Sailing to x, solving for Byzantium

A new week begins, just as the old one was beginning to feel familiar. It had come in like a wet dog, and it shook itself so hard we all got soaked. When the conversation finally resumed we had to go back, start over . . .

I have solved for x far too often. From now on x can solve for me.
vajrayana practice

That smiling bitch. With her fingers pointed like a rifle at my cock. Humiliation and shame, it seems, are to pave the road to democracy. Who stands naked now?
The Coffee Sutras

I started to scream again. I was having a hard time breathing. I was gagging from my own bloody nose and whatever she dumped on me. My stomach turned and the woman stripped the tape from my mouth and projectile barf went flying.
A ‘Coon Named Legba

The photos of Iraqi prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib are bad enough, considering that possibly 25 prisoners have died while in American custody. However, some faked photos are also circulating, including pictures of an alleged rape by soldiers that were actually taken from a porno site.
Spin of the Day

They managed somehow to communicate with each other and to fashion (my memory fails me here) some kind of eyeball attached to a muscle that let it hop around and see things and report back to the brains.
Fragments from Floyd

This results from my need to learn about Cascading Style Sheets and structure-based page markup and buzzword-based jargon leveraging . . .
Creek Running North

Since conservative religionists blame gays for everything from AIDS to 9/11 to Tinky Winky and the Catholic Church’s sex scandals, I was wondering how long it would take for gays to be blamed for Abu Ghraib? I got my answer: oh, about a day.
Joe Perez

I’m not sure–I’m not sure that, given the same circumstances, the same boredom, the same bitterness, the same mix of factors–I would categorically not have been that woman with that leash in her hand.
Feathers of Hope

here’s the bed she lies in
the sheets might as well be snow
she’s so cold
the heat disperses above her
the ceiling blankly accepts it
she sinks clean as a stone

Ivy is here

So we each answered the questions, each one according to her opinions. The beautiful thing in this, is that our answers did not agree, but they were close. We are mothers, and we hate wars. And we want peace for our families, and for our countries. The program will be broadcast on mothers day in America – I mean, May 9. I hope it’s a happy day for all mothers in America and the world – that families gather. That nobody is absent, participating in a war or something similar. And that peace surrounds the whole world.
A Family in Baghdad

O inhabitants of al-Andalus, what happiness is yours, having water, shade, rivers and trees. The garden of Eternal Happiness is not without, but rather within your territory.
– ibn Khafaja, Valencia, 11th century

Everybody has clotheslines; in fact the fronts of the buildings give very little clue about the vibrant life that happens in the back gardens and alleys between rows of attached buildings on two parallel streets.
the cassandra pages

[Lot for sale = Zero.]

Eventually, maybe it will be recognized that those individuals who dare to blow the whistle and who refuse to participate in anti-human actions are the real heroes, the truly civilized.

Khalid wanted to go and die in Iraq, not because he is a loser, not because he wants to have a 72 virgins (I don’t know where did this virgins story come from), and not because he wanted to achieve personal benefits . . .
Khalid like other hundreds before him, and thousands after him, wanted to say NO, he wanted to change his/our world, and it is our fault that we didn’t give him other means to express this protest.
Raed in the Middle

“The life of a warrior cannot possibly be cold and lonely and without feelings,” says don Genaro, “because it is based on his affection, his devotion, his dedication to his beloved. And who, you may ask, is his beloved? I will show you now.” He then performs an astounding demonstration, in which he “embraces the earth.”
Book of Life

There was a time when people here felt sorry for the troops. No matter what one’s attitude was towards the occupation, there were moments of pity towards the troops, regardless of their nationality. We would see them suffering the Iraqi sun, obviously wishing they were somewhere else and somehow, that vulnerability made them seem less monstrous and more human. That time has passed. People look at troops now and see the pictures of Abu Ghraib . . .
Baghdad Burning

Say firmly:
“We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands shall not come to us reeking of carnage,
For caresses and applause . . . “

Helena Cobban

There is a sign hanging beside my piano. It says “Don’t shoot the piano player. She’s doing the best she can.”
Switched At Birth

First he joked that only Jews could make a holiday of a day when nobody died. (We laughed.) And then he observed that, in this day and age, when so many of us begin our mornings by turning on the radio or checking news online to see how many casualties the Iraq war has generated overnight, we might find ourselves identifying with the impulse to celebrate such a day. (We weren’t laughing any more.)
Velveteen Rabbi

We are greasy in death, and wet
and slippery and vainly named.

