Our Lady of the Alleghenies

so often the sky looks more
maternal than the earth

i am listening to the traffic
of wind through bare trees

snow on the cliffs growing
roots of ice

from the drained lake
a mechanical thumping

I recall a feeder stream
in lurid unrhyming orange

what’s behind the allegheny front
but played-out coal

the late afternoon light
gains a hint of sunset

warm air dancing with cold air
the clouds turn voluptuous

and the distance even bluer
my own mountain included

on the way home
the apparition of an old man

bent nearly double beside the road
dragging a full bin of trash

the next day snow falls
soft and heavy even in the valleys

with winds off the front
molehills become mountains again

trees are striped white
on the weather side

down in the hollow i spot
the first winter wren in weeks

bobbing with excitement
at the end of a snowy limb

Les fleurs de l’hiver

in a brown study of a winter
anything bright draws the eye

one snowflake
wandering through the forest

the scarlet crest
of a pileated woodpecker

her knocks inaudible
above the ridgetop wind

working her snag all the while
i sip my afternoon tea

under a table mountain pine
whose sighs are endless

the sun almost comes out
but then it doesn’t

graupel ticking in the leaves
leads me to witch’s butter

a yellow rose turned
to enchanted flesh

feeding on the fungi they say
that feed on the dead

orange ellipses
on black birch

when bees are imaginary
any brightness can bloom

even green rocks held aloft
by upturned roots

or corrugated steel
chthonic with rust

below the ruin of a pine
sky filling the round holes

where limbs once stretched
toward the sun

January Thaw Walk

Bell Gap again

raindrops land with a random
industrial rhythm

on the metal roof of a trail shelter
wrapped in fog

a flash of white from a woodpecker’s wings
as i set out again

feeling parenthetical
under a black umbrella

at the two mile marker
a greenbriar vine’s final leaf

fog retreating up the mountain
doesn’t use the trail

the wet cliffs seem to glow
i page through shelves of blue shale

looking for fossils i find
hibernating lady beetles

and snow hiding below the rocks
protected by rhododendron leaves

that must’ve been stripped off
by high winds

in the place of white birches
i remember my former life

in a distant city
my own tongue gone strange

i walk through a river of cold air
flowing down the gorge

at the by-gone railroad’s
horseshoe bend up the mountain

entering the cloud
i pull on my poncho

to the accelerating pulse
of a ruffed grouse drumming

i’m agog at the beadwork
of rain on every twig

ridge lines begin to emerge
above the clouds

an erasure as selective as
a song dynasty landscape

hiding a highway
and half the sounds of traffic

four chickadees forage
in the trailside sumacs

a white birch appears
through a hole in the clouds

on the side of the next mountain
but i’m turning back

on the slope below me
stark naked branches

where a porcupine has been
exercising his teeth

feeling peckish myself
i pick up a bunch of wild grapes

that old taste of wine
left out too long

Rock Creek Park

a forest winds through the heart
of the empire’s capital

where i was born more than half
a century ago

great white mother oaks
hegemonic in their own way

keep the soil just right
for oaks and hickories
tulip trees and American beeches

though English ivy is still a menace
with its hooks and ropes

and where a pair of oaks have died
invasive wineberry creeps in

as do i through a corner park
watched by security cameras

a yellow-bellied sapsucker
sounds his vuvuzela

joyful shrieks of children
from the tower block housing
echo through the ravine

the Rockefellers have added razorwire
to their perimeter fence

beyond which the trail
gains signage and blazing

in the soft light
of an overcast winter day

beeches and people seem cut
from the same gray felt

dead leaves still cling
like worn-out slogans

some twigs brandish antiflowers
of sooty mold fungus

where aphids must’ve insinuated themselves
between bark and bite

chunks of a broken jack o’lantern
decorate the hillside

the creek below making
an understated thunder

through its namesake rocks
blowing bubbles

a song as slow and deep
and bone-weary

as one might expect
from the ancient core

of mountains that had to die
for the Appalachians to rise

now the park service builds ladders
for the fish

a beech tree growing where
a flood took out the bank

perches on a skeletal mound
of thin-skinned roots

nearby a gray squirrel
with black fur noses about

watched by a figure
in a black hood and cape

who half-turns at the sound
of my camera’s shudder

and i begin to feel the cold
through my thin-soled boots

Frankstown Path

to someone from the hills
how much seems to hide

in a river valley
where everything’s in the open

members only
says the dick pic

on the remains of a bridge
for a vanished road

you don’t belong
say the name plates

turned blank again by years
of riverside mildew

here’s the poured concrete
shell of a house

almost everything organic
has rotted out

if you put your ear up to it
you can hear the sky

over there a dry canal bed
with thirsty sycamores

and a pyramid built
to kiln quarried lime

strata standing on end
like books on a shelf

paged through
by omnivorous roots

every floodplain is built
on wreckage and erasure

this is an indian path
on the oldest maps

people wandering upstream
deep into the hills

but not like shad
returning to spawn

more like shadbush
marooned on mountainsides

condemned to bloom only
when no one’s looking

while the flood sows
its own seeds

pods and baubles
evolved to float

horsetails bamboozling the ground
into turning vertical

but it’s privet that crowds
so many others out

running rampant after its escape
from the hedge clippers

clinging to its leaves as if this
were still the old country

passers-by direct me
to a midwestern native

american wahoo with
its pink capsules blown

revealing the fleshy red arils
so like its cousin bittersweet

glowing in the low
december sun

a hillside boulder chooses
this moment to depart

ending its journey
a foot from the trail

Allegheny Portage Railroad

climbing this cold mountain
half your face in shadow

moon which daytime cloud
have you made your nest in

immense turbine blades
are rising and falling

above the trees
above the roar of traffic

where a cold hiker
can feel drawn

to a dark twist of roots
suspended above a ravine

or a cliff shaggy
with hipster icicles

along a trail designed
by the national park service

to showcase ‘a gateway
to western settlement’

i keep mistaking the sound of the turbines
for my own pulse

a runner in ultralight shoes
shadowed by clouds of breath

keeps his eyes on the ground
a steady incline

built to haul canal boats
over the allegheny front

while below the trail
in a 200-year-old culvert

for a creek that’s wandered
off into another bed

i gape at stalactites of ice
dripping into a pool

bright with late afternoon sun
the whole glowing summit

captured there
under an arch of mortared stone

the red west of sunset
here and now

no need to ride
off into it

***

For more, see the NPS website.

