Welcome to the global village

Most Iraqi refugees resettled in the United States are being sent to Michigan, the state with the highest unemployment rate, according to an article (and accompanying video) by Tom A. Peter in the Christian Science Monitor. The presumption is that they would rather be with others of their own kind, and Lansing happens to have a large Arab population — just no jobs. And that’s a problem, because like the indentured servants of old, they have to reimburse the U.S. government for the cost of their plane tickets. All is not lost, however.

After almost two months in the US, Hydar Ali says he’s not considering returning to Iraq. He says he’ll do just about any job in Lansing. He recently applied to work as an Iraqi villager at a military training center in California that prepares US troops before they deploy to Iraq, by running them through mock Iraqi villages complete with authentic locals.

Nice work if you can get it, eh? Like African American refugees from the Jim Crow-era South getting gigs in show business playing plantation darkies, or Sitting Bull after the west was lost, playing himself for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show: that’s the American Dream, baby!

For myself, I only regret that Hee-Haw isn’t still being made. With all the military jets that roar over the mountain, though, I suppose I could do a pretty good job at playing a terrified villager if I were asked. Here’s a crappy video I shot of an A-10 Thunderbolt, A.K.A Warthog, from a pair that went over this morning.

My brother Steve commented once — and I have no reason to doubt him — that all of the Warthogs we see flying over the mountain have done combat duty in Iraq or Afghanistan, and thus can be presumed to have exterminated their share of villagers terrorists. Here’s a better video of one in action, from a National Guard ad. It’s defending freedom.

Subscribers must click through to see the videos, as usual. Sorry.


ephemeral pond in winter 2

What swims under the ice of an ephemeral pond, watching the slow shadows from below? Nothing that can’t live half the year without water, suspended, provisional, like a word from a language that nobody speaks anymore. But some find ephemerality desirable, if it means the absence of predatory newts & fish. One rainy night in March the mole salamanders arrive by the hundreds, the males entering the water merely to sow their spermatophores across the bottom: so much moisture at once is not a thing they’ve learned to resist, living under the ground. The females then take what they need — choosing on who knows what basis — to make their masses of gelatinous eggs, like the compound eyes of an enormous insect.

But not here, not at this mountaintop pool, where the acidic soil provides no buffer against the nitric & sulphuric acids that arrive with every rain or snowfall. This pond has almost as little in it as a geode, sliced open so we can feast our eyes on the unrepeatable, inorganic growths.


Is the angler fish ever tempted
by its own bait? Does it ever stir
from whatever trance-like state
passes for sleep in the aphotic zone,
see the glowing decoy & think,
Ah — mine! & surge forward,
jaws agape, like the proverbial donkey
tempted by a carrot? Or does it get
snappish at its traveling companion,
persistent as a bad conscience,
haunting as the image of its own death?

Written for the Read Write Poem prompt, “traveling companions.” Links to other poems for the prompt are here.

For a more overtly political poem, see SB’s I Have This to Say About That, at Watermark.

In case there’s nothing on TV tomorrow night

For anyone in the local area who may be able to attend, I’ll be giving my first-ever PowerPoint presentation tomorrow night (Tuesday, January 15) at 7:00 p.m. for my local Audubon chapter. It’s entitled “Finding (and Putting) Nature on the Web,” and I’ll be focusing primarily on nature blogs, photo-sharing sites, and online nature identification resources. Apparently, our meeting place, a chapel in a graveyard, doesn’t have wi-fi, so I’ll be relying exclusively on screen shots. It’s easy to find, right off an exit of I-99 — directions are here. Come for the free cookies if nothing else.

Sleeping with places

SpokesTo sleep somewhere, to surrender our unconscious bodies to a strange bed or a spot on the ground while our minds go wandering — how is it that we feel we haven’t really visited a place until we’ve done this? It is not enough merely to have looked, to have listened, to have smelt and touched and tasted, though all these things matter too.

Perhaps we desire intimacy with the land on the same terms we seek it with a lover. I think it’s more than a euphemism to say of a couple that they’re sleeping together. The language recognizes that what’s important is not the endlessly variable act of lovemaking itself, which is a private matter and doesn’t really concern the larger community, but the quality of a relationship, whose power and potential longevity are clearly signalled by this most basic form of communion. At one level, obviously, it’s a demonstration of mutual trust. At another level, it suggests a shared habitation, even if the partners retain separate residences or rarely sleep in the same place twice.