Lekshe’s Mistake

the darkness can go away now, the darkness can go away
Awake at Dawn — Writing Journal

I have solved for x far too often. From now on x can solve for me.
vajrayana practice

This post was inspired by the late, lamented blog commonbeauty, which demonstrated the potential of the blogroll collage/chrestomathy form in the posts “twenty upanishads” (April 08) and “twenty questions” (April 12)

Say hello to my little friends

Somewhere or another I remember reading that the most perfect faces are simply those that are the most average: eyes just the right distance apart, cheekbones just the right height, mouth neither too big nor too small, and so forth. With certain caveats, I might be willing to accept this. But I’m also thinking, how sad if our attempts to describe beauty begin and end with such perfection. We may become so unaccustomed to real beauty that we not only overlook it, but are repelled by it. How many truly striking women only come into their own during their college years, having been largely shunned by their classmates all during high school? How many people can really feel comfortable in a wild setting without succumbing to the urge to straighten things up a bit – get rid of some of the downed limbs and rotting logs, remove an unsightly snag, eradicate that clump of rank weeds? Yet with a little bit of ecological education, such messy elements may be prized – to such an extent that a forest seems immature and incomplete without them.


The other day I was lured outside for a brief mid-afternoon walk by the clear sky and calls of newly arrived scarlet tanagers and indigo buntings. I slung binoculars around my neck, but found myself instead crouching for half an hour beside an ant-lion’s trap in the middle of the trail, waiting in vain for an ant to stray into it and get “stoned” to death – a drama I’ve never actually witnessed. I dropped little pieces of detritus into the trap, but only once did the larva’s head come close enough to the surface for me to catch a glimpse of it in the strong sunlight. So I started looking for ants to drop, lure or chase into it.

Again my efforts were a flop. Small ants are hard to catch, impossible to herd – and boy, do they move fast! One did bumble into the ant-lion’s trap while I watched, but it had no trouble scaling the other side – in fact, it didn’t even slow down! I began to suspect that this was the sort of thing that only worked as it was supposed to once in a very rare while. But later, when I checked on the web, I decided that maybe I just found a lazy or recently satiated ant-lion. According to The Antlion Pit: A Doodlebug Anthology, “Antlions are fascinating creatures whose behavior can easily be observed in the wild without ever touching or capturing them. An ant tossed into the pit will stir the antlion into action immediately. If direct involvement in an ant’s death presents you with moral (or other) problems, use an alternate method: a puff of air or a slender blade of grass dangled into the pit can sometimes provoke a sand-flicking response.”

Actually, my fascination with ant-lions stems from the knowledge that their adult form is an ethereal insect closely related to a lacewing. For me, the beauty of the lacewing derives as much from the contrast with its pre-adult “ugly” nature as from the grace and perfection of its adult form.

The thing that really struck me, though, once I began looking at the forest floor with a hunter’s eyes, was just how many tiny creatures were moving around. And most of them were ants, of at least three different species. That didn’t really surprise me; E.O. Wilson notes in Journey to the Ants that ants outnumber all other animals. Without them, says Wilson, “the earth would rot” and most animal species would go extinct. Still, even knowing all this, I was amazed. The earth is a goddamn ant farm!

A miniscule jumping spider added to the interest of this landscape-in-miniature. So quickly did she move from one spot to another, it was as if she had mastered the art of teleportation – an impression reinforced by the lack of any apparent mechanism for this amazing feat. I saw nothing comparable to a grasshopper’s outsized rear legs.

When people talk about creepy-crawlies, I think, they demonstrate perhaps to an exaggerated degree an unease that most of us feel about the lack of any absolute differentiation between the living, crawling surfaces of the world and the surfaces of our own bodies. This co-terminality is more than mere homology – a fact of which the inhabitants of more tick- and chigger-infested parts of the globe need little reminding. When one goes to the tropics, of course, the number of lifeforms waiting to parasitize human flesh, from exotic molds to all manner of mosquito-borne viruses, becomes truly staggering. Years ago, my mother returned from a visit to the Peruvian rainforest with a strange, red lump on her arm that weeped pus and wouldn’t go away. Then one day when she was in the shower, she let out a shriek that brought us all running. Something had just stuck its ugly little head out of a hole in the middle of the lump! A human botfly larva! Fortunately, she hadn’t seen the movie Alien, and fortunately my dad is very patient with a pair of long-nosed tweezers and managed to pull the thing out. (We learned later that the approved method of removal is to tie a slab of raw meat over the spot. Trying to evict the larva by force is chancy, because if part of it remains behind it will rot, with potentially unpleasant consequences.)

Here in the over-sanitized North, we forget what it must’ve been like for our ancestors, whose hirsute bodies (in the case of my ancestors, at any rate) would’ve been more or less constantly in motion with fleas and one or both species of human lice. Without such direct experience, who nowadays can really read as it was meant to be read Robert Burns’ poem “To A Louse”, or John Donne’s “The Flea”?

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is;
It suck’d me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be.

Our gross-out reaction undoubtedly gets in the way of enjoying the bawdy humor – just as it prevents us from truly appreciating what such creepy-crawlies meant to the 18th-century haiku poet Kobayashi Issa, perhaps the most entomologically minded poet of all time.

For you fleas too
the nights must be long,
they must be lonely.

