Second Nature

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 3 of 15 in the series Ridge and Valley: an exchange of poems


Dear Dave,

Sun slowly burns away the gray tissue
of morning, and bees, who have spent the night
beneath the long flower of goldenrod, sway
with the stalk, stiff from cold and fog. Yesterday

a red-tailed hawk lifted from a tamarack to take
a small rabbit at the edge of the field. On this walk
I find owl pellets near a downed oak, as well as
the torn limb of a warbler, the discarded head

of a shrew. These are the beautiful deaths
of usefulness: one life to feed another, consumed
by the belly’s furnace, only to wake to heavy wing-
beat as it passes over the tallest spruce.

The best we can hope for is to scatter ourselves
across the darkest parts of the earth, rain relinquishing
these late flowers and our passing love, which mostly
lusted after the self, too often forgetting the sweet

tenacity of the bee, the waxen comb of delight.

Todd Davis


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 1 of 15 in the series Ridge and Valley: an exchange of poems


Dear Dave,

The lake is half drained
and now looks like the mud
puddle of some enormous child.
Where water slid away fast, cracks
appear, as does the detritus
of our living. Geese find
the few places fish still swim,
and killdeer have set up home
near the cinderblocks and tires
that once served as nests
of another kind. Tree stumps
line the lakebed, solid despite
their years underwater. I imagine
this grove before any saw cleared it,
before the stream at the far side
was dammed, before this depression
in the earth accepted the weight
we filled it with. A blue jay
in an ash tree sneers at our efforts,
and I smell the harsh smell
of wet earth drying.

Todd Davis

Haruspex Blues

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Another poem from Teju Cole, in response to this.

Living in the body of a seal,
diffident as a crippled hound
stealing some shut-eye in the belly,
night office of the soul.

Enfolding not the future,
no gland of hope or glory,
the lobes will only testify
in favor of the shadowed now.

Solemn a temple of deception
as bird flight or other sign:
staves scattered across desert,
dowsing through text-terrain.

Wolf call hints at augury,
unfurls like lifting fog,
antenna pitched at gods who
are much too fond of sleeping.

© Teju Cole 2008

Into a Rightness

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Another poem from Teju Cole, in response to this.

For you shall be in league with the stones of the field
and the wild animals shall be at peace with you.
—Job 5:23

The hand emerges
from the pocket
on its own, its splodge
of low brown hills
a keloid map of how
I’d failed to heal.

Gnarled, tidal wind:
a leaf storm hassles the air.
Argumentative clouds.
This hand is strange to me.

I’d stretched it out
as makeshift landing gear,
like one reaching out
for help, or to bless,
and badged it instead
with dirt and blood,
red archipelago
from base of thumb to wrist.

The dog had stopped
and looked at me
with his mangy face,
and slowly turned away.
I left a part of myself there;
the road rehearsed itself in me.

“They can smell
your fear, you know.”
Yes, I’d thought of that.
This gift of theirs
was what I feared,
dull humanity unmoored
from the strangeness of a dog.

Cousin, I’ll go chasing trees,
wade ankle deep
in the soft coin they mint,
spend hours tailing memory,
a dog on scent,

a child in the creek
of full human being,
trampling prodigal bounty:
hand-sized leaves
—burlap, silk, damask—
weeping off the branch like sails,

blush-hued, wine-hued, gold:
healing scars that
protect the stones,
eyelids for their perfect eyes.

Let us agree to pray
for each other:
that the tidal wind
settle us into a rightness

and recreate from these faults
and fears, fitter selves,
as lean years follow fat.

© Teju Cole 2008

Download the MP3

Shifting Load

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

a letter from Teju Cole

Nature: in the dream
it sounds like a thump,
a guest rapping
the floor boards from below.

Raccoon, groundhog,
milk snake in the walls,
the sound of summer
perfecting its two-step.

Country cousin,
I work a two-strand braid,
from outside in—
culture na yarn, na jolly

wey man dey take carry
burden for him head,
nature come dey help am
comot the load again.

