Seven facts about the ancestors

They were short. They could squat
on their haunches for hours.
They knew the right times for things.
They remembered what they heard
in a way that we who have been trained
by the measured tread of text cannot.
They had bad teeth, but better than
the farmers who followed them.
They squinted a lot.
They knew every conceivable grief
except for the small, dull kind
that accompanies the purchase
of some interchangeable part.

Pivot point

What made the ancestral timberdoodle decide to haunt the woods’ edge instead of the shore? My mother surprised one this morning up above the old dump and watched it for a while: the oddest walk she ever saw, she said. With every step, its chest throbbed visibly, as if with some uncontrollable emotion. I went to look for it after lunch, and it flew before I spotted it on the ground. I followed it up the old woods road, camera at the ready, my eyes riveted to the spot where it landed, but each time it flushed before I could distinguish the mottled brown of its feathers from the brown leaves, which were lifting and turning over in the wind. I’ve never had the sharpest eyesight.

I noticed as I walked back that there were still a few patches of snow on the powerline right-of-way, sheltered by the thick green laurel. Up on the ridge, the wind roared and died, roared and died, not quite as regular as ocean surf.

After Stravinsky, can anyone hear the phrase “rite of spring” and not feel a shiver of strangeness? Tonight at sunset, we will be almost equidistant from this morning’s sunrise and tomorrow’s. And at dusk, if the winds die down, the woodcock will position himself out in the field with his long sandpiper’s bill pointed at the sky and project his nasal longing into the heavens, again and again. Then he’ll launch his fat body several hundred feet straight up and fly in wide ascending circles, his wings twittering like a flock of sparrows, before plunging again to the earth. What if happiness were a pivot point you could occupy, even in the presence of unfulfilled desire? Would you try to make a fulcrum in your breast? Would you throw your voice as far as you could, and then go after it, secure in the knowledge that what goes up must come down? Would you haunt the brushy edges of the night?

Last Supper

The first thing you need to know
is that it happens right here,
time & again. And also
that the heavens do not open

because they already gape as wide
as they will go: witness young Iscariot,
those stars in his eyes

about to go nova. He means to see
justice done, because somebody —
Tax collectors? Call girls?
must pay for this profligacy. Ah,

there he is again, on the front page,
in black & white.
That corrupt bastard

who’s married to his wife. Well,
I’ve always been a straight-shooter,

he thinks, & raises the picture
to his lips.


leaf hand

I was dealt a singular hand, & learned
to do tricks with the light:
sun sugar, bittering
at an insect’s approach.
I donned a conjurer’s robe of air plants.
Below ground I have discovered
the prosthetic tooth of a glacier,
round & granitic, & I hold it
like hard candy in my mind,
that ultimate rope trick of rootlets
& mycorrhizal hyphae
that never quite touch.

In response to the Read Write Poem prompt, “be a tree.” Other responses are here.

(UPDATE) Hyphae, also called mycelia, are the “roots” of fungi; mycorrhizal means they are symbiotic with plants. See here:

In the ectomycorrhizal symbiosis between fungi and trees, the fungus completely ensheaths the tree roots and takes over water and mineral nutrient supply, while the plant supplies photosynthate. Recent work has focussed on gene expression in the two partners, on the effects of global change and nitrogen deposition rate on the symbiosis, and on the role of mycorrhizal fungi in connecting individual plants to form a ‘wood-wide web’.


sky roots
(Click photo to see larger version)

Mid-March at this latitude is a time when even the most ordinary things can seem like revelations, as the Theriomorph observes. There is both less and more of things than we remember. Upturned roots diminished by rot seem to draw sustenance directly from the clouds, while living roots on a stream bank eroded by floods are left clutching little but each other and a few, bare rocks. As we circle, examining them from all angles, these signs turn gradually into ciphers. Soon we risk our own entrapment in a spell of undiscovery. Did she really say, “Even the babies have rocks in their parts”? What does it mean?

(Video from the Undiscovery Channel)


A couple of housekeeping notes: I’ve introduced a Feedburner version of the RSS feed for this site, the main advantage of which is that it displays videos to subscribers. Sometimes, as with that skunk video in “Canoe Creek,” I forget to include a note or caption to tell people reading this via Bloglines, Google Reader, or wherever that there’s a video in the post. And why make them click through to view it, after all? Other advantages to the new feed include helpful links to share the post via email, Facebook, and so on, similar to what you have on-site with the ShareThis utility. I’ve made it the new default, meaning that it’s what you’ll get if you click on the little feed icon in the Firefox browser window.

