Image hosted by
A rare visitor rounds the bend of the driveway below my house

The screech owls gave me another chance to listen more closely to their calling the night before last, so I was able to revise the poem I wrote in answer to Zweig’s “Listening to Bells” the other day. Take another look – I think it’s a little less “In lieu of,” a little more of a genuine listening now.

I also want to draw your attention – for the benefit especially of readers who might have been grumbling to themselves about the dearth of prose here lately – to some truly inspired writing by recent contributors to the comment strings. There’s a longish and delightfully chaotic kite-tail of comments helping to keep the Chant for the Summit of the World Body aloft. Two of my favorites in that string include one from Jean:

…[T]he world body doesn’t need a rest. None of these is about the world body doing anything, just about what people would like it to do, or think they would like it to do. In fact, the world doesn’t have a body, only a shadow, a reflection indicating the presence of body that actually isn’t there. It talks a lot about wanting to have one, but no one can agree about what kind of animal it should be, and Bush is determined it should not come alive, wants a robot or nothing.

Farther down, Rexroth’s Daughter – one of the pair of inspired misfits who call themselves Dharma Bums – added this:

Thanks for poetically revealing the myth perpetuated by google. The world body is like an urban legend. Repeated enough it becomes evidence of its own existence. The google bomb of self: A desperate need to believe in the reality of our own skins writ large.

Google bomb – the willful multiplication of incoming links with uniform wording or naming, in order to increase the attraction of a place or position by its sleight-of-hand substitution for the results of otherwise unrelated searches, using a god-like logarithm of our own invention – has to be one of the most accurate analogies for the formation of self I’ve ever seen. As the Wikipedia article points out,

Google bombs often end their life by being too popular or well known, thereby attaining a mention in well regarded web journals and knocking the bomb off the top spot. It is sometimes commented that Google bombing need not be countered because of this self-disassembly.

In a different, more animist vein, Beth left a vivid comment after the aforementioned “Listening” post:

…I dreamt of an owl last night, a big one – like a great horned – seen in the dream first through trees, and then flying over the roof of the moving car and then ahead of it, down the road and off into the trees again.

It was blue.

Thanks to everyone who comments and to all who visit here, whether with words or with the gift of silent presence. It’s never quite the quiet of a tomb, though I must admit, sometimes I feel that I ever stop chipping away at my epitaph, I’ll have to go lie down under it and mind my manners. And then it’s nothing but cut flowers – no gardening allowed! So gather ye rosebuds and all that. Or rose hips, really, by now…

Image hosted by
A pasture rose, New York aster, and the light above my writing table visible through the dining room door

UPDATE: Bloggers are invited to enter their favorite comments from among those left at their blogs for the 90 Great Comments Contest, hosted by Glittering Muse (and inspired in part by this very post, for which I’m honored).

Not far from nowhere: a memoir from the middle

It’s Summer Book Week at Via Negativa. Since I’ll be gone part of the week on vacation myself, I decided it would be an ideal time to consider what constitutes the perfect summer read. Here’s a review I wrote last weekend.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usI’ve never understood why summer reading is supposed to consist mainly of light, escapist fare. Isn’t summer vacation the one time when many people actually get a chance to relax and enjoy living in the moment? To my way of thinking, the perfect summer read draws you in, but doesn’t completely suck you in; is best savored in small bites slowly chewed rather than inhaled at one sitting; brings you to your senses rather than making you dead to the world. Tom Montag’s poetic memoir, Curlew: Home (Midday Moon Books, 2001) is just such a book.

Montag grew up on a rented farm “one mile south and a quarter mile west” of the town of Curlew,

dead center in the northwestern corner of Iowa. It is not far from nowhere, admittedly. When I was growing up, the town’s most remarkable feature was the short strip of pavement that constituted Main Street.

The book is not so much about Montag himself as it is about what it means to grow up in the middlewest, as he prefers to call it, raising food for people on both coasts who never give the continent’s vast midsection a second thought. It’s a kind of meta-memoir, a book about memory itself and the place of remembered landscapes in the imagination – especially urgent questions for a farm boy who, against all odds, grew up to be poet. As a fellow middlewesterner, reviewing the book for, notes, “Curlew, Iowa, and the Midwest become symbols of the greater reality of family, home, life, death and change. It is a book about what it means to be human.”

“Home is in your heart, you take it with you, you wear it like a stink,” Montag says. Don’t expect any weepy, County-Western-style sentimentalism here. Curlew: Home is infused with stoic melancholy, but also contains flashes of a cautious kind of joy. In this regard, as well as in its impressionistic style of composition, it reminded me strongly of old-time blues music – some talking blues epic by Leadbelly, say, where lyric alternates with narrative and the occasional shouted line.

Montag spent the month of October, 2000 traveling back to his childhood haunts, and intersperses journal-like episodes from “The Journey” with stories from his boyhood. Though not averse to drawing the occasional pithy moral, most of the time Montag wisely lets the people he interviews and the incidents he relates speak for themselves. As with blues lyrics or a Japanese linked verse sequence, a great deal of the reader’s pleasure comes from the sense of contrast and consonance between adjacent sections. (It’s interesting to see that these techniques were fully developed well before Montag began deploying them in his daily blog The Middlewesterner.)