(translated by Robert Haas)

Of course, a complete consideration of human-body-as-habitat must look well beyond the assorted ecto- and endoparasites. As Lewis Thomas memorably stated in the title essay to his bestselling essay collection The Lives of a Cell (Viking, 1974), “A good case can be made for our nonexistence as entities. We are not made up, as we had always supposed, of successively enriched packets of our own parts. We are shared, rented, occupied. At the interior of our cells, driving them, providing the oxidative energy that sends us out for the improvement of each shining day, are the mitochondria, and in a strict sense they are not ours. They turn out to be separate creatures, the colonial posterity of migrant prokaryocytes, probably primitive bacteria that swam into ancestral precursors of our eukaryotic cells and stayed there. . . . We carry stores of DNA in our nuclei that may have come in, at one time or another, from the fusion of ancestral cells and the linking of ancestral organisms in symbiosis.”

To pick a less radical example, our intestinal flora are still more-or-less discrete organisms without which digestion would be impossible. This example in particular makes me think of Rabelais, as interpreted by Bakhtin. As I’ve written here in the past, for Rabelais – as for most premoderns – the idealized human body was in constant flux, full of grotesque hollows and protrusions, interpenetrated by – and only very imperfectly differentiated from – the world’s own, grotesque body. Bakhtin maintains that our conception of a smooth and finished body is no older than the 18th century. “The basis of the image is the individual, strictly limited mass, the impenetrable facade. The opaque surface and the body’s ‘valleys’ acquire an essential meaning as the border of a closed individuality that does not merge with other bodies and with the world. All attributes of the unfinished world are carefully removed.” (Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. by Helene Iswolsky, Indiana U.P., 1984.)

Experimental pathologist Marc Lappé, author of The Body’s Edge: Our Cultural Obsession with Skin (Henry Holt, 1996), seems to agree that the older conception of the body was more accurate. “The view of the skin as a barrier against pathogens, pollutants and radiation is a modern one, and a wrong-headed one at that,” Lappé writes. “Many primitive [sic] cultures regarded the skin as a naturally permeable system and respected its integrity by limiting their disinfection efforts to occasional scrubbings. . . . [By contrast,] modern medical practitioners mistakenly believe that the skin must be kept ‘clean’ and germ-free as a defense against disease. Through the overzealous use of disinfectants, the skin is stripped of its naturally protective microorganisms. This unfortunate practice has led to nursery epidemics of antibiotic-resistant staph and streptococcal skin infections and overgrowth of yeast organisms.”

“Naturally protective microorganisms”? Say what?

“Our skin is host to a veritable entourage of microorganisms during its short life,” says Lappé. “As many as twenty million bacteria and fungi and numerous parasites and arthropods inhabit every square inch of our skin. We are not born so colonized, but rather acquire this ecological microcosm in stages. . . . After birth, the sterile skin is seeded constantly by individual bacteria and fungi, including various staphylococci, corynebacteria, streptococci, and occasional coliforms. These interlopers land on the skin much as invaders would colonize a vacant planet: tentatively and with many failures. But certain bacteria are ‘intended’ to thrive on the skin and are remarkably successful in expanding from their initial land sites rapidly.” (Emphasis added)


This brings the discussion back almost to where it started, given that the condition of our skins – especially the skin of our faces – is widely used as an index of beauty. Although human beings are uniquely expressive and uniquely attuned to the expressions on other’s faces, we ignore at our peril the role of culture and individual preference in shaping these conceptions. “Beauty is only skin-deep,” says the redneck proverb, “but ugly goes all the way to the bone.” But if beauty is understood only as a sort of golden mean, and all the individuating marks and scars and wrinkles, all the skewed and off-color points of interest must be airbrushed away, I say: make mine ugly!

I’ll let our panhandling sage have the last word on this topic today . . .

Face to face with the trees

In little over two weeks, the view from my front porch has changed radically as leaves come out on the trees. The house sits at the edge of a large lawn/meadow/barnyard opening; the porch faces the edge of the woods some fifty feet away. When the leaves are down, I can see up to the top of the low rise we call Laurel Ridge, a couple hundred yards away through the woods. Only the solid mountain laurel understory remains green all year round, and the low winter sun catching an entire hillside of waxy laurel leaves, especially with a snowpack to provide contrast, is a sight to savor. Tree trunks in winter evoke a crowd in freeze-frame; I have only to step down from the porch and walk a few dozen paces to join their vigil. For those six months of the year, I can sit on my porch and feel the smallness of the mountain, the closeness of the sky.

Now, I face an ever more solid wall of green. The last few peeks of sky below the top of this wall will disappear in another day or two. The wintertime impression of limitless space has given way to a feeling of fertile and profuse mystery, veils behind veils.

Ever since I was a kid, I have been able to see faces in the trunks and foliage of trees. The crown of the tallest white pine tree off to the east always reminds me of a long-chinned, long-nosed crone. But with the great deciduous leaf-out, the anthropomorphic forms and faces proliferate. One glimpses them especially at dawn or dusk, an effect aided not merely by the dim light but by the profusion of birdsong at those times. The elaborate blending of ethereal thrush notes, the catbird’s jazz scatting, the oriole’s brassy reveille and many others, along with the profusion of new scents (now the lilac and cypress spurge in my yard; in a few weeks the dame’s rocket) – somehow the synaesthesia helps trigger this intimation of extra presence right at the edge of perception.

