Fossils of the wind

If it quacks like a duck… from the Undiscovery Channel on Vimeo.

The woods were full of question marks, Mom says at dinner. They’re migrating north. I am suddenly sorry I didn’t go for a walk in the woods. Instead, I spent an hour in the bottom corner of the field, crouched beside the artifically enlarged spring we call a pond, waiting in vain for the wood frogs to resume the chorus I’d interrupted when I had to change my camera batteries. After forty minutes, a single frog re-emerged; at least six had been quacking and fighting when I first got there. Even though I was watching the pond intently for the slightest sign of movement, the frog just suddenly materialized like some kind of amphibian ninja, floating motionless on the surface with a small lump of mud for a hat. He drifted back and forth in the breeze, not moving a muscle. Watching him watch me — this creature that can freeze solid for weeks or months at a time, his heart stopped — I too began slipping into a trance. I was reminded of Charles Simic’s “Stone Inside a Stone,”

On the border of nothing and nothing.

Fossils of the wind.
But what wind?

You can’t step twice in the same river —
With a stone you can take your sweet time.

wood frog

The sun was sinking, and the temperature was dropping back down into the 40s. My fingers grew numb around the camera. I caught sight of the red-spotted newt that has been living in this spring for the past few years, feasting on frogs’ eggs and tadpoles and reducing the once-teeming wood frog population to a half-dozen long-lived survivors. The newt glided insouciantly along the bottom, and I couldn’t help wondering if this was the real “lizard in the spring” in the old Appalachian folksong.

Later, when Mom hears that the wood frogs had been out, she says she’s sorry she went for a walk in the woods instead. It seems we each took the other’s walk! But on the way back up the driveway to fix supper, I paused to admire a clump of newly opened coltsfoot at the edge of the driveway, small suns in a firmament of blue-gray stone.


Mourning cloak

Snow Butterfly, from the Undiscovery Channel on Vimeo.

What mourner wears maroon edged in gold? These dark wings are solar collectors, newly resurrected from hibernation or a long journey to the south. They are also billboards of a sort, advertising for sex.

mourning cloak on snow 2

But until the females emerge, there’s bare dirt and dung to eat, and snow to suckle. Find a path in the woods and make that your destination: land and circle, rise and double back. A month or more before the new leaves, your colors are made to match the fallen, the moldering. When the wind riffles the ridgetop leaves, you too can flutter. This is your glory time.

mourning cloak on snow 3

Later on, after the heat of mating is past, when the weather turns oppressively hot, you can let the strings of your life go slack a second time, creature of the in-between, of spring and autumn.

Easter eggs

snow egg

Yesterday was the first snowy Easter I can remember. I went for a walk and found, among other things, a loose jumbly nest of sticks at the top of a Hercules’-club tree that cradled a small mound of snow, and not far away, an egg-shaped melt-spot on the surface of a rock, resting in the shadows of branches. Without meaning to, it seemed, I’d gone on an Easter egg hunt. It made me think back…

Easter morning when I was small
meant candy — the first since Halloween;
a gift or two, usually including a new kite,
which I would struggle valiantly to fly
in the mountaintop’s transverse winds;
& a half-dozen eggs I had helped
to dye myself, those that weren’t already
sea-green or blue because they’d been laid
by one of our Araucana hens. We used
all-natural materials, especially
onion skins, which imparted a yellow
or orange tint depending on how long
we left the eggs in the dye bath.
Wrapping them in ferns or tree leaves
made lacy patterns where the veins
lay against the shell. It was as if
we were enacting a dream of barnyard fowl
to return to the trees.

