder-Middleswarth Natural Area

black snake 2

A large black snake lay motionless on the moss beside the trail just past the signboard for the Snyder-Middleswarth Natural Area. My hiking buddy and I had driven over this past Saturday afternoon to pay homage to one of Pennsylvania’s most spectacular old-growth remnants before it is altered forever. The air was crystal-clear, adding to the cathedral-like effect of shafts of sunlight reaching down through the canopy.

hemlock varnish shelf fungi

Just past the snake we began to find spectacular, red and orange polypores — the hemlock varnish shelf…

fungus beetle on varnish shelf

and the fungus beetles known as Megalodacne heros, colored to match. Those that weren’t busy eating were busy mating, true to their family name Erotylidae, and some managed both at the same time.

fungus beetles

In fact, things are looking very good for hemlock varnish shelves and the beetles that love them at Snyder-Middleswarth for a decade or more to come. That’s because the hemlock trees are dying,

adelgid-decimated foliage

300-year-old giants falling victim to an insect barely bigger than the point of a pencil, the hemlock woolly adelgid. Their egg masses are often compared to the ends of cotton q-tips, an image more in keeping with the kinds of places where human beings go to die.

adelgid wool

The eastern and Carolina species of hemlock are especially vulnerable, though occasional individuals do show resistance. It may take a century or more for their native predators and diseases to catch up with the adelgids and bring them more into balance with the eastern forest ecosystem, though they will probably always remain an outbreak insect. In a few centuries, we may have new old-growth hemlock forests in Pennsylvania.

nurse log

But in the meantime, another climax species — yellow birch — seems poised to take over at Snyder-Middleswarth. Almost every fallen hemlock log we saw bore a thick fur of birch seedlings. Forest ecologists refer to these as nurse logs, which is a bit misleading: birches and other tree seedlings prefer to sprout on logs not because they are fertile nurseries — they aren’t — but because they offer relatively sterile refuges from soil microbes inimical to seedling growth.

foam 1

The word seems to have gotten out that the giants are dying — that’s the only way we could account for the dearth of visitors on a perfect Saturday afternoon in early summer. We walked slowly along the trail above the inaptly named Swift Run, looking at everything and listening to the songs of hermit thrushes and winter wrens. In three hours, we only heard a couple planes go over. It’s a deep ravine far from any highways — one of the quietest spots in all of central Pennsylvania.

woodfern fist

I renewed my acquaintance with several plants that I don’t get to see too often, including starflower (Trientalis borealis) and mountain holly (Ilex montana). And we encountered botanical oddities like the fern fist above, one of several we found, probably the result of some wasp or another hijacking the ferns while they were still unfurling in order to make gall-like brood chambers from the crippled fronds. (If anyone has a better guess, I’d like to hear it.)

stump face

But mostly what caught my eye were the dead and dying hemlocks. I know that new hemlock seedlings will sprout up after the adelgid population crashes, and some of them may even survive future outbreaks. But it will be a long time before the forest once again has trees with this much character and presence.

Hemlock Trail

It was 7:00 o’clock by the time we made our way back to the parking area. Much of the ravine was already in shadow. I turned around for a last, long look at hemlocks bathed in cathedral light.


Ebony jewelwing

ebony jewelwing male 1

If you go for a walk near almost any wooded stream in the eastern U.S. or Canada this time of year, especially in the early afternoon, you’ll probably see this damselfly — the ebony jewelwing, Calopteryx maculata. Its aquatic larvae live in or behind debris dams in smaller streams, which I guess would tend to make them more numerous in older forests with more coarse woody debris. The adult males are easy to identify with their metallic blue or green abdomens, and the females are even more distinctive with the white spots, or stigmas, on the ends of their wings.

ebony jewelwing female

The males battle each other for territory, aeriel duels that might be more spectacular if they weren’t such weak flyers. However, this latter feature makes for extremely cooperative photographic subjects: males and females spend many long seconds at a time resting on sunlit leaves. Females are relatively more sedentary than males, who not only try to keep other males out of their territory, but engage in what’s called mate-guarding at the same time. Biologists who have studied C. maculata have concluded that the main function of the stigmas is to make the females easier for the males to keep track of.

ebony jewelwing female 2

You can view all five of my ebony jewelwing photos here. See also Bev’s post about the species here.

