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.


mantid egg case

Praying mantises put all their eggs in one basket — prayerfully, I suppose. I find three mantis egg cases within 20 feet of each other and begin to worry: what if this is representative of the field as a whole? There could be thousands and thousands of mantises hatching this spring! What will they eat? But then I remember they’re creatures of dogmatic devotion to the temple of the body. Some will make the ultimate sacrifice, and this is their strength as a nation of predators: they have each other.

dangling cocoon

Hope takes many forms, some of them perilous — especially for those in suspended animation. Grave robbers are everywhere. But I’ve always thought that the fact that so many tombs in ancient Egypt were found to be empty suggests that at least a few of the occupants shed their wrappings and completed their metamophoses as planned. Imagine those human imagos standing in the thresholds of doors that didn’t exist until they opened them, stretching feelers out into the night of a new millenium, waiting for their wings to expand like the lungs of a newborn taking its first taste of air.


eclipsed moon

Coming home from a meeting after dark, I found myself walking up the hollow just as the lunar eclipse was getting underway. When I got up to the top, I stood watching among the pines until it reached totality. The trees’ shadows grew fainter and fainter until they disappeared altogether. Meanwhile, the stars had grown much brighter.

eclipsed moon with Saturn 1

I starting snapping pictures about five minutes later. From my front porch, the moon had just cleared the treetops. Astronomers had said it might turn an interesting shade of orange or red because it would be passing through the outer part of the umbra, and it didn’t disappoint, changing color from minute to minute. There were also some very thin strattus clouds that altered the hue from second to second, as in the following shot. (That’s Saturn in the lower left. Regulus appears above the moon in the last shot.)

eclipsed moon with Saturn 2

Unaware of coming, going,
I turn back alone.
Caught in the midnight sky,
The moon silvering all.
–Eun, 1232-1301
(from Zen Poems of China and Japan, tr. Lucien Stryk and Takahashi Ikemoto)

Where is your Buddhist enlightenment now? MWAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

eclipsed moon with Saturn and Regulus

Via Negativa!
Via Negativa!
Via Negativa!

(O.K., must cut down on watching political speeches on YouTube.)

UPDATE: See also Shai Gluskin’s great series of eclipse photos.

Cold eye

field study

Thursday, mid-morning. Crunching my way up across the field, the thick crust on eight inches of snow forces me to take my time, however much I might think that the real show is in the ridgetop woods, where a heavy coating of hoarfrost is rapidly disappearing from the trees. The sun is strong, and since I don’t own a pair of prescription sunglasses, I have to walk with one eye shut and the other squinting against the glare. Not that this stops me from snapping pictures, of course: dead weeds and grass are always especially photogenic with snow to provide a ready contrast and a smooth white screen for shadows.

I notice it’s my right eye that’s the more sensitive of the two; it’s less painful to squint through my left. Consequently, everything has a reddish or magenta hue, which is especially noticeable because the light is so strong. My right eye sees a more greenish or cyan world. I’ve always thought of my eyes as warm (left) vs. cold (right), and perhaps because I’m right-handed, I do favor the latter. I think you can see this in my photographs, where I so often skew the color balance toward cyan. To me, they just look better that way. But with my cold eye shut and the LCD screen on the back of my camera almost unreadable in the glare, I’m snapping pictures on faith. This turns out not to be a very good idea: none of them come anywhere near the pictures in my mind. Maybe Yeats was on to something with that sententious epitaph of his.

Friday, mid-morning. It’s overcast and warmer, near freezing. On my way up the path to my parents’ house, I come across another walker in the snow — some kind of caddisfly, I think. After a few minutes of walking on top of the snow, it slips under the crust. Perhaps it’s a little warmer under there, or the insect senses that the icy covering offers protection from feathered predators. I watch the dark blob moving under the crust and can still picture the folded wings, the Charlie Chaplin legs, and the inquisitive antennae feeling all over like the hands of someone playing blind man’s bluff, groping for anything warm.

Subscribers must click through to watch the video, or go here.

The hawthorn place

hawthorn 1

Do children still have secret places? When I was a kid, growing up here on the mountain with my two brothers as my only playmates, I had a lot of time to myself, and came to like my own company pretty well as a consequence. Being an inveterate day-dreamer, the mountain I wandered probably bore little resemblance to what the others saw. I especially enjoyed finding secret places, which often featured clearings in the woods. During the long hours of confinement in school, I remember sketching the imaginary rooflines of lonely mountain huts, suggested to me by my reading of medieval Irish and classical Chinese poems and stories. I was — it must be said — a pretty weird kid.

The best places were those I only ever saw once, and was never able to find again, so that they remained secret even from me. I won’t say any more about those. But most of the others I revisited fairly often, and I ended up sharing some of them with my younger brother, too. These refindable places had the drawback of never remaining static: I remember how devastated I was when my favorite large tree on the mountain died, and a few years later fell over. I hardly ever go back to that ravine now.

hawthorn spring

One place that’s remained more or less the same is the one pictured here. In my mother’s nature writing, she often mentions the Far Field thicket, a place right on our property line at the south end of a small meadow — the Far Field — a mile down-ridge from the houses. The thickety part is dominated by fox grape and the strange thorny trees called Hercules’ club or devil’s walkingstick, which flower in profusion in midsummer and sport heavy masses of purple berries in the fall — a wildlife bonanza. She always enters this area from above, I think, and enjoys the way the thicket acts like a blind at the same time that it attracts birds, especially in the winter.

