Asking the big questions

I have two new, short posts up in the Brewing section of my eponymous website: “What is gruit?” and — even more basic — “What is beer?” In both cases, I kind of feint and dodge. Beer terminology, like brewing itself, is gloriously imprecise, and that’s one reason why I like it. I tried winemaking for a little while, but the results were not too impressive. It turns out that you need a fanatic attention to detail to make decent wine. With brewing, as I proved to my own satisfaction last October, you can avoid measuring anything, throw in extra ingredients on a whim, and still end up with a drinkable beer.

How are these “big questions”? Let the Raramuri — these guysexplain:

“God taught the Raramuri how to make corn beer,” says Guadalupe Espino Palma, the traditional governor of the Norogachi district. “We make offerings of tesguino to God himself, and He drinks it also. We use tesguino for dancing, and we enjoy drinking it.” Even getting drunk is a spiritual act, he explains.


And during this corn beer communion, in place of “happy Easter,” the Raramuri will say to one another “bosasa” — “fill up, be satisfied, be contented.”

Terra Incognita

watch on Vimeowatch on YouTube

My first videopoem to use footage from another, equally fun hobby, homebrewing. The poem by D. H. Lawrence is now in the public domain, and I found it rather quickly because my copy of his complete poems is quite throughly annotated with marginalia by its previous owner — my poetry sensei, Jack McManis. Jack had put a big check-mark beside the title and underlined all the best parts, helping me see past its — to my mind — overly didactic framing.

Here’s the text.

Terra Incognita
by D. H. Lawrence

There are vast realms of consciousness still undreamed of
vast ranges of experience, like the humming of unseen harps,
we know nothing of, within us.
Oh when man has escaped from the barbed-wire entanglement
of his own ideas and his own mechanical devices
there is a marvellous rich world of contact and sheer fluid beauty
and fearless face-to-face awareness of now-naked life
and me, and you, and other men and women
and grapes, and ghouls, and ghosts and green moonlight
and ruddy-orange limbs stirring the limbo
of the unknown air, and eyes so soft
softer than the space between the stars,
and all things, and nothing, and being and not-being
alternately palpitant,
when at last we escape the barbed-wire enclosure
of Know Thyself, knowing we can never know,
we can but touch, and wonder, and ponder, and make our effort
and dangle in a last fastidious fine delight
as the fuchsia does, dangling her reckless drop
of purple after so much putting forth
and slow mounting marvel of a little tree.

Drunkest Guy Ever Goes For More Beer

The anonymous YouTube folk hero speaks out

The security cameras only catch
one side of the story. Notice how they stick
at the 38-second mark, keep me standing
still as a parking meter for long seconds
only to skip
faster than light to the far wall
& its chorus line of coolers.

Just because you’re looking down
doesn’t make you omniscient.
What appears to the straight-laced
like a shopping trip gone awry
was really a pas de deux
with some wild weather.
True, I am loose as a flag
flailing around its pole,
buffeted by winds you barely feel.
But drinking is an escape into the open.
I round an aisle or pull on a door handle
& the cross-wind catches me;
I try to walk like a sober person & I go down.

And there on my fundament
I begin again,
exploring the deep
contingencies of consciousness
with all four limbs at once,
supple as a newborn.
Luck — as the madman
of Chu told Confucius —
is lighter than a feather,
but no one knows how to bear its weight.
Be it a 12-pack or a bowl of candy,
as long as I cling I’m anchored
to the spot.

But in the end, in the part that got cut
from all your amusing remixes,
when I let go & just sit for a minute,
my body remembers on its own
how to evade the world’s
persistent embrace
& I rise & walk.

On fire


Walking into town this morning along the railroad tracks, I noticed this structure under the highway overpass. While it might look like a homeless encampment, I suspect it’s the work of local teenagers. This is right below the end of our mountain, where some kids had a clandestine campout last fall and almost set the woods on fire. Fortunately, one of our hunter friends found them in time and helped put out the blaze, before politely suggesting that they party elsewhere. I think this is “elsewhere.”

