Sing a song of sang, that human root:
wrinkled homunculus growing slow as thought.
Even the seeds take twenty months to sprout,
stones that finish growing in the ground
as if traveling through the interminable gut
of some great beast that vanished in the Pleistocene.
Sing a song of burying in haste,
the berries’ flesh a tempting prize for mold.
So if picked on a morning in early September,
nestled into a plastic vial & sent by overnight mail,
you must plant them as soon as they arrive —
don’t put it off till after supper.
Choose each resting-place with care,
moving slowly through the woods & stopping often.
Pretend you’re burying a grandparent, piece by piece.
Make a hole with your index finger
no deeper than the second knuckle,
drop the blood-colored berry in & cover it up.
Pray for uninterrupted sleep, & an end to sleep.
Let your stomach rumble, soft & low.
Quite by chance, I just found out that my local public radio station aired a related story this morning. Refer to the other links on that page for more on sang culture in Pennsylvania.
The LPN believes in being firm. Her daughter is five, and she doesn’t allow her to meet her gaze; she always stares back until the daughter looks away. Give ’em an inch and they’ll take a mile, she likes to say.
The woman in the next bed
moans all night: Help me, help me,
The nurse steals in on stockinged feet.
When her four-year-old son was an infant, she would sit on him, straddling his tiny torso while her husband changed the diaper. They’re never too young to learn to lie still, she said.
In the woods behind the hospital,
trilliums bob in the sun, a white mirage.
The moss cracks open from lack of rain.
The 88-year-old great-grandmother looks on with an aching heart. Her mild suggestions carry little weight with her daughter or son-in-law, with her grandson or his wife the nurse. “They all talk to me like a child,” she tells us. “You’re the first people I’ve had an adult conversation with in months.”
Those clouds could be anything:
some wild cherry wrapped in caterpillar webs.
Expected to look after her great-grandchildren half the week, she tries to make them understand that love need not be accompanied by threats or a smothering embrace. When the four-year-old kicks her, much to his outraged surprise, she hits back.
On the abandoned farm, a lawn chair
still sits out under the apple tree.
Petals drift down between the slats.
Back in Pennsylvania for a rare visit, she apologizes for not doing a better job of staying in touch. “I’ve been so exhausted. I can’t remember the last time I got a good night’s sleep.”
we might fall forever if not
for that net of roots.
The other evening, my fifteen-month-old niece Elanor gave utterance to her first distinct, undeniable series of English words. They were animal sounds.
I had already gone down to my own house, worn out from a day of visiting, so what follows is based on my parents’ account. Elanor loves books – all books, even the ones without pictures – and as the adults talked, it seemed nothing out of the ordinary for her to sit on the couch with one of her favorite books on her lap, slowly turning the pages. It was a picture book for small children called Animal Sounds, which has foldout, cardboard pages, and for novelty’s sake, apparently, she was looking at it upside-down. Her grandpa was the first to notice that Elanor was imitating his pronunciations of the onomatopoeia in a low voice. “Ribbet! Ribbet!” she said as she looked at the upside-down frog. Then she turned the page to the lion cub. “GrrrrrrOWL!”
Dad signaled Mom and Steve to shut up and watch. It was no fluke. “Squawk! Squawk!” said the parrot. Another turn and unfolding of the complicated pages, and the baby elephant was clearly saying “Baroooo!”
tent caterpillars on a wild sweet cherry
And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of each kind, cattle and crawling things and wild beasts of each kind.” And so it was. And God made wild beasts of each kind and cattle of each kind and all crawling things on the ground of each kind, and God saw that it was good. And God said, “Let us make a human in our image, by our likeness, to hold sway over the fish of the sea and the fowl of the heavens and the cattle and the wild beasts and all the crawling things that crawl upon the earth.”
And God created the human in his image,
in the image of God he created him,
male and female he created them.
(Robert Alter, trans.)
This is the notorious passage in Genesis leading up to God’s first commands: be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and conquer it, hold sway (radah). About this last verb, Alter notes that it is “not the normal Hebrew word for ‘rule’ […] and in most of the contexts in which it occurs it seems to suggest an absolute or even fierce exercise of mastery.”