I always preferred the area downhill from the thicket, ever since I discovered a secret entrance through the woods on the other side. I was in my mid-teens, I guess. One summer day I followed an animal trail over a dry watercourse and through dense green jungles of grape vines and emerged into a clearing right next to a gnarled hawthorn tree. It was an old charcoal hearth from the early 19th century, one of many on the mountain, immediately recognizable because of its size — roughly 40 feet in diameter — and the fact that it was perfectly level. An old galvanized steel bucket with a couple bullet holes in it lay on its side in the middle of the clearing, and I turned it over to make a seat and sat there for a long time.

hawthorn trunk

Another hawthorn grew immediately below the old hearth, and as I continued to follow the animal trail through a small, wet meadow, and then backtracked toward the thicket, I found more — maybe ten in all. The area had been clear-cut repeatedly over the last 200 years, but I wasn’t thinking about that at the time. To me, it was a wild orchard.

I had always mourned the loss of the Plummer’s Hollow orchard, which the old timers told us about when we moved in: forty acres of apples, pears and peaches. The previous owners had bulldozed out all but a handful of the trees back in the 1950s, we were told — ten years before my birth. When I was a kid, an ancient Yellow Delicious apple tree grew below the back porch among Concord grape trellises, and a Stamen Winesap below that. But both trees died in the late 80s, around the time a burgeoning deer population was decimating the grapes. So I suppose it was inevitable that one of my favorite places on the mountain should be an ersatz orchard whose trees were well armed against the deer.

hawthorn drupes

Which is not to say that hawthorn sprouts don’t still have a pretty rough time of it. Two springs ago I planted 50 hawthorn seedlings around the yard and adjacent meadow, hoping that at least a handful would escape detection by the deer, but I haven’t seen any sign of them since.

It would be easy to rationalize my irrational love of hawthorns. I could cite the attraction of their flowers to insects, their leaves to the larvae of many moths and butterflies, and of course their fruit to a huge number of birds and mammals, humans included. I could talk about hawthorn jelly — which I’ve never actually made — and hawthorn salad from the fresh, new leaves, which I’ve never remembered to sample. I could talk about the European folklore, which generally casts the tree as a symbol of hope, and includes the belief that Jesus’ crown of thorns came from a species of hawthorn. “In Serbian folklore, a stake made of hawthorn wood was used to impale the corpses of suspected vampires,” says the Wikipedia article on the genus Crataegus, while “in Celtic lore, the hawthorn plant was used commonly for rune inscriptions along with Yew and Apple. It was once said to heal the broken heart.”

The hawthorn place has grown a bit more open over the decades, thanks to the deer keeping wild grape sprouts and blackberry brambles in check, but otherwise it hasn’t changed all that radically. The biggest change is in spring, when the hawthorns bloom: what used to be a small patch of mayflowers has grown almost to an acre in size, completely covering the charcoal hearth and its environs with a forest of green umbrellas. The rusty old bucket is still hiding in the weeds, and it still makes a serviceable seat.

mayapples with hawthorn blossoms
Hawthorn blossoms on mayapples (photo taken in 2005 with my old 1-megapixel camera)

Written for the special Festival of the Trees edition on fruit trees and orchards, set for March 1 at Orchards Forever.


yucca in snow

Aboveground, I am all blade,
shedding filaments to keep
my edges keen. I can go months
& months without water.
My connections to this sand-
stone ridge run deep.

But I don’t know why when I blossom,
nothing happens. My nights
have never turned incandescent
at the touch of fabled wings.
My panicle is a pale flag
that no one ever salutes.

This couldn’t be exile, could it?
There’s desert enough here
for those who wait.
All through the dry season,
my flower stalk’s bony shadow
creeps over the smooth white drifts.

Written in response to Read Write Poem’s Lenten prompt. Links to the other responses are here.


hidden message

The Hidden Messages issue of qarrtsiluni is continuing to unfold. As usual, the second month of the issue is busier than the first, with a new post going up every day, so be sure to check back often. There’s a lot of really powerful stuff going up.

writing on the snow

I wasn’t looking for messages, hidden or otherwise, when I went for a walk with my camera yesterday morning. I did get some pictures which I hope will be good enough for a post I’m planning to write for the next Festival of the Trees’ special edition on fruit trees and orchards.

When I was still a mile from the house, a snow squall blew in, and I got some pictures of that, as well. It was exhilarating to walk along the crest of the ridge with 40-mile-an-hour winds whipping the trees back and forth and at times reducing visibility to about ten feet. (During those times, of course, I kept my camera under my coat.) Unfortunately, not everyone was out on foot: I learned this morning that the whiteouts caused accidents and pile-ups on highways all around Pennsylvania.

Yes, we f---ing got milk

I got back just in time for lunch, looking more or less like the Abominable Snowman. At 3:00 o’clock, we headed down the mountain to my niece Elanor’s third birthday party, and moments later the power went out — a neighbor from the valley called to let us know just as we reached the bottom of the hollow. This time I forgot to bring my camera, so I don’t have a photographic record of Elanor’s high-energy antics as she whirled and tore around the apartment.

We returned to the mountain two hours later to fire up our small gasoline generator, cook supper, and keep the pipes in my parents’ house from freezing as the temperature dipped to zero (-18° C). Sometimes when the weatherpeople say “cold front,” they really mean it! Fortunately the wood stove in my living room and the earth-sheltered design of my laundry room are enough to keep my own house warm. But the generator requires refueling every hour and a half, and it’s a two-person job, so Dad and I had to stay more or less awake until the power finally came back on at 2:30 in the morning. Oddly enough, when we laid bets hours earlier about when the power would return, 2:30 was my mother’s exact guess. I’m not sure what hidden messages she’d been privy to.

Here’s a brief video that should give some sense of the elemental power of the storm.

Blog subscribers should either click through to the post to view the video, or go here.