Haiku in English: art, exercise, or oxymoron?

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Don’t you just hate it when a blogger writes a provocative title for a post that turns out to be little more than a link? Me too — sorry! But there’s kind of an interesting discussion going on at Open Micro, and I think it would be helpful to those of us who try and write haiku (or 17-syllable American sentences, for that matter) if we could hear from a few more perspectives. If you’re primarily a reader, for example, what makes a haiku satisfying to read? Do you even notice how many syllables it has? Stop on over and let us know.

“A dusky train of ink”: Darwin in Cape Verde

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

What if, instead of brilliant naturalist, Charles Darwin had been an epic poet? Actually, he may have been both. Here’s how The Voyage of the Beagle begins.

After having been twice driven back
by heavy southwestern gales, Her Majesty’s ship
Beagle, a ten-gun brig, under the command
of Captain Fitz Roy, R. N., sailed
from Devonport on the 27th of December,
1831. The object of the expedition
was to complete the survey of Patagonia
and Tierra del Fuego, commenced
under Captain King in 1826
to 1830, — to survey the shores
of Chile, Peru, and of some islands
in the Pacific — and to carry a chain
of chronometrical measurements round the World.

On the 6th of January we reached Teneriffe,
but were prevented landing, by fears
of our bringing the cholera: the next morning
we saw the sun rise behind the rugged
outline of the Grand Canary island,
and suddenly illuminate the Peak of Teneriffe,
whilst the lower parts were veiled in fleecy clouds.
This was the first of many delightful days
never to be forgotten. On the 16th
of January, 1832, we anchored
at Porto Praya, in St. Jago, the chief
island of the Cape de Verd archipelago.

The neighbourhood of Porto Praya, viewed from the sea,
wears a desolate aspect. The volcanic fires
of a past age, and the scorching heat
of a tropical sun, have in most places
rendered the soil unfit for vegetation.
The country rises in successive steps
of table-land, interspersed with some
truncate conical hills, and the horizon
is bounded by an irregular chain of more
lofty mountains. The scene, as beheld
through the hazy atmosphere of this climate,
is one of great interest; if, indeed,
a person, fresh from sea, and who has just walked,
for the first time, in a grove of cocoa-nut trees,
can be a judge of anything but his own happiness.
Continue reading ““A dusky train of ink”: Darwin in Cape Verde”

Forgive Me

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 9 of 15 in the series Ridge and Valley: an exchange of poems


Dear Dave,

What is life but fingers placed against blood’s rhythm,
some outward movement, the soul’s coming and going
like a kettle of kestrel that fly up against a ridge
and back out along its face? So much of this one life
goes to desire, the blue and orange feathers of our waking.
Migration is one way, following the ever-blooming, ever-
ripening path of the sun. Yet so much grief awaits—
whether we fly north or south, whether we settle ourselves
in the white-heat that roosts along the Gulf coast
or continue into the rainforest’s dark-green light.
The sun climbs out of the earth in the east and swims
across open water, while night’s westward stroke tugs us
into dream. Nothing travels in a straight line. That’s why
the moon returns each month, ascending the circle of its life,
then disappearing. Forgive me. I don’t want anything more
than this: the song of the goldfinch who comes to eat
of the cone flowers’ small dark seeds, its wisdom
in waiting out winter in one place.

Todd Davis

Snow Moon

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 8 of 15 in the series Ridge and Valley: an exchange of poems


Dear Todd,

It’s late afternoon on a warm day
in the cold month of my birth.
I step outside & listen
to the familiar drumming of a pileated woodpecker
on some dead tree, husk hollowed out, rigid frame
resonant as it never was when sap still flowed.
There’s a throaty snowmelt gurgle
from the ditch beside the cattails.
The field is nearly bare, while the woods
still harbors a soggy white carpet.
Paint flakes from my once-white house
like molting fur, & the second-story window’s
reflection of tree & sky is the only pure thing —
I’d pray if I thought it made a difference.
But the damned snow
is going native as fast as it can.


The phrase in italics was taken from Todd’s last poem. The title of this series, newly adopted, refers to the physiographic province in which Todd and I live, I near the top of one of the ridges (Brush Mountain) and he in the adjacent valley to the west (Logan Valley), about seven miles away.

Lines from a Robot Owner’s Manual

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

for Dana

Responsible robot owners must avoid over-identification. Remember, for the robot, things didn’t just happen; it was created. That knowledge would drive a human being mad.