Frankstown Branch

a river flows through the heart
of a nearby mountain

banks lined with sycamores
limbs luminous as moonlight

and the ghost of a canal
there just long enough

for Charles Dickens
to patronise it

now it’s a rail-trail
looked after by local farmers

and in the late autumn light
it can still transport

i watch a large black ball
float sedately downstream

mergansers flushed by a jogger
fly low over the water

under the outstretched
sycamore limbs

with their summer hunger for sun
to make more baubles

i pass an Amish man
dressed in blaze orange

taking his rifle
out for a stroll

among crumbling walls
the exuviae of bygone quarries

doorways open into
what’s left of the earth

soot-darkened soil
where Dickens saw

light gleaming off
from every thing

when he took a brisk walk
upon the towing-path

and after nightfall frowning hills
sullen with dark trees

which were sometimes angry
in one red burning spot high up

colliers turning those dark trees
into mounds of charcoal

to feed the iron furnace
its stone stack roaring

enough like a volcano
they named it Mt. Etna

so much radiance squandered
on an industrial revolution

one remnant section of canal
forms a backwater

floating leaves
still in their autumn red

suspended like memories
among reflections

i pass the former iron master’s mansion
just off the trail

its gorgeous stone work
its collapsed porch

behind me in the distance
a rifle speaks

the river runs slow
and green

***

Quotes are from Dickens’ American Notes

On the Far Side

getting unlost again
i leave the car at the overlook

follow the trail down
the far side of the mountain

where a flash flood preceded me
in the wee hours

scouring the steep parts
mounding up leaves on every flat

it’s the day after thanksgiving
and the day before deer season

a half-mile from the highway
i find a pair of black trousers

sprawled beside the trail
i fold them and put them back

the trail meets another trail
on boardwalks over a spring

passes three camp sites
on the shore of a long-gone pond

goes up over the front
porch of a cabin

and back into the forest
where oak and hemlock shadows

darken and fade as the sun
goes in and out of hiding

i leave the trail
bushwhack through mountain laurel

gape at a massive rock oak’s
full-throated silence

black birches perch
on exposed skeletons of roots

i follow forest roads
the second one gated

past what must be
a research plot

a large fenced enclosure
full of small flags

and much to my surprise find
the unblazed trail i’m looking for

back up the ridge
the forest on my right

facing off against pole
timber on my left

to the windy crest
its rocks and vertigo

gaps in the trees revealing
gaps in the clouds

patches of sun that cross
the next valley and vanish

while off to the south all
the mountains shine

here in the gloom pileated woodpeckers
are stripping bark off a tree

i pass three hikers discussing
the perils ahead

the clouds thin out
and the rocks begin to glow

sunset colors in mid afternoon
at a place called david’s vista

a young man appears
and climbs a ridgetop pine

in the bitter wind
makes himself comfortable

another david perhaps
hoping to be found

Tussey Mountain: a walking poem

day breaks
into increments of gold

a falling leaf flits back and forth
like a doomed moth

acorns gestate
in the throat pouch of a jay

the breeze is spicy with rot
i take deep lungfuls

nuclear armageddon
is trending on twitter

the bluestone road
seduces me again

*

each of my feet aches
in its own way

the left to take wing
the right to take root

they take me where hemlocks
pry open the rocks

and vultures drift past
without flapping

a section of trail famous
for being hard on boots

it is difficult says the guidebook
to get any rhythm going

as you step from rock
to rock

but this is the music
i grew up with

a grouse cups his wings and drums
on the skin of the air

*

distant booms
a shooting range perhaps

the sun goes in but
the yellow keeps glowing

chickadees announce my presence
in unflattering terms

to a mixed flock feeding
on mountain ash berries

a rock shifts under me