Many of Montag’s stories glow with the light of the miraculous: the time his father witched for water, indicating not only where the well should be dug, but predicting the precise depth at which water would be found. The time Montag dreamed of having his legs run over by a tractor – and two days later having the dream come true. The time he broke his sister’s collar bone, much to their mutual surprise, or when his brother and he discovered the bitter mysteries of iced tea. Almost every character encountered in the book seems simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary, from Montag’s indomitable mother and his child-prodigy sister Colleen, to Curlew’s 93-year-old mayor and the outspoken, anti-corporate female postmaster Montag interviews on his visit in 2000.

The stories are rendered especially effective by their location within an overall trajectory of loss and longing. In the narrative present we see Montag restlessly circling the now-abandoned homesite, walking the four miles around the square of grid that had included his parents’ half-section farm again and again. We feel his shock at the emptiness as he stands among the windbreak trees where their farm had been, visits graveyards, stares at vacant lots where grade schools and grain elevators had stood. Miraculous things may have happened here once, but what’s to show for it, Montag wonders.

The tradition of stereotyping country people as clowns and simpletons is as old as agriculture, as old as literature. Curlew: Home helps demonstrate the literal groundlessness of that prejudice. It takes its place in a counter-tradition questioning the civilized fantasies of detachment from the earth that stretches from the ancient Daoist classics to Wendell Berry and Henry David Thoreau. From an early age, Montag and his siblings, like many farm kids, learn sober lessons about violence, suffering and moral responsibility.

A series of essays in Part Three details the inevitable cruelties of farm life: “Cutting Pigs” (everything you ever wanted to know about castration, but were afraid to ask), “Butchering Chickens,” “Killing Rats,” “Killing Pigeons.” The first in the series, “Feeding the Cattle,” sets the tone. One time, Montag writes, “I was slower getting out of the way then I intended to be,” and one of his father’s prize Herefords, all 1300 pounds of it, “put its foot exactly where my foot was. The full weight of pain.”

He slams the steer as hard as he can, first with an elbow, then a shoulder, but it doesn’t move. Finally he twists its ear with all his strength, and it “bellers” and lifts its foot just enough for him to extract his own. Then he goes to work dumping the feed in the trough as usual, bucket after bucket. Afterwards, he stands watching them, “like mountains pushing and shoving.”

Off to the west the sun was dropping down behind the trees in the grove. Long shadows were spilled like paint. Wind, cool and soothing. The sound of chickens, the sound of a car along the gravel road in front of our place, the sound of one of my sisters calling out “Supper!””There has got to be more than this,” I might have said to myself. I was watching the cattle feeding dumbly and I was looking at myself. Had I been bred into a life no less predetermined than the march of those steers toward the slaughterhouse, I wondered. “There has got to be more to life than feeding cattle.”

“Hey!” I shouted at the evening sky, just for the hell of it, just because I could. The sound roared from deep within and exploded out of me. None of the cattle turned to look at me, not a one of them.

I went to my supper.

At the other end of the series, Montag tells us “Why I Don’t Hunt.” In order to fully appreciate that story – like so many others – you’ll have to read the book, and even then you may not get it the first read through, as I did not. True epiphanies are hard nuts to crack, impossible to get at without shattering the shell of words.

All my life I’ve been waiting for that pheasant’s arc of flight to be completed. All my life the bird crumples and falls to earth. What is beautiful has been broken since.


Never empty. Empty.

Chalice, ringworm, birthmark, mole.

Halo, mandorla. The oriole’s aureole.

Home made by instinct, reproducing the architecture of desire.

Mandala. Prayer wheel.

Round because the egg is round.

Round because the breast is round.

Round because the tree is round.

Round because the horizon is round.

Coiled basket. The snake’s embrace.

Gape, gullet, belly.

A big fat zero.

The kind of thing I write when I don’t know what else to write, gazing at the hairy nest of my navel.

“People say snails carry their homes around with them. But I think because they secrete their whorled calcium carbonate shells out of their own bodies and cannot be detached from them (in life) we should say snails are their own homes.

“They can close the front door with the operculum at the end of their stomach-foot.”
– ever so humble

“How alert and vigilant the birds are, even when absorbed in building their nests!”
– John Burroughs, Wake-Robin

Abdul-Walid of Acerbia

“Amnesia is the soul of wit.” – Abdul-Walid

On the orders of its unelected leader, the beleaguered posts of Acerbia are about to undergo a Structural Adjustment Program. There is no Universal Declaration on Blogging Rights, no legal basis for charges of blogicide.

“I am the state,” Louis XIV famously declared. Abdul-Walid recently entertained a similar delusion, equating the contemplated termination of his blog and all its contents with suicide.

But at other times and in other contexts, the Acerbian dictator has been one of the blogosphere’s staunchest defenders of textual autonomy. He has been known to reprint other bloggers’ posts without their advance permission – tolerated under the lax laws that govern the blogosphere – and sometimes has gone so far as to change their shape, once even editing out lines he didn’t like and briefly withholding attribution. Soon thereafter, he quoted Pascal with favor:

Certain authors, speaking of their works, say, ‘My book,’ ‘My commentary,’ ‘My history,’ etc. They resemble middle-class people who have a house of their own, and always have ‘My house’ on their lips. They would do better to say, ‘Our book,’ ‘Our commentary,’ ‘Our history,’ etc., because there is in them usually more of other people’s than their own.

