Raising the tank

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It’s been over thirty years since the thousand-gallon oil tank was buried in the lawn, and we figured it was only a matter of time before it rusted through. This would be an environmental catastrophe, since it sits right above the stream, near the head of the hollow. We were planning to replace the old guest house furnace with a new, more efficient model anyway, so it seemed like a good time to put in an above-ground, fiberglass-lined tank, as well.

Thus, Saturday morning found us – my dad, my brother Steve and I – helping to free an aging, submersible craft from a shallow sea of soil. I say “helping,” because in fact the diesel-powered farm tractor did most of the work. The backhoe arm had no trouble moving earth that had been broken up by the original excavation in 1973, but as soon as it tried to bite into virgin ground, it ran a cropper of the bedrock, which is little over 18 inches down in some spots. Dad sat at the controls while Steve and I leaned on our shovels, or climbed up behind him for a better view. From the front porch, looking straight down as dirt and boulders tumbled onto a growing pile, I really did begin to feel as if I were watching a kind of semi liquid, like the stuff that spills out of a field-dressed deer. But when the hole got below four feet in depth, we saw water for real: even in this drought, the bottom of the tank sat a foot below the water table.

Of course, the air itself was saturated with moisture. The thermometer was climbing past 90 and we were sweating buckets just standing still. But Dad was afraid of undermining the guest house front porch, which he and I had spent considerable time and effort shoring up a few summers back, so Steve and I did have to jump down into the hole at one point and do a bit of digging around that side. Standing on top of the emerging tank, Steve discovered a metal ring or handle poking up. Without that discovery, we might’ve spent all day trying to get a chain under and around the tank.

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Using the tractor’s front loader, Dad was able to lift and carry the tank up to the barnyard. I had already gone up to the main house to begin preparing that evening’s supper – we eat almost nothing but cold dishes in this kind of weather, so I have to work well ahead. But Steve buzzed me on the intercom so I wouldn’t miss it, and I ran back down and joined Karylee and Elanor on the porch. As the tank lurched free of the earth, it swung dangerously close to the nearest porch column, and we all moved down to the far end.

Once in the barnyard, we lowered the tank onto concrete blocks, stacked so it would sit an angle. I pulled over the steel drip pan from underneath the bulldozer, and Dad and Steve proceeded to cut a small hole in the bottom with a sawzall in order to drain out the last of the oil. When it was finished draining, Dad gave the end of the tank a kick and discovered that it had amazing acoustic properties: a booming bass that went on and on almost as long as a Japanese temple bell. After supper, on my way back down to the guest house, I grabbed a sledgehammer from the barn and tried it out, striking the end as hard as I could. From a foot away, I could hear all kinds of overtones. Dad joined me in the barnyard after dumping the kitchen scraps in the compost pit. “Bet they can hear that all the way from Tyrone,” he said. I tried an accelerating rhythm: BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOMBOOMBOOM, like the world’s largest ruffed grouse. My dad’s never been to a rock concert. “You can feel the sound right in your chest,” he marveled.

Traveler’s joy

More notes from last week’s trip to West Virginia.

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Below the pulloff for the roadside view, the vine called traveler’s joy sprawls over the rocks.

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A wood lily rocks gently in the wind, doors thrown open to all six points of the compass.

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Yellow birch: the straight & narrow path is never dull.

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Ground beetles take the place of dinosaurs in a forest within the forest where flowering plants are still a distant rumor.

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Rank & deadly, false hellebore raises a green panicle above leaves already half-dead, turning color for no one.

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On the summit where we found snow in late October, fireweed blooms against the spruce.

Two ways at once

Last week my friend L. & I spent some time in West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest – our third visit in less than a year.

We take our umbrellas walking, slower & slower.

I hear springs gurgling under the rocks. Small, dark pools appear among the rhododendrons. In one, a red maple leaf floats, already orange with autumn; the surface of another is covered with hemlock needles – tiny green rafts going nowhere.

We overtake a snail traveling in the same direction, gliding along under its spiral backpack.

Rain rarely reaches us unmediated by trees. The sun can come out long before rain has finished dripping from the leaves. As slowly as I walk, my glasses still fog up every time I stop.

The already wet trail grows wetter. One rock hisses under my boot.

We stop for lunch – instant ramen – and a spot of tea. I set my tin cup in the creek to cool, keeping watch to make sure the rhododendrons don’t drop a blossom in it.

