Where I grew up, and still live for part of the year. It’s located near Tyrone, Pennsylvania in the valley and ridge province of the Appalachians. Plummer’s Hollow Run drains into the Little Juniata, part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
When my brothers and I were kids, on the 4th of July we got to run around with sparklers until the box was empty and then collapse on the lawn and watch fireflies. That’s genius-level parenting, I now recognize.
Sometimes Dad drove us all up to the top of the field so we could watch Penn State fireworks 25 miles away, following a late picnic supper. Sure, we needed binoculars to really appreciate them, but it was “so much better without all the people!” Mom would exclaim. And it was, I suppose.
I still like nothing better than sitting out in the meadow watching the firefly show, and on the Fourth, there’s a soundtrack. At the moment, that includes sirens. The family of barred owls starts making monkey sounds up on the ridge. The barrage continues.
A chipmunk on top of the rock wall hears nuthatches scolding a predator 100 feet away and freezes. Only the powerful can afford to be monolingual.
A mature tree can have half a million leaves or more. Little dramas are unfolding on, under or within every leaf. Now multiply that by the number of trees in the forest…
I like thinking about this more than I like actually scrabbling about with a sheet and a magnifying glass, if I’m honest. I’ll leave that to the real naturalists. I’m more what you might call a dilettante naturalist.
The groundhog who lives under my house came up to sit on the stone recently vacated by the chipmunk — quite an upgrade in marmot size. And, to be clear, not an upgrade I specifically requested, though I’m sure I qualify for endless frequent flyer miles here on the porch. It seemed to be just taking in the cool night air and listening to trains until I leaned forward and disturbed it.
The ravens are certainly vocal this evening. They’ve divided forces for some reason and are keeping in touch.
A squirrel has evaded three, widely spaced sorties from a winged predator—probably an accipiter, because I’d see it if it were anything larger. They’re right inside the woods at canopy height.
Why do squirrels keep scolding so long after whatever they had been scolding has fucked off? It feels as if they just need to work the fear and stress out.
I’m glad such a regular singer of a wood thrush is defending a territory right next to my house. About 15 years ago, that stopped being routine. Now it’s infrequent enough to make this seem a lucky year. But the reality is they’re running out of luck. As are we.
I used to share the general view of wood thrush song—that it was melancholy. Tonight it sounds full of exuberance. It helps I’m sure that he has a rival over by the powerline—his real audience. And it sure doesn’t sound like they’re having a sad-off.
I think this one has figured out that if he comes right to the edge of the yard and sings loudly toward the house, he can get a bit of an echo. Top that, you powerline-loving bastard!
The small hawk, or whatever it was, just broke cover, sending the squirrels into a brief panic before they retreat to their dreys for the night.
Maybe THAT’S why they kept on scolding—they knew it hadn’t really left! And me presuming I understand the situation better than they do is sheer anthropocentric arrogance.
It’s funny, I thought by sitting on my porch I’d be less of a nuisance to wildlife than if I were sitting up in the woods, but I’m not sure that’s true now. First a groundhog and now a Carolina wren also have given strong signals that I am interrupting their evening rituals. And the wrens are not subtle about expressing displeasure, loudly, from several feet away.
One squirrel is still scolding in a half-hearted fashion as the fireflies start up. The whippoorwill calls from its usual spot just inside the woods. Random small explosions of fireworks start up in the farm valley to our east. Soon the other valley joins in.
Now it sounds like war. But the whippoorwill has worked up a good head of steam and will not be dissuaded. The squirrel still makes an occasional, querulous whine.
The 9:30ish twin-prop cargo plane goes over. I remember how Dad calculated its flight path years ago and decided it went from Johnstown to State College or something. He was nerdy like that. Curious about the world around him.
I hear the siren call of sleep. But also fireworks, I hear fireworks. And a motorcycle roaring through the gap. It’s summer in America. Nights and penises are short.
Reading The Galloping Hour: French Poems by Alejandra Pizarnik, translated by Patricio Ferrari and Forrest Gander — stuff she wrote in Paris, in between the searing micropoems in Arbol de Diana that made her reputation. And it’s curious how much more verbose she was in French. Choosing to record her thoughts in a language not native to her strikes me as incredibly gutsy. That doesn’t always make the results as readable as her Spanish translations or condensations might have been (the project was incomplete when she died). But without all the blank space of her micropoetry, her genius still dazzles but in almost an oppressive way—there’s such a feeling of claustrophobia and desperation.