The Soul Washer
protects another’s life.
Born the same week-day
as the Asante king,

he wears around his neck
a disc of solid gold—
the disc absorbs all evil
lofted at the king—

gold and man agree
to carry such a load.
Nature thumps again—
let me out or let me in,

the sound of summer
perfecting its two-step—
raccoon, groundhog,
milk snake in the walls.

Download the MP3

© Teju Cole 2008

Advice to a Nail

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

No pilot will go before you.

You simply drive straight in
to the dark. You may meet a longhorned beetle
but often as not, just wood so thick
you can’t cut it with a knife.

We will help you as much as we can, but
you must do this yourself.

Let our drumming move you
gracefully, with confidence,
straight in.

Never look back for assurance.
Any wavering bends you, and once bent
you are lost.

You will know when you get there.
Be strong. Hold tight.

—Sarah Bennett


I asked Sarah for a bio, and she wrote: “I spent my childhood skinning animals and learning bird songs, and I now live north of Boston, teaching 7th grade math & science, writing a few poems, building a few outbuildings, but mostly just wandering around the house and backyard not getting much done. I just turned 53.”

I’m pleased and honored that my odes to common tools have already prompted such a fine poem in response. (For a lighter response, be sure to check out Joan’s comment in the Claw Hammer thread.) Sarah’s comments have also helped spur the project forward, for which I’m grateful.


My Best Friend is Building a Hummer of a House

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

by Chris Bolgiano
Tuesday, January 08, 2008
Licenced through the Blue Ridge Press free syndication service and posted here with the active cooperation of the tragically blogless author.

Our best friends Philly and Jake retired last year and built their dream house a short walk over the ridge from where my husband and I live amid a hundred acres of Appalachian Mountain forest. We all met in college and bonded on the first Earth Day. Since then, my husband and I have gone “Back to the Land,” homesteading in the lushest temperate woodlands in the world, while Philly and Jake worked their way across continents. For 35 years, we’ve looked forward to retiring together.

Now, their dream has become my nightmare. It began with their plans for a 4,000-square-foot house — twice the size considered comfortable for a family of four just a few decades ago. Suddenly I felt frightened for the state of the world, and saw the situation in double negatives: If my nature-loving friend Philly wouldn’t choose not to build a mansion, who would?

“It’s a personal decision, how much space you need,” Philly said, not in answer to my question, which I’ve never asked, but after I emailed her a link to a website that calculates the environmental footprint of such “personal” decisions. Every decision an American consumer makes is environmentally charged, because we use more of everything and pollute more than anyone else in the world. Philly knows this, and she knows that I know that she knows.

As Philly’s blueprints materialized, I recognized the green-eyed face of jealousy, namely my own, reflected in the wall-sized windows of her cathedral-ceilinged great room.

Philly’s house is much bigger and far more elegant than my rustic, passive-solar cabin — House Beautiful magazine versus Field and Stream. Trading jealousy for guilt, I joined Philly on shopping forays and shared her new-house happiness by buying toxic remodeling products likely made by exploited Chinese workers.

Meanwhile, Jake was directing bulldozers to open the view by pushing down two acres of big oaks and pines. No one limited the tread of tires, no one tagged any trees for protection, no one saved the mossy-carpeted forest topsoil for reuse.

In a footprint eight times larger than the standard quarter-acre suburban yard, nothing above microscopic level was left alive, and even the soil microbes must have been pretty hard pressed. Then dozens of dump trucks delivered soil mined elsewhere. Jake just bought a riding mower.

The real test of friendship came when I first walked down the southern slope of Jake’s new yard. Fallen trees sprawled across the property boundary and their wilting canopies sagged into our creek, where they would, in a sudden storm, divert the flow and erode the stream banks. I knew this to be a violation of a local erosion ordinance.

Talking to my husband later, tears sprang to my eyes. “If it was anybody else, we would turn them in just like we did those other two neighbors when they threatened the creeks.” One case involved a careless logger and the other a careless house-grader, and both times the creeks ran the color of bad coffee.

“Yes, that’s true,” my husband acknowledged. “But these are our best friends. We’re not going to… turn them in? His voice took a Valley Girl swing upward.