And speaking of the browser window, if you’ve noticed a question mark inside a yellow warning triangle to the left of the URL, don’t be alarmed — that’s simply my new favicon. (Don’t like it? Design me another one!) It used to be an exclamation point, but it was subjected to rigorous questioning in Photoshop. If you can’t see the new favicon, and are still still looking at the old, nearly indecipherable one (which was supposed to be a “falling rocks ahead” sign, but looked more like a sideways “V”), that’s probably because your browser is still caching the old one. Don’t worry — you’re not missing much.

Spring cleaning

The melting of the snow offers a reverse review of the winter, like scrolling slowly down through a blog — a gray & granular roll-call of storms, dotted with patches of yellow. The snow gets dirtier & dirtier until the point where the ground starts to appear, when it looks white again by contrast. Even before the first wild onions, the bare brown earth is infinitely more complex than anything you can cover it with. I mean, where did these sticks come from all over the yard? Who threw them? The honeybees start flying before the last snow melts, drinking from sapsucker wells & other fresh wounds. Soon only the white buildings will remind us of winter’s blankness — tombs for the Asian ladybug beetles that infiltrated them by the thousands last Fall, thinking they were cool chalk cliffs, & died of thirst. The south-facing windows have been stained with the grime of beetle feet. Vacuum cleaners howl. Outside, three doves try to out-mourn each other, as if this disreputable yard were another Jerusalem.

Don’t forget to visit qarrtsiluni, where the first posts for our Nature in the Cracks issue are beginning to appear.

Canoe Creek

Canoe Lake

It was a bright, sunny afternoon with temperatures in the mid-50s. I hitched a ride with my brother Steve and his three-year-old daughter Elanor to Canoe Creek State Park, about 20 miles south of here, to look at waterfowl through his high-powered spotting scope. We went first to the picnic area, where a few buffleheads were swimming in a small patch of open water. But most of the birds were crowded in an inlet at the far end of the lake. Even at 75 power, it was hard to tell what some of them were, and I was surprised by all the heat shimmer off the ice-covered lake.

on the beach

Elanor was delighted by the little artificial beach. Another parent was there with two, slightly older boys, but they left shortly after we arrived and Elanor had the place to herself. She loves water in any form, and can spend hours staring at it, throwing things in it, and generally messing around in it. Fortunately for her, the lake had ignored the “beach closed” sign and had breached the fence.

The real excitement came an hour later, as we were heading back across the picnic area toward the car, having decided to drive to the boat launch on the other side of the lake for better views of the waterfowl. Steve spotted a small animal rooting around in the grass between the picnic tables. A skunk!

Charles Fergus, in Wildlife of Pennsylvania and the Northeast, notes that “The fur industry gives the highest grades to skunk pelts having the least amount of white,” so this was a very valuable skunk. As luck would have it, my mother’s nature column for March was on skunks, which are often seen this time of year. Not only is March their mating season, but they are apt to be famished at the end of a long winter, as this one appeared to be:

Striped skunks fatten up before winter and sleep through the coldest weather. But their body temperature only drops from 98 to 88 degrees Fahrenheit, and they frequently appear during warm spells. Nevertheless, from November to March, females lose from 32 to 55 percent of their weight and males from 15 to 48 percent.

And what do they eat, exactly? It might be easier to list what they don’t eat.

Striped skunks, which find food by using their keen sense of smell and hearing, eat just about anything including garbage and carrion. That’s why they thrive in a wide variety of habitats, including lawns and golf courses where they dig up grubs. But they prefer forest edges, old fields, and brushy farmlands where they do more good than harm, eating an incredible diversity of insects such as beetles, crickets, moths, ants, and grasshoppers, and specializing in such harmful to agriculture insects as bud worms, June beetles, army worms, cut worms, and scarab beetles. They dig up yellow jacket nests and scratch on beehives to entice honeybees outside so they can eat them and are seemingly unperturbed by their stings. They also relish spiders, toads, frogs, snakes, young rabbits, chipmunks, shrews, voles, salamanders, crayfish and earthworms.

And then there are the birds’ eggs, the mice, the roots and berries… For a striped skunk, it seems, nearly every area is a picnic area.

goose girl

On the other side of the lake, Elanor finally got a close look at the creatures that had left all those impressive turds in the grass. Steve and I were more interested in the displaying mergansers, the canvasbacks, and four tundra swans standing out on the ice. And as usual, we were ready to go long before she was, though she fell asleep soon after we got into the car.

The greatest value of Canoe Creek State Park to biodiversity lies elsewhere than in its artificial lake: it has the largest maternity colony of little brown bats in the state, and a bat hibernaculum that includes the federally endangered Indiana bat. With the mysterious white nose syndrome decimating bat populations to our north, and the growing threat of industrial wind turbines, which kill bats by the thousands, Canoe Creek will probably be an increasingly important refuge for these slow-reproducing keystone species. But the recreation-oriented portion of the park has value to wildlife too, and on a nice day in early spring, we were perfectly content with a few close views of some common but undeniably charismatic creatures.