Could we ask for a more explicit expression of the kind of anthropocentrism that has fueled our current environmental malaise? And yet the passage is not without redeeming qualities. Notice, for example, that wild animals and creepy-crawlies are given equal standing with livestock. This is consistent with other parts of the Bible, such as the 104th Psalm and the last chapters of Job, which explicitly recognize the claims of untrammeled nature. One can also see some irony in the account of humanity’s separate creation. While all other earthly inhabitants were brought into being through the utterance of spells – or prayers, if you like – the human is fashioned by reference to an image, as idols are made. This is brought home by the parallel Creation myth that begins a few verses later, in which God literally fashions the man out of clay, and simultaneously gives birth to the world’s first bad pun (“‘adam, ‘human,’ from the soil, ‘adamah,” as Alter puts it).
These thoughts were sparked by an entry in a new (to me) blog called everydayandeverynight.com, by Rabbi Shai Gluskin. According to Rabbi Gluskin’s post Shade Under Sun, the word tzelim, “image” or “idol,” derives from the word for shade or shadow, tzel.
We are idols made of flesh and bone, mere shadows of God. Certainly we shouldn’t be worshiped. Though not the real thing, we do share some of God’s qualities.
Taking refuge in the shade, safe from God’s blinding light we can look up and see the canopy illuminated. This illumination is akin to our inspiration.
We can, however, forget to look up. We may, like Adam, delude ourselves into thinking we can hide from God. The shadow then is no longer a protector from God’s blinding light, but a vice to run away [into].
I like the way Rabbi Gluskin grounds his interpretation in the arboreal imagery of spring. Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, trees are explicitly recognized as a potential focus of idolatry, reflecting the historical competition of the Yahwist cult with the cult of the Asherim. In fact, in the second chapter of Genesis, the humans’ first openly idolatrous behavior is toward a tree.
a Baltimore oriole harvesting insects from young black walnut leaves
Let’s step back a few verses, though. In the first Creation account, as I mentioned, non-human animals are not shaped, but merely spoken into being. Given the primacy accorded to mindful prayer in Jewish tradition, wouldn’t this actually threaten to raise their ontological status above that of humans? Perhaps the original compilers of the Bible thought so, too, because in the second story, we see the order of (male) human and animal creation reversed – and this time, God fashions all creatures from the soil, and subcontracts out to Adam the job of giving them names.
But were these creatures, too, fashioned after pre-existing prototypes – are they “made in the image of God”? If God works the way a sculptor does, shouldn’t we expect him to project some element of his own identity into his work, like any artist?
gaywings, or fringed polygala
Of course, it would be absurd to accuse God Himself of idolatry. But he does seem to be actively encouraging Adam’s own tendencies in that direction, fashioning the animals one by one not only “to see what he would call it,” but also to see if any of them would appeal to him as a “sustainer.” When none seem to fit the bill, the female human is created while the male sleeps, almost like a sexual fantasy given flesh. The stage is set for idolatry, loss of innocence, fear and exile. Alter says,
The Hebrew ‘ezer kenegdo (King James Version “help meet”) is notoriously difficult to translate. The second term means “alongside him,” “a counterpart to him.” “Help” is too weak because it suggests a merely auxiliary function, whereas ‘ezer elsewhere connotes active intervention on behalf of someone, especially in military contexts, as often in Psalms.
But the Psalms are directed toward God, are they not? Did the authors of this myth mean to suggest that in his yearning for a flesh-and-bone sustainer, Adam was already drawing away from God? His first recorded utterance is no psalm, but an impassioned poem to the woman – a naming-poem, a spell.
The language used for Eve’s creation, says Alter, is architectural rather than sculptural: the verb means “to build” rather than “to shape,” and “the Hebrew for ‘rib,’ tsela’, is also used elsewhere to designate an architectural element.” (This imagery helps set the stage for the Tower of Babel story, perhaps. Or at least suggests that we should see the Tower as anthropomorphic, if not theomorphic.) The idolatrous impulse here is quickly realized with the entrance of the first non-human animal a few verses later. No sooner have we been told that the man and woman “become one flesh” and that “the two of them were naked … and they were not ashamed,” then the serpent appears to set them against each other. And the main descriptor used for the serpent, ‘arum, “cunning,” is a play on ‘arumim, “naked.”