Tyrone IOOF

Of course, it isn’t just kids who like to get messed up in the name of fellowship. I don’t know if the Independent Order of Odd Fellows is still active in Tyrone, but they built a damn fine building. It looked pretty as a postcard this morning.

I considered wandering around and shooting a bunch more photos of Tyrone, but really, between this photo and the last, you can get a pretty good idea of what the town’s all about. (I have a few other photos here.)

red maple blossoms 2

On the way back, the late-morning sun backlit a hillside of blossoming red maples. This is always one of the first trees to blossom in spring, along with the pussy willows. The end of Plummer’s Hollow was rather badly logged back in 1979 and 1985, and these maples are one of the main beneficiaries.

Red maple used to be restricted to moist woods and swamps, but over the last fifty years it has proliferated in all kinds of forests in Pennsylvania, for reasons that aren’t fully understood. The relatively recent practice of wildfire suppression is often blamed for the decline of oaks, though, and fire sensitivity would certainly explain why red maple used to be confined to wet areas. And while red maples are beautiful trees, they don’t have anywhere near the wildlife value of oaks.


Maple blossoms aren’t the only fire-colored thing right now. ‘Tis the season for doppelbock, according to the Beer Activist. At 8.3% alcohol, one bottle of these is just about all you need. Suddenly, a campfire in the woods seems like a pretty good idea.

Beer and ecology

I don’t know if I’ll have time for a regular post today, but in the meantime, I’d like to call to your attention to two promising new ventures. The first is my buddy Chris O’Brien’s fabulous new Beer Activist Blog. Chris is the author of the recently published book Fermenting Revolution, a very fun read (I got it for Christmas), which takes writing and thinking about grain-based fermented beverages in a whole new direction. If you like beer, be sure to stop by and give him some encouragement so he’ll keep blogging. He just finished a series on the Twelve Beers of Christmas. Here’s an excerpt from #12:

Avery Brewing in Bolder, Colorado and Russian River in Santa Rosa, California both brew Belgian style beers they independently named Salvation. When the coincidence was discovered, rather than become adversarial, they chose a path of cooperation. Instead of competing for the rights to the name as other breweries might do, they decided to live and let live, and even decided to brew a special beer together that is a blend of their Salvations.

The result is a beer they named Collaboration Not Litigation Ale.


A just-launched blog carnival aims to showcase “the best ecology and environmental science posts of the month from all across the blogosphere.” Oekologie sounds as if it will be considerably more science-focused than Festival of the Trees, but I think it ought to meet a real need. Here’s what they’re looking for:

Oekologie is a blog carnival all about interactions between organisms in a system. While Circus of the Spineless might look for a post discussing the hunting techniques of a trap door spider, Oekologie is looking for posts discussing how a trap door spider’s hunting techniques affect prey populations or its surroundings. While Carnival of the Green might look for a post discussing a big oil policy decision regarding ANWR, Oekologie would accept a post describing the ecological consequences of pipeline construction in the area.

Again, we are looking for posts describing biological interactions – human or nonhuman – with the environment.

Topics may include but are not limited to posts about population genetics, niche/neutral theory, sustainabilty, pollution, climate change, disturbance, exploitation, mutualism, ecosystem structure and composition, molecular ecology, evolutionary ecology, energy usage (by humans or within biological systems, succession, landscape ecology, nutrient cycling, biodiversity, agriculture, waste management, etc.

The deadline for submissions to the first edition is January 13.

What I saw when I was drinking

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Yesterday afternoon, I drank up the last of my homebrew. Plummer’s Hollow will be dry until I get around to making some more. So it was a bittersweet occasion. Hell, it was a bittersweet beer.

But don’t be alarmed — I wasn’t drinking alone. I never do.

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For one thing, there were the flies. Not the kind that bite, but the kind that just want to land on you and walk around a bit, pausing every few steps to rub your grime off their forefeet.

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A good, strong stout should help you appreciate, you know, the little things: The songs of the birds. The weave of your jeans. The way you don’t feel anything one way or the other when you kill a fly, and you begin to wonder if that makes you a potential sociopath.

