After dark, when the woods
turn back into a forest,
go stand under an umbrella
& let your prim column
of not-rain become
as anonymous as the others.
Count the drips until you lose
track of everything else.
Inhale the fertile aroma
of log-rot & truffle
as if it were the freshest tea.
Ignore the lightning flash,
what it does to the ground:
a stark here-&-now
of sticks & leaves into which
it no longer seems possible
to sink. Raise your face
to the false vault of ribs.
The sawfly stood in the middle of the trail blocking our way, slowly moving its antennae like the arms of a martial artist, its wings too tattered to fly. “They don’t sting,” Steve said. I scooped it up and it we passed it from hand to hand before depositing it on a trailside tulip poplar.
A gang of us — three families — had gathered for a Memorial Day hike in Bell’s Gap, on the trail to Pancake Flats at the top of central Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Front. The trail is unsigned, as are nearly all the trails in our 1.4 million-acre state game lands system, the Pennsylvania equivalent of National Wildlife Refuges. So despite the fact that we’ve lived here for nearly 40 years, and the trail is less than ten miles away, I’d never hiked it before, not having been sure where the good trails are in State Game Land 158. It took a newcomer to the area — poet Todd Davis — to scout out this and other trails in the game lands above his house in his restless hunt for poems and for deer. Deer hunting is confined to the autumn months, but poem hunting is year-round, an open season.
Just because trails lack signs and blazes doesn’t mean they’re unmaintained. In the preceding brief video (which subscribers must click through to watch, I think) my mother demonstrates her famous high-speed log-footbridge crossing technique.
Once across the creek, the trail — an old woods road — begins a gradual ascent of the southern side of the gap. We skirted the edge of a tiny pond just big enough for one pickerel frog and some lily pads. Canada mayflowers bloomed in profusion, which along with some other signs, such as abundant three-year-old rhododendron sprouts, confirmed what Todd had been telling us: that the local deer herd had yet to recover from the winter of 2006. The other common wildflower along the trail also had a name invoking our neighbor to the north: Canada violets. And near the top of the mountain, the birders in the bunch were thrilled to spot a Canada warbler — though they were even more thrilled when they heard and saw a Kentucky warbler on the way back down.
Meadow rue (above) was just coming into bloom — a flower that, despite its common name, tolerates the deepening shade of a late spring woods as well as anything can. This is actually eastern waterleaf (see comments). I found the unopened buds at least as intriguing as the blooms: a mass of feathery bracts reminiscent of some headdress from the highlands of New Guinea. Foamflowers and bishop’s cap were nearing the end of their run, while the last of the painted trillium had shriveled a few days before, by the looks of it.
We passed stands of very mature second-growth oaks and tulip poplars, intermingled with hemlocks which still seemed free of woolly adelgid damage. It was a very impressive forest, especially for state game lands, which are often subjected to short-rotation timbering to help pay the agency’s bills. Comparisons with Plummer’s Hollow were inevitable, but a little unfair perhaps, since the exposure, elevation, and geology all differ greatly. Plummer’s Hollow Run follows the same, vertical sandstone formation for its entire length, while Bell’s Gap cuts through a layer cake of shales, sandstones, limestones, and conglomerates. This complex geology helps explain why, in the Appalachians, you never have to go very far from home to see something completely different from what you’re used to.
And that in turn might help explain why Pennsylvania has the most stay-at-home population of any state in the union. Certainly in my case, being able to travel a few miles and see starflowers in the path is way more exciting than the prospect of ever visiting the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I realize most people aren’t quite as attuned to such variations in the natural world, but Pennsylvania’s cultural diversity is also due, at least in part, to its complex physical geography: Slavic coal miners a few miles away from Mennonite farmers and Italian quarrymen.
Fortified with chocolate chip cookies, we made it all the way to the blueberry scrubland at the top of the mountain — Pancake Flats, so called I suppose because of the usual scattering of huge, flat boulders and outcrops of Pottsville conglomerate that cap the Front.
