Last night around 11:30, after posting “The Grave Dug By Beasts,” I went out for a quick, half-hour walk. The crescent moon was setting over Sapsucker Ridge as I made my way slowly up the field toward the head of the hollow.

Just past the top of the amphitheatre, I’m startled by an explosive snort from thirty feet away: white-tailed deer. We haven’t been seeing deer during daylight hours nearly as much as we usually do this time of year, and when we do they seem unduly skittish. My mother wonders if perhaps the local coyotes haven’t begun behaving more like wolves, traveling in packs and targeting healthy, adult deer. I’d love for that to be true — the ecological repercussions of such a switch would be enormous — but I’m wary of wishful thinking.

A little farther along, I hear more running sounds to my right. Five or six deer cross the trail right in front of me, all in a panic. They’re not running from me, I realize, but from something else. I wait for half a minute, but I don’t hear anything further, so I move on.

It’s a chilly night, and I’m walking quickly to try and get my blood moving. I stand for a few seconds to catch my breath at the top of the field, the spruce grove looming up in front of me — a black wall. Just then, a weird, strangled cry rings out. Fox? Coyote? Bobcat? It’s right on the other side of the grove, whatever it is, and I wonder if my presence has set it off, because the cries keep coming every few seconds, accompanied by the sound of slow, erratic footsteps in the dry grass. I feel the hair rising on the back of my neck. It was exactly one year ago that we had to shoot that rabid gray fox.

It suddenly seems like a good idea to make my way back to the house before the moon sets. I ease over into the woods as quietly as I can and pad quickly down Laurel Ridge Trail. The cries slowly fade from earshot.


Twelve hours later, Mom returns from her morning walk with some exciting news: she’s found the Cooper’s hawk nest in the woods on Laurel Ridge, less than 200 yards from the houses. Since I’ve been hearing the birds (and very occasionally glimpsing them) from my front porch since early March, it’s no great surprise that they’re nesting up there. But it’s great that she’s found the nest, and that it’s far enough down from the top of the ridge that we should be able to find a spot where we can set up a spotting scope later on, look down into it, and watch the chicks, as we did back in 2003 with another Cooper’s hawk nest — provided that this is the nest they end up using, and not an alternate.

I go up the trail following Mom’s directions with cameras at the ready. It’s a bright sunny morning, and the temperature is climbing into the high 40s. There are several squirrel nests that seem almost big enough and stick-filled enough to be hawk nests, but when I get to the real thing, there’s really no comparison. It doesn’t have any leaves in it, which suggests a more recent origin. And it’s a more imposing structure, with higher sides and more of a disc shape — clearly something only a bird could build.

At scattered intervals, I hear one of the hawks chattering from nearby. First it’s off to one side, then the other. The trees are completely bare, I can see for hundreds of feet through the canopy, and I am standing still and watching as intently as I can, but the bird might as well be invisible. Just as soon as I think I’ve finally zeroed in on the spot, I hear the kak-kak-kak-kak-kak from somewhere else. There! Was that a flicker of gray-brown wings? Nope. It’s behind me now.

Here it is almost noon, and I’m getting spooked again. It’s uncanny how good some predators are at staying just out of sight — if never completely out of mind.

The Grave Dug by Beasts

This entry is part 2 of 12 in the series The Temptations of Solitude


in response to the painting by Clive Hicks-Jenkins, from his series The Temptations of Solitude

Solitude is a burrow
into which you fold yourself
like a letter into an envelope

stamped Return to Sender.
It’s the metal flag raised
for the postman

or for the prisoner of conscience
still loyal to his cause,
waiting for the sky to change

its mind about being a roof.
His letters come back to him
with all the words blacked out,

leaving only the punctuation:
tooth marks, claw marks, tails.
This is the solitude

of St. Anthony, beset by lust
& anger, indolence & madness:
who wouldn’t want

to lose himself in
an unmarked grave
excavated by indifferent beasts?