Not altogether Charlie

One day, driving in the hollows above Tyrone, looking for an entrance to the state gamelands, we drove down a rutted, unpaved road and past a rusty trailer whose occupant had come outside to stare at us. The yard was muddy and full of junk — old cars, refrigerators, whatever was too big to fit in the trailer. The man stood next to the road, head cocked to one side, mouth gaped open. “He’s not altogether Charlie,” my Dad remarked. A few hundred yards further, the road dead-ended with no gamelands signs in evidence, so we turned the Scout around and headed back. The man was still there, waiting for us. We stared; he stared; we didn’t stop.

Thirty years later, for no good reason, I think of that incident. The sky is orange with sunrise. I’m standing out by the road, gawking at another “v” of swans heading north.


Via Negativa hasn’t been altogether Charlie for the past five days or so, but we hope to have it back in shape in a few hours. After that, it should be faster and more reliable than it was before. I’m grateful to my cousin Matt for trouble-shooting and for continuing to let Via Negativa live rent-free at his place (which is a bit fancier than a trailer). He just replaced the virtual couch, but it may us take a little while to break it in.

Thanks to everyone who wrote to express concern. I really appreciate it.

Where the wild trees are

Wild Trees cover

One night in early March 2008, I woke up around 3:00 and found myself unable to get back to sleep. After half an hour or so of tossing and turning, I got up, went downstairs, and began to read The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring, by Richard Preston. This was apparently at the very same time that someone whom I did not yet know, surfing the Internet on her laptop, discovered Via Negativa and became engrossed in the dense, leafy foliage of its archives. Her eyes were a murky brown. Someday our paths would cross — ideally in a grove of wild, or unclimbed, trees — and we’d give “climax forest” a whole new meaning.

The oil furnace in the crawlspace under the living room rattled awake, shaking the house, and I drew the afghan tighter around my pajama-clad legs. The book was engrossing, featuring bizarre characters in tightly crafted scenes, and I slowly got over my annoyance at the odd blend of narrative omniscience and first-person journalism. After two hours, I put the book down and returned to bed, sleeping soundly until around 7:30, when I awoke feeling thoroughly refreshed.

Over the next five days, I returned to The Wild Trees every night for a couple of hours before going to bed. I enjoyed reading about its protagonists’ off-beat childhoods, which reminded me so much of my own, and the bite-sized chunks of natural history thrown in to flavor the stew were remarkably easy to digest. Reading Richard Preston was, it turned out, highly conducive to a good night’s sleep, for reasons that scientists are only just beginning to understand. His fast-moving narrative makes few demands on the reader, yet lacks the kind of propulsive plot-line that might tempt one to stay up too late. Each chapter builds to some pearl of insight or high drama, but ends well before boredom sets in, kind of like a Billy Collins poem. This is no dreary Bernd Heinrich book, where the process of scientific investigation takes center stage. Here, the scientists’ essential discoveries are described in a pithy paragraph or two — footnotes, almost, to the “passion and daring” advertised in the subtitle.

I became troubled, though, that I’d be unable to write a glowing review of a book that does so well what it sets out to do. Was it really Preston’s fault that he failed to write the book I wanted to read? Book reviewers who take authors to task for failing to write as they would’ve written themselves have always, quite frankly, annoyed the shit out of me. I decided that Preston deserves a lot of credit for writing a book-club-friendly page-turner about people obsessed with the size and performance of redwoods. I found the lack of a bibliography intensely frustrating, but what did I expect from a publisher like Random House? If I’m to be honest with myself, I enjoyed filling a few holes in my knowledge about canopy ecosystems in such a painless and soporific manner. A couple hours of passion, followed by a long and uninterrupted sleep: what — I asked myself — was so wrong with that? But it left me ill-prepared for what would happen next.

Don’t forget to submit tree-related links to the Festival of the Trees, the next edition of which will appear at the Brazilian tree blog Árvores Vivas em Nossas Vidas. Send submissions to arvoresvivas [at] gmail [dot] com by March 28, or preferably even sooner, in order to give the host enough time to prepare a bilingual version.

Reimagining a poem

Ecotone blog screenshot

I have a new version of an old poem up at Reimagining Place, the “rogue companion” to the print journal Ecotone (not to be confused with the now-defunct Ecotone wiki for place-blogging, to which I used to contribute back in 2004-5). Be sure to scroll down and read some of the other contributions to the blogzine’s “Addiction as Ecotone” series. It’s been a pretty cool online experiment, I think, and one I’m happy to be a part of. The editor, David Harris-Gershon, was very generous with his time and helped me craft what I think is a much stronger poem (you can see the original here).