So is this the end for our beloved cities of the plain? Will their zealous ruler consign them to fire and brimstone, blind to the plight of the righteous few? You bet your booty.

Innominate. I play the tic-tac-toe with my tongue: I-No-Mi-Nate. It is one of those fabulous words, like “eponymous,” a word that testifies to itself, a word that hides behind itself. Or, like Lolita, or opolopo; words that entertain the mouth.The surface of Os innominatum wends deliriously: a gentle rise on a broad Iliac plain suddenly leads to a ridge which gives way to a volcanic crater, and a pair of mismatched wings surrounding a circular canal and subtending sheer cliffs. It is a prodigal shape, beaten every which way for pure functionality, bearing not a single wasted spur.

Word has it, however, that all the inhabitants have been airlifted out and have been granted refugee status elsewhere – most, in the shape-shifting way of web denizens, in multiple locations. Soon enough they will learn the bleak truth behind one of Abdul-Walid’s own apothegms, You have been sentenced to life outside prison, but this is harsher judgment than you think.

And Abdul-Walid himself?

As they pay their bill, and get up to leave, the older of the two is heard to say:”Insomnia. But I don’t count sheep when I can’t sleep. I count corpses.”


Friday catbird blogging

A foggy, rainy morning. While I’m drinking my coffee, the black cat pads down the driveway and up into the woods, seemingly invisible to the catbird, who’s holding forth from the vicinity of the springhouse, or the wood thrush caroling at the woods’ edge. But a couple minutes later, a gray squirrel goes apeshit. Oddly enough, this squirrel’s whiny alarm call doesn’t sound too different from the mewing of a catbird – or a cat. So often, it seems, we come to resemble those we fear. Imitation is the sincerest form of opposition.


Checking the log of keyword searches each night, I am often amused, as I expected I’d be when I signed up for statcounter. My extreme verbosity, combined with my decision to archive by month, makes Via Negativa a real sink for Google searches of every description. What I didn’t expect is this feeling of frustration that I couldn’t have been there somehow, standing at some virtual doorway or sitting behind a desk marked INFORMATION, ready to welcome visitors and send them where they need to go. Must be the influence of my father, a retired reference librarian. We’re all about service, you know? In the comment string to a recent post about search strings, my friend Peter flattered me by stating, “I go to Via Negativa instead of Wikipedia. Who the hell cares if the precise question gets answered.” In response, I wondered whether I should give the blog a new slogan: “With misinformation like this, who needs to know the truth?” From simple ignorance, perhaps, one can progress to full-fledged unknowing.

I collect some of the more memorable search strings (together with the pages where they ended up) and ponder how I might have handled them in person…

camp songs about feathers
lead to campy dreams about angels, which may not be suitable for all audiences.

origin, land of enchantment
virgin is for lovers
I [heart] You, Nork

egil vomit
Propulsive verse. Skald ick. Skoal.

st lucy eyeballs the cake before digging in. I’d give my eyetooth to see what it tastes like.

striation kidney bowels
Mm, haruspicy! Don’t believe the tripe.

how do i make a egg salad?
Slowly and carefully, so as not to break the eggs.

swallow hash slime and turn back into a handsome toad.

is the african art humanistic or religious
is the american imagination stunted or over-stimulated

i am a bright steak of light in the sky. i am made when a small piece of space rock enters the earth
and after an hour or two of sky-watching, you are a pain in the neck.

hanging gardens daily life
The hangman likes his job O.K., but doesn’t care for the long commute.

criticisms of the via negativa will be promptly deleted.

has pennsylvania’s mountain laurel bloomed in 2005
not in this blog.

analysis of the african proverb: when it rains, the roof always drips the same way
drip drip drip drip drip

coon dick toothpick
You’ns is ignernt.

catbird and thrush walk into a bar…


I dream a ghost-body, heavy on top of mine. At first I am aroused, then frightened. It sits on my chest the way my big brother used to sometimes when we were kids, though it doesn’t taunt, doesn’t speak a word. I snort loudly to wake myself, find only my own arm sprawled across my ribs. I drift back to sleep and into a new dream, in which a psychopath smiles ingratiatingly and explains that he really couldn’t help murdering over 200 members of a small, isolated community in the mountains. I try to talk the others into locking him up, but we’re not able to reach consensus. The only suitable jail is the old springhouse, damp and cold, where I once imprisoned my little brother for several hours. I find myself joining the others to plead for his human rights. When the cops come, it is not to apprehend him but to interrogate us. “Have you seen a suit like this?” one of them asks each of us in turn, displaying a child’s plastic model of a gangster, furred in what someone informs me is meant to represent a zoot suit. I realize there is no right way to answer. I look at the handcuffs that I found in the basement and decide they really belong around my own wrists. “If they take me to jail, I’ll be safe from the murderer,” I think.


