DANA: The First Perfection

A Japanese-style zendo on a Pennsylvania hillside. I suddenly remember I too used to dream this dream, years ago. How strange to encounter it in someone else’s woods, though. It’s as if I never woke up.


After half an hour of zazen, I find the continued presence of the wooden floor with its wavy grain somehow comic: everytime I open my eyes, there it is again! Solid yet wandering.


Kettle drum.

Wooden clappers.





The growl of a stomach.

A caught breath.

A sigh.


Walking meditation: the world’s most difficult dance. So many possible steps, and none of them wrong. We go single file through the woods. If the trees aren’t laughing at us, they should be.


At the Dharma talk about honoring the body, I watch a black lab running in his sleep.


We are enjoined not to speak throughout the service. The next morning, I feel a cold in my throat.


earth-boring beetle (Geotrupes sp.)

I was walking up the path under the black walnut trees in my parents’ yard this afternoon when I spotted a minor commotion at ankle level: a bald-faced hornet and a large, metallic-green beetle seemed to be arguing over something, though the hornet flew away when I bent down for a closer look. The beetle was right in the middle of the path, about a foot away from a file of fairly fresh cat shit, so I figured it was some sort of dung or scarab beetle. Anxious for a good photo, and mindful of my brother Steve’s interest in documenting all the beetles on the mountain, I set down the bag of vegetables I was carrying and scooped up the beetle.

earth-boring beetle on back

In contrast to yesterday’s frog, the beetle fought hard to escape, wedging its head and forelegs into a crack between my fingers and pushing with immense force. I barely managed to hold it in. I ducked inside just long enough to grab the camera, and set the beetle down on the concrete walk, where I’m sorry to say it rolled onto its back and I shot a few photos of it in that compromising position before helping it right itself. The feather-like protrusions on the ends of its antennae — evidently called antennomeres — glowed orange in the late afternoon sun as it turned and began marching purposefully toward the tall grass. I stuck out a hand and herded it back into the sunlight, whereupon it stubbonly began heading back in the same direction. The second time I stopped it, it emitted a loud chirping sound — if I’d ever wondered what a pissed-off dung beetle sounded like, this was my answer. Then it lifted its elytra, unfolded the sails of its underwings, and took off, buzzing at least as loudly as a June beetle.

earth-boring beetle taking flight

I emailed Steve for an I.D., and he responded quickly.

I don’t suppose you thought to collect it?! That’s a pretty rare beetle, Geotrupes balyi (species 90% certain, genus certain). It used to be considered a scarab, subfamilae geotrupinae, but now it’s in a separate family, Geotrupidae, the “earth-boring dung beetles.” The geotrupids look a lot like tumblebugs and other scarabaeid dung beetles; they roll balls of dung, etc. However, they generally live underground and are seldom collected in the USA. They are much more common in Europe; Fabre has a segment on dung beetles which are geotrupids. The well-known “spring dor beetle” of Europe (also just called a “dor,” a good scrabble word) is a bluish geotrupid quite common in much of the European continent. I’ve never collected or seen a geotrupid on the mountain before, so this is a new species and family for bioplum [our family’s biological inventory of the property].

The invaluable BugGuide.net includes some photos of this species, and I can see why Steve considers it the most likely candidate. The contributor, a fellow named Jim McClarin who is obviously at least as big a beetle fanatic as Steve, says, “I found this fellow in/on a mushy, slimy, rotting mushroom near a small pond or seasonal pool in mixed woods” in Rockingham County, New Hampshire. He offers “Mushroom geotrupid” for a common name.

So is this beetle coprophagous (dung eating) or mycetophagous (mushroom eating)? The authoritative Generic Guide to New World Scarab Beetles (which defines “scarab” broadly) says that Geotrupidae may be either.

