Lines for a cold May

question mark butterfly

first clear day in weeks
butterflies walk slowly over
the dry forest floor

interrupted forest

interrupted ferns’
delicate tips are still clenched
against the cold

pink lady's-slipper orchid

in the cold wind
a gnat clings to a bobbing
pink lady’s-slipper

leaf pond

tent caterpillars
the vernal pond quakes under
a coat of leaf-pieces

oak apple gall

oak apple gall
I bend down for a closer look
such a fresh green globe

The first two photos are from last week; the others are from yesterday evening.

Ode to a Hoe

This entry is part 18 of 31 in the series Odes to Tools


What begins with this
singular L?
New worms, certainly,
from the splitting
of their parent self.
Whole new cities
of aerobic bacteria.
Stones from rocks.
Sprouts of pigweed, lamb’s-quarters,
purslane, dock: seeds
that had lain dormant for decades
until the hoe stirred them
into life.
This italic L spells
hills for yams,
channels for irrigation water,
a level bed for flowers.
Its thick tongue
uncovers an instant palate.
Luh, it says.
Luh   luh   luh   luh.
The shocks travel
up the aching arms.

Ode to a Spirit Level

This entry is part 17 of 31 in the series Odes to Tools


Who would have thought that two vacant globes
preserved in alcohol

could so hold a construction
worker’s attention,

a devotional gaze otherwise reserved
for gravity-defying breasts or buttocks

if not always the eyes that go with them,
that cool disregard

that elicits a squint & a whistle
at whatever fails to fall into line.

Photographing rocks

Trek of the Dead

From Pohanginapete, a mediation on what it means to be an artist in a time of slow-motion apocalypse:

The comment reminded me of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s famous remark, “The world is going to pieces and people like Adams and Weston are photographing rocks.”

I thought about the justification for comments like these, and my own pessimism about where we’re headed; our apparent failure to convert concern into action. Should we abandon esoteric research; should I stop photographing rocks?

It’s a hard one. It’s tempting to think we “should” act responsibly, but how happy would we be if we insisted on acting responsibly? Sure, some of us would — and do — feel satisfied and happy knowing (or thinking) we’re doing the right thing, but what about the rest of us who, if we sacrificed ourselves for the greater good, would spend our lives feeling thwarted by our sense of duty — in effect, resenting the conscience that denied us the right to pursue what we most wanted? Enough, I guess, to make the world a less happy place than it would otherwise have been.
The end of the world as we know it

(Please leave any comments you might have over there, not here.)



Download the MP3

The caterpillar tents start appearing
just as the leaves burst their buds,
as if someone with a white marker
were doodling in every crotch of limbs.
My dad goes into the hospital to have
a large, non-malignant tumor
removed from his lower spine,
& I picture a white knot swelling
with caterpillars of pain.
A day after the surgery he’s taking
his first steps without it, this thing
that has made almost every position
of repose impossible for weeks,
forcing him to stand or to walk
slowly for hours each day.
Now it has been thoroughly cast out
through the surgeon’s art,
excised, exposed: bulb that burned
but gave off no light.
Sexless flower. Empty tent.
Be gone. Be gone. Be gone.

Here in the woods where my father returns
in a couple days to resume his walking —
this time to heal rather than assuage —
flashes of scarlet as a tanager
snatches gnats & caterpillars from
the not quite fully opened leaves,
singing a line of his hoarse song
between each mouthful of wings,
each mouthful of spines.

A lifetime

You’re lucky to have a lifetime in one place, Dave — do you feel that way, or does it get to you sometimes?
Beth (via email)

I have sat on my front stoop for two hours, glass of homebrew in hand, and I can tell you that I am not in a hurry to move any place else. It’s finally sunny after many days of rain, but the temperature is still only 65 degrees in the shade, and the oak leaves have yet to reach their full extent — hell, the black walnuts and black locusts have barely begun to open. I wish every spring took its time like this! I watch a bumblebee have intimate relations with the fresh pink blossoms on a bleeding-heart. A male ruby-throated hummingbird hurtles up and down, back and forth in his U-shaped courting flight, like the pendulum of an invisible clock. I watch a rose-breasted grosbeak singing as he flies, the red triangle on his breast catching the sun like a tribute to the 40th anniversary of May 13. (Damn, I was only two years old in 1968!)

A sharp-shinned hawk circles with that peculiarly rapid flapping they do, rising from the vicinity of my parents’ back porch to disappear into the slipstream above the ridge on wings of gold. A little later, a turkey vulture glides past. I watch innumerable flying insects backlit by the sun, all drifting in the same direction, west to east, in the almost imperceptible breeze. And all the while I listen to Roscoe Holcomb piped over the Internet, that high-lonesome Appalachian blues sound. At a certain point my eyes tear up: I can’t help thinking of those tens of thousands dead in Burma and in China. Poor fuckers. Whether you live on the coast or in the mountains, the land you love can turn on you at any time. That’s kind of what I was trying to get at with my last poem — the way we are bound to a particular place on this earth, even if we are a party to its undoing, and find it devilishly hard to pick up stakes. I mean, those folks in Picher, Oklahoma: Jesus Christ.

I like the way alcohol makes me feel content and dissatisfied at the same time. Newly energized, I get off my ass and pull a bunch of weeds just as the sun is going down. As soon as it slips behind the western ridge and the shadows disappear, the catbird flies to the top of the tallest locust in the yard and begins to improvise. Beth, since you asked: it gets to me every day.

Ode to a Plane

This entry is part 16 of 31 in the series Odes to Tools



The carpenter’s plane glides
through a sky of wood,
no propeller but the knob,
no tail but the tote,
no landing gear but the mouth & the blade
& no chance of flying but the flat steel frog.