Speaking of claustrophobia and desperation, I spent an interesting hour at an urgent care center in Altoona today getting my earwax situation taken care of. I’m someone who rarely interacts with the medical system, so I’ve been struck by just how many times I have had to tell my story to one medical professional after another, always starting with my date of birth, each time getting a bit more expansive as the situation seems to demand.
The narrative is bigger than me now; I am merely its avatar. I am currently sitting alone in a small, pale-green room with an enormous framed photo of a flower on the wall opposite. It has a certain watchfulness about it. The air conditioning is a little too cold but it keeps me awake.
Another nurse; another recitation of the story. I am to be irrigated. The nurse agrees it’s much too cold. I get a hospital gown to wrap around my bare arms. A nap may be in order.
The irrigation worked. I can hear again! The nurse who flushed it out said it looked as if my home treatments had helped soften things up, so probably had I kept it up for another week, I would’ve saved myself a drive to Altoona, and I’m guessing a small mountain of paperwork in the mail. Thanks, Obama! The important thing is to protect the profits of the insurance racket.
But it gives me a personally satisfying conclusion to my narrative, which now no longer feels suspect. I should’ve grabbed a photo of one of the plugs of earwax, but it all happened too quickly.
And now a new narrative intrudes: just as the doctor enters, a phone call from Mom: a violent thunderstorm took out our electricity. I’m sorry to have missed it.
Just two close lightning strikes, but one of them hit the transformer. That’s life on a mountaintop for you. The repair guy was here in less than an hour, as opposed to the usual, more widespread outages in which we often wait half a day or more (because towns and villages get restored first). So Mom and I felt figuratively as well as literally empowered. And the repairman seemed to enjoy the drive up the hollow.
So that makes two easy, satisfying conclusions to dire-sounding situations. Meanwhile it’s crushingly hot and humid and I have not had my walk.
My medical history is on file as of today with two dates: my birth in 1966, and today’s visit. I have a BMI, blood pressure, respiratory rate, etc. — all the vital signs of a modern medical subject. I logged into my Secure Patient Portal to read today’s Clinical Summary and was delighted by this:
CHIEF COMPLAINT AND REASON FOR VISIT NARRATIVE
Patient Reports: Hearing loss [Onset: 7 Day(s); Location: Reports R > L, Bilateral; Free text: OTC treatment not helping; Quality: Reports Muffled sounds, Silence; Timing: Reports Constant; Context: Reports Hx of similar Sx’s in past, Hx of cerumen impaction].
A sunset walk. A few freshly downed trees to scramble through. Fewer midges and mosquitoes, despite the increasing humidity.
Listening to a wood thrush song battle at close range through recently irrigated ears is a great pleasure. Nuances of tone I’d been missing. The physical feeling of wind in my ear hairs at the same time, like a simultaneous translation.
The thrushes end as abruptly as they began and go their separate ways. Black cherries—small, stony fruits—are falling in the breeze, but it took me a little while to work that out. They sound like random footfalls in the darkening woods.
There are easily three times more fireflies tonight than there were last weekend. Descending through the meadow, I feel like I’m walking through someone else’s acid trip.
I’ve never understood poets who need to go to cities to feel energized or inspired. I have lived in Osaka, Taipei, and London, and they were each fascinating in their way, but Plummer’s Hollow is where I feel most often moved to write. Having frequent social interactions with lots of my fellow human beings was vital in my twenties and a bit into my thirties, but one never quite gets over habits of isolation bred during one’s formative years. And I used to take such long walks then, with zero preparation or planning.
wind in my ears as if
a wood thrush could whisper
i hear someone taking
improbably far-apart steps
in the sound of black cherry trees
putting their pieces into play
those who like certainty
have the solace of mathematics
those who love the wild
if my ears conspire
to keep me thick-headed
tonight their little begging bowls
have returned to primal condition
let me dream too
not of waiting rooms but fireflies
on all sides flashing
A cerulean warbler and an American redstart in adjacent trees sound like a couple arguing.
“Are you really sure?”
“Don’t be ridiculous!”
And from time to time a black-and-white warbler interjects from the witch hazel: “Cool it cool it cool it!”
As a poet I will never not be irritated by the fact that the birds who actually warble aren’t warblers. I’m on the ridgetop now listening to an American robin and a scarlet tanager having a warble-off. (May 10)
About a week later, climbing the same ridge, I hear a warbling vireo. Now there’s a bird who lives up to his name!
I looked at the trees and didn’t know what to do.
A box made out of leaves. What else was in the woods? A heart, closing.
The Richard Siken bot is one of a number of Twitter bots that make my life better. I’ll be pissed if they do away with all automated accounts, just because elites think ordinary people are stupid and should only ingest an anodyne information diet free of wrongthink.