It was, as I said, Memorial Day. Some mark the holiday with parades and shows of piety, but I had no stomach to watch an enormous flag being carried through the streets of a town whose council had recently voted to despoil its own section of the Allegheny Front with a massive industrial wind plant right in the watershed for its reservoir. My own loyalty is to the land rather than the symbol, to crazy quilts rather than to the orderly subdivisions of a flag.
On the way back down, we passed another pair of hikers heading up — the first Todd had ever seen on this trail besides himself and those he brought with him. We exchanged smiles and greetings. “I walk up here every couple of weeks,” one of the men said.
To anyone with an interest in plants, returning the way one came is rarely boring; you can’t step into the same trail twice. I found a flowering wood sorrel we’d somehow missed on the way up. And on an outcrop of limestone halfway down, Mom and I spotted a gang of eldritch, arrowy leaves spilling over the step-like rocks: walking fern, Asplenium rhizophyllum. It seemed to be in even less of a hurry than we were.
What is natural, you ask, &
I can only reply with a story
I got second-hand, from
an old hippie friend: how
at the Rainbow Gathering
in Kentucky, hundreds
of patchouli-scented kids
decided that the natural
response to the call
of nature was to go squat
in the creek. We are water
beings, they said. Three
days later, when everyone
got sick, it seemed natural
to blame some chemical
released by the government
plane that had repeatedly
buzzed the crowd, trying
to disrupt their otherwise
A completely revised, greatly expanded version of an old poem. This was prompted in part by my reading of The Shit Creek Review, actually quite a respectable online journal, whose latest call for submissions I find tempting, if only I had something to fit the bill: Talking to the Dead.
When I started to write poetry as a suffocatingly earnest, paralysingly intense teenager, I scribbled down everything as it emerged into a small, blue school exercise book. Just beneath the heavily-scored-out printed title of ‘Spelling Book’, I inscribed the words ‘Poems — 1960 Until Whenever’, carefully foxed the edges of the pages, distressed the cover and thrust the slim volume just far enough into my jacket pocket for the title to be clearly visible.
Now, as a writer of poems in late middle age (60 being the new 40), I have graduated from ‘Spelling Book’ to Moleskine, but I still scribble down everything as it emerges onto its pages. If I put the two books side by side — which I just have — the only significant differences I note are that a.) whilst I read ‘Poems — 1960 Until Whenever’ with a mixture of dry-mouthed embarrassment and wry amusement, the contents of the Moleskine bring a little more satisfaction, and b.) my handwriting has got worse during the past 45 years.
All of which constitutes an unpromising start to a piece on links between writing poetry and information technology. However, cherished notebooks notwithstanding, I would claim that the latter has had a more profound influence on the former than any of the other forces that chance or design have brought to bear during the long years since ‘Poems — 1960 Until Whenever’. Here’s how.
I came to computer usage late. I maintained a lofty indifference to their rapid incursion into our lives during the ’80s, only finally deigning to tickle a keyboard when my son needed some help in typing up his degree thesis against a rapidly approaching deadline. Within 30 minutes of applying the changeover technique from typewriter percussion to keyboard caress, I was seduced. On changing schools in the early ’90s and having access to the staff computer room, I launched myself onto what, at that time, comprised the Internet.
Even in those early days there was a handful of poetry sites and one or two e-mags too. I submitted some stuff to one called So It Goes and — maybe unsurprisingly, considering the thin scattering of e-poets across the territory — got it published.
But initially there was little to promote or even sustain the interests of the online poet and for me the principal utility of the computer was as a composing and editing tool. The speed at which a poem could be formatted, amended and re-formatted was intoxicating and, after a few deranged weeks of font and layout experimentation, the flexibility and range of the medium began to have a profound influence over the structure and substance of the message. Even in those early days of tiny monitors, keyboards like pub pianos and regular encounters with the blue screen of death, the pixel dance that had words spinning across the digital page enabled a synchronicity of content and form simply unobtainable within the humble notebook. Buying my own computer enabled me to reach beyond the limitations of Windows 95 and queues for each terminal, and being very definitely the first on my block to wire in cable broadband had me uploading and downloading at frightening speed.