Somehow even knowing what we would find,
& despite the fact that hard-boiled eggs
can’t compete for taste sensation with a chocolate bar,
it was still exciting to paw down through
the green plastic straw — reused year
after year — & lift them out, bright & smooth
as pebbles on a beach. Cracking such an egg
was a solemn occasion.
It made us mindful, admiring the shell
even as we split & crumbled it, & underneath
the slick flesh no longer white, but onion-colored.
The last discovery then would be a bit
anti-climatic: the yolk a dark orange
as with any egg from a chicken that’s free to roam,
to bathe in the dust, & for whatever reason,
madly flapping in front of oncoming cars,
to cross the road.

In response to the Read Write Poem prompt, “Go green!” Links to other responses may be found here.


sky roots
(Click photo to see larger version)

Mid-March at this latitude is a time when even the most ordinary things can seem like revelations, as the Theriomorph observes. There is both less and more of things than we remember. Upturned roots diminished by rot seem to draw sustenance directly from the clouds, while living roots on a stream bank eroded by floods are left clutching little but each other and a few, bare rocks. As we circle, examining them from all angles, these signs turn gradually into ciphers. Soon we risk our own entrapment in a spell of undiscovery. Did she really say, “Even the babies have rocks in their parts”? What does it mean?

(Video from the Undiscovery Channel)


A couple of housekeeping notes: I’ve introduced a Feedburner version of the RSS feed for this site, the main advantage of which is that it displays videos to subscribers. Sometimes, as with that skunk video in “Canoe Creek,” I forget to include a note or caption to tell people reading this via Bloglines, Google Reader, or wherever that there’s a video in the post. And why make them click through to view it, after all? Other advantages to the new feed include helpful links to share the post via email, Facebook, and so on, similar to what you have on-site with the ShareThis utility. I’ve made it the new default, meaning that it’s what you’ll get if you click on the little feed icon in the Firefox browser window.

And speaking of the browser window, if you’ve noticed a question mark inside a yellow warning triangle to the left of the URL, don’t be alarmed — that’s simply my new favicon. (Don’t like it? Design me another one!) It used to be an exclamation point, but it was subjected to rigorous questioning in Photoshop. If you can’t see the new favicon, and are still still looking at the old, nearly indecipherable one (which was supposed to be a “falling rocks ahead” sign, but looked more like a sideways “V”), that’s probably because your browser is still caching the old one. Don’t worry — you’re not missing much.

Canoe Creek

Canoe Lake

It was a bright, sunny afternoon with temperatures in the mid-50s. I hitched a ride with my brother Steve and his three-year-old daughter Elanor to Canoe Creek State Park, about 20 miles south of here, to look at waterfowl through his high-powered spotting scope. We went first to the picnic area, where a few buffleheads were swimming in a small patch of open water. But most of the birds were crowded in an inlet at the far end of the lake. Even at 75 power, it was hard to tell what some of them were, and I was surprised by all the heat shimmer off the ice-covered lake.

on the beach

Elanor was delighted by the little artificial beach. Another parent was there with two, slightly older boys, but they left shortly after we arrived and Elanor had the place to herself. She loves water in any form, and can spend hours staring at it, throwing things in it, and generally messing around in it. Fortunately for her, the lake had ignored the “beach closed” sign and had breached the fence.

The real excitement came an hour later, as we were heading back across the picnic area toward the car, having decided to drive to the boat launch on the other side of the lake for better views of the waterfowl. Steve spotted a small animal rooting around in the grass between the picnic tables. A skunk!

Charles Fergus, in Wildlife of Pennsylvania and the Northeast, notes that “The fur industry gives the highest grades to skunk pelts having the least amount of white,” so this was a very valuable skunk. As luck would have it, my mother’s nature column for March was on skunks, which are often seen this time of year. Not only is March their mating season, but they are apt to be famished at the end of a long winter, as this one appeared to be:

Striped skunks fatten up before winter and sleep through the coldest weather. But their body temperature only drops from 98 to 88 degrees Fahrenheit, and they frequently appear during warm spells. Nevertheless, from November to March, females lose from 32 to 55 percent of their weight and males from 15 to 48 percent.

And what do they eat, exactly? It might be easier to list what they don’t eat.

