Spell: against the moving of mountains

(For what it’s worth, this is Via Negativa’s 500th post.)

The spell says everything connects. Though sometimes I long for a little more randomness in events, you know? Without mere chance, without the notion that the mind can somehow lift itself above the web of causality and inference, where might true autonomy be found?

Dale’s had some interesting things to say lately about the illusory nature of individual autonomy. I alighted on his site mole last night before bed and read a really evocative essay on rain, the nearly endless rain of winter in the Pacific Northwest. This put me in mind of Jorge Teillier with his rain- and nostalgia-drenched poems from his childhood in the south of Chile, and I thought I might start the morning with him.

And so I do. It’s raining here, of course – the remnants of Hurricane Ivan – and I’m sitting on the front porch with my morning coffee and a copy of the bilingual In Order to Talk with the Dead: Selected Poems of Jorge Teillier, translated by Carolyn Wright (University of Texas Press, 1993). I open the book at random, and the first lines I come to are these:

Ruega por mí­, reloj,
en estas horas monótonas como ronroneos de gatos.

Pray for me, clock,
in these hours monotonous as the purring of cats.

And this brings to mind a dream-image from a few hours before: a crate full of purring kittens, each packed carefully away like fine china among rags and crumpled newspapers. I remember setting the crate down on the hardwood floor here in my writing room and lying down next to it, pressing my ear to the floorboards to listen to the loud hum from all that purring.

In reality, of course, it’s my old computer that sits on the floor and hums like a dozen cats. Cats upon cats! It seems as if this computer, the worldwide web and the endless chain of felines at the Infinite Cat Project have begun to blend together in my subconscious.

There was another animal in my dreams, too: a little black bull that ran slow figure eights, trying to escape a matador. But somehow the scene shifted from Spain to Great Britain, prompted perhaps by news of Parliament’s debate over outlawing foxhunts. The bull became not quite a fox but something like a wild boar, I think, and the matador turned into a picador with a sword, then a hunter with a rifle, who walked casually behind the wounded, staggering animal with the barrel almost touching its hide. Why didn’t he shoot?

In Order to Talk with the Dead doesn’t seem to fit my mood this morning – I guess I’m looking for gravity more than nostalgia – so I go back inside and pull a volume of Charles Wright off the shelf: Appalachia (FSG, 1998). Again, I open at random and read:

Only the dead can be born again, and then not much.
I wish I were a mole in the ground,
eyes that see in the dark.

Star-nosed mole, I think. Blind, but carrying a beacon, a prehensile headlamp.

It’s always a dilemma, you see. Should I write poetry or prose this morning?

Wright, in “The Writing Life”:

Give me the names for things, just give me their real names,
Not what we call them, but what
They call themselves when no one’s listening –
At midnight, the moon-plated hemlocks like unstruck bells,
God wandering aimlessly elsewhere.

Elsewhere: there’s a ball I could run with! But I forgot to say that mole in the ground made me think momentarily of the waterlogged soil hereabouts – and then back to cats, again. Because ordinarily that’s the only way I ever get to see a mole: if a cat kills one and then leaves it in the grass when it discovers how bad it tastes. And right on cue – I swear! – a feral cat trots down the driveway. The black one with white stockings, out in the rain no doubt because she’s hungry and has no choice, and/or because she knows the rain will give her cover. Sure enough, she makes it down around the bend and out of sight without a single heckling squirrel or wren marking her passage. It’s been so long since my unilateral cease-fire went into effect that I don’t even remember to squint as I once would have done, drawing an imaginary bead on the back of her neck.

It’s so dark, I think, it might as well be 7:30 at night instead of 7:30 in the morning. Flash floods are forecast for later on today as Ivan moves through, and I worry about our access road. Two days after Frances, a section of the road bank slid into the stream down in the steepest part of the hollow, leaving a new, precipitous drop-off right at the edge of the track. We half expect to walk down to the slide area tomorrow and find the road half gone. If that happens, we’ll be cut off from the outside world for a month or more, until a contractor can get the necessary permits to bring his equipment up and rebuild the bank with limestone riprap.


