March 2008


Hydrophobia, from the Undiscovery Channel on Vimeo.

If you read today’s installment of the Morning Porch, you may have been led to envy my father’s good fortune in having such a rare encounter with a gray fox, a creature of generally reclusive and crepuscular habits. That’s how I felt, too, until we spotted it again in mid-afternoon, up in the corner of the field. Mom was watching a small flock of wild turkeys through her binoculars, when all of a sudden the fox jumped out from behind a clump of dried goldenrod. The birds moved away from it, but didn’t really spook, and the fox walked a short distance and disappeared into the weeds again. So we went up to get a closer look, and the video shows what we found. In the morning, it had acted normally aside from its lack of fear, but now it had blood all over its muzzle, presumably from attacking something, and was clearly in the advanced stages of rabies.

I went back down to the house and read up on the disease. Here’s what the Wikipedia had to say:

The virus has a bullet-like shape…

The route of infection is usually, but not necessarily, by a bite. In many cases the infected animal is exceptionally aggressive, may attack without provocation, and exhibits otherwise uncharacteristic behaviour.

The period between infection and the first flu-like symptoms is normally two to twelve weeks, but can be as long as two years. Soon after, the symptoms expand to slight or partial paralysis, cerebral dysfunction, anxiety, insomnia, confusion, agitation, abnormal behavior, paranoia, terror, hallucinations, progressing to delirium. The production of large quantities of saliva and tears coupled with an inability to speak or swallow are typical during the later stages of the disease; this can result in “hydrophobia”, where the victim has difficulty swallowing because the throat and jaw become slowly paralyzed, shows panic when presented with liquids to drink, and cannot quench his or her thirst. The disease itself was also once commonly known as hydrophobia, from this characteristic symptom. The patient “foams at the mouth” because they cannot swallow their own saliva for days and it gathers in the mouth until it overflows.

Death almost invariably results two to ten days after the first symptoms…

When I was a kid, I remember being terrified of rabies. Mom tells me that’s because, when I was four or five years old and we were still living in Maine, there was a bad outbreak of it. One day a rabid red fox staggered into our front yard, and she kept us inside all day and for a couple days thereafter.

I went back up to the corner of the field with my arthritic old .22 and scoured the area, but the fox was gone. It occurred to me that the last time I’d used the gun was to shoot a house cat with advanced feline leukemia some eight years ago. As it turned out, though, I didn’t have to be the executioner this time, because a few minutes later one of our hunter friends showed up, a guy named Jeff who lives close by and gets off work at 3:00. He had a much more effective rifle than mine — no surprise there — and we all went to look for the fox. I heard a robin scolding in the woods, followed the sound and discovered the poor thing lying a few feet off one of the trails. Its head was up, and it was still working its jaws and making a slight spitting-coughing noise.

There are times when the boom of a rifle is a very welcome sound, and this was one of them. I returned with a shovel a little later at my mother’s urging and buried it three feet down. This is the hungriest time of year; why risk infecting anything else? But it’s a hard thing to throw clay on something so beautiful.

A little later, Mom stopped by to say that a few coltsfoot and one purple crocus were in bloom — our very first flowers of the year.

Driving home on the interstate, only billboards keep us from reentering the black-&-white world of a movie set in 1943. They beckon like lit windows in a whorehouse of dreams. We are adding up the clues & concluding that we lacked sufficient information to have known who did it or why, but perhaps it was better that way. The conventional presumption of entirely solvable mysteries, though essential to the genre, breeds false expectations about outcomes in what we like to think of as the real world. In this movie, the buzzbombs can die and drop anywhere; people turn pale as hospital gowns when they hear the buzzing stop. The droll & self-regarding inspector wields a folded umbrella like the idea of a weapon, & fails as much as he succeeds. None of the characters are wholly likeable: in this way, too, the film imitates real life, or at least the shadow-side of it. Ironically, though, it’s the abundant & dramatic shadows in the night scenes that stretch credulity, since the sources of light that cast them are, as usual in the movies, unseen & improbable. The green danger of the title concerns the breath, or lack of it, which we can assess by watching a leather bladder beside the operating table expand & contract. As for colors, green or otherwise, we are of course forced to take their word for it. From such flawed clues we deduce far more than we ought to, & allow ourselves briefly to believe in these frail people, in this fatal time.

It was my birthday, and I had been given a live shrew in a box — not for a pet, but simply to admire and to photograph. I was a little disappointed at first that I didn’t get any real presents, but the shrew was an admirably fierce little creature who attacked anything thrust in its direction, and I soon appreciated the wisdom of the gesture: loaning me a fully wild creature, something that can never be owned or controlled. The idea that anyone can own anything — it’s such a delusion, isn’t it? But that’s what drives this mania of consumption imperiling the earth.