With thunder rumbling in the distance, we dangle bare feet in the water. I watch a pair of crayfish battling a few feet away. The loser scuttles over & gives my ankle several exploratory taps.

I watch water flowing around a large rock, its translucent body a net of shadows as it folds back against itself. After ten minutes or so, I think I might understand something fundamental about water, its impetus to condense, to fall, to plumb the depths. But then I glance just a few feet to the left & am completely flummoxed by a large drift of foam. I had forgotten about tannins. The water is never just one thing, I think.

The storm breaks. Tree trunks become rivers flowing in two directions at once, outside & in.

On the way back, I stop to eye a large hemlock with limbs like reverse mouths for the sun. The tree reveals itself as a condensation of need, or needs. (Who knows if all aspirations can be reduced to a single breath?) Things turn inside out before my astonished gaze. With each footstep, I realize, we are helping to hold down an insurgent earth.

What I am calling need might be a kind of thirst or hunger, but it seems risky to try & grasp it through analogy with human desires, which are so wrapped up in surfaces. The non-human world seems much more rooted & constrained by custom. And what these others lose in flexibility they gain in the directness of their access to what we call the divine. For them, there is no gap whatsoever between spirit & matter.

A torrent of thoughts under my umbrella: Every element of Creation seeks redemption from its uncreatedness, its just-so-ness; death & decomposition represent only a temporary setback. Life is continual recomposition.

The life force, for lack of a better term, consists not merely of need but the energetic field surrounding it, which helps forge connections between beings. To feel those connections deeply is intoxicating – or, more accurately, leads to something like a contact high.

Spirituality is almost beside the point, considering that the body is already a temple and the digestive system is the most perfect altar imaginable. From the belly’s faithful service we can learn the art of letting go, a kind of sympathetic magic aimed at getting other things to let go of us. However hungry it may be, the panther knows better than to try & sever the jugular of a mountain stream.

Done scribbling, I glance up from my pocket notebook. An open space under the hemlocks is illuminated by a single, fist-sized clump of rhododendron blossoms. “What are you writing?” L. asks. “Oh, silly stuff,” I answer truthfully.

A half-mile farther, another open grove shimmers with the endlessly supple song of a winter wren. A second thunderstorm rumbles in the distance. The sky grows dark.

An hour later, we’re back at camp. I’ve carried my folding camp chair over to a house of boulders, where I sit admiring the arrangement of space & the spill of light where it opens to the sky. The boulders are green with moss, & each is capped with a dozen or more large, leathery ears of rock tripe. The resident hermit thrush draws near, playing his crystal flute. For several long moments I feel confirmed in whatever it is I’ve been trying all afternoon to intuit. Then a fly buzzes through without even slowing down – zoom. It is the most thorough & devastating refutation I can imagine.

And if you think the world is recalcitrant now, I say to myself, wait until you’re in your 80s.

I go looking for my hiking partner & find her sitting under another rock shelter, spying on the forest road below. I return to camp & start on supper. Later, she tells me that when a pickup truck finally did drive by, she couldn’t look.

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Valentine’s bible

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This is the family bible of my maternal great-great-grandfather Valentine Myers and his wife Viola. It was published in 1882. The title page reads, in part, “The Holy Bible: Containing the Authorized Edition of the New Testament and the Revised Version of A.D. 1881 Arranged in Parallel Columns; with Cruden’s Complete Concordance, Embracing Every Passage of Scripture in the Largest Editions. Comprehensive Bible Dictionary, In Which Every Important Scriptural Word is Fully Explained. A Complete History of Each Book of the Bible, Beautifully Illustrated. Cities of the Bible, With Descriptive Scenes and Events in Palestine. Jewish and Egyptian Antiquities; Biblical Scenery; Manners and Customs of the Ancients; Natural History; Bible Aids for Social Prayer; A History of the Jewish Worship; Biblical Antiquities; Recent Explorations in Bible Lands; History of Herod, King of the Jews, &c. Apocrypha and Psalms. A Concise History of All Religious Denominations, And Many Other Important and Useful Aids to the Study of the Holy Scriptures. All Written to Increase the Interest In and Simplify The Study of the Word of God.”

Two publishers are listed – Bradley, Garretson & Co. in Philadelphia and Wm. Garretson & Co. in Columbus, Ohio and other cities. Given its provenance – the hard coal country of eastern Pennsylvania – it’s safe to assume that this volume was printed in Philadelphia.