Blogging and Impermanence

an interview with an anonymous blogger

Easter Island head

Blogging may be only ten years old, but already certain orthodoxies have emerged. One of the most pervasive is the belief that blogs should serve as a permanent record of the blogger’s thoughts, in whatever form they happen to take. Many bloggers are reluctant even to edit a post once they’ve published it, at least not without clearly signalling that they’ve done so through a dated addendum. The most frivolous or off-the-cuff posts are treated as if they were holy writ, and links for accessing the archives generally enjoy pride of place in blog sidebars, despite a lack of evidence that the regular readers of a blog ever use them.

My friend Anonymous (whom most of you should have little trouble identifying) has taken a decidely contrarian position on all this. He has just killed off his two most recent blogging projects, and who knows if he will ever blog again? So like the border guard who convinced Laozi, on his way into the wilderness, to write down what eventually became the Daodejing, I thought it might be fun to interview Anon., via email, in order to preserve some his own thoughts for posterity.

Q. I began reading your work in January 2004. Since then you have written at least six different blogs, some more clearly focused than others. They’ve all shared one distinctive feature, though: they’ve each ended with an announcement about their impending demise, vanishing into the ether shortly thereafter. How come?

A. One answer is that I find perpetuity frightening. The only thing in nature that keeps growing with no end in sight is cancer. And Exxon’s profits. My earlier blogs–the very first started in the early summer of 2002–ended naturally. When I felt I had said enough, I stopped writing. More recent projects have been started with a specific end date in mind. Knowing that everything I want to do must happen before that date gives my work an intensity, I think. The other answer is that I take impermanence seriously, not only as an inevitable thing I have to tolerate, but as something to be actively embraced. You know the Buddhist meditation practice of imagining oneself as a dead body?

Q. I don’t know anything about Buddhism and meditation practices other than what I’ve read (mostly, these days, on blogs). Do you meditate yourself? Do you think about writing or blogging as a form of practice, religious or otherwise?

A. I don’t meditate, but writing is a form of practice for me. I especially cherish the state of mind preceding writing: the sudden awareness of details, the alertness to the invisible.

Q. You mentioned a moment ago that you began blogging in early summer of 2002. Tell me about your first foray into blogging. How did you get into it? What platform did you use? Did you have open comments? Did any of your readers from then discover your subsequent blogs?

A. I had open comments and a fairly active community of commenters. That’s really all I want to say about that.

Q. Ever since I’ve been reading you, you’ve changed pen names almost as frequently as you’ve changed blogs. Would it be fair to say that your impulse toward self-expression is bound up with a desire for self-invention? Or is it simply a matter of wanting to protect your anonymity?

A. Anonymity is part of it, sure, as is a desire to say that the consistent self, the reliable self, is a myth. I’m all those personae and I’m none of them.

The problem is that as much as I’ve tried to practice impermanence, I’ve also made friends. The two things don’t go well together. Of course I don’t regret meeting such wonderful people, but I really am sorry that I’ve failed to disappear properly. This conversation’s a good example of that!

Q. Speaking of conversation, one of the two blogs you just ended, a poetry and poetics blog, started out with comments, but lost that feature after a few months. What was your thinking there?

A. Comments were superfluous to what I was doing there. I did get some emails from readers, and those were precious to me.

Q. In the course of your blogging career, you’ve done everything from cultural and literary criticism to memoir, short stories, and a pair of novels. Which of your blog experiments do you think have been the most successful, in general or particular? Which were the biggest failures?

A. As a writer, I’m naturally concerned with writing better. As someone who practices presence, what concerns the writer doesn’t concern me. I only care for the spirit in a thing.

Let me give an example. One of my blogs lasted only a few weeks and got mentioned on instapundit and metafilter, logged hundreds of readers daily, was cut and pasted and forwarded as emails, and led to several offers of publication in whole or in part. A year before that, I had written another blog that also lasted only a few weeks. This second blog drew few readers, was not widely linked, didn’t feature my best prose, and when it ended, wasn’t archived by me or anyone else. It, however, involved my wandering in snowy woods by myself several times a week. For that reason alone, I prefer it to its more celebrated cousin.

