Geography class convenes inside tree

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

the biggest cypress

Cleveland, Mississippi — A decline in state funding has put university classroom space at a premium. Delta State professor of geography Mark Bonta recently decided to relocate one of his classes to the Sky Lake Wildlife Management Area, where a hollow baldcypress tree over 46 feet in circumference easily accommodates himself and the seven students. “We could fit as many as 15 in there,” he said, “but enrollments are down.”

Although the relocation deprives the students of access to the internet, Dr. Bonta said that learning to navigate the swamp forest and inhabit a tree that is probably more than 1500 years old makes up for the temporary loss of Twitter, Facebook, and Hot or Not. “Many of my students admit they’d never set foot in a forest before, even if they’ve lived in the Delta all their lives,” he said. “The first time they heard the wind blowing in the treetops, it took them a while to figure out what the heck was making that rattling noise,” he said.

The students aren’t the only ones learning something new. Though he grew up in the woods, Bonta admitted he’d never been in a southern swamp forest during high winds before. “It turns out that under the right conditions, baldcypress trees can produce an eerily accurate imitation of the double-knock call of the ivory-billed woodpecker,” he said. It’s uncertain what affect this discovery will have on the ongoing search for ivory-billed woodpeckers, which relies heavily on remote recording devices in baldcypress swamps. Bonta indicated that he would incorporate the insight into his own research.

The tree serving as a temporary classroom space is the current Mississippi state champion, according to USDA Research Forester Don C. Bragg in a message to the Eastern Native Tree Society. According to, Bonta’s class is “an easy A” where “a lot of the learning [is] left to the student. His lectures [are] basically outlines with no filler.”

“That hollow tree’s a little like Dr. Bonta,” said one of the students, who requested anonymity pending the assignment of final grades for the semester. “Old and bald.”

Bonta said he hoped this experience would inculcate a life-long interest in nature. The student agreed that this had been the case. “As soon as classes are over, me and my buddies are gonna sneak back in there with a keg of beer and party our asses off,” he said.

For more on the Sky Lake cypresses, see Festival of the Trees 29: Bring Out Your Dead.

Don’t forget to submit tree- and forest-related links to Mary at A Neotropical Savanna — panamaplants [at] gmail [dot] com — for inclusion in the next edition of the Festival. The deadline is November 29.

November letter

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 4 of 15 in the series Ridge and Valley: an exchange of poems



Dear Todd,

November, & all the creatures of habit
come crowding in. Trees have been reduced
to a series of repetitive gestures;
the forest is in ruins.
Down by the creek on cold mornings,
one can find new sprouts
pushing aside the leaves:
brown curled tongues, crystals of mud.

tree cricket

A tree cricket, its vital parts
yet to be pierced by needles of ice,
comes back to life on a warm afternoon
& searches for a green background
to disappear into. It can’t quite fit
between the white hairs on the trunk
of a striped maple.


One morning I set off without eating,
forgetting how quickly the body can burn
through its fuel this time of year.
Soon, I’m so light-headed I’m seeing spots.
I want to lie down like a rock in the creek
& wait for the current to slow
& hold me in place. Hibernation
never seemed more attractive.

dead cuckoo

Instead, I turn back & find the spot
in a catalpa tree where a yellow-billed cuckoo
came to a mysterious end, draped
over a twig like a forgotten stole.
How long has it been there,
hidden by the tree’s commodious parasols,
eponymous bill shut tight as any bud?
Behind it on the hillside, the witch hazel
blossoms have shriveled, the leaves are down.
Autumn is almost out of surprises.
When the snow comes,
we will greet it as a liberator.
For a little while at least it will seem
like a fresh start.


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

contact zone

The rain woke me
tapping on the window
reminding me of a boyhood friend

I never had who’d toss gravel
against the glass until I eased
myself out crept to the edge

of the porch roof & shimmied
down the walnut’s rough trunk
I did that a few times even

without the prompt
someone might be out there
it was worth checking

& something always was
I’d hear rapid footsteps on the lawn
a rustle in the compost pit

I’d climb into bed half an hour later
with dirt on my feet & grass
stains on my PJs breathing hard

pull the blankets over my head
& listen to the blood drumming
behind my ears

Drilling for heat

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Mid-morning. I look out my kitchen window in the direction of the noise. A quarter mile away, the well drillers are working in the rain, boring holes below the new house site, digging not for water but for heat. A geothermal heat-pump will supplement the woodstove and passive solar design, and for that, four deep holes need to be drilled.