In the very center of the gold-embossed leather cover, the names of its original owners are printed: “MR. and MRS. V. MYERS.”

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This is the portrait of Viola Myers that hangs in my parents’ living room, a formal photograph embellished with paint. Our only photograph of her husband is an informal, slightly blurry snapshot taken sometime in the 1930s. He appears as a white-haired and mustached man with the aquiline nose and large chin typical of Myers males, posing with his son Walter, daughter-in-law Georgina, and grandsons Harold – my grandfather, whom we called Pop-pop – and Walter.

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The distinguishing feature of family bibles is of course the record of births and deaths, typically sandwiched, as here, between the Apocrypha and the New Testament. The “Births” column includes only the five children of Valentine and Viola: Claude, Walter, Calvin, Ethel and Harold. The “Deaths” page was filled out by three people: first Valentine, then an unknown hand, and then Pop-pop, who gained custody of the bible from a first cousin a few years before his own death in July 2003.

The two entries in Valentine’s hand are crucial to appreciating the rest of this post. The first was for his wife:

Viola Miller Myers. Was born at Lehigh Tannery. Pa. June 15th 1864. Died at Vulcan Pa. April 23rd 1894. Aged. 29. Years 10 Months and Eight Days.

Viola died giving birth to her fifth child. Valentine never remarried, raising the children himself and then joining the household of his son Walter, first in the little coal-company town of Vulcan, above Mahanoy City, then in Pottstown. He was probably the single biggest influence on my Pop-pop, who imbibed much of his strict Methodist religiosity, love of learning and conservative, success-oriented outlook from his grandfather.

The second death record, also in Valentine’s hand, is for that fifth child:

Harold Chester Myers. Died at Perkasie Pa. May 25th. 1908, Aged 15 yrs 5 months and nine days.

Thus we learn why it is that Walter’s first son – my Pop-pop, born in 1914 – bore the name Harold Chester Myers, and the name Walter was reserved for his second son.

The other four entries on the “Deaths” page are for Valentine, his son Calvin, and for Pop-pop’s parents Georgina Dresch and Walter D. Myers. Valentine Myers, we learn, “was born at Ashley, Pa., Nov. 27, 1857. Died at Pottstown, Pa. Sept. 27, 1940.”

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In a taped interview conducted by my brother Steve – the oldest and most Myers-like in our generation – Pop-pop recalled how his grandfather Valentine read the Bible continuously, cover to cover, in the last couple decades of his life. “Eighteen times!” Pop-pop said, but my mother told me that that was probably an approximation: “Whenever he said ’18,’ he just meant ‘a lot.'”

I doubt that this was the copy of the scriptures Valentine used for his daily reading, though. For one thing, it’s massive, heavy and awkward, and the corners of the pages do not appear to have been thumbed. Instead, this bible seems to have served as a repository for memories, and probably a great deal more. I don’t know if any of us today, even the most devout Christians, can quite conceive of what it means to employ a sacred text in this manner. One of the first things I discovered in flipping through it was a yellowed newspaper clipping tucked between the pages of the book of Job. You can probably already guess its contents:

Harold Myers Buried.
The funeral of Harold, the 15-year old son of Valentine Myers, was held at the home of the bereaved father, at Vulcan, at 12 o’clock noon today, and was largely attended. The services were conducted by Rev. E. W. Burke, pastor of the Methodist Episcopal church of town, after which cortege proceeded by the 12.50 P. R. R. train to the German Protestant cemetery, where interment was made in the family burial plot.

Below this clipping are the faint outlines of where another clipping had been tucked. It’s not hard to guess whose obituary that might have been. Between the pages immediately following are the pressed remnants of what appear to have been rosebuds, faded to a light brown.

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A ringlet of hair resides between the pages of Jeremiah VI and VII. Jeremiah VII: 29, marked off with a paragraph sign in this edition, reads: “Cut off thine hair, O Jerusalem, and cast it away, and take up a lamentation on high places; for the Lord hath rejected and forsaken the generation of his wrath.”

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I knew that 19th-century Protestants sometimes used the Book of Ruth for divination regarding marriage, but found nothing pressed between its few pages. However, a full-page lithograph illustrating the meeting of Ruth and Boaz – a plate that happens to be located in I Kings – yielded another intriguing find: a ladyslipper orchid, probably a yellow ladyslipper, judging from the shape. I started to think that Pop-pop’s life-long love of wildflowers might have come from his grandfather, as well.