I’ll have to wait till morning so I can take pictures outside, I said. I’m sure it will be fine in the box overnight.

But it wasn’t fine. At first it circled the box energetically, but after a couple hours it barely moved, even when I nudged it with a pencil. I remembered reading that shrews have lightning-fast metabolisms, and eat three times their body weight every day. I started worrying that it might die if I didn’t feed it. Maybe I could go out and dig up some earthworms, I thought, but then I remembered that the ground was frozen and buried under several feet of snow.

I had meat in the freezer; maybe it would like some ground venison? But that would take at least an hour to thaw in warm water — I don’t own a microwave — and an hour for a shrew must be like a whole day to a human being. I looked down at my hands, and it occurred to me that my fingers were at least superficially similar to worms and millipedes.

I went back over to the box and wiggled my left pinky in front of the ailing shrew. It perked up almost immediately, rushing forward and sinking its teeth into the finger. I jerked my hand away and stared at the toothmarks brimming with blood. That really didn’t hurt at all, I muttered.

But I don’t like messes, so rather than end up with some ugly, mangled stump, I went out to the toolshed and made a clean cut with the radial arm saw right above the second knuckle, then quickly applied a bandage and tourniquet. I thought about cauterizing it with the oxyacetylene torch, but that seemed like overkill.

The shrew was delighted with the severed pinky. It dragged it all around the box a couple of times, then set to work eating the thing. Soon its sharp little snout was dark with blood, and as I watched I got that familiar rush of warmth I always feel when I know I’ve helped somebody. Happy birthday, I whispered. It certainly seemed spry for its age.


Pressing On (Return of the Phoebe) from the Undiscovery Channel on Vimeo.

Ah, to be as single-minded as a phoebe! To sing for the sheer joy of it, one’s message reduced to the bare fundamentals:
I am here.
Life is good.
Gimme some sugar.

Isn’t that really what we’re all trying to do, as artists and writers ?

Apparently not. “Whether a person blogs to make a little money, to influence opinion or just for sheer ego gratification,” says Paul Boutin of the New York Times, “amassing a large audience is the goal.” Oh. Oops.

Funny thing, though. Remember my interview with an anonymous blogger? Anon. used a slightly different yardstick to measure success in blogging:

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.

Now this same individual, writing under a pseudonymn and working with an agent, has gotten an offer from a major publisher to bring out his second novel, which also gestated in a (now discontinued) blog — one with a daily readership probably around 100, I’m guessing. (Which still sounds like a lot to those of us who have been writing poetry for a while, and are used to thinking of a large audience as anything in excess of ten people, including family members!) Nor is he the only friend or acquaintance for whom blogging has led to authorship.

But judging by the advice proffered by most of the blogging experts I’ve read, my friends are basket-cases. Not only do they fail to measure their success by Google PageRank or Technorati authority, but their blogs often lack a tight focus; their titles usually aren’t terribly descriptive; most of them probably don’t know how to use tags to increase their SEO; and their posts often ramble far from the point and include lengthy paragraphs that few casual visitors would be able to focus on (Anon. was famous for that). But like our friend in the video above, they are hardly lacking in dedication.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the American blogging cognoscenti have completely ignored what I consider the most significant blogging story of 2008 so far. Japan’s most prestigious literary award — the Akutagawa Prize, which recognizes up-and-coming fiction writers — just went to a blogger named Mieko Kawakami. She began blogging in 2003 as a way to try and stir up interest in her music, but soon the writing took over. The prize went to her third work of fiction; all three were originally written for her blog.

Kawakami’s award-winning novella, “The Breast and the Egg,” explores the ideas of divorce, the questioning of beauty standards and other themes of solitary womanhood that are still relatively new territory in Japanese literature. Kawakami’s stories in some ways are those of Japan’s Everywoman. […]

“It’s about living, our body, the changes of the heart that accompany the body, the urgency, the problems being born, moment by moment,” Kawakami said. “The fact that we are always doing our best at living.”

So it seems that some top-notch writers are finding their voice through blogging now, even if blogging as a medium for literary expression hasn’t really caught on here yet. As someone who has helped publish bloggers and other writers and artists in a blog-enabled online literary magazine for three years, this is obviously a topic of keen interest to me. In Japan, as the AP article goes on to point out, it’s not uncommon now for writers to produce novels in installments meant to be read on mobile phones. To say that Japan has a healthy blogging culture would be a bit of an understatement.

