canker tree

Yesterday’s post prompted some additional recollections from my mother. Sometime during their last fight to save the hollow from being clearcut back in the late 80s, my parents were meeting with the lumberman/owner of the neighboring property in a lawyer’s office in Tyrone (the town adjoining our mountain). Of all the loggers we’ve ever met, this guy was the hardest to come to an agreement with because he viewed his role as divinely ordained: God had put the trees there for Man to use. Forest trees are a crop that needs to be harvested — a not-uncommon view at industry-funded schools of forestry, by the way. He once told me and Dad on a walk through the woods: “These trees are overmature. They want to be cut!” (See my poem about the incident.)

So on this particular day, Dad had to go to work after the meeting, leaving Mom to walk up the hollow. She mentioned this by way of making small talk after the meeting — what a nice day it was for a walk. The lumberman was aghast. “You’re going to walk? Aren’t you afraid of trees falling on you?”

It was a very telling remark, and we couldn’t help wondering how many other loggers suffered from such extreme arborophobia.

Fear of trees isn’t restricted to those against whom the trees might legitimately harbor grudges, however. Not long after we moved in back in 1971, a farm woman in the valley — another neighbor — asked Mom if she wasn’t afraid to be surrounded by trees. “I’d be terrified to live up there. What would you do if there was a forest fire?” Some years later, a writer-friend of Mom’s from State College expressed the same fear, adding by way of explanation that she was claustrophobic.

Well, I can see that. Besides, anyone who watches television with any regularity would be familiar with the raging, canopy-height forest fires that occur annually in many parts of the west. Here in the east, in most forest types including ours, fire really isn’t much of an issue. What forest fires do occur tend to be low-key affairs that scorch a few acres and kill a few fire-intolerant trees (read: trees that are not oaks) before they burn themselves out. It’s only in recently logged-over areas where the dried-out ground is deep in discarded limbs and branches that true conflagrations can occur.

Fear of forests in general is of course pretty widespread — just think about how many horror movies are set in cabins in the woods. It’s not altogether irrational to be afraid of wild places if you don’t know what you’re doing, or if there are aggressive poisonous snakes or grizzly bears about. Our black bears and timber rattlers are pretty hard to piss off, but to the extent that such things keep fools and lumbermen at bay, we could stand to have a lot more of them.


This entry is part 39 of 73 in the series Morning Porch Poems: Winter 2011-12


There are these questions
arising as if out of nowhere,

warm-blooded and full as the wind’s
bodied passage— That morning,

for instance: when the mother,
oracular, slumped to the floor

after heaving handfuls of still-
green bananas into the air like missiles.

And the stalk from which they were gleaned
quivered against the doorframe, like a bow

with which arrows had just been launched.
What word from the mother-in-law

hung in the air preceding this
onslaught? My ear quickens

to the humming of bees in the backyard,
radio signals of sticky love multiplied

in each golden cell. Some things pass
without saying from woman to woman:

shreds of song, pennants
of explosive radiance.


In response to an entry from the Morning Porch.

Strange trees

sunset trees 2

This morning, I found myself daydreaming about some of the famously strange trees of the world that I have yet to see: baobabs in East Africa, the Tule cypress, the fig trees whose roots are trained into living bridges in Cherrapunji, India, the dragon’s blood trees of Socotra Island… Then I remembered that I have actually seen some pretty great arboreal sights in my time: a cloud forest in Honduras, 2000-year-old bristlecone pines, Japanese maples at the moss garden temple in Kyoto, giant redwoods and sequoias, and an old-growth baldcypress-tupelo swamp forest in Arkansas came to mind.

And then I started thinking about some of our visitors here over the years to whom our own homely trees must’ve seemed a little exotic. In my last year of college, for example (1987 if you want to know), I was friendly with some grad students from northern China, and they invited themselves out in mid-October to see the fall foliage. It was a little early for our oaks, but they oo’d and ah’d over the flaming maples. The thing that struck them most of all, though, was the fact that all these trees grew on their own without having been planted, and that we also didn’t have to water them — they just couldn’t get over that.

sunset trees

Another time, my parents hosted a friend from Peru, a sociologist and poet who’d gotten a teaching gig in Kansas for the year and came out east to visit us. It was early spring, and he was agog at all the damage that an ice storm had wrought among the brittle black locust trees all along the upper edge of the field. After listening to my dad talk about disturbance regimes and forest succession for a while, he stopped and said, “But Bruce — how are you going to FIX them?”