Of course, it’s possible that later owners of this bible might have been responsible for some of the inserts, though it’s hard to imagine someone else appropriating for their own prayerful use a book that has its original owners’ names engraved on the cover.

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Most suggestive of all the inserts is this one: an ancient, very faded carnation tucked inside a scrap of paper and inserted next to the last chapter of The Song of Solomon.

Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave: the coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it: if a man would give all the substance of his house for love, it would utterly be contemned.

(Song VIII:6-7. See here for my own reactions to this most enigmatic of biblical texts.)

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The Book of Numbers – specifically, Chapters VIII, IX and X – holds the mother lode: two more obituaries for Harold Myers (one with his last name misspelled), a newspaper subscription receipt for “Mrs. Myers,” and a local tax receipt for someone named Martin Robters (sp.?). The reasons for including these last two items are not immediately clear to me; I want to suggest some relationship to the practice of numbering or record-keeping, but I’m not sure. Chapter IX of Numbers contains the instructions for removing impurities conferred by contact with a corpse, and the way in which resident aliens – “strangers sojourning among you” – should keep Passover. Perhaps the tax receipt was for someone whom Valentine helped out, during the Depression or before? As a retired mine supervisor, he was always fairly well-off, and spent generously on acts of charity. His daughter-in-law Georgina had a similarly generous spirit: Pop-pop recalled in the interview that they fed every stranger who came to their door during the Great Depression.

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A two-page spread on “Scripture Natural History – Zoology” contains some pressed tree leaves and another orchid blossom. Again, I’m not sure how to read this insertion. Perhaps some metaphorical meaning was intended – a reminder of the fragility and preciousness of life itself, say, or of this very bible, whose gilt-edged pages have grown almost as brown and brittle as the leaves and clippings it so lovingly enshrines.

A brief gallery of hideous things

Live out your life in a lonesome hollow. The unattainable horizon comes to crush you all the same.

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The real pity – says the benignly neglectful gardener – is that the flea beetles are too busy ever to stop and admire their handiwork.

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Slime molds always remind me of the late Emperor of Japan. Imprisoned by protocol, worshipped as a living god, Hirohito made an infinitesimal progress around the grounds of the Chrysanthemum Palace, magnifying glass at the ready for these otherworldly creatures that evade every category humans can invent.

Like the proverbial army that travels on its stomach, the bulldozer chews up the earth with its caterpillar feet.

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Some merely stoop to conquer. Japanese stilt grass falls all over itself.

Put out to pasture, the rotting muscle car gives its last joy ride to a multiflora rose.

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The sun oozes into view. Seven-thirty and already I’m bathed in sweat. On a brief walk around the field, I spot my father hanging out laundry. He’s whistling “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” as he pins up the underwear.

UPDATE: My father insists that he was in fact whistling “God Save the Queen.” Could’ve fooled me.

Mountain state (2)

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the song of the winter wren goes spiraling
into the treetops down cliff under ferndrip ledge
follows the loop of a fox grape vine
& lodges in the bend of birthwort’s
pipe-shaped flower

it twines across the altar of my concentration
electric now with offerings
every part of worry anxiety hope

& tunneling through a weave of rhododendron
the trail goes straight, gently undulating
like the narrow-gauge rail bed it once was
carrying out trees in short sections
from what somehow managed to remain wild
high bowl of a remote mountain watershed
& freed from any need to watch our feet
we scarcely notice how much we have climbed
how much we have left behind

I glide as through a gallery, hungry for visions
saunter as if along a city sidewalk
each tulip tree and oak another body
to measure against my own
each of us a stranger only to ourselves
the slick fictions we grow year by year
in rings around the so-called heartwood
where sap long since ceased to flow

I see myself held in an eye of wood
I am implicated in a ripple of grain laid bare
when the bark dropped off

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but the plant people if you want
to call them that are far more timid than we are
we look at them carefully out of
the corner of an eye & pretend
only to care about identification
as if membership in a tribe or species
tells us anything beyond what name to use
when talking behind their backs
what they really have to say I think has
something to do with how to hold our ground

even the most active beings can make me feel
less like a discoverer than the discovered
is this for example the same tiger swallowtail
weaving drunkenly above the water
for the last three miles
every time I catch a glimpse of the creek?