Black cat in the rain, hunter,
avatar of luck I cannot begin
to classify, may the first star you see
herald a clearing sky. May it lead you
to slow prey & a quick kill: mouse
or vole or chipmunk, no star-
nosed mole. May hunger make you
attentive, disinclined to play with
your food. One slip
& the owl’s talons, those four-
pointed throwing stars, can find
their mark. May you keep
your distance from anything
with feathers, large
or small. I’ve never given
you a name, O wary one – I couldn’t
begin to hazard it. The bullets rest
in the cartridge case now
like little gold eyes, any one of which
could bore a blind tunnel through
the back of a neck. Let lead
lodge elsewhere, its paths
uncrossed. May all miners
stay dry in their tunnels, pray
that the mountains stand firm,
don’t backslide, & the creeks
don’t rise.

UPDATE (Saturday morning): The creek rose. Ivan has caused the worst flooding here since Agnes in 1972. The Plummer’s Hollow Road is still there – barely. Several portions are channelized too deeply for auto traffic, however. In addition, the river is over the highway at the bottom of the mountain. It looks as if I’ll be backpacking in groceries for a little while. Oddly, we never lost power.

Buteo jamaicensis

As I sat back in my chair reading the blogs late yesterday afternoon, it occurred to me suddenly that for my houseplants, summer is the darkest time of year. The Norfolk Island pine sitting across the table from me – the Jack McManis tree – has filled out tremendously in the past few months as its branches reach ever farther in search of light. Since the trees and bushes closest to the house are mostly deciduous – mulberry, lilac, spicebush, black walnut – they intercept much of the sunlight for the six months between mid-May and mid-October. In winter, not only is this impediment removed, but – another counter-intuitive thought – the lower angle of the sun makes for more direct sunlight, even if there is less of it each day. Combine that with the reflective qualities of snow, and this room in particular can become easily twice as bright during the darkest months.

It’s almost like a Daoist parable, isn’t it? Inside or out, the plants are the same in nature, they want the same things. Just as a dog at the genetic level may be all but indistinguishable from a wolf – but when the two meet, the former tends to end up in the latter’s stomach. In each case, the originally arbitrary division of Nature into an inside and an outside creates opposing interests. Might this be equally true of the body and the soul, I wonder?

Empty truism, Dave! Yeah, I know. But I am fascinated by the role that wildness – the Big Outside – and wild animals play in the formation of our identities as fully human beings.

I accompany my mother this morning on her weekly visit to the Amish farmstand and whole foods store in the valley. Which is lucky, because it turns out that the torrential downpour of the night before last had brought down a tree across the Plummer’s Hollow road, a smallish red maple. (Mom’s weak back prevents her from doing things like operating a chainsaw.) In a couple of places, the road is washed out to a depth of 8-10 inches, and we are thankful for the extra clearance the s.u.v. provides.

It’s a spectacular Autumn day. We drive slowly along the winding township roads, enjoying the views whenever there’s a break in the ranks of field corn. At the store, we notice a flyer on the counter – “Lost Falcon.” My mom talks about this for a few minutes with the proprietor, her friend S. – a woman in late middle age, unmarried and very bright. They both know the falconer. S. mentions that one of her grandnephews saw – he thought – a large bird flapping over with “traces dangling from his claws.” The falconer came out to look, but with no luck. “I think if I was a bird like that, once I escaped I’d fly away and I wouldn’t come back,” S. says in her precise English as she heads back into the kitchen.

She would, too – neither of us have any doubt of it. The lyrics of the very un-Amish gospel song “I’ll Fly Away” begin to percolate through my mind.

On the way back up the hollow, I catch the flash of wings from several hundred yards away. When we pull even with the spot, I see the profile of a hawk’s head against the trunk of one of the largest red oaks in the hollow. We back up for a better view, and find ourselves in a staring contest with a red-tailed hawk. Buteo jamaicensis: our most common hawk, but always a pleasure to watch – especially from such unexpectedly close quarters. Its species name reflects the fact that the type specimen was collected in Jamaica; any other connection between this individual and the island currently in the crosshairs of Hurricane Ivan is strictly metaphorical. Most of our red-tails don’t migrate even as far as the gulf coast, and some live here year round. Both last winter and the winter before we had a pair in residence, attracted no doubt by the abundant gray squirrels.