Actually, the amount of standing dead trees and fallen woody debris in our woods might strike many native Pennsylvanians as a bit strange, too. Most forests, private and public, have been managed more intensively than ours; the market for hardwood being what it is, relatively few oak forests around here are allowed to age much beyond 80 years. In fact, our former neighbor Margaret, who grew up in the 1920s and 30s when the hollow was still recovering from being cut-over in the late 19th and early 20th century, told us before she died in 1991 that she thought the hollow had become very messy. She couldn’t remember ever seeing so many logs on the ground.


And since the majority of Americans now have grown up in the suburbs, they are probably used to seeing pretty well-groomed stands of trees. One exceedingly urban colleague of my dad’s at Penn State years ago simply refused to believe him when he told her that we had to carry a chainsaw in the back of the car, because trees regularly fell across our mile-and-half-long access road. This didn’t happen in any of the local parks, as far as she knew. “There must be something wrong with your trees!” she insisted.

It’s all in what you’re used to looking at, I guess. One thing about forests almost anywhere in the world: they’re very good at confounding one’s expectations. And the older they get, the stranger and more perverse they become.

Update: See the follow-up post, “Arborophobia,” for some more reactions to our woods.

First, Blood

This entry is part 38 of 73 in the series Morning Porch Poems: Winter 2011-12


Sudden and lovely, dangerous-looking: dark
crimson streaks that sketched their way down
the insides of my mother’s thighs, her calves,

too dark this ink that did not belong
on concrete walkway— Some brush
drawing these lines too rapidly

from deep inside, their meaning still
mostly inscrutable. I remember her pale
hand that clutched my tiny fist and the other

that let go of the market bag, to hail
a passing cab or jeepney— The next few days
in the hospital, that word I learned: hysterectomy,

the paring of the womb or of its parts. She lay
in bed or on the couch for a week afterwards,
and from here began my other lessons: gave me

dictation as I learned the ligaments to sever,
and rinsed the chicken parts for stew. My fingers
slid under rubbery skin and traced blue arteries

beneath. Water washed but could not quite
erase the ferrous smell, the hint of lichen
or peeled green that clasped the outer

edges of the sink. My senses mothered
by mother-blood, I understood when my
time came. Persephone clenched bright

teeth of the pomegranate under her tongue:
we need this kind of courage. Trembling, I
have scribed the first blood of the month

across my cheeks— waxy red like the lip of
the anthurium, pores stippled with anthocyanins
like the Moro or Sanguinello— body written,

body writing what it knows and does not know.


In response to an entry from the Morning Porch.


This entry is part 37 of 73 in the series Morning Porch Poems: Winter 2011-12


In the seam between January
and the tentative unfolding

of the leap year month, textures
overlap, blur into each other:

the milk-blue of dawn with
the opal light that lives

somewhere around seven o’clock;
the outline of a feather

shed by a body that’s flown
in the direction of the sun.

White and grey speckles
on a field of tawny brown:

costume discarded by whatever
wanted to scale the branches.


In response to an entry from the Morning Porch.

Tree Without Birds

This entry is part 12 of 29 in the series Conversari


The tree without birds
is like a book without vowels
a mind without focus
a heart without tides.
Its limbs remain desolate
in the thick of summer.
It puts out leaves
but forgets to bloom
& its transactions with fungi
are strictly economic,
never lead to any
tempting truffle.
The wind plays it
like a mechanical instrument.
In bluest January
it doesn’t even remember
how to ache.

See Rachel’s response: “Offering.”

Dear noisy stream gurgling in the distance,

This entry is part 36 of 73 in the series Morning Porch Poems: Winter 2011-12


too many memories crowd into the room tonight.

One wants to lie across the entire length
of the bed. Another is angry as ever, punching

a hole in the wall and taking out a length of pipe,
rust blooming along its waistline. Consequently,

when a few of them take the first hot shower
they’ve had in years, the water starts leaking

to the floor. I know I shouldn’t feed them:
not a piece of toast, not even a drink of water.