I can’t see anything from here, though. The wild apple out back, stripped of leaves, bends under its load of lumpy fruit. I rub an absent-minded hand over my scalp, still adjusting to the strangeness of short hair.

It’s not that I liked having long hair; I didn’t. I thought it looked dumb. But I’ve always feared conformity: the chanting, the pledging of allegiances, the mob with its own cruel agenda. I guess I’m a product of the American individualist myth that says a social collective can never be other than a Borg, threatening to erase all differences and obliterate even the impulse toward independence. Much preferable, in my mind, to court outlandishness and be obvious and erratic as a planet among the anonymous stars.

But now I’m a Roundhead, fit for a new New Model Army, to all appearances as subservient as the moon in its orbit and in its kenosis — which begins again tomorrow, I think. The last I saw it two nights ago, through thickening clouds, the almost-full moon was a blurry nest of light, alone in the sky.

I hear random crashes as the drill bores through the nearly vertical shelves of rock, laid down during a barren time following a great extinction event of unknown origin. Did a piece of the sky fall, or did the planet become too active and ejaculate too much volcanic ash all at once? The Juniata formation is a brick-red sandstone too soft to build with, and though virtually free of fossils, it did once yield a fist-sized concretion that tumbled out of the road bank and into the track — an oblate spheroid with concentric ridges as if from the fingers of some ancient potter.

Late morning, I grab camera and umbrella and walk over to the new house site. The rig stands about as tall as the trees behind it, and together with its truck reminds me almost of a mosquito. I don’t know the names for the things moving up and down and back and forth as its complicated mouthparts probe the earth. As I walk up past it I get a lungful of exhaust. How could we have forgotten what even our cave-dwelling ancestors knew, I wonder: this is no round rock in space, but a warm-blooded beast, impossible ever to fully domesticate. Let’s hope its tolerance of parasites will persist.

Inaugural poet: people’s choice winners

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

The votes are in, and we have a clear winner. “It’s late but everything comes next” garnered 16 of the 165 votes cast, for 9.7 percent of the total. The author is Naomi Shihab Nye, and the line comes from her poem “Jerusalem,” in Red Suitcase. As the following video also demonstrates, Naomi Shihab Nye’s poems are full of just the sort of advice an incoming president might find useful.

A president-elect who’s also an international celebrity might benefit from the reality-check provided by Nye’s poem “Famous,” which begins:

The river is famous to the fish.

The loud voice is famous to silence,
which knew it would inherit the earth
before anybody said so.

The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds
watching him from the birdhouse.

The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.

Read the whole poem here. Also worth checking out is an interview with Nye at Pif magazine, conducted by Rachel Barenblat of Velveteen Rabbi fame. And in another, more recent interview at Foreign Policy in Focus, the Palestinian-American poet had some specific advice for the incoming president regarding Israel/Palestine:

Melissa Tuckey: You wrote in an email that Barack Obama needs to evolve in his positions on Israel/Palestine. What course of action would you recommend for the future president (be he Obama or McCain)?

Naomi Shihab Nye: Balance. Respect for all human beings. All stories. All pain. Recognition of what the Palestinian people have been through in the last 60-plus years. Honest recognition that the violence has hardly been a one-way street.

Melissa Tuckey: Do you believe peace is possible? What are your hopes for Israel and for Palestine? Do you support one state in Israel/ Palestine or two?

Naomi Shihab Nye: Yes, I believe peace is possible. As my father kept saying toward the end of his life, people will have to become exhausted enough with fighting to embrace peace. From what I hear, many, on both “sides” have been exhausted enough to try something better for quite a long time. My hopes are for a one-state cooperative solution (because the territory is simply so small) in which Palestinian and Israeli citizens may share their strengths and resources in mutual respect. I don’t see, at this point, how a two-state solution could work as well. The wall must go down. Don’t bring it to Texas, either, we have enough problems with our own stupid wall!

“Jerusalem” is too long to quote in its entirety, but it ends:

There’s a place in my brain
Where hate won’t grow.
I touch its riddle: wind, and seeds.
Something pokes us as we sleep.

It’s late but everything comes next.


Six other quotes garnered 12 or more votes each.

