Half-assed sonnet

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall


Another batch of bad poems consigned
To the bottom drawer
After a last quick look to ensure
There’s no rare find:
No gleam that isn’t pyrite,
No notion I could inflate in-
To an idea, no image that might straighten
Up and fly right
Off the page. And yet
These stillborn ones so outnumber
The survivors, I can’t forget
Them. May they forever slumber
In my mind, all out of season,
Each irreproducible in its unreason.

Just-so story

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

“It’s all so tightly regulated, so professional and commercial now,” he sighs, remembering his wild days of wrestling lions and grappling with live boa constrictors in the depths of the Guatemalan jungle.
–interview with former Tarzan actor Herman Brix in The Christian Science Monitor

Liana, liana. Lovely on the tongue & in the mind’s jungle. Reaching obliquely for the yellow flowers & the crown, dark slash between lines of verse transcribed as prose, dropping fat figs to lure the parrots & howler monkeys, in whose bowels will gestate the insidious seeds that want to hover up there like UFOs & send their landing gear down in the form of lianas.

Wait, bear with me! Soon enough I’ll completely hedge the host tree in: a real live tree fort. And having given such generous support the tree dies as conveniently as Jack’s beanstalked giant. Because as the free marketeers proclaim, in the jungle it’s grow or die. The slime molds & fungal mycelia colonize the heartwood, soon followed by hordes of miners–whole companies of ants, grubstaking beetles & bees. And after the bottom falls out there’s room for a menagerie of snakes & bats & spiders in this hollow column shot through with light from the chinks in the lattice-work of what once had been such pliant vines–yet even then had been strong enough for a New World figleafed Tarzan & a clinging Jane to swing from, so lithe, so blithely unaware of how (for example) the black jaguar got its spot, or where the guerrillas learned how to lord it over the ranks of high society. And this, for the curious, is the story of the strangler fig, which is also delicious.

Lies to die for

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Whilst rooting through a steamer trunk of old jottings from the antediluvian age when I still used pen and paper to record my thoughts, I came across a draft of the Top Ten Lies of the 20th Century. I vaguely recall working on this with one of my brothers a few years back. It wasn’t too tough to generate lies; the difficult part was limiting it to ten – and ranking them.


1. Work Makes You Free (Arbeit Macht Frei – slogan above the gate at Auschwitz)

alternate: The Master Race

2. The War to End All Wars

3. Soviet Socialist Republic

4. Atoms For Peace

5. Great Leap Forward

6. Separate But Equal

7. Free Trade

8. Green Revolution

9. The Domino Effect

alternate: The Missile Gap

10. The Alliance for Democracy

Feel free to suggest others – or generate an alternate list at your own blog.

Forest time, forest space

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

What happens when an inveterate traveler succumbs to the temptation to try and fully enter one of the places that haunt his imagination, when he craves “something so far beyond my comprehension that I would have to step completely out of my skin to understand and become a part of my surroundings”?

This is the task that Eric Hansen sets for himself in Stranger in the Forest: On Foot Across Borneo (Penguin, 1988). What’s amazing is that he succeeds – not just in the trek itself, but in adapting himself to a very different way of seeing and traveling, as well. Of course, it isn’t easy. And in the end, the transformative experiences of the first part of his journey do not magically turn everything wonderful for him. On the way back he almost gets killed by Kenyah villagers for walking by himself during Musim Takoot, “The Season of Fear,” and he almost kills a Protestant missionary who seems to embody the worst traits of the “ugly American.”

But the most memorable portions of the story, for me, concern his initial adaptation to jungle traveling under the tutelage of his two Penan guides. (Penan are the hunter-gatherer people of Borneo, who live in very low-tech, band societies and are comparable to the Ituri Pygmies in their level of at-homeness in the rainforest.)

Three narrow trade routes cross the great dividing range between the Kelabit highlands and Kalimantan, but because Bo ‘Hok and Weng, like all Penan, preferred the deep shadows of the forest, we meandered through a maze of game trails that had no beginning or end. I had been with Bo ‘Hok and Weng for nearly two months. . . . [They] wanted to explore this new landscape, and they laughed at my frustration about how little progress we made some days.

“Dawai, dawai” (slowly, slowly), they would say. They had a point. Why should they rush? There might be gaharu or stands of sago nearby. I didn’t know where I was and had finally learned to keep my suggestions to myself. Bo ‘Hok and Weng were the pathfinders, so we continued to meander through the rain forest. During this phase of the trip I remained completely disoriented. I knew we were headed in a generally southeasterly direction and stopped asking “How far?” or “How many days?” The questions were meaningless.

