July Stones

video link

This morning I welcome Fiona Robyn to Via Negativa — that’s her voice in the video. Fiona’s on a blog tour to promote her book small stones: a year of moments. I’m a long-time reader of the blog from which the selections were drawn — in fact, a small stone was a major inspiration for my own daily microblogging experiment, The Morning Porch.

Fiona’s “stones” aren’t poems, exactly — some are, but others clearly are not. Each one represents a moment of quiet, focused attention, part of a daily practice which Fiona began three years ago to try and revitalize her own interest in writing. Blogging was integral to the project, it seems: from the beginning she wanted a space where she could collect and share the literary equivalent of small stones picked up on a walk and carried home in a pocket. “They might be a snatch of overheard conversation, the sun moving behind the cloud, or a cat jumping on the lawn,” Fiona writes in the introduction.

They set off a quiet ‘ah!’ inside me, like a toddler saying ‘look!’ They are nothing special and something special all at once. As time went on, I got better at remembering to notice the world around me. Not just to notice it but to scrutinize it, engage with it, love it.

When Fiona said she was publishing a book of selections from the first three years of the blog, I had my doubts about how well it work. But in fact they make a surprisingly satisfying collection. Like insects trapped in amber, the very delicacy and ephemerality of Fiona’s “stones” invite closer examination. As fragments of concentrated attention, many of them engage the reader in an active search for additional images and ramifications, in the same way that a modern translation of Sappho challenges one to fill in the lacunae.

Accordingly, in the video, I tried to leave as many lacunae as possible and let the words create the pictures. I hope it manages to excite some interest in the project (I uploaded it to YouTube, as well, for maximum exposure). Be sure to follow the links on the blog tour page for many more interviews, reviews, and conversations with the author. Consider writing your own “stones” for submission to a new, communal blog that Fiona is launching called a handful of stones. And of course check out the book.


Five minutes before midnight, a gnat attracted to the reflected light of my computer monitor dives into my eye.

Ode to a Wire Brush

This entry is part 25 of 31 in the series Odes to Tools


Never was walking
a greater penance
than for one without any feet
& legs more numerous
than the corrosive rain.
And the to-&-fro of it:
pacing is a refuge
when you can’t stand still.
Do it long enough
& distraction turns into discipline,
the ground warms
& acquires the hard gleam
of an interrogator.
You confess, confess, confess.
Your tracks are covered
with a thin brown dust.


Night opened on her stalk and fed me a nectar of endless recursion: I am watching myself watching myself watching myself live a life, duly insured and mortgaged and stumbling over toy wagons blocking the walk. I am taking her literal nipple into my mouth and reaching for a waist as smooth as smoked glass, until the sound of chewing wakes me and I lie in the dark trying to remember what’s real. In the morning, will I really find a fist-sized hole behind the kitchen sink crawling with carpenter ants? Will the porcupine chatter at me from behind a non-functioning church organ in my dining room? And what about the mice pulling their tails through their teeth? Outside the window, a dry retching as the feral housecat regurgitates her own black fur. It could be anything.

Brain and Nerve Food

Brain and Nerve Food

What’s interesting about these advertisements from 1884 is that they appear on the back cover of an anthology of English poetry published by Funk & Wagnalls, a volume of something called the Standard Library — evidently an ancestor to Dr. Eliot’s Five-Foot Shelf, Penguin Classics, and other such series of canonical works. It’s funny that nowadays we aren’t surprised by magazines where advertising takes up half or more of the content, but find the idea of an ad on a book — even a mass-market paperback — a little shocking. But then books are things we plan on keeping around, whereas magazines are inherently disposable.

I think about that distinction a lot, since I’m so involved in publishing a magazine online, where the average shelf-life of blogs and zines is even shorter than the xeroxed little magazines of yore. (Do the 1970s qualify as “yore” yet?) On the one hand, I accept the reality that nothing is forever, and transience is inherent in all things. On the other hand, why should artists and authors entrust their works to qarrtsiluni if it isn’t going to be around in five or ten years? Unlike a print publication, there’s no tangible artifact to sit on a shelf somewhere, gathering dust. Don’t we owe it to our contributors to keep their works online as long as possible? We’re not paying them anything, so it seems like the least we can do.

I spent much of this weekend pulling together qartsiluni‘s first-ever podcast for the Water issue, in case anyone wonders where the hell I’ve been. And my other project involved making a more secure archive for our news microblog, which will still originate on Twitter (for the time being, at any rate), but now has its main presence on the imaginatively named qarrtsiluni news blog.

