The Hook

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

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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.

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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.

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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.

Tow Hill

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Yesterday I walked around the Tow Hill portion of State Game Land 176 in Centre County, PA with my friend L., who lives nearby. This is a geologically, botanically and historically unique area – a former iron mining town now reverted to woods and barrens. The Tow Hill portion is crossed by a large powerline and dotted with small ponds, some occupying former mine pits, others made by beavers. It was a spectacular day to be out in the woods.

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The buds open on the oak trees: yellow-green flowers, yellow-green leaves the size of squirrels’ ears & equally full of buzzy warbler voices. Warblers sound like what they eat, hard on the outside, liquid on the inside, segmented, brief – sing it! – cerulean, black-throated green, black-throated blue.

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Just as the leaves open, the caterpillars pitch their tents. Power lines whistle a thin & hungry tune from bare metal trees.

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Moth and rust don’t corrupt, they beautify. Some hunter thought this slab of old metal was worth leaning against a tree beside the trail for others to see. It’s trying to become a window, perhaps, one corrosive raindrop at a time.

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A window? No, more like the obverse of a periscope. The sun sits on the surface of the murky pond like a glass-bottomed boat.

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Strange fruit: a dry, rusted-through bucket hangs in a tree. If this were the American Southwest, we’d know what to make of the bullet holes: it’s been killed, we’d say, so its dead owner won’t come looking for it. Who knows when you might need to carry a little more sky?

Skunk cabbages space themselves as if they’d been planted by some self-effacing green thumb. The drama of their blooming long over, they spread their sails for home in the rust-colored mud.

The gatekeepers

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

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It’s after-hours at the reptile zoo. The last echoes from the last child’s excited shrieks have died away and the endless loop of jungle music has been switched off, along with the softly hissing fluorescent lights. Imagine what sounds must populate the stygian darkness, as Edgar Rice Burroughs would’ve called it: a slow whispering of scales against scales, the creaking and shuffling of homesick tortoises still trying to locate the bole of some coconut palm. The leaf-tailed geckoes’ suction-cup feet make faint popping noises as they climb the walls. A cricket chirps once, twice. A sudden scrambling from the cages of live mice and three dozen forked tongues crackle like static. Something small and deadly plops into a pool. An alligator takes its once-a-minute breath.

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“More sophisticated interpretations of Genesis regard the serpent as mediator of understanding: human beings must be expelled from the Garden, which they have enjoyed unconsciously, in order to return to it with conscious appreciation in a perfected state… It is notable that both Kundalini and Christian imagery represent the serpent as gatekeeper of extraordinary power – be that power conceived as energy or awareness. The two snakes intertwined around the caduceus, symbol of the medical profession, evoke the serpent as gateway to healing.”

Ellen Crist, “Serpentes, the Ultimate Other,” in Wild Earth special issue, “Facing the Serpent,” Summer/Fall 2003

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“The [human] brain evolved into its present form over a period of about two million years, from the time of Homo habilis to the late Stone Age of Homo sapiens, during which people existed in hunter-gatherer bands in intimate contact with the natural environment. Snakes mattered. The smell of water, the hum of a bee, the directional bend of a stalk mattered. The naturalist’s trance was adaptive: the glimpse of one small animal hidden in the grass could make the difference between eating and going hungry in the evening. And a sweet sense of horror, the shivery fascination with monsters and creeping forms that so delights us today even in the sterile hearts of the cities, could keep you alive until the next morning. Organisms are the natural stuff of metaphor and ritual. Although the evidence is far from all in, the brain appears to have kept all its old capacities, its channeled quickness. We stay alert and alive in the vanished forests of the world.”

E.O. Wilson, “The Serpent,” in ibid.