There are more blog posts in Japanese than any other language, according to Technorati Inc., which tracks nearly 113 million blogs globally. Last year, Technorati found 37 percent of all postings were in Japanese — about 1.5 million per day. Postings in English — from Americans, Britons, Australians and people in many other countries — accounted for 36 percent of the total.

It’s not just a matter of numbers, though. In Japan, the personal or diary blog is the dominant form, not only as a percentage of the whole (which may be true here, too) but in terms of public perception. This makes sense, because letters and diaries have held a central position in Japanese literature for over a thousand years, enjoying equal status with poetry and novels. (You may have noticed the quote at the bottom of my sidebar from Sei Shonagon, whose tenth-century Pillow Book was as much like a personal blog as anything one can imagine.) Moreover, novels based on lightly-fictionalized autobiography have been a staple of Japanese literature for close to fifty years now. So a Japanese blogger with literary aspirations would not have to look far for role models or an appreciative audience.

Here in the U.S., by contrast, the literary establishment seems reluctant even to concede the value of online literary magazines, let alone blogs. The proper curmugeonly thing to do is express distaste for something so obviously deleterious to the cause of true literature, as the British novelist Doris Lessing did in her Nobel acceptance speech this past December.

What has happened to us is an amazing invention — computers and the internet and TV. It is a revolution. This is not the first revolution the human race has dealt with. The printing revolution, which did not take place in a matter of a few decades, but took much longer, transformed our minds and ways of thinking. A foolhardy lot, we accepted it all, as we always do, never asked, What is going to happen to us now, with this invention of print? In the same way, we never thought to ask, How will our lives, our way of thinking, be changed by this internet, which has seduced a whole generation with its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging etc.

God forbid! Then again, if all the bloggers I know followed the advice of the blogging gurus, I think we would have to concede Lessing’s point.


Snow Butterfly, from the Undiscovery Channel on Vimeo.

What mourner wears maroon edged in gold? These dark wings are solar collectors, newly resurrected from hibernation or a long journey to the south. They are also billboards of a sort, advertising for sex.

mourning cloak on snow 2

But until the females emerge, there’s bare dirt and dung to eat, and snow to suckle. Find a path in the woods and make that your destination: land and circle, rise and double back. A month or more before the new leaves, your colors are made to match the fallen, the moldering. When the wind riffles the ridgetop leaves, you too can flutter. This is your glory time.

mourning cloak on snow 3

Later on, after the heat of mating is past, when the weather turns oppressively hot, you can let the strings of your life go slack a second time, creature of the in-between, of spring and autumn.

The bus made a mid-day refueling stop somewhere in Wyoming. It was a couple days past New Year’s, the bus was half-full, and we were all going straight through to Chicago: a temporary almost-family, bound together by the driver’s friendliness and his encouragement of collective decision-making about our stops. And bound too, I guess, by the hostile weather outside, wind and snow buffeting the bus as we crossed the roof of the continent.

We smokers already had a camaraderie of our own, hurrying off the bus at every stop and huddling together near the door, helping each other get a light in the high wind. At this particular stop, a white college kid returning to Madison let it be known that he had something more than tobacco to share, so several of us followed him around to the back of the convenience store. It was strong stuff, but the wind gave cover to our coughing and quickly carried away the illicit smoke. Everything slowed. We began to talk — or shout, really — about whatever meant the most to us: music, sex, Jesus, poetry (that was me). The weak sunlight took on an epic cast.

A blast of the horn summoned us back to the bus, but we weren’t quite the last on board. In a pattern that was soon to become familiar, a 30ish African-American woman shepherded five young children back into their block of seats near the front, re-arranging their pillows and blankets, while the rest of us looked on solicitously. Plastic trash bags bulged in the overhead luggage compartments; I remember a small bedside lamp protruding from one of them. Each child clutched a small treat from the store, and solemnly began to eat. “Those are good kids, man,” someone murmured.

Then we were back on the interstate. A card game started up a few seats away, but the level of jollity receded as the miles passed, and the engine’s throb and the roar of the heaters made an auditory cocoon into which many of us withdrew. “Let me know if gets too hot for y’all back there,” the driver said. I shut my eyes, and quickly opened them again: the darkness inside was spinning like a slow whirlpool. I turned and fixed my gaze on the horizon with the devotion of a child hungry for one steady thing.

snow egg

Yesterday was the first snowy Easter I can remember. I went for a walk and found, among other things, a loose jumbly nest of sticks at the top of a Hercules’-club tree that cradled a small mound of snow, and not far away, an egg-shaped melt-spot on the surface of a rock, resting in the shadows of branches. Without meaning to, it seemed, I’d gone on an Easter egg hunt. It made me think back…

Easter morning when I was small
meant candy — the first since Halloween;
a gift or two, usually including a new kite,
which I would struggle valiantly to fly
in the mountaintop’s transverse winds;
& a half-dozen eggs I had helped
to dye myself, those that weren’t already
sea-green or blue because they’d been laid
by one of our Araucana hens. We used
all-natural materials, especially
onion skins, which imparted a yellow
or orange tint depending on how long
we left the eggs in the dye bath.
Wrapping them in ferns or tree leaves
made lacy patterns where the veins
lay against the shell. It was as if
we were enacting a dream of barnyard fowl
to return to the trees.