Now that qarrtsiluni has a blog, perhaps its own ambiguous nature — half-blog, half-magazine — will be a little less obvious. Or maybe adding a podcast dimension simply makes our precise identity even more difficult to pin down. The Standard Library was clearly a bit of a hybrid, too, appearing bi-monthly “bound in postal card manilla,” available by annual subscription, but offered also in cloth editions and clearly meant to be permanent. Over a century later, the paper is still in fine shape — nothing like some of the pulp fiction I have from the 1940s and 50s that crumbles at the touch. Chalk it up, perhaps, to all those vitalized phos-phites.

Roadside markers

What is there to say about an outing where the camera batteries failed after the first few shots, and most of the best sightings went unrecorded? Well, everything, of course. That’s the trouble.


Chicory sprouts from an old leather shoe that stayed behind on the highwayside to gather moss. Where toes of some Sunday Christian used to fit, a splay of coffee-flavored roots. In place of the leg, the sex, and so on: pale blue suns.


What is an osprey doing here in breeding season, far from a lake or river, circling in the heat and haze above the small city, between the dry hills the locals call mountains because they have never travelled anywhere else?


We follow a front loader into the state forest, chafing at the slowness. Is it going our way? It is annihilating our way. They’re working on the bridge. The foreman says, People have been moving the Road Closed signs and driving through, but they’ve been doing so at their own risk. Is there any risk? I ask. No, he says. We’ll be out of here by late afternoon.


We stop for red raspberries and find beside the road the uncommonest looking bee-fly we’ve ever seen performing sexual favors for common milkweed. It’s hunchbacked and lobster-tailed, and it hovers just like a hummingbird moth — a mimic of a mimic. Later, I look it up online: Lepidophora. It doesn’t stay at one flower for more than a few seconds, but keeps circling the globe-shaped flower cluster, and buzzing from globe to globe.


Picking berries into a pail feels like work. Eating berries out of the pail feels illicit. Eating berries straight from the bush or the cane feels natural and liberating, but maybe a little wrong — like shitting in the woods.


These forest roads seem to go on forever, and they almost do. Mostly unpaved, without lines, speed limit signs, or mile markers, they follow the contours of the land as closely as a hand carressing a body, up and down and around. But they are far from innocent, I realize. What the hell is all this crownvetch doing here in the middle of the forest, I shout. The ecological effects of a road can extend for up to a mile on either side of it, L. points out. The leaf duff will be thin, dried out, and full of weed seeds for a hundred yards in.


The roadside forest gaps open and drops away: an official overlook, complete with graffiti, broken beer bottles, and shotgun shells. We are drawn not to the officially scenic view of shapely, green ridges air-brushed by haze, but to the freakish tree in the clearing, right below the precipice: a cluster of 15-foot stems, each topped with a yellow mop-head of fuzzy yellow pencils, aswarm with insects. What is that? Some new invasive species? asks my beetle-collecting brother. I look at the leaves and the bark. It’s an American chestnut! And there are two more blooming within fifty feet of it! Look at all the Cerambycidae, Steve says. I have NEVER seen beetles swarm like that, not even in the tropics. And he’s spent plenty of time in the tropics, too: in Taiwan, the Philippines, south India, Sri Lanka, and Central America. We’re now about 35 miles from home — and 80 years since the time when these ridgetop forests were thick with chestnut trees, before the blight came through. Such a loss, such a rent in the web of life here. My god.


The road turns bad. Steve gets out and walks in front, helping to spot especially dangerous-looking rocks and potholes. I sit in the backseat, craning my neck while L. pilots a zig-zag course. We’re driving a Beetle. At least it’s narrow enough to fit between the rocks, L. says.


Back on the good roads, we enter a stretch where the trees have been defoliated by gypsy moth caterpillars, and are just leafing out for the second time. It might seem like spring if it weren’t so hot and humid.


Dead porcupines start appearing in the road, in various stages of decomposition. In the space of three miles we count seven of them. It’s eerie.


When we reach our destination — a well-known spot for lowbush blueberries at a high point in the Seven Mountains — we find the patch already picked almost clean. Or perhaps pollination was inhibited at this elevation by all the cold weather in May; we can’t decide. We share this artificial bald with radio, cellphone, and microwave towers, and a generator humming loudly in a locked shed. The old firetower still stands, but the bottom 25 steps have been removed to keep people from climbing up it, which was always something to look forward to on state forest hikes when I was a kid. It turned out that wildfires in the eastern forest are naturally rare and easy to control — nothing like the out-of-control infernos of the late 19th century, when these forests were all clearcut at the same time. Now the old firetowers stand like lighthouses on a shore where the ocean has receded out of sight.


On the way back, we stop at a lonely spot on top of a broad ridge. This gravel road was once a throughway of sorts, and someone named Keith built a small stone cistern here for watering horses. Water gushes out of a pipe and into the roadside ditch, and we fill up our water bottles with it, exclaiming over its taste and likely purity. I find myself reluctant to take too close a look in the rectangular cistern where the pipe originates. It’s dark with rotting leaves, and is just large enough to accommodate a body, stretched out in a position of repose.