I hasten to add that this is without the aid of artificial stimulants, except on very rare occasions. My willingness to admit this peculiar habit of mine is sparked by a study of American Indian tree carving, Faces in the Forest, by Michael D. Blackstock (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001). I had known that some First Nations possessed arborographic traditions, but I hadn’t realized what a wide swath of territory this took in: from the coastal forests of British Columbia clear across to the eastern woodlands. The Iroquois medicine society known in English as the False Faces centered on the power of very beautiful, individually unique masks that were carved directly into the trunks of living trees, and subsequently removed for ceremonial use. The False Face Society’s etiological myth makes it clear that the mask carvers were trying to borrow the spirits of the trees themselves. That is to say, the masks weren’t intended merely to represent other beings – they were the beings they represented. Blackstock gives a version of the origin story collected by Arthur C. Parker (Seneca Myths and Folktales, 1923):

“Unfolding from the trunk of the basswood, the great face stared out at the spellbound hunter and opening wide its protruding lips began to speak. He told of his wonderful eyesight, his blazing eyes could see behind the moon and stars. His power could summon the storms or push aside the clouds for the sunshine. He knew all the virtues of roots and herbs, he knew all the diseases and knew how to apply the remedies of herbs and roots. He was familiar with all the poisons and could send them through the air and cure the sick. He could breathe health or sickness. His power was mighty and could bring luck in battles. Evil and poison and death fled when he looked, and good health and life came in its stead. He told of the basswood and said that its soft wood was filled with medicine and life. It contained the life of the wind and the life of the sunshine, and thus being good, was the wood for the false-faces that the hunter must carve.

“Long the hunter listened to the giant false-face and then he wandered far into the forest until the trees began to speak. Then he knew that there were trees there in which were the spirits of the beings of which he had dreamed and that the Genonsgwa was speaking. He knew that now his task of carving must begin and that the dream-beings, the voices, the birds and the animals that he saw must be represented in the basswood masks that he must make.”

If this all sounds a bit familiar, I suggest that may be due to reading The Lord of the Rings one too many times! But of course Tolkien’s description of the Ents drew upon ancient Eurasian traditions not so different from those of Native North America. In fact, common themes crop up in arboreal myths the world over, which implies to me a phenomenological basis. (Notice how, in using this fancy terminology, I can completely side-step the question of whether that basis should be sought in human psychology, in “reality,” or in some combination of the two.) I explored the diverse meanings of trees in some detail a while back, in an essay called Notes from an Anthropologist of Trees. My ruminations there were born from the intuition that many of our public monuments are not so much phallic as they are arborescent, stemming from an age-old and deeply felt homology between the trunk of the tree and the heroic human torso.

This is not to deny that the phallus occupies a strong role in the male and female imagination, as well; I simply don’t feel that phallic images are primary. To assert that they are, I believe, is to indulge in a post-pubescent, pre-adult power fantasy. The taming and rechanneling of this fantasy would seem to be one of the major goals of initiation ceremonies and rite-of-passage ordeals the world over. Although even to suggest that this fantasy is something to be tamed and rechanneled implies primacy, and I’m not sure how many cultures really believe that adolescent behavior is somehow primary or “natural” in our sense of the word. In fact, a great many peoples hold up as their cultural ideal the figure of the Elder, who simultaneously embodies the deathless wisdom of the ancestors and the direct gaze and innocence of the young child.

Western concepts of wild/natural vs. tame/civilized emphasize the repression of part of the self – rather than, say, the preferential cultivation of one part without disrespect toward other aspects. (I have to really hunt for the words to say this, so deeply ingrained is the habit of looking at life as a zero-sum game.) Why cut down the whole tree if all one needs for the mask is one small portion? Art (or, more broadly, technology) can have a symbiotic rather than a parasitic relationship with Nature. If Native Americans have no concept of the wild, it may be because they cannot comprehend the desire to impose one’s will upon Nature in the first place.

Such, at any rate, is the drift of my thoughts this fine morning as I watch the light grow, marveling at the number of variations on the theme of green. In a few weeks, washed by air-borne chemicals both natural and unnatural, the leaves will darken into a more uniform monotone. From my front porch I’ll still be close enough to distinguish one tree’s foliage from another by the shape and arrangement of the leaves – although of course each individual is familiar to me from long acquaintance. As dawn turns to day, the trees at the woods’ edge gradually coalesce, becoming ever more circumscribed and distinct. I imagine that if Sigmund Freud were here with me, sitting in the other plastic stack chair, he would listen to my ramblings about arborescent images and cultural ideals with a faint smile, then say: “But sometimes, you know, a tree is just a tree!”

