Five questions

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Clare Kines at The House and other Arctic musings tagged me and four others with an interview meme. I think this might be the first time I’ve ever participated in a blog meme. I liked that Clare made up the questions just for us, and I was flattered to be included along with four nature-bloggers I really admire: Debby Kaspari, Seabrooke Leckie, Susannah of Wanderin’ Weeta, and Pohangina Pete.

1) You seem to have an intense curiosity of the natural world. How did that curiosity come about?

I was raised on a remote mountaintop farm without television or neighbors. Everyone else in my family was a nature nerd, and I resisted as long as I could, refusing to learn the birds and so forth, but in the end I succumbed, in part because of my interest in poetry (which also began at an early age). You simply can’t write about something unless you know its name. And once you know the name, curiosity takes over and you have to learn more.

2) What would you change about your home, your neighbourhood, your corner of the world? What one thing would you change to make it a better place?

Reintroduce cougars.

3) Describe your most profound encounter in the natural world.

The one I had at dusk two hours ago, listening to two thrushes sing from opposite sides of the yard. That was it for today, at any rate.

I don’t know. I might not use the word “profound” for many if not most direct encounters with charasmatic critters. This photo my Dad took of me chattering my teeth at a porcupine back in the late 90s was the main image on my Geocities website for five years:

me with porcupine (photo by Bruce Bonta)

Though I jokingly refer to the porcupine as one of my totem animals — I share its big teeth, love of trees, preference for dark, cave-like places and penchant for solitude, not to mention at times its prickliness — I don’t regard it as a spirit guide in any meaningful way. I don’t go in for that fake-ass neo-shamanism bullshit.

I am much more interested in trying to relate to animals as persons than as avatars from some spirit world in which I don’t believe. Yes, I’ve had my share of spooky crepuscular encounters with creatures such as gray foxes, screech owls, and coyotes, but it’s the little observations in broad daylight that have given me I think my most durable impressions of non-human nature. For example, when I think of black bears, I think of digging, snuffling, log-ripping, birdsong-listening, mostly amiable, shy folks you’d have a hard time pissing off (and god help you if you did). Come to think of it, on a single morning in June 2009, I had both a spooky dawn encounter and an amusing, broad-daylight encounter with what I presume was the very same bear.

4) If you could have a conversation with any person in history who would it be, and why that person?

I’d like to talk to Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu), the Chinese philosopher from the late Warring States period, describe our own chaotic period and all the profound environmental challenges we face, and ask him what kind of wei wu wei could possibly make a difference now. Also, I’d just like to get drunk with him.

5) What advice would you give to anyone wanting to better experience the natural world?

Learn to find, gather, and prepare some wild foods.

Notes toward a taxonomy of sadness

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 7 of 37 in the series Bridge to Nowhere: poems at mid-life


A postcard from 1906, written on but never sent

There are as many kinds of sadness as there are things that prompt it, each as exquisitely adapted as a species of ichneumon wasp to its smooth or bristly host. There’s the sadness of 100-year-old postcards that were written on but never sent, the sadness of an alarm clock that was turned off three minutes before it was due to throb, the sadness of countries too small or crowded to accommodate wilderness, the sadness of a pump organ whose church music has long been silenced by mice chewing holes in the bellows, the sadness of open USB ports, the sadness of cities with utterly predictable weather, the sadness of a faded Sears Wishbook catalog kept in lieu of toilet paper in a seldom-used outhouse, the sadness of milk served in the last chipped member of a favorite set of drinking glasses, the sadness of time travel, the sadness of fireflies broadcasting their positions every few seconds in total silence, the sadness of an overcooked vegetable that tastes like rain, the sadness of dust mites whose entire civilization depends on a giant stranger’s poor housekeeping, the sadness of airports that afford no views of the runway, the sadness of pasture roses forced to weather the loving ministrations of those that chew the cud, the sadness of lights designed to illuminate billboards, and the sadness of pulp science fiction magazines from the 1950s that could predict flying cars but not oil spills, let alone this flea market, the world-wide web.

Pileated woodpecker

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

I shot this video from my front porch on Tuesday morning. Pileateds are common here because we have an old forest with lots of standing dead and dying trees full of their favorite food: carpenter ants. They’re really neat birds, and I end up mentioning them often in The Morning Porch. This video doesn’t capture their oddness in flight, but it does show calling, drumming, and excavating.

For more on their life history, see the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s page. Here’s a selection of Morning Porch entries mentioning pileateds.