As my facility both in keyboard technique and computer procedure developed, I began to transfer all my painstakingly typed manuscripts to various digital files and folders. And surfing on broadband gave me rapid access to the now burgeoning poetry sites. Here the clunky but comprehensive Electronic Poetry Center was enormously useful, providing links to the growing number of e-mags and also to the burgeoning poetry workshops. I joined two of the latter, one a multi-channelled come-one-come-all community in which effete sonnet-eers shared cyberspace with agonised goths, the other a jittery, nitpicking group of high-achieving monomaniacs seeking validation for their oeuvre.
Flitting between the two brought little creative satisfaction, but what it did provide was a degree of interaction and this was enormously exciting. Suddenly, after years of scribbling first drafts into scruffy notebooks, the final incarnations of which efforts only saw light of day when under the withering scrutiny of little mag editors, fresh work in progress was receiving the attention of my peers. Although there was a powerful sense of rivalry and general muscle flexing on the site, decent criticism was offered too and I lingered for a while and indulged the novelty of the slow motion dialogues. The process of submission of text and leisurely response was like a protracted game of chess, two players leaning over a complex board analysing the display before making a considered move.
But in the final analysis it all became a little too arid and cerebral for me. Jokes and asides were judiciously ignored in the pursuit of critical excellence and, jaded and feeling a little fraudulent in such arcane company, I dropped out one long rainy afternoon and floated off into cyberspace. I was unclear as to what it was that I hoped to find, but the potential for a much more broadly based interactivity seemed to me, in my ignorance, vast and untapped.
And so, much in the manner of the exobiologist exploring the cosmos, I guess I was looking for signs of parallel life — kindred spirits inhabiting some deep space archipelago, opening up the lines of communication and, in the best tradition of the sci-fi romance, all speaking the same language as me.
Which is how I discovered the phenomenon of the weblog. I’d heard of ‘blogs’, of course, but the notion of the online diary recording in minute quotidian detail the life and times of a Media Studies student or a post office clerk held little appeal. What I found was exhilaratingly different. By chance, my first encounter with the blog in action was via Salon, the liberal news and views clearing house, which, in 2003, still hosted a substantial blogging community. Scanning through a cross-section of the blogs on board, I marvelled at the extraordinary variety of topic and treatment and signed up.
Had I had the ghost of an idea of the struggles ahead in trying to master the diabolical complexities of the Radio Userland software, I might never have set down the foundations of the Patteran Pages. But with lunatic persistence I persevered and so began the steep uphill ascent that — in between major Sisyphian descents — comprised the final rite of passage in my IT education. For three years the Patteran Pages operated from the security of the Salon Blogs community. A blog platforming homebrew poetry alongside bits of splenetic political commentary and items showcasing the juvenile humour of its proprietor found plenty of elbow space amongst the Salon misfits. Firm friendships were forged and a powerful sense of mutual endeavour prevailed.
But eventually the gasket blew in my RU engine room and when Lawrence, the overworked and under-appreciated Salon Blogs techie, finally nursed it back into life, I still couldn’t upload pictures. So I ventured forth into the wide-open spaces outside the Salon stockade, choosing Typepad as my new host. Which is where I have been more or less comfortably ever since. Within a few months of my departure from the Salon blog community, Salon announced that they were discontinuing blog hosting and a diaspora followed. I have retained contact with a handful of my erstwhile comrades, but links to the majority of blogs on my sidebar have been made since the move.
I’m now in my sixth year of blogging. I can work within the flexible and largely user-friendly procedures of the Typepad format with confidence, but in some ways I regret the rapid advance of template technology. Having begun to master HTML in order to deal with the eccentricities of Radio Userland, the off-the-shelf technology of Typepad has made me lazy. Where I might have further advanced my IT skills by exploring design possibilities, my concentration is now entirely on content with the emphasis being on the presentation of my own poetry.
Lately it occurs to me: What a long, strange trip it’s been. Long and strange indeed, but exciting, enriching and fruitful too. At a time of life when many are contemplating not a lot more than consolidating what they’ve already got, I find the daily adventure of blogging — the devising, the sharing, the research, the reading, the interacting — revitalising and energising. Most of all, it has provided, and continues to provide, a powerful stimulus to my writing. Everything I write goes into the notebook first; I never compose straight onto screen. But there exists a continuum of creativity now whereby from the privacy and seclusion of the first scribbled elements of a poem, a route is followed through the portals of the keyboard, the computer and the router into the wider world. Way outside the scope of my wildest sci-fi dreams back in the far-off days of ‘Poems — 1960 Until Whenever’, but cherished beyond measure now.
