Traveler’s joy

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

More notes from last week’s trip to West Virginia.

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Below the pulloff for the roadside view, the vine called traveler’s joy sprawls over the rocks.

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A wood lily rocks gently in the wind, doors thrown open to all six points of the compass.

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Yellow birch: the straight & narrow path is never dull.

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Ground beetles take the place of dinosaurs in a forest within the forest where flowering plants are still a distant rumor.

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Rank & deadly, false hellebore raises a green panicle above leaves already half-dead, turning color for no one.

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On the summit where we found snow in late October, fireweed blooms against the spruce.

Two ways at once

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Last week my friend L. & I spent some time in West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest – our third visit in less than a year.

We take our umbrellas walking, slower & slower.

I hear springs gurgling under the rocks. Small, dark pools appear among the rhododendrons. In one, a red maple leaf floats, already orange with autumn; the surface of another is covered with hemlock needles – tiny green rafts going nowhere.

We overtake a snail traveling in the same direction, gliding along under its spiral backpack.

Rain rarely reaches us unmediated by trees. The sun can come out long before rain has finished dripping from the leaves. As slowly as I walk, my glasses still fog up every time I stop.

The already wet trail grows wetter. One rock hisses under my boot.

We stop for lunch – instant ramen – and a spot of tea. I set my tin cup in the creek to cool, keeping watch to make sure the rhododendrons don’t drop a blossom in it.

With thunder rumbling in the distance, we dangle bare feet in the water. I watch a pair of crayfish battling a few feet away. The loser scuttles over & gives my ankle several exploratory taps.

I watch water flowing around a large rock, its translucent body a net of shadows as it folds back against itself. After ten minutes or so, I think I might understand something fundamental about water, its impetus to condense, to fall, to plumb the depths. But then I glance just a few feet to the left & am completely flummoxed by a large drift of foam. I had forgotten about tannins. The water is never just one thing, I think.

The storm breaks. Tree trunks become rivers flowing in two directions at once, outside & in.

On the way back, I stop to eye a large hemlock with limbs like reverse mouths for the sun. The tree reveals itself as a condensation of need, or needs. (Who knows if all aspirations can be reduced to a single breath?) Things turn inside out before my astonished gaze. With each footstep, I realize, we are helping to hold down an insurgent earth.

What I am calling need might be a kind of thirst or hunger, but it seems risky to try & grasp it through analogy with human desires, which are so wrapped up in surfaces. The non-human world seems much more rooted & constrained by custom. And what these others lose in flexibility they gain in the directness of their access to what we call the divine. For them, there is no gap whatsoever between spirit & matter.

A torrent of thoughts under my umbrella: Every element of Creation seeks redemption from its uncreatedness, its just-so-ness; death & decomposition represent only a temporary setback. Life is continual recomposition.

The life force, for lack of a better term, consists not merely of need but the energetic field surrounding it, which helps forge connections between beings. To feel those connections deeply is intoxicating – or, more accurately, leads to something like a contact high.

Spirituality is almost beside the point, considering that the body is already a temple and the digestive system is the most perfect altar imaginable. From the belly’s faithful service we can learn the art of letting go, a kind of sympathetic magic aimed at getting other things to let go of us. However hungry it may be, the panther knows better than to try & sever the jugular of a mountain stream.

Done scribbling, I glance up from my pocket notebook. An open space under the hemlocks is illuminated by a single, fist-sized clump of rhododendron blossoms. “What are you writing?” L. asks. “Oh, silly stuff,” I answer truthfully.

A half-mile farther, another open grove shimmers with the endlessly supple song of a winter wren. A second thunderstorm rumbles in the distance. The sky grows dark.

An hour later, we’re back at camp. I’ve carried my folding camp chair over to a house of boulders, where I sit admiring the arrangement of space & the spill of light where it opens to the sky. The boulders are green with moss, & each is capped with a dozen or more large, leathery ears of rock tripe. The resident hermit thrush draws near, playing his crystal flute. For several long moments I feel confirmed in whatever it is I’ve been trying all afternoon to intuit. Then a fly buzzes through without even slowing down – zoom. It is the most thorough & devastating refutation I can imagine.