Thus, guided by the active intervention of one of the animals Adam named, Eve “saw that the tree was good for eating and that it was lust to the eyes and the tree was lovely to look at, and she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave to her man, and he ate.” The word translated as “lust” will appear often in the exhortations of the prophets, for whom lust and idolatry seem to have been closely linked.
blue-gray gnatcatcher on scarlet oak sapling
Eve’s first act is to look for her own ‘ezer kenegdo, it seems. Forget for a moment the millennia of moralistic and sexist interpretations based on the premise that the rightful place for righteous humans is back in some otherworldly version of that paradise. Forget the quintessentially priestly assumption that ignorance – unthinking obedience – is bliss. What the Genesis Creation stories really suggest is that rebellion is somehow intrinsic to created beings. A thing is no sooner named, fashioned, or dreamed up – a child is no sooner birthed – than it acquires its own personality, as every artist or parent knows. Self becomes Other, and Other then returns to open the eyes of the Self. The pivotal importance of the serpent in the Genesis story (the devil is nowhere in sight) almost bridges the gap between this and other tribal Creation myths, where animal tricksters also play central roles. By the time we get to Abraham and Sarah – let alone Jacob, Job and the Prophets – we find human beings capable of telling God a thing or two.
What could we possibly know that an omniscient God does not? Humility: the dawning recognition that we are not, in fact, the center of the universe. A sense of wonder. Without some measure of selflessness, is true empathy possible? The infant, godlike in her egotism, can hardly begin to imagine herself as another being; her squawks and chirps and cries are solely her own. Only with the growth of other-consciousness can she become capable of the imagination necessary for anthropomorphizing empathy. If – as eco-philosopher Paul Shepard asserted – it is the animals that made us human, could we not also say without any impiety that it is humans who taught a violent and amoral god how to be Good?
UPDATE: Steve tells me that Elanor had actually been saying “Woof, woof!” now and then for a month or so, and that the evening before her “reading” of the animal sounds book, she had added a second element to her vocabulary: “Tickle, tickle!” Make of that what you will.
New growth sprouts from an old nest, signaling as well as anything can that we’ve entered that magic time I call high spring. The daffodils are fading, the banks of forsythia are in the last throes of blooming, and the first cohort of wild blossoms – shadbush, spicebush, coltsfoot, hepatica – are shedding their petals. The leaves of birches and black cherries are just beginning to open, turning the ridge to the west a pale green, while the oaks are in blossom all up and down the ridge above my house, giving it a yellow-green wash. Red maples, sugar maples and tulip poplars provide pastel splashes of red and green.
Wild sweet cherry trees – legacy of a long-gone orchard – glow white along the edge of the field in the early morning sun. Down in the hollow, purple trillium (A.K.A. wake robin) is in bloom, and Solomon’s seal and yellow mandarin are just at the point of flowering. Black cohosh, wild sarsaparilla, and a host of ferns unclench their insurrectionary green fists.
Almost every day brings a new birdsong: last Thursday, the black-throated green warblers were back in force. Friday afternoon, I heard weeza-weeza-weeza from inside at my writing desk and bounded out the door with my camera, but was too slow with the focus to get a shot of the first black-and-white warbler calling among the last blossoms of the ornamental cherry next to my porch. Yesterday morning, at around quarter to six, I heard a whippoorwill sing a few phrases of its namesake song from about a quarter-mile away (which is just about the distance and duration I prefer, actually). Later in the day, I watched a pair of Louisiana waterthrushes courting in the branches of a black birch above the now-roaring Plummer’s Hollow Run.
A weekend of hard rain has eased the fire danger I alluded to last week. Water streams from the mountain’s every pore, and it’s a real pleasure to sit outside at first light and listen to the birds tune up against a background of running water. This morning, one of those songs made my heart leap: wood thrush! But not, I’m sorry to say, an especially gifted member of the tribe. I don’t know if he grew up next to a busy highway, and thus was unable to learn the full nuances of his species’ song (a documented phenomenon, by the way), or was simply too tired from the migration to give it his all, but this was a bare-bones version of that famous thrush call.
But I’m sure there will be more thrushes – possibly as early as this evening. And it served as a reminder to me to get out more often and listen for the other thrush species, which sometimes sing on migration. In past years, I’ve been lucky enough to hear both veerys and hermit thrushes, and once, about five years ago, a Swainson’s thrush – far outside its normal breeding range – sang through most of June at one spot down in the hollow.
