Haunted tree

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

honey locust pods

“We live on a continent of ghosts,” paleoecologist Paul Martin once wrote, “their prehistoric presence hinted at by sweet-tasting pods of mesquite, honey locust, and monkey ear.” The honey locust pods with their sweet pulp and indigestible seeds seem designed to tempt a very large mammal with indiscriminate eating habits — a ground sloth, a mastodon, a mammoth. Today’s critters might eat the pulp, but they don’t touch the seeds. Were it not for humans planting honey locust cultivars, the tree might still be restricted to wet areas, its seeds dispersed only by flood waters.

honey locust thorns

There’s something especially haunting about the locust’s formidable thorns, hard enough to make a serviceable substitute for nails, and growing several meters up the trunk. Nothing alive today presents much of a threat to the tree, but imagine bearing a yearly bonanza of tempting sweets on brittle wood and not having some way to keep a herd of hungry mastodons from trampling you or a ground sloth from ripping down your limbs.

honey locust pods

The Appalachians are a haunted landscape in many ways, as I’ve written before. Their ecological communities are still reeling from the loss of such key species as the Eastern cougar, the American chestnut and the passenger pigeon in the 19th and 20th centuries. The forest itself is ghostly, a nearly transparent outline of its former self. And as species such as the honey locust and the Kentucky coffee tree attest, even the Pleistocene wasn’t so long ago. The Indians whose arrowheads may be found in abundance in the field a stone’s throw away from this tree in Sinking Valley, Pennsylvania, may not have hunted for mastodons, but their ancestors surely did.

painted rock

13,000 years isn’t a very long time — not even for people. Artists were painting the European megafauna as early as 16,500 years ago in Altamira Cave, in what is now France. Today, their distant descendents spray-paint the rocks outside a small limestone cave at the foot of the aforementioned field, across the road from the honey locust tree.

Humans, too, evolved with megafauna, and I believe some of our behavior patterns still reflect this association. We tend to reproduce, for example, as if we expected a saber-toothed tiger to eat half our offspring. And in our nightmares we are stalked by monstrous things which often have no real counterpart in the world as we know it — or should I say, as we have made it, we and our ancient hunting partners, the dogs. Together we have tamed the earth, and orphaned ourselves in the process. Which is, perhaps, the scariest thought of all.

Written for the November 1 edition of the Festival of the Trees (deadline: October 29).

Postal Poetry back online, and a facelift for Moving Poems

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Ezra Pound famously advised poets to “make it new.” Poetry websites, too, can benefit from regular revamping. For the past several days, I’ve been playing around working to re-create a couple of websites. I found out last week from Marja-Leena Rathje that a site I helped publish two years ago, Postal Poetry, was no longer online, so I set to work rebuilding it from the Google Reader feed. There were only 69 posts and one page to worry about, so that part of it was actually less time-consuming than figuring out the optimal design for a static, image-heavy site and finding a free WordPress theme to provide it. Our former theme-choice worked pretty well, but it was designed for an earlier version of the WordPress software, and I didn’t think it would be worth the trouble to update it.

At first I was seduced by a beautiful design, but it didn’t really do what I wanted as far as the index and category pages were concerned, and it was practically impossible to tweak because it was one of those theme framework child themes where one isn’t supposed to make alterations except to the stylesheet and the functions.php file, and every time I tried to edit the latter, I got the infamous WordPress white screen of death and had to use FTP to restore the site. It turns out that functions files are hyper-sensitive to the wrong kind of spacing, or something. I think theme frameworks are designed solely for the convenience of professional web developers with lots of clients who don’t want to ever touch a line of code. They’re a lousy fit for hobbyists like me, who actually enjoy doing our own maintenance as long as it doesn’t involve the equivalent of dropping in a new engine.

So anyway, I ended up using a theme designed for aggregator sites. Although it’s hardly an unsophisticated theme, and works great out of the box, its designers also anticipate that users will hack the files to fit their needs. That’s what I like to see! I found a serviceable header logo in my files that Dana had designed for the original site, but that we never used, I don’t think.

It might seem crazy to spend so much time re-creating a short-lived site whose original domain name had been scavenged by someone else, but I just hate to see discontinued periodicals vanish without a trace. I got all kinds of creative inspiration from the pieces we published there — I did my Postcards from a Conquistador series that winter — and some of the best cards on the site still take my breath away.

In the process of contacting contributors to Postal Poetry to let them know that their work was back online, I was surprised to hear that one of them, Emma Passmore, had just taken the Public Jury Prize for Best Film at the 2010 ZEBRA Poetry Film Festival in Berlin. ZEBRA is like the Academy Awards for poetry films, except that it’s truly international, with more than 900 entries this year. I can’t link to a full version of Emma’s film, Breathe, because apparently some of the festivals where it’s been shown embargo web publication for up to a year. (Who knew that film festivals were even more jealous about content than literary magazines?) She did upload the French version, so I suppose I can share that at Moving Poems, at least. Since I’ve been making a lot of low-tech one-minute videopoems lately, it’s great to see a professional director and poet win top honors for a one-minute film!

Speaking about Moving Poems, that’s been the other focus of my website-building mania of the past few days. I wanted something that made a little better use of screen real estate, while remaining fairly minimalist and easy to use. A new theme called Blogum caught my eye, and again, it proved easy to mess around with. I swapped in the fonts from the previous theme, in part to provide some stylistic continuity and in part because I preferred them to Helvetica and Arial. (The front-page tag cloud just looked terrible in Helvetica, for some reason. Verdana isn’t nearly as bad for things like that.) After a lot of puttering, I think I’ve got it pretty much the way I want it, with one exception: it could use a simpler logo in the upper left corner. Any artists or designers want to give it a shot? I can’t afford to pay, but you’d get a permanent link and credit in the footer.