CROSS-REFERENCES: Mask and pageant and Divining the wild

America starts here

What the hell is it with southwestern Pennsylvania these days? How is that such an ordinary place keeps get mixed up with such extraordinary headlines?

It’s rare enough for any part of Pennsylvania to make a ripple in the national consciousness. As geographer Pierce Lewis notes in Chapter 1 of A Geography of Pennsylvania (E. Willard Miller, ed., Penn State Press, 1995), “A recent study has shown that Pennsylvania conveys no very clear image of regional identity; by many Americans it is seen as an ordinary kind of place.” But in highly stressful times, such ordinariness can begin to seem attractive, as Americans search for emblematic expressions of bedrock national virtues. You want examples of old-fashioned fighting spirit and moral rectitude? The headlines say, Look no farther than your own backyard.

It may be that Americans are growing tired of being the swaggering, trash-talking policemen of the world. If that’s true, it’s no wonder that the low-key, self-deprecating style cultivated by folks in my neck of the woods might seem refreshing. When cultural geographers rank the fifty states according to the presence or absence of state pride, Pennsylvania is all the way over on the other end of the spectrum from Texas. We are the anti-Texas!

This is in part because different regions within the state are so distinct. Our veteran senator Arlen Specter – who is, whatever else one may think of him, a very bright man – once admitted in an interview that, for the purposes of campaigning, he divided the state into six distinct regions, with a different campaign style required for each. Wilbur Zielinsky, in A Geography of Pennsylvania, identifies seven “culture areas.” According to Zielinsky, geographers debate about how much of Western Pennsylvania may actually be considered an extension of the Midwest, and whether the extreme southwestern corner of the state constitutes the tip end of the “Upper South.”

We weren’t always so self-deprecating or lacking in regional self-identity. Southwestern PA first gained national notoriety in 1794 with the Whiskey Rebellion. This began as a local revolt against federal excise taxes, and quickly spread south throughout the backwoods areas of the then-frontier. George Washington – one of Western Pennsylvania’s original land speculators (today we call them “developers”), with a strong personal stake in the insurrection’s outcome – led 13,000 federal troops over the Allegheny Front to crush the revolt. Considering that many volunteers in the Revolutionary War had fought against the British precisely because of their resentment of excise taxes, some historians view the violent suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion as tantamount to a counter-revolution.

When the Whiskey Rebellion was crushed, what had been a sharply defined, separate regional identity quickly dissipated. The most rebellious elements of the population relocated to more inaccessible portions of the Appalachian chain, to be replaced by later maves of somewhat more tractible immigrants. Some contemporary historians feel that the Whiskey Rebellion’s influence on the United States may actually have been quite salutary, helping to solidify the anti-Federalist positions of Thomas Jefferson and his associates. Be that as it may, there’s a certain irony in the fact that the original stronghold of state’s rights sentiment was a portion of the country now exceptional for its lack of regional jingoism.

But the appetite for radical democratic organizing lingered. As a center of the steel industry and a bituminous coal region, southwestern Pennsylvania (including Pittsburgh) has seen its share of epic labor battles. The great Homestead strike of 1892 led to one of the bloodiest battles in American labor history, pitting Pinkertons and the Pennsylvania National Guard against 25,000 locked-out workers and their families. Although it represented a step backward for labor relations, repercussions of this battle would eventually be felt around the world. Alexander Berkman’s failed assassination attempt against strikebreaker Henry Clay Frick, and its total lack of impact on political events, helped turn his companion, Emma Goldman, against the then-popular anarchist dogma of “revolution by the deed.” Goldman subsequently became one of the world’s most influential advocates for individual freedom and social anarchism, and her thoughts on the limits of violence would influence countless other revolutionaries and social change advocates for decades to come.

In an even darker episode, the Johnstown Strike of 1937 provided industrial bosses with the first opportunity to see if a new, “scientific” approach to strikebreaking pioneered by the Rand Remington company in Elmira, New York could be successfully copied elsewhere. The National Association of Manufacturers would later cite the Johnstown Strike as a model for how to employ the so-called Mohawk Valley Formula:

“A citizens’ committee is formed under the slogan of ‘law and order.’ Mass police powers are invoked against the strikers by dramatizing real, imaginary, or provoked instances of ‘violence.’ Back-to-work sentiment is stimulated by the presence of massed vigilantes, a pretense of normal plant operations, mass meetings, press and radio publicity, dissemination of demoralizing propaganda, the circulation of back-to-work petitions, and a well-timed dramatic opening of the plant so prearranged that a substantial body of non-strikers or outside recruits marches into the plant en masse. The employer manipulates pressure groups to discredit the strike as the ‘lost cause’ of a ‘radical minority.’ With public support, he can, if necessary, employ extra-legal means of thwarting unionization.”

This procedure became an essential tool for industry to defeat unions after the passage of the Wagner Act in 1935, which for the first time required management to bargain with workers’ representatives. Again, the outcome of the Johnstown Strike had impacts around the world. Elements of the Mohawk Valley Formula are still routinely employed, not merely against labor organizers but environmental activists as well.