We’ve removed the video you posted at 9:33 AM on September 28, 2019 because it included the following content:
Seagulls by Iridis
If you have permission to share everything in the video including the audio, like the soundtrack or music, you can appeal the removal and have your video re-posted. Remember that people should only post videos they have the right to share.
Edited by robot—an increasingly common experience for content creators. (Amazon warehouse employees can even be fired by a bot. I order books from eBay or Bookshop.org now.) This is a case where I used a recording of seagull that someone had released to the public domain, a musician appears to have incorporated the same audio into a musical track, which eventually caused my video to get flagged for copyright infringement. I appealed it, but there was nowhere to actually submit an explanation, so if any human does ever look at the situation, they’ll be clueless.
It’s a useful reminder to never put all of one’s eggs in one basket. A friend who relied solely on Facebook and never had a blog lost thousands of posts and photo galleries when they decided to terminate his account and ignored his appeal until the deadline for appeal had expired, then erroneously told him he’d missed the deadline and there was nothing further he could do.
Just as the Dept of Agriculture pays farmers to not grow crops on land they don’t want cultivated, the Disinformation Governance Board should pay content creators they don’t like to not create content.
Just to be clear, I would absolutely jump on that gravy train. Poets are quite used to getting recognition for writing that nobody actually reads. Getting paid for it yet would be awesome!
Just watched an Acadian flycatcher perform a little dance—hopping sideways down a branch while the female looked on from the branch above (and me from ten feet away).
And now a winter wren is singing over a wood thrush. Think jazz saxophone meets Gregorian chant. (May 16)
Pausing Monk to listen to a brown thrasher. The way the thrasher’s jazzy inventiveness slowly becomes subsumed in the larger soundscape (which he partially mimics) as he moves farther away. (May 16)
Hearing a sound from the valley I can’t identify and realizing how rare it is that I hear any sound I can’t immediately identify. That’s what it means to be a local, I guess.
Hearing new and exotic soundscapes was always one of the main attractions of travel for me. Wonder if I’ll ever get to do any more of it. (May 17)
When I got back from my walk, the Carolina wren who nests behind the fuse box was sitting next to a half-grown cottontail rabbit. WHAT ARE THEY PLOTTING? (May 17)
From the calypso superstar known as the Mighty Sparrow, here’s the most cheerful-sounding song about the ravages of neocolonialist capitalism I’ve ever heard:
I can’t deny the central importance of my phone’s weather app to my daily walking practice. Being able to squeeze in an hour’s fast walk between thunderstorms, yesterday evening on a day otherwise too buggy and humid for a pleasant walk, is something I wouldn’t have been able to pull off in the old days, before up-to-the-minute weather radar data in one’s pocket.
Needless to say, global weirding also makes the weather harder to predict just by watching the sky and knowing what’s expected in each season. “Red at night” could mean anything these days. If it was sweltering yesterday, it’s likely sweater weather today.
bandanna gone white
from his salt
It’s odd, looking back, that I never had much interest in general literary culture aside from poetry. I’ve tried to read journals like the Georgia Review or the Kenyon Review and found them interesting enough, but not so much that I wanted to let high-brow discourse and concerns take over my whole Weltanschauung. I think it’s intellectually limiting. Watching comedy on YouTube, listening to underground metal on Bandcamp, or reading nonfiction strike me as a better use of my non-poetry-related free time.
I should add that I’m not one of those jerks who submits to journals I rarely read. But I do have to wonder how many of these publications would even exist without tenure and review requirements that academic writers publish regularly in prestigious places. As the tenure system goes away, how many of these journals will survive? Those few that do will probably be quite a bit less arid and more edgy, designed solely for an audience of urbane intellectuals.
Simply having Poetry Daily, which reprints poems from journals and other publications, as my laptop’s homepage for the last 18 years, plus following a bunch of poetry bloggers, is enough to a) keep me apprised of interesting new collections and translations I might want to pick up, and b) prevent me from feeling completely out of the loop. Social media helps fill in the gaps with more ephemeral poetry-world news.
Reading poets’ personal blogs, to the extent they still exist, offers in some ways an opposite experience to reading a journal: largely un-copy-edited, raw, unfiltered, full of quirk and charm and way more ideological diversity than you’d find in any one organ with a unifying editorial vision. I follow poets from nearly every conceivable background and persuasion, socialists, centrists, libertarians, scientists, school teachers, beat poets, experimental poets, etc. If they write or simply appreciate good poetry, I’ll add them to my feed reader.