Q. So with some of your blogs, when you pull the plug, all the contents are lost with it? Is that always the case, or do you save some of your best posts for possible future use?

A. It varies. There have been total erasures, even recently. Saving everything would defeat the purpose of the exercise. On the other hand, I’m not immune to occasionally admiring my own handiwork, and keeping printed copies.

As with so much in life, we take it on trust that “there’s more where that came from” and that, if there isn’t, we’ll be OK anyway. Don’t want to spend so much time looking back that I miss what’s ahead of me.

To invoke Buddhism a second time, think of those elaborate sand mandalas, which take hours or days to make. The point of them is not only their beauty, but also the knowledge that they exist for a brief moment in time. I like that idea, and I suppose I’d be a Buddhist myself if I didn’t find it too, well, fixed.

Q. It ain’t just the Buddhists. Elaborate sand paintings are used in Navajo and Pueblo Indian healing ceremonies, as well.

Earlier, you spoke about imagining yourself as a dead body in the context of blog termination. Is the body of work we create, as writers or artists, in some sense a double of our embodied selves? An icon or effigy, perhaps?

A. If we think about Shinto temples, or the Malian chi-wara agricultural dance, rites in which things are remade and rebuilt, we see that human practice is full of fearless renewals. There’s a belief that what needs to return will return. Of course, the archival imagination has its uses. But it isn’t the only way to be alive. Far from it.

As for the dead body, I was actually being literal: no amount of grasping can save me from being a corpse. So I save myself the trouble and try grasping less. I’m not very good at it yet, but I work at letting things go.

But what about you, do you see your writing as an embodied double of yourself?

Q. I don’t think so, no. A couple of months ago, I eliminated a small blog with a few dozen entries — the Notebook that accompanied the first version of my online book Shadow Cabinet — and I have to say I felt neither regret nor satisfaction. But if I woke up one morning and found Via Negativa gone, I know I’d feel as bereft as if a woman had just left me. What’s it like for you when you pull the plug on a blog? Is it always the same, or are some losses more deeply felt than others?

A. It’s always the same: I feel as elated and free as if a woman just left me.

Q. It sounds as if, when you give up a blog, you feel like you’ve just kicked an addictive habit.

A. Well, I believe that blogging represents the gravest current threat to our national security. The sooner we can rescue our youth from this moral miasma, the better.

Q. Speaking of miasma, one of the ironies of all this is that the content of your blogs was far from the kind of disposable stuff that dominates the blogosphere. Occasionally you’d do brief link-posts, like anyone, but in general your work demonstrated careful thinking and a great deal of attention to craft. So your focus on writing as practice or process doesn’t imply a lack of interest in the quality of the product, does it?

A. Thank you. I implied earlier on that writing was one thing, and the inner spirit it answers another. But on a certain level they fuse. Or at least, writing buys you time while you sort your head out. I’ve always loved the story of Jesus writing in the sand in the 8th chapter of John. It’s an act of space-making, an intervention between the priests’ murderous demand and his absolution of the accused woman.

I think that art itself is not the thing we are after, but it’s a kind of credit instrument that makes that thing available, for now.

Q. Anarchists have a saying that nobody believes in private property more fervently than a thief. Suppose I told you that by allowing earlier and often embarassing examples of my thinking and writing to remain publicly accessible, I feel I am training myself in non-attachment and egolessness far better than if I were to follow your example and periodically start anew with a clean slate. Does that sound plausible, or do you think I’m just kidding myself?

A. You’re right. That’s why no one can make rules for anyone else. I think the test of non-attachment is whether one can bear a loss with equanimity, even when what’s lost is a certain idea of one’s self.

I think of the mysterious blogger Whiskey River as one who has an intriguing approach to the problem: the necessary words have already been written, they only need to be found. But it’s not random. If you follow that blog, you’ll detect a curatorial intelligence at work. It’s sometimes quite moving.

Writing for a limited time or creating a site composed solely of quotations are but two possible approaches to this question of ego. Perhaps letting it all hang out is yet another.

Q. Interviews with writers usually end with a question about what the interviewee is working on now. What’s next for you?

