Fly in a Broken Window


Via Magnetic Poetry Online Kits (hat tip: sister AE). Also influenced by Tiel Aisha Ansari. Yes, I know I’m not an artist!

I was honored to have inspired the prompt at Read Write Poem this week with my “Blue Jeans” magnetic poem. You can find links to the other responses here.

While Shuffle Words compositions are constrained by the small number of total words, the problem with Magnetic Poetry Online’s Poet Edition (which sounds redundant, doesn’t it?) is the limited number of good verbs. Whoever put their word collection together seems to have been under the impression that poetry is chiefly concerned with nouns and adjectives.

Notes from the dead time

Early afternoon: the dead time, I always think of it. A cicada is using the plank walls of my house as a resonator in lieu of a tree. It’s LOUD. But as soon as I go out with a camera and try to film him in action, he stops, like some sort of hyper-self-conscious poet.


Over the past few days, I’ve heard a couple different people mention “seven-year locusts.” More biblical influence, I suspect — things always come in sevens in the Bible. What the hell is seventeen? A number of no mythological significance whatsoever.

But maybe for us residents of the eastern United States, it should be. Isn’t making new myths an essential part of becoming native to a place? To me, the old stories about Persephone or Orpheus or Korach pale by comparison with the saga of the 17-year cicadas.


It’s not all cicadas here, though. On the powerline right-of-way, the lowbush blueberry bushes are blue with berries (is there any way to say that without sounding horribly redundant?) and the black raspberry canes around the houses are beginning to bear fruit — those that haven’t been grazed too heavily by deer.

One morning last week, I came out onto the powerline to find someone else there before me. “Hey, it’s a bear, eating up all my blueberries!” I shouted. Dad was using his walking stick to lower himself gingerly into a crouch, and was shoveling handfuls of berries into his mouth. So that’s what he uses that stick for! But who can blame him? Wild blueberries are definitely worth a painful descent.

Ten minutes later, climbing the ridge beyond the powerline, I saw a bear for real — one of the four yearlings wandering the mountain alone now that their mother has chased them off and (presumably) gone into estrus. It came ’round the bend in the trail and stopped. I had been standing there waiting for a singing black-throated blue warbler to get close enough to photograph. The bear and I blinked at each other for a few seconds. Then it headed off into the laurel at a gallop, before I could fully redirect my attention from the bird.

The very next moment, the warbler dropped down into a laurel bush right next to me, sang once, and flew off before I could turn my attention back to him. So, no photo of either one. My glacially slow reactions do make for memorable glimpses of things, though.


Last night I saw something I wished I’d been able to film in some way. Around ten till ten I took a walk up the mowed path through the field to the top of a bowl-shaped feature we call the amphitheatre, thinking I’d watch the fireflies. And it was quite a show: blinking, floating lights throughout the field and yard and into the treetops, all the way up the side of the wooded ridge. But what made it even more spectacular was the distant thunderstorm, visible but completely inaudible above the eastern horizon. Cloud-to-cloud lightning kept lighting up different fissures in the clouds (is there any way to say that without sounding redundant?) while the rest of the sky remained dark — and the equally silent fireflies flashed below.


Now I’m sitting out on the porch, fighting the dead time with strong tea and reading Richard Shelton’s Selected Poems for the hundredth time. A doe is grazing on the black currant bushes in the stream below the yard, and I notice with a mixture of disgust and pity that her back is black with deerflies. Her short tail swivels and her hide twitches constantly in a fruitless effort to shake them off. Watching her skin vibrate while the rest of her goes unhurriedly about her business puts me in mind of a belly-dancer, bedeviled by the crawling stares of her audience.

A fawn appears and shoves its muzzle between her hind legs. The two of them amble across the driveway, climb the bank and disappear into the woods.

Poem for Display Above the Urinals in a Men’s Restroom

This entry is part 11 of 14 in the series Public Poems


Eyes front, soldier.
The general looks hard for signs
of deviation.

Don’t show too much interest
even in this poem,
which is probably gay.

There were trees here once
where you stand relieving yourself
against a hollow trunk.

They would not have known
what to do
with so much saltpeter.

Note: Saltpeter, or potassium nitrate — a critical component of gunpowder — readily precipitates out of urine.

A non-plague of non-locusts

egg-laying cicada

The locusts are, it must be said, a bit of a plague on the locusts. The males call “Pha-roah! Pha-roah!” in a slow southern drawl while the females plunge their scimitar-shaped ovipositors into the thorny twigs, sometimes so deep that they break. All along the top edge of the field, the black locusts are acquiring a pruned and chastened look, as if they were the victims of some very localized storm.

cicada damage

Of course, 17-year “locusts” are really cicadas (see Brood XIV). According to some sources, when early European settlers first encountered periodical cicadas in eastern North America, the only parallel they could think of for such an extreme insect outbreak was the plague of locusts in the Bible, so “locusts” they became — despite the fact that, as members of the order Homoptera, they could scarcely be more distantly related to true locusts, which are grasshoppers, Orthoptera. According to the Locust entry in the Wikipedia, however, the conflation goes much further back, to “the Vulgar Latin locusta, which was originally used to refer to various types of crustaceans and insects.” The English essayist Thomas Browne was bemoaning the confusion between locusts and old-world cicadas as early as the 17th century. And obviously the popular description of the call of Magicicada septendecim as “Pharoah” shows the unabated influence of Exodus 10:4-15.