Life histories of the geotrupids are diverse, and food habits vary from saprophagous to coprophagous and mycetophagous, and some adults apparently do not feed. Adults of most species are secretive, living most of their life in burrows. Although adults do not tend larvae, adults provision food for larvae in brood burrows. There is overlapping of generations in some species. For example, in the genus Bolboceras, eggs, larvae, pupae, and adults have been observed together in a single branching burrow. Adults dig vertical burrows (15-200 cm in depth) and provision larval cells with dead leaves, cow dung, horse dung, or humus. Burrows of some species extend to a depth of 3.0 meters. In restricted habitats, some species are semi-colonial. Geotrupids are not of economic importance, although their burrowing has occasionally caused damage in lawns. Adults of many geotrupids are nocturnal and are frequently attracted to lights at night. Some species are attracted to fermenting malt and molasses baits. Most adults and larvae stridulate. The biology and behavior of many species, especially the Bolboceratinae, are poorly known.

I can vouch for the stridulation. And it sounds like if I want to attract more of them, I need to get my ass in gear and ferment some malt. After all, who needs dung or rotting mushrooms when there’s beer?


I was just sitting down at the computer this morning when I noticed something moving behind the front door. “White-footed mouse,” I thought. But it seemed a little small for a mouse.

green frog indoors

It was a frog. My first instinct was to prop the screen door open and herd it outside. But its belly was caked with dust bunnies — it must’ve spend the night under a bookcase — and the dust included a number of long hairs. I soon realized that all four of its webbed feet were tangled in hair, and it was having trouble moving.

I picked it up and tried to pull all the gunk off of it, but it proved to be a delicate operation, so I carried it up to my parents’ house. Dad is very good at this sort of painstaking task.

green frog cleanup

It took him about five minutes to carefully snip the hairs free with a nail clipper and wash the frog off in a pan of water. I called Mom down to identify the frog, and after poring over the books we decided it was probably a half-grown green frog (though we’re open to other suggestions, too). We only have a small stream, but apparently green frogs are fine with that. They’re habitat generalists. They like to hang out under logs near streams, apparently, so it could be that this frog found the crack under my door inviting.

The Wikipedia article on the green frog calls it “primarily nocturnal,” but adds that it “is not as wary as many other species of frog. Fleet of foot and difficult to spot, this frog is often noted only indirectly as it flees into the water.” If our identification is correct, it’s a new species record for the mountain. Who knows how long its kind has been hiding out here? Unless the juveniles really disperse widely, I’d say we have a breeding population.

After Dad got it thoroughly cleaned off, I carried it down below my house and released it beside the stream. It was by this point quite habituated to human hands, however, and didn’t want to leave; I had to poke it with a finger to get it to hop off into the weeds.

Cute as it was, I hope it doesn’t try to return to the house. There are way too many milk snakes and black snakes in the walls to make this a hospitable environment for frogs — to say nothing of the groundhogs, porcupines, raccoons, skunks, and feral cats that have been known to inhabit the crawlspace under the floor. It’s lucky for the frog that it didn’t tangle with anything larger than a dust bunny.


truck window

August, & the empty catbird nest catches small walnuts that will never hatch. An early autumn chill settles into my kneecaps. Last night, a cricket made entirely of electrons haunted a cross-continental audio connection between computers. It sped up & slowed down according to no change in temperature that anyone could discern. Thus, perhaps, the Great Motherboard amuses herself. Today at sunset the sky was full of chimney swifts, & I watched them for a while because it’s the height of the Pleiades, & this was likely the only skywatching I would do. Swifts are well named. The clouds turned orange above them while they weaved & wheeled. For whose chimney were they the wayward smoke? And in the morning, sometimes the sun finds a hole in the wall of trees opposite my porch & blinds me for half a minute before inching upward. Then wherever I look I see its negative: dark suns swimming in a cloudless blue.

El Arbol del Tule

Tule tree canopy

Tule tree limbs

Tule tree burl

My brother Mark, a professor of geography at Delta State University in Mississippi, recently returned from a two-week trip to the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, where he was surveying cycad populations with some Mexican colleagues. While there, he took the opportunity to visit the world-famous Arbol del Tule (pronounced too-lay), in the small town of Santa Maria del Tule. I prevailed upon him to share some of his photos of the Tule tree with Via Negativa readers. Please click on the images to see larger versions.