And if you think the world is recalcitrant now, I say to myself, wait until you’re in your 80s.

I go looking for my hiking partner & find her sitting under another rock shelter, spying on the forest road below. I return to camp & start on supper. Later, she tells me that when a pickup truck finally did drive by, she couldn’t look.

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Non sequiturs

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

The vacuum cleaner is covered with a layer of grime.

*

I carry my empty coffee cup into the kitchen & set it on the counter beside the baby bottles.

*

Halfway through my walk, it hits me: Last night, I was dreaming about witches.

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The censor of music wears black turtleneck shirts & fancies himself a decomposer.

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Insomnia is like instant water – add water & serve.

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I pause in my cleaning to admire the beebalm: scarlet dust mops.

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Out for an early walk, the rising sun warms my back even as the nighttime coolness still seeps between the buttons of my shirt.

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I write a note to myself, cross it out & put it in my pocket.

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Everyone assumes the fry cook likes to cook, but the truth is, she likes to feed people.

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How long until the baby begins to suspect that the world has other flavors besides formula?

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I have a feeling I could make a lot out of the fact that the scarlet tanager’s song is so hoarse & formless.

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I always pause after punching down the dough to admire the imprint of my knuckles on what will soon be bread.

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Panther amanita or green bolete, a chipmunk has nibbled most of the color off.

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At three years of age, the asshole’s son is already well on his way to becoming an asshole.

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Anything with a head of snakes gets compared to Medusa – how tiresome.

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Is it really just a deerfly that keeps nuzzling the back of my neck?

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I wonder what the turtles are up to right now?

Time-tested

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In the dark midsummer woods, the few things blooming now are white: rhododendron & wild hydrangea; teaberry & the so-called fairy candles of black cohosh; clusters of Indian pipes pushing through the leaf duff. The umbels of one hydrangea bush near the bottom of the hollow are dotted with blossoms ten times larger than the rest. Such sterile anomalies were long ago seized upon by nurserymen, who crossed & crossed until they bred a bush whose every inflorescence was a blind enormity.

*

I sift through a sandbar – legacy of last fall’s flood – with berry-stained fingers. Why should it amaze me that so small a stream can still tumble stones to perfect smoothness? I think of anchorites in their cells, each with his or her time-tested word: It was said of Abbot Agatho that for three years he carried a stone in his mouth until he learned to be silent. But was it silence he learned, or conformity with a larger music? The Verba Seniorum, polished to a perfect terseness, does not say.

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Our eyes at birth are just about as big as they’ll ever be; the appealing contrast with small, bald heads guarantees a ready nest in the arms of anyone available. My five-month-old niece Elanor is wide-eyed & mostly silent, though at mealtimes she likes to strike her high chair with the flat of her hand. She reaches for everything: a new development in the last few days since moving here, my brother says. Put down on the carpet, unable yet to crawl, she rolls toward the objects of her inchoate desire – mostly things to put in her mouth, the firmer the better. I try to imagine what that must feel like, the pressure of milk teeth trying to sprout through the gums. Her cries of – what? Anxiety? Frustration? – often modulate into warbles, as if phrases of speech or music were just beginning to coalesce.

*

On the green plain of the maple leaf, wasps have pitched their tent-shaped galls. A scarlet tanager plucks his single string over & over. I’m composing a letter in my head, a greeting card message written in one, continuous line without lifting the pen. I have been picking black raspberries & letting the straight thorns hook my shirt; gaining release is a simple manner of leaning in. But once, just as I felt myself caught, a blue darner landed a foot away & I froze. Its eyes were the exact size & color of the individual components of a raspberry’s compound fruit, those tiny black pebbles. Angled above its metallic blue abdomen, the wings fit together like the covers of a leaf-shaped book.

Happy birthday to my parents, born 364 days apart, yesterday & today.

The obvious

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

If I have one major talent, I like to tell people, it is in pointing out the obvious. After the Oklahoma City bombing, I said to anyone who would listen: Of course fertilizer is a deadly weapon. Imagine a million bombs like this going off every day in the once-living soils of Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, India, the Philippines. How inconvenient that McVeigh and Nichols appeared so white & ordinary, so like us.

