Betula lenta, “pliant birch tree.” It’s true: a black birch is almost always more resilient than a white one, more likely to straighten back up after bearing a translucent burden of ice. Only in death does it lose its give and become rigid with listening, all its ears turned downward for news of the earth.
From the train station all the way up the hill, sacred gates are lined up like hollow dominoes. We are the spots, our pale acquisitive faces bobbing atop suit coats & kimonos. Vermillion, the color of success is vermillion, & it hurts our eyes.
As we near the shrine, we hear the tin hail of one-yen coins, which are minted for no other reason than to feed the bottomless stomachs of the offertory boxes. And that splashing sound is no fountain: every day, in the name of purity, thousands of mouths are washed out with the same few dozen bamboo dippers. We take them from the hands of strangers with the slightest of bows. Water is the earth’s own currency, & we swallow with reverence. Our words must be clean when we speak to the god, even if the tongue barely twitches in its lurid cave. Our desires must be pure as pressed rice.
I’m here to accompany my homestay family, whose eldest son is about to take a high school entrance exam, but they encourage me to pray, too. “Whatever you want the most, say it in your heart. Use pictures! Inari won’t understand English.” Indeed, I am the only foreigner here. It may be a major shrine, but tourists prefer thousand-year-old temples from which the last traces of paint have long since faded away, & where the aesthetic of enlightened poverty reigns unchallenged. What do I want? I go through the motions, clapping my hands to get the god’s attention. A white fox flickers in my mind’s eye.
Buddha is bigger than you. His scalp is great with child, & his patriarchal breasts bulge with dharma-milk. His arms multiply exponentially like the mother of all Swiss Army knives, & he juggles odd objects: fly whisks, vajras, capacitors, USB flash drives. The Buddha is bigger than you, and easier on my wallet. I found him at the landfill & brought him home & placed him on top of the television, & he’s been growing ever since. Now I can tune in the weather from Colombo and Phnom Penh. The Buddha is bigger than you, & whenever he touches the earth with the tip of the middle finger of his right hand, shit happens. Under those rust-green robes, he’s got an Elvis tattoo — don’t ask me how I know this — & the balls of a brass monkey. Like the number zero, he is both real & imaginary. Ask him anything! He rings when struck.
Do animals other than humans have the capacity to appreciate beauty? I’d be surprised if they didn’t. There are, after all, elephants who have learned to paint, which seems to be simply an extension of a natural impulse to draw: “Unprompted, an Asian elephant in captivity will often pick up a pebble or stick with the tip of her trunk and casually doodle on the floor of her enclosure.” It’s hard to imagine how improvisational singers such as mockingbirds or brown thrashers could produce compelling sequences without a strong instinct for what sounds good with what. But I’ve always considered mourning doves to be kind of brainless, for some reason, so I was a little surprised this morning to observe two pairs of them apparently watching the sunrise. One pair was already perched in the top of a tall locust tree at the edge of the woods when I came out onto the porch, and another flew up to a lower branch shortly afterwards. Neither pair stirred for the next twenty minutes, as the rising sun bathed the western ridge in red and orange light below the setting moon.
You have to understand that it was cold this morning — 10 degrees Fahrenheit, or -12C — and there were plenty of other places they could have perched which would’ve provided much more shelter. And they were facing into the wind.
Of course, that’s only four doves out of a flock of several dozen; most of the others were, I presume, already pigging out on cracked corn below the bird feeders up at the main house. Lord knows, they probably needed the calories. But maybe, as with humans, it’s only a small percentage of the flock who prioritize aesthetic experience over more basic urges.
Then again, the doves watching the sunrise were doing so as couples, so really, it might all be part of extended courtship or pair-bonding behavior. And who’s to say which urges are the most basic, really? Aesthetic response is, after all, pretty integral to the whole mate-selection process. If females didn’t use aesthetic cues when choosing a mate, sexual dimorphism wouldn’t be nearly as widespread as it is in the animal kingdom (though competition for mates apparently isn’t the whole reason why one sex — usually the male — is more colorful or larger than the other, and mourning doves themselves are not highly dimorphic). The hunger for beauty registers in the body as well as the mind, and is so much a part of the way we experience being in the world that it hardly seems possible to isolate an aesthetic impulse from among the whole range of animal instincts.
Incidentally, if you’ve been enjoying The Morning Porch, here are a few other blogs where brevity is key to the aesthetic effect:
tinywords, “the world’s smallest magazine, publishing one new haiku nearly every weekday since late 2000”
The Natural History of Selborne — not the text of the first-ever synoptic nature book, but the raw material from which it was made: Gilbert White’s journals. The entries are rarely longer than thirty words.