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I got many glimpses of the chipmunk that lives in my herb garden as it hurried back and forth to its burrow, climbing tall weed stalks to get at their seeds and riding them down to the ground. I thought about my grandmother, who used to hand-feed chipmunks when she and Grandpa lived here for several summers back in the 1970s. In all likelihood, she fed this very chipmunk’s great x 30 grandmother. I can’t help feeling that creates a special bond between us. Not special enough to make we want to try hand-feeding it, but pretty special.

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Through the slats on the porch railing, I had a good view of a crowd of garlic, though I wasn’t close enough to eavesdrop. People tell me I should decapitate them so their bulbs will grow bigger, but I can rarely bring myself to do so. They have such character! I love watching them uncurl, finally pointing their bills straight up like bitterns. And when their heads split open and the children within grow beaks of their own, I scatter them far and wide. Slowly but surely, I’m turning the lawn into a garlic patch.

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From time to time, my eyes strayed back to the book on my lap: Jim Harrison’s The Shape of the Journey: New and Collected Poems. I was reading the section of poems called After Ikkyu and liking it pretty well. Harrison is a good drinking companion.

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But mostly, I looked at the beer. As I mentioned, it’s homebrew, so I wouldn’t have to carbonate and bottle it. Three years ago, in fact, I left a couple batches in the carboy and just siphoned off a pitcher whenever I got thirsty. I don’t particularly need the mouth-feel of carbonation; I do it for the foam. What do wine drinkers look at? I’ve never understood that. Beer is beautiful.


UPDATE: With the last photo, I meant to reference Dsida Jeno’s “Poem of Darkness,” which I recently became acquainted with thanks to frizzyLogic. True, Jeno himself mentions coffee. But what better than stout for a “dark and bitter drink” into which, “one dank brown evening,” to “melt and sink”?

Animal presence

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Yesterday morning, I went to show my friend K. my patch of mugwort – the main flavoring agent in the beer we’d been drinking the night before. It’s out behind the shed, where I once had a perfectly round vegetable garden when I was a kid, but was forced to abandon the site when the mugwort took over. I had planted a few sprigs among the beds because a friend of my mother’s had said it would act as a natural insecticide. The same qualities that drive off insects – you can lay dried sprigs of mugwort among your clothes in lieu of mothballs – are proof against the commoner molds and bacteria that can ruin a batch of beer. It does as good a job as hops, with a similar effect on flavor, but without the latter’s soporific effects.

We found the mugwort patch in the possession of a box turtle, who did not seem at all happy to see us. I thought it was probably a female trying to lay her eggs, but when I came back later in the day, she had moved about four feet away and was still looking pensive and withdrawn. Perhaps she was looking around for the right spot – or doing something else entirely, who knows?

Come into animal presence.
No man is so guileless as
the serpent. The lonely white
rabbit on the roof is a star
twitching its ears at the rain.

A front blew in after lunch, while I was taking a nap. It was cold and drizzly when I lay down, and clear and windy when I got up. After tea, I went out with my camera, but took very few pictures. I was mostly content just to look at things. I dropped down the powerline a hundred feet or so to get out of the scrub oak zone and have an uninterrupted view: widely spaced clouds and cloud shadows all the way to the horizon, plowed fields alternating with patches of green. The big red barn in the middle of the valley had spilled its herd of Holsteins into the pasture.

A pair of red-tailed hawks lifted off from the trees below me; I lost sight of one right away, but the other circled far out over the valley, flapping, searching for an updraft. It rocked and veered wildly in the wind. One moment it was a mile away, the next moment it was coming in low over the trees. Each time it swung around so the wind was at its back, it let rip with that famous banshee cry so often wrongfully imputed to eagles in the movies, because, no less than a wolf’s howl or the midnight laughter of a loon, it’s a literal Call of the Wild. But even as I thrilled to the sound, I couldn’t help thinking that the hawk was simply saying “Wheeeeeeeeeeeeee!”

The llama intricately
folding its hind legs to be seated
not disdains but mildly
disregards human approval.
What joy when the insouciant
armadillo glances at us and doesn’t
quicken his trotting
across the track into the palm brush.