No. Ethical questions about who is responsible for protecting the environment faded in the harsh light of being a snitch. Who am I to criticize, anyway? We sent our share of sediment to the beleaguered Chesapeake Bay when we built our quarter-acre pond. Our ecological footprint here casts a shadow even at high noon on a clear day.

Scales of space and time determine what is sustainable. Extrapolated to each of the world’s six billion plus human beings, the scale of even my (minimally) more modest materialism would crash the earth’s ecosystems sooner rather than later, according to climatologists.

Well, I’m hoping for another twenty good years of living next door to Philly and Jake before the world collapses or I take the ultimate “Back to the Land” trip. Now that they’ve moved in, we get together regularly for dinner and a movie. We laugh at all the same jokes, just as we did in our youth. Our dear old friends have become poster people for the American environmental disconnect, but like siblings committed to family peace, we skirt the topics of our personal contributions to consumption, climate change, energy wars, and pollution.

For me, friendship trumps ideology. And if environmentalism is a religion — if the Creation is sacred — then I want to be a “hate the sin but love the sinner” kind of believer, not a “if thine eye offend thee pluck it out” kind. All I can do is ride herd on my own damage to the earth.

The Mayor of Niafunke

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Image hosting by Photobucket
Gwari women in the Sahel (photo by Abdul-Walid)
“What is wrong, my love? It is you I love.
Do not be angry, do not cry.
Do not be sad because of love.”
– Ali Farka Toure, “Diaraby”

I was in Ghent last week when I heard that Ali Farka Toure had died. I was calm and sad. I went into the living room and told my hosts that a great man had left life behind. Though they were fans of world music, they had not heard of him. But perhaps they saw in my eyes something of his spirit, because when I came down to breakfast the next morning, no one was in the room but Ali Farka Toure was singing. My hosts had gone out and bought Talking Timbuktu that very morning. It was a rainy day in Flanders, but in Northern Mali, and all across the Sahel as far as Abuja, a great dust storm was whipping around the funeral cortege of the late mayor as it moved towards Niafunke.

I first started listening to Ali twelve years ago, when Talking Timbuktu was released. Two years earlier, a friend of mine had driven me to a record shop and, in great excitement, had bought me a new disc. That CD was called Meeting by the River, and it featured Ry Cooder on a modified slide guitar and Vishwa Mohan Bhatt on a modified vina. As I listened to those musical dialogues, I was awed by the depth of the relationship between the two master musicians. So, looking for lightning to strike twice, I bought Ry Cooder’s next album when it came out.

It was an amazing audio document. There was no surprise at all when it went on to win a Grammy that year. And it caught the crest of something called “world music,” introducing many people to the musical riches of far-off places like Mali. For me, it was the sound of the spirit: Talking Timbuktu made me homesick for Africa, though the music it contained had nothing directly to do with the part of Africa I came from. In fact, a Nigerian friend used to tease me – “You’re listening to that Hausa music again!” What he meant was that the music evoked the agrarian, Sahelian world that both Northern Nigeria and Northern Mali had in common, the world of syncretic Islam and the cultures of the Mande, the Fulani, the Peul, the Hausa. It had, in other words, nothing at all to do with me, a Southerner, a Christian, a Yoruba.

And yet, playing “Soukora�? (track two) over and over again, I found in it something that had everything to do with me. I didn’t know what the words meant – still don’t – but I knew there was something in the music that was deeply relational. I was hooked. A sizable proportion of my income began to go toward music from all over the world. Much of that music was from Africa, especially Mali: Oumou Sangare, Habib Koite, Afel Bocoum, Kandia Kouyate, Salif Keita, Toumani Diabate and, of course, the great Djemilady Tounkara. It was the league of heroes. A private passion was born.

When, a few years later, the opening bars of “Diaraby�? (track ten) became a signature riff on the public radio show The World, I was pleased and irritated at the same time. This was my album being broadcast to millions daily, without due attribution or respect, used as the theme for a geography quiz – and not a particularly difficult one, either. How dare they cannibalize a masterpiece for such a humdrum purpose? I had all the intolerance of a fresh convert, but in truth I secretly grew to love this modest representation of my world in the wider world. Ali’s music was everywhere. Maybe even in the White House, it had climbed in through the windows and shot the President precisely where he most needed it.