“Don’t you know you’re supposed to fly away?” my mother croons. Talking softly to wild animals is usually a good way to keep them from spooking – it seems almost to mesmerize them, sometimes. But a couple more blandishments and the hawk dips his head, opens his great wings and sails away downhollow. “Ah, an immature,” says my mother, noting the absence of red in his tail. “No wonder he acts so dumb.”

With Frances gone, the air’s about as clear as it ever gets here. The rest of the way up the road, every shifting shadow seems alive with promise.

Love apples

They lie overtop one another, intertwining with abandon. Some vines climb the buddleia bushes, while others stretch down the stone wall toward the driveway. Three of the four volunteer seedlings I transplanted from the compost pit in early June are bearing cherry-sized fruit, and new spots of orange and red appear among their tangled greenery morning and afternoon with astonishing profligacy. From where I sit, I can look over the top of my computer to a window shelf full of tomatoes I just picked an hour ago, with their parent plants visible through the window beyond. Especially with all the rain we’ve been having, few of them would make it to dead ripeness on the vine without attracting the covetous attention of pillbug, slug or hungry chipmunk.

Seedlings that sprouted in the compost pit since I removed the first wave of volunteers have flourished, too. On the upper side, growing out of the low rock wall surrounding Fort Garbage – as my dad calls it – the most successful of these volunteers is birthing fist-sized tomatoes right down among the rotting melon rinds, coffee grounds, corn shucks, and – yes – freshly discarded tomato parts. On my way up to the main house this morning, I plucked two that had almost reached full ripeness, marveling at the festive melange of growth and decay.

That particular plant hides its fruit in the pit for a reason: its upper branches were stripped by a deer or woodchuck a couple of weeks ago. There haven’t been any such depredations since, however. The leaves aren’t exactly palatable, and I imagine whoever chomped on them suffered severe stomach cramps for hours. Not for nothing are tomatoes called love apples!

Before truck-farming Amish moved into the neighboring valley about twelve years ago, we kept huge vegetable gardens, most of which had to be fenced against the animals. Only squash, tomatoes and potatoes could be grown without any protection other than a good hay mulch. One of the things I really liked about tomatoes was the way that, given a steady supply of chicken manure and hay, they could happily inhabit the very same spot year after year. We started seedlings indoors in February, but feral volunteers would quite often outstrip the tender transplants. It was always exciting to see what kind of fruit they’d bear, since we grew so many varieties.

Perhaps it says something about our lax approach to gardening that we could almost depend on volunteers. But at the peak of tomato season, it’s impossible to keep ahead of the flood. My mother used to can close to a hundred quarts a year, and we boys still found enough rotten ones to turn the otherwise dull job of harvesting into juicy warfare.

And now, again, that red flood is in full spate. Boxes of tomatoes can be had from the Amish for a few dollars each. The super-sweet cherry tomatoes from my herb/butterfly garden vie with the Macintosh apples in my fridge for my attention at snack time (which for me is pretty much all the time). We dry some, but otherwise just gorge, slicing tomatoes into sandwiches and salads, adding them to almost every dish. And what don’t tomatoes go well with? For ’tis the season too for basil, cilantro, eggplant, zucchini, peppers . . . a hundred variations on a half-dozen themes.


Like the potato, the tomato is a native of South America. So what did Italians eat before they had tomatoes? They ate lots and lots of eggplant, apparently. Here’s a simple oven dish of Mediterranean provenance that you could make without tomatoes – but I’m not sure why you’d want to.

Dave’s Vaguely Greek Eggplant and Black Pepper Casserole

Saute together over medium heat:
1/4 c olive oil
2 medium onions, diced
1 large sweet pepper, diced
1 medium eggplant, chopped
In my opinion, eggplant is like tofu: more or less tasteless by itself, but good for sopping up and retaining whatever oils and juices you cook it with. So use good olive oil, and err on the side of generosity!

Add and cook ten more minutes, still on medium heat, until eggplants start to break down:
2 large tomatoes, chopped
1 t salt
up to 1 full t ground black pepper, depending on freshness (and your own tolerance)
optional fresh herbs, especially thyme (I’d be cautious with rosemary or parsley here, though. Black pepper in such quantities admits of few competitors.)