However, it would be a great exaggeration to say of these “locusts” that “they covered the face of the whole earth, so that the land was darkened; and they did eat every herb of the land, and all the fruit of the trees which the hail had left: and there remained not any green thing in the trees, or in the herbs of the field, through all the land.” Here’s what the folks at Cicada Mania say:

Question: Will the cicadas kill my trees, shrubs and flowers?
Answer: Possibly. Cicadas don’t kill flowers and shouldn’t damage shrubs, but they can do damage to young, wimpy trees like ornamentals. If you have wimpy little trees, you can net them to keep the cicadas off. Tree species that aren’t native to North America won’t fare as well as native species. Trees that lose a lot of branches typically revive after a year or two, but they will be ugly in the mean time. Cicadas actually are a benefit to trees, as they destroy the weaker branches. Please don’t use pesticides — you’ll destroy the good bugs as well as the “nuisance” bugs, and ultimately do your garden and the environment a huge disfavor.

Of course, as larvae, cicadas do subsist on tree sap, but given that cicadas and deciduous trees have evolved together, I doubt that they do much to weaken the trees. Though the science is inconclusive, it’s likely that their extensive tunneling benefits the trees by aerating the soil, and possibly by creating macropores for new roots and fungal mycelia. An AP article quotes a Dr. Frank Hale from the University of Tennessee:

The holes from which they emerge aerate the soil around the tree roots, Hale said. The millions of decaying cicada bodies supply nitrogen and other nutrients, which rain washes down the holes to the tree roots.

However, a Penn State Ag School publication for orchardists assumes the worst, and considering the unique stresses on heavily pruned and sprayed trees in monocultural plantations, it may well be on-target with its recommendation to prevent egg-laying at all costs. It also emphasizes netting if feasible, and mentions the harmful effects of pesticides on beneficial insects.

cicada in scrub oak

Do the various Magicicada species vary in their arboreal preferences? I’ve mentioned black locusts as a favorite for swarming and egg-laying activity (see my video at the Plummer’s Hollow blog), but I suspect that’s largely because of their location in the field-forest ecotone. The cicadas here do show an affinity for forest edges and openings, regardless of where they originally emerged. I don’t know if the fact that locust trees are nitrogen-fixing legumes makes them any more attractive as adoptive mothers to cicada larvae. We have noticed relatively few cicadas in the black walnuts that surround the main house, which might seem logical given the toxicity of walnut roots to many other plants, but it seems that if we had the rarer third species, Magicicada septendecula, that might not be the case:

Within the same brood, the three species are always perfectly synchronized, but they are separated microspatially by having different habitats within the same woodland. Magicicada septendecula prefers ovipositing in hickories and walnuts, and emerges in higher proportions under those trees than under comparable oaks. Both M. septendecim [the “Pharoah” species] and M. septendecula occur together in upland woods, but septendecim exhibits much less host specificity than septendecula. The latter species is much rarer than septendecim; it can usually be heard chorusing in local patches within a woods occupied by septendecim. Magicicada cassini is a species of floodplain woods, and characteristically can be seen to replace septendecim and septendecula as one moves down a wooded slope leading to a stream. Over much of the eastern United States, however, the original forest has been extensively disturbed. Periodical cicadas survive and reproduce surprisingly well in cutover, scrubby second growth. Tree species characteristic of floodplains, like American elm, are often a component of upland second growth, and, especially in such situations, cassini, septendecim, and septendecula become intermixed though they remain reproductively isolated. The present lack of microspatial separation in many situations, then, is an artifact of human disturbance.
—Henry S. Dybas and Monte Lloyd, “The Habitats of 17-Year Periodical Cicadas (Homoptera: Cicadidae: Magicicada Spp.),” Ecological Monographs, Vol. 44, No. 3 (Summer, 1974)

That might explain why the M. cassini cicadas are so much louder and more numerous around Canoe Creek State Park, much of which is floodplain or early-succession second growth. At our annual Audubon Society picnic last week, they were nearly deafening. In fact, a friend just told me that the dog-day cicadas are usually very numerous there, too — and regardless of the species, they make excellent fish bait, he said. Hardly the stuff of plagues.

Today is the deadline to submit links to the next Festival of the Trees. Details are here.


If you’ve visited the site in the last two days, you might have noticed an “Index of Verbosity” at the bottom of the left sidebar listing the total numbers of posts, words, and comments for Via Negativa, together with some text explaining that the comments date back only to April 1, 2006. This afternoon I decided that the sidebar looked entirely too cluttered, so I moved most of that information into the footer instead. The numbers will be automatically updated everytime I post with the help of a software plugin called GeneralStats. And this evening I figured out the proper lines of PHP to use so I could put the Akismet spam-comment counter down there, too — a fun but frightening figure that grows by about 1500 a day. It didn’t seem fair to carry a free ad for Akismet and none for the many other fine plugins deployed here, though I did like that pale blue button as a visual element anchoring the sidebar. I’ll have to keep my eye out for a suitable replacement.