It’s a shame that feed readers never really caught on. It’s like the bizarre reluctance of online literary magazines to serialize content using blogs, a technology designed specifically for serializing content. But all too often, as the founders of Substack realized, it’s not enough to have tech solutions out there if they require too much sustained attention to technical details that most people, even editors unfortunately, don’t want to wrestle with.
The resistance of our literary elite to anything requiring technical know-how does get tiresome, though. I suppose that’s why I find the poetry film crowd so congenial—they’re not afraid to wade in and play around with some of the amazing tools and toys currently at our disposal. (For how much longer, who knows.)
One of the unexpected adjustments I’ve made as I’ve gotten older is I’m OK with not knowing the answer to, or even having an opinion on, every goddamn thing. It’s very liberating. I recommend it.
a rictus of agony
in old leather
Songbirds harrying a cuckoo. I didn’t realize they did that, but it makes sense. They may not notice the difference in their eggs, but they would sure as hell notice someone trying to sneak into their nest.
The topic of personal identity tires me after a while, with the rather literal spin that most people put on it in a desperate effort to assert some thereness for this nebulous mental placeholder, the self. I want to know more about shadow identities, for example: one-time or persistent mistaken identities ascribed to one by others. Let’s also consider any and all fantasy identities one might assume, whether in imagination alone or in role-playing games. Persistent dream identities, if any. Characters in favorite novels, comic books, movies etc. with whom one deeply identifies. And of course the way they all intersect. Let us not through dissection diminish what is in a sense larger than life.
Deep in the woods, a small sun-starved blueberry bush is having its best year ever: it produced a flower for the first time—a perfect yellow bell!—and a forest bumblebee with pollen on her feet found its nectar. Now the green berry swells.
What bird will find it when it assumes the color of the sky? How far might its seeds travel? That’s how suddenly the future can change on you.
but it’s wedding season
and courtship can be perilous:
an evolutionary arms race
between related species
each with a signature pattern
of light and darkness
the females get hungry
waiting in the long grass
so switch to mimic
other species’ flash patterns
indulge in a romantic
dinner for one
as inside the dark house
I toss and turn
ah for a midsummer
When I got to the spruce grove last night a half-hour after sunset, there was still rainwater pooled on top of the small slab of Juniata sandstone that we just moved to his gravesite from down the ridge. I sat on the bench our neighbours donated so that I could see a small patch of sky reflected in Dad’s rock and sat until it got so dark, that was nearly all I could see: a bit of sky where we planted his ashes. Peaceful. Reflective. Steadfast.
Dad always enjoyed the company of children, so I’m hoping this will seem like an inviting thing to play or sit on. It’s a rock I’ve known for years. It will hold just a half-inch of water for a day or two, so shouldn’t breed mosquitoes or the wrong sort of algae for a bird bath.
Alaskan poet Erin Coughlin Hollowell posted a Joanna Klink poem to Instagram and I immediately went and dug out my copy of Excerpts from a Secret Prophecy, whence it came. The bookmark was only a third of the way in, but in my defense it had been my second Klink book in a row, and she is not a poet to read quickly.
But my impression from April is soon reaffirmed: she is a poet of unquestionable genius, one of our best. Terrance Hayes uses the term “Rilkean elegies” in his blurb and that’s not hyperbole. In fact Rilke does rather well by the comparison, I think. Here for example is a section of the poem “Novenary”, where my bookmark was parked:
between the doe’s teeth
thorns and all
the robin revisits
his dawn repertoire
so many memories
smell like the earth
If I am only hull to what happens,
let me at least feel more deeply that flitting,
the dead light of stars over my hands,
into my throat. Oar of my body.
Things that were sensed but not known.
That’s how “Novenary” ends. And I am reminded that typing out another’s poem prompts a deep reading when you type as painstakingly as I do, with one clumsy finger, on my phone, as if with “the dead light of stars” indeed.
They’re still forecasting a high of 90 this afternoon—32C—but at the moment it’s 56F/13C and I am fighting the urge to put long johns on. “Rain stopping in 19 minutes.” That’s global weirding for you.
This morning’s earworm is from Blackwater Park, a masterpiece of an album by the progressive metal band Opeth, which I had on in the car last Tuesday. So much great music about serial killers! Bartok’s Lord Bluebeard’s Castle comes to mind.
A cheerful thing to hum while fixing breakfast.
One of the great climbing trees of my childhood finally gave up the ghost this spring. Red maples don’t live long but they also don’t die easily.
Enjoy the climb, Virginia creeper! You can’t help that your name makes you sound like a sex offender and an outsider. Hell, I was born in Virginia myself.