It sat down in my pool.
Swayed like a sapling.
Spoke to me in its dreams,
which were as plush as truffles
fruiting in the dark.
Luna, it said, Luna— as if I
were its pale progenitor.

Others of its kind boiled in & out
like tiny, earth-bound storms,
chewing with a fury,
& my cousins shook the mountain
when they came down.
My strange familiar clung to me
with its naked forelimbs & howled.

It had one short root with which
it communicated to others
of its kind, reaching through
the air somehow.
Where did it go, that larva?
Did it ever manage to spin
a real cocoon?

Legacy of Luna

Submissions for the next edition of the Festival of the Trees are due Monday — March 30. Details here.


Serra installation

I believe one thing
in my poems &
another in my prose,
like a window that opens
onto different yards
depending on the time of day
or the presence of other
open windows, like a road
that leads sometimes into town
& sometimes deeper
into the forest, where
this morning the raindrops
glistened on every
bare twig, a ruffed grouse
throbbed in the leftover
corners of night like
a drum of war, & I pulled
a long white hair through
the eyes of my left boot
in lieu of a bootlace
to keep its stealthy tongue
from giving me away,
scout as I am for an invading
army of distractions,
believing one thing
in the morning &
another in the flat afternoon
when objects lose
their luster & fall back
into the vacuum
of anywhere-but-here.

Letter to Dave from the Karen Noonan Center on the Chesapeake Bay

This entry is part 11 of 15 in the series Ridge and Valley: an exchange of poems


The last two days out on the bay I observe
the tundra swans leaving the flat horizon
of this water, arcing over tidal pools
and the inescapable prairies of marsh grass.
You are on your mountain to the north, closer
to their calls as they wing their way away
from this estuary that saves them each winter.
After so many months of shifting land, of rising
and falling tides, their heavy bodies must ache
for a release, a reprieve to our comings and goings,
whether by boat or air or, oddest of all, by car,
which looks nothing like the way these birds travel.
It’s the unyielding tundra where they will give
themselves over to their own desires. I suppose
most of us need the solid earth beneath our feet
as we choose a mate. The undulating waters
of our hearts make it hard enough to remember
which flyway to follow, let alone how to spend
those transitory days in the half-light of summer
brooding over what we’ve made between us.

Todd Davis

Rat Catcher to His Rats

Collection of the British National Media Museum
(photographer unknown)

You lady’s purses, you tack-toed
wallops of white silk, you grim grins,
I have you on my string as good
as legal tender for my room & board
at any inn, my dog & I
welcome there only so long
as you are not, my beauties—
& so we’re tied together in a way.
This broad-brimmed hat wards off
two kinds of yellow, sun & scorn.
How dare we subsist on the hard-
won crumbs of brutes!
But the trap is a good teacher.
Somewhere you must have
your own canny king, making free
with all the best morsels of dark
& swarming nations.

Spirit captions

man with a spirit face

A headache came tapping like a convict at the end of a tunnel.

We were on the air ten hours a week offering bad advice & good pewter spoons.

I would no sooner open my mind than a bad idea would slip in & begin to replicate itself.

With factories on all sides, flakes of soot sometimes grew to grotesque proportions.

The rabbi warned us never to go out without our yarmulkes.

I’m a positive thinker. We create our own destiny, you know.

My twin died before we were born. We were best friends all through school.

I’ll never forget the astonishment on that Hun’s face.

I’m telling you, Doctor, the moon follows me everywhere I go.

I was a punch line in the comics with my empty thought-balloon.

Turnips, radishes, potatoes, leeks… I am getting in touch with my white roots.

I’ll have you know that “laudanum” comes from the Latin word for praise.

Spirit catchers are an old, old thing. What I want to know, Mr. Hope, is how you capture light.


Man with a spirit face appearing” is the work of the spirit photographer William Hope (1863-1933).

Feel free to leave additional caption suggestions in the comments.