There’s a special joy that comes from making very minor changes to one’s blog, especially when it involves the successful deployment of complex tools and procedures that one barely understands. If you’re a blogger, I suspect you know what I’m talking about. Blogging is, above all, a superior form of procrastination. But what do you do when you want to procrastinate on blogging? Simple: you tinker with the blog.

Ode to a Compass

This entry is part 23 of 31 in the series Odes to Tools


I can still recall
my first encounter
with a compass in
the second grade.
It was shiny & dangerous,
a headless ballerina
with one wooden leg.
How odd, I thought,
that we should entrust
the drawing of circles
to something so asymmetrical.
And what to do
about that pinhole
at the center of the paper?
It seemed flawed
& unnecessary, like a seed
for a stone. I wanted
a way to make
a circle from without,
like shaping a pot
on a wheel. I had seen
hawks spiral
around an updraft
with nothing more
than a slight adjustment
to the wingtips.
Shouldn’t we
who are descended
from the trees
be able to free-hand
perfect circles,
simply by letting
the mind go blank
as a target?
The compass is a crutch.
Restore its missing leg
so it can return to
its first life as
a gnomon:
circled by the sun.

Ode to a Hive Tool

This entry is part 22 of 31 in the series Odes to Tools


You need a key for entering where there is no door.
You are much too full of your mammal self
to fit through the always-open entryway
& in any case would have no idea
how to execute a waggle dance,
which looks like sun-drugged madness to you,
looming over the brood box with your angry halo.

You need the hive tool — a burglar’s jimmy —
to prize the honey-heavy frames
from the super, where they hang
for all the world like file folders,
an archive of everything that blooms.

You bring your smoker, of course,
stuffed with straw you pilfered
from some poor scarecrow.
With tear gas & face shield you come,
gloved & booted,
walking gingerly as a boy with his first erection,
praying for the insurgency to die down.

Obama’s latest campaign stop: my unconscious

In my dream, Barack Obama did not pass the backyard barbecue test.

Actually, I don’t think it was a barbecue, but you know what I mean: this notion that the person we elect to the most powerful office in the world should be someone we’d like to hang out with: have a couple of beers, shoot some pool, shoot the shit, whatever. By most people’s measure, the current occupant of the White House passes that test — or at least he did eight years ago.

In my dream (and how sad is it that my exposure to the quadrennial horse race has reached such a level that I’m actually dreaming about the candidates?) Obama had dropped in on an extended family gathering of some sort. It was kind of a third-person dream, in that I understood that I was looking through somebody else’s eyes, someone presumably a bit more important than a scruffy poet-blogger with few ambitions and fewer means. The central drama involved some sort of rare seabird with a long, ratlike tail making an emergency landing in the backyard, where it was immediately set upon by the cat. It got away, a chase ensued, and eventually “I” managed to grab the bird and put it in a box, intending to call the nearest wildlife rehabilitator the next morning.

Senator Obama sat off to the side, looking relaxed and watching everything with great interest. He was very friendly, and said all the right things before he left: how much he’d enjoyed meeting us and how unforgettable an evening it had been. He even cracked a joke about the cat and the bird, which I don’t remember (I have a terrible memory for jokes). But as soon as he left, there was a palpable sense of relief in the gathering. It’s not that he was intimidating, exactly, though there was no doubt he was the smartest person there. It was just that he gave very little of himself away. His almost preternatural sense of composure and self-containment prevented him from being the kind of person one wanted to really unburden oneself to.

Now of course I have no idea how accurate this dream-perception might be as an insight into the real Barack Obama. But it does point to one quality that I think most of us want in the people we hang out with: they should be at least as flawed as we are, so they can empathize when we fuck up. Something tells me the current POTUS will be needing a lot of those kinds of friends in a few months — if he can find any who aren’t too busy writing bestselling books about how their own dreams of him were betrayed.

The shortest night

top-heading garlic

The morning after the summer solstice, which arrived just before 8:00 p.m. here, the garlic tops have each coiled another half-turn. Irises that were once blue dangle curled brown locks and raise flags of surrender, milky as a blind man’s eyes. It’s chilly. I grab my hooded sweatshirt off the doorknob and stand staring for a moment at my reflection in the bald brass.

cicada wings1

A 100-foot section of the mowed path leading from the garage into the woods is bejeweled with cicada wings, hundreds upon hundreds of them, covered with dew and glinting in the morning sun. What brought them there?

They had to have been brought: it’s not an area where either the emergence or the courtship of the 17-year cicadas have been particularly intense, or indeed noticeable. There are no overhanging branches from which birds might have discarded the wings as they ate — in fact, the wings peter out as soon as small trees begin to line the trail.

I suspect raccoons. What else could it be? I can picture them gathering there in the light of the just-past-full moon, squatting companionably as they pull the wings off their squirming victims and chew, chew, chew.