It’s only at the end of their all-day hike, as they begin to pitch camp beside the wilderness trout stream, that they realize they forgot to pack the bag that contained half their fishing gear. Time to improvise, says the engineer, while his friend the poet rummages around for the dime-bag of pot. A half an hour later they’re good and stoned. The engineer begins shaving willow wands for the basket trap he sees as clearly as a lure flashing in a sunlit pool. The poet rolls up his pants and wades out into the stream. He feels the hair rustling all over his body, follicles suddenly standing at attention.


I finally succumb to curiosity and install a free site meter from I realize that it won’t be terribly accurate, since many regular readers use an aggregator such as Bloglines. I’m primarily interested in the search strings people use to get here, but the visit length data is fascinating, too. In two days, 83% of all visitors alighted here for less than five seconds. On the other hand, four people spent more than an hour with their browser open to Via Negativa. What sort of masochists are these? Here’s someone who’s been back five times already, and visited thirteen separate pages! And good grief, he lives in the same town and uses the same server as I do. Same browser, same operating system, everything. Unbelievable.


But what were they looking for, those less-than-five-second visitors? Two searched for the via negativa, poor souls. All the other Google searches were unique, and included the following (Via Negativa’s order in each search result is given in parentheses):

“bird calls” birdy birdy (5)
“origin of words” “spelunker” (3)
tribesman “man essence” (1 [!])
william stafford methow valley poems (4)
“The Recorded Sayings of Ch’an Master Lin-chi Hui-chao of Chen Prefecture” (4)
coon dong (2)
raccoons sex (4)
bestseller “baghdad burning” (3 [?!])
The word Hammock originates from a Haitian word (7)
THEODORE ROETHKE,DOLOR,analysis or explanation (2 – a Yahoo search)
lion fucked (2 [!])
Zuni vulture (5)


“But how many people actually remember seeing Barney Google in a comic strip?” asks Toonopedia. Indeed. While the search engine that bears his name seems omnipresent, he of the goo-goo-googly eyes and his once-famous steed Sparky have been mysteriously absent for half a century. There was no celluloid finish, no riding off into a sunset. One pictures instead some repudiation or return to sanity, as with Don Quixote. Except that Sancho – or Snuffy Smith – doesn’t buy it. It’s all too real to him, this epic snipe hunt, this been-down-so-long-it-looks-like-up-to-me. “What’s so funny?” he wants to know. He’s still out there in his lonesome hollow, hunched over a keypad, typing outlandish search strings in the gathering dusk.


Late afternoon isn’t always the best time to read poetry, I find. The book is Katha Pollitt’s Antarctic Traveller, her first. After a while, I decide to jot down some of my accidental misreadings:

…sphincters [splinters] of glass and pottery…

…the world [word] that widens
until it becomes the word [world].

…the orchid,
which signifies the virtues of the noble man:
reticence, calm, clarity of wind [mind].

…now you’ve travelled half the world and seen
the ergo [ego] glinting at the heart of things…

Pollitt’s poems are wonderfully luminous; this is one of the best first books I’ve ever read. Its language is strange the way all truthful language should be. If my slips seem even stranger, perhaps that’s simply a measure of the mind’s difficulty in assimilating unfamiliar truths. We hear what we want to hear, reverse-engineer the worlds that come out of our mouths and call the results logic: the ergo glinting at the heart of things, just so much wind from a glass sphincter.

Out-of-the-blog experiences

After rain, a dry high blows in, bringing such clarity that one can see the tiniest gnats dancing in the sun. It was days like this that used to make me feel the most anguished, back in the days before my heart shrank to the approximate size and durability of a black walnut. You can live in the most beautiful place in the world and still wish to be someplace else – or at least to be somebody else. Those yearnings haven’t entirely gone away, merely subsided a bit as I coasted into my long middle ages. And I have learned that I am far from alone in feeling that way. I can sit on a figurative pew in the figurative cathedral here in the back forty and watch the light streaming through the figurative stained glass with a kind of vague contentment verging on joy. I can contemplate a lady’s slipper orchid, listen to a cacophony of coyote pups or watch a black bear nosing around the lawn at dusk and feel – for lack of a better term – blessed. It’s still escape that the mind is after, though, I know that.

I’m going out again in a few minutes, but if you’re stuck inside for the day, here are a few other places worth visiting in this Neverneverland called the blogosphere.

On Tuesday, Susan of a line cast, a hope followed described a moment of near-panic in a Rite-Aid store:

My son walks over to the shelf of cars and picks up an army tank, saying something like “I don’t have this” and quickly putting it down as if he recognizes why he wouldn’t have one, and then says “I like all the Hotwheel cars” waving expansively at hundreds of tiny cars, which does not surprise me but I am feeling like I will faint if he asks me to buy him something, as the excess of the stuff in our house has loomed up in my mind to meet the cacophony of colors of baby bowling pins and Frisbees and neon pool toys and women’s Ked’s style shoes in fuschia and cobalt. Why is this bothering me now? Why doesn’t it bother anyone else? All I can see at this moment is a meaningless excess of cheap soul-stealing stuff. At home many things are broken – the fluorescent kitchen light, the garage door and siding on the south side of the house need replacing, the pond leaks, a car is dead in the driveway and requiring towing. I’ve spent the last hour talking to the repair guy about all the different ways to replace the fluorescent light with no clear answer.