El Arbol del Tule

The tree is an ahuehuete (ah-way-way-tay), known in English as Montezuma cypress or Mexican cypress — Taxodium mucronatum. Genetic tests have shown that it is a single genetic individual, not the fused trunks of several trees as some had thought. Tule is a kind of reed; the town was built on the site of a former marsh. According to the Gymnosperm database,

“Ahuehuete” is a Nahuatl phrase that means “old man of the water,” a fit name for a tree that is always associated with swamps, streams or springs (Bautista 2005). The tree is sometimes also called Ciprés de los Panatanos (Cypress of the Marshes).

ahuehuetes in a stream

The ahuehuete is most often found growing directly in the current of streams and rivers in Mexico. It’s a close relative of baldcypress (Taxodium distichum), the most visible difference being the virtual absence of cypress knees. Like the baldcypress, the Mexican cypress is deciduous, dropping its needles in the dry season.

Santa Maria del Tule

Santa Maria del Tule is a small valley town a few miles east of Oaxaca City. It is easily accessible by local bus. The Arbol del Tule (l) dwarfs the church; a somewhat smaller ahuehuete (r) grows to the right of the church.

Tule tree foliage

Tule tree with tourists

Church at Santa Maria del Tule

The town square is dominated by formal gardens, which include some topiary. One gets the impression from these photos of a rage for order — a natural reaction, perhaps, to the otherwise overwhelming wild presence of the great tree. However, this species has been a literal building-block of civilization in Mexico for a very long time. The Aztecs and other Mexica peoples built cities on shallow lakes by first planting palisades of ahuehuetes, then filling the areas they enclosed with rocks and soil. Tenochtitlan itself was built in this manner, which means that one of the largest cities in the world — Mexico City — had arboreal grandparents, whose bones might still lie buried somewhere beneath it.

Tule tree plaque

Arbol del Tule
Common name: Ahuehuete or Sabino
Family: Taxodiaceae
Genus: Taxodium
Age: More than 2000 years
Girth (circumference): 58 meters
Height: 42 meters
Diameter: 14.05 meters
Volume: 816,829 cubic meters
Weight: 636.107 tons
Source: SEDAF
Town council 1996-98 [those who erected this plaque]

The age and even the exact size of the Tule tree are difficult to determine. The plaque at its base is unlikely to have the last word.

little tree at Tule

This is the smaller tree on the other side of the church, which would be considered remarkable anywhere else. As the aforelinked Gymnosperm database page puts it,

The Tule tree itself grows in a neighborhood that also holds six or seven other very large trees — one tends not to notice them, though, because most are behind walls and not publicly accessible, and because despite their large size (over 300 cm in diameter) they pale into insignificance beside the Tule tree itself.

Tule tree poem by Juan de Dios Peza

Regular readers know of my interest in public poetry. I was happy to see Mark’s photo of an official Tule tree poem, especially since the poem, by Juan de Dios Peza, takes a decidedly via negativistic approach. Here’s the text, along with my quick-and-dirty translation.

El Ahuehuete de Santa Maria del Tule

¡Con qué pompa a la vista
te presentas titan de estas
risueñas soledades!
Si sacuden tu copa las
tormentas sollozan en
las ramas las edades.
¿Qué te puedo decir?
Inspiras tanto que a mí
me basta recoger tu
nombre y darte mi mutismo
como canto ¡Junto a un
arbol así nada es
el nombre!

Juan de Dios Peza
5 June 1994

The Ahuehuete of Santa Maria del Tule

How grand and stately
the sight of you, colossus
of these inviting solitudes!
When storms rock
your crown, all the ages
moan in your branches.
What could I possibly say to you?
You inspire me so much,
I’d rather withdraw your name
and give you instead my silence
in the form of a song: Next to
a tree like this, a name
means nothing!