Peering between the front seats, I spot a bear-shaped stump beside the road. It moves; we stop. It’s a small bear, no more than two winters old, and probably only driven off by its mother a few weeks ago. A stone’s throw from the road it stops running and appears to forget all about us, which is always a useful and instructive experience for a modern human. Running in this kind of humid heat can’t be pleasant for a bear, even one so small. We watch as it ambles along, flipping rocks, digging into rotten logs and nosing about, heading back the way we came. We keep it in sight as long as we can, driving slowly backwards through the hills of central Pennsylvania.

Lines for a summer thunderstorm

Distant thunder.
A common wood satyr
clings to the screen.


A close lightning strike
& a second later, raindrops,
the bleating of a fawn.


Through sheets of rain
at the edge of the meadow,
the dim outline of a doe.


Rain presses
on the horizontal leaves:
a random fluttering.


As I watch the storm,
a fly with quivering wings
explores my pants leg.


The lightning past,
the fawn stands on its hind legs
& bats at a low branch.


all through the downpour.


Their one day ends
in prostration —
orange daylilies.


The sky brightens,
but the storm’s darkness lingers
in rain-soaked leaves.


A loud buzz summons me to the window to watch a male ruby-throated hummingbird rocketing back and forth in front of the spicebush, parabola flattened into an x-axis 18 inches long — not the usual U-shaped courtship trajectory. The revs are correspondingly shorter: rrRRR rrRRR rrRRR. The female sits a foot away in the shade, as green as the green leaves but more shimmery: polished jade surrounded by raw jadeite.

Long before hummer ever became a car, it was a bird with the fastest engine and a fierce red flag for everyone else in the race. In courtship displays, its manic energy is simply redirected. If you’ve ever hung out a hummingbird feeder and witnessed the constant dogfights, you can probably understand how Hummingbird-on-the-Left became a god of war to the Aztecs, in whose songs the heart was always a blood-red flower waiting to be plundered.

Evolutionarily speaking, it cannot be an accident that the eponymous gorget of the ruby-throated hummingbird is the same color as its favorite nectar sources. For the watching female, it must be both hypnotic and deeply alluring, this swinging blossom dangled right in front of her. For the male, I imagine, it’s as vertiginous as any great wager: Take me. Attack.


If you can’t see the slideshow, or if you’re on dial-up, go here.

I found the cicada struggling to mount a leaf, clawing feebly at the smooth surface. It had somehow survived the avian gauntlet, but death would come soon one way or another. Elsewhere in the patch, stray wings of less fortunate cicadas were scattered about, looking very much like transparent maple keys.

Few plants offer as many opportunites for arthropod watching when they aren’t in bloom as the large-leaved and aromatic Collinsonia canadensis. I’ve always referred to this plant simply as “horsebalm,” but apparently that name has been applied to other members of the Collinsonia genus as well, along with “stoneroot”; I should be calling it Canada horsebalm to be more specific, or better yet, richweed. Though prized by herbalists, and once an important medicine to the Iroquois and Cherokee, for us it’s mostly just a nice, citronella-scented plant that’s fun to point out to tour groups on hikes up the hollow — we always like to add an olofactory element to our tours. In another month or so it’ll send up spikes of yellow flowers, but why is it so popular with the six- and eight-legged crowd now? From what I could see, simply because its large, horizontal leaves help with thermoregulation: where they intersect with short-lived sunbeams in the otherwise cool forest, they’re great places to sunbathe.

Needless to say, this is a (semi-) macro photographer’s dream. Most of the woods is simply too dark to take photos without a tripod; I’m pretty much limited to snapping what’s in the sun. And since it was a cool morning, the insects were in no hurry to move on. But as usual, my attention was drawn as much to the stage set as to the actors: the shifting patterns of sun and shade, the color and texture of the leaves.

I wasn’t the only one drawn by the concentration of insect life. A funnel spider had set up shop, curling a leaf into a lemon-fresh lair of death. An assassin bug squash bug* seemed less interested in stalking prey than in feeding on a bird dropping. When I came in too close with the lens, it circled to the other side of its prize and assumed that pugilistic pose so typical of its kind. And a pair of harvestmen — or a harvestman and a harvestwoman, as the case may be — seemed most interested in each other. For the entire half-hour I was there, they stood face-to-face, barely moving except for their long front legs, which met and circled like foils in the world’s slowest fencing match.

I think I’ll be calling it richweed from now on.

*See comment by Rebecca Clayton below.

Flickr slideshow created following the very helpful instructions of Paul Stamatiou.