Somehow even knowing what we would find,
& despite the fact that hard-boiled eggs
can’t compete for taste sensation with a chocolate bar,
it was still exciting to paw down through
the green plastic straw — reused year
after year — & lift them out, bright & smooth
as pebbles on a beach. Cracking such an egg
was a solemn occasion.
It made us mindful, admiring the shell
even as we split & crumbled it, & underneath
the slick flesh no longer white, but onion-colored.
The last discovery then would be a bit
anti-climatic: the yolk a dark orange
as with any egg from a chicken that’s free to roam,
to bathe in the dust, & for whatever reason,
madly flapping in front of oncoming cars,
to cross the road.
__________

In response to the Read Write Poem prompt, “Go green!” Links to other responses may be found here.

They are on vacation with their oldest granddaughter, who will turn 12 in a few days. En route to the historic district of one small city, a building collapses half a block ahead. A huge cloud of dust rises up; traffic slows to a crawl. The grandparents take a quick glance and look away, but the girl watches intently as emergency crews pull a body from the wreckage. “He’s still alive,” she announces.

They decide not to take the walking tour after all, and continue driving to the next state park. As soon as they get out of town: “Tell me another story, Grandpa!”

“He makes up these exciting adventure stories, starring boy and girl detectives just about Eva’s age. I don’t know how he does it,” Mom tells me later. “I can’t do that. The only stories I can tell her are things I remember — true stories. I said, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t make things up the way your Grandpa does.’

“I told her about England — I was just a couple years older than her when our family went over there. She wanted to hear all about it. I told her about the friends I made, and how everyone revered the teachers so much. I explained the way the school system was back then, how kids’ futures would be determined by what kind of high school they attended. She didn’t think that was right.

“And of course I told her stories about the relatives, dwelling on the parts that I thought would interest her. I told her about that time back in Maine, waking up at 4:30 in the morning and telling Bruce, ‘Nanna just died,’ and finding out the next day that she had, at that exact time. And then when we were singing hymns at her funeral, bursting into tears when I got to the third verse of ‘Beneath the Cross of Jesus.’ It turned out that had been Nanna’s favorite verse of any hymn. It is a very pretty tune.” She starts to sing it.

I take, O cross, thy shadow
For my abiding place;
I ask no other sunshine than
The sunshine of His face;
Content to let the world go by,
To know no gain nor loss,
My sinful self my only shame,
My glory all the cross.

The granddaughter’s eyes go wide. She wonders if she will be that clairvoyant herself when the time comes. That night at the motel, she and her Nanna stay up late watching a DVD of the old musical “Oklahoma.” Grandpa watches a little bit of it, then retires to the bedroom. Too much tension and violence, he says. It would disturb his sleep.

My grandmother had a reverence for the sun, a holy regard that is now all but gone out of mankind. There was a wariness in her, and an ancient awe. She was Christian in her later years, but she had come a long way about, and she never forgot her birthright. As a child she had been to the Sun Dances; she had taken part in those annual rites, and by them she had learned the restoration of her people in the presence of Tai-me. She was about seven when the last Kiowa Sun Dance was held in 1887 on the Washita River about Rainy Mountain Creek. The buffalo were gone. In order to consummate the ancient sacrifice — to impale the head of a buffalo bull upon the medicine tree — a delegation of old men journeyed into Texas, there to beg and barter for an animal from the Goodnight herd. She was ten when the Kiowas came together for the last time as a living Sun Dance culture. They could find no buffalo; they had to hang an old hide from the sacred tree. Before the dance could begin, a company of soldiers rode out from Fort Sill under orders to disperse the tribe. Forbidden without cause an essential act of their faith, having seen the wild herds slaughtered and left to rot upon the ground, the Kiowas backed away forever from the medicine tree. That was July 20, 1890, at the great bend of the Washita. My grandmother was there. Without bitterness, and for as long as she lived, she bore a vision of deicide.

N. Scott Momaday, The Way to Rainy Mountain (University of New Mexico Press, 1969)