I was living in London at the end of the last century and that was when Ali Farka Toure released Niafunke, named after his home village. I bought it right away, along with Afel Bocoum’s Alkibar, which had been recorded at the same time, in the same village, by the same crew. Both were gorgeously produced, released on the Nick Gold and Jerry Boys label World Circuit.

I loved Niafunke, but wondered – could anything really compare with Talking Timbuktu? Was there any sound on God’s earth that could measure up to the final bars of “Gomni,” when Ry Cooder and Ali Farka Toure restate the song’s theme in an almost unparalleled harmonic union of guitar lines that makes the hairs stand up every single time? Could the pained longing expressed in “Ai Du�? have an equal on any other album?

I had my answer soon enough, when Ali Farka Toure came to play at the Barbican. Ticket prices were steep, by my impoverished student standards: ₤20 per person, and it was double for me because I had invited a friend along. But what a night! Before the concert, Habib Koite had been playing in the lobby, which was apt preparation. The hall was packed. Ali Farka Toure, dark and authoritative, cracked jokes from the stage and put us at our ease before the concert started. And then, the wall of sound: Hamma Sankare was a monster on the calabash, that humblest of percussion instruments; Afel Bocoum, appearing with his mentor of thirty years, was in fine voice; and the master himself, from whose guitar glistening chords unfurled on song after beautiful song. Occasionally, he would take the stage alone with his njarka and do what can only be described as calling out to the spirits. And they came, filled the Barbican to the rafters. The Londoners were awed, shaken. This was “early music” in the best sense of the word, sounds that took us back to something we might once have known.

Soon after, I finally penetrated the mystery of Niafunke. It had become clear to me that the somewhat glossy perfection of Talking Timbuktu had been jettisoned here in favor of a rawer energy. The grooves were similar, but the guitar crackled with electricity. The ambience of the recording was noticeably warmer: it was recorded in an abandoned schoolroom in Mali, not a high-tech Los Angeles studio. In fact, if there’s any flaw with Talking Timbuktu, it’s this relative lack of ambience. But to speak of Talking Timbuktu and Niafunke in this way – not to mention The Source and In the Heart of the Moon – seems almost sinful. These albums all deserve six stars out of five. Soul runs through them all. I just don’t get those “world music” snobs who dismiss albums like Talking Timbuktu because a white guy plays on it, or because it’s not tinny and scratchy like the recordings from the seventies for Radio Mali. Who cares who plays on it? As Duke Ellington said, “If it sounds good, it is good.”

In those days, I played Niafunke everyday, along with my other favorite at the time, the album of kora duets by Ballake Sissoko and Toumani Diabate called New Ancient Strings. Once, I was sitting in the university library listening to Niafunke through my oversized headphones, when a young European woman I had been trying to attract came over and sat with me. What a wonderful opportunity, I thought.

I placed the headphones over her ears and cued up track four, “Saukare.�? Ali Farka Toure learned this song in 1946, at a wedding, and it has a deep, alien sound, nothing like one might hear growing up in, say, Trondheim. In retrospect, this was most certainly not the song to draw a first-time listener to the man’s music: it’s just Ali singing, accompanied by the njarka, a single drum, and a chorus of two other voices as unsweetened as his. In any case, I explained to this Norwegian with her bright blue eyes that the song was about an ardent groom, that he was promising to bring his bride the finest bull in the herd as proof of his love. I suppose I thought this was just the thing to make her fall madly in love with me, but it didn’t seem to have the intended effect. She listened to the song politely, completely mystified. After that, we would exchange awkward hellos whenever we encountered each other in the hallways of the school.

Since then I’ve learned to temper my enthusiasm, at least in public. In private, different rules apply: “Roucky” from the 1993 release The Source still makes me feel like I’m in the best church possible; “Sambou Ya Ya” from the new release In the Heart of the Moon still speaks deathlessness into my skeptical spirit; “Gomni” – the version on Talking Timbuktu – still makes me cry. They are the work of a man who, in his generosity, in his fierce superstitions, was utterly unlike me. And yet, if I am not in such music, I am nowhere at all.

