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.
Thirty years after the sudden death of someone I didn’t know terribly well, what remains? Not his name. Not quite his face, but something of his posture and physique. A strong impression of good-natured and thoughtful conviviality, based on possibly no more than half a dozen conversations, always on the periphery of punk shows. The shock and sadness of his death from a brain tumor. Someone who, on rare occasions when he pops into my head, still makes me smile, and shapes my memory of that whole period in my life. Good times. A good dude.
Wish I remembered his name.
flopping across the road
nowhere to be found
poor little rain-crow
didn’t mean to be a parasite
opening my umbrella
I spook a bear
in the depths of the hollow
widely spaced raindrops
water still gurgling
under the rocks
and the crashing of something big
in black velvet
upslope through woodferns
and storm-downed timber
a distant cuckoo singing who are you you you
I know a lullaby
when I hear one
One interesting residue of my long-ago year in the Kansai region is that humid rainy days in the summer still remind me a bit of Japan, not necessarily in a fully conscious way (which is why I call it a residue). Similarly, a snowy, cold winter day might have an extra charge of excitement and possibility to it from my early childhood years in Maine.
A fast-moving longhorn beetle. I’m beginning to understand why professional insect photographers like to pop their subjects in the freezer for a few minutes to slow them down. This beetle seemed very keen on getting back under cover as quickly as possible.
Just as I’m thinking of turning back to the house, a medium-sized animal clambers down out of an oak tree and stands for a few seconds looking back at me. It’s been years since I’ve seen a gray fox. First time I’ve ever seen one in a tree, which seems odd, considering their reputation as the most cat-like of canines—and how much damn time I spend looking up at trees.
The clouds redden with sunset. Can’t resist a shot, clichés be damned.
Ghost pipes emerging from the ground always remind me of hattifatteners. And as saprophytes, they are a bit transgressive. I have to say I’m almost surprised they don’t make their way down to the river under cover of darkness and set off for the open sea. As with so many truly original artists, Tove Jansson’s creations come to feel like something that ought to exist. She’s close to the common creative source of everything, one could almost say, skating up to the edge of some very thin ice.
One of the things I really like about growing old is learning to feel in my body how time unfolds. This might not be as clear to people who move around a lot, but for example I can see mounds of moss in the woods and remember when they were logs—and before that, when they were trees. I am old enough that if I were a tree, I’d probably already be good for a bit of saw timber.
I always tell myself the same thing when I set out: it’s not about the miles, you don’t have to go far. But I almost always do.
I would never have called myself an athlete when I was younger, and I don’t now. There’s a culture of competitiveness and self-improvement around athleticism that is deeply alien to me. But I remember in high school gym class whenever we played soccer, since we’re Americans and had no idea how to play positions, everyone just ran up and down the field with the ball until one by one they dropped out, panting, and it was just Bonta, this weirdo brainiac with no friends, running idly back and forth with the ball and wondering what the hell was wrong with everyone else.
Then as now, the only thing I did differently was walk a bit every day. By the time I was in high school and stopped taking the bus home (which only got us halfway there), I guess I was walking four miles a day with a fair amount of up and down in it—pretty much the same as now. I didn’t run by choice but seemed able to run more or less indefinitely when needed. Some of that is surely down to genetics. But it’s striking how small a daily time commitment is required to reach this condition. “Year-round training!” I hear the athletes chorus. In your world, sure. If I looked at it that way I’d stop doing it tomorrow.
I just like being outside, walking the land. There’s deep sense of satisfaction I get after a walk of sufficient strenuousness and aesthetic pleasure, and I’m not interested in trying to disentangle the two. You can’t really talk about walking without talking about places and how and why we love them. A good part of the “how” is by walking. Some cultures have local pilgrimage traditions—a bit like that, maybe.
One of the things I dislike about getting older is the way flies will just brazenly walk around on top of my bald head as if they own the place. Be patient, will you?! Someday all this will be yours.
Watching small jets land at a regional airport 40 miles away a half hour past sunset may seem like a pretty minor thrill, but something about that bright, blinking dot descending in total silence gets me every time.
I think I heard a bear flipping rocks, about a hundred yards downslope from my usual ridgetop reading spot. I never actually saw it, and my first thought was that it was people, but clearly it was the sound of rocks clattering against rocks. I went halfway down for a closer look and saw nothing — but heard two more clacks.
What else could it be? I have seen sections of trails where every other medium-sized rock has been flipped over from one day to the next, presumably either by one very doggedly hungry bear or by a mother with cubs. Black bears love ant larvae and other grubs, and why not? They’re these little soft meat nuggets, and they’re really easy to forage for.
As a straight white guy in my 50s, I just feel this strange compulsion to share random survivalist tips from time to time.
Earlier, leaving my house to go up to Mom’s house and start supper, I saw what I thought at first were two funny-looking gray squirrels, except they were brown and the ends of their tails were black, and they ran a little differently… long-tailed weasels! The birds were all sounding alarms. One of the weasels had something small and dark in its mouth.
I couldn’t tell whether they were fighting or just in high spirits, but clearly I had just interrupted something interesting… which had been going on less than ten feet from where I sat inside watching some news bulletin on YouTube. And thereby nearly missing this excellent piece of hyper-local news: we are up to our necks in cottontail rabbits these days.
Weasels aren’t particularly rare, but are highly nocturnal, so we rarely see them.
Fireflies against the dark woods. A thin, high, hissing kind of whistle: weasels again?
10:51 a.m. and I’m sitting on the other ridgetop enjoying the breeze. The shadows of vultures pass over me as I suckle a series of medium-sized brown moths with the sweat of my arms. A coven of moths circling something in the forest.
8:01 pm. A live band somewhere in Sinking Valley, I’m guessing as part of a music festival at the fairgrounds, has just finished a cover of “Surfing USA.” I’m looking at a healthy stand of scrub oak with dread: some time this month, a contractor for the power company is going to broadcast herbicide along the powerline right of way, right up to our property line, which goes down the middle of each ridge.
Wood thrush singing behind me, rockabilly in the distance, mosquito in my ear.
And now the crickets that sound like maracas as I sit on the bench at the top of the hollow looking out toward a darkening vista lit up here and there by little ejaculations of fireworks.
From closer by, but hidden by the spruce behind me, one of the Sinking Valley farmers is playing local big man with an impressive-sounding barrage. It all echoes off the side of the ridge to my left for an overall interesting if unpleasant sonic experience. It ends as all such displays do with the loudest and I’m guessing most spectacular blasts.
You’d think the existence of Viagra would make such displays less necessary somehow.
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.