The Oklahoma City Memorial: School is out, but still we come to call roll. This could be anywhere. The even ranks of identical chairs bear testimony to the discipline, rectitude and undiscriminating universality of the bomb’s unholy curriculum.

September 11, 2001: For a week afterwards, with every airport shut down, the skies over North America were the clearest they’d been in decades. Our ears grew almost accustomed to the silence. In the woods & in the fields we could hear small things: a snail chewing on a leaf, mud cracking as it dried, the necks of sunflowers creaking in unison as the sun made its unrepeatable way across their sky.

London bombings: The panic passed quickly, survivors said. They began talking, analyzing, coordinating. Those who could walk, walked: burned or bloody, dark with soot, missing an eye or an eardrum, perhaps, but proceeding with great deliberation up into the streets, which by that time had become virtually as foreign as they.

Vietnam Memorial: Solid stone comforts in a way no living tissue can. In the space between the engraved letters, our faces lack the depth & color we are accustomed to from ordinary mirrors. Maya Lin has the clearest mind of any American artist since John Cage. All along the black cliff-face one can see visitors approach, hesitate, extend a trembling hand, sometimes a forehead.

Washing the lettuce

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

It is said that Plato once came upon Diogenes the Kynic washing wild lettuce for his supper. “If you had paid court to Dionysius, you wouldn’t be reduced to washing lettuce,” said the philosopher. “If you had learned to wash lettuce, you wouldn’t have had to pay court to Dionysius,” replied the Kynic.

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Diogenes believed in direct, unconventional responses rather in the manner of a Tang Dynasty Zen master. Once, when someone tried to convince him of the merits of Plato’s philosophy of Ideas, he squatted down and took a shit.

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Once, on a sea voyage, Diogenes was captured by pirates who took him to Crete and put him on sale at the slave market. The auctioneer asked him whether he had any marketable talents. “Yes,” he said, “I excel at giving orders. Sell me to someone who needs a master.” It is said that a man called Xeniades was so impressed by this, he purchased him to tutor his children. Diogenes was soon in control of the man’s entire household. Years later, living in his tub, he used to deride rulers as slaves to their people.

*

Someone once asked Diogenes why it is that people give alms to beggars, who do little to deserve it, and not to philosophers, who perform such valuable services for all humanity. “Everyone expects that they themselves might someday be reduced to beggary,” Diogenes observed, “but no one ever expects to be reduced to philosophizing.”

A brief gallery of hideous things

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Live out your life in a lonesome hollow. The unattainable horizon comes to crush you all the same.

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The real pity – says the benignly neglectful gardener – is that the flea beetles are too busy ever to stop and admire their handiwork.

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Slime molds always remind me of the late Emperor of Japan. Imprisoned by protocol, worshipped as a living god, Hirohito made an infinitesimal progress around the grounds of the Chrysanthemum Palace, magnifying glass at the ready for these otherworldly creatures that evade every category humans can invent.

Like the proverbial army that travels on its stomach, the bulldozer chews up the earth with its caterpillar feet.

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Some merely stoop to conquer. Japanese stilt grass falls all over itself.

Put out to pasture, the rotting muscle car gives its last joy ride to a multiflora rose.

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The sun oozes into view. Seven-thirty and already I’m bathed in sweat. On a brief walk around the field, I spot my father hanging out laundry. He’s whistling “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” as he pins up the underwear.

UPDATE: My father insists that he was in fact whistling “God Save the Queen.” Could’ve fooled me.

Full of pith

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

I am reading “Nineteen poems” by W. S. Merwin in the May/June 2004 issue of American Poetry Review, and arguing with nearly every one.

Maybe I shouldn’t confess that I read some periodicals a year after their date of publication. You might get the idea that I am more up-to-date than I am.

*

This morning I inaugurate a new pocket notebook by jotting down some would-be pithy observations, mainly because I’m too tired for sustained thinking. Sleeplessness started with a chill in my feet around 3:30 that became an ache in my left shoulder blade at 4:00 and then, when I tried to get out of bed at 4:45, turned into a stabbing pain in my right calf. Now I am fully awake and feel only the usual compulsion to line words up and drill some sense into them.