In Acerbia, Abdul-Walid briefly inhabits the hell-realm known as CNN:

My mind was disturbed by the multiple layers: lies, vapid lighting, torpid commentary, mob mentality, more lies, stage-managed debate (on stem-cell research), “news”, trivial pursuits (a report about a housecat stuck in a tree in Oregon, followed by footage of fighting in Iraq), canned laughter, death dealing as entertainment, car commercials, perfect blonde hair, gleaming teeth, and even more lies.

I thought I would lose my fucking mind. A baby being held near me started crying. I must have had a crazed look on my face.

I sought refuge. I started to think of the Zen Center in Cambridge, I thought of an Arboretum in the midwest that I love, I thought of Mount Athos, I tried to still my mind with the words of Krishnamurti. I knew that, given the choice between constant exposure to the obvious insanity that is capitalism, and the mental effort it would take to pretend I actually believed in the dogma of a religious orthodoxy, I would gladly worship the Theotokos or Kuanyin.

On a more cheerful note, earlier in the week Chris at Creek Running North treated his readers to an engaging description of a canyon hike. That’s “Canyon” as in “Grand.” The ending of his five-day sojourn was, predictably, bittersweet:

On the trail in the inner canyon, especially away from Phantom, each person you meet is a welcome spark of humanity in a huge inhuman landscape. You stop, you ask if the person is comfortable and they ask you, you trade life stories and plans for the next hours of hiking, you feel a bond of sincere appreciation. Over a few days, I met a dozen folks I thought of as friends. I never learned their names.

Walk toward the rim and that diminishes. The closer you get to the ice cream trucks and gas stations, the less important it seems to cultivate those ties. Your every need is granted, assuming you have the cash. The closer you get to the rim, the more distant the strangers’ eyes become, the more your wave of greeting is seen as a startling intrusion. Mommy, what does that dirty, hairy man with the backpack want? It took me a few hours, after Cindy and I stepped triumphantly and with some wistfulness onto the Rim, to stop striking up conversations with total strangers.

The Middlewesterner continues to report on Tom and Mary’s recent drive around Iceland.

For lunch we stopped in view of another g-damn waterfall. Yeah, it has come to that. To the tourist in Iceland, the waterfall becomes as ocean is to the fish. Soon enough you just don’t notice the waterfalls. Your spirit may need them but you cannot think too much about them. You cannot process the reality of them after a while. At least that might be the case if you had grown up in the great middle flatness of the USA where even one of these throw-away falls in Iceland would be a source of great wonderment; yet eventually the sky-full of waterfalls becomes too much to comprehend.

A few days ago, Natalie of Blaugustine blogged about her visit to a maxilofacial unit’s waiting room:

A Rabbi in full mufti enters the room and sits down beside me. He immediately pulls a handsomely bound volume from a briefcase and opens it. Out of the corner of my eye I notice the large, beautifully wrought Hebrew lettering. Strangely, at that moment I am reading a chapter about the Nazis who went into hiding in Paraguay after the war. I don’t dare ask the Rabbi what is written on the page of the holy book he is absorbed in. The Rabbi and I are the only people reading in the waiting room, everyone else is staring into space.

Over at alembic, Maria describes her narrow escape from an MRI machine:

Does magnetic resonance shake up your brain? Is it like a mild version of electroshock therapy? When we came out in the sunlight on Post Street, and later, as we drove across the Golden Gate Bridge into Marin, I could have sworn everything was aglow with color. Maybe it was just that the timid poking fingers of the first summery fog withdrew into some other pocket over the Pacific….

Meanwhile, in Keene, New Hampshire, Lorianne makes some startling discoveries about her fellow inhabitants: some are

transgender hermaphrodites, starting life as male and turning female upon maturity.

And Fred First travels to Vancouver, where the locals also have some surprising customs.

Rain or shine, Vancouver BC is a city of walkers. We would look out our hotel window and see folks sitting on park benches along English Bay, no hat, no umbrella–in a heavy drizzle. Water is like a second skin for these people and to be outdoors, they think nothing of being wet. In an hour it can stop and start raining a dozen times, so you can’t really wait for ‘good’ weather to leave the house….

On one of our umbrella-walks on Sunday–our second night at the Sylvia on the west side of downtown–as we approached Stanley Park, I heard what I assumed was a chorus of frogs. The raucous calls were coming from the trees. It had to be tree frogs. I’d never heard such a dense cluster of any other invisible creature calling back and forth in great numbers; and the wet weather seemed perfect for amphibians, didn’t it? But wait. What were those manhole-cover-sized clumps of sticks in the branches–ten in this tree, half again as many in that one there? And I could see movement, but in the dismal light against the somber sky, it could have been anything. Anything but frogs….

Finally, in the cassandra pages, Beth – like Susan in the essay quoted above – writes about Allergic Reactions.