But already they’ve found the cabinet with
the bottles of Merlot and Vinho Verde, the stash

of leftover Christmas cookies. I push the window
open and heave a sigh. There’s a moon shaped

like a hammock in the sky. In the air, a metallic
tang. And more than a few hours left till morning.


In response to an entry from the Morning Porch.

The practice of attention

tasting rhubarb:

Such a happy new hobby all this was, at its best quietly life-changing. It was also desperately frustrating and a path to renewed appreciation of why we bury ourselves in duty and effort or sink into apathy. To be attentive, to carve out space for seeing, feeling and for creativity, could feel like just another obligation, another drain on resources already spread too thin. This is where the concept I had learned from Buddhists and others of ‘practice’, a modest but steady commitment and removal of choice, was helpful. And it was helpful to try and take writing also as a practice.

One more new blog recommendation and a note about Odes to Tools

I can’t believe I forgot to mention the new blog that originally gave me the idea to write a post profiling new blogs yesterday! I am such a scatter-brain sometimes.

The blog is called A year of Mt. Tamalpais. Its description: “dreaming in the shadows of the Sleeping Maiden.”

Poet and blogger Maria Benet, author of Mapmaker of Absenses, began this so-far delightful and often moving record of Marin County, California’s “single most identifiable symbol” without any particularly lofty goals other than persistence:

Over the years and through many seasons, I’ve never tired of looking at the way the light and fog and rain work together to edit the mountain’s features, sometimes bringing out the depth of colors with a bold brush stroke and at other times rendering the solid ridges into gossamer. I’ve taken hundreds, if not thousands of pictures of Mt. Tam, mostly at random times of the day when the mountain seems to call out suddenly, demanding that I take notice and record the way a long, thin patch of fog slips fast over its peaks, or the way the narrow ray of winter sun slices through clouds to section the slopes with light, or the way, at the height of summer the ridges burst into a blaze with every conceivable shade of green.

So here is what I propose: a picture a day of the mountain that looms over our lives in this corner of the world.

Ideally, it would be best to take that shot at the same time and from the same place, every day. Knowing the way I work, this is not a realistic option. This is not just a question of my habits, but also of the eyes — of the vision becoming inhabited by a single perspective. With that approach I would be documenting a process over time, which is a fine project in itself, but not the one I want to launch.

A picture a day from the same place and same time would capture subtle changes, as well as those larger familiar ones wrought by the seasons. A robot would be the perfect candidate for that project. My project is about how the mountain gets itself seen in a daily life, in this case, mine. In other words, instead of my going to the mountain for data, I am going to let the mountain come to me in its power to make impressions.

So check it out. This is the sort of blogging project for which RSS feeds were invented. Sure, you could catch up once a week, but for maximum cumulative impact the photos, and Maria’s commentary, ought to be seen every day. If for some perverse reason you prefer the haphazard nature of Twitter to Google Reader, you can follow Maria there @alembic. And her main blog, small change, is worth following too, though it sounds as if it may be undergoing some not-so-small changes soon.


If price resistance, lack of physical space for new books or an extreme love of trees have prevented you from picking up a copy of my collection Odes to Tools yet, I have some good news: Beth at Phoenicia Publishing has just taken her first leap into e-book publishing, with my book as one of the first two to receive this treatment. The Kindle (MOBI) version is available through Amazon, but you can pick up either the MOBI or the EPUB directly from the publisher “to give a greater percentage of royalties to the author and greater support to independent publishing.” The price is $2.99 USD.

White List

This entry is part 35 of 73 in the series Morning Porch Poems: Winter 2011-12


Pool of melted tallow in the pewter dish.
Bar of laundry soap scraped across the palms
of the woman washing clothes on the stoop.
An old man walks out of his house at the same
time each day and up the road, dazzling
in his white suit and panama hat. Where
does he go? Drawn blinds with their slightly
sticky film of dust: behind them, a glass-topped
table and two wrought iron chairs. If this
is a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, the screech
of a parrot from the patio follows
the pattern of light splayed across the stones.
Sheer curtains carry the smell of almond skins.
There are children hidden from view on the balcony.
The cook fingers the leaves fluttering like pages
in a book of tripe. Plump ends of chick peas,
upturned like the white flame of a deer’s tail.
Long afternoons. The smell of cotton everywhere.


In response to an entry from the Morning Porch.