Under the highway

under the highway

A split in the pavement where vehicles enter the overpass: from underneath, next to the tracks, it sounds like a heartbeat. Thump-thump. Soil in which nothing has sprouted in 35 years. The once-a-day Amtrak gathering speed, faces hidden behind tinted glass, & the blinking tail light disappearing around the bend. Thump-thump.

What I’ve been doing on my internet vacation

A freak snowstorm on Thursday night/Friday morning ripped down numerous, still-leafed-out limbs and some whole trees. We got up to five inches in Plummer’s Hollow, though the accumulation dwindled to almost zero at the bottom of the hollow. State College, which is roughly at the same elevation as our farm, made the national news. The damage was greatest on the trees with the largest leaves: oaks, maples, tulip poplars, and black locusts — the reverse of what tends to happen during icestorms that hit after the leaves are down, when oaks and tulips are among the most damage-resistant trees.

The storm left us without power for fourteen hours, and without internet and telephone for three days and counting. I’m typing this from a computer in my brother’s house in Tyrone. So how have I been taking advantage of this enforced separation from the internet?

  • I’ve been getting some reading done. My parents subscribe to a few magazines, such as Newsweek, Orion, and the new weekly Christian Science Monitor, and this kind of reading is a fair substitute for a lot of what I’m used to reading online (though it’s frustrating not to be able to Google references for more information). It’s kind of like taking methadone to treat heroin addiction: it’s fundamentally the same substance, but without the high. Reading magazines, it’s more difficult to shake the persistent impression that you’re actually just wasting time.
  • I’ve been checking the internet connection.
  • I’ve been reading copies of American Poetry Review from 2008. Penn State Library discards its paper copies at the end of every year when they get it on microfilm, and a friend of mine who works in the library passes them on to me. I certainly wouldn’t pay money for APR, but it’s amusingly snooty and a good way to keep up with what’s going on in the U.S. poetry establishment. (In a year’s worth of cover poets, the only one who manages not to look like a dork is Stanley Moss, who posed for his photo leaning on a horse’s ass.) I’m surprised that APR keeps publishing in such a disposable format rather than putting full content up on the web, but poets are a conservative lot. The editor of Linebreak tells me that some of the poets they solicit work from refuse to submit to an online journal.
  • I’ve been checking the internet connection.
  • I re-read Every Day is for the Thief, Teju Cole’s novella. For a story without much of a plot, it was surprisingly re-readable. However, I did feel that he should have done more with the mysterious Ondaatje reader on the danfo. I hope she gets a more substantial role in the screenplay adaptation.
  • I’ve been checking the internet connection.
  • I also re-read another book by a blog buddy: Tom Montag’s The Idea of the Local. The essays about walking made me feel I should take up walking for exercise again — photography has made me such a dawdler! However, the weather has been cold or wet, so I didn’t actually go on any long walks.
  • I’ve been checking the internet connection.
  • I started a fire in the woodstove, something I rarely do anymore. I guess the flicker of flames behind isinglass were a substitute for the flickering light of a computer monitor. It made the house too warm, though, and I had trouble sleeping.
  • I’ve been checking the internet connection.
  • I read most of Lost Mountain, a searing book about mountaintop removal that’s been sitting on my coffee table for more than a year, alternately beckoning and repelling. Who wants to be reminded about where our electricity comes from, its terrible cost? But the book turned out to be very well written, and sympathetic in its treatment of miners, mining, and Appalachian culture. The cast of characters is very compelling, including Lost Mountain — that’s its actual name — whose obliteration the author chronicles month by month over the course of a year. Compared with something like that, this storm seems very minor indeed.
  • And now and then I’ve been checking the interent connection.

If not for Colvin

Readers of my previous post might wonder why it was necessary to write protection of the Adirondack State Park into the New York constitution. Isn’t that a bit of overkill, and a frank admission that our public servants are not to be trusted? Well, perhaps so. But there’s nothing that the capitalist system hates more than unexploited resources, and quite often state foresters and politicians are only too ready to cooperate with the exploiters. Efforts to undo the “forever wild” provision got underway almost as soon as the ink dried on the new constitution, and they haven’t let up in the century since.

Wildness is like love: you can’t just suspend it for a little while in the interest of some other attachment, and expect it to return unharmed at your convenience. Once you violate it, it ain’t coming back — at least, not for a long time. But especially in an economic downturn, it’s easy to forget the long-term economic and ecological benefits of wildlands in the search for a quick fix.