Chuck everything into a 3-qt casserole dish and pour the custard overtop:
1/2 c milk
1/2 c cottage cheese
2 egg yolks

Bake covered at 375 (F.) for 45 minutes. Serve with fresh corn on the cob and a green salad topped with fresh tomatoes.

Myotis lucifugus

The portico light had been left on, and after a while I noticed that bats had begun swooping in to catch the insects that swarmed around it. Eva and I went to the door to watch. Just as we got there, a bat flew in above us and didn’t go back out. I opened the door and looked up. He had climbed into the crack between the end of the roof and the side of the house, and had begun grooming himself. With the aid of a flashlight, this turned into quite an engrossing spectacle.

The bat – a little brown myotis, presumably a solitary male – kept his face turned mostly away from us, so that what we saw most often looked like a big-eared mouse chewing on a tiny umbrella. Only when he worked on the surface of an open wing did we get a look at his face, dimly visible through the thin membrane of skin.

The contrast between the smooth wing and the deeply wrinkled, pushed-in face seemed to suggest some elemental truth about the night, and about the sort of consciousness one must evolve to fully inhabit it. I mean, one can easily follow custom and read into a bat’s face the stamp of evil, or an eldritch wisdom. But nothing of that sort came to mind; only now, in retrospect, do judgements like these suggest themselves. We felt, I think, only a simple awe.

We watched so long, Eva started to complain of neck cramps, and both my arms got tired from holding the flashlight in turn. He spent most of his time on the wings, with only a few nibbles at his abdomen. Is this something that bats have to do every few hours to remain flight-worthy? Bat Conservation International’s website says only that

In addition to day roosts in tree cavities and crevices, little brown myotis seem quite dependent upon roosts which provide safe havens from predators that are close to foraging grounds.

So possibly the screech owl that we heard calling intermittently had been too close for comfort.

When the bat finished grooming, he turned his listening face full on me for a few seconds, then, rather than flying out the way he came, scuttled up feet first through a crack in the tiles and disappeared. It was only then that I thought to wonder if the flashlight had hurt his eyes.

On a wing and a prayer

I’m tired. I woke up earlier than usual with stranger than usual phrases dancing on the tip of my mind’s tongue: still life with homunculus. The automata of experience. Three feathers for the last emir. There was also one that tasted deliciously ordinary, but melted before I could get downstairs and commit it to writing.


Crescent moon long set, starlight’s enough to make the mist visible in the corner of the field. On the other side of the driveway, a round, white spot the size of a small pumpkin. It isn’t moving. I carry my empty cup into the kitchen, fetch a flashlight, train it on the spot: it’s a balloon. Maybe one of the ones left over from when my niece was here last week, blown down from my parent’s house. I could make something wistful out of all this, I know. But one thing about living on a mountain is that the wind has a way of dropping off balloons let loose many miles away. “Happy anniversary,” they say, or “Congratulations on your retirement.” You know how it works, I’m sure: they rise only so high, the wind takes them a ways, then when enough helium leaks out they sink to the ground. A bit like prayer flags, a bit like roadside trash.


I wonder where the intrepid bicyclists spent the night. I’m talking about a group of twelve who left Pittsburgh on Friday, bound for New York City to protest at the Republican National Convention. The point of going there by bike is to draw attention to our gasoline addiction, apparently. But J., our contact with the group, admitted that she was mainly just curious to see if she could do it.

There weren’t any convenient state parks or state forests to camp in on the second night of their sojourn, so we offered use of the (ahem!) Plummer’s Hollow Private Nature Reserve. But they badly underestimated the distance and the extent to which Central Pennsylvania topography would interfere with cell phone reception. Many became separated from the group and got lost. In the end, only the four hardiest bicyclists made it this far, straggling in well after dark. The other eight ended up scattered all along the Allegheny Front.

By 9:00 a.m. yesterday, only one was still unaccounted for, and they arranged to reunite at the bottom of the hollow before continuing east. “Give ’em hell in New York, if you get there,” I said rather thoughtlessly as I waved goodbye from the porch. “Hey, we’ll make it!” the leader shouted, dismounting and lifting his bike over the first of the 45 grating-topped culverts that keep the Plummer’s Hollow Road from washing into the Little Juniata.