Stopping to write down a thought, I see that I left another thought unfinished and expand on that instead, forgetting what I had intended to write. As so often in life one redirects energy from one thing to another. Would I have been a more productive poet if I’d had a career, related or otherwise? Undoubtedly. But I always prioritized happiness in the moment.
the coins I keep forgetting
in my pocket
blowing my nose
a maple leaf’s dry
Half-way down the hollow, the sun comes out. And so, I’m afraid, do the midges. Black flies, I suppose we should call him, a call-back to the North Woods of my early childhood. But the white supremacy embedded in that common name makes me more than a little uncomfortable. As does this cloud of midges. Global weirding—what can you do? My nose begins to itch, a psychosomatic reaction as old as my earliest memories of being engulfed by small biting insects.
A small hole in the middle of the gravel driveway which I always thought was the entrance to a chipmunk bureau has filled with water. What an unexpected thing! (The dictation app heard burrow as bureau, and it’s just too perfect to change.)
I decide to head straight up the mountainside to escape the midges. I forget just how many spring wildflowers hide out on the steep slopes where no one ever goes. They’re past blooming now, of course, but it’s good to know they’re here. And I say no one, but in fact I did meet another climber on the way:
between twin oaks
rain-soaked ghost pipes
This crook-handled umbrella is the best: a cane when I need it climbing a hillside, or a stick to shake rain off vegetation before I walk through it. I was pleased to see, walking with my mother recently, that she uses her folded umbrella to deftly toss fallen sticks off the road just as I do.
sweating through the longest
day of the year
I’m seeing lots of evidence that this year’s much smaller cohort of spongy moth caterpillars has almost entirely succumbed to its main natural control, a fungus. Fingers crossed that oaks won’t be as stressed again as they were in 2020 for a long time—I’m convinced that’s what allowed the caterpillars to build up in sufficient numbers to cause last year’s widespread defoliation, because trees busy fighting drought, after a late hard frost had required them to re-leaf, would’ve had very little energy left over to produce their usual insecticides. Two years later, there are as many dead trees from that frost as there are from last year’s outbreak, though they’re not concentrated on the ridgetops like the latter, but here and there throughout the woods. In either case, just the sort of small openings that are great for overall biodiversity, as long as they don’t presage a new disturbance regime that will turn forest to savanna, as seems to be happening on Plummer’s Hollow’s southeast-facing slopes without oak-hickory cover, where things are kept at a weedy stage of succession—a kind of arrested development—by increasingly harsh ice storms in the winter and thunderstorms in the summer.
If/when sudden oak death aka Phytophthora ramorum arrives here, I may need to be put on suicide watch.
However, it has not escaped my attention that Disturbance Regime would be a great title for something. Or as we GenXers invariably like to joke: if you were ever in need of a rockin’ name for a garage band…
At 12:42 the midges find me on top of the ridge. It’s getting hot. The lucky coins are still in my pocket. My feet are damp but the rest of me feels pretty damn good.
The world is always ending somewhere. Today, so far, it’s not ending here and for that I am grateful. North America as a whole might get through the current economic state-change relatively ok, given our economic, natural and demographic advantages. But I fear for friends in other parts of the world. And for wildness and biodiversity dwindling everywhere.
A shadow of a red-tailed hawk passed over me as I was writing that.
(I love augury right up to the point where it stops being about the birds and starts being about us. How dull.)
When I got home, I found a stowaway on my sleeve:
An immature northern true katydid, if I’m not mistaken.
For the second day in a row I actually manage a mid-afternoon nap, which is great this time of year when the nights are so short but also so enchanting—and keep in mind that Shakespeare etc. never saw fireflies, which are such a feature of June nights here.
After supper, sitting on the porch to begin editing this post, a fringe of grasses at the edge of my weedy front yard, illuminated by the low sun, caught my eye:
When I knelt to shoot the video, I looked around to make sure there wasn’t any poison ivy. Instead, I was delighted to discover a baby tulip tree! I had been looking all over for seedlings to transplant a couple weeks ago, because they’re such excellent yard trees—grow straight and tall, are lovely in bloom, and can live for hundreds of years—but couldn’t find a one. So when I’m not looking, one appears. And in a very good spot, too.
I lost no time making a deer cage for it. Blog posts can wait!
Surely part of the pleasure of reading haiku is to make the current moment more special. Literary critics probably even have a term for it: the way an especially vivid evocation of a particular time and place can lend radiance to another, so for example I can read
the silent rooms
Ann K. Schwader, Modern Haiku 53.2, Summer 2022
and for a moment I see everything in its light, this lush green meadow and forest edge on a crystal-clear morning in June. By taking me briefly out of it the poem shows me more of what makes it unique and unrepeatable. I read, smile, look up and smile again.