Juan de Dios Peza
5 June 1994

Mark Bonta prays to the Tule tree

Mark isn’t a terribly religious guy, but he said he found it strange that people would go into the church to worship with such a tree looming right outside. Here he is, as photographed by one of his colleagues, offering a prayer to the Arbol del Tule.


Be sure to check out the latest Festival of the Trees at Fox Haven Journal. The September 1 edition of the blog carnival will be hosted by the Spain-based blog Exploring the World of Trees; email links to Dan (treespecies AT gmail DOT com) by August 29.

Lines for a wet summer

gravel piles

A wet summer.
At the entrance to the hollow,
twin peaks of gravel.


Storm-carved ruts
on the gravel driveway
fill up with hailstones.



Blue damselflies
patrol the slow-moving waters
of the blueberry bog.


Done berry picking,
I wash the bog mud off my legs
with brown bog water.


Morning thunder,
then rain. “It’s just getting it out
of its system, right?”


An indoor picnic.
The child climbs the steep stairs
to the green room.


shirt window

In lieu of a curtain,
a checkered shirt catches
the evening sun.


turning the page

At last the author relinquishes his hold on the book he has been struggling to finish for almost a century. There’s a sound like the rapid turning of pages, or the beating of wings.

leaning tree

Two vultures were circling low above the treetops, as if in a slow-motion chase. I watched their shadows move through the forest, sliding up and down trunks and gliding over the shiny leaves of the laurel. On a cool morning, they were looking for light and warmth like everyone else. They were looking for a lift.

It’s not the vultures’ fault if their very name provokes fear and revulsion, simply because we are ashamed of where we came from. We too are scavengers with naked faces and an aesthetic preference for clean, straight bones. In the middle of the day, when the predators retreat to the shade, we venture out, alert to the crushed leaf, the snapped twig, the blood-dark berry. Stark contrasts are pleasing to us. The savanna — half grass, half trees — was our founding parchment, and we return to that garden every chance we get.

birth of a tree

At this very moment, in some back garden in Damascus, a brand-new tree is struggling to be born.

Buck in velvet

bolete pattern

At daybreak, the sound of hooves on gravel: a small buck accompanied at some distance by a doe meanders up the driveway, sampling the vegetation first on one side and then the other. As he rounds the bend opposite my front porch, I get a better look at the branches sprouting from his head, covered in dark-brown velvet — only four, rounded points so far, but the size and spread suggests he’ll be at least a six-point, and therefore a legal target come October.

Horns, many people call them, but the remarkable thing about antlers is that they are shed and regrow every year in a matter of months, unlike true horns, which are permanent. The energetic cost to the animal must be enormous. A rack, they call it, as if it were designed by God or evolution as a place to hang coats or display trophies. But this most prized of natural artifacts is itself a trophy — to hunters, and perhaps also to the deer, who holds his head so differently from a doe.

It’s just light enough to let me observe what he eats as he approaches the house:

  • the leaves of several goldenrod stalks, starting at the bottom and working toward the top;
  • a couple twigs of a multiflora rose bush, one of two beside the driveway that are as compactly rounded as if they’d been kept pruned by hedge-trimmers;
  • half of a large, compound leaf of a black walnut seedling the same age as the deer;
  • one stalk of wild garlic, starting with the tight fist of baby cloves at the top;
  • several mouthfuls of orchard grass;
  • the tip of a leaf of bracken fern;
  • some brome grass in front of the stone wall that borders my garden.

He’s near enough now that that I can hear the chewing and the smacking of lips. He crosses the road, lured by the sight of black raspberry leaves, and starts working on the end of the very cane that hosts a paper hornets’ nest at its base. A moment later, the anters jerk upright, and he bats at his shoulder with a hind leg. Then with one leap he clears the drainage ditch and lands among the cattails, twisting and rearing like a wild mustang with a bronco-buster on its back. A few seconds of that and he prances over to the woods’ edge, head still held high, to join what I imagine must be his sister — last year’s twins. If any hornets are still following him, he doesn’t show it, and neither does she. Their association is safe for at least a little longer from nature’s maddening sting.