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“Although I’ve been taught that scientists are supposed to be dispassionate observers, I’ve had problems living up to that ideal. It is impossible for me to view nature as a collection of unfeeling objects. I’m not just interested in living organisms and curious about their lives – I really love them. I especially adore the eastern diamondback rattlesnake (Croatus adamanteus), the ‘king of rattlesnakes,’ as Manny Rubio calls it in his book, Rattlesnake. Just why I have an affinity for this creature I can’t say…

“My most memorable experience with a diamondback was a seemingly telepathic one. I was walking slowly along a transect in San Falesco Hammock, near Gainesville, conducting early morning bird surveys for my dissertation research. I was gazing up toward the treetops, listening for songs and calls, when suddenly the image of a diamondback came into my head, like a daydream. I glanced down, and right at my feet where I was about to step was a large diamondback in a resting coil. The strangest thing is that neither I not the diamondback were the slightest bit alarmed by this state of affairs. I sat down cross-legged about a foot from the snake, and for several minutes we silently communed, the snake slowly flicking its tongue and I just watching. I then stood up, stepped around the snake, and continued my survey.”

Reed F. Noss, “Another Dead Diamondback,” in ibid.

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“Sadly, snakes are disappearing from many parts of the globe just when we are starting to understand their place in the world.”

Chris Mattison, Snake: The Essential Visual Guide to the World of Snakes, DK Publishing, 1999

“Green, how much I want you green.
Green wind. Green branches….”

(Verde, que te quiero verde.
Verde viento. Verdes ramas….)

Federico Garcia Lorca, “Romance Sonambulo” (Sleepwalker’s Ballad)

Death: letters

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall


I found this child’s glove on the lawn after the snow melted. I’m not sure where it came from. We don’t get trick-or-treaters here.

A is for Absence, which we are unable to imagine for ourselves but all too ready to visit upon the world.

B is for Bones, which grow and break and knit themselves back together, but mercifully do not feel.

C is for Carcass, or Carcase – in either case, the body turned into burden, a dead weight.

D is (of course) for Death, which we can only understand by reference to life, which we cannot understand at all: thus, it is a mystery of the second degree and not the first.

E is for Eater, or Earth, which rhymes with mirth for no particular reason.

F is for Fate, curator of retrospectives.

G is for God or Gangster, Google or Ganges, Gog or Gag.

H is for Hell, which used not to be so Hot before the Christians conquered it and turned it into a penal colony.

I is for Iconoclast – the most precise job description for Death that I can think of.

J is for Jack and Jill, who went looking for water in high places rather than in low, and suffered the consequences.

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I almost stepped on this doe skeleton down in the marshy corner of the field yesterday – probably a winter kill from 2004.

K is for Knack, the one thing we can neither take with us nor pass on, as Zhuangzi noted.

L is for Languor, which seeks to escape but manages merely to omit.

M is for Motive, without which Murder is truly a Mystery.

N is for Narcotic: henbane, thornapple, belladonna – plants that remind us that death is a form of ecstasy.

O is for something Other than what you think.

P is for Post or Pillory, the original way to spread news both Public and Personal, where all letters arrive marked current resident.

Q is for Query, a kind of minimized Question that permits a sleight-of-hand substitution of words for bodily presence.

R is for Return, a logical impossibility (see Heraclitus).

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Also yesterday, I found this dead fish in the woods. There are no live fish on the mountain. All I can figure is that a passing osprey dropped it.

S is for Snake – or rather, S is a snake, whose hiss must be one of our favorite sounds. It makes the blood race in our snaky veins.

T is for Test, a Terror-ridden, Terrible justification for child sacrifice, both in Abraham’s time and in our own.

U is for Uncle, the ugly one that children make other children call them, on pain of death.

V is for Vault, a place to store money or bones.

W is for Want and for Worm: the price of admission, regardless of the show.

X is for X – anything you want (see W). It signals openness and cancellation both, a friendly kiss and a pornographic rating.

Y is for Youth, when immortality and tragedy both seem possible.

Z is for Zest, the merest smidgen of which is proof against Zero.