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the trail wanders past an old cellarhole with a new
display of plastic flowers that spell “Mom”
& a garden site gone wild with mountain mint
we stuff our pockets with the fragrant leaves

we pause at a spring where mossy stones sleep
like small green bears
I pull out my camera & my friend bares her teeth

here’s a veery, descending call
like a flute inside a bottle as
my friend puts it
or perhaps two flutes played by a single flautist

we cook lunch among the boulders on the creek
& afterwards go browsing for lichen patterns
my friend seeing endpapers for hand-made books

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I spend a short century in a smiling contest
with the mossy head of a demiurge of stone
rising from the water, lines of bubbles
swimming slowly through its patch of sun
rich baritone voice in a language I feel
I can almost understand
& all around it the creek in shadow

& I am whispering encantado,
desencantado
like a child
slowly plucking the spokes of a daisy
cantar is still the commonest
verb for “sing” in Spanish so
to be encantado really means to be caught
in a web of song I muse
focusing one at a time on each
voice in the watery chorus

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on the walk back we find a redrock shelf
at the edge of the creek pitted with potholes
some empty, others cupping moon-shaped pieces
of sky & a few mosquito larvae
wriggling back & forth in what
doubtless only looks like ecstasy

I can say anything, I think, arrogant
in my power to make little worlds from words
but anything I can say falls short of this world
its liquid laughter pure from the beginning
free of the salt of tears

just before leaving we stop at a spring with a waterfall
& a black PVC viaduct strung on a cable
gravity water for someone whose dog barks
from the other side of the creek
we fill all our bottles
& thrust cupped hands into the flow

surely water clear as glass should let us
see into some kind of future
or at least as far as the mountain’s stone heart
but it’s my own arteries I see
throbbing in my wrists
I lower my face to the would-be window & drink

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the next day on the flat-topped Allegheny Front
I study the cousinship of peak & bog
the same plants so often growing on both
& here the two kinds of places merge into one
when I piss at the edge of a dry boulder field
I hear the splash of water into water

Dolly Sods is still beautiful still teeming with life
despite its horrific usage by arrogant humans
who saw nothing but timber, pasturage
& a bombing range during World War II
natural extremity makes it at once more vulnerable
& more likely to resist the tendency of the badly used
to become ugly common & mean

& I know nothing, I think, suddenly ashamed
of my inability to look beyond wounds to
the grace & power of the wounded
which includes virtually every part of this land
which has been your land and my land for far too long
& needs to be its own land again

an interpretive sign explains how
wind-tortured red spruce trees grow branches
only on the leeward side for decades until
other spruce grow in around them & then
they knot their roots together among the rocks
gather stillness & the spongy beginnings
of new humus between their trunks
make a place too moist for lightning
to strike a spark & then all together
they rise up

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on the drive home the edge of my concentration
grows blunt as a butter knife
which is to say I lose my temper
& my ordinarily kind companion loses hers
& we ride in silence for a while
discoveries made in a mountain state
must not be transferable
I think glumly
everything we found remains behind

but the truth turns out to be otherwise
because unbeknownst to us
three craneflies got into the car at the last stop
before our long descent
& we can’t get rid of them
rolling down the window at the strategic moment
only blows them into the back of the car
& though for a while we think they’re gone
eventually they reappear
dancing in front of the windshield on flimsy wings
their long legs dangling & we give up
& laugh & let them ride & by the time
we get back I’ve forgotten all about them

I carry my gear into the house unpack & sit out
on my front porch watching the fireflies blink
under a second-quarter moon
until my eyes won’t stay open any longer

where state lines fall is an accident of history
& come to think of it I have yet
to leave the mountains
we will keep on returning whichever way we travel
the mountain state is still there & so are we

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Mountain state (1)

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High in the mountains
one hayfield remains uncut.
A doe’s ear twitches.

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Bed of the Dry Fork
scored for tic-tac-toe: water fills all
the squares with zero.

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Camp at the woods’ edge.
Morning sun brings rhododendrons
into your tent.

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Steep banks, big boulders,
pools – everything but otters
in Otter Creek.

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At Dolly Sods
when the wind slows down, it’s delicious:
wild azaleas.

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When they cut the forest,
the soil burned off. Bleeding hearts
bloom among the rocks.

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On two different hikes
I looked at lichens & left
the map in my pack.

Visit the Monongahela National Forest webpage for more information about some of the places referenced here, including Dolly Sods Wilderness (history here) and Otter Creek Wilderness. For a previous Via Negativa post on West Virginia, see Almost heaven.