The past few days I’ve felt crummy: I’ve had a bad headache from, I think, my usual spring time allergies: the dark side of all those blossoms. But it’s also from too much stress, too much breathing-in of the suffering that goes on around me and the impossibility of finding solutions. I wish I could just hate it and push it away; dismiss without compassion the woman barking at her child. But what made her that way? As much as I despise a world in which beautiful dark-eyed girls end up begging on city streets and small boys, bribed with fast food, learn early to cherish the fat-drenched moment when the unhappiness around them seems to abate, I’m unable to find release either in judgmentalism or escapism. As Merton said, we’re meant to hold both the dark and the light. I wish it were easier.

Now I really need a walk.

Returning to the drey

I’m out on the porch with my coffee a little later than usual this morning. It’s about 6:30 and almost fully light, though still overcast and threatening snow or rain. I’m watching a gray squirrel at the edge of the woods with increasing interest. When I first notice her, she’s in the top of a tulip (a.k.a yellow poplar) tree, gathering a great wad of something long and stringy and stuffing it into her cheek pouches. I don’t have my binoculars with me, but I can see that the small, nearly horizontal branch she’s on has stuff dangling from it, and she’s grabbing strips of it – presumably the soft, inner bark of the tree. I’m guessing that it was recently exposed by the porcupine that lives in the crawl space under my house, though I don’t see its tracks in the snow.

The squirrel races back to her nest near the top of a slender black cherry tree about seventy-five feet from the tulip, quickly empties the contents of cheek pouches into it, and returns for another load. What with going up and down tree trunks to reach suitable lateral branches, it looks as if she travels about 150 feet for every fifty feet of straight-line distance. It’s at this point that I start getting really interested, thinking rather self-reflexively about the way my own mind works. I’ve often thought that, for North Americans, the Buddhist phrase “monkey-mind” should instead be translated as “squirrel-mind.” This morning, I see that while the branches are a given, the route is not.

I watch her make four trips before I get too cold and have to go inside. Each time she takes a slightly different route through the mid-level branches, and once she returns from nest to tulip by a completely different route, higher and farther back from the wood’s edge. In typical gray squirrel fashion she often uses her own weight to bridge a gap, small branches bending down to the point where she can leap the last couple feet to the twig-ends of the next branch. Since it’s not quite fully light, some of these smaller branches are invisible to me, which makes her progress appear even more death-defying and miraculous. However, I’ve watched enough squirrels to know that this spirit of experimentation and play seems to infect much of what they do. I don’t think that’s simply the affective fallacy on my part. If playfulness makes one avoid doing the same thing the same way twice, one is less likely to end up as someone else’s lunch. Predators are, by and large, a fairly single-minded lot.

Each time she returns to the same, small branch in the tulip tree and strips off more of the long, dangly stuff. She takes so much, she can’t even close her mouth. I figure she must be a female with babies on the way. What else could be so urgent as to require the gathering of new bedding material first thing in the morning, before breakfast?


I often warn people about my normal style of discourse: even my digressions have digressions. Watching this squirrel thus feels strangely validating. The shortest distance between two points may be a straight line, but who says that’s the best way to go? Much as we may envy and admire the single-mindedness of a hawk or an eagle, most of us are more like squirrels. The sooner we recognize this, it seems to me, the easier time we’ll have identifying and isolating the true predators among us.

Chris Clarke of Creek Running North shares a truly harrowing tale from his past, describing the serial killer his mother dated one summer when he was a young man. As always with Chris, the writing is exceptional – not one word too many or too few. His mother and a brother, both bloggers themselves, weigh in with their own recollections in the comments.


I think it’s safe to say that the government of the United States of America now constitutes the largest and most dangerous predator the world has ever seen. In addition to launching unprovoked invasions of largely defenseless countries for the express purpose of stealing their oil, it has built a worldwide gulag archipelago of secret prisons where its enemies disappear without a trace. (Thanks to’s “News You Might Have Missed” e-newsletter for these links.) From a realpolitik perspective, indefinite detentions and systematic torture of suspects make little sense. The questionable value of intelligence gained under torture is surely not worth the strains with allies or the surge in Al Qaeda recruitment that such flagrant violations of the Geneva Convention tend to promote. Some have argued that it’s all about lowering the bar, so that in the future, similar or even more heinous actions will be tolerated by American voters. But I believe it’s mainly about power – reinforcing that strange feedback loop that links pleasure with oblivion. Why drill in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge when the ecological and political costs are so steep and the likely rewards so negligible that even the big oil companies don’t think it’s worth it? Why antagonize countries like Iran and North Korea when it’s O.K. to buy off Libya and Pakistan? Why pursue what even the GOP refers to as the “nuclear option” in the U.S. Senate? To those of us who mainly think squirrel thoughts, these sorts of things will always remain darn near incomprehensible.


In a comment to my post about the American flag, British blogger Dick Jones of Patteran Pages writes,

I can’t help thinking ‘only in the States…’! I recall (dimly, as with an old man’s fading vision) there being something of fuss when The Who went national with the mod fashion of clothing made out of the Union Jack. But it was no more than a sort of choral clearing of throats from the retired colonel brigade. After that the symbol of Britain’s imperial pride was up for sartorial grabs & has been ever since.