The carpenter’s plane touches down
& down. Chips curl in a wave
that never stops breaking.
No one ever really escapes;
all planes are bound to the planet.
The only route out leads farther in.

When the carpenter’s plane got to Japan
it began to work in reverse:
there’s always more power in the homeward pull.
You go out hungry & come back
digesting fragments light as air,
dangerous with the scent of new surfaces.

Trees of life

Flowering Crabapple, from the Undiscovery Channel

There’s always something a bit paradisaical about a fruit tree in flower, abuzz with insects of every description. The aural and visual stimuli combine with the heavy scent and the electric atmosphere to create an almost overwhelming impression of superabundance. How can the world not be good, we think. I’m sure someone who grew up in the Midwest would argue with me on this, but I just don’t believe one can experience the same kind of gestalt in a field of wheat.

It’s worth recalling, perhaps, that for a very long time our main vision of paradise was arboreal. The central truth of the Garden of Eden story is that the loss of paradise was and remains wholly preventable, and that it finds expression most often in the misuse of trees. Nowadays, of course, for all but the willfully ignorant, evolution teaches that we are primates, descended from the trees: a not incompatible truth. One way or another, the wholesale destruction of forests is something that few human beings can regard with equanimity. And quite often, as in the mythical Eden, it dooms us.

Consider landslides. Hundreds of thousands of people, at the very least, have been buried alive after the slopes above their houses were logged, from Oregon, to China, to the Philippines, to Indonesia and various parts of the Himalayas.

Officials in the wildlife and forest department of Azad Jammu and Kashmir, (AJK) are of the view that an estimated 30 percent of the 87,000 people who died in the magnitude 7.6 earthquake [in 2005] could have been saved if there had been fewer landslides.

The officials, who declined to be named, blamed deforestation of the area for the huge landslides that contributed to a death toll that has risen to 43,399 people and left 31,069 others injured in the AJK districts of Muzaffarabad, Neelum, Bagh, Rawlakot and Palandri.

Then there are storm surges. The loss of coastal mangrove forests in parts of south and southeast Asia appears to have greatly magnified the destruction of the 2004 tsunami, according to a peer-reviewed study in the journal Science.

“The tsunami left a horrific human tragedy in its wake but also some lessons. Among them is the tremendous importance of mangroves, which are one of the world’s most threatened tropical ecosystems,” said Faizal Parish, director of the Global Environment Centre in Malaysia and co-author. “While no one could have prevented the tsunami, we can use this experience to prevent some of the destruction future events will cause.”

Unfortunately, that experience didn’t come soon enough to protect tens of thousands of Burmese villagers from the storm surge associated with last week’s cyclone. There, too, it appears that the destruction of coastal mangrove forests was as much to blame for the heavy death toll as the storm itself.

If only knowledge and experience by themselves were sufficient! But as the Garden of Eden myth suggests, we know just enough to be dangerous, rarely enough to be wise. Here in the U.S., we’ve understood the tight relationship between forests and water for over a hundred years. George Perkins Marsh’s hugely influential Man and Nature, published in 1864, used the historical example of forest destruction around the Mediterranean to finger deforestation as the leading cause of desertification. The catastrophic landslides, floods and fires that followed widespread clear-cutting in the latter half of the 19th Century here in the eastern United States seemed to many people to bear out Marsh’s prophesies, and led directly to the founding of the U.S. Forest Service. Yet today, most administrators of the USFS define “conservation” as “getting out the cut.”

The Pennsylvania state forest system, like the Adirondack Forest Preserve in New York, was established with the principal goal of preventing floods and erosion, protecting navigable waterways, and guaranteeing a clean water supply for the residents of the state. The link between intact, older forests and a steady supply of clean drinking water was very well understood, and countless studies since have only served to reinforce this insight. Preserving wide forested buffers along streams and rivers, for example, has become a standard water purification strategy, albeit one honored most often in the breach. But professional foresters are still advising municipal water authorities around the state to log portions of their watersheds “for the health of the forest” — defining “forest” solely in terms of saleable timber, and “health” in terms of profitability — with a deterioration in water supply as an inevitable result. Perhaps they figure that, since everyone buys water in plastic bottles now, it doesn’t really matter.

Marsh was right in more ways than he could possibly have imagined. Deserts are on the march all over the world, their progress greatly accelerated by, if not wholly attributable to, the cutting of trees. And as I mentioned last week, unlogged forests are an essential part of the global carbon cycle as well. I’ve seen widely varying estimates of the contribution of deforestation to global warming, but one of the most recent and conservative, again published in Science, asserts that “nearly 20 per cent of carbon emissions [are] due to human activities.” How much more evidence do we need that trees are essential to our continued life on this planet?

I am, quite obviously, a tree hugger: one of those soft-headed people who actually thinks trees deserve to live for their own sake, and who recognizes that they are the keystones of complex ecosystems supporting millions of species besides Homo sapiens, each of which has as valid a claim on the planet as we do. You can disagree with my value system all you want. The simple point I’m trying to make here is that even from a purely anthropocentric perspective, deforestation is one of the quickest, surest tickets straight to hell.


Don’t forget to submit tree-related links to the Festival of the Trees, hosted next month at the inimitable Wrenaissance Reflections. Details are here.

Ode to Scythes

This entry is part 15 of 31 in the series Odes to Tools



The scythes are emissaries
from a country
that no longer exists.
They have only each other
to converse with now
that their translator
the whetstone went off
& joined the knives.
They huddle together
in corners, nested esses
long in the tooth
but still as fluid
as the staff of Moses
at the exact moment
it shifted into an asp.
Do you remember,
they murmur, how
the crowds
would lose their heads
& stand like soldiers,
stiff, when the wind
moved through?