Striped skunks, which find food by using their keen sense of smell and hearing, eat just about anything including garbage and carrion. That’s why they thrive in a wide variety of habitats, including lawns and golf courses where they dig up grubs. But they prefer forest edges, old fields, and brushy farmlands where they do more good than harm, eating an incredible diversity of insects such as beetles, crickets, moths, ants, and grasshoppers, and specializing in such harmful to agriculture insects as bud worms, June beetles, army worms, cut worms, and scarab beetles. They dig up yellow jacket nests and scratch on beehives to entice honeybees outside so they can eat them and are seemingly unperturbed by their stings. They also relish spiders, toads, frogs, snakes, young rabbits, chipmunks, shrews, voles, salamanders, crayfish and earthworms.

And then there are the birds’ eggs, the mice, the roots and berries… For a striped skunk, it seems, nearly every area is a picnic area.

goose girl

On the other side of the lake, Elanor finally got a close look at the creatures that had left all those impressive turds in the grass. Steve and I were more interested in the displaying mergansers, the canvasbacks, and four tundra swans standing out on the ice. And as usual, we were ready to go long before she was, though she fell asleep soon after we got into the car.

The greatest value of Canoe Creek State Park to biodiversity lies elsewhere than in its artificial lake: it has the largest maternity colony of little brown bats in the state, and a bat hibernaculum that includes the federally endangered Indiana bat. With the mysterious white nose syndrome decimating bat populations to our north, and the growing threat of industrial wind turbines, which kill bats by the thousands, Canoe Creek will probably be an increasingly important refuge for these slow-reproducing keystone species. But the recreation-oriented portion of the park has value to wildlife too, and on a nice day in early spring, we were perfectly content with a few close views of some common but undeniably charismatic creatures.


one-eyed hawk

Download the MP3

I wasn’t terribly keen on yesterday’s poem, but then I listened to this reading of it and almost started to like it. The recording was completely unsolicited, and is by someone who wishes to be identified only as “a nameless friend.” In response to my grumpy comments about the poem, A.N.F. wrote:

No, it’s not a perfect poem — for one thing, I thought the penultimate lines were amazing, but not the final one. And you probably overdid the repetitions just a bit.

But I like it, and I liked it even more as I read it aloud. Praise Whomever for imperfect things.


body and soul

Suppose it’s true: that as you walk,
another is walking within you, perfectly
coterminous with your own walking.
Suppose it’s true that as you sit,
another sits within, weathering you,
like the coal inside the ember.
I don’t like to think that our bodies
are mere vessels — or vassals —
but suppose it’s true. It might explain
these odd, apparently random urges
to hold & be held, or to lose ourselves
through concentration: the not-us within
wants to reach the not-us without.
It might explain why, as we slowly
tighten around our cores,
strands of white begin to appear
on our heads, an extra light glimmers
behind the eyes, & a network of cracks
under the skin begins to offer glimpses
of an inner blue. Suppose it’s literally true
that heaven is within. Would even this
be as illuminating as the knowledge
that we are risen from the ocean,
descended from the trees?

Ending re-written 8/8/13. For the original poem, listen to the recording in the following post, Doubletake.

In response to a Read Write Poem challenge to make use of repetition. Other responses are linked here.

And speaking of RWP, I have a guest column there today, Poetry out loud: audio blogging for poets. Feedback on that from anyone with experience in audio blogging or podcasting would be very much appreciated.

Trespasser’s will


Yesterday I strapped on snowshoes for the first time this year — and possibly for the last (it’s in the 50s today). Unlike a lot of areas to the north of us, central Pennsylvania hasn’t gotten very much snow yet this year, so Saturday’s eight inches on top of the four to five inches already on the ground afforded our first real opportunity for snowshoeing.