It cannot procreate. Abiological life is the ultimate in recursiveness: the unit is its own motherboard.

Yes, its internal power source periodically needs to be recharged. But such regular maintainance is a feature, not a bug — would you want a robot that was completely independent? And for you, too, power ultimately comes from without.

It cannot recognize itself in a mirror. This assertion sometimes confuses people, because it is always completely obvious to the robot which reflection must correspond to itself. But for full recognition to take place, at least a smidgen of uncertainly is required.

Emotions can be programmed as well as anything. The robot feels them in the same way that a deaf composer hears his music.

Its delusions, if any, are indistinguishable from those of its programmer.

The unit is, we assure you, completely unhaunted. What ghost would inhabit such a sleek and gleaming absence of rooms?

The only determinant of personality you control is the choice of name. Everything else is simply a product of entropy.

Weather can’t be escaped by staying under cover. Unstable isotopes decay. Solar winds can breach the magnetosphere. The earth slows, queering all clocks.

The robot’s greatest enemy accounts for sixty percent of your weight.

Anything but white

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall


Screech owl at dawn
& a great-horned owl at dusk.
All day long, just words.


Skid marks where a rabbit
slid into the ditch at dawn—
no shadows then.


Marooned in the snow,
the old whitewashed springhouse
is anything but white.


Where deer once stepped,
dinner-plate-sized craters
brimming with new snow.


old footprints

The Good Question

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

UPDATE: I rewrote the poem and remade the video on September 18, 2010. The post below refers to an earlier incarnation, using mostly the same footage.

Video link.

Although I’ve experimented with video poems before, this is the first one where I relied on audio for the text rather than superimposing the words on the screen. The footage was all shot this past Sunday, at the top of our field (which is also the top of the Plummer’s Hollow watershed). My friends Chris and Seung had come up from D.C. for a weekend of sledding, and while temperatures on Friday and Saturday stayed nice and cold, and we had some spectaular toboggan wipe-outs (which is the main point of tobogganing, as I understand it), on Sunday morning the thermometer climbed into the 40s (i.e. between 5 and 10 degrees Centigrade, for you farriners). The snow turned sticky. Snowballs flew back and forth like carrier pigeons with one basic but never monotonous message.

By the time we got to the top of the field it was time for some sunbathing, and that’s when Seung’s interest in snowball-making turned from skirmishing to art, as seen in the film.

I wanted to see if I could make a video shorter than a minute and a half, primarily because my most common reaction to other amateur videos is that they aren’t edited well enough. I’m sure there are still lots of things I could improve, though. I don’t particularly like the sound of my own voice, and in general the video doesn’t come close to conforming to the idea I had in advance. There are a lot of avant-gardey things I simply don’t know how to do, and probably can’t do until I get better video editing software (on order). But it’s a start.

For inspiration I am indebted to the poets who have been making videos for qarrtsiluni, especially Christine Swint, who recently tried to stir up interest in the art at Read Write Poem as well.

Incidentally, I also have a photo of Seung up on the photo blog — a badly underexposed, low-resolution snapshot taken with the camcorder that I altered almost beyond recognition in the digital darkroom for a portrait of an altered state which is not, I assure you, an accurate representation of our condition at the time.

From where I sit

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Right beneath where I’m sitting, there’s soil that hasn’t tasted rain in 150 years. I’ve seen bodies down there, dessicated corpses, none of them human. To me, every permanent structure is an occasion for melancholy. A home built to last represents a life sentence for some plot of land — perhaps that’s why I take such delight in ruins. Once when I was in my teens, for several hours I was convinced that everyone but me had already gone to heaven, leaving behind only some sort of solid hologram. I was excited: I pictured myself being like the Wandering Jew of legend, all alone with the earth. Anyone who wants to go to heaven, I still maintain, doesn’t deserve it.

I didn’t plan it this way, but it so happens that my writing chair occupies the only spot in the house with a view out in all four directions. A moment ago I watched a titmouse land on a branch of a small mulberry on the other side of the window closest to me. He peered intently in my direction then fluttered right in front of the window for a second before flying off. He was of course investigating his own reflection; I was merely part of the background. Some people see animals and want to touch them, want to have them for pets. My hope is always that they will ignore me. I gaze out through the storm door at sun on an icy snowpack, dark trees rooted in a ground that hurts the eyes.