Paths of infection


In a few more years, the path in this picture will be two centuries old. That’s fifty years older than any of the buildings in the hollow. They’re the healed remains of the roads the colliers built when they first clearcut the mountain, with results that must have been catastrophic for the hollow: floods, fire, massive loss of topsoil. But now, chances are if you come to visit in any other season than winter, our moss-covered trails are one of the things you’ll most remember about the place. They’re beautiful. In spring and summer, before the leaves fall and turn every step into a loud whisper, it’s possible to stalk through the forest as quietly as a burglar.

I always confuse the path with the destination. Don’t you? I start out intending to go somewhere, but then something catches my eye and I slow down for a closer look. Then I notice more. An hour hour later, I’ve only made it half a mile from the house.

laurel leaf

Nothing draws the attention quite like someone or something with a disfiguring disease. Whatever is decimating the mountain laurel here begins with colorful eyespots: brown rimmed with red and yellow, like targets in reverse. With certain kinds of sickness, yes — the leading edge of infection is marked by unnatural brightness. That fever glow.


I found a black gum tree with a bad case of warts. Each wart is a hermit’s cell for an Eriophyid mite, a microscopic, two-legged relative of spiders. It goes through a mere two larval instars, and manages to have sex while maintaining its immaculate separation from others of its kind:

Mites do not mate with each other; sacs that the male leaves lying around on the leaf surface fertilize the female as she walks around.

Freedom from sexual contact can be liberating. Some species of Eriophyid mites alternate all-male generations with all-female generations. Very little is known about them beyond these basic facts. Some 90 percent of Eriophyidae have yet to be named and classified by taxonomists, so I suppose chances are good that this is one of them.

For the tree, the galls aren’t the sickness, they’re the treatment. The tree would say, with some justification, that each mite is walled in to keep it from spreading. But the mite, like thousands of other gall-making arthropods, is in fact practicing a kind of ju-jitsu, using the tree’s defenses against itself. The feeding chambers are not only ideal for solitary contemplation, if such be the bipedal mite’s inclination, but keep out most predators, as well.

After they attain adulthood, the Eriophyidae abandon their chambers. This is the time when accidental sex may occur. Many of them also take to the wind and float for miles, like the Daoist sages of legend. Some of them, no doubt, end up in my lungs.

bear tree

This black gum bears the scars of somewhat larger animals — bears and humans. When I painted a trail blaze on it seven years ago, I can’t remember seeing the other marks there, but judging from the depth of scar tissue, bears have been carving up this tree for some time. Though they much prefer electric and telephone poles to communicate their “Kilroy was here”-type messages to other bears, any conspicuous tree, living or dead, will do. For hikers, this is a useful reminder that they aren’t the only ones using the trails. For bears, it is perhaps a gratifying reminder of the fact that our paint marks are no match for their claw marks. Bears often destroy human-made things left in the woods — it’s as if they regard us as some kind of enemy.

For the tree, unless and until the trunk is completely girdled, none of this is a real impediment to continued growth and prosperity. Black gum trees are masters at walling off wounds with thick scar tissue. They almost all rot out at an early age, making them impossible to date by ring counts. But the outer shell of a mature black gum is hard as iron.


White pines fight disease with tars, which can sometimes keep them standing after death for as long or longer than they stood as living trees. A century after the forest fire, a short-lived path that the flames took up the trunk of a pine tree is still marked with charcoal and a livid blaze.

News from the ‘Hood

faith-based initiative

Yesterday was a lovely day in my virtual neighborhood. A new edition of the Festival of the Trees went up at Earth, Wind and Water, honoring the 150th anniversary of the publication of the theory of evolution by natural selection. Tai Haku wrote a full paragraph for almost every link, placing the trees in ecological or cultural contexts. My favorite entries included a post on the bizarre and beautiful Common Screwpine; a great overview of mangrove forests by artist Carel Brest Van Kempen, who is putting together a traveling group show of mangrove art to raise money for their conservation; and a page on the Ginkgo trees that survived the atom bomb blast at Hiroshima, which I somehow missed on my visit to the city 20 years ago.

The first of the month also means posting a new nature column over at my mom’s site, this one illustrated as we often do with some of my old photos: Sunday, Sweet Sunday. It should give you a good sense of what Plummer’s Hollow is like this time of year — and why we are grateful to live in a conservative Christian area despite being what you might call secular humanists (and believers in “evil-lution,” needless to say). Sundays really are much, much quieter.

Finally, we announced the next bimonthly theme at qarrtsiluni: Transformation, with guest editors Jessamyn Smyth and Allan Peterson.

We are looking for work exploring transformative instances of all kinds with an emphasis particularly on the change itself — the dynamics inside the chrysalis rather than a static image of the butterfly emerged; the moment of Daphne becoming a laurel.

And within an hour the most highly motivated poets (yes, they exist!) began sending in submissions, much to my wonder. It should be another interesting issue.