I’ve had ample opportunity to reflect on this history over the last nine months, as I’ve become involved in a fight to maintain public control over a popular state park in southwestern Pennsylvania. Despite strong local opposition to a proposal to build an exclusive, country club-style resort in the park, and despite the fact that three-quarters of the 19 groups in our anti-resort alliance are based in the local area, resort proponents have sought to portray us all as “outside agitators” intent on imposing our effete, anti-jobs agenda on a vulnerable populace. And an informal “citizen’s committee” of wealthy local elites has formed to try and concentrate influence on state-level decision makers and outflank us “agitators.”

Although I have been known to question the value of patriotism, I don’t deny that questions of national, regional and tribal identity play a key role in politics, especially in helping to shape people’s willingness to fight or to refrain from fighting. Who are we – a nation of jack-booted thugs and trigger-happy sadists, or the valiant firefighters of the world? As individuals, should we follow our leaders and root for the home team no matter what, or must we obey the dictates of our own consciences, even rising up in revolt if the circumstances demand it?

For many Americans, events in southwestern Pennsylvania have helped to crystallize these questions. First came the Quecreek mining disaster of July 2002, which drew television reporters from far and wide with its dramatic story line. Focused on the horror of being trapped deep underground, the nation was unprepared for the miners’ successful rescue, and many found their nonchalance and stoicism inspiring. (The extent to which this disaster had been precipitated by the extreme incompetence and callousness of the mining company, encouraged by newly-relaxed safety standards championed by “President” Bush only weeks earlier, unfortunately never garnered much publicity.)

Then came September 11. Whatever the exact circumstances surrounding the crash of Flight 93 at Shanksville, PA, transcripts of phone conversations with the passengers leave little doubt that a coordinated uprising against the hijackers did take place. Local firefighters and first responders became linked in the public imagination with the heroes of the World Trade Center disaster in New York City, as well as with “the 40 brave souls [who] fought armed terrorists to save the lives of others and some unknown national landmark,” as the Flight 93 Memorial Information Center puts it.

The latest example of the “ordinary heroism” of southwestern Pennsylvanians emerged just this week. Somerset County native alerted officers of Iraqi prisoner abuse, trumpeted the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

“Bernadette Darby said she received a phone call from her husband, Spc. Joseph M. Darby, about three weeks ago, informing her that something was going to happen with his unit and that she shouldn’t worry.

“‘He said he wasn’t in any trouble and I shouldn’t worry,’ said Darby by phone from her home in Cumberland, Md. ‘I asked him what was going on but he wouldn’t tell me.’

“According to details of an Army report released yesterday, Darby, 24, a Somerset County native and member of the 372nd Military Police Company, was the one who alerted officers about the alleged torture of Iraqi prisoners of war by others in his Cresaptown, Md.-based unit, leading to criminal charges and possible court-martial of several soldiers.

“Bernadette Darby, who along with her husband grew up in Somerset County, said she had heard of the incident on the news, but was not aware of her husband’s role until a reporter from the Baltimore Sun phoned her yesterday.

“‘I was shocked and proud,’ said Darby. ‘I am behind him 100 percent. He felt something was wrong and I couldn’t be more proud of him.'”

In his expose of the prisoner abuse scandal in the New Yorker, Seymour Hersch quotes from a transcript of a military hearing. “A government witness, Special Agent Scott Bobeck . . . told the court . . ‘The investigation started after SPC Darby . . . got a CD from CPL Graner. . . . He came across pictures of naked detainees.’ Bobeck said that Darby had ‘initially put an anonymous letter under our door, then he later came forward and gave a sworn statement. He felt very bad about it and thought it was very wrong.'”

If we look at cultural rather than political boundaries, intertwining story lines form an even more interesting weave. Like Joe Darby and the Quecreek miners, Jessica Lynch also hails from these mountains. To me, Lynch earned her hero status when she repudiated – in a firm, if understated manner – the false heroism that the military propagandists had tried to attach to her story. According to her Iraqi nurses and doctors, Lynch’s extreme naivete and lack of affectation made a deep impression on everyone who came into contact with her. In contrast with the brutality and cynicism of the U.S.-led invasion, these very ordinary virtues seemed extraordinary.

But then there are those soldiers in the now-notorious photos, also from the mountains. One of the soldiers under investigation is from southwestern Pennsylvania, in fact. Four of the others are from rural Virginia, and one, Lynndie England, is from Fort Ashby, West Virginia – less than twenty miles from the Pennsylvania border. England is the inanely smiling young woman posing with the degraded bodies of her captives whose only crime was to be identified as “outside agitators” . . . and to be dark-skinned. This, too, is the face of America – we might as well own up to it. But that’s another, far less heartwarming story . . .

