Precursor to “The Morning Porch”

Indexing my Butternut Chronicle series from November 2004/1998, I was amused to rediscover what I had written by way of an Afterword:

In [the butternut tree’s] absence, I don’t know that I could really gather enough material for a daily front porch chronicle. I have of course recorded a number of observations in these virtual pages, and someday there might be enough to gather into a small chapbook. But the gap between the porch and the edge of the woods is too large – about 75 feet – for close observation of whatever goes on there, and I don’t like using binoculars.

Ha! It does show, however, that the idea’s been brewing for a while now — since 1998, at least. In the Afterword I also speculated about why that early journaling attempt had run out of steam so quickly, suggesting that it was because the focus was too diffuse, and I should have zeroed in on the butternut tree and its inhabitants.

The relative longevity of my current project, however, probably owes more to the brevity of the entries than to the temporal focus. It’s like running a marathon in daily, 50-yard-dash installments. And with that brevity — strictly enforced by Twitter — comes a reliance on lyrical touches, because how else to make such miniatures compelling? I’m still not much of a journal-keeper — not compared to someone like Tom Montag with his Morning Drive Journal, for example, which is in its fifth year now, with entries that are neither unlyrical nor Minuteman-short. Ah, well. Fortunately, this race is not to the swift. The one that is — well, may the best rat win.

Ode to a Magnetic Screwdriver

This entry is part 11 of 31 in the series Odes to Tools


If the part that screws
is the head — this X-
shaped tip — then
the other end must be
tail: the shaft rooted
in transparent sun-
colored plastic like
an insect in amber.
And considering how
the power drill
with screwdriver bit
has replaced it,
this might as well be
a relic from
the Mesozoic.
The tip attracts
anything steel, but
can only solve for x,
descending into
the head of the screw
like a spirit
into someone possessed,
spinning like a purpose-
driven whirlwind
in a desert of wood,
inclining ever so slightly
toward magnetic north.

New paths into the old thicket

If posting has seemed a little less frequent here lately, that’s because I’ve been adding some new indexing features to the site, trying to improve access to the voluminous Via Negativa archives. Some of these changes will be obvious to anyone who’s visted the site regularly. First, I reorganized the way I link to favorite posts. Now there’s a box in the sidebar with links to ten random “Best of Via Negativa” posts that change everytime you refresh the page, with a link below to a complete archive of favorites in reverse chronological order. It took a while to tag all those old posts, but I think this is a big improvement over the former system, where direct links to favorite posts were two clicks away in yearly compendiums.

Second, I’ve just substituted paged navigation for the default “Next” and “Previous” links at the bottoms of pages. This not only helps one move more rapidly through the various types of archives, it also removes the confusion about whether “next” means “older” or “newer.” The need to avoid such confusion was especially urgent because of my implementation of a third feature: a new way of indexing and displaying series that includes archival pages in proper chronological order, so one can read through a series of posts in the order they were written. At present, I’m using a sidebar box to display links to series, too (in the future, I might simply link to a series index page).

These changes have involved a lot of editing of old posts to add new tags — a very easy but also very time-consuming thing to do. I also finished putting all my old “Words on the Street” cartoons into the sub-category of the same name (under Humor). The only problem there is that some of the oldest cartoons have disappeared, because I hosted them on ImageShack, which apparently cleans out its servers every few years. I have copies of all the cartoons on my hard drive, but I never kept records of which ones I posted on which dates.

If anyone’s interested in the plugins behind these changes, I’ve just updated the Credits page. I learned about the Organize Series plugin from a review at Weblog Tools Collection last week and downloaded it immediately. The possibility of a third taxonomy in addition to tags and categories was pretty exciting, and it works O.K. out of the box, but if you’re interested in using it on your own self-hosted WordPress blog, beware that changing the styling is very much a hands-on operation. And depending on your theme, the series index page (which I’m not using here yet) may not display properly; it didn’t for me. Major fenagling with PHP files was required to make that part of it work.

There are a couple other, minor problems with the plugin, too, but its approach to the problem of organizing and presenting series is revolutionary, and I’m sure with all the attention it’s receiving, the developer will get a lot of help in ironing out the rough spots. I’m certainly hoping for its mass adoption as an indispensible plugin, because that’s really the only way to ensure that a given plugin will still be around and compatible with the latest versions of WordPress five years from now. If not, future readers of the Via Negativa archives will probably wonder what the hell I was so excited about.

Back to Rickett’s Glen

Going in Circles, from the Undiscovery Channel on Vimeo.