I hope the thick fog that had been blanketing the valleys at 7:00 when I walked up to the top of the ridge had burnt off a bit by the time they got down there. Good luck, y’all. Keep your powder dry.


The balloon turned out to be trailing a long, silver ribbon, so it wasn’t one of ours. I wonder how far it traveled to get here, and what might have been the occasion of its escape – or release? It’s completely blank. Supply your own message.

Back to the complexities

This is my contribution for the Ecotone wiki topic RePlace.

A spot of poison ivy between the first and second knuckle of my left thumb has been lurking there since late May. I never knew exactly where or how I made contact with the plant, but by now, in mid-August, its berries must be ripening. In two weeks or less they will redden and the leaflets three will color up to match – signal flags for the small birds of passage who will drop from the sky each morning for a quick nosh. For them the first leaves turn: poison ivy and Virginia creeper along the woods’ edge, fox grape and dogwood and a hundred acres of tupelo, red-orange-yellow right underneath the canopy’s stalwart green. The migrants won’t have much time and the banquet is overwhelming, so the foliage has to shout: Get your high-fat berries here, at the drive-thru window!

But Jesus, these birds! Only a fool could dismiss them as ordinary because frequently seen. Steering at night by the stars, their vision by day encompassing ultraviolet light and polarization caused by the earth’s magnetic field, traveling thousands of miles through every kind of weather, year after year venturing everything to come and breed in woods like these, then leaving their nests and returning to the far more fecund South – the Indians were right about them. How could they not be messengers, couriers of the otherwise undeliverable hope to the otherwise unthinkable destination?

It is the time of year that approximates that late stage in an urban civilization when works of art and language start to give off a faint odor, bending under the weight of footnotes and allusions. Wasp nests bulge with larvae, Luftwaftes of termites take to the air. More moth species than lepidopterists have yet been able to catalogue, most of them naturally rare, seine the forest air for the exact scent of their shorter-than-a-needle mates in the landscape’s haystack. Overlooked for their apparent sameness by generations of collectors, agog at polyphemous, the leaf-winged luna, the riddle-winged sphinx.

The last of the huckleberries are ripening, and the first of the apples. The peaches are at their height. The air we breathe teems with more life than most of us would even want to imagine. The soil in the woods gives off an odor so much a part of the general gestalt that the overwhelming majority of humans heading out for a week or two of camping have no clear notion of what it is that draws them, year after year, to the same spot in some park or national forest, relinquishing the hard-won comforts of home for the pleasure of sleeping on the ground, their nostrils just a couple layers of fabric away from the sweetly rotting earth. The sternest teetotalers are led around by their noses. The juice in its stoneware pitcher grows mutinous with yeast.

Winter is as far behind us as it can get, now, and the growing chorus of northern true katydids each night reminds us – those whose grandparents grew up on farms, and were full of such sayings – six weeks till frost. We’re as far as we can get from February’s spare forms, blue shadows and that crystal-clear air that always leads my mind upward and away. One may or may not tire of August’s filigree and fandango, but for me the sense of mystery in this season is undeniably more profound. If in January I am a desert ascetic, in late summer I return to the full-course spread at the Life and Death Café. There’s nothing like it for ambience, for service, for live entertainment: a small combo with trumpet and upright bass, ride cymbals going lush . . . lush, the blues singer shouting sundown as if he meant it.

Waiter! I’ll have another bowl of the primordial soup!

Missing notes

I was a Phebe – nothing more –
A Phebe – nothing less –
The little note that others dropt
I fitted into place –

Six-thirty. The treetops glow with the first rays of sun. A hummingbird circles a bull thistle’s purple tuft – all looks, no substance – then zooms over to the bergamot with its washed-out, scraggly heads.