The day Ali Farka Toure died, and a day before I found out about it, I happened to hear his music. It was a Belgian television show about AIDS in Kenya, following the story of a woman who, after living in the Netherlands for a long time, went back home to help educate her fellow Kenyans about the disease. “Why Ali Farka Toure?” I asked my wife, greatly annoyed. “It makes no sense, using West African music to illuminate an East African film! They’re always trying to pull this crap, thinking no one would notice.” My wife, a genius at handling my overreactions, said nothing.

I kept watching the film, which used fragments of different songs from Niafunke: here a bus journey in the dusk, there a scene from a mountain looking out over the slums outside Nairobi. Eventually, I had to admit that it was a perfect fit. The music went along with the images, because both were about what all good art is about: being there, being present to what is, serving mystery and the visible. I like to think that the sound of “ASCO” entered my ears that evening at the very moment that Ali Farka Toure’s spirit was leaving his body, a thousand miles away.

The great Sahelian dust storm has settled for now. Ali Farka Toure, monsieur le maire de Niafunke, is gone. But his way of being in the world will continue to speak life to many, and this surely is one way of not dying.

ALI FARKA TOURE: a recommended playlist
(all available on iTunes)

1. Roucky (The Source)
2. Gomni (Talking Timbuktu)
3. ASCO (Niafunke)
4. Saukare (Niafunke)
5. Sambou Ya Ya (In the Heart of the Moon)
6. Cinquante Six (The Source)
7. Soukora (Talking Timbuktu)
8. Diaraby (Talking Timbuktu)
9. Howadolo (In the Heart of the Moon)

Also, don’t miss the tribute by Lucy Duran and Andy Kershaw on BBC Radio 3.

Used by permission. All rights reserved by the author.
See also The grass snake.

—Abdul-Walid of Acerbia

In the still of the night

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

by Steven Bonta
Special to Via Negativa. All rights reserved by the author.

In the still of the night, I pay my respects at the Shrine of the Cobra.

Actually, I’m in a tiny sanctum at the fringe of Tattaneri Cemetery, on the edge of a bustling city in Tamilnadu, South India. Here cobras sometimes issue from the fringe of acacias to drink milk offerings left in saucers before the billhook-wielding image of Sonaisami, one of the many ferocious Shaivite demiurges worshipped in the villages and waste places of Tamilnadu. Sonaisami (“Lord of the Tomb”) sports a potbelly and florid mustache, as do the other protector deities, or bhuts, posted on each corner of the roof of the dilapidated shrine. On the back of the building is a terrifying painting of the goddess Kali garlanded with skulls, the corpse of Shiva prone at her feet.

Ordinarily, Lord Sonai’s shrine is neglected, competing as it must with thousands of more attractive temples housing more charismatic gods in a city that styles itself the heartland of Dravidian Hinduism. But tonight, on Shivaratri — the Night of Shiva, nearest thing in the Hindu world to Halloween — Sonai has taken center stage. His niche is lit by oil lamps, and an offering of coconuts, rice, and arrak liquor is spread on the dusty brick floor.

“Do you believe there are such things as cannibals, white man? Here in India, I mean?”

I fumble for a reply to such a typically Indian non-sequitur, setting aside my sweaty barbell as a rat scurries across the dirt floor of the gym.

“I’ve never thought about it, but I suppose not.”

“That’s my saying, too, but this man, he is from the south, from Tirunelveli, and he says his family worships a god whose priests are cannibals.”

The man indicated, a burly, taciturn laborer performing dumbbell curls, speaks no English, so I ask him in Tamil what he is talking about.

He assures me, in perfectly measured tones, that his kuladevan, or family deity, is propitiated by priests who actually eat the flesh of corpses, and that he has seen this rite performed. I ask the name of this god.

“Sudalai Madan,” he answers — “Fiend of the Burning-ground.”

“Is it possible for outsiders to see such rites?” I ask.


My friend Balu and I grow restless. It is well past midnight, and the only living thing we have seen in hours of waiting, besides the swarms of insects buzz-bombing a pair of feeble streetlights, was a lone bicyclist who shot past the silent cemetery grounds without a sideways glance. The dead, however, are very much in evidence. Human remains unearthed by stray dogs from shallow graves lie scattered among the weeds, and some thoughtful soul has placed several bones, including a nearly-intact skull, on the ground in front of Kali’s leering image.

