newly emerged spicebush swallowtail 1

On a twig next to my sidewalk, a few feet away from the spicebush I found a spicebush swallowtail drying its wings, the empty chrysalis below. It was just past noon, but the sky was growing dark. The storm broke an hour later, just as I was dozing off: booms of thunder, the rain loud on the roof. I had to get up because, though I don’t ordinarily suffer from loneliness, it’s hard to lie on a bed alone listening to the rain.

One cool thing about including a photo in a post like this: readers know I’m talking about a real butterfly and not just something I dreamt. This ain’t no Zhuangzi bullshit.

Zhuangzi's butterfly dream

Then again, Zhuangzi’s parable isn’t really about the butterfly as metaphor, either. It’s about that sudden and destabilizing shift in perspective which I think any intent observer, poet or scientist, must sooner or later experience, too, that feeling of becoming lost in another being to such an extent that its reality begins to seem more real than your own. How do you know that you’re not just something a butterfly dreamt up? “This” — not the metamorphosis per se — “is called the transformation of things.” Granted, it might be possible to experience that sort of thing through romantic love, too, or so I’ve heard.

I went out after the downpour to look for the swallowtail, but it was nowhere to be found. A yellow tiger swallowtail with one wing strangely bent back was nectaring at the bergamot, setting off small showers at each new flower head.

Eight questions

Last month, I responded to a five-question interview meme. For readers unfamiliar with blogging customs, a blog meme is like a chain letter: if you don’t pass it on, you haven’t properly completed the meme. I was supposed to come up with five new questions of my own and tag five bloggers, but five seemed too few. How about eight questions instead?

  1. Is half a stone still a whole stone?
  2. Do grains of sand get tired of being recycled into mountains?
  3. If you crossed a bat with a mushroom, would you get an umbrella?
  4. Do the glasses one wears in a dream require a prescription?
  5. What songs do they sing in a school without windows?
  6. Do the daisies love us or not?
  7. Is there any reason to believe that we’ll have working mouthparts in the next life?
  8. What kind of cartilage connects us to the stars?

Now the challenge is to find eight bloggers who might actually enjoy answering such questions. Let’s see. How about:

Of course, being tagged in this fashion confers no obligation whatsoever, and anyone not on the list is also free to tackle the questions. Please leave a link to your answers in the comments.

Adventures in laissez-faire gardening: growing a moss garden

The last time I wrote about a moss garden, it was in the context of what I like to think of as Daoist gardening: stumbling on a perfect, more or less untrammeled spot, erecting a temporary mental frame around it, and recognizing it as a garden in need of no actual horticultural interference. This seems to me to be the only form of gardening in full accord with the ancient Daoist principle of wu wei (effortless doing) as described in the Dao De Jing and Zhuangzi. The spot in question was on a talus slope about a half-mile from the house. It looks like this:

view of the moss garden

Ten days ago I decided to try something a little less Daoist and start a moss garden closer to home — right outside my door, in fact. A 25-square-foot patch bounded by the house, the front stoop, a concrete sidewalk and a brick walk has been getting shadier and shadier as the spicebush I planted there some 15 years ago has grown up. Additional shade is provided by the house to the northeast, a stone wall a few feet away to the northwest, and beyond the wall, a flourishing lilac. Last year when we scraped and painted the house, we compacted the soil everywhere we stood. This spring, some of these areas failed to revegetate immediately — especially in the shady spot under the spicebush.

At first I was worried. For at least ten years, the spot has been covered with a beautiful variety of speedwell (Persian, perhaps? It was a volunteer), which I encouraged by weeding out all competitors except for some top-heading garlic. It was a carpet of blue every May. But now the speedwell, true to its name, has jumped the walk and established a more flourishing patch in the sunnier part of my garden. And then I started to notice that the bare patches were turning green. So I started pulling out the speedwell and garlic and noticed little patches of moss coming in all over. My usual, laissez-faire approach to gardening involves pulling out all the grass and a few other undesirable plants and seeing what comes in, augmented by a few intentional plantings from time to time. Why not pull out everything except the moss, keep it weeded and watered, and see if the moss takes over?

moss garden 1

Heavily compacted, naturally acidic soil is the perfect growing medium for moss. To help things along, I fetched a heavy iron tamping tool from the shed and compacted the entire site as much as I could. By removing the existing groundcover, of course, I’ve made the spot more susceptible to drying out, so this commits me to daily watering until the moss takes hold. It’s become an after-dinner ritual.