These speculations are necessarily tenuous because the science of sleep is still in its infancy; researchers argue over the most basic questions about why we need to sleep and dream at all. It’s evidently part of our shared heritage with other animals, which, lacking symbolic language, may rely on dreaming to sort and archive their memories. Even in many pre-literate societies, the world of the past and the ancestors is assumed to remain accessible through dreaming, where hints about the world to come can also be gathered. Conceptions of these worlds vary widely from one culture to the next, so generalization is difficult, but in most cases there’s a direct link between time and distance, and the ability of the dreamer to travel very rapidly or instantaneously from one place to another is key to her clairvoyance. Why this link? Because life is envisioned as a journey, a route along a network of paths; to travel back in time is to travel in space as well.

We know from our own experience how memories are tied to the specific matrices in which they were born, and can be triggered by detailed cues such as odors — which even our inferior primate noses can distinguish by the hundreds — or the gestalt of a place. If I want to relive a memory, my first step is to recall in as much detail as possible the place where it occurred. The modern demotion of place to mere setting or environment simply doesn’t jibe with lived experience.

Maybe sleeping in a place adds to our feeling of truly inhabiting it because it symbolizes its inclusion in these worlds of memory and prescience. It solidifies its position in time and space by dissolving the horizon, which we cannot do away with as long as we are awake and our physical bodies and perceptions still impose strict limits. This in turn suggests why sleeping together is so basic to making love: after the relatively fleeting ecstasy of sex itself, sleep offers another, longer-lasting way to dissolve boundaries. And even as the sex (depending on the partners) may create a new person, the shared sleep creates a new place from the intersection of paths.

What it was like


The world outside of the story made no sense whatsoever — that’s why, as soon as they learned about something, they worked it in as best they could.

The twelve crows flying over the cathedral became twelve crows flying over the cathedral, just like that.

There was a balloon hanging from a tree, thwarted in its efforts to return to the ground. No, wait — it was only a traffic sign in another language.

A little girl in the back seat watched her father handing money out the window to a policeman and marveled at the gentle treatment accorded those dirty scraps of paper.

The roadsides were decorated with empty beverage containers, empty take-out boxes, empty plastic shopping bags advertising Everyday Low Prices. “Garbage in, garbage out,” intoned the priests. Junk DNA was found to account for over 80 percent of the human genome.

People talked. You couldn’t meet a trucker alone at the end of a deserted road without somebody finding out about it.

Fishermen’s tales were not to be believed — especially after the one that got away didn’t come back, ever, and the fleet rusted in the harbor.

No matter what happened, there were children watching. People claimed to love them, won their trust, then did despicable things to them — and for some reason, people didn’t talk about that. Some things simply remained outside the story.

Balloons were released with notes attached. They often travelled for hundreds of miles before some mountaintop tree managed to snag them. I found a few myself, over the years.

Manifest Oh

I’ve been working on an artist’s statement of sorts for the About page of Visual Soma. I must confess I’ve always considered artist’s statements to be a little self-indulgent, not to mention superfluous: if the art can’t speak for itself, what good is it? It seems especially presumptuous for a rank amateur like myself to consider writing one. On the other hand, I can rarely pass up a good opportunity to propagandize. This starts out promising enough, but soon turns, Dr. Jekyll-like, into a manifesto.

The vast majority of my photos have been taken within a mile of where I live. For me as a poet and an editor, photography is a spiritual practice, a training in how to see, how to frame and edit, how to find the poetry in ordinary things. I’m especially interested in the challenge of making photos in which the roles of figure and ground are reversible, or even nonexistent. Philosophically, I feel we must get beyond a perception of nature as mere scenery. Gorgeous wall calendars from Sierra Club and the like offend me at a very basic level; nature porn does nothing for the cause of conservation. Indeed, to the extent that it helps sell SUVs and houses in subdivisions, it actually makes things worse. We must get people to appreciate their own back forty, or the vacant lot down the street — only then do we have a chance of convincing them that every part of this planet is a work of art in which we participate and are continually remade.