I was happy when temperatures got cooler over the weekend. To my mind, spring is best when it is long and slow, though I know a lot of people who seem to regard the season primarily as foreplay to summer. Some years, it stays cold through late April, and then an early heat wave makes the flowers leap into bloom, the trees leaf out and the songbirds return from the tropics all in a rush – a southern spring. My parents traveled to Arkansas last month, and were confounded to see hepaticas blooming alongside wild geraniums. I’m sure it’s all in what you’re used to, but to them, it just didn’t seem right. Spring should come gradually, almost imperceptibly at first. Not for nothing did Aaron Copland set his ballet Appalachian Spring in Western Pennsylvania; there’s a kind of choreography to spring arrivals and blooming dates here in the north, a certain order and cadence that’s practically synonymous with spring in the minds of most northeasterners. As in any dance composition, there are many high points along the way, as buds burst in mid-air and flowers relax into nascent fruit. High spring, as I conceive of it, climaxes in mid to late May, when the pink and yellow lady’s-slippers bloom. By then, all the trees except for walnuts and locusts have fully leafed out, but insects and air pollution have yet to diminish that first, fresh, startling green.
each other’s sky
above the road bank where
the hepatica has just come into bloom,
the corpse of a porcupine
carrion beetles clamber
through the quills
butterflies cluster on what’s left of its mouth
a hole spanned by the long, curved
railings of its teeth
& down below, the pale blue blossoms
swaying on their stems
On Easter morning, I took a plastic
envelope of ale yeast from the refrigerator,
placed it on the floor, & brought all
my weight down on it
to break open the enclosed packet of nutrients.
Within hours, the envelope had swollen up
like a sheep’s stomach
with afflatus from the resurrected yeast.
Now I will feed it malt & honey
& bitter herbs. It will pass
this brew through its multitudinous body
& turn it into beer.
The empty tombs of its spent cells
will drift to the bottom of the bottle’s
We’re in Martin’s Gap, on the edge of the Rocky Ridge Natural Area in Central Pennsylvania’s Rothrock State Forest. We got lost for a while on the drive in, and now, wandering along the stream in search of the trail, we encounter showy orchids in full bloom. In the dim light of a rainy late afternoon, you almost expect flowers like these to begin speaking. It’s not as if they lack for tongues. I sprawl on my belly, trying to shoot their portrait in the gloom with my little snapshot camera. A pickup truck stops on the nearby gravel road: “Is everything all right?” “We’re fine, thank you!” That bland baldness that most speakers of the English language mistake for truth.
A few minutes later a barred owl calls from the ridge: Hu HU huhu, hu HU huHU-awl. He flies in to query us more closely; I’m not sure how to answer. Barred owls, like their close cousins the spotted owls, are quite unafraid of human beings and often seem curious about these strange, flightless birds trespassing in their woods. The traditional birders’ onomatopoeia has them asking, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?”
In the forest, one cannot help hearing voices, I think. But a hundred feet down the road, we run into another group of wildflower enthusiasts. “Did you hear that barred owl?” “No! Where was he?” They seem like very nice people, but I’m reminded once again of why I shy away from large group hikes. A little while later, I find this crowd of open-mouthed puffballs on the end of a log.
Wild yam and maidenhair fern: two ways to spiral. When the dervishes whirl, they say, they’re searching for something they know they’ve never lost. Or for someone, all in green, variously known as Adonis, Elijah, Khidr or St. George. The tighter the whorl, the more earth his velvet coat takes in. For a double helix, add one dragon.
Narcissism is fine for the moon-faced narcissus. For orchids, we need another word: orchidism. You want mythic content? Surely the evolutionary tango of pollinator and blossom will suffice. If you’ve ever steeled your heart against jealousy and self-love and sought salvation in complete otherness, that was orchidian behavior – highly evolved.
The sky slowly clears. We climb out of the shadow at the crest of the ridge, which is capped with strange sandstone outcroppings: megaliths, stone heads carved solely by the weather. I’m reminded that more light doesn’t necessarily mean less mystery – especially if it comes from the sun, which has always struck me as being full of darkness. Try staring at the sun for more than a second and you’ll see what I mean. You’ll carry its smudgy thumbprints around on your retina for the rest of the day.
While my hiking partner relaxes on a flat rock to listen to the forest, I go clambering in search of still more images. Here’s a burl on a rotten rock oak, half-debarked: a coroner’s view of the brain. If you aren’t following a map, you find maps everywhere.