What just happened in Pennsylvania is instructive, I think. Read this shocking summary of the Pennsylvania legislature’s assault on state parks, state forests, and the state environmental regulatory agency from the chair of the State Public Lands committee of the Pennsylvania Chapter of the Sierra Club, Arthur Clark. It’s worth pointing out, too — for the benefit of my more partisan friends — that this all happened under a Democratic governor, with a state legislature narrowly controlled by the Democratic Party. (Pennsylvania’s last good governor for public lands issues was actually a Republican, Tom Ridge.) Though Gov. Rendell was happy to accept Sierra Club support in his reelection campaign, he can’t run again, and he appears to have some rather more important friends in the oil and gas industry.

The take-home message? While much of New York’s water supply is protected by its constitution, Pennsylvania’s groundwater, streams and rivers are about to be drawn down and probably contaminated on a massive scale by deep drilling for the Marcellus shale unnatural gas boom. New York had Verplanck Colvin; Pennsylvania had Gifford Pinchot, first Chief of the U.S. Forest Service and twice the governor of Pennsylvania, who defined forestry as “the art of producing from the forest whatever it can yield for the service of man.” Their legacies couldn’t be more different.

UPDATE (10/13): Here’s the Harrisburg Patriot-News editorial on what they call (riffing on the new Ken Burns documentary) “The Conservation Compromise: Pennsylvania’s Worst Idea.” (Hat-tip: R. Martin, PA Forest Coalition email)

Adirondack haiku

near Ampersand summit

At dawn in the campground,
“The Sound of Music” on a flute.
I’m plotting murder.


Squatting to pluck puffballs
from a stump, her raincoat
pale in the dark woods.


Never mind how
you got here. Just sit,
O glacial erratic.

At the back of the store,
a free view of the stormy lake
moving three ways at once.


Not far from John Brown’s grave,
a state prison looms
above the larch.


When I open the Adirondack
pages of my notebook,
two grains of sand fall out.

Off to the wild wood

Just so nobody worries about my well-being, I’m going camping in the Adirondacks for a few days (maybe quite a few days if the weather turns nice), and am taking a break from the internet. I’ve temporarily removed the sidebar listing of recent comments, so as not to give the advantage to any spam commenters who might get past the crocodile-filled moat.

Moving Poems will continue to publish next week in my absence, inshallah. And don’t forget to keep up with qarrtsiluni, as well, where my able co-editor Beth will be running the show.

Harvest Moon

ravaged ladder
house of straw
fine hair on the face of a fetus
the thumbprint of God

breakdowns are part of the act
this time of year
the rock concert’s fake fog
taken straight from a Song Dynasty landscape

feedback   feedback
captive cormorants in choke collars
unable to swallow even
the ghost of a fish

nobody waxes poetic
under spotlights as bright as these
nobody lies down
under tombstones as white as these

you have to drive an hour to find
a dark enough night for dissolution
poor moon
poor harvest

“Hordes heretofore unrealized”

Descent of Man: I’ve always loved that expression, despite the sexism, blending as it does the study of evolution with an old-fashioned way of envisioning ancestry, which is all too often erroneously imagined as some sort of upward climb. In fact, evolution has nothing to do with progress.

What’s more, we did literally descend from the trees. And according to the discoverers of the latest addition to our ancestral tree, Ardipithecus ramidus, our upright posture — something traditionally seen as distinctly modern — had already begun to evolve when we were still mainly arboreal. The knuckle-walking associated with our closest relatives, chimpanzees and gorillas, appears to be a more recent adaptation, which has two implications:

  • The popular graphic representation of human evolution, showing an apelike figure gradually straightening up, is completely wrong.
  • Though evolution does not represent progress, some lineages have undergone more of it than others. By this standard, gorillas and chimpanzees seem now to be more highly evolved than humans.

These findings make me ridiculously happy. The oldest australopithecine fossils had already suggested that arboreal habits persisted far longer than had previously been thought; we were creatures of the forest until just a few million years ago. Even if Ardipithecus ramidus ultimately turns out not to have been a direct ancestor of our particular branch, it does further bolster the case for a relatively recent Descent of Man. And it puts me in mind of one of my favorite passages from William Carlos Williams’ great poem Paterson:

The descent beckons
as the ascent beckoned.
Memory is a kind
of accomplishment,
a sort of renewal
an initiation, since the spaces it opens are new places
inhabited by hordes
heretofore unrealized,
of new kinds—
since their movements
are toward new objectives
(even though formerly they were abandoned). …


For more on human connections with trees, visit the latest Festival of the Trees, the blog carnival for all things arboreal, at local ecologist.