Gone With The Windmills? A Plea to President Obama to Save the National Forests of Appalachia

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Backbone Mountain wind turbines

by Chris Bolgiano

Dear President Obama:

Thanks to you, America is turning green again, nearly forty years after I went “Back to the Land” as part of the first Earth Day generation. You came within twenty miles of my passive-aggressive solar homestead on Cross Mountain last October, when you spoke in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

Surely, as you flew into the Shenandoah Valley airport, you noticed to the west the long, sinuous lines of forest-covered mountains, fall colors blazing in faux fire.

A century ago you would have seen smoke billowing from real fires, caused by a rampage of steam-powered logging. Flooding caused by deforestation of the mountains became so costly by 1911 that Congress passed the Weeks Act, authorizing the U.S. Forest Service to buy land from willing sellers and repair environmental damage. Some of the highest ridges you saw when you looked westward are in national forests that were established then, along the spine of the Southern Appalachian Mountains.

These forests now face their greatest threat in a century.

Reflecting a nearly 50% nationwide increase in wind electricity plants in 2007, developers are arriving in what they themselves called “a gold rush” at a recent industry conference. There, a wind map ranked thin red currents along the highest Appalachian ridges as just possibly strong enough to power turbines for massive industrial wind installations.

Glossy ads for wind power always show turbines in open fields, never in forests. That’s because every turbine requires up to five acres of deforestation. Hundreds of turbines are being built here, burgeoning to tens of thousands if the U.S. Department of Energy indiscriminately pursues its “20% Wind Energy By 2030” program. Do the math, and factor in the forest fragmentation that multiplies the loss of habitat, and the super-wide new roads that destroy the last remote, wild ridges.

wind turbine with powerlinesSlender, rocky ridges are blasted and bulldozed to flatten pads for turbines. Each pad requires hundreds of tons of concrete. After the 25 year life span of the huge machines, the pads remain as dead ground but possibly good tennis courts in a summer camp for giants in the future.

Deforestation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions after fossil fuel burning. The rest of the world agreed at the recent U.N. climate summit to protect maturing forests that sequester huge amounts of carbon dioxide — like those now healing from old abuse in the Southern Appalachians. In Transition to Green, the 400 pages of nature tips sent you by a coalition of environmental organizations, the first recommendation for the U.S. Department of Agriculture is to “manage the national forest system to secure climate benefits.”

Industrial wind will blow this opportunity away.

It’s already blowing away a lot of wildlife. Turbine blades reach 450 feet above ridge crests where songbirds migrate, bats feed, and eagles rise on thermals. Just across the state line in West Virginia, thousands of creatures are being killed every year at new wind plants, the highest kills ever documented worldwide from turbines. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service strongly recommends against turbines on nearby Shenandoah Mountain due to the likelihood of killing endangered species, yet several projects are underway.

Some of the people living near turbines suffer from chronic sleeplessness and other symptoms of Wind Turbine Syndrome (including depression over loss of property values).

Death, destruction and insomnia are marketed to urban consumers as “green” electricity, what little there is of it. Turbines produce only about 30% or less of their maximum rated capacity, and some of that is lost along hundreds of miles of transmission lines. When the wind does blow, the aging lines can hardly handle the surge.

What drives this high-cost/low-benefit gold rush is the federal production tax credit. More tax breaks beckon in national forests, where no local property taxes are levied so local communities wouldn’t share in revenues produced by turbines, plus the Forest Service helps pay for building roads. In the three years that the federal tax credit hasn’t been reauthorized since first enacted in 1992, the skyrocketing wind industry plateaued like a mountaintop-removal coalmine.

The coal mining that has ravaged the land and people in part of Appalachia for a century is our major source of electricity, and is obscenely destructive to forests. But destroying more forests in order to stop destroying forests doesn’t make sense. And building industrial wind plants in Appalachia isn’t change. It’s a 21st-century version of the same old pattern of taking value out and leaving costs behind.

These ancient mountains are well-documented as the biologically richest temperate woodlands in the world, one of North America’s greatest natural treasures, rich in globally rare species and communities, including human ones. So you can’t dismiss my aging hippie protest merely as NIMBY, which in any case is simply love of place. It breaks my heart to see these murdered old mountains assaulted again.

Since 1911, the Forest Service has salvaged the land and regenerated trees in watersheds that, today, supply drinking water to millions of people (not to mention clean air). Tens of millions of people depend on these national forests for access to the outdoors, spending in local economies as they go. Timber from regulated harvests supports local companies.