So this sanctification of the Stars & Bars is fascinating & only partially explained by Mr Turner’s characterisation of symbols as both ‘social & normative’ & ‘sensory & affective’ (I bet THAT explanation went down like a cup of cold sick with the second big guy). Further reflections on the cult of the flag from commenters would be illuminating.

I responded by admitting that the U.S.A. is “one of the few countries where one sees the national flag flying everywhere – kind of like the ubiquity of portraits of the Great Leader in places like N. Korea and Turkmenistan.” But I was clueless about the origin of U.S. flagolatry.

So if you have any ideas about how to explain this to a non- or un-American, please leave a comment in the string attached to this post (less confusing than going back to the original flag-burning essay, which is a ways down the page now). Thanks.


Over at the vernacular body, Elck raises some interesting questions of his own, which directly relate to (and are perhaps partly responsible for) my concern with circuitousness this morning. “Our home, our city, our world, our life is now a supermarket for the satisfaction of the senses,” he writes.

We could binge on Peking Opera if we wished, or read nothing but Uruguayan poets, or fill up our Netflix queues with films from Japan and Japan alone. And, in addition to the available range, there’s also the issue of portability (paperbacks, mp3s, fast downloads), the convenience of mail-order, and the existence of blogs making transglobal stimulating discussion of these interests possible.

This situation creates a number of dilemmas, among them:

We risk finding out the hard way that things too cheaply obtained are poorly attended to. We don’t necessarily take the time to immerse ourselves in the best that culture offers us. For example, how does having a stack of DVDs (or a Netflix queue) affect our experience of a film like Andrei Rublov or Fanny and Alexander? Would we watch the film with different eyes if it were the only thing we had seen on the screen in several months, if the viewing of it were a sacred, set-apart experience, rather than something to be gotten through before popping the next disc in? Is the surfeit of product (even of good product) dulling our senses?


Even as a plan for satisfying the senses, I think the typically American, consumption-oriented approach falls short. We are taught to be direct and goal-oriented, and not coincidentally, I think, many people complain of being unsatisfied, sexually and otherwise. As K. of A Happening wrote last month in a post called the last taboo,

[W]e live in a culture that … does not know how to appreciate physical beauty unless it’s seen on a playing field. As Americans, we don’t know how to enjoy the naked human form for what it is. Our fear of sex has made it impossible for us to understand the possibilities for variety in sensual experience and in the experience of eros. In our linear thinking, goal-oriented society, if it’s naked we have no idea what [to] do but fuck it. And because most of the time the object laid before our eyes is not really available, we feel compelled to satisfy this desire in some other way. Usually by buying something.

Quite apart from the question of who has the time to sketch, make music, read and write poetry, or what have you, I wonder how many even retain the ability to appreciate the subtler wonders that surround us every day? One of my favorite quotes – and one of the very first things I ever posted on this blog – suggests that this crisis is neither new nor distinctly American. The Baal Shem Tov, 18th-century founder of the Eastern European Hasidic movement, is said to have exclaimed, Alas! The world is full of enormous lights and mysteries, and man shuts them from himself with one small hand!


In her latest post, Andi of Ditch the Raft announces, “I’ve decided to become a seeker after Mysteries.” On a recent family visit to Finland, she watched a Lenten mass in Helsinki’s Uspenski Cathedral.

Once again, I noticed the prostrations. Not so different from a Tibetan half-prostration, the “grand metanoia” came after each congregant had crossed him- or herself. The word “metanoia” means “to turn,” as if turning away from something, such as sin and evil. I like to keep this in mind when I do my own prostrations. I like it, in part because it implies a circular movement within the self, rather than a linear one. We do not progress out of sin, toward sinless-ness. Instead, we are constantly turning within ourselves, seeking the light which guides not necessarily on a straight path, but simply around, like the Zen circle, to our true selves.

For those unfamiliar with Ditch the Raft, it may help to know that Andi is a committed Buddhist (of the Korean Zen variety) and is preparing to enter the monastic life in May. I encourage everyone with an interest in the ostensible focus of this blog, the via negativa, to go read the rest of her post, which includes an illuminating interview with a Greek Orthodox deacon back in the States. I can’t improve on her conclusion.

One other quote from Andi brings us full circle, back to squirrel-mind. This comes from a comment she left in response to a recent post of Dale’s, over at mole. In Today’s catch, Dale shares “some of the weirdly false thoughts I’ve captured on the wing, today… Answering these thoughts is not exactly rocket science,” he writes. “They’re infantile, mostly. Fatuous. My life is being run by thoughts that would do no credit to a six-year-old.” Andi responds:

[It’s] funny how we want to say that the most basic part of us is infantile, or small in some way, when it’s actually the common denominator, the glue of the mind, the mundane fears and worries that underpin so many of our actions. Seeing them as basic is wonderful! – we stumble upon the unhidden truth, that we’re simple at heart, run by things that, the longer we look at them, appear more and more like exaggerated shadows than mountainous objects. Simple fears also mean simple joys, wonderful love over the small things of life, nothing grand: just a beautiful day, a smile from our lovers, the laughter of our children…


Squirrel-mind excels in the construction of circular nests, or dreys. Winter dreys are more elaborate than those built for summer use. Though they often appear fairly messy from below, they are in fact quite compact and, from all reports, rather cozy. According to The Natural History of Squirrels (John Gurnell, Facts on File Publications, 1987),

They are waterproof and made of an outer coarse layer of interwoven twigs, which the squirrels usually remove from the tree in which the drey is built (often with leaves still attached). There is a softer inner lining consisting of moss, bark, leaves, fur, feathers, lichens and similar material, and dreys which are used by females to rear young tend to be very well-padded…. A squirrel takes from one to several days to construct a drey, and they will maintain it and add to it as and when required.