Aside from the background trill of crickets and the sound of cars and trucks on the interstate highway a half-mile to the west, I’m struck by how silently the day has dawned. Early August is always a sad time of the year for me: the dusk and dawn chorus has dwindled to almost nothing. No more phoebe, wood thrush, Baltimore oriole, indigo bunting, scarlet tanager, catbird, great-crested flycatcher. Their young have fledged and learned their parent’s songs, and some have already begun the journey to their true homes in the tropics. Without such stalwarts as the cardinal, song sparrow and especially Carolina wren, the morning would arrive completely unheralded eight months out of twelve.

Already, the early goldenrod is blooming, and by the end of the week the whole field will have turned to gold. The season’s final generation of monarchs is on the wing. A dry high has settled in, bringing clear skies and autumn-cool temperatures. My niece is in heaven – she can spend almost every waking hour out-of-doors if she chooses. She spends the nights apart from her parents, sleeping up in her grandparents’ house in what had been my bedroom when I was growing up. And though she sometimes seems to wish that every adult were as facetious as her daddy and uncles are, there’s no question that her serious, naturalist-writer Nanna is still her main role model.

Yesterday morning the two of them went for a walk down Laurel Ridge, and Eva discovered a box turtle that her Nanna had walked right past without noticing. It was half-grown – only a few years old – and completely unafraid, even when Eva picked it up. After a careful examination of the eyes and plectrum, they decided it must be a female. Eva was so excited to have been the first to spot it, she ran all the way back to the house to tell her grandpa – and anyone else who would listen.

After lunch, without prompting from anyone, she sat down with a clipboard and legal pad and began to write what she proudly predicts will be her first published nature essay. We were astonished by the neatness of her hand and her fantastic spelling for a second grader. Mom reported the following conversation from earlier in the day.

Eva: “Are you famous, Nanna?”

Nanna: “Well, no, not really.”

“But do people know who you are?”

“Well, in Pennsylvania, I guess some people know who am.”

“That’s what I want! I want to write about Nature so people will know who I am!”

Yesterday afternoon my cousin Heidi stopped over with her three-year-old daughter Morgan in tow. Eva immediately took her under her wing and managed to coax her into walking much farther than she ever had before, showering her with praise for the feat. It was amusing to see these two only-children relate to each other in a big sister-little sister fashion.

As for me, I’m just happy for the company of two spontaneously affectionate and imaginative children – even when sudden storms of temper blow in from nowhere, as sometimes happens. Most of the time I am content to play Thoreau without regret for my single, childless state. But then I get a hug from a little kid and am reminded suddenly of just how much I’m missing.

The missing All, prevented Me
From missing minor Things.
If nothing larger than a World’s
Departure from a Hinge
Or sun’s Extinction, be observed
‘Twas not so large that I
Could lift my Forehead from my work
For Curiosity.


Both quotes are from the R. W. Franklin edition of The Poems of Emily Dickinson: nos. 1009 (first stanza) and 995 (complete).


Not hot, but so humid the rocks sweat. I go for a very slow walk around the trails. On top of Laurel Ridge, an agitated pair of cardinals chaperones a fledgling across the trail in front of me. Only half-grown and dull brown in color, but s/he already has the crest.

I stop to admire the clumps of horn-of-plenty mushrooms sprouting through the moss of First Field Trail. Up close they look almost velvety, very dark gray to my eye – or is there such a thing as “light black”? In shape they evoke not cornucopias – there’s no twist to them – but old-fashioned ear trumpets. The fungus is hungry for news of the daylight world . . .

The two turkey families that have been going around together start up from the edge of the woods opposite the gate to the exclosure. I am torn between the desire to watch all the youngsters burst from cover so I can get a rough count, and the desire to create as little upset as possible. The latter impulse wins out; I open the gate and walk through the deer exclosure, taking the longer route back. The ground is riotous with mushrooms of every shape and color.


Ratatouille for supper. I never thought I would say this, but I love eggplant. Not so much for the taste or texture – though I do love its ability to sop up olive oil – as for its shape, color and overall weirdness as a vegetable. Pity that Neruda didn’t include an “Ode to Eggplant” among his Elemental Odes. I love the sound the peeler makes on the firm sponge of its flesh.


There’s a campfire; we are each introducing ourselves to the group.

–I am a mustard seed.

–I am the excrescence of a star.

–I am the blackening of a name the devil himself would not be able to rub out.

Whoa! Where the hell did that come from?