On the way back through the field, I kept thinking that I ought to run across a newborn fawn at any moment – the grass is long enough, it certainly seems like the right time. Instead, I surprised a mother turkey with poults – or rather, they surprised me. The hen must’ve been sitting on her brood to keep them warm, because she burst up out of the grass right at my feet. I had my camera at the ready, but couldn’t decide whether to try and photograph the poults, who were rapidly disappearing in one direction, or the hen, who was doing her broken wing act in the other direction. As I dithered, the poults scattered and froze, making them impossible to find, and the hen ran too far away for a decent shot. I sat down for a while, but was unable to wait them out.

What is this joy? That no animal
falters, but knows what it must do?
That the snake has no blemish,
that the rabbit inspects his strange surroundings
in white star-silence? The llama
rests in dignity, the armadillo
has some intention to pursue in the palm-forest.

This morning I woke up around 2:30 and couldn’t get back to sleep, so I snapped on the light and read for an hour. I’m reading Jared Diamond’s new book, Collapse, and I’m still in the first section, the chapter about Montana. If I lost sleep more often, I’d make more progress.

When I do get back to sleep, I dream about animals. In one scene, I’m with a crowd of people watching two fishers run along a rushing stream, much larger than Plummer’s Hollow Run but otherwise similar in its surroundings. The fishers find and corner a raccoon, kill him with a quick bite to the throat, and load his body into a small canoe. They tie the canoe to a rowboat, and each grabs an oar. “It looks like they’re taking him down to the river,” someone observes. Some sort of Viking burial seems to be in order. “Wow! Doesn’t this prove that animals have beliefs about the afterlife?” I say. “Not necessarily,” someone replies. “The fishers are probably just trying to send a message to other raccoons!”

Those who were sacred have remained so,
holiness does not dissolve, it is a presence
of bronze, only the sight that saw it
faltered and turned from it.

The others have continued on up the difficult mountain trail, but I linger at the campsite. I’m tired of backpacking in my bare feet; I must have footwear. I cut short lengths of saplings, and look about for vines. Instead, I find the corpse of a small hawk with an immense white wing locked in its talons.

Meanwhile, people are lining up in front of a small trading post beside the lake, which is about to open for the season. The white woman who staffs the place walks by and sees me trying to tie saplings to my bare feet. “Would you like some string? I might have a loose piece or two I could give you,” she says with a smile. “That’s O.K.,” I mumble. I don’t want to waste much more time. By now, the others will have noticed my absence, and might be thinking of turning back.

I pull several of the longest pinions from the white wing, which might be from an owl, I think. An old woman with skin the color of mahogany stops to watch as I try to sew up my strange wooden moccasins with the midribs, threads like flexible knitting needles. “Are you sure you know what you’re doing, gachó?” Her tone is grandmotherly, but I get the feeling she might be enjoying a private joke at my expense. I look more closely, and realize she is no ordinary human being. I wake up still mulling over my response.

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An old joy returns in holy presence.
Denise Levertov, “Come into Animal Presence” (The Jacob’s Ladder, 1958)

Three short poems to inaugurate a new pocket notebook

climbing into
each other’s sky
circling crying


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above the road bank where
the hepatica has just come into bloom,
the corpse of a porcupine

carrion beetles clamber
through the quills

butterflies cluster on what’s left of its mouth
a hole spanned by the long, curved
railings of its teeth

& down below, the pale blue blossoms
swaying on their stems

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On Easter morning, I took a plastic
envelope of ale yeast from the refrigerator,
placed it on the floor, & brought all
my weight down on it
to break open the enclosed packet of nutrients.
Within hours, the envelope had swollen up
like a sheep’s stomach
with afflatus from the resurrected yeast.

Now I will feed it malt & honey
& bitter herbs. It will pass
this brew through its multitudinous body
& turn it into beer.
The empty tombs of its spent cells
will drift to the bottom of the bottle’s
brown sea.

Letting go

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The first frost came on Friday night as we sat around drinking. At a certain point, we had to bring the beer in from the porch to keep it from freezing. While I slept the dreamless sleep of inebriation, the air was crystallizing around every leaf and blade of grass, like frozen foam from the season’s drained cup.