Marginalia: on a quote from Thoreau


Let me know your thoughts on this:

“Man cannot afford to be a naturalist, to look at Nature directly, but only with the side of his eye. He must look through and beyond her. To look at her is as fatal as to look at the head of Medusa – it turns the man of science to stone.”
– H. D. Thoreau, quoted by William Hamilton Gibson

Why? Because it’s all too marvelous? Because it’s impossible to fully comprehend and partial comprehension is all we’ll ever get? The beauty will distract from/distort the science?

The Sylph



I’d want to know the context of this remark before saying exactly what I thought he meant. But of course the wonderful thing about isolating a quote is that it opens up multiple possibilities for interpretation – it frees the mind to explore it in ways the author may never have consciously intended. In this way, merely by cutting it loose, a brief passage of prose may be converted into something very like a poem.

This is of course a roundabout way of saying, “I don’t know!” You could take this a number of ways. I suppose HDT was indulging in a bit of sarcasm at his more “scientific” colleagues’ expense. (Didn’t “naturalist” meant “scientist” at the time?) But perhaps he meant to include himself in the criticism – I can’t tell.




Yes, you’re probably on to something there. Our [recently deceased] friend George spent many a day with his nose in his works by HDT in search of the context of this quote . . . I’ll try googling, as you probably already did.
I found it in Spirit in Nature, from Vol. 5 of the Journals (March, 1853 – November 1853). Not much context, just stuck in there by itself.

The Sylph



I don’t think this arrangement of quotes, “Spirit in Nature,” originated with Thoreau. Thanks for the link though – a lot of good stuff! I thought the following was especially telling:

“He is the richest who has most use for nature as raw material of tropes and symbols with which to describe his life. If these gates of golden willows affect me, they correspond to the beauty and promise of some experience on which I am entering. If I am overflowing with life, am rich in experience for which I lack expression, then nature will be my language full of poetry – all nature will be fable, and every natural phenomenon be a myth. The man of science, who is not seeking for expression but for a fact to be expressed merely, studies nature as a dead language. I pray for such inward experience as will make nature significant.”

I find the egotism here a little nauseating. Nature as raw material makes me think of the ideology of resourcism – maybe an inescapable way of talking about Nature in the 19th century. Hell, I don’t think we’ve emerged from its shadow even today. Nevertheless, the bit about scientists and dead languages has the ring of truth about it.




Got it! Thanks to a full citation in an essay by Scott Slovic, I was able to locate the original entry in the journals (we have the Dover complete edition). A shame George didn’t use the Internet – though perhaps the prolonged and fruitless search carries its own rewards, e.g. in discovering nifty things along the way? The quote was indeed only a fragment; here’s the whole paragraph. (This should strike a chord with you, given your recent experience with lichens.)

“Man cannot afford to be a naturalist, to look at Nature directly, but only with the side of his eye. He must look through and beyond her. To look at her is fatal as to look at the head of Medusa. It turns the man of science to stone. I feel I am dissipated by many observations. I should be the magnet in the midst of all this dust and filings. I know the back of my hand against a rock, and as I smooth back the skin, I find myself prepared to study lichens there. I look upon man but as a fungus. I have a slight, dry headache as the result of all this observing. How to observe is how to behave. O for a little Lethe! To crown all, lichens, which are so thin, are described in the dry state, as they are most commonly, not most truly, seen. Truly, they are dryly described.”

This is very strange to me. HDT evidently believed enough in science to think that its dry methology did constitute a form of direct seeing, and he rejected that – or at least felt that it must be tempered by the imagination. This puts him very far from the via negativa.




Yeah – he’ll only study lichens if they’re growing on him. They could never get his interest otherwise, the dried up crispy crusts of hardly knowable matter that they are (without optical aids) . . . Yet his interest in man as fungus is via-negativistic in spirit, is it not? I suggest that the pre-‘easily-obtained-optical-aid’-age contributed to his indifference vis-a-vis the lowly lichen.



Hi again,

Just out walking to the Far Field, gazing in wonder and some sadness at the profusion of Canada mayflower and Solomon’s seal inside that tiny ten year-old deer exclosure – and bare ground everywhere outside it.

Not to beat a dead naturalist, but the Thoreau quote does remind me of reactions I’ve had myself. For example, on wildflower outings I am always insisting on the common names; the Latin strikes me as it evidently struck Thoreau – too dry. Why should a dead language be the language of first resort to describe a living being? The common names are imprecise, yes – precisely because they are part of a living language that is constantly in flux.



Living language, yes. Actual communication? Almost impossible. The species names are dry to me too, but the genus brings a mental image – a gestalt of the plant in question. So many times when I’m trying to communicate with someone about a certain plant and they know only the popular name, it’s nothing but frustration. Common names have regional patterns, duplicate applications, historical meanings – it’s just a mess. I used to feel the way you do about it but if the mission is communication, the advantage of each species having its own name can’t be beat. I too worship Linnaeus. Trying to discuss the properties of plants without getting specific IS seeing nature with only a sideways glance. It doesn’t always matter – in fact, it usually doesn’t. But remember, these little entities have evolved their separateness. Their tiny histories, which led to what they are this minute, are rich food for the imagination. If you let yourself get wrapped up in not only Linnaeus but Darwin too, natural history is far from dry. A dead language is PERFECT for use as a labeling language. Hats off to Linnea!