A. I want to be open to where my practice takes me. At the moment, it means more reading and less writing. I’m currently reading Homer, and trying to get at what those long-ago ones knew that we have now forgotten. I’ve also recently moved close to a remarkable fish market, at which I saw live turtles, tortoises, eels, frogs and all kinds of crustaceans. In addition, there’s a massive Turkish vegetable market nearby. It’s vital that I begin to understand what to do in the kitchen with such a wealth of ingredients.

Thank you Dave. This has been enjoyable.

Extraordinarily ordinary

I can see my polling place from here

There are a couple of things that make Pennsylvanians unique among Americans. The first: we tend to stay put. If we do leave, we tend to come back, if only after retirement. Both sets of my grandparents, for example, relocated to New Jersey for their jobs, but moved back to Pennsylvania after they retired.

The paramount theme in analyzing the mobility of Pennsylvanians is their reluctance to move, however long or short the distance. Such relative immobility is most sharply illustrated by the fact that 84.5% of the state’s residents in 1980 were born in Pennsylvania, a figure well above the comparable values for other states. Such uniqueness persists as we examine movements within the state, local moves within a neighborhood, city, or county and moves from county to county within Pennsylvania. Such attachment to home and locality is not attributable to the usual economic factors, since it seems to prevail during economically slack periods as well as in more fortunate times. The only logical explanation would seem to lie in the nature of the regional culture, in some traditional inclinations, whether conscious or not, to remain amidst familiar surroundings.
–Wilbur Zelinsky, “Human Patterns,” in The Atlas of Pennsylvania (Temple University Press, 1989), p. 131

Getz Shop

Coupled with a strong attachment to our local area is a very weak sense of regional identity. I sometimes like to put on a Pennsylvania jingoism for sheer comic effect: nobody ever gets all puffed up about being from the Keystone State the way they might if they were from, say, the Lone Star State. Zelinksy again:

In an analysis of terms of locational and cultural significance appearing in the names of various enterprises listed in telephone directories for 276 metropolitan areas in the United States and Canada, I discovered that nowhere within metropolitan North America is there a weaker sense of regional identity than in the cities of western Pennsylvania and adjoining portions of neighboring states. Furthermore, in the eastern half of the state the situation is not much better. …

How do we account for this apparent lack of self-knowledge or interest, so different from the insistent awareness of Southernness or New Englandness elsewhere? The failure to appreciate the regional personality of the PCA [Pennsylvania Cultural Area] (aside from its barns and Mennonites) stems largely, I suspect, from its sheer middleness. … [M]uch that was to become national and ‘mainstream’ later is found in the PCA, too prosaic and too normal to stir up comment.
–Wilbur Zelinsky, “Cultural Geography,” in A Geography of Pennsylvania, ed. by E. Willard Miller (Penn State Press, 1995), p. 151

landscape with Burger King

In other words, we are unique in our lack of a sense of uniqueness. It’s kind of hard to pin us down — and we’re just fine with that.

It is seldom possible to make a statement about Pennsylvania that holds true of the whole state — and many observers have simply thrown up their hands in frustration. There is a good deal of evidence, however, that its inhabitants like it that way. Pennsylvania’s mosaic of varied, complex landscapes offers its residents an extraordinary range of environmental choices within a very short distance.
–Pierce Lewis, “The Pennsylvania Mosaic,” in The Atlas of Pennsylvania, p. 7

spring fields 2


Pretty Polly


Geez, I don’t know. That might be too weird even for me. Here’s what it sounded like before I dubbed in the vocals:


Pretty Polly, Pretty Polly come take a walk with me
Pretty Polly, Pretty Polly come take a walk with me
When we get married some pleasure to see

He led her over hills and valleys so deep
He led her over hills and valleys so deep
At last Pretty Polly, she began to weep

Oh Willie oh Willie I’m ‘fraid of your way
Willie oh Willie I’m ‘fraid of your way
All minding to ramble and lead me astray

Pretty Polly, Pretty Polly you guessin’ about right
Pretty Polly, Pretty Polly you guessin’ about right
I dug on your grave two-thirds of last night

She threw her arms around him and began for to weep
She threw her arms around him and began for to weep
At last Pretty Polly, she fell asleep

He threw the dirt over her, and turned away to go
Threw the dirt over her, and turned away to go
Down to the river where the deep water flow

(Lyrics from the Dock Boggs version, recorded in 1927 in New York City.)