Underneath each of the three large metal pavilions that mark the crematory portion of the cemetery, a corpse is burning. Beside one of these corpses, we find something else: a large circle, marked with tika powder and sprigs of various plants, inscribed in the ashes left from decades of cremations. In the middle of the circle is a small heap of human bones, gathered from the cemetery and broken into bite-sized pieces. A tangle of acacia branches has been dragged over the site, to prevent trespassers like myself from getting a closer look.

Finally, past 1 AM, I hear from the deserted street the sound of voices and the hypnotic wheeze of an udukku or squeeze-box drum.

The sightless eyes stare back at me from a ruined, bloodied face. By his appearance, the man was the victim of some reckless truck driver and, without kin, has been dumped unceremoniously at the entrance to the cemetery, only partially wrapped in a bloody sheet. He will presumably be cremated anonymously, by some of the rough-looking men who labor in the necropolis. On a whim, I approach several of them and ask, feeling somewhat foolish, if they have ever heard of such a thing as people coming into the cemetery at night and eating human remains.

“Oh, that’s tomorrow night,” one of them says, without a twitch of surprise.

“Is a velaikkaran [white man] allowed to see such a thing?”

“Sure. You come tomorrow, around midnight. You’ll see.”

An odd and unexpectedly noisy procession has arrived at Tattaneri Cemetery. Twenty or thirty men, including a uniformed policeman, surround a terrifying figure dressed in colorful black trunks, wearing a wig of long, black tresses, and carrying on his head a gorgeous, flower-draped, spindle-shaped object known as a kapparai. The figure is in a state of frenzied possession, which the Tamils call avesam; he howls and screams and spins wildly, while several of his acolytes help to support him. At the head of the group, a kodangu or soothsayer, who is playing the squeeze-box, along with another drummer, keep up the mesmerizing rhythm as the group pauses right in front of me.

“They worship the god Irulappan [Lord of Darkness],” one of the cemetery workers informs us, “who is the same as the one they call Sudalai Madan in the south.”

At this, Balu becomes uneasy. Later, he tells me that he has heard of this dark god and the fearful secret rites his followers practice. There may be some danger, he suggests. Good Hindus do not worship in the dead of the night. I offer to pay more than the usual fee to Balu, who is a trishaw driver, and his concern appears to abate.

The votaries of Irulappan are surprised and delighted to find a Tamil-speaking white man waiting for them in this secret, desolate place. No white man has ever seen their rites before, and they are eager to show an outsider how religion is really done.

The priest carrying the kapparai suddenly gives a bloodcurdling shriek and races towards the pavilion where the ritual circle has been prepared. The kapparai is jammed into the ash next to the burning corpse, and the priest, still jerking and babbling under the influence of the spirit that controls him, sits down cross-legged in front of the pile of bones. The rest of us crowd around, a ring of expectant dark faces and one pale face, imperfectly lit by a pair of guttering oil lamps. I am ushered to the priest’s side, so that my view will be unobstructed.

“I have heard of such things,” my Brahmin landlord tells me earlier that evening. “These people are not Hindus at all, and I don’t understand why they worship such dark gods. We always say that puja should not be held after midnight, but what they do is not really puja. I think you should be very careful.”

With another howl, the priest scoops up the bones with both hands and stuffs them in his mouth, molars crunching improbably through brittle, sun-bleached fragments of femurs, skulls, and ribs. In a moment, Irulappan has finished his meal, and is ready to grant a wish or two. Leaping to his feet, the wild-haired vessel for the god begins barking auguries to the circle of devotees, who merely look deferentially at the ashes and murmur “Aama, sami” (Yes, lord). One of the acolytes suddenly keels over into a possessive swoon and, as his comrades crowd around trying to revive him, Irulappan departs, and his bone-weary human vessel goes over to the water pump to revive himself.