Walking instead of talking. Going out instead of holding forth. It’s been a year since our nearly decade-long conversation trailed off into silence and the great ridgetop oak we got married under toppled over on a still evening in late June. That spot will be choked with early successional plants and then pole timber for a generation. It will be interesting to see how it shakes out, and what tree or trees end up dominating the local conversation with the sun—probably a black cherry or red maple, but with deer numbers way down from chronic wasting disease, a hickory or even another oak seems possible. Though what kind of world, etc.
To be fair, I may have found a way to keep talking despite all my walking: you’re looking at it. But in any case the idea was to spend the time I used to spend online outside instead; walking is just one option that I happen to enjoy. Sitting in the woods and reading or writing is another. Yesterday, since a breezy cold front had driven away the gnats and mosquitoes, I was even able to compile most of the weekly blog digest in the woods.
It occurred to me the other night that this is really just a return to the patterns of my childhood. Yes, I was a bookworm, but I can’t remember spending very much time in my room, or even indoors unless it was raining. I’m not sure I’ll go back to climbing trees, though. As nice as it’s been to recover the spring in my step, I can also feel autumn in my joints.
The harmony-with-nature folks seem nice enough, but I always feel awkward around them because, I don’t know, it feels terribly presumptuous somehow. Like, that tree didn’t ask to be hugged. You’re not part of the local food chain, and you’re a member of the single most destructive invasive species in ecological history, so your position relative to the rest of nature is in fact the opposite of harmonious. Should we not begin by acknowledging this extraordinary privilege?
I mean, unless you’re hearing-impaired, how can you walk through the woods and not hear how much you are feared? So many of those adorable-sounding chirps mean “Look out! Another fucking human!” Sure, if you stay still for a while, enough critters will forget you’re there or not notice you that you can pretend you’re having a harmonious moment, but you have to literally hide in some sort of blind, or set up remote cameras, if you really want to see what the nonhumans are up to.
Except of course for invertebrates, so many of which rush heedlessly through their days, allowing even the most impatient children to get absorbed in watching them. J. Henri Fabre’s Life of Insects series is a masterpiece of world literature, because invertebrates are kind of in that uncanny valley between critter (being with face) and robot. They’re absolutely alien and absolutely everywhere, and most people seem completely blasé about that. Freaky, man. Freaky.
The Japanese have this one right. That’s one of the things that has always drawn me to Japanese poetry, in fact: the healthy appreciation for, and close attention to, insects. It shows they’re serious about nature; they see other creatures as connected with us on a deeper cultural level than any of my own ancestors have experienced in the last thousand years.
Of course, none of this supposed nature reverence matters a whit in today’s hyper-capitalist economy, where other Japanese cultural traits, such as the avoidance of conflict in pursuit of a distinctly hierarchical harmony at all costs, make the excesses of capitalism especially difficult to oppose. Their wild areas are in even worse shape than ours.
I don’t know why Western Buddhists went with “enlightenment” at all, really—“awakening” is a much more powerful root metaphor, and I gather more accurate. It’s also more immediately relatable than most high-minded religious goals, I think. Oneness with the Godhead? Sounds dodgy, like an adolescent concept of bliss. Awakening, though? We’ve all had those rare days when we felt unusually alert and alive. It’s not a great feat of imagination to extrapolate from that.
Ecstasy, getting outside oneself: that’s what Eliade said Shamanism was all about. Complete projection: that’s what Eliade was all about. Escapism is a fantasy with, I’m sure, widespread adoption across cultures. But Buddhism, along with many other, traditional belief systems, prized the opposite of escape: attention.
Which I seem to have precious little of today. Too much getting in touch with my feelings to actually feel.
This post is less than half as long as it would’ve been had I not cut out much of the blather. Even still, I don’t think you could say it is entirely lacking in blather. But who wants to go through life on a blather-free diet? Not me. (I’m even back to drinking whole milk. Delicious!)
over the dried-up pond
the first bat
Coming down from the spruce grove through a narrow part of the meadow I hear a weird shrieking noise, which turns out to be juvenile barred owls, according to Merlin. There are three of them calling all around me, but it’s too dark to really make them out. Five minutes later, from farther down in the meadow I hear the parents talking back to them in chimpanzee voices. Nice to witness that bit of family interaction. They are always such great owls to have around.
I’m told there might be people who don’t have strong feelings about their various local species of owls, but I’m not sure I believe it.