There’s a special freedom you feel when walking on top of deep snow through woods where abundant fallen logs and other obstructions have mostly been buried. You get to thinking you can walk almost anywhere, albeit with great deliberation if you’re using heavy, clunky, white-ash-and-rawhide-type snowshoes. I went off-trail almost immediately, and soon found myself straying over the line onto the posted property of a neighbor with whom we don’t have very good relations. I figured what the heck — he’s not going to be up here today, and someone has to enjoy his woods in the off-season. I was after an unobstructed view of the valley, thinking I might take a few landscape photos. It was harder than I figured; there’s a lot of brushy growth in his recently logged woods.

deer bed 2

Fortunately, scenic vistas were among the least interesting things I found. I admired several dense stands of Hercules’-club. These strange, thorny trees are among my favorites, but unfortunately the deer like them, too, and often kill them by stripping off their bark, thorns and all, during the hungriest time of the year — March and early April. And in fact, I did find three Hercules’-club stems that had just been stripped to a height of four and a half feet, their pale yellow nakedness looking especially pitiful against the snow.

The deer bed in the above photo was one of three clustered around a large oak tree on our side of the ridge — the local herd, post-hunting season. But over on our neighbor’s property, where hunting pressure is lower, I was dismayed to find another, much larger cluster of deer beds: eleven of them. All had fresh tracks leading out of them; there was no doubt they’d all been occupied the night before. I saw oak stump sprouts that were still struggling to get above deer browse height, ten years after the logging. The good news is that we won’t have to listen to our hunter friends complaining that aren’t enough deer next fall — the deer, unlike the humans, aren’t constrained by boundaries.

burl 3

By far the coolest thing I found yesterday was this immense burl on a chestnut oak tree. I shot photos from all angles, including one with a view of the valley behind it: you can check out the slideshow here. It amused me to consider that the same grotesque protrusion which renders a tree unfit for regular lumber (and probably the reason why this one is still standing) can make it quite valuable in the right hands. By the same token, I suppose someone with a purely culinary interest in oysters would be annoyed to find a pearl. Liberate the pearl from the oyster, or the burl from its bark and tree, and suddenly the grotesque becomes sublime, like trading a distended abdomen for a newborn baby.

That’s entirely too many metaphors for me, though — I’m getting giddy! Confusing freedom with willfulness is always a risky proposition. Best to hike back onto more familiar ground, safe behind the ridge-top boundaries which also form our horizons here in Plummer’s Hollow.

Don’t miss the March edition of the Festival of the Trees — a wonderful romp through fruit tree and orchard lore.

Powerful cleaning

ultra-concentrated joy

Who needs Zen when there’s ultra-concentrated Joy? Of course, the claims are lies: it’s a cheap detergent, no more concentrated than any of the competing brands, and a little bit of it doesn’t go very far at all. But at least it doesn’t claim to be “Home-E-Zential,” or (like another one of Trader Joe’s cleaning products) Next to Godliness.

I have to say, though, I think the soap makers are thinking too small. Cleaning needn’t be merely joyful, meditative, or morally improving; it can and probably should be a life-changing experience. I’m sure an Orgasm detergent will be coming soon. But what about Epiphany? What about Jesus?! This is America. If we can expect epiphanies for breakfast, it may take more than mere joy to clean the dishes.


grape trellis

Following animal tracks through the former grape trellis & into the woods, I pass between wire & shadows. The crusted snow tugs at my feet, as if to fix me in place like so many others.


I watch the way things surface & think of a snow-shark rearing a hammer head, or some other cryptozoological prodigy. It’s the shadows more than the sun that pull me uphill. The bright, still morning seems just right for a sighting.

Then on an unused game trail, I almost trip over a loop of new wire staked between two bushes. I freeze & stare.


This must be what the game laws call a cable restraint, as if it were simply a fancy kind of leash for recalcitrant canids. No wonder the songdogs here so rarely advertise their presence!

I reach down & pull it out by the roots, then spot the fresh bootprints on the other side. They are enormous.

I will track this creature to its den.