Tom Montag’s “Lines” series of poems from The Middlewesterner are also almost always very brief. I’ve been collecting my favorite posts from other Twitter-users here. And finally, qarrtsiluni‘s Short Shorts issue from July-August 2006, which featured prose and poetry of 100 words or less, is fun to revisit now and then.
Flame tree, smoke tree, a sky like sandpaper. Mobile phones have been programmed to issue the call to prayer: God is great. A man grazes horses where a lake used to wrinkle in the breeze & stares into the dry cup of his hands five times a day. God is great. The future has been recalled; too many people were dying of natural causes. All weather will now be provided by the private sector, they tell us, as trees belch with flame around the ancient temple of Artemis. I bear witness that there is no God but God. Lines of footprints in wet ash tell a story, but not ultimately a very interesting one. The wonderful thing about movies is that they are always true. I bear witness that Mohammed is the messenger of God. Here you can see where lizards went on pilgrimage to a puddle of water, steering with their tails. Here you can see where the toymaker’s assistants have been poaching charred olive wood. Hurry up please it’s time for prayer. Notice how the shadow grows smaller & blurrier as the bird gains in altitude — hard to say at what point it’s gone completely. What kind of bird? The black-diamond tail makes it a raven, I guess. The point is that weather-related incidents may no longer be ascribed to acts of God, thank God. Hurry up please it’s time for success. And if that’s the case, someone must do something about the suddenness of nightfall in the tropics & those ridiculous short days we have in winter, where applicable. It has been duly noted that the naked Germans on the beach are happy with the extra sun, although the locals are not: God is great. Flame tree, smoke tree, a sky like alabaster now that the last contrails have been delivered to the museum of blueprints. Ah, & the boys from the village are stalking grasshoppers with wooden machine guns. There is no God but God.
This dance they do
it turns them into holy caricatures
the clowns proclaim that up is down
& the end justifies the beans
everyone drinks until they see
two of everyone
& their arms shake
unable to choose which
delightful lie to lay
this year even us USians can imbibe
because Carnival reaches
its riotous climax
on Super Tuesday
I know Via Negativa is probably not the first place you go for breathless tips about blogs and blogging. But I just stumbled across a new feature in Google Reader (well, new to me, at any rate) that has literally revolutionized the way I read blogs!
Remember how it was back in the beginning, when you first discovered blogs that were fun to read — the excitement of clicking on your half-dozen bookmarked blogs and seeing what was new? Then do you remember your impatience at those bloggers who would go through phases where they would post multiple times a day, followed by weeks or months of silence, and how that and the growing number of blogs you followed led you to start using a feed reader, where you wouldn’t have to waste time clicking on anything that hadn’t been updated? Now, I’ve discovered, it’s possible to have the best of both worlds.
In the Settings section of Google Reader, click on the Goodies tab, and you’ll see a “Next” bookmarklet that you can drag into your Firefox bookmarks toolbar. If, like me, you subscribe to a certain number of feeds that you only skim once in a while, be sure to restrict it to whatever label you use for the feeds you never miss. Then go back into Google Reader, click on that label — making sure that the display is set to “new items” rather than “all items” — and click through to the first blog post that comes up. [Update: This turns out not to be necessary. Clicking on the Next bookmarklet from any page seems to take one directly to the top post in one’s queue.] Once there, you don’t have to return to the GR shell: simply click Next to go directly to the next-most-recent blog post (or other feed item) in your queue — and have each post removed from the tally of unread items in your reader as you land on it.
What this means, of course, is that you can get around the bother of having to click through to read the full posts of blogs with partial feeds, or to leave a comment; you’re already there! Best of all, for those of us who enjoy the aesthetic experience of reading unique texts, we’re no longer restricted to the dull uniformity of the feed reader. Bloggers who follow their stats will be pleased by the extra visits (though presumably puzzled by the new “came from” data failing to correspond with incoming links).
So now I can essentially surf my own blogroll without hitting the Back key. It almost reminds me of clicking the “Next Blog” button in WordPress.com’s top navigation bar (or Blogger’s back in 2004, before BlogSpot got taken over by spam blogs), except that I don’t have to go through 25 bad or mediocre blogs before finding something good.
NB: If you’re still using Bloglines, or another aggregator, and you want to try Google Reader out, importing all your feeds only takes a few minutes.
She was clothed in a shift of worms and whispers.
I circled once & crept away, four-footed —
no hands for anything but the road.
That was one dream. And the night before,
a minor lord of the underworld saying, Of course we take them down with us.
How else do you suppose they taste
eternal youth? Grinning like one of those
candied skulls from the Day of the Dead.
Such melodramatic dreams, I said,
& wrote one yellow word upon the snow.