Dec 25, 2007

Christmas—the quietest morning of the year. The stream is a full chorus. A pileated woodpecker flaps overhead, cheering itself on.

Jan 27, 2008

Commotion among the pileated woodpeckers: cackling, drumming. One swoops past and lands on the side of a tree with a magician’s flourish.

Feb 26, 2008

It’s snowing. A pileated woodpecker drums twice in Margaret’s yard: a resonant timpanum. Then sleet: rapid brushes on a taut skin.

Oct 1, 2008

A pileated woodpecker hammers on a dead tree, resonant as it never was in life. I watch ground fog form and dissipate into a clear dawn sky.

Oct 12, 2008

BAM. BAM. BAM. The red crest of a pileated woodpecker flashes into view from the dead side of a maple, sunrise orange on the hill behind.

Nov 14, 2008

Thick fog prolongs the dawn light for hours. A screech owl is answered by a pileated woodpecker, dirge giving way to second-line ululation.

Mar 8, 2009

The distant drumming of a pileated woodpecker is the loudest thing. A faint rustle in the field, the yard, the woods as the rain moves in.

Oct 19, 2009

Heavy frost. In the clear, still air, black birch leaves fall like rain. A pileated woodpecker dives cackling into the treetops.

Oct 31, 2009

Peeled flesh of a black walnut leaks pus onto the sidewalk, more indelible than a blood stain. A woodpecker cackles from a bone-white snag.

Dec 21, 2009

A pileated woodpecker herky-jerks to the top of a tall locust and flies off. My apple core disappears into the white yard without a sound.

Mar 6, 2010

Clear and cold. A silent pileated woodpecker propels itself through the sunlit upper air with great slow strokes of its shining oars.

May 20, 2010

So clear, even the mourning dove sounds joyful. Muffled thuds of a pileated in a dead tree, knocking—as Rumi would say—from the inside.

Surgery of the Absurd

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 6 of 37 in the series Bridge to Nowhere: poems at mid-life


The clinic wasn’t everything I imagined. The nurse was male & unattractive, the blood & stool samples were anything but fresh, & the surgeon wore coat & tails like an orchestra conductor & bounded from room to room, wielding the scalpel like a baton: one moment kettle drums, the next a tenor clarinet. And we who had thought of our bodies as oases of silence wondered about the anesthesiologist, who’d been missing any trace of an eyebrow. Had he been born that way, incapable of registering surprise? Or perhaps he’d had some facelift of the brow, an elective procedure like the ones we were in for, unsatisfied until we can restore that smoothness of features that once distinguished us, before our parents met, before we descended from our tall trees & joined them down here among these clamorous dead.

Prompted by an email discussion with some blogger friends about an essay by Peter Singer (whom I loathe), “Should This Be the Last Generation?

The Crowd

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

This month we’re soliciting for submissions to the next issue of qarrtsiluni, which Beth and I are editing ourselves — no guest editors this time. The theme is “The Crowd.” If you have poems, prose or artwork that might fit, please see the call for submissions. The deadline is June 30. Here’s our theme description:

The crowd, the flock, the herd, the mob, the swarm, the tribe: we are simultaneously fascinated and repelled by this super-organism, capable at times of great beauty and even wisdom (cf. The Wisdom of Crowds) and at other times of appalling ugliness and violence. Aristotle defined humanity as an animal whose nature it is to live in a polis, but in all ages we seem incapable of deciding whether this is a good or bad thing; one commentator’s inspiring revolutionary struggle is another’s mob rule. For the next issue of qarrtsiluni, we are open to all perspectives, positive and negative, historical and biological, on crowds and other aggregations of social animals. Inspiration can be sought in the ecstasy and fervor of the stadium, the battalion, the game, the march, the final episode, the fad, the stampede — or the collective consciousness in general. With the planet’s burgeoning human population threatening to exceed our ecological carrying capacity, and so many crises now requiring urgent collective action, it seems imperative for artists and writers, so often antisocial ourselves and preoccupied with the struggles of individuals, to turn our attention to sociality in its most vital and basic form.

We decided to eliminate our unreliable online contact form and ask people just to submit by email, and I’ve been intrigued by the variety of salutations people use in their cover letters. First-time submitters tend of course to be more formal. We’ve gotten:

  • Dear Editors,
  • Dear Editor:
  • Hello Editors,
  • hi dear Editor,
  • Hello,
  • Dear Editor,
    online literary magazine.
  • Dear Beth Adams and Dave Bonta,
  • Dear Beth and Dave,

Repeat submitters, especially those we’ve published in the past, tend to favor “Hi Beth and Dave” or some variation, which mirrors our own preference for “Hi [First Name]” in responding to submissions. We did get one “Hello q crew,” which gave me a chuckle.