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I love the way a beer with good head retention leaves a record of its passing in the white, lacy rings on the side of the glass. It’s a good argument for sipping rather than chugging. But that’s the funny thing about consumption, isn’t it? The more attached you become to the act of consuming, the less you enjoy it. To get the most out of a beer – or anything, really – you have to take it one sip at a time.

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The bark of pignut hickories forms rings, too, healing over the lines of holes drilled by yellow-bellied sapsuckers. They are slow-growing, long-lived trees, seemingly unaffected by the intensive tapping of their sap. Their nuts aren’t as sweet as those of shagbark hickories, but the squirrels still seem to catch most of them before they hit the ground.

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The red, black and scarlet oaks are the last trees on the mountain to turn color, long after the understorey black gums, sassafras, witch hazel and spicebush have shed their leaves. By holding onto their leaves so long, they risk damage from early snows or ice storms, but oaks are very good at sealing off wounds to prevent infection from spreading to the rest of the tree. And shedding leaves, it turns out, is about more than just letting go; new research suggests that trees attempt to poison the ground against competitors with the chemicals that form in their leaves as they turn color.

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Within the space of a few days last week, high winds stripped the ridges mostly bare, and now suddenly one can see for hundreds of yards through the woods. The rising sun hits my front porch an hour earlier, even as the dawn comes later. I don’t think of winter as a dark time, but a time of clearer light and more interesting shadows. While vistas are opening up, life is turning in upon itself, rediscovering the rewards of contemplation and of altered states.

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Who can blame shamans for trying to become bears, those champion sleepers and masters of retention? Right now, they’re living quite literally off the fat of the land, but when a bear enters hibernation, its large intestine forms what is called a fecal plug. Winter, in other words, is the one time of the year when a bear does not shit in the woods. You can walk along enjoying the dawn or sunset sky without a thought for where you put your feet.

Drinking alone beneath the moon

by Li Bai
(a.k.a. Li Po, 701-762)

Yi hu jiu


In the middle of the flowering grove, one jug of beer.
Drinking alone – no friends or family near –
I raise my cup, invite the moon to join me.
Counting my shadow, we’re a party of three.

But moon’s a lightweight, doesn’t know how to drink,
And shadow simply matches me cup for cup.
For now, though, they’ll do just fine, I think.
Spring is here, my friends! Let’s live it up.

I start to sing; the moon sways to and fro.
I get up and dance – shadow reels in disarray.
Sober, we crave the company of some jolly fellow;
Drunk, each goes his separate way.

Freed of all ties, yet bound forever more,
Let’s get back together on the galaxy’s far shore.


Come April, and the village of Xianyang lies deep in fallen blossoms. Who can bear to be alone with sorrow in the spring? Who can gaze on such sights as these and stay sober? The unseen Maker rolls his dice: for you, wealth and a long life; poverty for you, and a life cut short. But one mug of beer can balance life and death, even out a thousand things that confound the intellect. Drunk, I lose track of heaven and earth, sitting alone on my mat, unmoving, unmovable. I end by forgetting that I ever existed at all: pure joy, then, for the no-one left behind!


If Heaven above be not besotted with beer,
why should a Beer Star appear in heaven?

If Earth, too, be not a tippler,
why do we find a Beer Springs on earth?

With beer thus beloved above and below,
drinking beer can hardly be against nature.

I’ve heard a clear brew likened to a sage,
while the slang term for a cloudy beer is saint.

Since I’ve drunk deep of saints and sages,
what need have I to search for spirit guides?

Three cups, and the Great Way lies open;
a gallon, and everything resolves into Suchness.

Simply strive for beer and find contentment.
Don’t speak of these arcana to the sober ones.

This translates three of the four sections of the original poem. The first section best imitates the rhyme and meter of the original.

“Sage” and “Saint” were code words for strained and unstrained beer during a period of prohibition in the early Tang Dynasty.

For other translations of ancient Chinese beer-drinking poems at Via Negativa, see The guest (Du Fu) and Night drinking at the western pavilion of the Flower of the Dharma Temple (Liu Zongyuan).