Must get to work here now . . .



I’m thinking maybe we ought to give a listen to what Scott Slovic has to say about it, since he situates the quote within the much larger context of Thoreau’s entire life and work. His estimation of St. Henry is more charitable than mine, though he does acknowledge Thoreau’s “frequent haughtiness of tone.” (That’s definitely the major thing keeping me from becoming a rabid Thoreauvian!) From Marginality, Midnight Optimism, and the Natural Cipher: An Approach to Thoreau and Eiseley:

“By seeking the wholesome margins of civilization, Thoreau achieves the clarity of spirit necessary for full appreciation of his existence. From this position of voluntary exile from society, whether for a brief walk in the woods or for a two-year habitation of the shoreland near Walden Pond, he gains both emotional health and insightful perspective. In the essay ‘A Winter Walk,’ he argues that life itself is ‘more serene and worthy to contemplate’ when he is ‘standing quite alone, far in the forest’ (Natural History Essays 59). So it is not merely the observer’s perspective that improves through marginality, but his very life.

“Yet the appreciator of the natural cipher must take care, if he is to enjoy fully the mysteries and beauties of nature, to rely on an appropriately marginal way of seeing. On March 23, 1853, Thoreau notes in his journal that ‘man cannot afford to be a naturalist, to look at Nature directly, but only with the side of his eye.’ Direct scrutiny of the natural world, he writes, ‘is fatal as to look at the head of Medusa. It turns the man of science to stone’ (5:45). By learning to observe from the margins, Thoreau manages to contemplate the meaning of things without becoming distracted, even paralyzed, by their surface appearances. On November 5, 1857, he proclaims:

Sometimes I would rather get a transient glimpse or side view of a thing than stand fronting it – as those polybodies. The object I caught a glimpse of as I went by haunts my thoughts a long time, is infinitely suggestive, and I do not care to front it and scrutinize it, for I know that the thing that really concerns me is not there, but in my relation to that. That is a mere reflecting surface. (10.164)

“The subtle suggestiveness and sense of relation far outweigh the visible qualities of the object itself for the man who is poetically or divinely alive. And marginal glimpsing allows such an observer to avoid the glare of directness and savor the delicate meaningfulness of his experience. Marginality, for Thoreau, is both a kind of environment and a method of observation – and both contribute to his awakening.

“What Thoreau desires in this marginal existence is a general sense of meaning, not a tightly (if deeply) spelled out typological system like the Puritans’ or a Linnaean catalogue of facts (disparaged by Emerson in his section on language in Nature, 1836). Thoreau wants simply to experience the immediacy, the multiplicity, and the beauty of the natural world. He is a lover of details, even details without broader meanings and metaphorical equivalents. In the ‘Thursday’ chapter of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, he writes:

When compelled by a shower to take shelter under a tree, we may improve that opportunity for a more minute inspection of some of Nature’s works. I have stood under a tree in the wood half a day at a time, during a heavy rain in the summer, and yet employed myself happily and profitably there by prying with microscopic eye into the crevices of the bark or the leaves or the fungi at my feet. (A Week 300)

“The pleasure of such activity results not from the ability to identify and explain all the observable phenomena. No, Thoreau, like Mather with his strange occurrences in the heavens, realizes the necessity of looking ‘through and beyond’ nature (5:45) – he peers microscopically only to savor the magnificent minutiae, not to rationalize and categorize them. . . .

“The perspective of the traveler – marginal, estranged, freshly alert – is just what Thoreau desires, only without having to cover vast stretches of land and water. ‘To the sick,’ he notes, ‘the doctors wisely recommend a change of air and scenery. Thank Heaven, here is not all the world’ (320). Yet little of the actual world is needed if the observer manages to maintain a marginal perspective.”

(Weber Studies, Winter 1992, Volume 9.1)

AFTERTHOUGHT: Artists and thinkers aren’t the only ones who know how to exploit “the wholesome margin of civilization.” Literal and figurative margins are also a very fruitful terrain for merchants and capitalists. The seizure of marginal lands – as commons, an essential element (though not always a large one) in the subsistence economy – resulted in the marginalization of hundreds of thousands of people, who would then comprise the disposable human resources for the Industrial Revolution. One man’s margin is another man’s profit. And this process continues: for example, when a pharmaceutical giant obtains the patent rights on a people’s traditional plant medicine, what is that but the enclosure of the commons in a slightly new guise? We are not so much a nation of immigrants as we are a nation of displaced and uprooted people – people alienated from Nature in a far more violent manner than the modern would-be transcendentalist would care to imagine.

Gary Nabhan has a good essay on refugees and land-hunger (focusing on the Middle East) in the current issue of Orion, abridged for the web version.

SEE ALSO the entry for February 11, “Some quotes on the art of seeing.”