It seems I’m far from alone in finding “Dear Mr./Mrs./Ms. _____” stuffy and out-of-date for electronic communications, and I almost never close with “Sincerely,” either (nor do qarrtsiluni contributors). And yet “Dear ____” and “Sincerely” still seem perfectly natural for paper letters. Odd how the physicality of a letter elicits greater formality, as if we were not merely addressing the recipient but also to some extent acknowledging the presence of the paper, too. Or more likely, the artifactual nature of a paper letter triggers expectations and responses from one’s past associations with such artifacts, a sort of muscle memory reinforcing norms of epistolary tradition at odds with the more speech-like ways in which we typically deploy email. It’s interesting to see how these styles mingle in the electronic versions of highly convention-bound communications such as the cover letter for a submission to a magazine.

Train Song

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 5 of 37 in the series Bridge to Nowhere: poems at mid-life


I lurk in a wooded
bend of the railroad
where I won’t be spotted.
Duffle bag — check.
Zippo lighter — check.
Deck of marked cards — check.
All my life I’ve been listening to trains
& all my life I’ve been letting them go by,
each whistle Dopplering down
from summons to wail,
followed by a thunder
as intoxicating as any heavy metal band,
graffitoed messages flying past
too fast to parse
& a poorly aligned wheel
shrieking like feedback from a speaker
all the way to Chicago.
It’s not that I want to travel, but this sky’s
too narrow, too full of murk.
It hurts to breathe.
I raise a pants leg
& here’s another goddamned tick
just starting to burrow in.
Out West, I’ve heard, there are places so empty
nobody’s even given them a name yet.
That’s why the next
slow freight & I
have a date.
Here comes
one now. Hear how
the rails are starting to sing?


For the Big Tent Poetry prompt, “Write about something you would love to do but have never dared.” Other responses are linked in the comments here.

The Rescue

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

I am rescuing Roma children from the Gestapo. They have, I discover, a marvelous gift for silence. We escape to the forest and live off whatever their quick fingers can find: eggs from hidden nests, truffles from the roots of oaks, frogs and arrowroot and wild carrots doing their best to masquerade as water hemlock. They are good at helping each other. Whenever I make a suggestion, they tilt their heads to the side, and on rare occasions when one of them speaks, it’s a single word, phrased like a question, in a language I don’t understand.

A little bit of hunger can sharpen the wits, but too much makes you dull. When dullness threatens to overwhelm us, we launch a night raid against some nearby farms, first drugging the dogs, then slipping in among the sleeping cows, their steamy breath, their hot stink, to liberate a gallon or two of milk from some rubbery teat, while the stealthiest child goes into the shed and eases a chicken from its perch without waking it up.

It’s a tricky business. The pasture is nothing but mud and we struggle to hold on to our prizes as we slip and fall and grow mired. The smaller children flail; the older ones settle exhausted onto their haunches and wait for dawn. The moon comes up and everything is illuminated: this is not mud but oil. These are not children but seabirds robbed of flight. And whatever you call this foaming about our feet, it is not the sea.

Ceiling snakes

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 4 of 37 in the series Bridge to Nowhere: poems at mid-life


Direct link to video on Vimeo

The night that a pair of mating milk snakes drops out of the ceiling, I do not dream of snakes. I dream of mating, and of breaking through the crust of the earth and discovering another world filled with an unnatural light. I dream of inescapable stairs verging on a cliff-face to which I cling like a wingless fly. When I wake, it’s still humid, if no longer hot, and a wood thrush sings at the edge of the woods, where wood thrushes always sing: one part joy, two parts longing. I find my notebook from the night before, what I’d been writing when I heard a noise in the kitchen and set it down (some writer!) to grab the video camera. Picking at a scab, it says, and worry beads. I’m sure I had something in mind, but I don’t know what. The snakes were beautiful, and if I hadn’t known better, I might’ve thought from their configuration that they were one snake with a head at both ends, curious but calm as milk snakes always seem to be. If they’d stayed longer I might’ve stood beneath them and offered the use of my body as a steep set of stairs. But the ceiling or their unfinished business called them back, and up they went.

night kitchen
feeling in the dark to pour
a glass of milk