Where nature’s concerned, it’s a cliché to say that every year’s different, but that doesn’t stop us from being struck by this simple truth anew each spring. This year in Plummer’s Hollow, certain absences seem especially worthy of note: chipmunk, garlic mustard, and wood thrush numbers are all down dramatically from last year. Our feelings about each decline, however, are quite different.
I have a new post up at the group environmental blog The Clade, where I’ve become a regular contributor: Driving to Sinai. It’s a thorough revamping of an old essay about forests and highways, focusing especially on water issues. I get a little cranky toward the end:
There’s a television ad for the new Prius that shows a grateful natural world exploding into bloom as the fuel-conserving vehicle glides past. Like so many of the environmental “solutions” touted by greeniacs these days (We can grow all the biofuels we need! We can run our cities on wind and solar power!) this fantasy of an earth-friendly automobile represents a toxic combination of ecological ignorance and wishful thinking.
The chair in the forest accommodates
a cushion of moss — better than
the bedspring, which collects dead leaves
& the rare blackberry sprout.
The canes never get too far
in their explorations of the dappled light
before a deer discovers them & has them
for breakfast, spines & all, threading
her hooves through the rusty coils
& the jumble of squarish stones
where walls once rested.
High overhead, a scarlet tanager
grooms under his wingpits
during each pause in his recital.
If only the lice that live humdrum lives
in the forest of his feathers
could see him as we do! An idea
of perfection, a glimmering jewel
alone in the overgrown void.
In an old edition of the Whole Earth Catalog, someone once responded to the Spaceship Earth metaphor as like being out in the New Mexico night, looking at the stars, and gasping “it’s just like the planetarium!”
Dust. Flies. The sour smell of exhaust.
Muskmelons sliced open in the street.
Pools of green shade in hidden courtyards.
How does this butterfly missing half a wing
still fly so well?
A sound too deep for human hearing
makes the towers sway for a few seconds
before returning to their heat-struck shimmer.
Car alarms start up all over the city.
The butterfly doesn’t miss
a drunken beat.
You want an oracle? Consult Neruda. This morning, I was mulling over a very persuasive argument against hope from the latest issue of Orion magazine. If hope is counter-productive, I wondered, what will take its place? I opened The Book of Questions at random, and read:
Se convierte en pez volador
si transmigra la mariposa?
Which William O’Daly translates as:
If the butterfly transmogrifies
does it turn into a flying fish?
Though I think transmigra actually means transmigrate, i.e. reincarnate.
If hope isn’t to be trusted, what about other religious or quasi-religious impulses? For example, what about faith, belief, or simply trust in the universe? Let us consult El libro de las preguntas once again.
No te engañó la primavera
con besos que no florecieron?
Did spring never deceive you
with kisses that never blossom?
It occurs to me that Bible doesn’t say that hope or faith are essential to understanding. Instead, fear or awe are held to be the beginning of wisdom. To most contemporary North Americans, fear is without any virtue; we like to quote Roosevelt — “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.” But let me put it to Neruda.
Tendré mi olor y mis dolores
cuando yo duerma destruido?
Will I have my smell and my pain
when, destroyed, I go on sleeping?
I think about the dour ending of the book of Proverbs, with its magnificent (and often mis-translated) poem about the ruined face in old age. I can never make up my mind whether or not tragedy or sorrow have anything in common and wisdom. It often feels as though laughter is the only sane response to the slings and arrows of outrageous whatever. What say you, Pablo?
Por que razón o sinrazón
llora la lluvia su alegría?
By what reason or injustice
does the rain weep its joy?
But perhaps this is an abuse of Neruda’s poetry. He was, after all, a committed atheist, so presumably he wouldn’t think much of bibliomancy. Would he?
Dónde puede vivir un ciego
a quien persiguen las abejas?
Where can a blind man live
who is pursued by bees?