“If you haven’t been to this part of the forest before,” I asked Bo ‘Hok, “how do you know where we’re going?”

“Mal-cun-uk” (we follow our feelings), came the reply.

He made it sound easy. It wasn’t.

My anxiety about wanting to get “somewhere else” was partially due to the fact that I knew to many “other places” in the world. For Bo ‘Hok and Weng there was no “other place” apart from the jungle, and I grew to envy their sense of place, their contentment with where they were. When I became anxious, I would embark upon extraordinary journeys in my mind. When, for example, a steep, muddy trail became impossible because of the leeches, I might imagine myself on a pair of cross-country skis, gliding across expanses of unmarked snow, a picnic lunch and a bottle of wine in my pack. The sight of bee-larva soup could send me around the world to the Empress Hotel in Victoria, British Columbia, for afternoon tea and scones with freshly whipped cream and thick strawberry jam. Outside, a light snow would be falling on the passing traffic.

Even during this relatively difficult period, there were some days in the rain forest that were effortless and full of new discoveries. We saw tree-climbing pigs and flying snakes and lizards, and one day Weng brought me a leaf in the palm of his hand. When I touched the leaf, it stood up and walked around looking for a place to hide. The leaf was actually a cleverly disguised insect that blended in perfectly with the leaf litter on the jungle floor.

Also, Weng told me the story of a diving ant that launches itself from the rim of a Lowes pitcher plant (Nepenthes lowii) and plunges into the insect-eating reservoir of digestive fluid contained within the body of the plant. The diving ant rescues some of the insects by “swimming” them to the edge of the reservoir like a miniature lifesaver. Then the ants eat the insect.

I was reminded of this by the entry for “Forest” in my brother Mark’s brand-new, co-authored book, Deleuze and Geophilosophy: A Guide and Glossary (Mark Bonta and John Protevi, Edinburgh University Press, 2004). This is one of the instances where the authors expand on the ideas developed by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (DG) in A Thousand Plateaus, Anti-Oedipus and What is Philosophy? (I discussed DG’s philosophy a bit back in January – see Cat’s Cradle.)

To understand the discussion of “forest,” one first needs to grasp three other terms. The first is “rhizome”- “a decentered multiplicity or network.”

DG list six principles of a rhizome: connection (all points are immediately connectable); heterogeneity (rhizomes mingle signs and bodies); multiplicity (the rhizome is ‘flat’ or immanent); ‘asignifying rupture’ (the line of flight is a primary component, which enables heterogeneity-preserving emergence or ‘consistency’); cartography (maps of emergence are necessary to follow a rhizome); and decalomania (the rhizome is not a model like the tree, but an ‘immanent process’). There can be a rhizome from which one extracts a piece and plants elsewhere; the piece is also a rhizome and continues to bud. Two multiplicities can form a rhizome with each other or become each other; this is the primordial example of the wasp and the orchid. . . .

The reference to the subterranean nature of the botanical rhizome is intentional in DG’s use of the term, because it is meant to evoke the hidden network quality of interlocked forces that have adapted to resist the striating forces of the surface and air, and especially the hierarchized State. . . .

The second Deleuzoguattarian term one needs to understand is “Plateau,” which is simply “a ‘region of intensities’ without reference to a transcendent goal. DG offer their own clear definition of the term: ‘A rhizome is made of plateaus . . . ‘” The third concept is “striation” or “striated space,” which in turn can best be understood in contradistinction to “smooth space” – “the space of intensive process and assemblages, as opposed to the striated space of stratified or stable systems. Although in constant interchange with it, so that it is in fact probably better to speak of ‘smoothing’ and ‘striating’ forces.” Both smooth and striated space operate “in the landscape, in mathematics, in music, in thought, in politics, in religion, and so forth. . . . Emergent properties, intensive becomings, occur only in smooth space. The possibility for symbiosis, for mutualism, for a food web and ecosystem, and finally for forests, seas, prairies, and so forth, is predicated on smoothing, not striating forces.”

Thus, striated space is space that has been measured or stratified, “especially as effectuated by the State apparatus.” However, “This is not to say that only humans striate: any organism striates milieus to achieve territorial organization. Human systems, however, attempt to achieve a particularly crude type of striation, and strive, via the signifying regime, to striate the earth completely.”