The other world is shrinking as our own loses species and resilience. Instead of faeries it’s just some nihilistic crypto bros sharing torture porn on the dark web. If technology and society continue to develop along their current trajectories, I expect scientists will figure out a way to read thoughts within a generation, in which case privacy becomes obsolete, and AI will presumably be running most things by then, so at that point I expect any concept of a hidden place, or indeed a sacred place of any kind, becomes literally unthinkable.
Plus, so many people are using hallucinogens now, it shouldn’t be long until all the psychedelic visions are used up, and people will have to watch old Looney Tunes animations instead.
Writing without writing
I’ve been accused of having my head in the clouds. Well, today it’s true—my head is in a cloud of mosquitoes. So much so that I am forced to use the microphone to record this, rather than standing still long enough to type it out and turning into a pincushion for bloodsuckers. So far, the dictation software on the iPhone Notes app seems to be working pretty well, although I’m surprised it’s not attempting to transcribe the incessant whining of the mosquitoes.
But it’s certainly an interesting challenge to try to appreciate the beauty of the forest on a rather nice June afternoon from inside a cloud—not the cloud of unknowing mystics talk about, but perhaps a similar sort of impediment. Perceiving beauty amidst misery is kind of what I try to do in my poetry, after all. A winter wren is warbling in his usual spot in the depths of the hollow right above the stream, and just hearing that is nearly worth all the trouble. And it helps that there’s an escape route: straight up the side of either ridge. The mosquitoes peter out about two-thirds of the way up. Then it’s just hot and humid.
I wrote a whole lot about haiku and poetry this morning and it felt good to get it out of my system, but for now I just want to share a few more photos from today.
In bright moonlight, you can see clearly that a building is a blank to be filled in rather than a real presence, in the same way that fireflies actually make the shadows darker. You realize the moon is a clock that runs a little fast, the role model for every fruiting body. But the building resists its pull. The building has feathers of paint; it is a wingless bird. Its closest neighbor is a red cedar tree. They nestle, the two of them. Sometimes the tree dances slowly in the night, as if with a real partner. Tapping on the roof as if to massage away the emptiness.
I like the way Cynthia Cruz embraces poetic imperfection and incompleteness in her latest collection, Hotel Oblivion, with a number of poems titled “Fragment,“ few actually shorter than a page long. One ends:
Empty vessel, I take all of it in,
so I can give you this thing.
Beautiful, sometimes, but almost
always broken, and imperfect,
this poem, this song, this fragment.
That’s essentially how I feel about everything I write. I also like the “Hotel Letter” poems scattered throughout the book, with all the disorientation and attempts to cobble together a coherent self in the midst of a peripatetic existence, which feels sometimes devotional and sometimes reactive and brittle. Phrases reoccur in varying forms from one poem to another. The effect is one of thinking out loud, but at a higher level than most writers ever manage.
I am inside the parked sedan
outside the high-rise, waiting.
Nomadic, my entire life, I have been
packing my things and leaving.
In the hotel room
in the short black and white film,
I am the one,
the girl, the blur,
the pretty blonde
smear in the background.
Seeing one’s life as a black-and-white film feels like a throwback to the Cold War era. There’s just enough such subtle mythologizing in Hotel Oblivion to lend the poems a cinéma vérité or theatre of the absurd vibe, with Jean Genet regularly invoked as a sort of muse. It all makes for a very thought-provoking conjunction with her white working-class, midwest American background. Rootlessness is, after all, a central feature of our current social and environmental malaise, so I always appreciate being prompted to think about it more deeply.
By the time you read this
I will have walked off the stage
having long since lost
the words to this music.
The song is tremendous
because it has no words.
And disastrous, filled with a sweet
kind of violence. Alone in a room.
Marvelous, and it sounds just like this.
Cynthia Cruz, “Hotel Letter” (Hotel Oblivion, p. 36)
On Twitter, I am entranced by a viral video of a fledgling bird following a mealworm around with its mouth open, which as user @Rainmaker1973 comments, shows that
Crested mynas, as many other birds, are born altricially, which means young are undeveloped at time of birth, therefore fed by parents. When they grow up, they have to learn that food doesn’t simply jump into their beaks
It’s always interesting to see what nature-related content proves popular online. So often it’s photos and clips like this, which show other animals doing very human things. And while there’s always a risk that this will simply lead people to infantilize critters instead of trying to understand them on their own terms, on the whole I think it’s great because it takes us from a very alienated view of nature as fundamentally different from humanity to a more holistic recognition that pretty much all lifeforms have unique personalities, including, for many vertebrates, the same sorts of mental and emotional pitfalls that challenge humans.
