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.

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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.

Self-portrait in proverbs

This entry is part 6 of 7 in the series Self-Portraits


frost hand
Click on image to view the full-size version

A footprint is a sign; a handprint is a message.

This one says: I choose transparency because that’s the best way to hide.

Solitude is a salt lake with five inlets.

Sand can return to stone, but can glass ever return to sand?

My hand was so thick, I couldn’t see the fog in front of me.


tree face


Ice is a form of immobility that doesn’t keep. By the time I got my photos of the ice storm home & took them out of my camera, they had already lost almost all their glitter.

When the sky falls, it clings to everything. Trees snap with the weight of it. Beauty is best kept at arm’s length.

If it weren’t for wonder, I might have to go make something of myself.

Trees in the winter aren’t sleeping; they’re procrastinating.

Always remember that nature is out to kill you.


Inspired by the posts at the communal self-portrait site Autography (tagline: “Self-Portrait as Story”).

Out of place?

red-tailed hawk with vole

According to a helpful webpage on film sound clichés, “the Red-Tailed Hawk scree signifies outdoors and a big, lonely place.” Anytime a rocky mountainside appears in a movie, you can almost count on hearing that raspy scream, which most people probably assume belongs to an eagle. It’s also used as an all-purpose signifier of impending or just-concluded drama in the typical outdoors adventure flick. So you know that I must’ve photographed this immature redtail in some wild, lonely setting, right?

red-tailed hawk in maple

Wrong. It was hanging out in the heart of Penn State’s University Park campus yesterday, home to some 40,000 students. Which, I suppose, is positively bucolic compared to Manhattan, where Central Park’s famous Pale Male lives, along with a growing number of other redtails. As I watched, the hawk dove at squirrels on the sidewalk four different times without success: fat and pampered as they seem, Penn State’s squirrels are masters of defense, dodging and feinting. It finally dove into the groundcover next to Schwab Auditorium and came up with what appeared to be a meadow vole, whose presence on campus I found much more surprising than the hawk’s.

By this time, classes had let out and the sidewalks were jammed, but most of the students didn’t appear to notice the hawk ripping at its prey on a low limb less than ten feet above the sidewalk. Half a dozen students had been following the drama with interest, and a few more, seeing all of us, paused briefly to snap pictures with their cell phones, but the vast majority didn’t give it a second glance. In fact, when the hawk dove after the vole, it cleared the head of a passing student by less than three inches, but she never looked up.

red-tailed hawk in elms
It seems ironic that I have to go into town to get good views of wildlife that we have here on the mountain in abundance. I’m reasonably sure our resident redtails have never been shot at, but they are still far warier than this one was. Nor is it the first time I’ve seen a hawk on campus acting as if people were nothing but short, loud, ambulatory trees.

The students who took an active interest in the hawk’s activities were as puzzling to me as those who glanced at it and kept walking. I gathered from their conversation that at least a couple of them had been following it around for close to half an hour by the time I came on the scene. “It sure beats going to class,” I heard one of them say. But they weren’t disinterested wildlife watchers; I soon realized that they were actually trying to herd squirrels toward the hawk. Each time it dove at a squirrel, they hooted and cheered like football fans at Beaver Stadium.

They made an odd counterpoint to the half-dozen crows, who were watching and jeering from a somewhat safer distance in the tops of the elms. But within minutes after the hawk finally scored, both the fans and the opposing team drifted away. I stood alone on the auditorium steps, watching this strange and magnificent creature tear its brunch into bite-sized pieces while students streamed by below. A couple of times it paused to return my gaze with that challenging stare all raptors possess, and I felt a little odd — as if it were really I who was out of place. What was I doing, thinking that the human-nature dichotomy is an out-dated construct only adhered to by a few, misguided purists? The hawk might as well have been a visitor from another planet.

Be sure to check out the short-but-diverse Festival of the Trees #20. And if you have any broader interest in plants, you may be interested to learn that there’s a brand-new blog carnival for plants called Berry Go Round. The first edition is up at Seeds Aside.


black birch with Polyporus betulina fungi

Betula lenta, “pliant birch tree.” It’s true: a black birch is almost always more resilient than a white one, more likely to straighten back up after bearing a translucent burden of ice. Only in death does it lose its give and become rigid with listening, all its ears turned downward for news of the earth.

For more winter fungi, see A Passion for Nature‘s fungi category. Jennifer’s even putting together a book on the subject.


black birch

This dance they do
it turns them into holy caricatures
the clowns proclaim that up is down
& the end justifies the beans
everyone drinks until they see
two of everyone
& their arms shake
unable to choose which
delightful lie to lay
& hey
this year even us USians can imbibe
because Carnival reaches
its riotous climax
on Super Tuesday