So this morning was I watching normal nest maintenance, special refurbishment, or something else entirely? The same source refers to the inner bark of several tree species as a food item for squirrels, not just a nesting material, so it’s possible the individual I was watching was simply doing her grocery shopping. In any case, the weather was threatening; it’s now begun to snow. A good time to snuggle deeper into the nest, tail curled over head, and dream of spring. For busy as they may seem, most of what squirrels do during the long, lean months is sleep.


Reading a poem by Jean Follain this morning, I remember my dream about a garden. Or should I say the garden? Because I feel as if I have dreamt countless variations of it throughout my life. A virtually forgotten act of casual gardening months earlier has taken root, it seems: I find the fallen-down exclosure in the middle of the field and there, miraculously weed-free, the dark, loose soil is stippled with rhubarb and the pale yellow flowers of what might be salsify, the root that tastes like oysters. It all comes back to me, now. Those radish and carrot seeds I found in a bottom drawer – what happened to them, I wonder? A neglected row of broccoli has gone to blossom. Tomato and squash vines snake off into the tall grass, a tangle of exposed veins for a love child’s grotesque and amorphous body.


Lately I feel as if I’ve been saving my best thoughts for the comment threads of other people’s blogs. Which is fine, of course, except that it doesn’t leave me much energy to write here. But then, reading itself should be an active, first-thing-in-the-morning activity; I cheat myself of considerable food for thought by using that time to do my own writing. How much more do I really have to discover about my own thoughts? After almost fourteen months of intensive blogging, I feel as if I’ve said pretty much all I have to say. But it’s like keeping a garden, isn’t it? Once you start cultivating, you can’t stop or the weeds will take over. Though perhaps that image would be more appropriate for folks who battle comment spam…

Back when I used to garden for real, I got to the point where I rarely turned the soil at all, just kept everything heavily mulched. It was a great time-saver. The only problem was, I liked to dig.


Here’s one of my oldest poems still remaining in the “keepers” pile. It was already in existence in some form by the fall of 1983, because I remember doing a prose version of it for a Freshman English assignment. The speaker is female. I’m not sure about the geographical setting – somewhere in the Andes, I guess, judging by the emphasis on potatoes.



It’s true, i was careless,
that one i was always shadowing–that
little light of mine–it gave me
the slip one night.
I’d thought i could allow myself
one unguarded dream, woke
to the baying of dogs & the beating
of a hundred pairs of wings–pigeons
with their automatic laughter.
I had to go live among the graves,
where no one looks for a wife.

It’s been months now.
Years, even. Time again
when night turns the crests
of the mountains white
like the hands of God on the horizon,
his bared knuckles.

One morning the vines lie limp & dark
six months after setting the one-eyed
lumps in the furrow. And just
now, my long-fingered rake
lifting a clump of dirt
has uncovered a miniature cry,
a voice coming out of the ground
right at my feet.
Do earthworms or beetle grubs speak?

On my knees, plucking
the stones from their beds
i’ve unearthed a half-size infant’s foot
& grasping it around the ankle with
a gentle tug, look–
i’ve rescued a tiny naked girl
the very color of clay.
She lies in the crook of my arm
& returns my gaze
like the cistern where i draw water.

I’ll take her back to my charnel house.
She will grow fat on boiled potatoes
& teach me how to interpret
this ceaseless buzzing of the dead
who are said to sleep.

The bloggers

The universe
(tiandi) doesn’t play favorites;
it treats all phenomena as if they were straw dogs.
The sage doesn’t play favorites;
he treats the people as if they were straw dogs.

– Daodejing Chapter 5 (my version). According to the Zhuangzi, straw dogs were sacrificial artifacts, treated with the utmost deference before they were used in the offering, and discarded afterwards.


The found object: how did it come to be born here, in the hand & in the eye? What does it ask of us? What might it become?

It passes slowly from hand to hand. We speak for it, taking turns. “I fell from the sky.” “I was thrown.” “I was dropped.” “I was laid down.” “I formed here, like dew.” “I sprouted.” “I popped out.” (What a bunch of jokers!)

We still think we’re the only ones here. Our word people means “human beings only.” Animal, mineral, or vegetable, we chant at the start of every game of Twenty Questions. There’s a campfire, of course. We’re singing, A, b, c, double x, y, z. Cat’s in the cupboard & he can’t see me. (Schrödinger never really cared about that poor cat, but we do!)

Well, let’s say someone gets up and tosses it on the fire. Yes. She drops it in the hottest part of the fire. “Now we’ll see!” (Will it burn? Will it burst?)





(We pass the bottle, now. We fall asleep.)