So many traditional cultures around the world believe this; ours has been almost an outlier in rejecting that view until recently. The willingness of scientists to begin taking animal cognition seriously about two decades ago represented, i think, a sea change in Western thinking about nature. Even now, many scientists remain wary of anthropomorphism, as I suppose they should, but at least they no longer laugh out of the room any attempt to study non-human personality and emotion.
So it is that we can begin to understand what Buddhists grasped two and a half millennia ago: that higher wisdom is not simply a human thing, and that we can all learn from and help out our fellow beings, with whom we are bound together in a net of consumption and causality. (I don’t buy the rebirth bit.) Which of course is rooted firmly in what anthropologists used to call animism: a perhaps once nearly universal recognition that other beings too have personhood.
Planting a pair of witch hazel seedlings in the drier, rockier part of Mom’s lawn, close to the house. I’d been thinking we needed more shrubs in there, for wildlife mostly but also aesthetics, and was actually planning to transplant a couple from the woods when a friend offered me these: pure serendipity.
As wet as it’s been, this is a perfect year for such things. The hitch is that everything I plant must be protected from the deer, at least for a few years, and the price of fencing has quadrupled—when you can get it at all. Over the years, though, I’ve built up a number of rings of deer fencing that I keep moving about as trees and shrubs outgrow them. Most of them actually serve to protect volunteer seedlings—spicebush, silky dogwood, hawthorn, etc.—because why risk being wrong about where plants want to grow when you can just let them show you were they want to be?
Or so I naively thought until three years ago, when a volunteer tulip tree that I’d protected from the deer long enough for it to well outgrow their reach died anyway, for no good reason I could see other than the site it had chosen—or more accurately, that the wind had chosen for it—was too waterlogged.
And of course nature is not kind to young trees. Molds, bacteria, and other soil organisms will kill almost all seedlings, which is why the “nurse log” phenomenon exists for hardy pioneer species, such as birches, that can get started quickly without lots of nutrients. Stumps and logs act as nurseries not because they’re more fertile but because they are more impoverished. Starting out too well-off can ruin a tree for life.
You might not hear this from artists or composers, but summer can be a time for grieving, too. Especially if advertisers keep reminding you about Father’s Day. The sudden too-muchnesses of nature can feel simultaneously comforting and appalling in the shadow of a recent loss.
But why am I spelling out something I already expressed at the beginning of this post in a prose poem? Because I suppose there’s as much value in exploring the particular as there is in gesturing toward the universal. The fact that I like to separate these two things makes me a bit of an outlier as a contemporary American poet, I suppose, but not by much.
Ultimately, I think, for me personally, both blows of the past year—the dissolution of my marriage and my father’s death—were as clarifying as they were devastating. Like so many people these days, I have a new-found appreciation for the brevity and fragility of the good times. Learning how to grieve and also how to get on with it are such essential life skills. Though even to suggest that there might be an up-side to death seems monstrous.
When flowers fade, it’s sad, but there’s a fruit or seed on the way. If you choose your analogies carefully, you can make nature seem a source of solace. But death and entropy are integral to nature’s design. Only a fascist finds anything to celebrate in that. Grief is intertwined with the basic structure of reality, I think.
If this is a religious perspective, which I suppose it is, I am clearly a person of faith. I believe in an ultimate rightness to the cosmos which is completely unjustified by any evidence, simply an intuition that our severely limited understanding can never by itself create a justification for continuing to struggle, to live, to love. You just have to decide to believe in something greater than yourself and what your mind can encompass. And whatever secular language we might use for that, it still comes down to a leap of faith, doesn’t it?
When I get to Dad’s grave this afternoon, I notice a new red oak seedling less than two feet away from it. That seems highly unusual for a spruce grove.
Now, as I was saying earlier, most tree seedlings don’t survive. And this is not a great spot for an oak—it’s much too shady under the spruces, as Mom pointed out when I showed her the photo. But if it actually does make it past seedling stage, we could certainly transplant it to down around the houses, where we’d like more oaks.
So Mom agreed to let me put a little cage around it, just to give it a fighting chance. Hopefully we won’t get too sentimental about it.
Two ravens fly low over the grove just as I’m finishing up, one after the other, making high-pitched calls. I may already be too sentimental about this. A red squirrel comes out of hiding to scold me.
On the walk back along the ridgetop toward sunset, I’m stopped short by a couple colonies of moss illuminated by a stray sunbeam in the dark woods, sporangia glowing like the bright hopes they are.