Gnats circle our heads without biting as we climb up and down the rock steps with cameras or strip down to bathing suits to swim in the plunge pool, each attentive in our way to the mysteries before us. The stone face beside the waterfall stares unrecognized from a thousand vacation snapshots.

walking birch

walking birchThis is one of the most popular places to go walking in Pennsylvania; even the trees seem to want to join in. Black and yellow birches balance on stout root-legs, the stumps on top of which they sprouted having long since disappeared, like crutches thrown away after a visit to the healing waters of some sacred spot.

The understory shrubs known as hobblebush, or witch-hobble, lean out over the water to escape the ministrations of the white-tailed deer. They’re already in radiant bloom, with their heart-shaped leaves only half-grown.


“Deer Park,” says the label on the plastic water bottle bobbing below the falls. But deer numbers in the park must be low, or there’d be no hobblebush at all, and far fewer of the wildflowers that carpet the ground: trillium, foamflower, trout lilies.

lichen on hemlock

Twigs shed by the hemlocks are covered in arboreal lichen, as one would expect from an old-growth forest. I try not to focus on the unnaturally thin and grayish foliage on some the trees — a sign that the hemlock woolly adelgid has reached North Mountain, and in a few more years all the hemlocks here may be dead. If and when that happens, it will be catastrophic for lichens and the invertebrates that feed on them. Cold-water stoneflies, brook trout, and other species dependent on the cooling properties of hemlock groves will suffer, as will some of the songbirds that reach their highest densities in old-growth conifer forests: Acadian flycatcher, Blackburnian warbler, black-throated green warbler, and blue-headed vireo. All but the flycatcher have returned from their winter vacations in the tropics for another breeding season, and sing from the treetops.

truck in the woods

Brook trout dart across the bottom of sunlit pools in Kitchen Creek, seemingly oblivious to the traffic on the two-lane highway. I think I know why some people find fishing addictive: staring at the water and the fish moving through it is a passport to another, more timeless dimension.

We’re on our way home from a funeral for a great aunt, the last of her generation. My paternal grandmother, her husband, and most of her extended family are buried within fifteen miles of here. My ancestors have been making the circuit hike of the glens probably since before Rickett’s Glen was a state park, and my parents courted here back in the days when couples still courted, putting over from Bucknell University on Dad’s motor scooter. Somehow without really intending to I end up visiting at least once a year myself. It’s beginning to feel almost like a pilgrimage.

Resting place

after the dance

On a cool morning in April, two worn-out mattresses and a midden of shoes make an attractive landing spot for spring azure butterflies. Behind them, woods are reclaiming a lot that was once part of a small airport.


Every year at about this time I find myself drawn to such tableaus. Though I had no input in the choice of the current “Nature in the Cracks” theme at qarrtsiluni, it couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time of the year as far as I’m concerned. The regenerative power of nature is always at its most striking in the vicinity of crumbling, rusting, or decaying human artifacts — especially when those artifacts were mass-produced garbage from their inception, designed to wear out and be replaced in an ever-quickening cycle of frenetic consumption. Going back to nature is really the only way they can attain a measure of dignity and beauty.

Electropure Milk

Consider by contrast the durable, reusable milk bottle, occasionally found in dumps, but more often on collectors’ shelves. Finding such a bottle resting in a bed of leaves out in the woods invites the kind of admiration otherwise reserved for empty turtle shells or shed antlers. As a miniature reservoir for rainwater, it might even serve a useful ecological function, providing habitat for the gnats, midges, and other assorted organisms that are probably scarcer than they should be in this upland forest too young — as most of our forests are now — for the profusion of water-trapping cavities natural to a hardwood forest ecosystem.


Inside the foundations of an old cabin, someone has fashioned a couple of stone seats. These are ruins of the classic type, appreciation for which has become so widespread that no one thinks twice about routing a popular hiking trail right past them. What better place to sit and listen to black-throated green warblers calling from the hemlocks on a cool April afternoon? It’s fun to imagine living in a space too small for any of our junk. Just the bare essentials, we say to ourselves: somewhere to take off our shoes and put our feet up. Somewhere to rest.

Ode to Forks

This entry is part 10 of 31 in the series Odes to Tools


Metal claws of the beast
we would much rather
be descended from —
no wimpy swinging in trees,
no equivocating opposable tine —

whether pitching hay or turning soil
their purpose is the same:
to bite what they cannot chew
& carry what they cannot keep.