Below one of the largest outcroppings, I hear low murmurs and creep cautiously around, not especially enthusiastic about catching people in some intimate or illegal act. But there’s nobody there, just this young Hercules’ club, otherwise known as devil’s walking stick – a common native colonizer of forest gaps. In lieu of branches, it sports enormous compound leaves and has the odd habit of producing so much fruit in the fall as to bend and even break its brittle stalk, otherwise fiercely defended with collars of thorns. There’s a lesson in there somewhere, I’m sure. Its masses of berries rapidly ferment, making them all the more attractive to the songbirds it counts on to spread its seeds far and wide, shitting them out in drunken, erratic patterns – spirals, wheels.
For previous portraits of Pennsylvania natural areas, see The Hook and Tow Hill.
Suddenly, beginning yesterday morning, my inbox is overflowing with German spam. Auslaender bevorzugt! Tuerkei in die EU! Deutsche werden kuenftig beim Arzt abgezockt! Graeberschaendung auf bundesdeutsche Anordnung! Vorbildliche Aktion! Volk wird nur zum zahlen gebraucht! Du wirst ausspioniert ….! And so on. The two that I open by accident contain no HTML, just Internet addresses. Clearly, the senders are “pharming,” trying to lure the curious or unwary into visiting a website where the seeds of malicious software lie waiting for new victims, new agents of dispersal. But why me? I don’t know a word of German. Whence this sudden invasion?
A few hours later I’m on a botanical field trip where one of the other participants is German and speaks authoritatively (albeit with a heavy accent) about plants and disturbance regimes, here and in Europe. We’re examining one of the few, tiny, remaining fragments of xeric limestone prairie in Pennsylvania. Why do European plants so easily out-compete ours? I ask. The German guy explains it’s because many of the northern European weeds have had a thousand years of intense cultivation to learn how to be aggressively weedy.
In North America, by contrast, the only really widespread form of anthropogenic landscape alteration was fire. Regular burning favors oak forests or savannas, depending on geology, exposure, moisture level, and other factors. This perpetuated openings that were originally natural, dating from a much warmer climatic period ending around 4,500 years ago in which wildfires were much commoner than they are today. Given fire, deep-rooted warm-season grasses can successfully out-compete cool-season grasses – mostly European imports. Large Pleistocene herbivores such as ground sloths and mastadons also played a role in originally creating these openings; in more recent times, the American bison helped spread prairie seeds between far-flung openings. Our trip leader describes an experiment with samples of different kinds of animal fur in order to find which would best transport the seeds of side-oats gramma grass, a prairie indicator species. Some pelts, such as deer and elk, shed the seeds immediately; the densely matted buffalo pelts picked up and retained side-oats gramma seeds like nothing else.
As with the wolf and panther, the wild bison still has a sort of ghostly presence in the Pennsylvania landscape, recalled by numerous toponymns: Buffalo Valley, Buffalo Creek, Buffalo Run. Run they did, but never fast enough. You can, however, still see them around – there’s a farmer who raises buffalo right on the other side of this hill, one of the local participants informs us. That really gets us talking!
We discuss spotted knapweed, a plant I only know from the railroad right-of way. Most of the invasive species in our hollow first appeared down along the tracks, hoboing in from god knows where. Spotted knapweed is that tall, rank stuff with the purple thistle-like flowers, but no spines. Turns out it doesn’t need them. It’s what they call allelopathic, poisoning the soil for other plants, and it’s potent enough to repel would-be grazers as well. Humans foolish enough to pull it out bare-handed may be susceptible to a nasty rash, but just as often it doesn’t leave a physical sign, going instead straight for the nervous system. You get recurring headaches, our trip leader says, and for a week or two, nothing will taste quite right.
Following local leads, we discover a previously unknown prairie remnant on the side of a hill above a plowed field; the owner mows it every few years because it’s a popular sledding hill in the winter. A number of indicator plants are intermixed with non-natives; the bright, orange-yellow patches of hoary pucoon are the most extensive we’ve seen all day. They intermingle with red columbine for a wonderful, natural garden effect.
One of the botanists shows us how to identify the planted pine trees: gather their long needles together in a sheaf and press them against the palm. If they bend readily, it’s red pine. If they threaten to go right through the hand, it’s Austrian pine. These are definitely Austrian, stout swords. We laugh nervously about possible ethnic parallels. Our erstwhile German participant has already bustled off to scout out other rare plants, convinced there was nothing more to be seen with us. Earlier, he had asked me to show him the location of another prairie remnant on the map. I explained how it was right across from the entrance to a very charming cave. “I have no interest in caves,” he said. It was impossible to tell from his intonation whether or not he meant that remark to sound friendly.