After a few minutes’ break, in which I am allowed to photograph a cluster of grinning Irulappan sectaries standing around the colorful kapparai, the ritual resumes with the mukkavu, or triple sacrifice of a goat, rooster, and pig. A black kid is presented with a circle of banana leaves, on each of which is placed a pile of rice. As soon as the animal noses one of the rice piles, its throat is cut and the blood mixed with the chosen portion. The other two animals are similarly dispatched, and then the head priest, with two acolytes (including the one who swooned earlier) retires into the acacias to perform the most secretive part of the entire ritual: the rice/blood mixture is hurled into the air, and Irulappan takes it. From within the trees we hear a loud scream, and then the cadre returns. They will say only that the offering was accepted, as always.


Two nights later, I return to the cemetery for a sequel to this ritual (dare I call it osteophagy?), which can only take place during one week out of the year. This time, the same group appears with a different kapparai, a triangle enclosing five faces. A similar rite is performed.

Another group from a different temple shows up as well, larger and more boisterous. Their priests arrive first, eat bones, and then greet the large procession of followers as it surges down the street to the cemetery. Among them are mummers dressed as bhuts, with black mustaches and carrying billhooks and whips. Tonight, evidently, will feature the initiation of one of their acolytes.

A young man in manacles is thrown into the ashes next to a pile of bones, while the rest gather around to watch. The whip-wielding bhuts lash at the devotees, screaming at them to kneel, while the initiate manages to choke down bones and corpse-ashes in roughly equal portions. While all this is going on, in a surreal twist, one of the onlookers hands me his business card. He’s an engineer, he wants me to know.

“Irulappan is a crazy (paitiyam) god,” the head priest of the Irulappan cult tells me several days later. Gone are the trunks, the saidai (black wig), and the garlands of flowers that had been hung over every idol in the temple, including that of the goddess Ankalaparamesvari, the temple matron. In the niche of Irulappan, to the left of the entranceway, the generic black statue within no longer sports the silver pieces that limned its features during festival time, nor the leopard skin denoting his association with Shiva.

“Irulappan is the same as Sudalai Madan in the south, and Mayandi (‘Lord of Illusion’) in the east,” the priest tells me. “He is the crazy son of Shiva, and like his father, frequents cemeteries and burning grounds where he sometimes eats human remains.”

He points to the wall behind him, festooned with the portraits of head priests stretching back several centuries. “This temple is very old, at least four hundred years. When it was built, this was all countryside. Now it is all city, but we keep the old forms of worship alive. I worship like my father, and he as his father before him.”

Author’s note: Transgressive forms of Hinduism featuring some form of ritual cannibalism appear to be very ancient, and center on the so-called “Brahminicide myth,” in which Shiva, in a fit of pique, lops off one of the heads of Brahma. As penance, he is cast out from civilized society, and forced to travel through India as a beggar with the skull (Skt. kapala) of Brahma attached to the palm of his hand, frequenting cemeteries and consuming human remains. The rather mysterious order of the kapalikas, alluded to as heretics in classical Sanskrit literature, seems to have adopted the habits of the outcaste Shiva rather literally, and the kalamukhas (“black faces”) of medieval south India may have done the same. In more modern times, the cannibalistic Aghori sect of Varanasi has received some fairly sensational publicity, while rites similar to those I witnessed in Tamilnadu are described (though never witnessed firsthand) by Eveline Meyer, in her surprising book on the cult of the Tamil goddess Ankalaparamesvari (the matron goddess of the temple where Irulappan was enshrined). The Tamil word kapparai is derived from Sanskrit kapala, and suggests a connection between the secret religion of Irulappan and the brahminicide myth of the kapalikas.

Editor’s note: Other posts by Steven Bonta at Via Negativa include Lament for the fisherfolk of Sri Lanka and Favorite authors on ancient history. My brother Steve recently moved back to the area with his wife and child and currently teaches English at the Altoona College of Penn State. He wrote this essay this very morning, after a spur-of-the-moment request from me late yesterday, and thus didn’t have the time to dig up any of the photos he took of the ritual in time to include them here. I think it’s plenty frightening without them, though. Happy Halloween, y’all.