Over the Hills

This entry is part 10 of 15 in the series Ridge and Valley: an exchange of poems


Dear Todd,

I was taking the broom for a slow shuffle
around the dining room when I heard
the fluting of wild swans & rushed out,
scanning the sky till I spotted the long wedge
high above the hollow, heading north.
They were as dark against the sky
as we must be to them against the ground,
pausing in our Sunday labors, mouths open
as the swans pass over the train tracks
& the river, over the interstate & the quarry’s
enormous silent megaphone,
over a cardinal singing in a barberry hedge,
over junker cars & houses sheathed
in fading asphalt shingles,
over old carpets left out in the yard
to kill the grass where a vegetable garden will go,
over the burrows of amorous woodchucks
and the leaf nests of squirrels,
over sheets & long johns flapping on the line.
The swans seemed tireless. Their one refrain
might as well have been “Over the Hills
& Far Away,” as in the Burl Ives song
about the piper’s son. They’d keep it up
long past the last tree, I knew — until
the land cleared of almost all clutter,
there where the darkness disappears for months.
I went back to my sweeping,
assembled the dust from every corner,
then opened the door & ushered
that small blue hill into the wind.

I also shot a mediocre video of a flock of tundra swans this morning. You can watch it here.

Peeling onions

Snowflakes in the bathroom mirror this morning as I sit on the pot. Happy equinox!

Later, in Via Negativa’s spam comment folder, I find line after line of question marks. My finger hovers over the delete button. Am I sure these were merely characters in an exotic font my desktop can’t display? What if someone really meant to question me this thoroughly? Or maybe it represents some poor, lonely soul’s existential crisis.

One spam comment I can read is only slightly less cryptic:

Onion booty. Big booty. Latina booty. Doctor booty good. Big black booty. Yoga booty ballet…

I suppose the ellipsis is meant to suggest that the booty-related possibilites are endless, but I’m frankly not sure how you would top yoga booty ballet.

And I’m agog at the idea of onion booty. Almost everything I cook has onions in it; a sharp-nosed friend of mine tells me I always smell faintly of onions. I like the way they relax and turn translucent, then slowly caramelize into brown sugar, or stay crisp and shapely in a stir-fry. But when I google “onion booty,” it turns out to be the name of a thoroughly unpoetic porn site, featuring “asses so beautiful they make you cry” being defiled in a variety of ways that one may or may not find unspeakable, depending on one’s tolerance for such things, but which are at any rate quite predictable. No layers of mystery here. Nothing like an onion.

The question marks that once were letters also probably said something utterly mundane. I’m reminded of my brother’s work with the Indus Valley script, which has so far defied all efforts at decipherment. One self-styled expert with a Harvard connection has been advancing the theory that they aren’t glyphs at all, but mystic symbols of some sort. People used to think that about the Egyptian and Mayan writing systems, too. It’s so easy to assume that anything that’s cryptic must be profound. But Steve is beginning to suspect that most of the surviving Indus Valley inscriptions actually record commercial transactions — that’s why they’re so brief and repetitive. If this is true, the language may never be deciphered.

The snow didn’t amount to anything here, but farther east, I gather, some folks got an onion snow. It’s onion-planting time for sure. The snowflakes sit briefly on the thawed earth as if they were seeds, encoded with full libraries of DNA. Then they melt, and turn into ordinary water — the currency of the planet. And a week later, all along the edge of the woods, the tall green glyphs of wild onions.

The thread

Yesterday the garter snakes came out, the wood frogs clucked in the marsh, and the first coltsfoot bloomed among the stones at the side of the road. Today, a little past noon, I watched the feral cat pounce on a snake made torpid by the cold. A couple of bites and it stopped wriggling. The cat saw me and ran with her prize dangling up under the lilac, where she crouched and crunched. When I came back out twenty minutes later, she had eaten everything but the head — four yellow eyes were staring at me, and then just two. I pictured all those vertebrae passing through her gut.

Just now, new software installing itself on my desktop computer, flock after flock of tundra swans passing over the house, singing their way north as I catch a whiff of corpse from under the floor, I think suddenly of the thread that ties this all together: how fragile it is, and how you need to stretch it almost to the breaking point before it will produce a single note.