There are forks also in roads,
in creeks & in tongues,
but for them
everything remains open.
How ironic then that the man-made fork
should epitomize inflexibility:
insurrectionary bedfellow of the torch,
stoker of digestive fires,
guard’s goad in an underworld
we hope never to descend to,
minimal lightning that we are,
tree gone wrong.

Down and dirty

Election Day Fracas, from the Undiscovery Channel on Vimeo.

Nothing quite says “Earth Day” to me like a battle for supremacy between two magnificent wild animals. Unfortunately, however, I had to settle for a squabble between two groundhogs under and (briefly) in front of my house. Hey, it beats reading yet another stupid email entitled “Ten Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth.” (If it were simple, we’d have saved the earth ten times over by now. I’m more in Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s camp: if something doesn’t make me angry or at least uncomfortable, it’s probably not true.)

But as I listened to the groundhogs’ threats and screams, and took in the dirt and the abundant flies, I remembered that it was also Primary Election Day here in Punxatawney Phil land. I’m registered Independent myself, so I won’t be participating in this wonderful exercise in sandbox democracy. If there’s hog to be ground — and I imagine there is — I’ll just have to leave that to my fellow Younsers.*

Given the predicted high turnout and the general disorganization at Pennsylvania’s polling places, I’m not too sanguine that this will be over by tomorrow morning, or even by the end of the week. Let me know when it’s safe to come out, O.K.?

groundhog snout

*Younser: An inhabitant of that portion of Pennsylvania where “you’ns” is in common use as a second-person plural pronoun. Younsers give way to Yinzers west of Johnstown.

Autumn in April

Autumn in April:
leaves drift down from a beech tree,
maples are red again.


A millipede is climbing
the bathroom wall
next to the toothbrushes.


Three red-tailed hawks
dive-bomb each other
in the unseasonable heat.


The hugely pregnant
feral cat stares balefully
from behind the hyacinths.


The sprouted millet
still shows a little yellow;
goldfinches, a little green.


When the rain subsides,
a blue-headed vireo’s
deliberate song.


Watched the bears till dark.
In the morning, muddy pawprints
on the windows.


In the porcupine-girdled
branches of the plum tree,
a male cardinal.

Ode to a Bucket

This entry is part 9 of 31 in the series Odes to Tools



As a bucket ages,
its galvanized surface
takes on the look
of new ice — that blue-
white jigsaw puzzle —
or a flock of cranes.
Something in its make-up
clearly rebels
against its type-casting
as a mere container
or temporary conveyance.
Even half-full,
for example, the handle
cuts into the hand.
People rarely think
to store a bucket
upside-down, so when
the bottom rusts through,
it can at last retire
& start life over:
a planter
for marigolds
on top of a stump
in a crew-cut lawn;
a transportable target
for rifle practice;
or hung on a nail
in the garden shed,
a home for wrens.
They line it
with grass & weeds
& perch burbling
on the rim,
bobbing up & down
on spring-loaded legs,
drawing from
an inexhaustible well.


Carolina wren silhouette



It was hot today; I came close to cutting my hair. I saw four garter snakes — which usually can be found sunning themselves on warm rocks this time of year — down in or right above the water in the old stone well. It was too bad my three-year-old niece Elanor couldn’t have been here today; she’s developed quite an interest in these snakes, and even held one for the first time last week with her father’s encouragement.

Around 10:30, I wandered down to the pussy willow next to the stream to admire the way it shone and buzzed: bees, wasps, and flies of all descriptions swarmed its furry blossoms. Further down the hollow, the round-lobed hepatica was in full bloom on the bank above the road, and for the third spring in a row since I got the camera I have now, I knelt or lay on the leaves taking dozens of photos while the green-bottle flies climbed all over my arms and face. Every hepatica blossom is a slightly different color, ranging from almost white to lavender.

Later on in the afternoon, I saw the first cabbage white butterfly of the year. I kept thinking though that I ought to see a bear, since I had posted one here in the header of the blog yesterday, and as luck would have it, at around 4:45, I got my wish. I was getting a drink of water at the sink when I looked out the window and saw a bear doing the same thing in the stream right behind the pussy willow tree. And she wasn’t alone.

black bears

There were four cubs in all, one of them a relatively uncommon cinnamon bear. This is almost certainly the same family I first saw last summer, when the cubs were barely bigger than basketballs. I was happy to see that they’d all made it through the winter. I went out on the front porch and stood watching as they climbed the road bank and rambled off through the laurel. They disappeared surprisingly quickly in the sun-drenched woods.

UPDATE: Here’s a short video I managed to get from my porch.