I did some web research and turned up an intriguing-sounding technique for getting moss established: collect bunches of it and toss them in a blender with diluted beer or buttermilk, blend just enough to create a slurry, and spread it with a spatula on bare patches. I’m glad to know there’s a fall-back plan in case my laissez-faire approach doesn’t work. But I’m already seeing a faint haze of green in some areas that were brown a week ago — look in the center of the following photo:

moss garden 2

When I was a kid and heavily into vegetable gardening, I loved the central mystery of it: how you buried this dead-looking little seed and a plant would come up. Moss is in a way even more wondrous, since it lacks seeds and flowers altogether, doesn’t make a clear distinction between stems and leaves, and seems inescapably plural. Not coincidentally, I had written a poem about moss just a couple days before I made the decision to dedicate a portion of my front garden to it. So more than anything, this is an experiment in what one might call poetry actualization. I’ll keep you posted.


This entry is part 10 of 37 in the series Bridge to Nowhere: poems at mid-life


Highs will exceed 100
with a 30% chance of suicide.
We will envy dogs their long tongues
& they our ability to shed.
Rain will fall part-way
to the ground & evaporate,
like a name you almost remember
& then you can’t.
You’ll see a rabbit sprawled
in the shaded driveway:
its lucky left foot points
toward hidden water.
An earwig in the kitchen
will carry its calipers upright
like the nerdiest of engineers,
& later on you will consider this
to have been a portent,
because the power will fail
& the air will go unconditioned,
shutting down cities
throughout the effete northeast.
We will give up on
the power company,
decide we are the ones
we’ve been waiting for
& reach for our genitals as if
they were real flowers.
We will think the next
wandering breeze was meant
just for us.

Enormous letters: haiku

The letters suddenly
look enormous —
ant on the keypad


Fireworks from the valley
blossom at eye-level —
the smell of gunpowder


My desk lamp has acquired
a curtain of beads:
white spiderlings


Coffee just poured,
I rinse the pot & find
a live firefly

Tree tales

achey breaky
The latest Festival of the Trees — the monthly blog carnival I help coordinate with a couple of online friends — is one of the most entertaining and literary editions to date. I loved the Kenneth Pobo poem that Yvonne included, and her story about her grandfather’s elderberry wine is not to be missed. Check it out.

Fungi are arguably as essential to the composition and functioning of a forest as trees are. My mom’s nature column for July describes some of the most charismatic and tasty mushrooms found in our woods, as part of a portrait of Bill Russell, “The Mushroom Man.”

You know, one thing that really annoys me about suburban people who move to the country (one of many things, I admit) is their tendency to cut down all the trees around their house for fear they might someday fall on the roof. Now, if you live in a fire-dependent ecosystem such as a Ponderosa pine forest, keeping trees and brush away from your house is exactly the right thing to do, but otherwise — um, why exactly did you want to live in the woods in the first place?

High winds are by nature unpredictable, and no life is without risk. But it turns out that being surrounded by trees can actually save you from far worse damage if you take a direct hit from a large tornado, as Debby Kaspari and her husband discovered.

Although we lost a lot of near-irreplaceables and irreplaceables […] we got a lot back, too. We took every recovery as a miraculous gift.

This miracle was brought to us by our beloved trees, which were destroyed utterly. As a parting gift, they fell inward onto the roof, holding down what was underneath. This included a floor-to-ceiling bookcase at the center of the house. When the house fell, the bookcase dropped face forward; books stayed in place as they fell, the solid wood back of the bookcase adding its layer of protection. Although the wall behind the bookcase crumbled, roof and shingles fell straight down on top like a lid, and heavy oak limbs latched it down tight.

Be sure to click through and read the whole thing (along with Debby’s other posts about the tornado). The photo of her hugging her banjo the day after the tornado is worth several thousand words at least.

The Fly Emirates

Fly Emirates, read the perimeter ads
at the World Cup match,
& I try to picture those fabled lands:
what rare seasoning, what iridescent treasure
must glisten on that far shore
like the shoulder of an ox,
rising over the curve
of what we’ll call the earth.
Transparent sails in the harbor.
Travelers rubbing lotion into their palms.
I can already hear the buzz of trumpets
that must herald every entrance
of their emirs.