Just then I have to get up and go to the bathroom, so I stop at the desk on my way, scribble it down on my little pocket notebook by the light of the computer monitor: I am the blackening of a name . . .


But already, even as I write, I realize I have lost the image that went with it. Perhaps an Indian pipe? Immediately after pollination, Monotropa uniflora ceases the narcissus-like contemplation of its navel and points its flower-head straight up at the sky. In a few days the head grows bulbous with seeds and the whole plant turns black.

Other names for Indian pipe include “ghost flower,” “corpse plant,” “fairy smoke,” “birdnest” and “American iceplant.” Herbal usage has produced still more names: “convulsionweed,” “eyebright” and “fitroot.” John Lust (The Herb Book, Bantam, 1974) describes the “Properties and Uses” of Indian pipe as follows:

Antispasmodic, nervine, sedative, tonic. Indian pipe root makes a good remedy for spasms, fainting spells, and various nervous conditions and may be helpful in remittent and intermittent fever. Mixed with fennel seed, it makes a good eyewash and vaginal douche.

I hadn’t realized the eye and the vagina could be treated the same way, but there is a certain appeal to the idea. If anyone wants to experiment, here’s Lust’s recipe.

Infusion: Use 1 tsp. Indian pipe root and 1 tsp. fennel seed with 1 pint boiling water. Steep for 20 minutes and strain.


If you missed Monday’s post, In the forest of the meantime, that’s where I first started thinking about Indian pipes, a common saprophytic plant in the eastern U.S.

In the forest of the meantime

half-sister to the poem In the Ice Forest, from last February

Deer flies bumble into my hair and can’t get out. I’m walking in the day-long dusk of midsummer woods, under a low cloud ceiling. I’ve learned how to pause, wait for just the right moment to give myself a swift blow to the head.

It’s the season for dramatic understatements: enchanter’s nightshade, rattlesnake plantain, jumpseed. The spring ephemerals have all taken new aliases. Violets’ heart-shaped leaves swell and darken, cloaking the semi-mythical cleistogamous seeds.

When the woods were filled with April light, they bloomed according to the script: a parade of shining faces, perfect forms. But now the leaf rot parts for the lurid sex organs of fungi, July’s freak show of boletes, russulas, earth stars, stinkhorns, dead man’s fingers and the fatal fly agarics.

Indian pipes rise in clumps, pale as vampires. They sink their hypodermic roots into the veins of trees and suck.

In every break in the laurel, some spider has staked a claim. The trails grow treacherous with webs. I move slowly, waving my stick from side to side like a blind conductor. Small white moths flutter up from beneath my feet.

Somewhere close by, a tree gives way, roots loosened by rain. There’s a muffled crash; no echo. In the aftermath, the wood peewee keeps bending the same two notes. His fondest wish is for the clouds never to part.

But where in this labyrinth could sunlight ever find an opening? I pause for a three-inch slug, dapper streak of brown-on-gray, stretched across the moss like an exclamation without a point.

I crouch down to watch its infinitesimal progress. The eyestalks look as if they might move sometime soon.

Thunder bear

The other night, toward dusk, I heard heavy footsteps coming down the walk toward my front door, and looked up from my computer just in time to see a black bear peering in.

I say “peering in,” but that’s not really accurate. What it did was, it kind of sidled up to the door and pressed its large and expressive nose against the screen for a few seconds, without looking directly in. No doubt if it had looked in, it would’ve had a hard time making sense of the jumble of right angled, brightly colored objects.

It wasn’t a large bear, just a yearling, and it didn’t stick around to visit. It was probably the same animal whose blueberry-filled scat I had discovered on the driveway that morning.

There isn’t much to say about such an encounter, really. But I was reminded of it this morning when I was awoken by a single, loud clap of thunder around 2:00. As I drifted back to sleep, I remember thinking something along the lines of, One side sings continual hosannas, the other side recites cautionary tales in a deadening drone.

What I think I meant was, every act is unique and unrepeatable – or so it seems to the angels. Against the angels I picture not devils but pedants, functionaries and technicians reminding us that the sun also riseth and vanity of vanities. But I may also have had some more private idea in mind.

I like the way black bears always seem to be grinning.