O.K., got all that? Now on to . . .

FOREST: DG spend little time on this space, except to characterize it as striated by ‘gravitational verticals’ (that is, trees) and as the annexed or associated milieu of many agricultural societies. . . .

We suggest an alternative map of forest space as holey space. The tree, far from being the standard for the forest, is rather deterritorialized by it, though perhaps not in the type of European wood-lot forests that DG imagined. DG failed to theorize the forest as anything other than a human space and precursor to civilization via short-fallow swidden agriculture. In seeing the forest as nothing more than a community of trees, they exclude the dynamics of tropical rain forests where the tree is but part of a vast rhizome with no center, no sense of perspective, no organizing principle, no ground [sol] (the soil is infertile, because nutrients are in constant cyclic motion throughout the system, and are not stored there), where plants can grow from top to bottom and then back (the strangler fig) or defy gravity altogether (epiphytes). The rain forest contains a high ratio of flow to order, and its complexity is engendered from this far-from-equilibrium crisis state. Its plateaus avoid climax.

Forest space, to remain a rhizome, can only be occupied and defended by anti-State forces, and many of its users – hunter-gatherer-swidden agriculturalists using long-fallow rotation (for example, in the Amazon) – are part of its rhizome. Forests are the outside of the State (Latin foris, outside), the holey spaces that fend it off: the shelter for outlaws and misfits, the domain of guerilla groups across the world today, powerful in their capacity to hide (thus, the necessity of the Agent Orange defoliant), they avoid the striations and overcoding of the State more than any other type of social formation. [Robert P.] Harrison calls forests the ‘shadow of civilization’ and because they are not and were not to be trusted, they have been ‘locked up’ as the King’s domain, and now as nature reserves. Tropical rain forests are often painted as multisexual or threatening bodies, as virgins, and so on: another threat to or possibility for the State. Forests, like deserts, also follow civilizations that overextend themselves, and grow along the borders between nation-states.

Actually, one can accurately describe temperate forests with much of the same language applied here to tropical forests. Only in the past few years have forest ecologists begun to get a handle on the emergent properties of old growth forest ecosystems, especially in terms of soil microorganisms. The literally rhizomatic structures of fungi – mycelia – turn out to be intimately involved in nutrient and energy flows, to such an extent that fungi and not trees may be considered the quintessential forest organisms.

The above description stresses the capacity of forests to disguise and conceal. In the mythologies of forest dwelling peoples, this is but the first stage in a process of complete transformation and (in DG terminology) deterritorialization (“the process of leaving home, of altering your habits, of learning new tricks”). Eric Hansen’s account suggests the power of such transformation, especially when he realizes how close he has become to the bali saleng, the peripatetic collector of human blood. “He is half-man, half-spirit; he lives in the forest; he is believed to be employed by large companies. . . . What I did not know was that the description of the bali saleng changed regularly . . . At the time I happened to be travelling through the Apo Kayan, the description was ‘a tall, white-skinned man with brownish hair who walks by himself in the jungle. He will come over the mountains from Sarawak during the season of grass cutting.'” Only by fully adapting to the native thought-system, and passing off a pin in his possession as a powerful charm to protect himself from malevolent forest spirits, did Hansen manage to save his life.

The reference to forest as land that has been “locked up” foregrounds one of the favorite images from the propaganda of the modern state, in the guise of the U.S. forest industry and its “wise use” front groups. Actually, it is striking the extent to which industry and government propaganda turns ideas inside out in its attempt to foster fear and hatred of unregulated natural landscapes. Land is “locked up” when it is most free (preserved from striating forces). Clearcuts are now generally referred to as “regeneration cuts” – even when it is obvious that the forest so destroyed was the result of stochastic events and/or disturbance regimes that are in no way reproducible through human actions. Foresters refer to any significant removal of timber or application of pesticides or chemical fertilizers as a “treatment,” employing a healing analogy also evoked by “regeneration.”

In other words, in forester space, natural forest ecosystems are vectors of disease. “Old growth” – originally a forester coinage – was once by definition “decadent,” a reservoir of tree pests and diseases that must be cleared out for the health of the forest (tree farm). That many in the forest industry still think this way may be seen in the very title of the Bush administration’s “healthy forests” initiative. But that’s a topic for another day.

To read more of my brother’s Deleuzoguattarian analysis of forest space, see here (second essay).