The strange thing about yesterday’s outing was that I had been to the first site we visited nine years before, but had absolutely no recollection of it. I figured something would eventually ring a bell, but nothing ever did.
Last night, I didn’t dream about either German botanists or Vorbildliche Aktion, as far as I can remember. In the last dream before I get up, a train I’m riding returns to the station so I can search for my boots. I had taken them off and left them somewhere without noticing how much harder and rougher the ground had become to my stockinged feet. In this dream – maybe in all dreams? – the surfaces of the world are as smooth as a lover’s thigh. But no true beloved could ever be half so innocuous.
The train travels backwards for one whole stop, disrupting service up and down the line. “We do this all the time,” the conductor says. “We’ve learned to accommodate the special needs of our passengers, who are uncommonly forgetful.” Everyone disembarks, and the other passengers wander off in search of coffee or newspapers. My companion helps me retrace my steps: over a metal bridge, through cobblestone alleys, into a slick-floored casino. Perhaps the boots were stolen right off my feet? I search through the Recent Acquisitions rack in a second-hand clothing store, and although I do find several pairs of army boots that look virtually identical to mine, none respond to my plaintive whisper. One large pair gleams, freshly spit-shined. They almost sneer. Their former owner couldn’t have made it through Day One of Basic Training.
In the very last place I look, there they are: old and comfortable, caked with limey mud, perhaps carrying a few seeds of side-oats gramma. Now I remember! But I had to swim upstream to the source, the very start of the dream. I take off the loaner pair of women’s boots – they’d been just a little tight – and step into my own with a sigh of pleasure. Read into this what you will. Me, I woke up. I lay in bed rehearsing the apologetic speech I would have to deliver to my fellow passengers. “From now on, I’ll always take the train,” I thought, “even if it never takes me where I want to go.”
This morning, a Baltimore oriole has begun persecuting his reflection in the window opposite my writing table. He’s not quite as aggressive as last year’s cardinal, preferring to sing rather than attempting a full-scale assault. From a perch two feet away he flutters up against the glass, singing loudly. It must confuse him the way his rival opens his beak at the same time he does, since his is the only song. He’s looking right in my direction as he does so. If I didn’t know better, I might think I was the intended target of his sharply worded messages.
We’re in The Hook Natural Area in the Bald Eagle State Forest of Central Pennsylvania, 5,000 acres of silence and pollen. The 100-year-old forest is beginning to close in: open above, darker and denser below. Young hemlocks rising beneath the canopy of birch and oak resume their millennial project of bringing soil to the rock-strewn hillsides, needle by needle.
Black and yellow birch limbs torn down by January’s ice storm have one final flowering on the ground. Catkins long as fishing worms release clouds of yellow smoke as we clear the branches from the trail. I wonder if the parent trees can feel this reflex flowering of their dismembered parts, the way a human amputee is said to be bothered from time to time by the unscratchable itching of a ghostly foot? Pollen, like rain, falls equally on the just and the unjust. By the end of our two-mile walk, my boots have turned a gangrenous shade of green.
I kneel and crouch and lie on my belly, trying for an acceptable shot of an obvious subject. But the charms of painted trilliums aren’t as obvious as they first seem; these flowers are far more recondite than their large and showy cousins the wake-robins, for example. Given a better camera, would I see half as much? Each clump of trilliums tempts me with new possibilities, unique arrangements – redemption! But the picture taken in haste, with little thought, turns out the best.
For sheen, there’s shining club moss, rhododendren. Almost every other surface – living or dead, organic or inorganic – harbors some patina, colorful assemblages of moss, algae, fungi, lichen, monera. I think of all the orders of angels: so many different ways to feed on light and nourish shadows. The first-succession black birches and oaks will take years to rot, slowly releasing their sweetness back into the soil, long after this barely recognizable hemlock stump will have dissolved into the slightest pimple on the forest floor.
Hobblebush blooms at the bottom of a ravine, acres of ankle-breaking talus guarding it from its nemesis, the white-tailed deer. In the late afternoon sun, the blossoms glow as white as any warning meant to make a deer turn tail. A nearby waterfall already plays on night’s changes, oblivious to the drought that elsewhere cracks the moss. Why “hobblebush,” I wonder, for such a limber tree? Its shadow stretches skinny wet fingers over and under the stone.
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.