Self help

Dear Emily, I was glad to hear about your new incarnation as an advice columnist. I’m confused.

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If I turned over a new leaf, would I stay just as green?

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If I look on the bright side, won’t I need shades?

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If I just do it, can I get out of having to think?

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If I’m to be neither a borrower nor a lender, shouldn’t I in good conscience cease to breathe?

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If I gave a hundred and ten percent, could I get it all back in deductions?

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If I follow someone else’s advice to reinvent myself, who owns the intellectual property rights?

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If I’m learning to express my sexuality, and I accidentally get in touch with my inner child, does that make me a pedophile?

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If I prioritize personal growth, can I write off my blighted urban core?

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If I seize the day, can I still get a good night’s sleep?

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If I cast my bread upon the waters, am I free to piss in the wind?

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If I could truly “be here, now,” would I forget how to curse?

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If I let the scales fall from my eyes, how would I see my way in a world of snakes?

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Most of all, I wonder: If I help myself, can I still expect a second helping?

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Any light you could shed on these matters would be much appreciated. Sign me…

Differently Clued in Pennsylvania
__________

Thanks to Abdul-Walid for forwarding the link.

Illuminating the limpid nude

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Late morning, the day before yesterday: As I’m putting the finishing touches on my Lorca translations, I hear something moving through the cattails and rushes at the edge of the little marsh on the other side of the driveway. I go out to investigate and discover a porcupine drinking from the ditch. She rears up and faces me briefly, chattering her teeth in a hostile fashion, before turning around, exposing her backside and pushing out her quills. An admirable reaction, I think; I’ve always regarded the porcupine as something of a kindred spirit. In the strong sunlight her pale skin is visible underneath the black and dark-brown fur and the forest of spears. When I go back in, some lines I had been puzzling over suddenly make a bit more sense:

But don’t illuminate this limpid nude of yours
like some black cactus open in the bulrushes.

*

That evening, as we’re finishing up supper on the front porch of my parents’ house, my mother spots two pairs of blue jays moving around at the top of a tall locust tree above the driveway. “Seems a little late for mating activity,” she says, but perhaps the heat makes them frisky. The males are hopping and fluttering around the females, as if at a dance. One pair flies off to the west while the other pair continues to dance. With birds, it’s almost all foreplay: after two blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em copulations, the female takes flight with the male in pursuit – or in tow, as the case may be. It’s important to avoid letting our own preconceptions influence what we see.

*

I’ve been slightly obsessed with trying to get the perfect peony photograph. And why not? Almost every other year since they first flowered back in 1998, their entire blooming period has been rained out. These are the old-fashioned, off-white, double-blossomed peonies with a strong scent very much like a woman’s perfume. I transplanted them from the yard of our erstwhile neighbor’s derelict house into my herb garden (as I then considered it), for no better reason than that I liked them. But I was delighted to learn somewhat after the fact that peonies do have a well-established place in herbal tradition. Last winter I quoted a bit from Gerard, who describes a number of folk beliefs about the peony, for example that the plant

is not plucked up without danger; and that it is reported how he that first touched it, not knowing the nature thereof, perished. Therefore a string must be fastened to it in the night, and a hungrie dog tied thereto, who being allured by the smell of rotting flesh set towards him, may plucke it up by the rootes.

The superstitious fear was not entirely misplaced. According to John Lust (The Herb Book, Bantam, 1974), “The entire plant is poisonous, the flowers especially so. A tea made from flowers can be fatal.” It’s the root one uses, of course. And while I don’t fear personal injury from digging it up – I did it once and survived – it is true that peonies very much resent being disturbed. As any nurseryman will tell you, they can take a couple of years to recover after being divided. So if I ever contract jaundice, kidney or bladder problems, or the gout, I think I might look for other remedies first. And I hope I never have occasion to treat myself for “spasms, and various nervous affections,” as King’s American Dispensatory puts it.

But I was intrigued by Gerard’s descriptions of how it appeared at night: the seeds of one variety “shine in the night time like a candle,” and another “doth shine in the evening like the day star.” So I go out after dark with my camera to try and take some flash pictures. I don’t detect any bioluminescence, but I wonder if these legends might have originated from people with synaesthesia? The fragrance is almost overpowering. The camera’s viewfinder shows nothing but blackness; I simply point the camera toward the perfume’s epicenter and click.