Anti-Byzantium

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

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The old barn is no ersatz cathedral, no skyscraper struggling to free itself from all ties to the earth. Built near the low point of this farm at the head of the hollow, it replaced an older structure that had been destroyed by arson. Its design came from drawings made by the wife of the then-owner; a master builder on work-release from a near-by prison oversaw its assembly. Many of its timbers are clearly recycled, bearing the mark of an adze and sporting square holes at odd places where a mortised joint had fit in a previous life. Others were clearly milled afresh. Some even retain their bark, a pattern unfamiliar to me: American chestnut, perhaps? The barn is full of ghosts.

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It’s a classic Pennsylvania barn with a projecting forebay on the side away from the weather and an earthen bank entrance to the second floor. Like all barns, it was built to keep rain out but let the air flow through. A legend of the former owners said that unless both haymows were kept filled to the rafters, the wind would lift the roof right off. So several generations of tenant formers mowed and raked and hauled grass in from the orchard, sweaty work. The owners showed up for a couple months of the year to play farmer as only nouveaux riches can do. One year they brought a circus elephant back from Chicago by train, led it up the hollow and kept it penned on the threshing floor all summer. The gardens must have flourished for years on elephant dung.

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All we ever kept were hogs – a pair a year for three years running – and Muscovy ducks. A few feral cats still drift in and out – barn cats from the valley – but without livestock now there are no rats and probably too few mice. The winter before last a cat died in one of the old stalls; I found its mummified corpse sometime in May. A gray squirrel makes his nest in an old pipe, runs along the beams and up and down the walls as if the barn were still a forest. Phoebes sometimes nest in the basement and barn swallows in mud nests plastered against the roof beams. We have never had a barn owl.

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My parents would like to have the barn painted, but I love it as it is, every year a little more weathered. In some places the original red paint still hangs on; elsewhere, the later white gives way to golden brown knots and amber waves of grain. And while we’ll never know how much if any of it was milled from trees felled here on the mountain, there’s no question that the foundation stones are autochthonous, hauled down from the ridges.

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The barn faces southeast rather than due south because that’s the orientation of the whole farmstead: parallel to the ridges. On early autumn mornings we look to the barn roof for the first signs of frost, as if it were some high Alpine peak. Replacing this roof was one of the first things my dad did after my parents bought the place in the early 1970s. Our then-neighbor Margaret later told us that one of her hunter friends had watched from the woods as Dad wrestled rolls of tarpaper up the extension ladder and nailed the roofing down from a jerry-rigged scaffold. That’s when she realized we were here to stay.

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Unlike so many other refugees, we didn’t bring the city with us. But like nearly everyone, our stock of possessions expands to fill every available space. This barn built for hay and livestock now harbors machinery and junk, piles of scrap wood, a graveyard of lawnmowers, bottles of DDT. Forty-year-old sacks of lime have dissolved into a gray mountain looming at the back of the basement. I’m reminded of a train station somewhere where the trains have stopped running, leaving the last travelers stranded at the end of the line. A place to sit and watch thin fingers of sunlight playing with the dust, wait for empty mangers to once again cradle some infinitesimal portion of the sky.

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The space where a tree used to be

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

The space where a tree used to be still forks, still ramifies. It weaves a net of scissors, perfect for cutting paper chains of angels from the difficult air.

The space where a tree used to be has its separate birth, cotyledons like the horns of old-fashioned gramophones swelling with dark chords. Everyone makes the same mistake of shouting into them, as if they were ear trumpets.

The space where a tree used to be is never available for residential lots. It conceals whatever core of resistance remains after colonization – green canes hidden inside every sword.

The space where a tree used to be is marked by crossed sticks or a sawed log bearded with yellow ice. Sometimes a sapling encroaches on it. Sometimes a vole follows the tunnel left behind by one of its roots clear to its logical conclusion and hollows out a nest – a tomb chamber fit to fill with seeds & truffles.

The space where a tree used to be grows dark at noon with the wings of passenger pigeons. Its artificial eye surveys the woods from the far edge of the field, sacrificing detail for the allure of smooth illusions such as depth and duration.

The space where a tree used to be is a pillar of fire by day, a waterfall by night: listen. Its birds are worth more in the bush than in any hand. It rears its head like a gnomon against the stars.