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Every mirror I’ve ever looked into, I’ve seen the same goddamn thing. You’d think just once there’d be something different in there.

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If the universe were as unchanging and eternal as each of us in moments of weakness have probably longed for it to be, wouldn’t we be blinded by the light from all those billions of stars? If there were no death, wouldn’t the heat from all that living turn us to ash?

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“Beyond belief” always sounds like an interesting place to visit. I picture some island nation on the equator: warm and pleasant year-round, with no seasons to speak of; hospitable natives; most of the economy derived in one way or another from the simple fact of being so remote from any other inhabited spot. Once every few generations, a cyclone comes along and flattens everything.

*

I confess that I have never completely reconciled myself to cause and effect. I’m kind of superstitious that way. If I’m not careful, I find myself picturing each action as if it occurred in a literal void, that abhorrent vacuum. For all the years I’ve gardened, I still plant seeds expecting nothing to come of it. When it does, I think, “But maybe this would’ve happened anyway.”

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I am equally bored with the light and with the darkness. “There’s nothing to see here, folks. Move along!”

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A thought experiment: Convene a meeting of the most creative scientists from every field and ask them to assume complete lack of uniformity. Describe the universe using qualities only. Collaborate on all conclusions. Everyone gets a veto.

I imagine this would be exactly like a conclave of poets, except for the “collaborate” part. And probably the writing would be more precise, more carefully thought-through.

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An atheist, I suppose, is someone who can’t get over being appalled by the fact that the object(s) of desire are empty, bear no relationship to anything in the so-called real world.

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Augustine was wrong: a beginning of time is no beginning. To begin always means to stop, right in the middle of things, and reset the counter.

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In the beginning was the verb. And the verb was with child. And the umbilical cord was a worldwide web, full of mater and matter not yet differentiated into useful information versus solid waste.

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The headline says: “Homing In On A Receptor For The Fifth Taste.” But does the tongue receive, or produce?

Out of all the vast numbers of organic compounds, we are only equipped to detect five, basic kinds. Luckily, Ev*lution has given us a direct pipeline between nose and mouth. And the nose is completely profligate and believes in everything.

Ah, tongue! Little comforter for a damp bed where only lies ever manage to sleep.

What happens

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

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Coyote says: We shit, as we dream – alone.

*

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Turkey says: We shit in an old chaos of the sun.

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Deer says: Not love thy shit, nor hate; but what thou shit’st, shit well.

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Gray fox says: Only connect! Shit in fragments no longer.

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Horse says: No other penalty than to shit in desire without hope, a fate appropriate to noble souls with a clear vision of shit.

*

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Bear says: I went to the woods to shit deliberately.
___________

With apologies to Conrad, Stevens, Milton, E. M. Forster, Santayana and Thoreau.

Self help

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Dear Emily, I was glad to hear about your new incarnation as an advice columnist. I’m confused.

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If I turned over a new leaf, would I stay just as green?

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If I look on the bright side, won’t I need shades?

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If I just do it, can I get out of having to think?

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If I’m to be neither a borrower nor a lender, shouldn’t I in good conscience cease to breathe?

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If I gave a hundred and ten percent, could I get it all back in deductions?

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If I follow someone else’s advice to reinvent myself, who owns the intellectual property rights?

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If I’m learning to express my sexuality, and I accidentally get in touch with my inner child, does that make me a pedophile?

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If I prioritize personal growth, can I write off my blighted urban core?

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If I seize the day, can I still get a good night’s sleep?

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If I cast my bread upon the waters, am I free to piss in the wind?

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If I could truly “be here, now,” would I forget how to curse?

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If I let the scales fall from my eyes, how would I see my way in a world of snakes?

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Most of all, I wonder: If I help myself, can I still expect a second helping?

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Any light you could shed on these matters would be much appreciated. Sign me…

Differently Clued in Pennsylvania
__________

Thanks to Abdul-Walid for forwarding the link.