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The flash illuminates the flowers and helps me get a better position for two subsequent shots, but I feel very much like a voyeur. Reviewing the pictures in the display window, I’m reminded of a couple we caught in the act one time down at the gate. We had driven home around 10:00 o’clock one night to find a car blocking the entrance to our driveway. Dad put the high beams on and waited while a pair of startled faces popped up and went back down, to be replaced by hands reaching frantically for articles of clothing – piles of white on the dashboard, in the back window.

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Incidentally, King’s – which contemporary herbalists still regard as fairly reliable – does give credence to Gerard’s claims for the effectiveness of peony seeds in driving away nighmares: “The seeds, taken night and morning, have been successfully used in removing nightmare attendant upon dropsical persons.”

Standing outside in the dark, breathing in the mingled odors of peonies and dame’s rocket, I hear something chewing – some small rodent – in the walls of my house.

*

A frustrated e-mail correspondent challenged me to prove that I am still alive. I had three reactions:
1) He obviously hasn’t been reading my blog.
2) On the other hand, maybe he has been reading my blog.
3) Far greater minds than my own have foundered on this very question. For my part, I will continue to insist that Blogito, ergo sum.

Martin’s Gap

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We’re in Martin’s Gap, on the edge of the Rocky Ridge Natural Area in Central Pennsylvania’s Rothrock State Forest. We got lost for a while on the drive in, and now, wandering along the stream in search of the trail, we encounter showy orchids in full bloom. In the dim light of a rainy late afternoon, you almost expect flowers like these to begin speaking. It’s not as if they lack for tongues. I sprawl on my belly, trying to shoot their portrait in the gloom with my little snapshot camera. A pickup truck stops on the nearby gravel road: “Is everything all right?” “We’re fine, thank you!” That bland baldness that most speakers of the English language mistake for truth.

A few minutes later a barred owl calls from the ridge: Hu HU huhu, hu HU huHU-awl. He flies in to query us more closely; I’m not sure how to answer. Barred owls, like their close cousins the spotted owls, are quite unafraid of human beings and often seem curious about these strange, flightless birds trespassing in their woods. The traditional birders’ onomatopoeia has them asking, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?”

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In the forest, one cannot help hearing voices, I think. But a hundred feet down the road, we run into another group of wildflower enthusiasts. “Did you hear that barred owl?” “No! Where was he?” They seem like very nice people, but I’m reminded once again of why I shy away from large group hikes. A little while later, I find this crowd of open-mouthed puffballs on the end of a log.

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Wild yam and maidenhair fern: two ways to spiral. When the dervishes whirl, they say, they’re searching for something they know they’ve never lost. Or for someone, all in green, variously known as Adonis, Elijah, Khidr or St. George. The tighter the whorl, the more earth his velvet coat takes in. For a double helix, add one dragon.

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Narcissism is fine for the moon-faced narcissus. For orchids, we need another word: orchidism. You want mythic content? Surely the evolutionary tango of pollinator and blossom will suffice. If you’ve ever steeled your heart against jealousy and self-love and sought salvation in complete otherness, that was orchidian behavior – highly evolved.

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The sky slowly clears. We climb out of the shadow at the crest of the ridge, which is capped with strange sandstone outcroppings: megaliths, stone heads carved solely by the weather. I’m reminded that more light doesn’t necessarily mean less mystery – especially if it comes from the sun, which has always struck me as being full of darkness. Try staring at the sun for more than a second and you’ll see what I mean. You’ll carry its smudgy thumbprints around on your retina for the rest of the day.

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While my hiking partner relaxes on a flat rock to listen to the forest, I go clambering in search of still more images. Here’s a burl on a rotten rock oak, half-debarked: a coroner’s view of the brain. If you aren’t following a map, you find maps everywhere.

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Below one of the largest outcroppings, I hear low murmurs and creep cautiously around, not especially enthusiastic about catching people in some intimate or illegal act. But there’s nobody there, just this young Hercules’ club, otherwise known as devil’s walking stick – a common native colonizer of forest gaps. In lieu of branches, it sports enormous compound leaves and has the odd habit of producing so much fruit in the fall as to bend and even break its brittle stalk, otherwise fiercely defended with collars of thorns. There’s a lesson in there somewhere, I’m sure. Its masses of berries rapidly ferment, making them all the more attractive to the songbirds it counts on to spread its seeds far and wide, shitting them out in drunken, erratic patterns – spirals, wheels.
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For previous portraits of Pennsylvania natural areas, see The Hook and Tow Hill.