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,
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.

For previous portraits of Pennsylvania natural areas, see The Hook and Tow Hill.

In the temple of the Orchid Fragrance Goddess

by Li He

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Year after year, the ageless spring returns: an indolent green swaying amid warm mist. The scent of pine mingles with the fragrance of evening flowers as the sun drops low among the willows on the riverbank, turning sand and cobbles a vivid red. Watercress crowds a spring among the rocks; in the bamboo grove, a dusting of fresh sprouts. Blue ridges arch like eyebrows above the gates – eyelids the color of dawn. Orchid bent like a bow under the weight of dew, like the loveliest of mountains, weeping in the vast spring sky.

The dancer’s girdle pendants were stolen from a phoenix wing. Her trailing sashes shimmer with veins of silver. Orchid and cassia exhale a fragrant incense; lotus and water caltrop serve for the piled offerings. Out viewing the rain, she meets the Jade Princess; returning in her skiff, she encounters the River Goddess. High on beer she plays her flute, tying a rakish scarf around her golden-threaded skirt.

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She streaks across the sky – the bell-like call of a white stag; weaves through the water – a slap of shining scales. Her coiled hair seems poised for flight. Cheeks glow with a blend of every blossom’s hue. Spiraling locks frame her dimples, and dark brows mirror perfect lips. Light and airy as a butterfly on the wing, her insubstantial body makes even wind and sun feel shy.

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Neglected in her chamber, the incense burner grows cold, and the phoenix frozen in her mirror gathers dust. On feet of fog, riding the wind she returns: a shake of jade pennants heard faintly on the highest peaks.

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This translation is of course dedicated to frequent Via Negativa commenter the Sylph. The photos are of pink lady’s-slipper, an orchid that grows in profusion here on Brush Mountain. As for fragrance, our wild azalea is second to none.

The Hook

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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

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


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.


“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


“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.


“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.


“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

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.