Minor-party candidates

  • “Take
    your time. Take mine
    too. Get into some trouble
    I’ll have to account for.” (8 votes)
    Tess Gallagher, “Instructions to the Double” (Instructions to the Double)
  • “Still
    there is a population
    that likes mistakes and
    indecision, guarding
    atavisms and anatomical
    sports, the hips of snakes,
    the wings of the horse.” (8 votes)
    Kay Ryan, “Les Natures Profondement Bonnes Sont Toujours Indecises” (Flamingo Watching)
  • “Trapped in one idea, you can’t have your feelings,
    feelings are always about more than one thing.” (8 votes)
    Adrienne Rich, from “Contradictions: Tracking Poems,” #13 (Your Native Land, Your Life)
  • “Salmon lie at rest in the riffles,
    their sea-silver changing,
    as they ascend to the
    cold, still water of stars.” (7 votes)
    John Haines, “Doors that Open” (Where the Twilight Never Ends)
  • [Removed at author’s request] (7 votes)
    Bill Knott, “Minor Poem” (found online)
  • “we must learn to suckle life not
    bombs and rhetoric
    rising up in redwhiteandblue patriotism” (7 votes)
    Sonia Sanchez, “Reflections After the June 12th March for Disarmament” (homegirls and handgrenades)
  • “If you’re gonna bet on cards, Ben says,
    You might as well play harmonica.” (6 votes)
    Tom Montag, untitled (The Big Book of Ben Zen)
  • “There is nothing one man will not do to another.” (5 votes)
    Carolyn Forché, “The Visitor” (The Country Between Us)
  • “The thing you have to remember
    about hot water cornbread
    is to wait for the burning
    so you know when to flip it, and then again
    so you know when it’s crusty and done.” (4 votes)
    Patricia Smith, “When the Burning Begins” (Teahouse of the Almighty)
  • “America needs a beating.” (3 votes)
    Gary Soto, “Our Days” (Who Will Know Us?)
  • “Cigarettes are the only way
    to make bleakness nutritional, or at least useful,
    something to do while feeling terrified.” (3 votes)
    B. H. Fairchild, “Cigarettes” (The Art of the Lathe)
  • “Great are the Hittites.” (3 votes)
    Charles Simic, “Concerning My Neighbors, the Hittites” (Dismantling the Silence)
  • “If you laid out all the limbs from the Civil War hospital
    in Washington they would encircle the White House seven times.” (3 votes)
    Jim Harrison, from “Ghazals,” XXXIX (The Shape of the Journey)

There were also three write-in candidates which garnered one vote apiece, though none appear to be from only one was from a living American poet.

Thanks to everyone for voting, and don’t forget to support poets by buying their works.

Inaugural poet try-outs

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

UPDATE: I’ll continue to count votes up through midnight tonight, Nov. 12, EST. If you have alternate quotes to suggest, you’re free to use the comments, but they won’t be included in the vote tally unless you use the “Other” option in the poll, because I’m way too lazy to figure percentages myself. And of course if you’ve already voted and are curious to see how your choices are faring, click on “View Results” at the bottom of the poll. You may have to refresh the page first.

The blogosphere is abuzz with ideas about which poet Obama should invite to read at the inauguration. He is, however, a rare example of a politician who actually reads poetry for pleasure, so I imagine he doesn’t really need any help from us. But I thought it might be fun to hold some try-outs in any case. The following poll (which subscribers can only see by clicking through to the post, or by going to the page on PollDaddy) consists of randomly ordered pieces of advice from 20 different, living American poets. (At least, I think they’re all living. If not, we may have to summon Nancy Reagan.) You can vote for more than one quote, but please select only your favorites. Tomorrow or the next day I’ll count up the votes and reveal the authors.


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

I took my bearings from
a tattered map taped to a lamppost
turned left at the inside-out umbrella
propped against a dumpster
& continued straight past
the strip malls
& the self-storage units

until I reached open ground
contoured with corn stubble
a crow on pond ice
the blue trees of distance

I walked into the wind
sleet stinging my face
& shook my head at every driver
who pulled alongside & gestured to get in
this was where I’d been going
I was looking for a reason
to turn back

The wound

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

tree with oragane blaze

The wound wells like a mirror
with the squandered coins of younger,
more legible selves, which otherwise
would’ve dulled from daily transactions
with weather, lovers, commerce.