National forests are the last vestige of the rural commons, where, as you noted in a recent speech, “the proud tradition of hunting is passed on through the generations.” Deer eat my flowers and I eat the deer in an Appalachian adaptation of flower power.

No flowers bloom now; the mountain forests you saw in autumn glory are bark naked and blue with winter cold. Warmed by firewood from my hundred acres of oaks, I’m writing you on a computer plugged into nine solar panels that power my house. I believe in green energy so much that I’ve started a new savings fund to buy one of those million plug-in hybrid cars that you’ve promised to get on the road by 2015.

Industrial wind power has a place, and T. Boone Pickens knows exactly where that is: On the plains, where winds are incessant. Other potentially low impact sites are mid-western cropfields, eastern strip mines, and off-shore waters, much closer to the coastal cities that need the power.

But in forested rural areas like Appalachia, community-scale rather than industrial-scale would better contribute to your goal of 10% of our electricity from renewable sources by 2012. Solar panels and small wind turbines have enormous potential for on-site, small-scale power generation, with hardly a ripple on the grid.

Consider how much stronger our nation would be against disasters both natural and criminal if schools, hospitals, community centers, businesses, nursing homes, farms, houses and apartment buildings across the country made enough electricity to pump drinking water and refrigerate food.

Americans haven’t enjoyed that kind of independence since they drank from dippers and packed pond ice in sawdust for the summer icebox. The decentralization of electricity represents a new perspective on the old rallying cry of democracy, “Power to the People!”

Can’t we make some of that $150 billion you want to invest in “building a clean energy future” available to ordinary people, small businesses and neighborhoods, as well as distant corporations? And can’t we keep our national forests intact for future generations?

My hope for change is that you will answer, “Yes We Can!”

Yours in the Red, White, and Blue Ridge,

Chris Bolgiano

(Chris Bolgiano is the author of five books, innumerable articles, and one short history of a small place — her own community. She has generously made this essay available for free distribution on the web; feel free to reproduce it on your own blogs and websites. A PDF version is available from her website for print distribution.

Via Negativa also published Chris’s essay “My Best Friend is Building a Hummer of a House” last year.)

Supporting Documents (A Very Few of Very, Very Many)

Arnett, E.B., et al. 2007. Impacts of wind energy facilities on wildlife and wildlife habitat. Wildlife Society Technical Review 07-2. Bethesday, MD: The Wildlife Society. The Wildlife Society is a national association of natural resource managers.

National Library of Medicine. Pubmed and Environmental Health and Toxicology databases (approx. 30 other citations available):

  • Harding, G. et al. Wind turbines, flicker, and photosensitive epilepsy: characterizing the flashing that may precipitate seizures and optimizing guidelines to prevent them. Epilepsia. 2008 Jun;49(6):1095-8.
  • Findeis, H. and E. Peters. Disturbing effects of low frequency sound immissions (sic) and vibrations in residential buildings. Noise Health. 2004 Apr-Jun;6(23):29-35.
  • Pedersen, E. Wind turbine noise, annoyance & self-reported health and well-being in different living environments. Occup. Environ. Med. 2007 Jul;64(7):480-6.

National Research Council of the National Academies. Environmental Impacts of Wind-Energy Projects. 2007. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.

Pierpont, Nina. Wind Turbine Syndrome: a Report on a Natural Experiment. In publication.

Transition to Green: Environmental Transition Recommendations for the Obama Administration. Nov. 2008.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Elkins, West Virginia Field Office. November 16, 2007. 12 page letter “Re: Proposed Construction and Operation of a Wind Power Facility, In Pendleton and Hardy Counties, WV [PDF].”

Please see also www.vawind.org for extensive further coverage of wind power issues in eastern forested areas. See also windaction.org, nationalwind.org, stopillwind.org and hundreds of other sites for the worldwide grass-roots struggle to make industrial wind responsive to environmental and human health concerns. —Chris

wind tubine base

Trees and desert

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall


Sorry for the slow and intermittent site performance lately — we’re doing our best to address it, but we’re not out of the woods yet. Or if we are out of the woods, we’re lost in the desert instead, inching along under unknown power like the sailing stones of Death Valley. And as it happens, Via Negativa posts are featured in two fabulous new blog carnival editions, each a pleasing blend of art and science: Carnival of the Arid #1 at Coyote Crossing, and Festival of the Trees #32 at treeblog. Stop on over if you get a chance. Hours of exploring await.