October dusk

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 21 of 37 in the series Bridge to Nowhere: poems at mid-life


What do you mean
by knife, by wind?
The bluest sky below the wash
of sunset pink, delectable
as a slice of blue fruit riding
the horizon’s blade.
Half a moon over the barn.
The field of goldenrod fuzz
gathering its sparrows, brown
into brown, poor Sam Peabody
as lamentable as ever:
a song that catches in the middle
like a shirt on a thorn.
The wind dying,
& the color in the trees
darkening like dried blood.

Woodrat Podcast 24: Mark Bonta on the geography of the Delta blues and the ivory-billed woodpecker

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
Mark Bonta with juke joint and swamp
Mark (left) in Po Monkey's, a local juke joint. Right: old-growth cypress swamp.

Part 2 of our conversation (here’s Part 1, if you missed it). Mark and I share an interest in the blues and in ivory-billed woodpeckers, and if I know a little more about the former, he knows way more about the latter. (Long-time readers may remember my Peckerwood Pilgrimage in 2005.)

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How I Knew Her

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Direct link to video on Vimeo.

Yet another one-minute videopoem. We had a series of violent thunderstorms the night before last, and rather than film the lightning itself, I decided to try and capture what the lightning illuminated. It was interesting how sometimes the camera managed to focus and other times it didn’t.

The use of a cursive script for the title was a first for me. The poem arose like all the others in this one-minute series, as a response to the footage. Influenced I think by my two recent videohaiku, it makes a literal connection with the film imagery at the end.

How I Knew Her

I knew her the way a lake knows a mountain:
from the top down.
Through careful reassembly after every breeze.

I knew her the way a clown knows boredom:
better than I knew that absurdity my self.

I knew her the way an ear candle knows an ear:
through the most intimate of failures
& the sincerest form of flattery.

I knew her the way the night knows lightning:
by inference from the series of missing moments.

My Life as an Astronaut

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
[audio:http://shadowcabinet.files.wordpress.com/2010/10/my-life-as-an-astronaut.mp3|titles=My Life as an Astronaut]

When I was small, I could shut my eyes on one world & open them on another. I could float free of the ground merely by lifting one leg, & I could fall without ever hitting bottom. The daytime moon followed me around like a lie. I took a magic marker to my wall & drew knobs & dials where I thought the spaceship controls should go. When the neighbor girl’s chest turned out to have the very same two buttons as ours did, I wasn’t surprised. We knew the earth would soon become uninhabitable. They were preparing us all for a life among the stars.

Haiku for the Big Sit

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Direct link to video on Vimeo.

So as I mentioned, yesterday was the Big Sit. Though I didn’t count birds, not being a real birder, I did watch a bird for close to twenty minutes, and sitting was most of what she did. I actually don’t know whether she was male or female, but for some reason I thought of her as female. Since I didn’t have a tripod with me, most of the video I shot was kind of shakey, which is why I opted to make this into another one-minute videopoem and cut straight to the standing-up part. Otherwise, I think it would be neat to try and share what it’s really like to watch wildlife (as opposed to what tends to make it onto Animal Planet and the like). When the vulture yawned, I think she was expressing a deep truth about sitting in general.

Haiku for 10/10/10

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Direct link to video on Vimeo.

10/10/10 is variously Binary Day and 42 Day among geeks and Douglas Adams fans; a Global Day of Doing for greens; a day to try and record the world in photos and videos on Flickr; and among birders, the annual, international Big Sit bird count. For me, it was just a day to walk in the woods.

I approach videohaiku a little differently from regular videopoetry, as you’ll see. For one thing, I prefer the poem to appear as type, without audio. Also, the text can flow more directly from the imagery than with a regular videopoem. And finally, while some videohaiku makers use three short scenes in imitation of the three-line pattern that characterizes most English-language haiku, I prefer the style I’ve followed here: holding the poem until the end of a quiet, meditative scene or two. This resembles the effect of a poem on a scroll, or a haiku following a passage of prose (haibun).

I might get a second videopoem, haiku or otherwise, out of footage I shot today, but that will have to wait until tomorrow.


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 20 of 37 in the series Bridge to Nowhere: poems at mid-life


Direct link to video on Vimeo.

Another one-minute videopoem, this time featuring the Play-Doh creations of my dad and niece. Here’s the text.


Before I learned to write, I could barely see. My days were empty Os to be filled at random in a multiple choice exam & fed into some mechanical reader. Then the pen came down & baptized me in its blue or black ichor, & I traveled whole through insomnia’s corrosive labyrinth. The snowpack had melted & frozen again, & the ground was blinding in the sunlight, an immaculate foolscap. This is it, I thought, everyone has preceded me into the next life. I walked with eyes averted until I passed between columns & entered the temple of trees, the ordinary forest.

Woodrat Podcast 23: Mark Bonta on the geography of birding, tree cycads, and geophilosophy

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Mark Bonta with books and cycads

Part I of a two-part conversation with my brother Mark, a professional geographer. It’s become fashionable for writers to use the term “geography” loosely (The Geography of Love, The Geography of Childhood, The Geography of Home, etc.) but what is geography, anyway? Turns out it’s really all about memorizing state capitals and principal imports and exports. Or not. Listen and find out.

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Theme music: “Le grand sequoia,” by Innvivo (Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike licence)