A wound is the only way to wear
the heart on the sleeve again.
It salivates, eager to fold in upon itself
& complete the feedback.
The shadow of a butterfly shrinks
& vanishes in the middle of the field
& you turn & raise one hand against the sun,
unreachable in its crown of blazing thorns.

heart pod


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall


I have been capturing darkness from all corners of the sky
& passing it through the negative lightning of my body,
pressing hard with my one free hand to keep the earth
brown & solid beneath us, honeycombed as it is
with metals & aquifers & the pale shapes of our forerunners,
who burgeoned like gastropods from a single foot.

black birch with white fungus

I have been taking notes in the margins
until the book is more mine than anybody’s,
& deserves an altar more than a lectionary.
My millennia of commentaries are dry as punk.
They will flare at the slightest spark & rise on black sails,
astronauts camouflaged against the missing dark matter.

black walnut

I have inserted myself into your simple narratives,
the foil for your straight man, the chuckleheaded peasant
in your tragedies. My waistline expands like an empire
out to conquer the demons of appetite through assimilation.
The shortest distance bends & blurs. You can’t get
from Point A to Point B without doubling back.


In Norse mythology, Yggdrasil is the tree at the center of the cosmos.

Don’t forget to submit tree-related posts to the Festival of the Trees, which will appear next month at the outstanding science blog A Neotropical Savanna — details here.


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

before haircutIt was a strange morning, one that began with a standard-issue gray sky and birdcalls I couldn’t quite place: a flock of pine siskins moving through the yard, gleaning seeds from the dried goldenrod heads. I had stayed up much too late the night before, watching television images shrunk to a few hundred pixels wide on my computer screen, sitting alone in a dark house and watching the faces of strangers wild with joy or stricken with disbelief. Now I felt a little giddy myself. What had I been dreaming in the intervening few hours? All I could remember were clods of dirt being shaken loose from large rootballs, black fists turning into bouquets of extended fingers, enough tubers to keep us fed for a long cold season.

after haircutWas it my imagination, or had the oaks almost all turned brown overnight? Leaves cascaded from their crowns, filling the newly open understorey with motion. A kind of transhumance, I thought, relishing the cognate with humus, which they’d eventually become. Deciduous trees are such masters of renunciation, of yearly sacrifice. If only we could practice the same kind of doing-without! Imagine what that might do for household and national economies, to keep ourselves firmly within such limits. But could we tolerate the kind of suspended animation trees go into each winter? Can we make ourselves as still and stubborn, as smooth and inscrutable, as seemingly inert yet full of vitality as an acorn?

after thatYes, I think we can. Hell, some of us have been living in a state of suspended animation ever since 2000, when the news media bought into the idea that truth is completely relative, and which year was the last of the millennium could best be decided in the court of public opinion. It felt as if we had entered a fully postmodern, alternate reality in which spin and ignorance triumphed. In that election, a great, if flawed, founding document of the country I live in was grossly violated for the first of what turned out to be many times. Less than a year later, when national disaster struck, we were told that heroism and sacrifice were the special privilege of those in uniform. We were told that anyone who wasn’t with us was against us. We were told to go shopping.

...and after thatFor far too long, Americans have been getting the sorts of presidents we love to hate: narrow selfish preening ignorant bullies. Sons of privilege with smirks on their faces — the kind we seem to elect to almost every office, starting with Class President in Junior High, perhaps because we feel that doing so will make them like us and treat us as equals. But not this time. This time, we’ve elected the weird kid: by his own admission, an outsider as a teenager, one with a funny foreign name and background, the wrong color skin, and bookwormy ways. Like “A Boy Named Sue,” he had to get tough or die — but unlike the protagonist of that song, he learned, he said, that sometimes the toughest thing to do was walk away from a fight, to meet an insult not with the outraged honor of a fragile ego but with implacable calm. And the kids who worked the hardest to elect him? Their energy and lack of cynicism fill me with hope. And not coincidentally, I think, a new and more vigilant, grassroots news media has arisen online. Maybe now we can begin to face some of the hard truths that Americans from all parts of the political spectrum have always been loath to admit.

The sky cleared late in the morning, the temperature climbed past 60 degrees, and the air filled with insects: gnats, wasps, ladybugs, honeybees. I went for a walk, trying to get used to the sensation of air flowing over my scalp. That feeling of a literal weight having been lifted. That newfound sense of vulnerability. The uncanniness of change.
[Edited 11/6/08, after I got a little more sleep]