In the temples of Syrinx

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Summer weather has hit with a vengeance. Starting last Thursday, we were awoken by thunderstorms three mornings in a row, and by yesterday, when the dawn chorus could finally return to normal, the wood thrushes were much subdued. I suspect that they have paired up and are getting down to the serious and urgent business of building nests and laying eggs.

Be that as it may, I did get a bit of a consolation prize yesterday when I went for a dawn walk down along Laurel Ridge. I’d been startled by the sight of the rising sun glowing a lurid red through the mountain laurel. Then when I dropped down a little off the ridgetop to follow an old woods road we call Ladyslipper Trail, I was even more surprised to hear a Swainson’s thrush calling – for the second time in five days. The first time I heard him, he was on the ridgetop right up from the house, and we naturally assumed that he was just passing though. The fact that he is still here raises the possibility that he may be thinking about setting up shop, well south of the normal range for his species. This happened three years ago, when I heard a Swainson’s singing for about three weeks on another part of the property. I got the impression that that one hadn’t been very successful in attracting a mate.

The song of the Swainson’s thrush unmistakably belongs to the same group as wood thrush, hermit thrush and veery. It has the same bell-like quality, resembling a hoarser version of the hermit thrush – a very quiet series of ascending phrases. As my brother Mark once pointed out, for the thrush family, generally speaking, the relative loudness of the call indicates the type of habitat preferred. The loudest songs belong to the denizens of hedgerow and dooryard, such as the American robin, while the quietest are the deep woods or high altitude specialists, who have to compete only with the soughing of wind in conifers. The Swainson’s call is very much in this latter category.

Last week, when I was looking through the book Bird Sounds, by Barry MacKaye, I was struck by his description of the mechanics of avian vocalization. Instead of a voicebox, birds have a unique structure called the syrinx, located right where the trachea and the windpipe divide. The position and musculature are designed to take maximal advantage of the fact that birds resemble nothing so much as flying bellows. In addition to the lungs proper, they have nine air sacs distributed throughout the chest and abdomen, some of which may even extend into the bones in some species. The main evolutionary “purpose” of these structures, of course, is to provide bouyancy and improve gas exchange. Any given breath, MacKaye says,

may be stored for more than one cycle of inhalation and exhalation. Initially, the puff of air does not go directly into the lungs, but passes through them without gas exchange. The puff of air goes directly to the rear part of the bird’s body. First, most of the air the bird inhales reaches the posterior air sacs, including the large, paired abdominal air sacs. Parts of the lungs also receive air, and there is a subsequent exchange of gases as the breath passes through the lungs on the way to the back of the bird. But as the bird breathes out, the posterior air sacs contract, pushing the puff of air into the lungs, completing the first cycle of the bird’s two-step breathing process.

As the bird breathes in again, while the new air enters the bird via the route just described, the initial puff exits most of the lungs and enters the anterior air sacs via lung bronchi, where more gas exchange occurs. This single breath of air carries with it some of the warmth generated by the bird’s metabolic processes . . . The body contracts, and the initial puff of air leaves via the anterior air sacs at the front of the bird and the bronchial tubes that lead up from the lungs past the point where they join the trachea, and out. Put simply, the same breath of air passes through the lungs twice, although not the same parts of the lungs.

Thus, whereas humans, for example, “use only about 2 percent of the air column that passes out of the respiratory system in making vocalizations . . . songbirds use nearly 100 percent of the air column to produce song.” And the songbird’s complex anatomy allows the harmonic blending of different tones and even, in the case of some species such as the brown thrasher, two wholly separate songs, sung simultaneously.

The bird’s control of the configuration of the syrinx and associated sound-producing anatomy is so finely tuned that it can operate one side of the syrinx independently of the other. By rapidly altering the configuration of the trachea, throat and mouth, the bird can focus the two separate elements into the single complete song. Like a pianist’s two hands playing tune and harmony, a bird can blend two separate sounds into a pleasing harmonic.

Pretty nifty, eh? I can’t help recalling the lyrics from an old “concept album” called 2112, from the Canadian hard rock band, Rush —

We are the priests of the temples of Syrinx.
All the gifts of life are held within our walls.

— which leads in turn to hazy memories of bowls and water pipes and puffs of air being breathed and re-breathed, strained by one pair of lungs and then another, capturing every last trace of blue until our bodies filled with light and the music on the stereo slowly turned itself inside-out. Ah, if only paranoia hadn’t forced us always to lock ourselves in, the dawn choruses we could’ve heard . . . the lives that could’ve been saved, I think, through such revelations . . .