Report from the resident naturalist

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

When I read the following letter from my mother to her nine-year-old granddaughter Eva, it had “blog post” written all over it. As you’ll see, the last couple weeks have been an exciting time for wildlife sightings on the mountain. While I sit inside writing poetry, my mom (naturalist writer Marcia Bonta) is out wandering the mountain, having close encounters with black bears and logging our first-ever sighting of a fisher in Plummer’s Hollow. But sometimes the critters get even closer, as the first part of her letter relates. (Keep in mind that she wrote this quickly, in one draft – like a blog post, but very unlike her usual writing for publication.)

Dear Eva,

Autumn is here. The air is cool and crisp, the sky bright blue, and the temperature was 39 degrees Fahrenheit this morning – not quite the freeze we were promised, but close.

The other day, while writing an article about woodchucks that I had entitled “Mad Marmot,” after the sign on the lab of the professor studying woodchuck hibernation, I had come to the end and wondered how I could write a good conclusion. I had heard bumping noises downstairs and so had Grandpa, but we thought that it was Uncle Dave coming up early for his lunch.

Finally, shortly after noon, I went downstairs to put on the soup. A woodchuck ran across the kitchen floor in front of me. It was the same woodchuck that has been hanging around on the veranda, knocking over our walking sticks in the corner, all summer. I quick slammed the door between the kitchen and the living room and called to Grandpa, “There’s a woodchuck in the kitchen!”

He came running down and propped open the back door. Then we looked around in the kitchen for the woodchuck. Grandpa took a flashlight and looked behind the stove and refrigerator. No woodchuck. Then he looked under the refrigerator. Uh, oh. It was squeezed in the space behind the bottom front panel. (Did I mention that this is a smallish woodchuck?) Anyway, Grandpa pried off the panel and the woodchuck didn’t move. I gave Grandpa a broom and he and Uncle Dave, who had come up by then, tried to persuade Mr. or Mrs. or maybe Ms. Woodchuck to leave. Finally, it made a mad dash for the open back door with Grandpa yelling after it, hoping to discourage it from coming back.

But how had the woodchuck gotten inside? We thought that it must have dug a hole in the foundations down in the basement since it lives in the burrow system under the front porch. But we couldn’t find any hole down there. It remained a mystery until after dinner.

Grandpa went into the living room to sit down and read and he called to me, “Come in here and look at this.”

On the piano he pointed out several fresh scratches and some dirt. I saw a couple long, fresh scratches on the wooden floor. Then he showed me a gaping hole in the screen in the window behind the piano. That woodchuck had climbed up the table we have sitting next to the veranda door and busted its way into the house, landed on the piano, tumbled down on to the floor, probably ran around the living room – because the scratches were over near the spinning wheel – then into the dining room and on into the kitchen.

What had it wanted in our house? Did it want to hibernate? Was it truly a mad marmot, either angry or crazy or both? And why did it show up just when I needed a conclusion to my article?

The next day I went for a late morning walk. I was walking back along the Far Field Road when I noticed a wild grape vine wiggling down below. I stopped and looked. At that very moment, a large mother bear reared up about 30 feet below me and to the side of the shaking grapevine. She started sniffing in my direction and I wondered what to do. I knew that the grapevines were shaking because of cubs. Should I run? Should I stand still? Should I speak to her?

Luckily, she was a peaceful mother. She merely lowered herself back down on all four legs, walked quietly over to what turned out to be one good-sized cub, both looked up at me so I had a good view through my binoculars, then they turned away and walked silently down the slope away from me.

Then the other day I was sitting on Alan’s Bench and heard a “cluck-cluck” behind me. I didn’t move. A hen turkey walked quietly past in the weeds in front of me. Yet I kept hearing the “cluck-cluck” behind me. I sat still for another ten minutes and finally continued my walk. Two turkeys ran out on the trail ahead and another one joined them from the spruce grove. That one had been the clucker.

Between all those animals, and the fisher I saw in the hollow the other week – a very rare species for Pennsylvania – I feel like I’m living in the middle of “Wild Kingdom.”

Love, Nanna

© Marcia Bonta. Used by permission.

My account of our visit last March to the groundhog researcher my mother mentions in the second paragraph can be found here. For another guest blog post from Marcia Bonta – her list of favorite nature books – see here.