I can hear the protests already: “Easy for you to say — you live on top of a mountain!” Well, yeah. But I love photos of human landscapes, too, and if I lived in town I’d probably specialize in them. The thing is, I don’t think it’s quite as easy taking compelling photos in the woods or fields as it is in a city, where the colors are so much brighter on average, where the symmetries are obvious, and everything is built to a human scale. Let’s face it, urban environments are pretty damn stimulating! In less human-shaped visual milieux, one needs to constantly shift one’s perspective and scale to avoid monotony.

One obvious and increasingly popular solution is macro photography. Some months back I was struck by a blog post from the professional photographer Mike Moats, in which he answered the question, “Why Macro?”

When I started in nature photography, I like most new photographers wanted to shoot landscapes. I went out east to the White Mountains, and to Acadia, went west to Yosemite and came home with some really nice images, but when I was home between trips I wasn’t able to shoot as much as I wanted due to the lack of great landscapes like I saw on my trips. I started to look at macro photography as a way to spend more time shooting near my home. I was shocked at the amount of images I came home with on my very first trip into the woods. I’ve spent many years of my life exploring past the end of the pavement but have never really taken a good look at the interesting life all around me. When I started to study my surroundings for subjects they were everywhere. I have some great parks with diverse environments within twenty minutes of my home but I also found many subjects within my own yard.

In another post, though, he admits that the easy subjects can literally dry up at certain times of the year, leading to photographic slumps.

Most of the vernal ponds (where I shoot my floating leaf images) are starting to dry up due to the lack of rain so this leaves me shooting the wooded areas. When I’m out looking for images I’m always scaning for subjects that have contrast. Contrast in color makes for some great images and also sells very well for me. The problem at this time of year is that the woods has very little color contrast, everything is GREEN!

One of these days, I will get a macro lens attachment for my camera. But I think the not-quite-macro level is interesting too. We can generally tell what we’re looking at right away — as opposed to, say, some of the extreme close-ups of weed-creatures from photographers such as the amazing Doctor Swan — but the scale is just different enough to give us pause. We’ve seen moss or mushrooms like that before — when we were three. It seems just barely possible that we might still, decades later, recapture that kind of seeing without preconceptions, through eyes undulled by weariness, heartache and boredom, and provoke that primal Oh.

Too long for Twitter

This morning, as every morning, I am confronted by improbable things: that the downy woodpecker should be able to beat his head against a tree with machine-gun speed and fly away. That the squirrels of the daytime should fling themselves through the treetops with so much abandon and not turn their bodies into aerodynamic leaves like the squirrels of the night. That the sky should get so red — redder than wine, redder than blood — and then in the course of minutes fade so completely, leaving no trace of a stain.


Chopin in a turban

At one point around 3:30 this afternoon, with ladybugs, syrphid flies, and honeybees buzzing all about, I looked into the low winter sun and felt… I don’t know. Disoriented barely begins to describe it. Anachronic. Absurd. It’s almost enough to make me want to deep-fry a cell phone and dial 911 from my large intestine. I trust my gut — but does my gut trust me? Frankly, it would be a fool to.

It doesn’t help that the Presidential primaries are underway two months earlier than in the days of my youth. Candidates have already been spotted flying south in record numbers, much to the consternation of climatologists and adorable squalling infants. And like all birds of a feather, they sing a single tune: change. Well, I could use some change. Couldn’t you?

UPDATE: And so the good people of New Hampshire trudged to the polls in record numbers to endorse the establishment candidates, and the literal winds of change signalled the return of the cold. Whew! Back to soul-crushing inevitability. Plus í§a change


Fresh snow on New Year’s.
I sweep the porch,
then stand at the railing
to trim my fingernails —

always an oddly satisfying job
with that click of a clean bite,
the surprising lack of sensation
in these beetle-hard walls that line
our primary instruments of touch.

I take care that each trimming
stays whole, a nearly perfect crescent
to admire for half a second before
I add it to the instant ground below.

For the Read Write Poem prompt, “resolutions.” Links to the other participants’ poems are here.