i shift with it

at a trail intersection someone
has dug a hole in the rocks

revealing the water table
its serving of birch leaves

farther along the hemlock
burnt from below

by an untended camp fire
that turned roots to charcoal

two years later it’s dead
but for one last limb

stripped down to the skeleton
for a sky burial

*

descending the flank of the ridge
i find a proper spring

yellow coral mushrooms
extend crossed fingers

the mountain can punish
moments of inattention

but i am a bad student
i walk in two places at once

a place of wings
and a place of roots

that night the moon flies
through prismatic clouds

at its brightest
and most manic

stained by the dark
beds of seas

April Diary 30: aging in place

This entry is part 30 of 31 in the series April Diary

 

Dear April today i feel old in a way i haven’t before. old in my bones. the soil’s discourse seems nearly intelligible

this mountain soil has especially hard consonants

i wasn’t working hard i was hardly working playing is more like it messing around in the dirt

tonight i found a new-to-me footpath through our woods which may seem unusual but it is a square mile property and it’s not surprising at all that one of our hunter friends should create an informal path and i not stumble across it for a while. that’s all the boring background to how i had the exciting experience of exploring a new trail in my literal backyard — which i only found because i decided to go off-trail on a whim, tempted by an opening between the trees

going off-trail is actually impossible. how does that Machado poem go?

Caminante, no hay camino,
se hace camino al andar.

wherever you walk creates a path and you step in the easier places which is where other things have stepped and pretty soon you’re drawn into the network of animal trails

this is a path

although i suppose some people might have a hard time recognizing trails if they’re from some highly urbanized environment. those enviable souls get to see the forest with fresh eyes as an adult

which of course is the allure of travel. but seeing the very familiar in a new way is always a worthwhile challenge i believe. it’s the challenge of any marriage or any relationship with a place. most Americans move more often than they change romantic partners. i don’t know if that’s true but it supports my argument so let’s pretend that it is. my contention is that maintaining one’s relationship with a place, or places, is as core to one’s sense of well-being as maintaining human friendships and marriages

i suppose that’s a minority opinion in the country as a whole but in this corner of Appalachia i’d say it’s the norm

shadbush

on the porch listening to a barred owl as i type this. i forgot to tell you of my owl sighting last night: one flew ahead of me repeatedly as i walked back from the far field at dusk. i think i got on its nerves because the last perch it took off from snapped under it and crashed down onto the trail

tonight i was up at Dad’s grave as it was getting dark and i just… felt uneasy. not afraid per se but increasingly uneasy. like i didn’t belong there. so of course i skedaddled


earlier in the kitchen i was remembering something someone had said about Bernie Sanders and the Vicente Aleixandre poem Como Moisés es el viejo popped into my head

Y él agita los brazos y proclama la vida,
desde su muerte a solas.

all that gesturing. “proclaiming the way to live from his death all alone”

apparently i have spanish poets on my mind though it was Zang Di and Shanna Compton that i was reading today. Eleanor Goodman finished up her selection of Zang Di poems with several he’d written in Vermont, which were a great deal of fun—seeing how a major contemporary chinese poet describes iconic american landscapes

so many important poems about america these days are being written by first-generation immigrants it’s easy to forget that shorter-term visitors such as students, lecturers, or tourists may have profound observations as well


today i thought a lot about bears but i’m guessing most bears spent as little time as possible thinking about humans