Hat season

Mom in the berry patch

Ah, summer — time of berry picking, vine-ripened tomatoes, corn on the cob, and big ol’ floppy hats. Because it’s also high noon for deerflies, mosquitoes, no-see-ums, and, well, high noon. (There’s a video that goes along with this shot, by the way. Catch it at my mother’s blog.)

Dad in the woods

I’ll admit, though, I was a little shocked when my dad traded in his usual stylin’ John Deere cap for a shapeless straw hat he found in the closet. “The brim goes all the way around with this kind of hat,” he marveled. “The mosquitoes don’t come under it.”

I’m not entirely sure the hat was made for men, but whatever. My dad is nothing if not secure in his masculinity.

mushroom sombrero

It might be that Ma Nature is sending us subliminal messages, though. Between the Indian pipes and the mushrooms, hat-like things have been popping up all over the place. I watched gnats swarming around a rotting amanita yesterday: they crawled all over the top-side, but I didn’t see a single one venture beneath the brim.

Which got me to thinking there might be a big evolutionary advantage to this sort of behavior, because the underside of a mushroom, or any other projecting shelf, would be an ideal place for a spider to lurk. Maybe to the Diptera, it’s not that mushrooms are hats; hats are great big mushrooms.

Just, you know, a theory.


When your hat is your home, you take it off at your peril. Things will never again seem as safe and dark and quiet as they did under a hat. Mosquitoes will come and sing in your ears, and not only because they’re looking for a blood meal. They get a darn good echo in there. Ears, being put on sideways, probably don’t look like hiding places for spiders in most cases.

But think of the way an ear is shaped. Maybe, just maybe, the mosquitoes too are looking for a hat.


If you can’t see the slideshow, or if you’re on dial-up, go here.

I found the cicada struggling to mount a leaf, clawing feebly at the smooth surface. It had somehow survived the avian gauntlet, but death would come soon one way or another. Elsewhere in the patch, stray wings of less fortunate cicadas were scattered about, looking very much like transparent maple keys.

Few plants offer as many opportunites for arthropod watching when they aren’t in bloom as the large-leaved and aromatic Collinsonia canadensis. I’ve always referred to this plant simply as “horsebalm,” but apparently that name has been applied to other members of the Collinsonia genus as well, along with “stoneroot”; I should be calling it Canada horsebalm to be more specific, or better yet, richweed. Though prized by herbalists, and once an important medicine to the Iroquois and Cherokee, for us it’s mostly just a nice, citronella-scented plant that’s fun to point out to tour groups on hikes up the hollow — we always like to add an olofactory element to our tours. In another month or so it’ll send up spikes of yellow flowers, but why is it so popular with the six- and eight-legged crowd now? From what I could see, simply because its large, horizontal leaves help with thermoregulation: where they intersect with short-lived sunbeams in the otherwise cool forest, they’re great places to sunbathe.

Needless to say, this is a (semi-) macro photographer’s dream. Most of the woods is simply too dark to take photos without a tripod; I’m pretty much limited to snapping what’s in the sun. And since it was a cool morning, the insects were in no hurry to move on. But as usual, my attention was drawn as much to the stage set as to the actors: the shifting patterns of sun and shade, the color and texture of the leaves.

I wasn’t the only one drawn by the concentration of insect life. A funnel spider had set up shop, curling a leaf into a lemon-fresh lair of death. An assassin bug squash bug* seemed less interested in stalking prey than in feeding on a bird dropping. When I came in too close with the lens, it circled to the other side of its prize and assumed that pugilistic pose so typical of its kind. And a pair of harvestmen — or a harvestman and a harvestwoman, as the case may be — seemed most interested in each other. For the entire half-hour I was there, they stood face-to-face, barely moving except for their long front legs, which met and circled like foils in the world’s slowest fencing match.

I think I’ll be calling it richweed from now on.

*See comment by Rebecca Clayton below.

Flickr slideshow created following the very helpful instructions of Paul Stamatiou.